Category Archives: Movie Review

Movie Review- The Revenant

The Revenant- 2015   Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 20th Century Fox

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The second Hollywood production detailing the harrowing plight… of mountain man Hugh Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio won an Academy Award for his performance.  Mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions, Glass miraculously survived and in an improbable 200 mile journey, traveled to safety at Fort Kiowa in present day South Dakota.   “The Revenant” plays fast and loose with history, creating a curious subplot involving a Pawnee wife and son who never existed.  Instead of portraying actual events, screenwriter Mark Smith creates a frontier revenge fantasy- Glass’s motivation is changed from simply recovering his property to avenging his murdered family(fictional.)

 

The 1823 Ashley Expedition was a who’s who… of American frontier history: Jim Bridger, Jedidiah Smith, Giles Roberts, and Glass were all members of the ill fated journey up the Missouri River.  “The Revenant” relegates the mighty Bridger to the minor role of conniving thief and does not mention Smith at all.  The climactic death struggle between Glass and Fitzgerald is another Hollywood creation.  Glass did confront the men who abandoned him, but history shows a simple exchange of money, not the blood and guts which sell movie tickets.

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The true star of the film is the bleak North American landscape… filmed primarily in Northern Alberta, the cinematography is stark and stunning; effectively illustrating the hopeless nature of Glass’s journey.  Tom Hardy is an effective villainous presence, but the rest of the cast is swallowed by the expansive scenery.  Long stretches of the film focus exclusively on DiCaprio’s vengeful Glass, the lack of dialogue  drawing more attention to the desolate backdrop.  Despite his best efforts, DiCaprio is unable to compensate for the simplistic and historically inaccurate script.

 

 

 

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Context Does Matter

Critics of the movie “Lincoln” … continue to hammer home a contentious point about the film’s depiction of slavery.  So-called experts are critical of the notion Lincoln freed the slaves(the film never implies this.)    Frederick Douglass is often cited as proof that slaves never cared for Lincoln or his deeds.  Ignoring context, Douglass is cited as the authoritative critic of Lincoln…. “you (white people) are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children.”

Uncanny

Uncanny

This disingenuous, lazy, line of reasoning…  has created a terrible myth about the creation of the civil rights movement.  Failure to place words in a proper context have terrible implications on historical interpretation.  In the same speech, Frederick Douglass explained to his predominately white audience, his true feelings for Abraham Lincoln:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined…. infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”  Frederick Douglass  April 14, 1876

The hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”

“The hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”

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Movie Review- Black Robe

Black Robe- 1991; Directed by Bruce Beresford

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Too often great films are overshadowed… by inferior productions with slicker marketing, more funding, and appearances by A-list stars.  Such is the case with Bruce Beresford’s moving tragedy, Black Robe.  Released the same year as the stunningly inferior Kevin Costner vanity piece, Dances with Wolves, Beresford’s haunting epic is now relegated to bargain bins and syllabi of Colonial American history courses.

 

Black Robe tells the tale of a 17th century… French Jesuit and his journey deep into the Niagara frontier to a Huron mission.  Cultures clash as the Priest struggles with his own faith during the difficult process of converting the natives.  Father LaForgue (Lothaire Bluteau) is trusted into the care of Algonquins who must guide him on the dangerous mission.  The ensuing journey tries the beliefs of both the indigenous cultures and the Europeans-  exposing their vulnerabilities with the harshness of pre-colonial North America.

Father LaForgue explains the written word

Father LaForgue explains the written word

The film is meticulously researched …presenting authenticity in everything from weapons, customs, to native dialects.  Whereas,  Dances with Wolves portrays the laundry list of politically correct platitudes and simplistic mythology presented as all-too-convenient fact-  Black Robe is  frank; both brutal and poignant in its interpretation of a wondrous and tragic period of history.  Few films have so accurately captured indigenous culture.  Beresford’s underrated masterpiece stands as a testament to the historical and cultural potential of film.

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Movie Review

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford… 2007, Produced by Ridley Scott, Brad Pitt/ Directed by Andrew Dominik/ Distributed by Warner Bros. 

 

Sparse, bleak, brilliant….

A rare example of historical fiction… truthful to its source material.  Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, this film is sparse, bleak and absolutely riveting.  The story dramatizes the relationship between James and his killer, Ford.  Not a shoot’em up western like most Jesse James films are, this psychological portrait details the final months of the man’s life.  Hansen crafts the best parts of his novel into a script that is remarkably historically accurate.  Andrew Dominik’s patient direction and Roger Deakins’ stunning photography bring the period into stunning view.  The landscapes  of Alberta, Canada which serve as late 19th century midwestern America, are moving in their emptiness.  The scenery all but becomes a cast member it is so prominent.  The longer running time (160 minutes) allows characters to be properly introduced and developed.

   Brad Pitt is menacing in the title role… with minimal screen time.  His James is outwardly cunning and deadly, while warm and protective of his personal life.  Pitt’s presence on the screen elicits fear from the other characters, except for Casey Affleck’s break out performance as Robert Ford.  Ford grew up idolizing James and lived his childhood dreams of riding with the famous outlaw.  Torn between making a name for himself and gaining recognition from his idol, Ford ultimately betrayed James and was forgotten.  Affleck’s performance is skillfully unsettling, capturing the socially awkward Ford and his dangerous brand of hero-worship.  A masterful sequence features Ford confronting a folk singer (Nick Cave) during a rendition of “Jesse James” and correcting the history behind the lyrics.  The onlookers aren’t interested in the story behind the song, just as they care little about the man who killed the legend.  It is difficult to find historical film making at this level.

    A strong supporting cast… including Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, and Garret Dillahunt give strong performances.  The only disappointment is an early departure of Frank James, gruffly portrayed by Sam Shephard.  James Carville makes an enjoyable cameo as Thomas Crittenden, Governor of Missouri.  The film lags in spots, and the images of landscapes can feel repetitive.  The film is meticulous with its recreation of the pre-industrial midwest; as well as the accurate depictions of life in post-bellum America.  Violence is depicted sparingly, but when shown it is fierce, realistic, and unsettling.

Many critics compared this movie… to revisionist westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Dead Man.  In many ways, this is a true western.  Its care for historic realism elevates it above traditional conceptions of the genre.  The strong performances (especially by Affleck) secures it a  place among  the very best westerns ever made.

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Movie Review: Hatfields & McCoys

Kevin Costner is Devil Anse

 

Historians are quick to expose movies… which get history wrong; Braveheart being the optimal example of historical accuracy sacrificed for a plot line.  Hollywood elites rarely afford much effort in promoting or marketing films striving for authenticity; which is why historical dramas are often relegated to the made-for-television graveyard(see Son of the Morning Star.)  The History Channel, in conjuncture with Kevin Costner, has produced an epic historical miniseries that blurs many of the production lines that have long dictated filmmaking expectations.  Hatfields & McCoys features A-list talent in a historically accurate portrayal of America’s most infamous blood feud.  The film was a ‘passion project’ for co-producer Leslie Greif who struggled 30 years to get it made.  The History Channel provides the perfect venue and Bill Paxton and Costner provide the star power to bring the historical epic to life.

“Harden your hearts”… Hatfield patriarch William Anderson ‘Devil Anse'(Costner)  tells his kin as they prepare to execute three McCoy brothers.  The scene perfectly describes the blood feud that raged from 1865-1889.  Costner’s performance is solid and helps drive the film when it is occasionally dragged down by the complexity of post-Civil War Appalachian politics.  Paxton’s McCoy is a sympathetic figure opposed to Costner’s stern Hatfield.   Much of the controversy surrounding the feud was over states rights and extradition, but human interest is what draws the viewers.  The film explores the tragic love affair between Johnson Hatfield and Roseanne McCoy (Matt Barr and Lindsay Pulsipher.)  Young love was no match for family honor and frontier economics which drive the feud to unprecedented levels of violence.  The film does an admirable job portraying the events of the feud as well as the time period.  Director Kevin Reynolds’ photography all but drops viewers into the Tug River valley,  one can almost smell the tobacco, moonshine, and sweat.

Frontier justice

Historical accuracy is the film’s greatest strength… as well as its obvious weakness.  The historic detail is uncanny, but the introduction of the extended families and all the resentments, posturing, and politics are at times overwhelming.  The most violent acts of the feud are graphically depicted and the film doesn’t sugar coat life in 19th century Appalachia( like many Disney movies have.)  Film production should be an obvious direction for the History Channel following the success of this effort (now their most watched program.)  Kevin Costner can consider his career reenergized.  It is only a matter of time before historians begin questioning the purpose of Hatfields & McCoys– a topic which is believed to lack academic value.  Such criticism fails to consider the primary motive of filmmaking….entertainment.

 

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Movie Review- In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea- 2015  Dir. by Ron Howard
Final Grade-  B

 

Somewhere between fact and fiction… resides the story of the whale ship Essex.  Often claimed to be the inspiration behind Melville’s Moby Dick,  the story of the Essex and her crew is the essence of sea fables; a terrible battle with a mythical sea creature, salty determination of the crew, and the unspeakable limits of survival.  Nathaniel Philbrick’s tremendous account, In the Heart of the Sea, separated legend from fact while fairly examining the whaling industry that inspired Melville’s masterpiece.

A hunky Owen Chase

A hunky Owen Chase

Director Ron Howard and writer Charles Leavitt… decided to blur the lines in their cinematic interpretation of Philbrick’s study.  Weaving factual elements of the story with the pursuit of a vengeful sperm whale makes a decent Hollywood adventure, but a poor rendering of the historical record.  Like Melville, Howard cannot seem to divert attention from an abnormally large whale sinking the Essex, choosing to merely highlight the harrowing journey of the men.  Philbrick’s rendering does justice to the crew and their 95 day ordeal, where seven members were cannibalized.   The film depicts the whale stalking the crew as it drifts across the South Pacific, more Melville than history.

You can never go wrong with the source material

You can never go wrong with the source material

The story of whaleship Essex… deserves more than the two hour running time filmmakers grant it.  Nathaniel Philbrick’s study skillfully blends the rich detail, harrowing adventure, and tortured humanity involved in the tragedy.  Ron Howard’s film only scratches the surface of the tragic events, choosing instead to focus far too much energy on a computer generated sperm whale and the hunky leading man.

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Movie Review- Birth of a Nation (2016)

Mel Gibson’s blueprint to “Braveheart” does a disservice to Turner’s rebellion        Final Grade-  D 

 

First-time director Nate Parker takes full advantage of the Hollywood… surge in independent, minority filmmakers tackling long ignored characters and events.  Parker wrote, directed, produced and stars as Nat Turner, leader of the bloodiest slave rebellion in US history.  In August of 1831, Turner and a band of devoted followers murdered 60 white men, women, and children in Southampton, Virginia.  Turner’s rebels killed nearly everyone they encountered, including the brutal beheading of an infant.  The Virginia militia suppressed the rebellion on August 23, though Turner eluded capture until October.  Virginia authorities executed 56 blacks in retaliation- historians believe as many as 120 slaves may have been killed in the aftermath.  Turner was hanged on November 11.

 

Parker touches on the history with short strokes… choosing to follow the well-used revenge trope  utilized by Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”.  Turner’s true motivation was religious- a devout Baptist, Turner claimed to receive a calling from God to free  his people and punish their oppressors.  Parker’s Turner is religious, but it barely serves as a set piece- Parker focuses intently on the rape and beating of Turner’s wife and the wife of his chief conspirator(conjectural.)  The comparisons to Gibson’s film about Scottish rebel William Wallace are striking-  martyrdom driven by bloody revenge- a simple,  yet effective way to make a movie.  History is complex and often messy and Parker’s film misses the mark telling the accurate story of Turner’s rebellion.  Villains are beheaded by righteous warriors and the heroes fall in a blaze of glory on the battlefield.  Missing are the atrocities, drunkenness, and religion that comprised those complicated 48 hours.  Far from a pitched battle, Turner’s rebellion could not be sustained when confronted with better armed, and determined troops.  Parker’s final battle is complete with the slow motion charging, battle axes thrust defiantly into the air, muted cries of “Freedom”  drowned out by the artillery of the antagonists- minus the face paint and kilts.

 

There are powerful images found in Parker’s film… but the script is too conventionally written to capture the historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion.  Parker only briefly touches on Turner’s confessional, a stark testimony given by Turner to a lawyer shortly before his hanging.  In his own words, Turner chillingly describes every murder he and his followers committed.  He leaves little doubt that he believed it was God’s will, much like John Brown’s convictions thirty years later.  The ironic title Parker conceived is far from proper acknowledgment of the impact this event had on history.  States throughout the South strengthened already oppressive laws limiting freedoms to slaves and their owners- including the right to unconditional manumission.  Many of these changes came about to placate poor whites, who felt especially vulnerable following the bloodshed. Too much attention falls upon Parker’s Turner and his motivations- lost are the deeper religious and cultural motivations for the uprising.

Nat Turner boldly declaredI had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.”   Nate Parker’s film fails to appropriately portray the complexities and historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion.    Conventional Hollywood treatment of historical events often lead to missed opportunities- precisely how “Birth of a Nation” treats Nat Turner.

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