Movie Review: Orlando (1993)

Release Date: 12 March 1993
Director: Sally Potter
Production Company: Sony Pictures Classics

Adapted from a novel by Virginia Woolf, Orlando is a fantastical period drama directed by Sally Potter starring Tilda Swinton as a British noble named Orlando.  There are a couple of things you need to know about title character: 1. Orlando is seemingly immortal, living from at least the late 16th-century to the present day, and 2. About 2/3’s through this movie, Orlando goes through a magical physical transformation from a man’s body to a woman’s body.  The film explores ideas of feminism, sexuality, gender, and British history and does so with cinematic flair and fantastic costuming.  Singer Jimmy Somerville sings on the soundtrack and appears in the film, his countertenor voice appropriate to Orlando’s androgyny.

When I saw this movie back in the mid-90s, it was the first time I’d seen Tilda Swinton and I can’t imagine any actor being more perfect for this role. I love the way she looks to the camera and breaks the fourth wall.  I read the book around the same time I first saw the movie, but I can’t remember which came first.  I knew next to nothing about transgenderism at the time, but this story is obviously also a metaphor for the transgender experience.  “Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.”

I’m glad I revisited this movie as it feels to have gained new layers of meaning in the 2020s, much as Sally Potter added layers of meaning appropriate to the 1990s to Virginia Woolf’s observations on the 1920s.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Madness of King George (1994)

Title: The Madness of King George
Release Date: 28 December 1994
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Production Company: Channel Four Films | Close Call Films

“Do it, England, do it!”

I saw this movie when it came out when I was in college at a local arthouse theater. Having studied history, particularly 18th-century history, I remember the movie being particularly funny.  But it still holds up decades later when I’ve forgotten all that historical detail. It features terrific acting and a scriptful of memorable dialogue.  Oh, and a lot of poop and piss jokes.

The Madness of King George is based on the historic events of 1788-1789 when King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) begins behaving erratically and seemingly lost his senses.  His Prime Minister, the unflappable William Pitt the Younger (played with dryest delivery by Julian Wadham) and his wife Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren) work to help him get better and keep up appearances for the ongoing affairs of state.  But his eldest son George, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), sees the opportunity to seize power as the king’s regent along with the leader of the opposition in Parliament, Charles Fox (Jim Carter)

A series of doctors prove useless in curing the King, even making him worse with their misguided medical practice.  Eventually, George is put in the care of the stern Dr. Francis Willis (Ian Holm) who has more modern ideas of treating mental illness, albeit still barbaric.  The film shifts focus between the battle of wills between Willis and George and the ongoing Regency Crisis in Parliament.  In fact there’s a lot going in the movie I’d forgotten about which efficiently develops about a dozen different characters’ stories.  Some great performances come from a youthful Rupert Graves as the King’s attendant Captain Greville, who serves as a kind of point of view character, and Amanda Donohoe as Lady Pembroke, the Queen’s Lady of the Bedchamber.

The movie works on many levels.  It’s a period drama with the eye for costumes and settings that British filmmakers bring to such things. It’s a satire and a bit of a farce on the precarious nature of monarchical rule.  It’s a palace intrigue.  It’s a stunning portrait of mental illness and the failure of medicine to address its causes.  And it’s even a romance, as the chemistry between George and Charlotte is heartfelt. Hawthorne’s performance is remarkable, showing vulnerability, but also never making George too sympathetic as he’s seen to be arbitrary even when sensible.

The finale of the film where the King instructs the Prince that they must be a “model family” makes a literal demarcation of the  gradual process by which the English monarchy transitioned from ruling the country to serving as a figurehead.  It’s also possibly a dig at the dysfunction of the present-day royal family.  You could watch this as a triple-feature with The Favourite and The King’s Speech for a full dose of British royal shenanigans, although I like this film the best of the three.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Title: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Release Date: 7 July 2000
Director: Ang Lee
Production Company: Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia | Good Machine International | Edko Films | Zoom Hunt Productions | China Film Co-Production Corp. | Asian Union Film & Entertainment Ltd.
Summary/Review: I last watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when it was released in US theaters 21 years ago and it turns out I remembered very little of the movie.  The one thing that stuck with me was the duel fought on the tops of a forest of bamboo which remains an awe-inspiring image in this rewatch.

The film centers on Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a governor who is promised in marriage but yearns for a life free to determine on her own terms.  She learns Wudang skills from a bandit named Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) who is disguised as her governess and steals a famed sword named Green Destiny from the renowned swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat).  Mu Bai and his friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) investigate the theft of the sword and attempt to aid Jen who resists any interference.

The movie features several wuxia fight setpieces, and in addition to being amazing action sequences also are all rooted in relationships and plot points.  I’m impressed at how central women are in almost all the roles of this film especially since in just the last decade it’s been “controversial” for women to be centered in Hollywood action films.  I also was really touched by the unspoken romance between Mu Bai and Shu Lien which is paid off in the film’s denouement.  Chow and Yeoh are really terrific actors and express a lot of emotion with very little external display.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Glory (1989)

Title: Glory
Release Date: December 15, 1989
Director: Edward Zwick
Production Company: Freddie Fields Productions

Glory was the first major motion picture to depict African American men fighting in the American Civil War.  I remember seeing it when it first came out at a theater in Washington, DC while visiting my sister at college.  I’ll always remember during the Battle of James Island scene that a Black man sitting behind us openly cheering for the 54th Regiment: “Get, him!  Yes! Ok!  Now help him out!”  This is why representation is important. I watched the movie several times in the ensuing years and it was one of my favorites, but this is the first time I revisited in a few decades.  I’m happy to report that it holds up very well.

Like most historical dramas, Glory is not 100% factual.  One of the biggest changes from the historical record is that apart for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), all of the major characters in this movie are composite characters rather than historical figures.  This has the unfortunate effect of lending a “white savior narrative” sheen to the story, especially early on when the movie is primarily from Shaw’s point of view.  But it also means we don’t get to know of actual Black members of the regiment like Frederick Douglass’ two sons, Lewis and Charles, or William Harvey Carney, who would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery.  The real Massachusetts 54th Regiment was also made up primarily of freemen born in Massachusetts and other Northern states whereas the movie depicts the rank and file as mostly men who had recently emancipated themselves from slavery in the South.

Despite these inaccuracies, I still think the movie does a good job of dramatizing the 54th Regiments’ from recruitment to the fateful Battle of Fort Wagner.  The core group of soldiers in the movie include:

  • Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) – a formerly enslaved man with a lot of anger and mistrust of others
  • Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) – an older, paternal figure who is recognized as the first Black noncommissioned officer in the regiment
  • Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) – a highly-educated freeborn man from Massachusetts who is close friends with the Shaw family and struggles with the physical exertion of being a soldier
  • Private Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy) – a younger soldier who is generally enthusiastic about the opportunity to serve in the army

In other words, like most war movies, each of these men are more of a type than an individual.  But great acting performances, especially from Washington and Freeman, really bring these characters to life.  Cary Elwes also stars as a white officer who occasionally locks horns with Colonel Shaw over how to command the regiment justly.

Apart from addressing a historical blindspot of the importance of Black soldiers to the ultimate Union victory in suppressing the enslavers’ insurrection, I think that Glory is the earliest movie that depicted the full-scale horror of the Civil War.  At times it almost feels like an anti-war movie, and deals subtly with things like Shaw’s PTSD after the Battle of Antietam.  Despite factual inaccuracies, I think this film still stands as a more accurate representation of the Civil War than your typical Hollywood fare.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Brink’s Job

Title: The Brink’s Job
Release Date: December 8, 1978
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Universal Pictures

This is a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for some time because it’s set in Boston and based on the true-life “Crime of the Century” Brink’s Robbery in 1950.  The movie is directed by William Friedkin, shortly after his back-to-back hits with The French Connection and The Exorcist. I’d say The Brink’s Job is stylistically different for Friedkin, however since these are the only three Friedkin movies I’ve watched I can’t make that assertion.  What I do know is that for a cantankerous guy, this was a rare occasion when Friedkin attempted to make a comedy.  While there are some funny aspects to the Brink’s Robbery, the films attempt to make the robbers a bumbling gang when they really weren’t doesn’t quite work.

Where this film does work is a period piece.  I’m particularly impressed by the location shooting in Boston that makes the city in 1978 look like the city in the 1940s and 1950s.  The cast is also strong, lead by Peter Falk as the lockpick Tony Pino.  Peter Boyle plays the shady fence Joe McGinnis and Warren Oates is great as the unstable Specs O’Keefe (although for some reason he’s never wearing the glasses the real life figure was known for).  Allen Garfield and Paul Sorvino fill out the gang.

I’d say that everything up to the heist (about 3/4’s of the film) is really well done with some great moments of real tension.  After the robbery, the film blows through about 6 years of loose threads without any real narrative focus, until the gang is finally rounded up days before the statute of limitations expired.  The finale is good, though.

There are a lot of books about the Brinks Robbery, and one that I enjoyed was The Crime of the Century by Stephanie Schorow.


Movie Review: The Favourite (2018)

Title: The Favourite
Release Date: 23 November 2018
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Production Company: Scarlet Films | Element Pictures | Arcana | Film4 Productions | Waypoint Entertainment

In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), faces deteriorating health and a nation divided over continuing a war with France.  Anne’s advisor and lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) effectively runs the government in her stead. A distant cousin of Sarah’s, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), arrives looking for after her family’s standing has been ruined by her father’s gambling.  Abigail than connives ways to get closer to Queen Anne in hopes of restoring herself to the aristocracy.  Thus begins the contest between Abigail and Sarah to be the Queen’s favourite.

I thought this would be a movie of palace intrigue and madcap antics, which it is, but it does not shy away from showing the toxic outcomes of the characters’ behavior.  The best part of this movie is seeing three of the top women in contemporary film at the top of their game.  Colman is particularly brilliant playing someone with stunted maturity who is suffering the ailments of age.  While Abigail may be the most callous character, Stone’s performance makes her likable and engaging right up to the movie’s denouement.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title : Judas and the Black Messiah
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Shaka King
Production Company: MACRO | Participant | Bron Creative | Proximity

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who infiltrated the Party.  The result of O’Neal’s work was the coordinated  assassination by the FBI, Chicago Police, and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office  of Hampton while he slept early on the morning of December 4, 1969. The movie also depicts the budding romance of Hampton and Black Panther Party member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who would give birth to their child only 25 days after Hampton’s death.

I’ve long felt that Hampton is one of the great overlooked activists of American history with a unique  ability to unite people across across racial lines towards common cause.  Had he lived longer (Hampton was only 21 when he was killed), I believe that he and other people he inspired would’ve changed the course of American history for the better.  This of course is why he was targeted in the first place by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and others who wanted to preserve systems of white supremacy.

Apart from doing an excellent job of telling the story of Hampton and his betrayal with great performances by Kaluuya and Stanfield, and great direction by Shaka King, this movie is deft in its storytelling and characterization. Hampton’s fiery rhetoric while giving speeches is balanced by his quiet moments of love and dedication to the people. O’Neal is treated sympathetically, albeit not without judgement, and you can understand how he was motivated by fear and misinformation.  Even O’Neal’s FBI handler Roy Mitchell (a composite character portrayed by Jesse Plemons) is depicted as sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement and suspicious of Hoover’s unbridled racist antagonism, although none of this prevents him from stopping the plan to assassinate Hampton.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a good introduction to Fred Hampton’s story and touches on many issues that remain sadly relevant today. If you like this movie, I also recommend watching the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and reading the book The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas.

Rating: ****1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Passing (2021)

Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: Passing
Release Date: October 27, 2021
Director: Rebecca Hall
Production Company: Significant Productions | Picture Films | Flat Five Productions | Film4 Productions | Gamechanger Films | Sweet Tomato Films | Endeavor Content

Set in the 1920s in New York City, Passing stars Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield, a light skinned Black woman living in Harlem and married to a successful Black doctor.  By chance, Irene meets up with a friend from childhood, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), who is passing as white and is married to the nakedly racist John (Alexander Skarsgård).  Initially, Irene wants nothing more to do with Clare, but gradually they begin spending more time together. Clare enjoys reconnecting with African-American culture and becomes close with Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland) and their children.

Passing uses a delicate approach to dealing with serious issues.  A lot of the message of this movie is said in facial expressions and reactions rather than words.  The cinematography and editing also do a great job of capturing the everyday rhythms of life in 1920s New York.  Passing is a slow burn but it’s a good one and worth a watch.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Leopard (1963)

Title: The Leopard 
Release Date: March 27, 1963
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Titanus
Summary/Review: After being underwhelmed by Senso, a movie by the same director set in the same time period, I was not looking forward to watching another lengthy Italian historical drama.  On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie with Burt Lancaster in a starring role and I always like Claudia Cardinale, so I had those things to look forward to.

Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina in Sicily in 1860 at the time of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s war of Italian unification.  His favorite nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon, L’Eclisse) is swept up in the romanticism of the rebellion and joins Garibaldi’s redshirts.  The Prince more pragmatically supports Garibaldi from afar as a means of maintaining the aristocracy as it is.  When traveling to his summer estate, the Prince reluctantly has to entertain the nouveau-riche mayor of the town Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). When Tancredi falls for Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica (Cardinale), the Prince once again pragmatically approves of the match since it will bring in much needed cash from Don Calogero’s coffers.

For a movie of this length, there isn’t much plot. Instead it’s a series of subtle performances among the sumptuousness of the elite’s lifestyle of the Prince contrasted with the crumbling world of the common people of Sicily.  While I’m not all too interested in films about the fading of aristocratic society, since I think aristocracy should fade away, I have to admit that Lancaster’s nuanced performance makes the Prince a sympathetic character.  This movie very easily could have been a melodrama, but instead it is something more restrained and revealing.

I have to confess that I watched this movie on a 3-disc DVD from the library.  I popped in the first disc and watched the movie before realizing it was actually Disc 3, and what I watched was a shortened American version dubbed into English.  Ironically, this is the only version of the film that features Lancaster’s voice since he’s dubbed by an Italian actor in other versions.  I suppose that I failed to watch the version of the movie that earned the laudits of Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound, but I think I got a full taste of The Leopard for the time being.


Classic Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Title: Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: 10 December 1962
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures

Who was T.E. Lawrence and why was he worthy of an extraordinarily-long biopic crafted by David Lean (Brief Encounter, Bridge on the River Kwai)? Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is an enigmatic British Army lieutenant during the First World War whose eccentricities make him a poor fit for the rigid military hierarchy. He’s assigned as an advisor to the Arab troops under Prince Faisail (the very English Alec Guinness who nevertheless looks a lot like the real person) who are revolting against the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence uses this opportunity to try to unite fractious tribes in a Pan-Arab cause and make daring strikes against the Ottomans.  He’s also not above burnishing his own legend.

I’m sure that smarter people than me have written about the problems of casting white actors as Arabs and the “white savior’ narrative in this story so I won’t get into that.  But I will also point out that this film is actually critical of Lawrence, and even more so of his superiors who nakedly betray the cause of Arab independence.  This movie also does a good job of relating Lawrence’s deteriorating mental health as he is shattered by the trauma of war.

There are a lot of great supporting actors in this film.  Among them is Omar Sharif (an actual Arabic actor) who plays a tribal leader Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish.  Initially, Ali is an antagonist to Lawrence but over the course of the film he becomes the voice of conscience as Lawrence goes off the deep end. Anthony Quinn plays a leader of a rival tribe and Jack Hawkins plays Lawrence’s put-upon superior officer.  This is one of these movies that I will need to see on a big screen.  It’s full of Lean’s trademark wide shots of desert landscapes, sunrises/sunsets, and troops riding camels and horses.  All in all it’s a gorgeous yet complicated film!

Rating: ****