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Historical/Period Piece

One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami

Maybe a few more nights would have changed the world

dir: Regina King

2021

My first film for 2021! Who knew that we were even ever going to make it this far? I was sure by now nuclear missiles would have been launched, or flying piranhas would have taken us out, but here we still are, somehow, as much of the world collectively sighs in relief.

This film is another seen recently that is pretty much a play confined to one location, which pretty much is defining the business model of the streaming services that seem to be happy giving people money to make movies based on plays but only if they’re cheap cheap cheap. I don’t mind, because it’s not like multiple locations would have improved what is already a pretty decent film, awesomely acted and tightly directed by a woman who’s had a great couple of years, being the Queen, Regina King.

As if she hadn’t already achieved great things as the lead in the limited Watchmen series as Sister Night, here she shepherds a mythical story about 4 African-American titans and a night they might have shared together.

I call it mythical because, let’s be honest, no-one has any idea what happened that night. That four men hung out and talked shit isn’t that unusual, but when the four men are Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, and the year is 1964, then it seems like something incredibly important.

The film starts with 4 little vignettes, four lead ups to show us where these men are at in their lives and where America is at this point in time, for those who somehow think racism started in 2016: Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the most acclaimed football player of his day, visits some guy with massive eyebrows in his mansion, where they have a pleasant enough conversation, but the kicker at the end is that the guy, for all the respect he might have for Jim’s achievements, won’t ever allow him into his house, because…

Prototypical soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr), already pretty successful, gets to play the Copacabana club for the first time, to the absolute indifference of an entirely white crowd.

Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) boxes in England, taunting his bloodied opponent, showboating to a degree that even he should find embarrassing, and gets knocked out for his troubles.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) nervously discusses his plans to leave the Nation of Islam with his nervous wife, and, needless to say, they’re pretty nervous about things.

Rating:

Ammonite

Ammonite

it's like Ingmar Bergman died for somebody's sins, but not mine

dir: Francis Lee

2020

Ammonite. It’s a fossil.

Why is this film called Ammonite? Because one of the characters was famous for the fossils she discovered, back when women in England weren’t allowed to vote, own stuff or count numbers out loud for fear of shriveling up all the gentlemen’s dicks with their fancy book learnin’.

Mary Anning found a bunch of sea monster fossils at a place called Lyme Regis, from the age of 11 onwards, and was quite adept and skilled when it came to finding, excavating and drawing them. She accumulated a lot of knowledge, but she couldn’t be allowed to join the Royal Society of Geologists or even call herself a science type person because, obviously no testicles means not scientist.

But she found and excavated what would be called ichthyosaurs, pteranadons and plesiosaurs and stacks of other fossils, including ammonites, those spiral shells so synonymous with limestone, and she was good at it. Few people start an entire branch of science, but she was surely one of the progenitors of modern paleontology (if that isn’t oxymoronic language, and I think it probably is). This is the rare instance where I knew something about the person a movie is about (this is not a biopic, not really), but, like most British figures from history, I knew about her because of an episode of Horrible Histories which I watched with my daughter years ago. I thought it was a pretty fascinating story about a pretty dauntless, accomplished person, who barely got credit in her lifetime for her work or achievements.

Ammonite is a story about Mary Anning and her relationship with the world, not so much about her achievements. The film conjectures that Mary’s experiences in life, being one of the only surviving children of a family of ten, where most died soon after birth, and living with the grimmest ghoul of a mother (Gemma Jones) in a place that looks utterly soul-draining, had an impact. She, herself, is fossil-like, stone cold, living only to please her desolate, dour mother and find more fossils for sale. It’s their only source of income, and, amazingly, fossils don’t go for much, because there isn’t much of a market.

As portrayed in the film, a dilettante, a prancing smug poser of a jerk called Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) walks into her shop and fawns over her and her discoveries. She, being Mary Anning (the always great Kate Winslet), listens to his prattle with unconcealed disinterest. She does like to make a sale, though.

Rating:

The Personal History of David Copperfield

David Copperfield

Score extra points if you thought it was about the magician, instead.

dir: Armando Iannucci

2020

It’s not the first time the great Armando Iannucci has made a film set in a bygone era – The Death of Stalin was very much a period piece – but this is more meat and potatoes costumes, top hats and bustles kind of stuff. There haven’t been an abundance of adaptations of David Copperfield, at least not recently, not like bloody Great Expectations which has more versions than Spider-Man. This is a fairly radical retelling of the story, only because it’s such a long book, and lots of it is probably dull.

Iannucci and his actors here commit to making this as upbeat and propulsive as possible, which isn’t that radical, but when you consider that most adaptations of Dickens’ work is usually so painstakingly put together for BBC Quality Television Series that paint itself tears itself from walls in the vicinity of televisions that play them, just to end their misery, maybe it’s a blessed relief.

The production also goes out of its way to cast actors of different backgrounds from the ones one would expect for such a telling, since it’s usually a Whites Only kind of affair in Dickens’ stuff. Especially the lead, being played by Dev Patel, with charm and energy turned up to 11, but plenty of other roles too. It’s refreshing, in a way, because while it might seem anachronistic to tell a story set in the 1800s with so many people from diverse backgrounds, it doesn’t at all change the fact that a) Britain is one of the most ridiculously, multiculturally diverse places on the planet because of its legacy of colonialism no matter what fuckwits like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage would prefer and b) Dickens’ work has always been about class warfare and the threat of poverty, and people desperately trying to rise above their station in life.

Let’s not sugarcoat anything, though: It’s doubtful Dickens himself would have approved of this movie, considering how racist the fucker was.

But we don’t need to cancel him or his very enjoyable books; we can enhance them for our storytelling purposes in ways that reflect contemporary Britain, as well as acknowledging the perils of the past.

Rating:

The Nightingale

The Nightingale

She doesn't look happy. Maybe some more revenge will do the trick

dir: Jennifer Kent

2019

Some films are almost too brutal. I thought Jennifer Kent’s first film The Babadook was too disturbing, too discomforting, but then I didn’t reckon with Jennifer Kent making a film set in 1800s Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania as we know it now.

There have been a few films set on that hallowed isle from an age ago, and they all tend to be beyond horrible in their depictions of what colonialism does to people. A film of the same name as what it used to be called focused on the actions of Alexander Pearce and a bunch of other convicts, only one of which survived. Cinematically, those days don’t get a good rap at all, by acknowledgement, for two main reasons: the brutality of the penal colonies, like Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour, and the complete extermination of the indigenous population.

The Nightingale is set in the middle of all this frontier / manifest destiny bullshit. Colonisation has been going on for over 30 years, and the brutality of the Brits towards convicts and former convicts is only slightly less horrible than their brutality towards the indigenous. Whole families, whole tribes have already been murdered with the open approval of the authorities, because they want it to happen, only quicker. But in this flick, “white” lives are pretty much as worthless in an environment where anyone with a gun or a knife can do whatever the fuck they want as long as they’re not aboriginal.

And especially if they’re not a young Irish woman, recently transported, recently released but kept in legal limbo by an awful, sadistic monster who also happens to be a lieutenant in the British army, being Lieut. Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Sam Claflin has played a smug piece of shit in a whole bunch of movies, including the Hunger Games ones, and I’m sure every other film he’s ever done and every film he’s ever in, in the future (if they ever make films again during these virus-dominated times), and here they use his smarmiest features to play just one of the most horrible people I’ve ever seen on screen. He plays such an appalling character here that I’m amazed he signed up for this voluntarily without wondering what it would do for his future employability. I wouldn’t hire him to paint a fence let alone play some decent person ever again.

It’s a role devoid of humanity, or anything other than an overwhelming belief in one’s own superiority to all.

Look, I would generally not talk about a story in such a way, because it’s beyond spoiling plots or story beats and such, but this is a brutal and sadistic film that, in the first half hour, has the same character of Clare raped multiple times, her baby and husband murdered in front of her (and us, as viewers), and people need to know this kind of stuff because I’m certain there’s a bunch of people who would consider themselves mature, thoughtful fans of broad ranges of cinematic experiences who would read what I’ve just written and say “fuck that for a game of soldiers, I’m not going to watch shit like that.”

Rating:

The King

The King

It is unlikely to always be good to be the king. There must be
times when it sucks

dir: David Michôd

2019

I have a confession to make – not that anyone asked. I do love me some Henry V. I don’t know whether I give a tinker’s cuss for the actual Henry the Fifth, as in the actual royal jerk, but I have enjoyed the Shakespearean version in several forms. I have probably seen the Kenneth Brannagh version too many times, and I’ve even seen the Sir Laurence Olivier version, because, yes, I am that old.

In whatever version of it I’ve seen or listened to, considering the joy of language on display when you hear Shakespeare firing on all cylinders, I never sat there watching it thinking, “You know what this needs? Less talky-talky, more stabby stabby.”

I can’t imagine the mindset that thinks, “You know how great the St Crispin’s Day speech is about bands of brothers and once more unto the breech and all that jazz, you know what, it’s tired, we need something with more pizazz so the audience can collectively shrug in indifference.”

So, okay, maybe the thinking was “let’s make a more grounded, more down to earth version of this story, less flowery, more brutal”. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that this thinking perplexes me. While we might not know or care how brutal things were way back then, we have actually had at least a million movies and tv series purporting to show us the ‘real’ long ago, the real brutality of what people are capable of.

And to that I say: Got it already, thanks. I’m never going to need “gritty” retellings of humanity’s barbaric past, because I’ve already seen it too many times, and our present, let alone our past, is plenty brutal anyway.

Rating:

The Favourite

The Favourite

Come, family, let us bask in the warming glow of our betters,
giving us a myriad of life lessons

dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

2018

Unbelievable. Finally they’ve made a good remake of All About Eve. It’s about bloody time.

The Favourite is one of the most bizarre situations to ever rise to such prominence that it not only earns nominations but actual Academy Awards and such, but, controversially, I’m going to argue the awards went to the wrong persons. Also, that this flick by this lunatic of a director ever could have been nominated for Best Picture (and lose to a manipulative nothing like Green Book) is flat out surreal.

As wonderful as I find Olivia Colman generally and specifically in everything she’s ever done, probably especially Broadchurch and Peep Show, I actually am not sure why you’d give the award to her and not her two co-stars. I can’t see this film working without the strength of the other two performances, being those by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.

For this director, in quite a baffling way, this is probably the most conventional flick he’s made so far, the most “normal”. Working backwards, The Killing of a Sacred Deer reformulated ancient Greek tragedy as a bizarre family under threat drama, telling an awful story (‘tis a tragedy after all) with his signature oddness. Before that, known actors in The Lobster delivered the flattest and awkwardest performances of their careers in a movie where single people are transformed into animals if they don’t hook up after a year of singledom. Before that, there was the film about people who, for a fee, pretend to be your recently deceased loves ones to help you through the grieving process, awkwardly and flatly delivered (Alps). And before that (Dogtooth), it was a flick where two parents keep their three adult kids in captivity, spinning a tale about the world outside gone to rack and ruin, even though the world inside is pretty fucking awful and bonkers.

Not a conventional filmmaker. He’s pretty prominent, for a Greek director, but it’s a testament to how successful he is now that he no longer has to or wants to work with Greek actors in the Greek language. I mean, why would you, if you could avoid it?

Lord knows I’m sick of it. Just kidding. Now I’m no scholar of Greek film, but he’s clearly the most prominent director to come out of Greece since maybe Costa-Gavras, whose best work was admittedly decades ago. If that is, in itself, a good thing, then it’s an even better thing that he’s bringing up some other talented Greek actors like Ariane Labed (his wife), directors and film production people, especially Athina Rachel Tsangari (whose films Attenberg and Chevalier were pretty good).

All of that has nothing to do with this. The Favourite is a movie about Queen Anne (Oliva Colman), who reigned between 1702 and 1714. I don’t know anything about what she was actually like as a queen or as a person. The Favourite depicts her as a singularly ineffectual monarch and probably a complete nightmare of a person to hang around. She’s unwell physically, she seems fairly fearful of everything and everyone both inside and outside the palace, and she doesn’t really seem to be relishing the privileges that come with aristocracy.

Rating:

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin

Heroes of the People, surely, except when they're killing,
torturing and starving them all. Vodka and circuses for
everyone!

dir: Armando Iannucci

2018

When someone tells you that times have changed and the world we live in is not like the world depicted in this movie, consider the fact that the Russian government threatened and sued cinemas in Russia for playing this goddamn movie, because the Ministry of Culture (as oxymoronic a phrase as has ever existed) felt it insulted the memory of one of history’s greatest monsters, and it might make Russian peoples feel bad about their appalling history.

Is it really a comedy? There are moments of humour in this flick, and it’s referred to as a comedy in every single review, but there really is very little to laugh about. The world it conjures up, of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, is a totalitarian hellscape where virtually everyone lives in terror of being hauled off and killed at a moment’s notice.

Even those close to the Big Man himself, who you’d think would feel a bit more secure, know that at the slightest inclination, for the most ludicrous reason, they or their families could be hauled off and shot, tortured or sent to Siberia for having incurred the displeasure of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). His ‘friends’, the other members of the Select Committee, have to monitor every single thing they say on the off chance that they refer to something or someone out of favour, or that they don’t bray loud enough like the donkeys they are at his jokes, that they could be doomed. It’s a bit of a toxic work environment, to put it in today’s terms.

I have had managers like that in the past. Capricious, aggressive, needy, completely lacking in empathy, willing to destroy everything just to get their way or prove a point. The major difference is, in my case the people in power didn’t condemn literally millions to death and torment just for a laugh or a lack thereof.

The basic premise that the film has to establish is not the period piece specifics, of aesthetics and such; it’s the horrifying and anti-human atmosphere of a hellish totalitarian state. However the flick is described, as satirical, as whatever else, it does not make light of the fact that most of the men shown here were monsters of the highest order, of the greatest magnitude, some of the worst that humanity had ever seen at the time. It’s hard, at many times, to see what humour there is in such horror.

Rating:

A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom

What are we looking at again? Is it that thing over there, no wait, ah,
now I see it

dir: Amma Asante

2016

Ah, I love a good pun title. No, actually, I tell a lie. I fucking hate puns.

It’s an amusing perhaps pun, at least, or it’s not even a pun, and is more of an ironic title. The Kingdom referred to in the title isn’t necessarily the United Kingdom as it is known (that dwindling empire of yesteryear, that dwindles ever more with each passing year that the Tories are in charge), but another place divided by strife in Africa that the helpful Brits generously decided to help out of the goodness of their hearts.

That kingdom , that used to be called Bechuanaland, had itself, after World War II, a very merry yet precarious existence. Its status as an independent kingdom was guaranteed by Queen Victoria somehow (meaning it was essentially a vassal state), however changes are afoot, apparently. At least at the time that the flick begins. An uncle, serving as regent ruler, lives in some hut somewhere, and sends the heir to the throne, Seretse (the amazing David Oyelowo), a letter telling him it’s time to come home from Oxford to assume the mantle of kingship, time to rule his people like he was always meant to.

Seretse is, somehow, in 1940s Britain, studying law and getting along just fine down the local pub with his mates. He meets, through a church group, a lovely young Brit called Ruth (Rosamund Pike). They fall in love, have some babies, and lived happily ever after.

Rating:

The Revenant

The Revenant

Even looking like this, well, you know, half the ladies in the audience
(as if there were that many ladies in the audience) wouldn't leave him
for dead in a shallow grave, if you know what I mean

dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

2015

Again, I realise this flick has been out for oh so long, and various awards have been awarded and such, but I enjoyed the flick so much that I felt compelled to write about it.

Regardless of the absurd level of hype, and this was ridiculously overhyped, which is very strange considering what the flick was like and is actually about, this turned out to be a very enjoyable film for me that succeeds despite Leonardo DiCaprio, rather than because of him.

The movie around him, the amazing cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, the relentlessness of the very landscape around them, they all combine to deliver an awe-inspiring vision of frontier times. The story didn’t really resonate with me all that much, but I guess the performances, especially of Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleason and Will Poulter, were solid.

But the real main character? Nature, baby. C’mon, sparkle for me. Work it, sub-zero tundra!

This is set in the early 1800s, and it’s meant to be North Dakota in the States. The thing is, though, I don’t even have to look it up on imdb.com or Wikipedia to know that they must have filmed this in Canada. There is not a shred, a scintilla, a skerrick of a doubt in my mind that it was Canada. Whenever they want to film something that looks this amazing, and which tries to convince the viewer that humans who travel to these regions voluntarily are idiots, they film in these bits of Alberta.

Rating:

Suffragette

Suffragette

How could they not succeed in their efforts when they have access to
such resolute, steadfast facial expressions?

dir: Sarah Gavron

2015

There is a problem inherent in this movie, at least from my perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan both of women voting and of the people who fought for and earned the right (that should have been theirs from the start) to vote in Britain’s stupid, stupid elections.

Wait, why ‘stupid’? Well, tell me what point there is to enfranchising more than half the population of the United Kingdom when the House of Lords, the most transparently undemocratic institution since Robert Mugabe came to power as the ‘democratically’ elected dictator of Zimbabwe that’s only been around and certainly unreformed since, oh, about 1350, still bloody well exists.

It’s like Russian women having the right to vote: you have a dictator for life in the form of Vladimir Putin – who cares if you have the right to vote?

Well, whether it actually means anything, or whether it’s a smokescreen established to hide the fact that we vote for one of two sock puppets operated by the same person (you may have heard of that person, they’re known as The Man), the fact is that at the dawn of the previous century, the sisters in Britain had decided that they no longer wanted to politely ask to be allowed to vote.

Out the window went the cucumber sandwiches and the parasols, and in came blowing shit up, smashing windows, being tortured by the cops and doing what militant actions they could intended to force the government to capitulate.

Rating:

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