Tag Archives: based on a true story

Crisis

Three interconnected stories:

A successful architect and single mother (Evangeline Lilly) recovering from her own opioid addiction investigates her teenage son’s mysterious death.

A professor (Gary Oldman) grapples with a pharmaceutical company when his lab’s results conflict with their claims of a “non-addictive” pain killer.

An undercover agent (Armie Hammer) posing as a drug trafficker arranges a really big buy/sting of fentanyl between the American and Canadian border.

The crisis in questions is of course opioids and we definitely need to be looking at it from all angles with a very critical eye. I’m just not sure Crisis is the movie to do it. It acknowledges many of the problems (which can be boiled down to: money corrupts, and opioids are worth a LOT of money to a LOT of people), but because this isn’t gonzo journalism but a thriller, it attempts to solve these problems with guns.

Crisis may occasionally be entertaining as a dramatic thriller, but since we’re very familiar with the topic, we’re also very familiar with its consequences, meaning there aren’t a lot of actual thrills to be had, the endings are predictable and some might say inevitable. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki doesn’t have a lot of flash or distinguishing personal style, so the vignettes must speak for themselves. Unfortunately, it’s a little too much story for just the one movies, which ends up feeling chaotic and lacking focus. It’s hard to pick out the good guys, and Big Pharma as the baddie is both too big and too vague to really root against. You know it always wins. But neither the villain nor the heroes, if there are any, give us the kind of emotional connection we need in a movie like this, a movie that’s attempting to be more than just your standard shoot-em up thriller. We needed deeper connections, a more probing eye, a reason to rally. Crisis ends up not really living up to its own name.

The Last Vermeer

WW2 was ending, but for some, the work was just beginning. Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) will spend the war’s aftermath investigating art – art stolen from the Jews as they fled or were removed from their homes. The few lucky enough to return found their homes stripped of valuables, and many of those pieces are still being searched for today. Piller is tasked with investigating renowned Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), who is accused of selling Vermeer’s Christ and the Adulteress to the Nazis.

People were still rebuilding and recovering from the war so there was little mercy for suspected Nazi collaborators/conspirators/sympathizers. But something strange happens to Piller as he looks into van Meegeren’s background: he begins to suspect that he’s innocent. With the help of Minna (Vickey Krieps) and Dekker (Roland Moller), Piller will have to dig awfully deep to prove van Meegeren’s assertion that he is not a Nazi-loving traitor but a patriot who swindled the Nazis by selling them fake Vermeers painted by none other than himself.

Is van Meegeren’s story simply too good to be true? Does he have any credibility? Is he playing Piller, with his life on the line? Is there any post-war courtroom that would find him anything other than worthy of hanging? Is van Meegeren a master forger or a master of deception?

The best thing about this movie is Pearce’s performance; van Meegeren is funny, flagrant, and flamboyant, eminently entertaining even while on trial for his life. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, but rarely rise above the perfunctory material. The Last Vermeer is a fascinating true story not particularly done justice by this paint-by-numbers film. Director Dan Friedkin lacks the inspiration to make this something special. It is a good but not great historical drama that gets the job done but fails to capture the imagination.

The Dig

Edith Pretty has always supposed there may be gold in them there hills. Or artifacts, anyway, something of historical value. And so widowed Mrs. Pretty (Carey Mulligan) engages a disgruntled excavator away from a museum that undervalues him and underpays him. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) digs right in, but what he finds is of far more significance than anyone had dared imagine.

Vexingly, the minute the dig turns up anything of real value, the British Museum and “the man” come sniffing, looking to take credit and ownership. They also take over the dig although no one wanted anything to do with it when it was just a housewife with a hilly backyard; Edith has up until now been self-financing the work.

The 1938 excavation of Sutton Hoo was of course historically significant and netted many revelatory precious artifacts. But for the real people involved, it was a time of personal significance as well. A war is looming. A young boy is without a father. A young woman learns she is not in love with her husband. An old man bonds with a child who isn’t his. A mother learns she will leave her son an orphan. And everyone fights to protect “their” treasure = from the air raids, and the thieves, and the damn greedy bastards. Though history won’t recognize them, Netflix will, assembling a first-rate cast with stand-out performances from Mulligan, Fiennes, and Lily James.

Director Simon Stone’s pacing is exquisite, unfurling a film that is languorous and poetic, unhurried and revealing, with just a tinge of melancholy lingering about the beautiful English countryside. The Dig made me think a lot about legacy – how the people who buried this ship and its treasures left a remarkable historical record for us to find, and in finding it, Edith Pretty et. al became a part of that record too. In some ways, even this film becomes part of this record, dating all the way back to the 6th Century. Of course, our own culture is so materialistic we’d never leave buried anything of great value. If the future isn’t digital, we won’t have left much of an impression, just piles of Chinese plastic. This is why we have such a fascination with archeology; we want to understand our ancestors, to know from whence we come. We’re less adept at telling who we are, and we collectively lack the ability to understand that we, too, might someday be reduced to a few artifacts in a museum. Hubris. It’s a condition of humanity, I suppose, and a film like this, though pretty and competently made, is hardly an adequate defense. In fact, while I found plenty to like about The Dig, it fell short of love, never quite stirring sentiment in the way it clearly expected it would.

The Banker

Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) grew up overhearing white people’s business schemes as he shined their shoes, so he knows he’s just as smart and just as capable. In Texas in the 1960s, however, the world is designed to limit his ambition and rob him of power. But still, he dreams, and he follows those dreams to Los Angeles, where he meets Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), a potential partner with as much audacity as he.

Joe is already a successful businessman; he owns several properties. Bernard, however, wants to get in on the real profit. He wants to own buildings in white neighbourhoods. Even in L.A. there are many barriers to this happening, so they convince their handyman Matt (Nicholas Hoult) to become the white face of the company. They teach him algebra and golf, the white man’s business necessities, and he basically becomes their puppet, the representative who shakes all the hands and signs all the contracts while his mysterious business partners remain names on a ledger, though both remain hidden in plain sight – as a chauffeur, and a janitor. This strategy is incredibly fruitful for them, but Bernard won’t really feel successful until he can do the same in Texas, so eventually they go back, and they buy a bank. A bank! A bank that will be the first in its area to give loans to Black clients, business owners and first time home owners. They have to do this work incredibly surreptitiously of course, because it’s still Texas, but this endeavour really has the power to transform the entire community, which of course has never had this kind of opportunity for upward mobility, which is to say, the same kind that white folks take for granted. Which is why some 1960s Karen feels the need to intervene. In 1960s Texas, Black audacity is just about the biggest crime there is, so they don’t just get a police response, but the FBI as well. Of the three men involved, can you guess which two are arrested and charged? Yes, go ahead and assume this will be based solely on the colour of their skin.

The Banker is a safe movie that leaves all the risks to its bold lead characters. Director George Nolfi is content with a pretty standard biopic, which in this case is fine, as the revolutionary entrepreneurs depicted are so vivaciously brought to life by both Mackie and Jackson. Proper credit goes to Nia Long also, who portrays Garrett’s wife, Eunice. Happily Long is given actual work to do, the wife not just content to stay in the home, but very much involved in the family business. Eunice was always the first to recognize her husband’s genius and her support must have meant the world, but that would have been a very big deal, to risk her family’s stability in order to indulge his ambition. Eunice was a trailblazer herself, and Nia Long makes the most of it.

Based on a true story, the pursuit not just of the American dream, but of equal access to said American dream, is a story worth telling every time. The magnetic banter between Mackie and Jackson is just surplus on the ledger.

All My Life

Jennifer (Jessica Rothe) and Solomon (Harry Shum Jr.) are a happy young couple. They’ve had their share of ups and downs like anyone else, and he’s struggled to balance his desire to pursue his passion for food as a career and do the responsible thing, keeping his stable but uninspired job to provide for his new little family. Because oh yes: they’re making a go of it. Sol’s asked Jen to marry him, and she’s said yes, and they’ve got happily ever after twinkling in their eyes. Wedding plans are in the works but you know they didn’t make a movie about this couple because everything was easy for them.

Inspired by a true love story, Jennifer and Sol’s relationship is about to get tested, big time. Sol’s got liver cancer, which means wedding plans are put on hold and every last penny is poured into life saving treatment rather than cakes and dresses. But their supportive friends and family take pity on them, pitching in and asking for help from strangers to grant Jen and Sol their dream wedding, a beautiful bright spot during an otherwise terrible time.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. True love tested by tear-jerking terminal cancer. But All My Life is helped considerably by charismatic leads with chemistry, a supporting cast that truly uplifts, and a story that may not be original, but is nonetheless well-executed. If you’re in the mood for a weepie, this one’s going to fit the bill.

Safety

Safety plays it pretty safe as far as inspirational sports movies go. Following in the footsteps of Remember The Titans or The Blindside, Safety tells the true story of a freshman college football player who’s got a lot more on his plate than just practice.

Ray (Jay Reeves) is just like any other athlete at Clemson University, until things back home start to fall apart. His mother is an addict, and little brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) has been alone since her most recent arrest. And things are about to get worse: the good news is, Ray’s mom is going on to a rehab facility to get help. Bad news? That leaves Fahmarr alone, and he’s just a kid. There’s no one else to take him, so it’s either a group home, or…. Or Ray decides to sneak him unto campus where he secretly cares for him for the next month or so, just barely managing between class, football, and childcare, plus the burden of a pretty big secret.

Remember that Ray McElrathbey was a real kid who took on the raising of his younger brother while attending school on a full sports scholarship. He couldn’t really afford to risk his full ride by becoming distracted, nor could he afford to risk his brother’s life. For a while he manages both, but eventually his school and those darn NCAA folks who are sticklers for rules.

Safety skirts around its darker corners, focusing instead on the importance of family and community; if you were feeling cynical you might call it sanitized, but if you were feeling generous of heart you might just find it admirable for its sense of duty, sacrifice, support, and good old fashioned taking care of each other. It’s formulaic and completely unsurprising but it’s also the kind of heart warming stuff that’s hard to resist, especially around the holidays. Director Reginald Hudlin knows he’s got a good story, and tells it in a low-frills, straight forward kind of way, and if it’s a little saccharine, well, we could all use a little extra sweetness this year, couldn’t we?

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance has a story to tell – his own. Many would call it a rags to riches story, or perhaps a successful escape from an impoverished childhood; director Ron Howard and the movie studio went with “inspiring true story” but all of these seem slightly condescending. Vance himself went with “elegy,” a tribute to the place he came from and perhaps a lament to its end.

Older J.D. (Gabriel Basso) has overcome some rather humble beginnings to attend law school at Yale. It’s interview week, especially crucial to him because even with financial aid and 3 jobs he can’t afford next semester’s tuition without a summer internship. Meeting prospective employers over dinner, he’s overwhelmed by the trappings of etiquette and fine dining that seem to come so easily to others. It’s clear he doesn’t feel he belongs, and a phone call from back home only cements it. It’s his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), calling to say that mom Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital. Again. A heroin overdose. His help is needed, urgently.

Over the next 24 hours of trying to install Bev in yet another rehab manage a facility despite Bev having let her insurance lapse, J.D. is flooded with difficult memories from his challenging childhood.

Critics have been plenty harsh about Hillbilly Elegy, and I can appreciate their concerns. It delivers heavily on the Oscar bait melodrama, and instead of inspiring important conversations about cultural and economic gaps, it’s got some pretty soft platitudes instead of real insight. Not that a Netflix movie was going to solve the wage gap or cure the generational impacts of trauma.

No one can deny that Glenn Close and Amy Adams give everything to their roles. Close manages a bark that bites, with just a nibble of vulnerability, a terrific performance that just doesn’t have anywhere to go, there’s no arc, it’s mostly just an act of observation. Amy Adams’ character, on the other hand, is more like a series of attacks. She gnarls and gnashes her teeth and we get small glimpses or what triggers her explosions, but it’s not enough to piece together something truly satisfying. The characters lack insight and we can only guess that this cycle will be very hard to break.

True History of the Kelly Gang

The ‘true’ in the title is false of course, or debatable anyway, which I suppose means the ‘history’ part is too, although our story does take place in the past. Peter Carey’s vital and vigorous novel is a work of fiction, using many true aspects of the Kelly Gang story but inventing others as well. The film poses as Ned Kelly’s autobiography, mostly written and narrated by himself to an unborn child that Carey made up. But if Ned Kelly had had a pregnant wife, if she had half a brain she would have wondered if Ned would live to meet his daughter, and might have encouraged him to leave behind a written legacy, just in case.

The film is a departure not only in story but in tone and in telling, the violence crazed and stylized but the main concern more character than plot. You may already be familiar with the banks that were robbed and the cattle stolen, but this “true history” is more interested not in what they did but why they did it. The class struggle is palpable enough, the sense that there is no place for these young men, no future. There is real rage here, and a dangerous accumulation of testosterone with no constructive outlet.

Ned’s (George McKay) legacy has of course had a lasting impact on Australian culture; this film gives him a punk rock makeover for the 21st century and adds to the myth if not the man. With stunning cinematography, a gritty feel, and anarchic energy, there is much to be admired in Justin Kurzel’s film. Too bad I just didn’t like it. There was a lot of muck, a lot of exaggerated portrayals of machismo, and for me it was just too much crazy and not enough cohesiveness. But, if you’re looking for a western with a distinctly Aussie flavour, this one’s got that, plus lads in dresses, Russel Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie, and Nicholas Hoult, if you needed more convincing.

Misbehaviour

Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) have little in common, and they even fail to bond over their mutual cause when they meet at a women’s meeting. But though they usually take a different path toward their ideals, they unite over the upcoming 1970 Miss World beauty competition which will be held right in their backyard – London.

It’s extremely upsetting that women have been protesting the sexism inherent in such a pageant for 50 years now, and yet they continue to happen, judging women on the height of their hair and the curves in their bikinis.

Okay, technically the women were still competing in one-piece bathing suits in 1970, but their measurements were recorded and announced during the broadcast, which leaves even less to the imagination than even the skimpiest swimsuit. Sally, Jo, and their cohorts plan to attend the live broadcast, and to disrupt it.

Meanwhile, feminism isn’t the only movement on the rise. Racism is too, and this year, for the first time, South Africa is impelled to send a woman of colour in addition to the ubiquitous white one, and Grenada sends a Black woman to compete as well. Sally et. al believe that a “family” show judging a woman based on appearance alone shouldn’t exist, but Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) knows what her presence will say to little girls of colour all over the world. They both have a point, and unfortunately, this is a good illustration of how feminism has routinely left its sisters of colour behind. Misbehaviour isn’t about to shy away from that unpleasant fact, and it isn’t afraid to tackle difficult or unpopular topics.

Case in fact: Bob Hope. Legendary, beloved Bob Hope, fondly remembered for his numerous USO trips, on which Miss Universe would sometimes join him, the mere sight of her deemed a boost to morale. Bob Hope had hosted the Miss Universe pageant back in 1961 and was tapped to host again in 1970, to the disapproval of his wife, since in ’61 he’d started a 30 year long affair with the winner. Bob Hope (portrayed in the film by Greg Kinnear, his wife Dolores by Lesley Manville) was a more legendary womanizer than he was a comedian; he carried on more affairs than he could probably count. Knowing that “women’s libbers” were protesting the pageant, he thought it wise to work some extra misogyny into the pageant with remarks like “It is quite a cattle market here tonight and I’ve been back there checking calves.” Har har.

These different story lines help tell a fuller truth and give the events a proper context. The lesson here is a little complicated, but it’s told in an entertaining way by an extremely talented cast and I’m quite pleased if a little surprised to confirm that Misbehaviour strikes the right balance and delivers a movie you’ll actually be glad you saw.

Operation Christmas Drop

Let the barrage of cheesy holiday movies begin!

Netflix comes out of the gate strong with Operation Christmas Drop, a heart-warming instant classic that might just crack your Christmas Top 5 and start a new holiday tradition at your house.

Haha, just kidding. It’s a total cheesefest, oozing Gruyère faster than a leaky fondue pot.

Congressional aide Erica (Kat Graham) gets sent to Guam over the Christmas holidays to find “efficiency” deficits that will allow her boss (Virginia Madsen) to defund a beachside Air Force base. Captain Andrew Jantz (Alexander Ludwig) gets assigned against his will to escort her during her visit, and by “escort” I of course mean distract and/or thwart her at every turn. The base’s worst kept secret, and the main reason behind Erica’s visit, is Operation Christmas Drop, wherein service members volunteer their time and solicit donations to air drop on the more isolated of the neighbouring islands. But despite this being a truly good-hearted endeavour, leave it to government to see wasted resources instead of humanitarian aid.

Will Erica write the report that shuts down the base? Will under-privileged island kids get their medicine and school supplies? Will the evil American government find a new way to ruin Christmas? And will Erica and Andrew ever think up a solution to their mutual holiday solitude?

Kat Graham is luminous while Ludwig is a miscast lunk. The tropical setting of Guam is remarkably beautiful, even if it’s a deviation from the usual snow-covered small town setting of a holiday romance. The real-life inspirational counterpart should lend this thing a whiff of authenticity, but it’s all just so earnest it’s painful. Although I’m not the biggest fan of these Hallmark-esque Christmas movies, I’ll admit Netflix has had a couple of stand-outs that very nearly transcend the genre. This isn’t one of them. Operation Christmas Drop has Graham going for it and nothing else. The beaches are beautiful but the story is boring and the formula so carefully and precisely toed that you’ll wonder if you haven’t seen it before. You haven’t, and if I were you, I’d keep it that way.