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historical drama

First Man (2018)

DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle

CAST: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Ciaran Hinds, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Cory Michael Smith, Patrick Fugit, Pablo Schreiber, Ethan Embry, Brian d’Arcy James

REVIEW:

First Man would make an excellent companion piece to other docudramas about the 1960s NASA space program, including 1995’s Apollo 13 (whose mission took place only nine months after the climax of this film) and 1983’s sprawling The Right Stuff, which some consider definitive (although it portrays an earlier phase of the space race than First Man and Apollo 13, meaning one could watch the three as a sort of loosely-connected trilogy).  The primary difference is that, while those films were ensemble casts giving a broader overview of the workings of NASA, both on Earth and in space, First Man is more tightly-focused on the professional and personal life of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, offering an intimate look at a man who sometimes seemed as remote as the bleak, barren lunar surface. Continue reading

The Post (2018)

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

CAST: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks

REVIEW:

The Post won’t appeal to everyone—it’s a predominantly dry, talky affair full of scenes of stressed-out people in smoky rooms and stacks of papers debating the course of action—-but for those who appreciate docudramas celebrating the triumph of investigative journalism over power, it’s a stirring spiritual brother to movies like All the President’s Men (to which it serves as a sort of direct prequel) and Spotlight.  In its portrayal of the free press versus an American President skirting the limits of his authority, The Post feels timely and relevant, and stresses the importance of an independent press.  The Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling that “the press exists to serve the governed, not the governors” is worth recalling today. Continue reading

Darkest Hour (2017)

DIRECTOR: Joe Wright

CAST: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup

REVIEW:

2017 has been a good year for the Dunkirk evacuation, a pivotal event in WWII but an incident which had previously received little Hollywood attention.  Combined with Christopher Nolan’s “you are there” docudrama Dunkirk, which took us to the beaches, onboard the ships, and into the sky, and Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, about a British propaganda film made about the event, Darkest Hour takes us to the vantage point of 10 Downing Street and centers around Winston Churchill himself.  To this end, Darkest Hour features no real battle scenes—apart from fleeting glimpses—and its stodgy, talky tone will limit its primary audience to history buffs, especially those with a particular interest in Churchill, but for those who consider themselves in that category, Darkest Hour is an engaging docudrama about the first two weeks in office of perhaps Britain’s most famous Prime Minister, and how he almost lost the position no sooner than he’d been offered it. Continue reading

Hidden Figures (2016)

hiddenDIRECTOR: Theodore Melfi

CAST: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell

REVIEW:

Hidden Figures could be summed up as The Help in space; while it differs from the 2011 drama in telling the true story of three unsung minds behind the 1960s NASA space program, the two films are close cousins in telling a civil rights story through a PG, “feel good” tone that sometimes makes it feel watered down and lightweight (in fact, the two films share an actress, Octavia Spencer, in a main role).  Hidden Figures is enjoyable and occasionally moving and uplifting, but also sometimes feels like an “inspirational” Lifetime original movie bumped up with a bigger budget and a pedigreed cast. Continue reading

Loving (2016)

lovingDIRECTOR: Jeff Nichols

CAST: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Christopher Mann, Nick Kroll, Jon Bass, Michael Shannon, Marton Csokas, Bill Camp

REVIEW:

Loving, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ low-key, stately chronicle of actual events spanning 1957-1967 that led to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling overturning state laws against interracial relationships, serves a similar purpose to films covering the same time period and similar subject matter such as 2011’s The Help in serving as a history lesson to those too young to remember a time when racism was still officially written into law.  Continue reading

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

hacksawDIRECTOR: Mel Gibson

CAST: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Luke Bracey

REVIEW:

The true story of Desmond Doss, the first Conscientious Objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving seventy-five men without firing a shot during the bloody Battle of Okinawa in WWII, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (called the troubled actor-director’s “comeback project” in some circles) is a curious but overall effective blend of sappy cliches and graphic war violence, a film which initially threatens to come across like a generic “uplifting” story but—mostly when our pacifist protagonist finally goes to war around the halfway point—ultimately takes a turn to something far less sanitized but ultimately powerful and inspirational.   Continue reading

Inferno (2016)

infernoDIRECTOR: Ron Howard

CAST: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu

REVIEW:

If nothing else, Inferno might hammer the final nail in the coffin of Sony’s increasingly inexplicable determination to make Robert Langdon—the protagonist of Dan Brown’s pulpy book series—into a “franchise” headliner.  Dry, professorial Langdon isn’t exactly 007, and The Da Vinci Code was only a moderate box office success, while Angels & Demons didn’t do much business worth writing home about, but Sony insisted on forging ahead.  With Inferno already opening weak, it might be time to stop adapting Dan Brown books.  If you’re one of the seemingly relatively few people—including myself—who moderately enjoy these movies, Inferno offers up largely more of the same, but isn’t as good as the unevenly-paced but sporadically fascinating Da Vinci Code and doesn’t represent a compelling reason to rush to a theater near you. Continue reading

Denial (2016)

denialDIRECTOR: Mick Jackson

CAST: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott

REVIEW:

Denial is a courtroom drama that relies less on ostentatious Oscar clip wannabe closing speeches and theatrics than meticulous cross-examination, and a true story that doesn’t embellish the material to up the ante.  The result is a stately, dignified film that will bore those without an interest in the subject matter but plenty of appeal for fans of courtroom dramas or for those with an interest in the true story. Continue reading

Anthropoid (2016)

anthroDIRECTOR: Sean Ellis

CAST: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL REVEAL “SPOILERS”

Anthropoid is a spare, gritty historical thriller chronicling in unvarnished fashion the true story of the operation (code-named “Anthropoid”) to assassinate high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich.  To that end, it’s not necessarily the definitive film adaptation of the event (1975’s Operation Daybreak provides a more comprehensive overview), but it’s a tense and unromanticized docudrama illuminating one of the less famous stories from WWII.   Continue reading

The Revenant (2015)

7851989_fc819d0327a9899589c1a220af8b6bc8_wmDIRECTOR: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL REVEAL IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF THE FILM’S PLOT

For the follow-up to his 2014 Oscar-winning offbeat comedy-drama Birdman, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has chosen to take the saying “revenge is a dish best served cold” very, very literally.  The Revenant is inspired by the true story of 1800s frontiersman Hugh Glass, which also inspired the 1971 Richard Harris film Man in the Wilderness, but takes its share of liberties with the true story, and the two loose versions of Glass’ tale are different enough to each be judged on their individual merits (The Revenant is not a remake of Man in the Wilderness, merely inspired by the same story, and does its own thing).  In a year with its share of survival stories hitting theaters, it’s better-crafted than In the Heart of the Seaand far more dark and brutal than The Martian (compared to The Revenant, The Martian is practically a comedy).  In its “man vs. Nature” narrative, sometimes existential tone, and unflinching bleakness, it’s a cinematic cousin to both the Liam Neeson drama The Gray and the gritty Australian revisionist Western The Proposition.  The Revenant is hardly the “feel good” movie of the year, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those to whom the subject matter appeals, it’s a visceral, immersive, and uncompromising film experience. Continue reading

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