The Other Boleyn Girl

An all-star cast weaves a sixteenth-century soap opera in this colorful attempt to breathe new life into a familiar story.

Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Justin Chadwick, The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) was based on a novel of the same name by Philippa Gregory. Billed as a scandalous portrayal of King Henry VIII’s courtship and eventual marriage to Anne Boleyn, this film seems quaint by today’s standards. Its release was timed to capitalize on Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-2010), but lacked that show’s outstanding performances.

The film opens in Tudor England during the reign of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) and his brother-in-law Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) learn the King is unhappy with his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), who has not yet produced a male heir. They sense an opportunity to advance their social standing by installing one of Boleyn’s daughters as the King’s mistress. His daughter Mary (Scarlett Johansson) has already wed William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch), so they turn to Anne (Natalie Portman).

Over the objections of his wife, Elizabeth Boleyn (Kristin Scott Thomas), Thomas invites the King to his estate to introduce him to Anne. Things get complicated when the King is injured in a hunting accident and he falls in love with Mary when she tends to his injury. Mary becomes the King’s mistress, and Anne is exiled to France for trying to marry an earl without the King’s knowledge.

Anne returns from France a transformed woman, and despite Mary giving birth to a baby boy, she sets her sights on winning the King’s affection and becoming Queen. It’s an all-too-familiar story, which ends in an all-too-familiar way. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to continue the story past its logical conclusion, when Anne wins the rivalry with Mary for the King’s affection.

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Mary Queen of Scots

Historic authenticity is cast to the wind in this revisionist costume drama that feels like it was written by a freshman Women’s Studies major.

Directed by Josie Rourke with a screenplay by Beau Willimon, Mary Queen of Scots (2018) was based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. Like many films released this year, it has strong female leads, a diverse cast, and progressive social messaging, but checking all the right boxes on the SJW playlist wasn’t enough to save this film from mediocrity.

The year is 1560, and the young and beautiful Mary Tudor (Saoirse Ronan) returns home, where she is out of place in a dreary Scottish castle. Her half-brother, James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), has been ruling as regent, alongside a bevy of colorless and perpetually-angry Protestant men. Her appearance in Scotland alarms her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie). Elizabeth, a Protestant, is not seen as a legitimate ruler by her Catholic subjects. She seeks to gain influence over Mary by arranging a marriage with Elizabeth’s own lover, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn).

Instead, Mary marries the charming and charismatic Lord Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), who pulls a Jeckyll-and-Hyde routine and becomes a drunken lecher on their wedding night. Things get complicated for the childless Queen Elizabeth when Mary becomes pregnant, producing an heir for her dynasty and strengthening her claim to the English throne. Can Mary fend off attacks from her domestic critics and convince Elizabeth to acknowledge her as England’s rightful ruler?

Mary Queen of Scots couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a film about the rivalry between two queens or a revisionist biopic of its titular character, so it does neither particularly well. This ill-conceived and poorly executed film also missed a chance to let its leading ladies shine. As Queen Elizabeth, the talented Margot Robbie goes to waste as a costumed mannequin who practically disappears for the middle third of the film.

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The Favourite: Sensationalism at the Expense of History

The beautiful cinematography and wonderful acting in this over-the-top period piece barely makes up for its historical inaccuracy and a grueling 2-hour run time.

Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite is artistically filmed, the acting is wonderful, and cinematography top notch. If you’re looking for a realistic account of Queen Anne’s 18th Century British court, however, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Favourite chooses to enshrine gossip and rumor as historic fact, while delivering a film that is as tedious as it is tantalizing.

As the film opens, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is deciding whether to continue a war with France after an English victory, or sue for peace. Her natural inclination, and that of opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), is for peace, but her influential friend and Keeper of the Privy Purse Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), wife of Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), wants to prosecute the war to the bitter end. During negotiations, a dirty but charming Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives seeking employment in Lady Sarah’s household.

Things get complicated when Abigail discovers Queen Anne and Lady Sarah’s dirty little secret, and uses it to her advantage to get closer to the Queen. Abigail and Lady Sarah engage in a private war for the Queen’s affection, while Robert Harley and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) conspire to use Abigail to get closer to the Queen, wh0 only has time for one friend, I guess. Who will become the Queen’s favourite?

Using extreme wide-angles (shot with Panavision lenses) to achieve a sense of expanse even in a small room, the filmmakers capture a delightfully Baroque portrayal of an outlandish and amoral British aristocracy. The acting is top-notch, with Emma Stone giving one of the best performances of her career. Olivia Colman should receive an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Queen Anne. The film, however, could’ve been improved by cutting at least 20 minutes of silence, screeching violins, and arthouse chapter titles.

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“W.”: History Written by the Losers

Oliver Stone’s two hour lampoon of President George W. Bush failed to leave a lasting legacy.

Written by Stanly Weiser and directed by Oliver Stone, W. (2008) was meant as a final middle-finger to the outgoing Bush Administration; an attempt in film to solidify negative public perceptions surrounding President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. But years later, W. looks more like a relic of its time; a forgettable albeit slightly humorous political drama by filmmakers who accidentally made their subject a sympathetic figure.

W. intercuts between George W. Bush’s ne’er-do-well youth and his presidency, particularly the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. Events surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are glaringly absent. How can you make a film about George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House without mentioning September 11? Probably because he received the highest recorded presidential approval rating in history after the 9/11 attacks, and the filmmakers didn’t want to remind the audience about the tremendous crisis his administration had to face.

The film opens with a young-ish George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) getting hazed in a Yale fraternity. He jumps from job to job, to the great disappointment of his stern father, President George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), until he meets his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks). With the help of political strategist Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Bush becomes Governor of Texas, and later, President of the United States, where he uses his office to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, something his father never achieved.

The filmmakers use real quotes and incidents to portray George W. Bush as a comedic figure, including one incident in which he almost died choking on a pretzel. In hindsight this comes across as mean spirited, since Josh Brolin’s Bush is sincere in his religious convictions, appears to genuinely believe Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and wanted the public to be on board with the war, and is constantly frustrated by his disapproving father. As National Review’s Tom Hoopes pointed out, this had the unintended consequence of making Bush relatable and sympathetic to the audience.

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Like its Protagonist, Vice Takes No Prisoners

Vice President Dick Cheney’s life is creatively recounted in this bullish political biopic.

Written and directed by Adam McKay, Vice (2018) is bolstered by incredible performances by its lead cast, but hindered by strange and often jarring film techniques that pull your attention away from the drama. Both Christian Bale and Amy Adams show once again why they are among the best actors of our time by saving what could have otherwise been another mediocre polemic against the Bush Administration.

As the film opens, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is a young man struggling to find his place in the world and teetering on the brink of alcoholism. His wife, Lynn (Amy Adams), gives him an ultimatum to clean up his act. Cheney gets a job as an intern in Washington, DC and is fatefully taken under the wing of Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who becomes the youngest Secretary of Defense in U.S. history under President Gerald Ford. For a time, the two men’s fortunes seem to go hand in hand.

After seemingly retiring from politics, Cheney is approached by presidential candidate George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), to be his running mate. Cheney manipulates the gullible Bush into handing him unprecedented control in the executive branch. He uses his influence to fill various White House positions with loyalists, and virtually runs the administration from behind the scenes, when he’s not recovering from numerous heart attacks. There he pushes “unitary executive theory,” which seeks to hand greater control to the President, and by extension, himself.

Vice interweaves these political machinations with Cheney’s personal struggles. At home, he tries to juggle his deep love for his two daughters, Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe), while shielding them from the public eye. When Liz decides to enter politics, Cheney must decide between supporting her (and her position against same-sex marriage) and his longtime support for Mary, who is a lesbian. This more intimate look at Dick Cheney’s life almost translates into a sympathetic portrayal. At least, his motivations are more relatable.

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The Mule: Best Film of 2018?

When 90-year-old Earl Stone loses everything he loves, can he use ill-gotten gains to win it back before the DEA, or the cartel, takes him down?

Written by Nick Schenk and directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, The Mule (2018) was inspired by a New York Times article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. The Mule uses true events to frame a much more compelling  story. Bucking the current trend of emotionally monochrome dramas, this film is a rich tapestry of triumph and tragedy, humor and sadness, and guilt and forgiveness.

Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is a successful horticulturalist in Peoria, Illinois but neglectful of his family. He finds himself estranged from his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood), but is still admired by his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Mary and he divorce, and after failing to embrace the digital age, Stone’s business falls on hard times. He takes a mysterious offer to deliver a package from Mexico to Chicago. With his newfound income, he rebuilds the local VFW after a fire and helps pay for his granddaughter’s cosmetology tuition. Meanwhile, he frustrates his cartel handler, Julio (Ignacio Serricchio) with his unpredictable behavior.

Things get complicated when DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his partner Trevino (Michael Peña) flip a cartel employee and he tips them off about a successful drug mule known as “Tata”, or grandfather. The unassuming elderly white man with a clean record was able to slip under law enforcement’s radar. At 90 years of age and with the DEA on his tail, Earl Stone is running out of time to reverse his fortunes and reconcile with his family.

The Mule is loosely based on the life of Leo Sharp, a WW2 veteran and Detroit-based horticulturalist and daylily farmer who began working as a drug mule for the Sinaloa cartel after his business fell on hard times. His life of crime made him a millionaire. Sharp was finally caught in 2011 at the age of 87, pled guilty to drug conspiracy, and served one year in prison before being let out due to his declining health. He died in December 2016.

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Red State Rebels: Smoke Without a Fire?

If Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?  was fodder for a progressive movement desperate to explain their lack of electoral success in the American Heartland, Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, edited by Joshua Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair, was its hopeful response. If you identify as an Antifa freegan living in rural Kentucky, this book will appeal to you. If you are, however, looking for a more well-rounded perspective, you will be sorely disappointed. Red State Rebels is far from a holistic account of “grassroots resistance in the heartland.”

When I opened this book, I expected a digest of radical activity from all sides of the political spectrum. It quickly became clear that, by “Red State Rebels,” Frank and St. Clair meant the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. This is a book about only one shade of rebels—pacifists, environmentalists, and anti war activists—fighting against their classic enemies.

Aside from a brief nod to Randy Weaver and various secession movements, nary a word is spent on the colorful variety of Middle American rebels. Constitutionalists, anti-abortion protestors, Alex Jones devotees, 9/11 truthers, militiamen, sovereign citizens, and others are conspicuously absent. Their absence is made even more conspicuous because in Frank and St. Clair’s introduction, they take great pains to portray their work as a non-partisan approach to the subject.

“Neither of us fit in the geo-ideological matrix contrived by the mainstream political establishment,” they write. “Neither do thousands of others, left, right and anarcho-libertarians, who reside in the forgotten midsection of the nation.” But including one essay on Randy Weaver does not help balance things out.

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