Iceman: A Harrowing Glimpse at Human Prehistory

A Neolithic revenge story seeks to explain the mysterious man found frozen in the Alps.

Written and directed by Felix Randau, and originally release in Germany in 2017 as Der Mann aus dem Eis, Iceman purports to tell the story of a Copper Age man preserved in the frozen Alps for 5,000 years. Beautiful landscapes and harrowing authenticity help balance what might otherwise be a one-dimensional revenge plot.

Kelab (Jürgen Vogel), Kisis (Susanne Wuest), and their clan are living in the Ötztal Alps around 3000 BC, where Kelab protects a fetish called Tineka. The clan is blessed with the birth of a child, but grieved by the loss of its mother. When Kelab is off hunting in the woods, a trio of raiders attack his village, slaughter its inhabitants, and steal their idol. Filled with a desire for revenge, Kelab rescues the newborn and pursues the raiders.

Along the way, Kelab interacts with other Neolithic people, including an old man, Ditob (Franco Nero), and his daughter Mitar (Violetta Schurawlow), in their sparsely populated valley. Can Kelab survive the harsh elements to exact revenge and take back his sacred Tineka?

Iceman was inspired by Ötzi the Iceman. In 1991, Alpine hikers discovered a mummified body partially frozen in ice. Shockingly, scientists dated its age to somewhere between 3400 and 3100 BC. The adult male was so well preserved that scientists were able to determine precisely what he ate in the days before he died. Most intriguingly, they discovered his cause of death was an arrow impaled in his back, compounded by other injuries.

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Class of ’61: Disappointing and Forgettable Historical Drama

This made-for-TV drama meanders through the opening salvos of the American Civil War.

Written by Jonas McCord, directed by Gregory Hoblit, and produced by Steven Spielberg, Class of ’61 premiered on ABC in April 1993. This confusing drama follows members of the West Point class of 1861 and their families as they head off to join opposing sides of the war. It’s notable for an early appearance by Clive Owen, who is the only actor to stand out among the myriad of stock characters.

As the film opens, three friends, Shelby Peyton (Dan Futterman), George Armstrong Custer (Josh Lucas), and Devin O’Neil (Clive Owen), are attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. Tensions are high as Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter, leaving cadets with divided loyalties. Shelby Peyton, a Virginian, decides to resign and head south to join the Confederacy, despite his engagement to O’Neil’s sister, Shannon (Sophie Ward).

Back home in Maryland, Devin O’Neil learns his brother Terry (Christien Anholt) has joined pro-Southern partisans, which upsets his pro-Union Irish family. Things get complicated when O’Neil is unable to secure a commission in the Union Army. He rooms with George Custer in Washington, DC, where he falls in love with Lily Magraw (Laura Linney), who also happens to be a Southern spy.

Things get even more complicated when Shelby Peyton returns to his plantation, where his favorite slave, Lucius (Andre Braugher), has killed two slave catchers in an escape attempt. He is forced to flee northward in the Underground Railroad, leaving his pregnant wife behind to an uncertain future. Will destiny reunite all these characters at the First Battle of Bull Run?

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The Highwaymen

A buddy cop tale with a historical twist, this nihilistic Netflix drama leans too heavily on worn-out cliches.

The story of the men who took down Bonnie and Clyde is recounted in The Highwaymen (2019), written by John Fusco and directed by John Lee Hancock. This bleak Netflix production aims to de-glamorize the infamous outlaw lovers with a more nuanced perspective, but still can’t help indulging in a few popular myths.

When Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) mastermind a prison farm escape, Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) convinces Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to bring ex-Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) out of retirement. Hamer agrees, and after purchasing a small arsenal of weapons, he reluctantly teams up with Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), another ex-Ranger past his prime.

Despite being “too old for this shit”, Hamer and Gault use experience and gut instinct to show up a team of FBI agents utilizing the latest law enforcement techniques, led by Agent Kendale (Jason Davis). After a string of false leads and narrow misses, the elderly lawmen finally gripe, complain, and manipulate their way into locating the outlaw gang. A young deputy named Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), who grew up with Bonnie Parker, is there to provide dark irony and identify the criminals’ bullet-riddled bodies.

Channeling Neo-Westerns like No Country for Old Men (2007) and Wind River (2017), and to some extent the TV series True Detective, The Highwaymen focuses on a life-or-death pursuit through an unforgiving and bleak environment, with characters the modern world has left behind. Unfortunately, and despite its original contribution to the Bonnie and Clyde filmography, it comes across as an unimaginative imitation of these other works.

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The Little Hours – Medieval Misfire

An ensemble cast of talented comedians isn’t enough to save this poorly executed dark comedy lampooning scandalous behavior in the Catholic Church.

This isn’t the first time in history the Catholic Church has faced criticism for corruption and sexual impropriety, and The Little Hours (2017), written and directed by Jeff Baena, wants to remind us of that. Inspired by a fourteenth century Italian satire, this film’s poor quality and lackluster performances landed dead on arrival, missing an opportunity to successfully reboot a classic tale for contemporary audiences.

At an Italian convent run by Sister Maria (Molly Shannon), three young nuns, Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), are bored with their daily monotony and harass the elderly gardener into quitting. Meanwhile, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) discovers a servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is having an affair with his wife. Massetto flees for his life, and runs into Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), who got drunk and lost the convent’s embroidery on his way to the market.

Eager for a friend, Father Tommasso convinces Massetto to return to the convent and work as their new gardener, where he will pretend to be a deaf-mute to avoid being harassed by the sisters. Things get complicated when Alessandra, Ginevra, and Fernanda all scheme for Massetto’s affection. Is Fernanda’s strange behavior just repressed desire bubbling to the surface, or is something more sinister afoot?

The Little Hours is based on stories from The Decameron (c.1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian Renaissance humanist. As English writer Geoffrey Chaucer did for his own country in The Canterbury Tales (c.1400), Decameron satirized life in the Late Medieval Italian states through a series of short stories told by various narrators. The Little Hours takes elements from Day Three, particularly stories one and two.

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PCU: A Timely Send-up to the Modern College Campus

Twenty-eight-year-old Jeremy Piven plays an unconvincing college senior in this irreverent lampoon of political correctness run amok.

Written by Adam Leff and Zak Penn and directed by Hart Bochner, PCU (1994) is Animal House for the 1990s. Though in many ways a boilerplate college comedy, it’s unique in calling out and ridiculing PC culture on college campuses. In retrospect, its writers were downright prophetic.

Pre-frosh Tom Lawrence (Chris Young) is visiting Port Chester University for the weekend, where he meets misfits James ‘Droz’ Andrews (Jeremy Piven), Gutter (Jon Favreau), and Katy (Megan Ward), among others, at a former frat house called “The Pit”. These fun-loving students are out of place among the campus protest culture, nurtured and encouraged by college president Ms. Garcia-Thompson (Jessica Walter).

Ms. Garcia-Thompson allies with snobby Rand McPherson (David Spade), leader of a disbanded fraternity who wants their frat house back, to get “The Pit” crew kicked off campus. Can Droz save his love interest, Samantha (Sarah Trigger), from the clutches of man-hating Womynists, unite the student body, and raise enough money to save his friends from eviction before graduation?

Long before campus speech codes and safe spaces became commonplace, PCU satirized this growing trend in academia. Ms. Garcia-Thompson personifies the new college administrator, a buzzword-spewing enforcer obsessed with sensitivity awareness, diversity, and encouraging student grievances. In one scene, she suggests “Bisexual Asian Studies” should have its own building. “The question is, who goes? The Math Department or the hockey team?” she asks with a straight face.

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Quills: A Poignant Civil Rights Allegory

Though historically inaccurate, this film effectively tackles issues of censorship and the limits of free expression.

Directed by Philip Kaufman, Quills (2000) is based on a play of the same name by Doug Wright. It is a quasi-historical movie about the infamous writer Marquis de Sade and his internment in Charenton asylum in post-revolutionary France. Though not financially successful, its performances, costumes, and sets won praise from critics and audiences alike.

At the Charenton Asylum, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has been under the care of Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a liberal clergyman who encourages De Sade to write and produce plays, which are performed by the inmates at the asylum. Unbeknownst to him, De Sade has been sneaking out his manuscripts for publication with the help of laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet). Scandalized, Emperor Napoleon orders Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to take over Charenton and reform its notorious inmate.

A battle of wills ensues between De Sade and Royer-Collard, with Abbe Coulmier and Madeleine caught in the middle. The more Royer-Collard tries to break De Sade, the more defiant and outlandish De Sade becomes. The inmate is determined to expose Royer-Collard’s hypocrisy, centered around his marriage to his much younger wife, Simone (Amelia Warner). Can Abbe Coulmier save De Sade’s soul (and his own) before it’s too late?

Quills is first and foremost an exploration of censorship and free expression. Are De Sade’s provocative stories harmless entertainment, or genuinely subversive and dangerous? Is De Sade a raving lunatic, or a martyr to the cause of free speech? It asks the audience to actively engage with the ethical and moral questions played out on screen.

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Lizzie: A Lackluster Revisionist Thriller

Just four years after Lizzie Borden Took an Ax and the campy TV mini series it spawned, were audiences really clamoring for another Lizzie Borden film?

An uninspiring cast sleepwalks its way through this speculative take on an all-too-familiar story in Lizzie (2018), written by Bryce Kass and directed by Craig William Macneill. The film pits Lizzie Borden and the family’s live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan, against her tyrannical father and unsympathetic step mother in what co-producer and lead actress Chloë Sevigny described as an overtly feminist take.

The film opens in the aftermath of Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby (Fiona Shaw) Borden’s murder. An investigator asks their 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), whether her father had any enemies. From there, the film rewinds to the family’s employment of a 25-year-old Irish maid named Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). According to the filmmakers, that was the catalyst for the eventual double homicide, and the answer to the investigator’s question. There is never a question about Lizzie Borden’s involvement in her parent’s death. The obvious foil, and rival for Lizzie’s inheritance, her uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare), serves as a flimsy red herring.

Lizzie’s central conflict is between Lizzie, Bridget, and her domineering father, who seeks to control all the women living under his roof. While Lizzie’s sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), fades into the background, Lizzie and Bridget find themselves in a compromising position, one that leads to her parents’ gruesome murder. Sevigny herself characterized this as a literal “smash the patriarchy” moment.

In real life, Andrew and Sarah Borden were found murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892. Their middle aged daughters, Lizzie and Emma, lived with them, along with their maid, Bridget Sullivan. There had been significant tension in the family leading up to the murders, and Lizzie gave conflicting alibis. Lizzie was arrested and put on trial. After 90 minutes of deliberation, the all-male jury acquitted her. Her trial was a national media sensation, but to this day, there are many competing theories about “whodunnit.”

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