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August 2020
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period film

Hamilton (2020)

DIRECTOR: Thomas Kail

CAST: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Groff

REVIEW:

Counting Hamilton as a “movie” is using the term loosely, rather a live film recording of the original run of the 2015 Broadway musical featuring its original cast, but while no filmed recording can fully recreate the immersive nature of seeing a show live, Hamilton‘s release on online streaming service Disney + (following Disney outbidding all competition to call dibs on the film rights) gives a chance for those who missed or could not afford the opportunity to buy Broadway tickets, or those who wish to revisit the play’s original run with its original cast, a chance to experience the phenomenon for themselves. A musical adaptation of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda composing the songs, writing the lyrics, and starring in the title role, Hamilton deserves its success and popularity. While non-musical fans might not be converted, for those to whom the medium appeals, it’s a lively, lavish, passionate production of the highest quality combining rap, pop, and showtunes to turn a biography into an engaging and energetic modernized history lesson that both educates and entertains.

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Little Women (2019)

DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig

CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, James Norton, Bob Odenkirk, Louis Garrel

REVIEW:

When it comes to a story that’s been adapted as many times as Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women (most prominently by Gillian Armstrong in 1994), the differences between versions of such an oft-told story are matters of performances and screenwriting choices. Comparing Greta Gerwig’s adaptation to Armstrong’s is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Armstrong’s was a straightforward telling. Gerwig juggles the time frame and deconstructs some aspects while (as might be expected from her prior cinematic output) honing in on the feminist elements. The result is intriguingly “different” enough to have a valid claim to exist as its own thing, but in some ways is a less satisfying experience.

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1917 (2019)

DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

CAST: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman

REVIEW:

Despite being the original so-called “War to End All Wars” (only to be surpassed for both global scale and body count by WWII a mere twenty years later), WWI hasn’t gotten much attention from the movies. Apart from All Quiet on the Western Front all the way back in 1930, and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, there aren’t many notable films, or even films period, centering on the 1914-1919 conflict. With 1917, Sam Mendes has added at least one worthy entry to the slim ranks of WWI films. Filmed in seemingly one continuous unbroken take, 1917 is a visceral, immersive experience that takes us along with its two protagonists on a harrowing odyssey. It’s not the most “feel good” viewing (though nor is it as unremittingly bleak and hopeless as All Quiet on the Western Front), but it is by turns harrowing, heart-tugging, exhausting, heroic, and satisfying. All Quiet on the Western Front is its only real rival for the best WWI film ever made—not that there’s much other competition for that title—and for one of the last films of the year, it also stakes a worthy claim to being one of the most technically impressive and most powerful.

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Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

DIRECTOR: James Mangold

CAST: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon

REVIEW:

Ford v. Ferrari, director James Mangold’s (Walk the Line, Logan) docudrama chronicling events leading up and involving the 1965 and 1966 Le Mans, is likely to appeal to the same audience that appreciate Rush, Ron Howard’s similarly-themed docudrama telling the true story of the rivalry between race car drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda (played there by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl). The central dynamic here, rather than the “frenemies” there, is in full-blown “buddy movie” mode—albeit not without a little tension—but both movies do an effective job of balancing visceral racing sequences with strong human drama.

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Midway (2019)

DIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich

CAST: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Darren Criss, Tadanobu Asano, Etsushi Toyokawa

REVIEW:

One goes into “a film by Roland Emmerich” with tempered expectations. I wasn’t expecting the next great war epic, but I had—I thought—reasonable expectations of something along the lines of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor; some big-scale war action intermixed with corny human drama. Alas, even for those modest expectations, Midway fails to deliver, once again begging the question of why such a hack as Emmerich continues to have his relentless mediocrity rewarded with gigs directing big-budget disaster/war movies. In fact, while I’m no Michael Bay fan, one could say that at least Bay knows he makes big, dumb action flicks where lots of stuff blows up real good. Emmerich occasionally displays pretensions of helming historical epics, and here (as usual) his reach exceeds his grasp.

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The Current War (2019)

DIRECTOR: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen, Tuppence Middleton

REVIEW:

Filmed in December 2016 and originally slated for a 2017 release, The Current War has finally found its way into theaters two years later after becoming collateral damage of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal and the subsequent downfall of The Weinstein Company (after the beleaguered Weinstein Company sold off The Current War‘s film rights, they were eventually bought by little-known 101 Studios). This finally released version comes out under the label “The Director’s Cut”, claiming it represents director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s original vision before Harvey Weinstein got his hands on it and, as was notoriously his wont, started chopping and editing (this is supposedly the original version which played at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, not Weinstein’s edit, which was never released). In retrospect, the film’s turbulent and meandering behind-the-scenes journey to its low-profile delayed theatrical release might have been a more eventful story than the film itself. A movie about the fledgling electrical grid and the men vying for dominance over it is not inherently cinematic, and no matter much director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon tries to spice it up with visual flair, The Current War remains a rather drab history lesson that fails to use a promising cast to its full advantage.

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Rocketman (2019)

DIRECTOR: Dexter Fletcher

CAST: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

REVIEW:

Is someone in Hollywood trying to build a ’70s rock star cinematic universe? Close on the heels of last year’s Oscar-winning (albeit somewhat overrated) Bohemian Rhapsody, now comes Rocketman, covering one of the few ’70s-’80s musical icons who rivaled or surpassed Freddie Mercury for over-the-top flamboyance: Elton John. Director Dexter Fletcher, who took over finishing up Bohemian Rhapsody in place of a fired Bryan Singer but gets full creative control here, takes a different approach, styling Rocketman as a musical fantasy rather than a strictly conventional biopic. And of course, like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman will take some nostalgic fans of the featured artist down memory lane.

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The Best of Enemies (2019)

DIRECTOR: Robin Bissell

CAST: Sam Rockwell, Taraji P. Henson, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill

REVIEW:

Quick on the heels of recent Best Picture winner Green Book comes yet another one of those standard-issue, well-intentioned 1960s “based on a true story” race relations dramas that are all the rage these days. Given the current political climate, a movie about a die-hard racist and an equally aggressive black activist getting past their enmity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but even more so than Green Book (an enjoyable, inoffensive little movie which was not, in my opinion, Oscar material), The Best of Enemies is standard issue and a little trite and does nothing to distinguish itself from all the other movies covering similar subject matter in recent years. It’s easily lumped in with the likes of The Help, Hidden Figures (also starring Taraji P. Henson), and Green Book, and doesn’t linger in the memory.

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Dumbo (2019)

DIRECTOR: Tim Burton

CAST: Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins

REVIEW:

Dumbo began life as a children’s story published in 1939, written by the husband-and-wife duo of Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. In 1941, Walt Disney, looking for something that could be slapped together quickly and cheaply to shove out into theaters to help offset mounting costs of his expensive flop Fantasia, bought the rights and the Dumbo animated film debuted in theaters, running a slim 64-minutes. While remembered fondly, it was arguably the most simplistic and juvenile of the Disney animated features of the time, so while this remake (of sorts) is the latest in Disney’s line-up of live-action recreations of its animated classics (following Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast and soon to include Jon Favreau’s The Lion King and Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin), the brevity of the source material required Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger to do a lot of padding. The result, as one might expect from a padded-out reimagining of a simplistic and juvenile cartoon, is a middling affair that contains enough special effects and lively sequences to entertain children but whose generic and uninspired narrative has less to offer for their parents. Adults accompanying their children may be sufficiently engaged to not be suffering in silence for their children’s sake (which alone bumps Dumbo up above some other theatrical options for family movie night), but adults attending alone may be less enthralled.

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Robin Hood (2018)

DIRECTOR: Otto Bathurst

CAST: Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, Eve Hewson, Jamie Dornan, Tim Minchin, Paul Anderson, F. Murray Abraham

REVIEW:

Much like Lex Luthor, who should not be as difficult to adapt to screen as he has often seemed to be, Hollywood has had a hard time coming up with a good rendition of what should be as simple and straightforward as the legend of Robin Hood.  1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves had its charms, but marred by a whiplashy tone and a miscast Kevin Costner.  Ridley Scott’s 2010 “reimagining” tried to turn it into a Braveheart-esque epic historical drama at the expense of jettisoning any sense of fun.  Unfortunately, Otto Bathurst’s latest rendition of the oft-told tale has gone to the opposite extreme, a generic action flick, watchable and moderately engaging in the moment but forgettable and disposable in the way a dime a dozen generic action flicks are.  Panned by critics and making only $51 million against a $100 million budget, the latest telling of “The Hood” is as destined for the dust bin as last year’s King Arthur.

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