Viewing entries in
Historical Period Drama

On the Basis of Sex

Comment

On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex stresses that its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is uncompromising and unmatched when it comes to the mastery of her chosen profession. The film is right to do so. In 1956, Ginsburg was one of just a few women admitted to Harvard Law School, and she graduated at the top of her class at Columbia after transferring there so her husband could take a job in New York City.

She later used a unique case – the focus of the film – to challenge the constitutionality of legal gender-based discrimination. She would eventually reach the pinnacle of American jurisprudence when she was confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. It’s disappointing, then, that the cinematic tribute to such a historically significant, dynamic figure like Ginsburg should be as middling as it is. On the Basis of Sex tries to cover too much ground in its first half, and the picture only really hits its stride in the last act. It’s a biopic that covers a vital individual in an unsatisfying, if entertaining, way.

Read more…

Comment

Cold War

Comment

Cold War

Cold War is my first experience with the work of director Paweł Pawlikowski. I need to see Ida, his film about a woman set to take her vows as a nun in early 1960s Poland, but I haven’t had time to catch up with it yet. After watching Cold War, I’ll be sure to make the time. His new picture is a painfully mournful tale of two star-crossed lovers whose own personalities and the realities of the world around them conspire to make the match an ill-advised one. Still, their passion burns bright, even when they are separated from each other for years.

Read more…

Comment

The Favourite

Comment

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos delivers everything you might expect visually from him in his first period piece. The Greek director’s meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards are brought to bear in The Favourite. It’s a sumptuous, visually arresting examination of power struggles in the early 18th century English royal court. Many of Lanthimos’ thematic preoccupations are present as well: the blackest of comedy that highlights the worst instincts and actions of which humans are capable; how his characters wield power over others; the mingling of the humorous and horrific to shock and disturb his audience.

While the nihilistic aesthetic Lanthimos employed in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains essentially unchanged in The Favourite, the effect becomes numbing here (especially in the final act) where it doesn’t in the earlier films. This is another morality tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, the ultimate moral is: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.

Read more…

Comment

Bohemian Rhapsody

Comment

Bohemian Rhapsody

A crucial part to the formula of a biopic about a popular entertainer is giving the audience plenty of moments of foreshadowing in which they can knowingly smile and nod their head to what’s coming. Freddie playing the first ten notes of Bohemian Rhapsody on a piano for his girlfriend early in the movie is a prime example of this. The girlfriend, Mary, tells Freddie she likes the music, and he responds, “I think it has potential.” Yes, Freddie, yes it does have potential, we are meant to think as we share a collective hushed chuckle. The picture is full to bursting with moments like this.

Read more…

Comment

Bad Times at the El Royale

Comment

Bad Times at the El Royale

Writer and director Drew Goddard’s latest picture, the pulpy, ultraviolent Bad Times at the El Royale, entertains even as it loses its way with countless subplots and narrative red herrings. The movie’s flabby runtime of two hours and twenty-one minutes engenders a sense of interminability rather than rapturous suspense, the latter undoubtedly being Goddard’s goal. Royale’s bleak worldview – the movie’s happy ending feels like it’s going through the motions and rings a little hollow considering the nihilistic killing and suffering in its climax – makes me hesitate to call it fun. But in more than a few ways, it’s just that. Royale’s phenomenal production value, stellar cast, and creation of a heroic rooting interest (once it finally comes) make it more enjoyable than it otherwise would be.

Read more…

Comment

First Man

Comment

First Man

Director Damien Chazelle is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. The protagonists of his films make great sacrifices to achieve their goals. In Whiplash, Andrew Neiman will forsake friends and family, spending his every free moment to become a better jazz drummer. In La La Land, Sebastian and Mia are willing to let their relationship crumble while they chase their respective dreams of becoming a successful musician and actor.  In First Man, Chazelle turns his perfection obsessed gaze to a real-life figure. Astronaut Neil Armstrong and the rest of the people involved in the Apollo space program had one goal: to set foot on the moon. Several people gave their lives in the effort to achieve this goal.

Screenwriter Josh Singer is also no stranger to projects featuring characters who are intensely focused on their work. Singer co-wrote both Spotlight and The Post, and he served several years as a writer on the television series The West Wing. Singer’s attention to technical detail and Chazelle’s emotionally stirring, at times lyrical, depiction of Armstrong work in tandem to produce a compelling picture. It is one, however, that never quite gives us a satisfying view into Armstrong’s inner turmoil.

Read more…

Comment

BlacKkKlansman

Comment

BlacKkKlansman

It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.

Read more…

Comment

Darkest Hour

1 Comment

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the movie that most fits the bill in 2017 for the title of Important Film; it’s tailor made for awards season, in particular for that most coveted prize, Oscar Best Picture nominee. It satisfies many of the requirements that we often think of when we think about an Important Film. Is the movie about a major historical event or a biopic of an important historical figure? Check. Does the movie feature a powerhouse performance by an actor who undergoes a complete physical transformation for the role? Check. Is the movie a crowd-pleaser, ending on a rousing note that sends the viewer out on an emotional high? Check. Darkest Hour is, to its detriment, a box-checker of a movie.  It’s so focused on these elements that it never does much else to set itself apart.

Read more...

1 Comment

Phantom Thread

2 Comments

Phantom Thread

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work was defined by a search for surrogate family, specifically relationships having to do with father figures. In Hard Eight, gambling expert Sydney takes the down-on-his-luck John under his wing, teaching him how to win at the casinos. John becomes his protégé and symbolic son. In Boogie Nights, porn star Dirk Diggler finds a father in his director, Jack Horner. That movie is more broadly about a collection of misfits in the 1970s porn scene coming together as a kind of dysfunctional family. The movie Magnolia is rife with broken family dynamics.

In the background of these movies about substitute family is the theme of power dynamics. As Anderson’s career has progressed, the two themes have slowly traded places in importance. This transition culminated in Anderson’s exquisite The Master. The lost Freddie Quell finds a kind of father figure in the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, but that’s secondary to the power and control the cult leader exerts over his new disciple. The entire movie is a battle of wills between the two men.

In Phantom Thread, the writer-director’s new film, the battle of wills this time is between a man and a woman. They are lovers as well as muse and artist.

Read more...

2 Comments

The Shape of Water

2 Comments

The Shape of Water

Every frame of The Shape of Water seems to live and breathe with a magic that’s only possible on screen. Whether it’s the heavily saturated and precisely chosen color scheme, or the gritty, grimy feel of every location, the movie is full to bursting with visual inventiveness. It’s also very full of ideas. This is a fable about our not so distant past, and it also has something to tell us about our present.

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Water takes place almost exclusively in two locations. One is a top-secret government laboratory, the other is the apartment of our hero, the mute Elisa Esposito. Elisa is a janitor working the night shift at the lab. The Cold Warrior scientists and military personnel working there have a new project. It’s a creature the U.S. military discovered in a river in South America. They refer to this creature, which looks like a hybrid of amphibian and human, as “the asset.”

Read more...

2 Comments

The Post

3 Comments

The Post

When future filmmakers craft the pop culture version of history about our current political age – and what a sad, sickening history it will be – they’ll no doubt have an almost bottomless pit of stories to tell. Stories about people who worked tirelessly to uncover corruption, collusion, and incompetence at the highest levels of government. Let Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay for The Post be a guide to telling those stories. It stands in the company of movies like All the President’s Men and Spotlight.

This is Hannah’s first attempt at feature screenwriting, and she wrote it solo in early 2016. Singer, who won a best original screenplay Oscar with Tom McCarthy for 2015’s Spotlight, was brought on board to do a rewrite just before filming began. Their movie is about the vital role a free and open press has in a democracy.

Read more...

3 Comments

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

2 Comments

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

The critical consensus to the newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s whodunit is that it’s style over substance. That seems a little odd, considering the source material for Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most well regarded murder mysteries of all time, by arguably the greatest mystery writer of all time. There is, to be sure, plenty of style. The film’s director, Kenneth Branagh – who also portrays the story’s world-famous detective, Hercule Poirot – went out of his way to stage a lavish production. The movie, which takes place on the eponymous first-class passenger train, revels in its aristocratic decadence.

At the same time, the substance of Orient Express – Poirot’s sifting of clues to find a killer among the passengers – is engaging, especially for someone unfamiliar with the story, as I was.

Read more...

2 Comments

Jackie

1 Comment

Jackie

“Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Jacqueline Kennedy crafted the idea of her time in the White House as the second coming of Camelot. Jackie, which takes place in the days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is more Shakespearian tragedy than Arthurian musical. More precisely, it’s the aftermath of one of The Bard’s tragedies. Director Pablo Larrain, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, and star Natalie Portman have given us a compelling and intense character study of the former First Lady. She was at the epicenter of a catastrophic event in 20th century American history, and their film humanizes her in a profound way.

The main plot of the film covers the week between JFK’s assassination and his burial...

Read more...

1 Comment

20th Century Women

Comment

20th Century Women

It’s a rare bit of magic when a movie can perfectly blend comedy and drama to create a bittersweet poignancy. Writer/director Mike Mills has performed just that with his new film 20th Century Women. His tale of a collection of oddballs who form a unique family unit in a specific time and place in America’s recent past is mournful, yet hopeful. It captures the humanity and heartbreak in everyday relationships: mother and son, deep friendships, and lovers. The movie is an examination of the sublime that’s hidden in the mundane. It’s a transcendent experience.

Read more...

Comment

Hidden Figures

2 Comments

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a great example of a fascinating story told in an uninspired way. The title of the film hints at how important the true-life subject matter is. It tells the tale of people who made critical contributions to the success of a defining moment in human history, but who went unrecognized because of their second-class status. They are finally getting the credit they deserve, but it’s a shame that the style doesn’t do the content justice. The movie indulges in every biopic cliché imaginable. The way it handles race issues of the early 1960s is similarly flawed. Missing are the nuanced shades of gray that made a movie like Selma so rich. Instead, Hidden Figures focuses on easy crowd pleasing moments that are cathartic, to be sure, but that lack the subtle nuance that would make them emotionally complex and satisfying. It’s A Beautiful Mind meets The Help, with all the problems of both.

Read more...

2 Comments

Rules Don't Apply

2 Comments

Rules Don't Apply

It’s hard to overstate how big of a disaster Warren Beatty’s film Rules Don’t Apply is. The man who ruled Hollywood for over two decades has delivered the first movie he wrote, directed, and starred in since 1998’s Bulworth, and it’s a complete mess. Beatty became an instant sex symbol in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, and he won the Best Director Oscar for Reds, his 1981 ode to John Reed, one of only two Americans ever granted burial at the Kremlin in Moscow. Almost none of Beatty’s earlier successful filmmaking skills are visible in his latest project.

Like Reds, Beatty’s focus for Rules Don’t Apply is also a real-life figure, mercurial billionaire Howard Hughes. The legendary stories about Hughes, a man who inherited his father’s oil drill bit company and used his fortune to focus on his twin passions of aviation and filmmaking, are practically the makings of a fantastic movie all on their own. If you need proof, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a remarkable example. Not only was Hughes an eccentric and mysterious figure of great renown from the 1920s through the 1960s, he was also plagued with mental health issues, most notably a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Beatty’s movie, by contrast, suffers from bipolar disorder. 

Read more...

2 Comments

Love and Friendship

2 Comments

Love and Friendship

There’s a question about cinematic adaptations, sequels, and remakes that I’ve finally learned to stop asking: “Do we really need another movie version of a Shakespeare play?” or “How many Jane Austen movies can they possibly make?” I’ve stopped asking, because it’s the wrong question. Aside from purely economically driven choices in matters of art, which should always be open to harsh scrutiny, there are many reasons a filmmaker might choose to revisit well-worn source material. The right approach is to look at each film in its own right and ask, “Does this movie do something new and fresh?” Writer-director Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s comedic novella Lady Susan, certainly does.

Read more...

2 Comments

Brooklyn

1 Comment

Brooklyn

It’s been well documented, especially with the advent of the Twitter hash tag #OscarsSoWhite, that the make-up of the Academy is overwhelmingly old and glowingly white. Oscar voters love to reward films that treat the not-too-distant past with a loving soft focus. For every 12 Years A Slave that demands a reckoning with ugly truths, there is a Driving Miss Daisy that reaffirms things weren’t all that bad, really. Brooklyn is one of those. Set in 1952, the movie focuses on one of the many Irish citizens that came to America at the time. There’s a long history of Irish immigrants being looked down on by people who considered themselves “real Americans,” but the movie dispenses with this mentality by using it for a quick bit of comic relief. The main character Eilis (in the character’s home country of Ireland, it’s pronounced AY-lish) learns that all it takes to assimilate to the American way of life is grit and determination. Because this is a movie devoted to a rose-colored view of history, that’s all Eilis needs in order to succeed.     

There is a sentimentality and nostalgia for a simpler time that permeates every frame of Brooklyn. As you might expect from a movie that completely romanticizes a bygone era, the filmmakers take great care in beautifully photographing their tale. The performances from the leads, too, are top notch. Those elements can’t overcome the simplistic and predictable story, though, or the movie’s slavish devotion to its idea of the good old days.

Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl who moves to the New York borough in search of a better life. Eilis experiences seasickness while aboard the steamship that transports her to America and, in an example of the easily digestible kind of symbolism Brooklyn employs, the suffering she endures on her first trans-Atlantic trip represents the crushing homesickness she struggles with while trying to adjust to life in a new world. During the journey, a more experienced traveler takes Eilis under her wing. The woman provides instruction on what food to avoid while on board and, more importantly, how to conduct herself once they arrive at the U.S. port of entry.

Read more...

1 Comment