Judging from the commercials, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is the story of Denzel Washington heroically saving a plane full of passengers from certain death, but the film’s barn-burning crash sequence is over by the 25-minute mark. What follows is an intense portrait of a self-destructive man in what seems like a death spiral.
Between the mud-stained medieval warfare of Henry V and the emotional operatics of Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh, dipped his toe in one of Shakespeare’s lightest and airiest comedies and produced one of the most accessible and genuinely delightful versions of the Bard’s plays to reach the big screen. Its plot, boiled down to its essentials, will probably seem familiar to fans of modern romantic comedies, proving that the genre is one of oldest, and most durable, in English literature.
With the creative pedigree behind this film, if it had merely been good, that would have been a tremendous disappointment. The writer, director and two stars have no fewer than five Academy Awards between them and none of them earned cheaply. It should come as either no surprise or a great relief that American Gangster more than delivers on every promise made by the names in the credits.
Viewed through a post-9/11 prism, Edward Zwick’s The Siege seems at times both impossibly naïve and uncomfortably prescient. Ultimately, however, this movie is more effective as postulation than it is as a narrative, smarter about its subject matter than about its story. Whatever points it scores are undermined by shallow, clichéd characters and a stock, predictable ending.
144 years ago this coming week, a Union regiment from Massachusetts led a futile assault on a Confederate bastion near Charleston known as Battery Wagner. As Civil War battles go, it was relatively minor and would normally go unremarked compared to the Battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg, which both happened at roughly the same time. What made this action remarkable was the fact that 54th Massachusetts Volunteers was the first regular unit of the Union army to consist entirely of black soldiers, led by a white colonel, the son of prominent Boston abolitionists.
As an account of this event, Glory is reasonably accurate and thoroughly inspiring, built around a core of superb actors giving some of their best performances. It’s portrayal of Civil War combat is technically on par with the later Gettysburg, only more realistic and bloody, fully deserving of the film’s R rating.
It’s difficult now to even imagine a time, a little more than a decade ago, when Philadelphia was a daring, breakthrough film. In structure and style, this movie is a wholly conventional courtroom drama. In 1993, its frank treatment of homosexuality and AIDS was culturally groundbreaking. That’s probably the true genius stroke of this film, taking an edgy, uncomfortable subject and couching it in a familiar setting.
I have to confess that I didn’t see Philadelphia until this year, largely because at the time the movie was released, my oldest brother had less than a year to live and the subject struck a little too close to home for me. Finally seeing it, a decade removed from the real life events, I could appreciate the movie for what it was without dwelling on the subject matter.