The Front Runner

The birth of the modern political scandal is recounted in this stylistic and overlong drama.

Written by Matt Bai and Jay Carson, and directed by Jason Reitman, The Front Runner (2018) dramatizes the news media’s role in U.S. Senator Gary Hart’s 1988 Democratic presidential primary campaign implosion. Filmed like a docudrama, the 113 minute period piece alternates between Hart’s campaign and the journalists covering it, to the detriment of both perspectives.

As the film opens, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is riding high off an energetic but ultimately unsuccessful primary campaign for president. Flash forward four years, Hart prepares to make another run for it with his veteran campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), and a cornucopia of campaign staff, including body man Billy Shore (Mark O’Brien) and a fictional scheduler named Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim). Hart tries to maintain a cozy relationship with the press, including with inexperienced Washington Post reporter AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie).

Things get complicated when Hart attends a party on a yacht called the Monkey Business and reporters at the Miami Herald begin receiving strange phone calls about Hart cheating on his longtime wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga). Frustrated, Hart challenges AJ to “follow him around.” Miami Herald reporters Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Pete Murphy (Bill Burr) take this as an invitation and begin surveilling Hart’s apartment, where they see Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) leaving at night. Can Hart extinguish this media firestorm before it’s too late?

With a cast of literally dozens of minor characters competing for screen time, your effort to keep track of them all will be as ambitious as the filmmakers’ efforts to tell this story from every imaginable angle.

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Finding Josephine: ‘A’ for Effort, ‘D’ for History

A lovesick woman dons a Confederate uniform to find her husband in this indie Civil War drama.

Written and directed by country musician Rory Feek (cowritten by Aaron Carnahan), Finding Josephine (2019) purportedly follows the true story of Josephine Robison, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Confederate Army to find her husband. In many ways it’s a typical love story, but the film tackles issues of gender and sexuality during the war, topics usually avoided in this genre.

Finding Josephine is framed by the director’s personal story about how love letters he allegedly found in a farmhouse in Tennessee led him to write a song that sparked the love between him and his future wife, who tragically died of cancer. The film was originally supposed to be released in 2016, but the death of his wife postponed it. Feek inter-spliced their personal story with the film, topping it out at 81 minutes.

The year is 1864. Josephine Robison (Alice Coulthard) works on her family farm, while her husband John (Mitch Eakins) is off fighting in the 3rd Tennessee Regiment. Unable to bear her loneliness, she disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Confederate Army, where she hopes to find him. Her journey takes her all the way from the back roads of Tennessee to the trenches around Richmond, Virginia.

Along the way, Josephine falls in with a small group of soldiers, including a gruff old man named Tally Simpson (Boris McGiver), a sadistic sergeant named Sturgill Marks (Jessejames Locorriere), and a boy named Whit (Matthew Alan Brady). Every moment threatens to expose her secret. Can she survive the war–and her fellow soldiers–to be reunited with her lost love?

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Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Zac Efron steals the show as serial killer Ted Bundy, and that’s the problem.

Written by Michael Werwie and directed by Joe Berlinger, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) is based on the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall. While ostensibly about Ted Bundy’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend, whose call to the police eventually led to his capture, the film focuses too much on Bundy’s dark charisma and courtroom antics.

The film opens at a bar in Seattle in 1969, where single mother Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins) meets handsome Theodore “Ted” Bundy (Zac Efron) for the first time, and the audience is mercifully spared the usual nods to 1960s counter-culture. Ted gets along well with her daughter, Molly, and seems to embrace the fatherly role. Things turn dark, however, when Ted is arrested at a traffic stop in 1975 and charged with kidnapping Carol Daronch (Grace Victoria Cox).

Though conflicted, and despite the protestations of her best friend, Joanna (Angela Sarafyan), Elizabeth is in denial that Ted could have committed the horrible acts of which he’s suspected. She grows increasingly distant as Ted’s legal troubles multiply, and he is accused of multiple murders. In prison, Ted rekindles an old flame with Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), while trying desperately to keep Elizabeth’s affection. Can Elizabeth break this destructive emotional bond and move on with her life?

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Field of Lost Shoes

An emotional tribute to young cadets who fought and died in the American Civil War.

Written by Thomas Farrell and David M. Kennedy and directed by Sean McNamara, Field of Lost Shoes (2014) tells the story of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who fought at the Battle of New Market during the American Civil War. Despite an obviously low budget and inexperienced cast, the film is charming and emotionally engaging; one of the better Civil War films to be released in recent years.

Robert (Nolan Gould) is a freshman cadet, or “Rat”, who falls in with a tight group of upperclassmen, including John Wise (Luke Benward), an ex-governor’s son, and Moses Ezekiel (Josh Zuckerman), an aspiring sculptor and the first Jewish cadet at VMI. The war forms a backdrop to schoolboy antics like hazing, stealing food from the Institute’s enslaved cook, Old Judge (Keith David), and pursuing a romantic interest with the local girls, including Libby Clinedinst (Mary Mouser).

War comes knocking on their doorstep, however, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant (Tom Skerritt) sends Franz Sigel (Werner Daehn) and Captain Henry A. DuPont (David Arquette) with an army to subdue the Shenandoah Valley. Opposing him with a much smaller force is Confederate general and former U.S. vice president John C. Breckinridge (Jason Isaacs).

Breckinridge badly needs reinforcements, and he reluctantly sends for the VMI cadets, who his battle-hardened veterans regard as nothing more than children playing soldier. Will the cadets get there in time, and more importantly, will they prove their worth on the battlefield?

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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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