The English Way

Spencer

by George Wolf

The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, it is a story draped in sadness and longing, but one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.

Much like 2016’s Jackie – his compelling take on Jackie Kennedy – director Pablo Larraín has no interest in the overreaching realism of bland biopics. Here, he chooses to dissect a few precious days over the Christmas holiday, roughly ten years after Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart) married Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and became Princess Di, worldwide obsession.

Diana is late arriving at the family gathering on the sprawling Sandringham estate in Norfolk, and this, like so many other aspects of her behavior, simply will not do. Diana and her two young sons often complain about feeling cold, and though she wonders why they can’t just “turn up the heating,” screenwriter Steven Knight isn’t just referring to the thermostat.

Through evocative visual storytelling and restrained, insightful dialog, Larraín and Knight set clear parameters for the haunting pressure of Diana’s daily life.

A new head of security (the great Timothy Spall) seems to lurk around every corner, reminding Diana of expectations and missteps. Her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins, perfect as always) has been sent away, apparently for the crime of being Diana’s one true friend. And as Charles’s longtime affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles becomes impossible to ignore, unsettling visits from Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) make their way into Diana’s dreams, reinforcing her belief that past and present have conspired to deny her a future.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves. Yes, she has the mannerisms (shoulder turns, head tilts), the lithe movements and even the voice and accent down, but Stewart carries this film by completely embodying the quiet desperation (“the English way,” as Pink Floyd famously dubbed it) of a woman suffocating in real time.

Jonny Greenwood’s score should also be an Oscar contender, as his cascades of alternating strings, organs, drum rolls and a solitary horn give Larraín a major assist in setting a disorienting, almost Hitchcockian mood.

Diana must work hard to enjoy even a few moments of happiness, like a beach stroll with Maggie or eating KFC and singing along to Mike + the Mechanics with her boys. But when Charles admonishes Diana for forgetting that public persona always trumps whatever the heart might crave, the true weight of her crown is finally felt.

Spencer approaches Diana’s story from perhaps the only angle that fits such an icon. The goal here isn’t to tell her life story, but instead to reimagine it, and rethink what it may have cost – and Larraín is clearly unconcerned with any cost from alienating Royal Family fans. He chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.

Ms. Jackson, If You’re Nasty

Shirley

by Hope Madden

I’m not sure which thrilled me more, that Elisabeth Moss was set to portray the great Shirley Jackson, or that Josephine Decker was slated to direct.

If you’re not familiar with Decker, give yourself the gift of her 2014 minor miracle Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Decker’s languid style seduces you, keeps you from pulling away from her films’ underlying tensions, darkness, sickness. She specializes in that headspace that mixes the story as it is and the story as it’s told, which makes her a fitting guide for Susan Scarf Merrell’s fictionalized account of this slice of Jackson’s life.

Which brings us to Moss, quickly ascending the ranks of “best actors of our generation” into the rarified air of “genius.” Moss has proven time and again that she can inhabit any character with a fearlessness that allows her to disappear and the character to emerge, fully human. Such is the case with the enigmatic, damaged and brilliant Jackson.

Shirley takes us into the period where the already reclusive writer begins work on her novel Hangsaman

This stretch of time coincides with the arrival of some help for Jackson’s husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). The couple will be opening their home to Stanley’s new teaching assistant (Logan Lerman), and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young).

The film’s plot follows Jackson’s relationship with Rose, which develops in tandem with her newest manuscript. The friendship unveils unkind truths about power, sexual politics and other uglinesses that Jackson always mined so formidably in her creepiest work.

Decker manipulates the pacing, melancholy and sensuality of her tale beautifully, drawing a stirring performance from Young. But my god, what she gets from Moss and Stuhlbarg.

To witness two such remarkable talents sparring like this, aided by a biting script that offers them ample opportunity to wade into the sickness and dysfunction of this marriage—it’s breathtaking.

The result is dark and unseemly, appropriately angry and gorgeously told—fitting tribute to the author.

In the Name of the Son

Three Christs

by Hope Madden

“Three grown men who believe they are Jesus Christ—it’s almost comical,” reads Bradley Whitford’s Clyde, a Ypsilanti mental patient who happens to be one of those three men. There is something bittersweet and meta about his reading that particular line from Dr. Stone’s (Richard Gere) report on the experimental procedure the doctor is undertaking with his three chosen patients.

On its surface, Three Christs itself seems almost comical. Whitford, Walton Goggins and Peter Dinklage play real life patients institutionalized in Michigan in the 1960s, each of whom believed they were Jesus. Just below the surface is a sad, lonesome story of a medical system ill-equipped and unwilling to treat the individual, and of the peculiar, touching struggles of three souls lost within that system.

Director Jon Avnet, writing with Eric Nazarian, adapts social psychologist Milton Rokeach’s nonfiction book on his own study, “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.”

Whitford’s performance is fine, but he’s somewhat out of his league when compared to Dinklage and Goggins. Dinklage is the film’s heartbeat and he conveys something simultaneously vulnerable and superior in his behavior. He’s wonderful as always, but it’s Goggins who steals this film.

Walton Goggins continues to be an undervalued and under-recognized talent. He can play anything from comic relief to sadistic villainy to nuanced dramatic lead (check out his turn in Them That Follow for proof of the latter). Here the rage that roils barely beneath the surface speaks to the loneliness and pain of constantly misunderstanding and being misunderstood that has marked his character’s entire life.

Gere is the weakest spot in the film. He charms, and his rare scenes with Juliana Margulies, playing Stone’s wife Ruth, are vibrant and enjoyable. But in his responses to his patients and in his struggles against the system (mainly embodied by Stephen Root and Kevin Pollak), he falls back on headshakes, sighs and bitter chuckles.

Aside from two of the three Christs’ performances, Avent’s film looks good but lacks in focus, failing to hold together especially well. The point of the extraordinary treatment method is never very clear, nor is its progress. Stone’s arc is also weak, which again muddies the point of the film.

Three Christs misses more opportunities than it grabs, which is unfortunate because both Dinklage and especially Goggins deliver performances worth seeing.

Atomic Blondes

Bombshell

by Hope Madden

Bombshell, Jay Roach’s depiction of the unrepentant sexual harassment that poisoned the work atmosphere at Fox News, is equal parts cathartic and depressing.

Buoyed by strong lead performances in a trio of unerring talent—Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie—the film also leans on an incredible and sizable ensemble to deliver a surprisingly nuanced look at the shades of grey, of complicity and responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment.

“It’s no one’s job to protect you,” Theron’s Megyn Kelly tells newbie Kayla (Robbie).

“It’s all of our jobs,” she disagrees.

No surprise the script comes from The Big Short scribe Charles Randolph. Roach’s film benefits from the same kind of thoughtful, informative, funny and “can you believe this?” approach, but Bombshell lacks much of the rage and outright comedy of an Adam McKay film.

Like McKay, Roach left comedies behind in favor of headier, sharper, more political material. Also like McKay, his comedic sensibilities breathe some life into the efforts, helping this film serve the dual purpose of entertaining and informing. And, like McKay, Roach knows how helpful a well-placed comedian can be.

Kate McKinnon actually does a lot of the film’s narrative heavy lifting. (Is it wrong I wanted her to play Rudy Giuliani as well?) As a Bill O’Reilly producer who befriends Kayla and helps her better understand the Fox New world, she allows Roach to make salient points about the network and the way it’s run, but because McKinnon is naturally funny and incredibly talented, it feels organic.

Her character’s position when it comes to rocking the boat also offers a clear-eyed take on why toxic work environments can go unchecked for so long. Since McKinnon’s character is in many ways the one the audience will most relate to, this is a sly and successful maneuver to keep us from feeling too superior and enabling us to better empathize with characters we may not like as well.

Enough cannot be said for the work of Roach’s makeup department, especially that of prosthetic make up designer Kazu Hiro. Theron’s imperceptible prosthetic—along with her own posture and voice work—turn her into an alarming replica of Kelly. Ditto Nicole Kidman, and John Lithgow, whose performance as Roger Ailes also delivers a wallop.

Not that any of this matters if the three central performances lacks in any department. They don’t. Characteristically, Theron, Kidman and Robbie deliver exceptional work, each willing (as they always are) to depict a woman who is not always (or, in some cases, is rarely) likable but who deserves respect and empathy for her suffering and courage.

Wisely, Roach and team don’t get swept away by the bracing change and empowerment of victory. Indeed, Bombshell’s final act is a smack I still feel. But its power is its honesty.

Greatest American Hero

Harriet

by Hope Madden

In just her third feature film, Cynthia Erivo has quickly proven herself to be a chameleonic performer of remarkable breadth and depth.  

How is she as Bad Times at the El Royale’s just-naieve-enough would-be Sixties pop singer? She owns the movie.

As Widows’ overworked and underestimated single parent? Another eye-catching performance among another stunning ensemble.

American history’s second most important figure in the abolition of slavery, runner up only to Lincoln himself?

Harriet Tubman is a big role to shoulder. The routine problem with breathing cinematic life into a figure we know only from history class is in overcoming an audience’s preconceived notions about the person. As is the case with most African American – let alone female African American -figures, this is not really a problem. Tubman is so underrepresented in our historical epics that, unlike Lincoln, she doesn’t trigger an automatic image in the audience’s mind.

So while Erivo needn’t be concerned with imitation, the more daunting challenge is to find a recognizable human inside the truly superhuman accomplishments Tubman managed during her 91 years on this earth.

Here’s where Erivo gets the most support from director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), whose historical biopic is heavy-handed enough in its hero worship to celebrate Tubman’s genuine, unparalleled heroism.

Harriet is also quiet enough in spots, Lemmons never making the common, gruesome slavery-saga misstep of ogling a whip-scarred back or a rape. Her restrained approach to the unimaginable horror of slavery manages never to wallow or to disregard the suffering, but focuses more clearly on the urgency and agency to end it.

Erivo repays Lemmons’s efforts, bringing to bear an otherworldly presence as the film’s enigmatic central figure. Her Harriet is not here to wallow, not here to reflect. She’s come for action.

Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (Ali) don’t quite fare as well elsewhere. Though they wisely narrow the story, beginning immediately before Harriet’s escape from a Maryland plantation and ending just after her astonishing Civil War battle, the film still feels a bit shallow in its telling.

Of the large ensemble around Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr. makes the most of his limited time onscreen, animating Philadelphia abolitionist William Still with a kind of awestruck tenderness that matches the audience’s response to Tubman’s obstinance and fearlessness.

Does the film suffer from hero worship? Suffer feels like a very wrong word. What Harriet does is honor a woman whose acts of heroism are so superhuman they are truly difficult to believe.

Erivo will make you a believer.

Rocking Behind the Curtain

Leto

by Christie Robb

Entrancing, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto layers a variety of stylistic flourishes over the relatively simple plot—a love triangle between a rising rock star, his mentor, and the mentor’s wife.  Set in 1980s Leningrad, I was thrown off-balance from the first.

When it comes down to it, I don’t know all that much about rock and roll. I know even less about the Soviet Union.

So, it was a bit of a surprise to see OG hipsters playing a show to a crowd of fans. But then I noticed that the fans were sitting politely in their seats and that men in suits patrolled the performance hall ready to put down any display of unruly behavior—piling on a sweet-faced girl who sedately held up a small poster with a hand-drawn heart on it.

This is a country where, if you are going to play, you first have to have your lyrics analyzed for ideological appropriateness.

The rising star Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) and his mentor Mike Naumenko (Roma Zver) were both real people fronting the influential bands Kino and Zoopark, respectively.  A statement contained within the credits informs that the plot was based on Naumenko’s wife Natalia’s (Irina Starshenbaum) memories. However, there is also a character credited as “sceptic” who often breaks the fourth wall to explain to the viewer that “Sadly, this did not happen.”

 Shot in moody black and white, with emotional pops of color, periodically animation creeps in to punctuate the more fraught moments. There’s also the occasional song and dance number in what is roughly a biopic—featuring covers of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”, and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

Weird, occasionally wandering, Leto, provided a glimpse into the experience of artists living in a gritty, austere world that I’ve not thought much about before, but probably will now.

How the Heck Are Ya, Bill?

All Is TrueA

by Brandon Thomas

Kenneth Branagh and William Shakespeare have become synonymous with one another in the world of cinema. As a director, Branagh has made five of The Bard’s plays into movies, and in many of them, he’s joined the cast. It’s fitting that Branagh finally ends up playing Shakespeare himself in All is True.

In 1613, Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theatre burned to the ground. Left without a homebase to stage his momentous plays, William Shakespeare returned to his country home. There, he’s “greeted” by the wife (the always amazing Judy Dench) and daughters he left behind while making his name in London. Away from the stage, Shakespeare struggles to come to terms with the legacy he’s created. The loss of a child haunts him, and the inadequacy instilled in him through his father bubbles to the surface and forces the famous playwright to face a life of personal mistakes.

Shakespeare was known for having his distinct tragedies (MacBeth, Othello) and comedies (Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It). The beauty of All Is True is how well Branagh intertwines both genres. The tragedy of losing a child never threatens to overwhelm the film nor do some of the “sillier” elements, such as the fascination a neighbor’s dog finds in William. The balance in tone doesn’t come easy, but it certainly keeps the film interesting.

There’s a casualness to All Is True that is very inviting. It’s a film that’s never in a hurry, but also doesn’t overstay its welcome. Scenes are allowed to breathe in a way that feels like you’re watching an intimate stage play—the epitome of this being a breathtaking scene between Branagh and Sir Ian McKellen. It’s a scene that consists mostly of tight close-ups, set in one location, and it’s riveting.

It’s no surprise that Branagh nails his portrayal. His William Shakespeare is a man that understands his legacy even if he hasn’t completely come to terms with it. Without his work, he’s a man that’s chasing happiness—a happiness he’s never been able to find as a husband or father.

By humanizing the world’s most famous playwright, All Is True tries to move past the legend of William Shakespeare and comment on the inner workings of the man himself.


You Can Dance if You Want To

The White Crow

by Brandon Thomas

When I think about ballet and film, I drift toward the easy ones: The Nutcracker, Billy Elliot and The Red Shoes. Of course it’s also fun to throw Black Swan and Suspiria into that mix as well. The visual lullaby of those films is present in The White Crow, but with a dash of political intrigue.

Rudolf “Rudy” Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) has poured hours of blood, sweat and tears into crafting himself as one of Russia’s premier ballet dancers. A prestigious tour of France gives Rudy his first glimpse of life in the mysterious “West.” All at once, this arrogant, naive and inquisitive dancer is thrust into a culture that opens his eyes and reinforces his already rebellious nature. Despite having no concern for his home country’s politics, Rudy is forced to make a contentious choice when those same politics threaten to destroy his career and his life.

On paper, The White Crow sounds like pure, unadulterated Oscar bait. It has all of the trappings: a scrappy young protagonist, a period setting, an actor as director and, most importantly, it’s set in Paris! Thankfully director Ralph Fiennes (yes THAT Ralph Fiennes – Voldemort himself!) has more on his mind than that short golden statue.

On a character level, The White Crow succeeds at diving right into Rudy’s laser-focused psyche. Dance is Rudy’s life and everything else – including people – exist only on the periphery. He claims to not care what people think, yet he fishes for praise from his renowned dance instructor (Fiennes himself). Rudy’s drive and the enormous chip on his shoulder are born out of his ultra-humble beginnings in rural Russia, and the sense of inadequacy this has instilled in him.

Casting Ivenko, an already famous Ukrainian dancer, adds a level of authenticity that would be missing had Fiennes gone another route. The long shots of Rudy dancing allow the audience to buy into the character’s self-proclaimed skill. The passion and emotion behind his movement pour off the screen.

Fiennes shows a sure and steady hand behind the camera. The movie jumps back and forth in time, and the filmmaker uses this to present each period in a different aspect ratio and style. The scenes depicting Rudy’s youth are shot in “scope” widescreen and use a more classical, static approach. The cold, stark landscape of his youth is brought to life with minimal emotion, but heightened visuals. This is contrasted with Rudy’s story as it moves into adulthood and his travel to France. Fiennes isn’t afraid to let the camera get close – or allow it to become more intimate.

The balance of visually impressive and focused filmmaking, along with deep character analysis, makes The White Crow one of the most interesting dramas of the year thus far. 

Forming the Fellowship

Tolkien

by George Wolf

Better confess right now: the whole Hobbit, Lord of the Rings thing just isn’t my bag. God bless you if you love the books, films and all, but the whole story just leaves me cold.

That’s not to say I can’t respect and admire the incredible imagination of author J.R.R. Tolkien, or the biopic about him that’s full of so much respect and admiration.

But what’s strangely missing in Tolkien is the wonder, the spark of endless creativity so abundant in the author’s expansive literary landscapes.

Writers Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson anchor Tolkien’s pre-Hobbit life in the trenches of WW1. As Officer Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) searches the battlefield for a boyhood friend, flashbacks fill us in on his upbringing as an orphan adopted into wealth.


With an eye on “changing the world through the power of art,” Tolkien forms a “Dead Poets” – type secret society with his mates at Oxford, where he impresses esteemed language professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi in a wonderful cameo) as well as the lovely Edith Bratt (Lily Collins).

Both Hoult and Collins are committed and pleasing, but the courtship becomes just another informative but less-than-engrossing leg the film stands on.


Though director Dome Karukoski keeps things well-assembled and plenty reverent toward his subject, this film never quite conveys the spirit of inspiration it seeks to celebrate. With a frustrating lean toward safety over enlightenment, Tolkien turns an ambitious quest into a rather pedestrian journey.

Men and Monsters

Mary Shelley

by Hope Madden

Mary Shelley was a fascinating person. She was the offspring of a radical feminist, sure. Still, what fire it must have taken to abandon societal pressures at the time in favor of a scandalous relationship with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Of course, she was 16 and 16-year-olds make poor decisions.

Mary famously went on to outdo both her poet/philosopher husband and his poet/lover Lord Byron when, during a rainy spell in their summer together, they took part in a challenge to write a ghost story.

What then, did Byron or Percy Shelley write? Who can recall? But we do remember Mary’s.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin penned Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus when she was 18 years old.

Such a life story would seem like fertile ground for a stirring biopic.

We’ll have to settle for Haiffa Al-Monsour’s stiff and middling effort, Mary Shelley.

Elle Fanning portrays Mary, a melancholy rebel who has yet to find her literary inspiration or her voice. She does become muse to Shelley (Douglas Booth), a handsome scoundrel more opportunistic than idealistic.

The film hopes to encapsulate the abandonment, longing and loneliness that fueled the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel, and more directly, her creature. But there is no life in these scenes—none of the gumption that must have fueled Mary’s early decisions.

Fanning’s listless performance casts an awfully prim shadow. She’s surrounded by perfectly reasonable if somewhat anemic turns by her supporting cast. All this subdued hush only makes Tom Sturridge’s bluster that much more, easily stealing scenes as the lothario, Byron.

Al-Monsour seems unsure of her intent. She struggles to illustrate the power struggle between male and female inside this free-loving environment. But more than anything, she fails to find any kind of spark or passion to propel her central character or her film.