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As the brilliant Scottish poet Robbie Burns once said (apologies for the English paraphrasing), “The best laid plans of mice and men/Go oft awry.” It’s a sentiment that rings true across all avenues – and the movie business is no exception.

For instance, say you had a film. You had three talented actors leading the cast, including an Oscar winner and a couple of legitimate movie stars. You had a rising young director and a screenwriter adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen. All of this folded into a period piece with a striking setting. You’d think that it was poised to be a great film, yes?

Alas, in the case of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the sum total falls short. Despite the presence of the brilliant Mark Rylance and bold turns from the likes of Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, despite the presence of director Ciro Guerra, despite J.M Coetzee’s adaptation of his own 2003 novel of the same name, the film can’t scale the heights to which it so clearly aspires.

It’s a story of isolation and empire, a cautionary tale about colonialism that can never fully get out of its own way. There’s no denying the quality of performances or the stunning backdrop against which they are set, but the film simply never generates any kind of momentum, limping along through most of its 114 minutes without ever presenting a sense of dramatic urgency. All the pieces are there for a great film, only they’re assembled into something that is just OK.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 05 November 2019 12:30

‘Harriet’ tells tale of an American icon

As we get deeper into fall, we find ourselves rapidly approaching awards season. This is when we’re going to start seeing an onslaught of prestige films, movies that merit a different sort of critical attention than the big-budget blockbusters of the summertime.

Biopics are particularly well-suited to the prestige game. They offer actors the opportunity to bring to life a real person, someone culturally important. They offer filmmakers a chance to tell a true and meaningful story in a manner that allows them to put their own personal stamp upon it. Sometimes, they become the primary way through which the world knows this person or people.

“Harriet” is the latest example of just such a biopic. It’s the story of Harriet Tubman, legendary conductor on the Underground Railroad and true American hero. It’s precisely the sort of movie that expects to generate some awards chatter. And it will – but likely less than the folks behind it may have hoped. Call it a hunch, but I feel like this is one of those attention-worthy projects that will fall through the cracks a little.

That’s not a condemnation – “Harriet” is quite a good film. It’s a nice-looking historical drama; the period aesthetic is exceptional. And the performances, led by Cynthia Erivo in the titular role, are good-to-great almost across the board. Director Kasi Lemmons – who co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard – endows the project with her passion and talent. There’s a lot to like, and again, I won’t be surprised if it gets some attention.

I just won’t be surprised if it doesn’t, either. There’s a sense of familiarity here – the style, the choices, the narrative beats – that may breed just a little bit of contempt among awards voters. And that little bit could very well make the difference when nominations start landing.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 09 January 2019 13:51

Royal rumble – ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

There are few things that grab the attention of film award voters quite like royalty. They LOVE prestige fare about kings and queens; can’t get enough of it. Crowns and capes and thrones, palace intrigue and clanging swords and righteous rhetoric. These movies are almost always good, but to be better they need … something.

Maybe it’s a killer cast. Maybe it’s a filmmaker with a unique, unconventional perspective. Maybe it’s particularly compelling source material.

Or maybe, like with “Mary Queen of Scots,” it’s all three at once.

You’ve got two of Hollywood’s most talented young actresses leading the way in Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, with four Oscar nominations between them. You’ve got a director in Josie Rourke who has never directed a film before but has extensive and acclaimed experience as a stage director of work both classic and contemporary. And you’ve got the story of the titular queen’s life as adapted from John Guy’s pioneering biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart.”

And yet … it never manages to quite get over the top. While the performances from both Ronan and Robbie are outstanding and the look and tone of the film are suitably epic in scope and scale, the narrative is a bit overstuffed and lacking in specificity. Too often, things happen because they’re simply next on the list, rather than with any sort of agency or urgency behind them, which leads to more story-borne borderline-soapy melodrama than you might hope for in a film like this.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 03 September 2017 11:15

Dim bulb - ‘Tulip Fever’

Historical drama tonally jarring, nonsensically plotted

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 26 April 2017 12:25

‘The Promise’ not quite kept

Historical drama falls short of lofty ambition

Published in Movies
Sunday, 04 September 2016 17:23

'The Light Between Oceans' shines

Historical romance tugs hard at the heartstrings

Having our heartstrings tugged is one of the reasons that we go to the movies. Finding those moments of emotional connection can be a huge part of the cinematic experience. However, if a film goes to that well too often if it tries too hard to get us to feel it can come off as a little disingenuous and/or manipulative.

Published in Movies

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