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Mary Queen of Scots

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Josie Rourke.       Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, James McArdle, Jack Lowden, and David Tennant.

Mary Queen

“Better a live rat than a dead lion.” So says a character in one of the best plays and movies about the religious convictions and subsequent conflicts instigated by the English reformation. Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) lives by the conviction “better a dead lion than a live rat.” In 1561, with tensions between Catholics and Protestants still high in Europe, that is a dangerous principle to hold, and for anyone who knows their British history, it is one that cost Mary dearly.

The latest cinematic telling of that history assumes that knowledge, and it opens with brilliant crosscutting between Mary processing to her execution in 1587, Elizabeth I approaching her throne, and then back to Mary’s return to Scotland from France in 1561. The imagery draws a powerful parallel between the two queens, foreshadowing the ensuing conflict with a bookend that suggests their inevitable fates. Unfortunately, it’s the only time in the film such thought is given to the editing, and the rest of the film settles into a fairly rote history lesson, highlighting the main points in the power struggle between England and Scotland, Protestants and Catholics, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.

That is not to say Mary Queen of Scots is a bad history lesson. With grandiose and austere production design, stylish costumes and makeup, a talented cast, and some beautiful cinematography of the Scottish countryside the whole film remains watchable. However, the script and pacing are too pedestrian for the film as a whole to rise to the level of its parts or themes.

This is a strongly feminist take on Mary Stuart and her desire to unify England and Scotland, which I believe is not unusual for films about her. What is unusual is something that I’ve only seen in one other film, The Girl King from 2015. Both these films about strong female monarchs who are Catholic or wish to become Catholic, which functions a rebellion against their patriarchal Protestant courts, not only link Catholicism with protagonists’ feminism but also with their liberalism and anachronistic pro-LGBTQ beliefs.

As bizarre as this may seem, especially in twenty-first century America, I think there are parallels in that comparison worth exploring. In England and Scotland in the latter half of the sixteenth century, Catholics were a persecuted minority, much the same way LGBTQ people were for nearly all of the twentieth century. If a misogynistic patriarchy is the established norm throughout most of Western history, linking that to the dominant religion of a period film’s setting is not an illogical decision—after all, religion has often been abused to rationalize power struggles. Continuing this dramatic license, if a minority religion is then linked to the ways in which a female protagonist challenges said patriarchy, I think there is a dramaturgical basis for the comparisons made here.

However, I think the ideas themselves are more interesting than the film’s handling of them. That above paragraph is probably more thought than any of the filmmakers gave to those themes, as the driving force behind most dramatic choices seems to be: Mary is a progressive rebel.

The recurring motive throughout the movie is that Mary is too independent, and her taking agency of herself like a man threatens the toxic masculinity of the Scottish and English lords. As a contrast with Mary, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) defers to her council and allows herself to be parliament’s pawn. In one of the film’s better exchanges, she tells her chief advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) that the throne has made her more of a man than anyone else, but she has just embraced the desires of the power-hungry men surrounding her. The woman who acts as an equal with the men is Mary, and she is detested for it.

This power struggle mostly plays out through the determination of the Protestant nobles to prevent England from ever having another Catholic monarch. Overlaying the sixteenth century religious conflict with a contemporary feminist angle creates a parallel between the bigotries of five hundred years ago and those of today, as can be seen in David Tennant’s frothing at the mouth, right-wing fundamentalist portrayal of John Knox.

The one performer who really stands out is Margot Robbie. Her final two scenes walk a perfect balance between Elizabeth’s compassion for her cousin and the role she has embraced in serving her council. It’s probably the best example of the film’s themes of religion and gender roles in a society dominated by men.

I am a huge fan of Ronan, and I firmly believe that she was robbed in losing awards for both Brooklyn and Lady Bird. However, her performance here, while very good, lacks the empathy those other characters had, and as fitting as her austerity is for Mary, it pales next to the range of emotions Robbie achieves in her portrayal of Elizabeth.

As a story of two queens caught between men’s games of political intrigue, the film never quite achieves the urgency and tension it should. Nonetheless, telling this chapter of history solely from their perspectives makes for a thematically fascinating subversion. Since the winners get to write history, the losers of conflicts are often reviled, sometimes rightly and other times not. Mary Queen of Scots was viciously reviled by the English and her subjects during her lifetime while Elizabeth I was beloved. The film’s modern lens invites us to consider the reasons behind that, and it is an idea I appreciated even as I wish the film did more with it.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content advisory: An off-screen rape, a bloody assassination, several consensual sex scenes—one rather violent, non-graphic wartime violence, and fleeting nudity.             MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

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The Lion in Winter

Many thanks to Darryl Armstrong for inviting me to contribute to Rise Up Daily with a review of one of my favorite movies, which happens to be one of my favorite Christmas movies as well.

 

 

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Chosen: Custody of the Eyes

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Abbie Reese.

One of my favorite memories from my years as a Catholic homeschooled child was the time another family organized a field trip for five homeschooling families to visit a local Benedictine abbey, where we got to spend the day with the cloistered nuns, helping them with their work and attending two of their daily prayers. Some of the kids got to work in the garden, others make butter, some did carpentry. My sister, myself, and one other child got to milk cows. It was a fun day participating in a life that most people don’t get to see.

With a quietly observant camera, director Abbie Reese achieves a similar participation in the life of a Poor Clares community as she documents the novitiate process of Sister Amata over the course of several years. This convent is more cloistered than the convent I visited almost twenty years ago. The Poor Clares here take a vow of monastic silence, which the Benedictine nuns we met did not. However, the serenity and joviality of the nuns and their willingness to work with Abbie is nearly identical to the reception we received. In the film, we witness daily chores such as leaf raking, gardening, shoveling snow, and making communion wafers, and we are able to remotely participate in the nuns’ recitation of the rosary and the liturgy of the hours.

The nearest point of comparison is the 2005 documentary about the daily lives of Carthusian monks, Into Great Silence. One main difference between that film and Chosen: Custody of the Eyes is the degree of intimacy with which we can observe the monastic life. Chosen documents the daily routines of the convent through the quite literal perspective of Sister Amata.

Working as the primary cinematographer, the young novitiate used a handheld camera to record her daily activities, providing a journalistic commentary on her spiritual growth and her adapting to life in the convent. If this sounds like a recipe for a cheesy, poorly filmed documentary, it’s not. Sister Amata has an incredible talent for focusing a shot, properly angling the camera, and capturing some beautiful and delightful imagery. She finds a natural way to film the nuns while preserving the anonymity many of them desire.

One thing that Sister Amata mentions is learning the routines of the monastery. In a very early scene she discusses maintaining custody of her eyes while trying to unobtrusively observe the gestures and movements of the other nuns so she can learn from them. She explains staring at anyone would make them the object of one’s attention when sole focus of the nuns’ life of prayer should be God.

Throughout the film Reese, through Sister Amata’s cinematography, employs a similar custody of the camera inviting contemplation on the part of the viewer. With the exception of Sister Amata, we don’t get to know any of the nuns as characters, especially as they are rarely the focus within each scene. Yet, there is still a connection we feel with them from observing their interactions alongside them, and the focus on daily tasks, ritual, and prayer—the actions of the nuns—makes the convent life seem more immediate.

One of the earliest documentaries, Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera, makes a strong connection between the ideas that the eye is the window to the soul and a camera can be a window to the world. In this documentary, we are given a brief window into a cloistered convent, and it becomes both a record of one woman’s progression through her novitiate and an opportunity for us to reflect on a way of life of which most people are unaware.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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A Star is Born

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, and Anthony Ramos.

Sometimes there’s a film, and it’s the film for its time and place. It fits right in with the zeitgeist and has enough going for it that nearly everyone becomes swept up with it, celebrating its great achievements. A Star is Born may be that film. It certainly wants to be that film, and in nearly every scene it bends over backwards in its attempts to do so.

The fourth cinematic incarnation of a talented ingenue discovered by a famous artist has a lot to commend it. The song performances are amazing, the acting intense and emotional, the drama engaging and tragic with direction that mirrors each scene’s emotions precisely.

I could never escape the feeling that it was one giant collage of Oscar clips, with each scene edited for maximum impact in a twelve second clip at the ninety-first Academy Awards.

That style of storytelling works surprisingly well for the first act, in which veteran country music singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles upon Ally (Lady Gaga) performing in a nightclub. Impressed by her talent, he flirts with her and spends the night talking to her, culminating in him inviting her to perform in his next show. She says no, so he has his driver stalk her the following day until she changes her mind and quits her job for a one-night performance.

If Jack’s behavior seems creepy, the film wants us to know it’s okay, firstly because she playfully calls him out on it, secondly because he doesn’t hide that he’s an alcoholic, so he’s being honest, and thirdly because Jack is not aggressively sexist like some of the other jerks in the bar. It might be the most pathetic tie-in to the #metoo movement I’ve seen in a recent film, especially considering not a single male character is capable of listening to Ally, other than her friend and coworker Ramon (Anthony Ramos). To be fair, the film portrays most of these scenes from Ally’s perspective, but it wants to have its cake and eat it by portraying Jack’s behavior as a sort of meet cute routine.

The second and third acts follow the predictable beats for a story of a fading, depressed, alcoholic star and a quickly rising sensation, both of whom fall in love with each other. There’s the honeymoon romance, the temporary estrangement, irrational jealousy, and heartbreaking setbacks. There’s a strong supporting turn from Sam Elliott who has a “surprising” relationship to Cooper’s Jack. There’s a light critique of the showbiz industry and the unhealthy side of fame that doesn’t in any way threaten the status quo of the entertainment world.

In other words, it is the perfect level of mildly self-critical to make Academy members feel thoughtful and introspective while simultaneously making them feel proud both of how inclusive they are and of their valuable contributions to the world.

Lady Gaga gives an electrifying performance (especially when she’s singing) in a role that feels like it was meticulously crafted to win an Oscar, and she’s good enough that I won’t even be upset when it probably happens. Her acting and singing chops just about make the film worth watching.

I have never been the biggest Bradley Cooper fan, and while it is blatant that the film is an egotistical passion project for him, I found his Sam Elliott impression enjoyable and one of his better performances. The scene where Elliott tells Jack (Cooper) that “you stole my voice” is unquestionably on the nose, but I honestly didn’t mind.

The biggest problem for me was how hard the film labors in nearly every scene to win the Oscar, knowing that there is a very good chance it may succeed. In addition to the quasi-critiques of unethical producers and the faint connections to #metoo and #timesup, there’s the requisite sad ending to tell us we watched something profound, even though said ending could have easily been avoided with more believable writing. And of course, the entire film is about show business, the Academy’s favorite subject. In short, it’s the Oscariest batiest movie ever.

And you know what? Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott all clearly have such a great time with their roles, that I kind of ended up having one too, and I almost didn’t even care that this is an emotionally manipulative pile of Oscar bait, which will steal all year-end discussion from the actual best movie musical of 2018.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Fleeting nudity, non-graphic sexual encounters, and occasional rough language.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults

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BlacKkKlansman

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Spike Lee.  Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Michael Buscemi, Ryan Eggold, and Topher Grace.

About a week ago on Fox News, Laura Ingraham went off on an unhinged rant lamenting that the country [white America] once knew and loved is being changed for the worse by the non-white demographics who come here illegally and legally, not dissimilar from Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard’s (Alec Baldwin) rant which opens this film. A year ago our president called neo-Nazis “very fine people,” while referring to peaceful black protestors as “sons of bitches.” Active members of the Nazi party are running for republican house seats in multiple states. Sadly, there are Americans who deny the obvious: racism is still a massive problem in America, and it has found a welcome home in the republican party which now controls our country.

Of course, this is not new. Perhaps the president spouting openly racist rhetoric with vigorous support from his base is, but Woodrow Wilson infamously hosted a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation at the White House, and reportedly called it “history written with lightning” when the film was directly responsible for the return of the KKK and the rise of lynchings and baseless arrests of black people. (To be fair to Wilson, those words may have been falsely attributed to him by the book’s author.)

It was civil rights leader James Baldwin who said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” Watching the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro a few years ago, I first became aware of a reality of white dominated entertainment for non-white youth. Baldwin discussed being a black child and watching TV shows or movies in which the white hero with whom the audience is expected to identify must kill the black (or Indian) villains. In watching such shows, Black and American Indian children are therefore expected to root for their own destruction.

Spike Lee knows all of this, and his newest film BlacKkKlansman does as well. The first scene that drills this home is when rookie police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black man on the Colorado Springs force, goes undercover to infiltrate a speech by former Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to make sure there is no threat of blacks starting a race war against whites. As Ture delivers a passionate address to a floating sea of black faces, the truth of his call for black people to accept themselves as they are and not remake themselves to be like white people inspires not only the crowd of adoring college students but the undercover Stallworth as well.

At that rally Stallworth also meets a young black woman Patrice (Laura Harrier) who maintains the police (or pigs as she calls them) are part of an inherently racist, capitalist system designed to profit off the suppression of black people. As Stallworth and Patrice begin a relationship, Stallworth insists there are good cops who can work within the system to fix it. While the film respects the reasons behind her charges, it also clearly depicts all the good cops can do when they don’t abuse their power.

For his next undercover operation, Stallworth infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, meeting the local chapter leader by phone, and later grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) as well. When they meet face to face, his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays Ron to infiltrate the KKK (or the organization as it members insist on calling it) and prevent attacks against black citizens, threats which are far more serious coming from the KKK than from a big talking member of the Black Panthers, especially when there are racist cops who will defend any white person and over a century of oppression against blacks.

If there’s any flaw in the film, as Alissa Wilkinson notes, it’s that it lets white viewers off too easily. While it is certainly true that any remotely progressive white viewers (read: those who oppose Trump) will not feel guilty even if they have unwittingly supported racism in the past, and the film certainly lacks the savage audience indictment of The Wolf of Wall Street, the hero of the film is Ron Stallworth, and not some fictitious white dude smashing down a “whites only” sign. To be sure, the other three members of Ron’s team are wonderful allies, but the film makes it clear how unfortunately rare such people are.

Last year’s Mudbound did not give white viewers an heroic character to identify with. The best white characters stood on the sidelines helplessly as the black characters suffered horrific injustices, the worst gleefully carried out those injustices, and the vast majority blindly perpetuated a system of abuse. That is probably a more realistic, if bleaker, portrayal of racism in America. Here, the majority of the white cops support Ron, but they also turn a knowing blind eye to the racist cop on the force, and the chief proudly states how he supports J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of black citizens. Still they mostly manage to come around by the film’s end. It might verge on wish fulfillment, but there are stories of it happening, and it fits naturally into the comic arc of the film.

Yes, I said comic. To quote St. Thomas More, “The devil is a proud spirit who cannot endure to be mocked.” The film mocks the diabolical KKK ruthlessly, as illiterate morons who are baffled and terrified that their “superior genes” are being replaced by educated blacks and Jews. Watching Ron rant about his hatred for anyone who doesn’t have “pure white Aryan blood” in order to trap the local Klan leader is one of the best scenes of the year, as is Ron’s revelation of his real identity to David Duke. At the same time, the film never undermines the danger and threat of the KKK, heightening the tension and the laughs created by their idiocy.

Befitting a comedy, Spike Lee’s broad storytelling is about as far removed from subtle as humanly possible. If the scenes of the KKK chanting “America first!” or saying they want to make America great (read: white) again or a cop explaining to Ron that racists now cloak their racism in economics, immigration, and other policies so more Americans will go along with them, and one day David Duke will endorse his ideal candidate for president are not blatant enough, then the final scenes of footage from last year’s Charlottesville rally followed by the president’s damning “very fine people” remarks cement the parallels Lee wishes to draw between the KKK of the sixties and the current administration.

There’s an inherent power to images and stories. At the film’s climax Lee crosscuts between a Klan meeting and black student rally, contrasting the violent hatred of one with the peaceful nobility of the other. By opening with a clip from Gone with the Wind and later showing scenes from Birth of a Nation, Lee shows how the damning stereotypes from films shaped the way multiple generations thought about black people. He shows how those stereotypes have continued to today, but he also shows how progress has been made before, and since history repeats, how it can hopefully be made again.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Recurring racial epithets, depictions of racially inspired violence, disturbing descriptions of torture, occasional obscenities.                  MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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