Tag Archives: historical dramas

The Write Side of History

Boston Strangler

by George Wolf

Writer/director Matt Ruskin wants us to remember that decades before the events of All the President’s Men, Spotlight or She Said, journalists – specifically women journalists – were heroically committed to finding the truth.

Wading through historical record with a detailed screenplay that’s surprisingly unaided by any source material, Ruskin crafts Boston Strangler as a salute to two dogged reporters and the mystery that still surrounds their biggest story.

In the 1960s, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) was a lifestyle reporter for Boston’s Record American. She pressured editor Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper, reliable as always) for a better beat, but got approval to work the Strangler story only on her own time. As Loretta’s promising leads met increasing roadblocks, street-wise veteran Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) had her back and the two “girl” reporters started lighting up the front pages.

Knightley and Coon make for a team just as formidable as their characters, highlighting the contrasts of the two women’s lives while making it clear how much they came to depend on each other. The always welcome Alessandro Nivola adds solid support as Detective Conley, a sympathetic cop who proves useful to the case.

And you might remember that case eventually led to the confession of Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian). But Ruskin is arguing that bit of history is far from settled, and he methodically makes his case via the work of McLaughlin and Cole.

Ruskin’s storytelling is patient and assured, nicely mirroring the ladies’ work ethic and building a subtle bridge from past to present through the sexism and police corruption that made the truth even more evasive.

The film is more compelling than thrilling, striking a tone that fits the material. It’s not the splashy headline that’s important, it’s what kind of substance is delivered underneath. Boston Strangler delivers a relevant history lesson, and another salute to the ones that keep asking questions.

Forgotten Warriors

Devotion

by George Wolf

Both the title and the trailer hint at a formulaic, button-pushing war movie. Heck, seeing Glen Powell back in a cockpit might have Top Gun: Maverick fans hoping for a slice of Hangman’s family backstory.

Happily, neither pans out. Devotion does offer some thrilling air maneuvers, but reaches even greater heights with an inspiring, true-life account of two friends in a “forgotten war.”

Director J.D. Dillard (Sleight)and screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart bring hard truths and humanity to their adaptation of Adam Makos’s book detailing the bond between airmen on the eve of the Korean War.

Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) is the Navy’s first African American aviator. Lt. Tom Hudner (Powell), the “new guy,” is assigned to be his wingman. When Squadron 32 gets airborne, Dillard and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt deliver the gripping goods. But away from the runway, two sterling performances and an understated script enable the film to bypass most of the usual cliches for an effective look at struggle, sacrifice and the need for true allies in the fight for equality.

Majors is so good, delivering his best work since The Last Black Man in San Francisco. His commanding physical presence comes easily, but the way Majors conveys the soul-deep pain beneath Jesse’s strong silence is never less than moving.

Powell is an impressive wingman here, as well, as a man of privilege who can’t ignore the contradictions between Jesse’s service and the treatment he so often endures.

So come for the aerial dogfights, you won’t be disappointed. But Devotion also serves up something special on the ground, and that’s worth saluting.

The Room Where It Happened

One Night in Miami

by George Wolf

The room where it really happened was in Miami’s Hampton House. After a young Cassius Clay won the Heavyweight title from Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, he joined his long time mentor Malcolm X, NFL legend Jim Brown and soul sensation Sam Cooke at the South Florida hotel.

Writer Kemp Powers first imagined how that meeting of legendary minds might have played out, and now Regina King – who already has an acting Oscar – jumps into the race for Best Director with a wise and wonderful adaptation of Powers’s stage play. Propelled by a bold, vital script from Powers himself, King invites us into a frank discussion about the steps in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and about each man’s role in the struggle.

Though existing mainly inside that single hotel room, One Night in Miami is in a constant state of motion, as four talented actors serve and volley through a ballet of insight and intellect.

Portraying a bigger-than life-personality such as Clay without a hint of caricature is no easy feat, but Eli Goree handles it with smooth charisma.

Clay’s braggadocio is as playful and charming as you remember, but Goree also finds authentic shades of apprehension about the societal role Clay (who would publicly join the Nation of Islam and announce his name change to Muhammed Ali just weeks after the meeting) was about to accept.

Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcom X is a measured voice of wisdom, but the film finds its gravitational pull in the forces of Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom, Jr.

As Brown, Hodge is beautifully restrained power, a man of incredible strength still able to be staggered by sudden blows of racism. Brown’s path as a leader of the civil rights movement contrasts sharply with Cooke’s, and Odom, Jr. gives the singer surprising and resonant layers that include anger at the thought that he’s not all in for the cause.

The characters continually challenge each other, as King and Powers challenge us with a profundity that comes from their refusal to settle for easy answers. Each question the film raises connects past to present with committed grace, and One Night in Miami finds a beautiful dignity that shines in the face of bigotry. 

Tilting At Windmills

Mank

by George Wolf

Since its release in 1941, Citizen Kane has earned such a prodigious place in film and popular culture that the utterance of merely one word can summon it.

And as much as Orson Welles’s masterwork has been dissected over the years, Mank reveals its essence in unique and wondrous ways.

Director/co-writer David Fincher (who honors his late father Jack’s script by listing him as the sole writer) takes us into Citizen Kane through the shadowy side entrance of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz. Officially, Mank and Welles shared the Kane writing credit, though just who did the heavy lifting is still a source of debate for film historians.

Fincher’s view is clear. But even the dissenters may feel powerless to the seductive pull of Mank‘s immersion into Kane‘s creation, and to the stupendous lead performance that drives it.

As Mankiewicz (“and then out of nowhere, a ‘Z’!”), Gary Oldman is out-of-this world-good. His Mank is a charmer, a gambler and a frequent drunk, bedridden by injuries from a car accident and under the gun to deliver Welles a script in just 90…no make that 60 days. And no drinking!

Tick. Tock.

The first few pages bring a critique that “none of it sings,” which is funny, because all of this sings.

Fincher’s rapid-fire dialogue is beautifully layered and lyrically precise, more like the final draft of a script than authentic conversations, which only reinforces the film’s commitment to honoring the power of writing. Onscreen typeface and script direction transition the flashbacks to Mank’s years in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, running in social circles with power brokers such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s not-so-dumb blonde mistress Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried).

Oldman expertly sells Mank’s truth-to-power rebellion as a sly reaction to his own feelings of powerlessness. His charm as a “court jester” belies a growing angst about America’s power structure that Welles (Tom Burke) is eager to illustrate.

And though much of Mank‘s power is verbal (just try to catch a breath during Oldman’s drunken Don Quixote speech), Fincher crafts a luscious visual landscape. Buoyed by Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous B&W cinematography, Fincher recreates the era with sharp period detail and tips his hat to Welles with Kane-esque uses of shadow, forced perspective and one falling glass of booze.

Talk of “getting people back to the theaters” and manufactured news will feel especially relevant, but Mank provides a nearly endless peeling of satisfying layers. So much more than a story about how a classic story was told, it’s a sweeping ode to the power of courageous art, no matter how flawed the artist.

The Price of Justice

The 24th

by George Wolf

Take at look at some recent writing credits for Kevin Willmott: Da 5 Bloods, Black KkKlansman (which won him a deserved Oscar), Chi-Raq. Impressive. Go back to 2004, and you’ll find The Confederate States of America, which he also directed.

Without question, Willmott speaks eloquently and provocatively on the history of being Black in America. He’s back behind the camera for The 24th, a bold and clear-eyed take on the 1917 mutiny of the all-Black 24th U.S. Army infantry regiment after harassment from the Houston police department.

Willmott, co-writing with first time screenwriter Trai Byers, again shows an uncanny instinct for making history crackle with the urgency of a breaking news bulletin. Humanizing the conflict through the fictional Pvt. William Boston (Byers, also taking lead acting duties), the film builds from a slightly impatient first act into a final third full of resonant rage and tremendous emotional power.

Pvt. Boston’s education abroad and dignified air draw the ire of both his fellow soldiers and his white commanding officers, save for the thoughtful Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church, playing impressively against type). Both Boston and Norton want the 24th to be the first Black regiment sent to the Normandy front lines, and the Col. recommends Boston for officer training.

Aspiring to lead by the example of valuing service over ambition, Boston resists the promotion, laying down the first marker in a character arc of weighty heartbreak, resignation and sacrifice.

The Jim Crow laws of Texas stop at nothing to oppress and brutalize the members of the 24th, even the private MP unit formed expressly to protect them.

As Boston prepares to give his local sweetheart (Aja Naomi King) a promise ring, the night of August 23rd, 1917 cascades into violence, leaving policemen, civilians and soldiers dead in the Houston streets.

The aftermath leaves Boston with a soul shaking choice, one made easier by an awakened and defiant resolve.

He still aspires to be an inspiration, but for a completely different reason. And it is this journey – made so deeply intimate by Byers and a superb Mykelti Williamson as Boston’s frequent adversary Sgt. Hayes – that carries the film’s early 1900s setting into the streets of today’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Making that leap with us, and not for us, is no easy trick, but The 24th is more proof of risk and reward. The ugliest corners of the mirror can be valuable teachers, and we need Willmott’s voice – as both a writer and a filmmaker – to keep us looking.

Boat Against the Current

A Hidden Life

by George Wolf

“Sign this paper and you’ll go free.”

“I am free.”

One man’s moral courage provides the anchor for A Hidden Life, writer/director Terrence Malick’s affirmation that a life well-lived is a beneficial one, no matter how small the spotlight.

Malick brings his dreamlike focus to the story of Franz Jagerstatter, a conscientious objector who refused to fight with the Nazis in World War II.

Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Frani (Valerie Pachner) are living happily in an Austrian farming village with their three young daughters. The work is hard but the peasant villagers share a strong communal spirit, still untouched by the winds of war.

Malick showcases the mountain landscape with his customary visual brilliance, teaming with cinematographer Jorg Widmer to envelope us in an expansive and idyllic old world setting among the clouds. But those clouds soon turn literally and figuratively stormy, and as Hitler’s rhetoric is parroted by the villagers, Franz’s commitment to conscience turns him into a prisoner and his family into outcasts who “sin against the village.”

Franz finds little comfort from his church elders, who urge appeasement and seek a compromise. But even an assignment away from the front would require an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi cause – a line Franz refused to cross.

The hushed voiceovers, forced perspectives and dreamlike imaging that served Malick so well in his masterfully personal The Tree of Life here seem a bit ill-fitting when paired with someone else’s legacy. A frequent return to lingering shots such as clasped hands thrust into the air lose resonance with repetition, creating a subtle tedium that betrays the nearly three hour running time.

Not that Malick’s latest doesn’t deliver emotional power, it certainly does, most pointedly during Franz’s visit with a church artist. Suffice to say the exchange features some of Malick’s most brilliantly concise dialogue, using one man’s honest introspection to frame another’s moral quandary in a heartbreakingly beautiful new light.

Try hard, and you can imagine Malick working in a purely historical context, giving a deserving salute to a lesser known man for all seasons.

But on its face, the film presents a climate that is all too familiar, one where a rising tide of hate divides families, reduces religious tenets to twisted rationalizations, and where blind rage requires no subtitles. A Hidden Life is at its best when those stakes are clear, and Franz’s unwavering conviction is a sobering history lesson.

Necessary Evils

The Best of Enemies

by George Wolf

At the risk of opening recent wounds, it’s hard not to view The Best of Enemies through the lens of last year’s Oscar race debate. It’s a based-on-true-events historical drama draped in racial healing and also, the KKK.

So, is this more BlackKkKlansman, then? Or Green Book?

While it’s nowhere near the rarified air of the former, it does a better job than the latter of veering from the white pandering playbook.

For his debut feature, writer/director Robin Bissell adapts the tale of an unlikely friendship between a black community leader and the president of the local Klan chapter. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) were on vastly opposing sides over school segregation in 1971 North Carolina when an arbitration exercise called a charrette forced them to hear each other out.

So you know where it’s going, but too often the trick is getting to that moment of average white awakening without making it the black character’s reward for being exceptional, or the white audience’s reward for being in the theater. Yes, Ellis has the biggest character arc, but Atwater changes, too, and thankfully isn’t here just to help him grow.

So Bissell is wise to put Atwater and Ellis on nearly equal footing, and fortunate to have leads this good. Henson mines powerful emotions as the defiant “Roughhouse Annie,” while Rockwell refuses to make Ellis a caricature villain. Together they find a combative chemistry that is raw and often effectively human.

Bissell is clearly a student of the Scorsese School of Pop Song Insertion, and an early sequence set to Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” is indeed striking. But while the film’s overall structure is workmanlike, a few clunky, pause-for-dramatic-effect moments seem to exist more from indecision than confidence.

The Best of Enemies tells a good story and does plenty right while doing it, but is held back by missed opportunities.

As both factions in a divided community state their cases, the arguments are shockingly current, but Bissell can’t find the tone that clearly connects this past to our present. Just when he’s close (like the rundown of different challenges the black parents faced), some Mayberry-esque comedy re-sets the mood, leaving a worthy but not quite memorable history lesson on the value of reaching across the battle lines.

 

 





House Divided

The Aftermath

by Hope Madden

While there are a number of fine points to James Kent’s The Aftermath, novelty is not among them.

You don’t need to know the plot, you just need to glimpse the movie poster: Jason Clarke is married to Keira Knightly; Alexander Skarsgård lives in their attic.

What happens, do you think? Any guesses?

It’s a love triangle you’d have to have your eyes closed to miss. No, the plot is not going to surprise or, to be honest, particularly entertain. Give Kent and Aftermath credit, then, for mining its backdrop for genuine tension, not to mention fascinating historical detail.

Knightly is Rachael Morgan, wife of a British colonel (Clarke, obv). She joins him in his post-victory assignment in what’s left of Hamburg, 1946. He’s been given the home of a German architect, Herr Lubert (Skarsgård), and in Morgan’s compassion (and naivete), he invites the former owner and his teenage daughter to stay on rather than face the harsh realities of the camps.

Clarke—who too often plays cuckolded husbands to waifish beauties and handsome houseguests—offers a sympathetic turn as a grieving man coming to grips with both a crisis of conscience as well as profound grief. Through him we glimpse the chaos of a divided city, conflict and hatred still echoing through rubble-strewn streets.

He’s intriguing, as are those minor characters who orbit his military life: the rogue Aryans still loyal to the cause, comrades taking pleasure in continuing to punish Germans, and the teenage girl lurking in the shadows of his own home.

Though the film continues to direct your attention to the beautiful people struggling against their desires, it’s angry adolescent Freda Lubert (Flora Thiemann) whose silent contempt compels attention. She’s wonderful, creating a spoiled, misguided character who’s hard to like and harder to predict.

It’s a nice distraction from a film that is otherwise as unsurprising as any you’re likely to see. Knightly and Skarsgård perform admirably in blandly familiar roles. And, of course, they look glorious. But pretty as they are, every moment they’re onscreen you’ll wish to be back out in the ruins of Hamburg with the actual characters.





Snapped

Colette

by Christie Robb

Emotional, entitled, white men seem omnipresent these days. They’re on the news. They’re on social media. They’re on the big screen. At least with the biopic Colette, they are confined to an historical period safely a century behind us.

Colette gives us the origin story of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), a Madonna-like figure of the early 1900s who emerged from a small provincial village to become the toast of Paris, reinventing herself over the years as a novelist, mime, actress and journalist.

She wrote frankly about women’s independence, sexuality and aging. She sparked a riot at the Moulin Rouge in 1907 when she performed a lesbian love scene in a pantomime. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. She wrote the book Gigi, which was adapted for the stage where she personally selected a then-unknown Audrey Hepburn for the leading role in 1951. The book then became an MGM musical that won nine Academy Awards in 1958 (including Best Picture). When she died, Colette was the first woman in France to be given a state funeral.

But before all that, Colette married a bully named Willy (Dominic West). Over a decade her senior, Willy was a popular writer who put out music reviews, stories and novels. Quite a bit were written by other people in a factory system where Willy provided the brand, but others produced the work. He compelled his wife to join the team, asking her to mine her childhood experiences so he could publish them under his name. Once the Claudine books became popular, he would lock Colette in a room until he was satisfied she had written enough.

The movie tells the story of Colette’s time with Willy and traces an arc from her awkward introduction into Paris salon society to an eventual break with the abusive hack and first steps toward an independent life.

Knightly is masterful inhabiting the multifaceted Colette, using her eyes to hint at the hurt she’s experiencing while wielding a bold bravado as a shield in her constant verbal fencing matches with her husband. West presents as a believable blowhard—initially charming, then volatile, narcissistic, abusive, and ultimately self-pitying, sniveling and weak.

Given the breadth of Colette’s life and its many acts, it makes sense that director Wash Westmoreland would focus on a distinct part of it. However, because of his desire to give screen time to so many of the big Personalities of the Belle Époque and to keep the focus squarely on the time period of the Colette/Willy relationship, the movie seems simultaneously thinly-sketched and agonizingly long. With so much of the movie involving Colette being shit on, the movie verges on indignity porn. How much can this woman take, before she snaps?

But when she snaps…it’s so good. Oscar-bait good.

Given this week, I’d have vastly preferred it if more of the movie had focused on the glorious and adventurous life Colette led after she dumped Willy and struck out on her own. But, even so, it’s a story of liberation and the claiming of a woman’s power. Something that’s needed.

I just hope there’s a sequel.





40 Whacks

Lizzie

by Hope Madden

Screenwriter Bryce Kass has some interesting thoughts on the case of Lizzie Borden, the American woman suspected in the 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother. In director Craig William Macneill’s hands, those intriguing ideas receive a proper, historical treatment.

Whether they have merit or not is mainly beside the point.

Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) was a spinster of 32 when her parents died. She was home at the time, as was the family’s Irish immigrant servant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart).

The film does not create a whodunit atmosphere, instead painting a historically realistic picture of some of the details that may have driven Borden to commit the crimes—likelihoods that wouldn’t have been considered in 1892 and have, therefore, rarely been taken into account over the years.

The struggle facing a single woman—economic and otherwise—is handled throughout this film with a desperate grace that elevates most scenes. Sevigny’s wily, lonesome outsider role plays to her strong suit. She shows here, as she did in 2016’s Love & Friendship, a capacity with the delicate language of the entitled.

Kristen Stewart continues to impress, even with a brogue. Yes, she is again morose, conflicted and put-upon, so maybe her range isn’t as strong as I’m suggesting, but she really knows her niche.

The way Macneill and Kass piece together the well-known pieces to this puzzle, this time considering how each may impact and be impacted by the fact that Lizzie was an unmarried woman, is consistently compelling.

Do the filmmakers take their somewhat subversive approach a step further than necessary, moving from honest if overlooked likelihood to vague possibility to “are they doing this just to be lurid”?

They do.

It doesn’t sink the film, though, mainly because Stewart and Sevigny commit to the direction and keep it from feeling exploitive. Plus, it is a fresh and believable take on a very old, oft-told story, so that counts for something.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwgtDHISXtQ