Review: ‘Firebrand’ (2023), starring Alicia Vikander and Jude Law

July 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jude Law and Alicia Vikander in “Firebrand” (Photo courtesy of MBK Productions)

“Firebrand” (2023)

Directed by Karim Aïnouz

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1540s, in the United Kingdom, the dramatic film “Firebrand” (based on the novel “Queen’s Gambit: A Novel of Katherine Parr”) features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person and one person of Arab heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and royalty.

Culture Clash: King Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr is secretly a feminist who wants to shake up the establishment. 

Culture Audience: “Firebrand” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jude Law, Alicia Vikander, and dull period dramas about the British royal family.

Alicia Vikander (center) in “Firebrand” (Photo courtesy of MBK Productions)

Good acting from Alicia Vikander and Jude Law can’t save “Firebrand” from its plodding screenplay and lackluster direction. This revisionist drama, about the British royal family in the 1540s, distorts feminism by turning the film into a man-hating lecture. For a movie that’s supposed to be about an eventful time in British history, “Firebrand” has an awfully thin plot that gets padded with a lot of repetition. “Firebrand” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Directed by Karim Aïnouz, “Firebrand” is based on Elizabeth Fremantle’s 2012 book “Queen’s Gambit: A Novel of Katherine Parr.” (In real life, Katherine Parr’s name was also spelled as Catherine Parr.) Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth, who are twin sisters, adapted the novel for the “Firebrand” screenplay. Viewers who know in advance that “Firebrand” is based on a novel, not a biography, might enjoy the movie better. However, it still doesn’t erase the movie’s problems.

“Firebrand” begins with a voiceover monologue by a teenager whom viewers later find out is King Henry VIII’s daughter Princess Elizabeth (played by Junia Rees), who will be the future Queen Elizabeth I. Princess Elizabeth says: “In a rotten, blood-soaked island kingdom cursed by plague and driven by religious unrest, there once was a queen by the name of Katherine Parr. She was the sixth wife of an angry and ailing king.”

Princess Elizabeth continues: “Of the wives who had gone before, two were cast out, one died in childbirth, and two had their heads struck from their bodies, on the king’s order. Twice a widow, but not yet to conceive a child herself, Queen Katherine gathered the other wives’ children around her, and loved us as her own.”

The monologue continues, “She is the only mother I have ever known. The queen believed in a land free of tyranny. She believed she could steer the kingdom to the light. When the king went to war across the sea, Queen Katherine was made regent. For a moment, it was as though a great weight had lifted and a new dawn was approaching.”

An early scene in the movie shows Queen Katherine (played by Vikander) in a wooded area, where she is watching a religious and political activist named Anne Askew (played by Erin Doherty) give a fiery speech to a small group of people assembled around her. “We must rise up and take what’s ours!” shouts Anne. “Revolution is upon us. The king will be with us, or we well go without him!”

Anne sees Katherine nearby and smirks at Katherine before walking away. Anne and Katherine have not seen each other in seven years. And it would be scandalous if King Henry VIII or anyone else in the royal court found out that Katherine was at at this political rally. (“Firebrand” was actually filmed in the German cities of Reinbek and Hamburg, which look convincing as 1540s England.)

When Katherine and Anne have a private moment together in the woods, Katherine tells Anne that King Henry VIII respects Katherine. She tells Anne: “I believe I was chosen to change the king’s mind.” Anne is skeptical. And it turns out that Anne is right.

King Henry VIII (played by Law) returns from the war. He’s every bit the self-centered brute that someone is to be cruel enough to have spouses murdered by execution, just to end the marriages. The king has gout (shown in graphic details in the movie), but that doesn’t stop him from having passionless sex with Katherine, who doesn’t enjoy these encounters but endures them because she doesn’t want ill-tempered Henry to get angry at her. Katherine wants to placate Henry because she wants him to agree with some ideas she has to give women more rights.

Over time, Katherine finally sees the obvious: Henry isn’t going to change his misogynistic ways anytime soon. He does things such as openly flirt with would-be mistresses right in front of Katherine and other people seated at the royal dining table. In this dinner flirtation, Katherine is hostile to the giggling younger woman named Agnes Howard (played by Anna Mawn), who flirts back with Henry, even though Henry (not Agnes) is more at fault.

Meanwhile, Henry hears gossip that Katherine has been hanging out with Anne, who is considered a radical disrupter. Katherine denies it. What’s a secretive, ahead-of-her-time “feminist” to do? She pretends to be a devoted and submissive wife who goes along with whatever her husband wants until she can figure out a way to outsmart him. That’s essentially what takes up about 70% of “Firebrand,” in very tedious scenes that don’t do much to further the story.

Historical figures such as Princess Elizabeth, Princess Mary (played by Patsy Ferran), Prince Edward (played by Patrick Buckley), Thomas Seymour (played by Sam Riley) and Edward Seymour (played by Eddie Marsan) come and go in the movie like background characters. Thomas and Edward were the brothers of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, who died in 1537, shortly after giving birth to the future King Edward VI. Thomas and Katherine were in a romantic relationship before she married Henry, but she chose to marry Henry because he was the king. That intriguing backstory is barely acknowledged in the movie.

Instead of looking like a feminist, as the movie intended, Katherine just looks like someone with delusions of grandeur in thinking that she can change a murderous misogynist like Henry, just by being cute and adoring to him. Katherine also has a catty attitude toward women who make themselves available for meaningless flings to Henry, who doesn’t really love and respect Katherine anyway. It’s also questionable if Katherine’s “feminist” plans are really for the good of all women in the kingdom, or are really ways to gain more power for herself.

Worst of all, even with Katherine’s scheming and trying to fool herself into thinking that she can outwit Henry, she does the most soap opera-ish thing that someone can do in her situation. Katherine’s way of solving her problem doesn’t involve any intelligence. It’s a heinous copout that doesn’t make Katherine any better than some of the corrupt people she acts like she detests.

“Firebrand” is the type of movie that gets it right when it comes to technical crafts, such as production design, costume design and musical score. And there’s nothing terribly wrong with the acting performances in the movie. Law as the villainous Henry is much more entertaining to watch than Vikander’s somewhat muted interpretation of pseudo-feminist Katherine. Even with these assets in “Firebrand,” the movie’s message is very misguided in how problems are dealt with at the end of the story, even if it’s complete fiction.

UPDATE: Roadside Attractions and Vertical will release “Firebrand” in select U.S. cinemas on June 14, 2024. The movie was released in Spain in 2023.

Review: ‘Living’ (2022), starring Bill Nighy

December 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Aimee Lou Wood (far left) and Bill Nighy in “Living” (Photo by Ross Ferguson/Number 9 Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Living” (2022)

Directed by Oliver Hermanus

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1959 in England, the dramatic film “Living” (a remake of the 1953 Japanese film “Ikiru”) features an all-white characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A terminally ill man has an epiphany and re-evaluates what he wants to do with his life.

Culture Audience: “Living” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of “Irkiru” and people who are interested in watching thoughtful movies about changing one’s own life while preparing for death.

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Alex Sharp, Hubert Burton, Adrian Rawlins and Oliver Chris in “Living” (Photo by Ross Ferguson/Number 9 Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

If you had only weeks to live, what would you do? The dramatic film “Living” poses that question, and has a protagonist who answers it. Bill Nighy gives a nuanced performance in this noteworthy British remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic “Ikiru.” The deliberate pacing and contemplative nature of “Living” can be recommended to people who want to see a movie about someone facing mortality. “Living” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and

Directed by Oliver Hermanus and written by Kazuo Ishiguro, “Living” (which takes place in 1959 in an unnamed part of England) begins with the introduction to the four businessman co-workers before they go on a train together to their monotonous office job for a company whose core business is never fully explained. Much of the movie contrasts the rigid, “button-down” environment of this office job and the personal evolution of the movie’s protagonist who tries to break out of the self-imposed rut that he’s been living in for many years.

The movie’s central character is a widower named Mr. Williams (played by Nighy), whose first name is never mentioned. It’s the movie’s way of still giving an air of formality to this character. Through conversations that the four commuter businessmen have in the movie, it’s made clear that Mr. Williams is a high-ranking executive at the company, and he is close to retiring. Mr. Williams is respected but also feared.

The four businessmen who work at the company are newcomer Peter Wakeling (played by Alex Sharp), who is in his 20s and eager to impress his co-workers; Mr. Hart (played by Oliver Chris), who is fairly quiet; Mr. Rusbridger (played by Hubert Burton), who is helpful to Peter; and Mr. Middleton (played by Adrian Rawlins), who is the apparent successor to Mr. Williams after Mr. Williams retires. Peter, Mr. Hart and Mr. Rusbridger are all in the late 20s to early 30s. Mr. Middleton is in his 60s.

The movie’s opening scene shows Peter on a train platform his first day on the job, as Mr. Middleton introduces Peter to Mr. Hart and Mr. Rusbridger. Peter tells an innocuous joke to make small talk. No one in the group laughs at the joke. Mr. Rusbridger advises Peter: “This time of the morning, it’s kind of a rule: Not too much fun and laughter, kind of like church.”

This serious attitude is even more evident in the office environment, where people speak in hushed tones and seem very conscious of following bureaucratic rules. Although the desks in the office are placed closed together, these co-workers seem emotionally distant from each other. The impression they give is that they have to be completely focused on work, and there’s no room and no tolerance for anyone to bring too much of their personal lives (or personalities) to the workplace.

Even if it’s never said out loud, it becomes obvious from Mr. Williams’ leadership style that he was responsible for creating this stuffy culture at this particular office. One day, during a dull meeting in a conference room, Mr. Williams tells his staff that he has to leave early for the day (at about 3:20 p.m.), and he says that Mr. Middleton can be in charge during Mr. Williams’ absence. As soon as the employees hear that Mr. Williams will be leaving early, the relief is noticeable on their faces, as if they know that when he’s gone, they can relax a little in the office.

The appointment that Mr. Williams has to go to is a visit with his physician Dr, Matthews (played by Jonathan Keeble). The doctor does not have good news to tell Mr. Williams. Tests results have come back that are “pretty conclusive,” says the doctor. Although the full details aren’t revealed until later, Mr. Williams has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He has also been told that he only has six to eight months to live. This isn’t spoiler information, since this part of the story is part of the marketing for “Living.”

Mr. Williams keeps this information a secret from almost everyone he knows, including his adult son Michael (played by Barney Fishwick), Michael’s wife Fiona (played by Patsy Ferran) and Mr. Williams’ business colleagues. Michael and Fiona do not have a warm relationship with Mr. Williams. When these two spouses visit him, they (especially Fiona) seem to be more concerned about what kind of inheritance money they can get from Mr. Williams than his general well-being.

The implication is that for much of his life, Mr. Williams has been a cold and judgmental person who is set in his ways. And now that he is faced with the harsh reality of his imminent and painful death, he is seeing the consequences of not developing enough meaningful emotional connections. Michael, his closest living relative, barely tolerates him, which indicates that years of resentment (mostly unspoken) have built up between father and son.

Mr. Williams finds an unexpected bright spot soon after finding out the dark and devastating news about his terminal illness: A perky and talkative woman in her 20s named Margaret Harris (played by Aimee Lou Wood) is someone who used to work as a secretary in the same office as Mr. Williams. Shortly after the movie begins, it’s shown that Margaret has already given notice that she’s quitting to take a job as an assistant manager at a local restaurant called Four Corners.

One day, Mr. Williams invites Margaret to lunch, and they have a polite conversation where he tells her that he can write a letter of recommendation for her in whatever job she wants to have. Over time, after Margaret starts working at Four Corners, he makes a point of going there by himself so that he can talk to her because he’s lonely. They go on a few platonic dates, but Margaret isn’t really sure if Mr. Williams wants more than a friendship when he quickly becomes emotionally attached to her.

Meanwhile, Mr. Williams meets a bon vivant type named Sutherland (played by Tom Burke), who encourages Mr. Williams to loosen up and try things that Mr. Williams has never done before. If “Living” were a formulaic Hollywood movie, this would be the part of the story where Mr. Williams turns into a party animal or goes on wacky adventures, as part of checking off things to do on his “bucket list.” However, the quiet beauty of “Living” is that it doesn’t have those types of cheap gimmicks.

Instead, “Living” is more about the gradual discovery that Mr. Williams has about himself and understanding that even with a limited amount of time he has left to live, it’s never to too late to change. Throughout the movie, there are several flashback clips of Mr. Williams in his childhood. These flashbacks are artfully shown in a “vintage film footage” format. Mr. Williams’ childhood memories inspire the transformation that he has in this story.

“Living” is a movie that will frustrate or bore some viewers who want to see a flashier film with a lot of melodrama. Audiences should know before seeing this film that it’s an introspective character study rather than a story with major plot twists or surprises. Nighy’s performance is understated yet powerful in the way he portrays someone who chooses to suffer in silence but who makes a big statement toward the end of his life. Mostly, the movie does an admirable job of conveying the message behind the title: How someone lives is much more important than how someone dies.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Living” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Tom and Jerry,’ starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney and Ken Jeong

March 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jerry and Tom in “Tom and Jerry” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Tom and Jerry”

Directed by Tim Story

Culture Representation: Set in New York City, the live-action/animated film “Tom and Jerry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Longtime “frenemies” Tom (a stray cat) and Jerry (a pesky mouse) find themselves causing mischief at an upscale hotel, which will be the site of a major celebrity wedding.

Culture Audience: “Tom and Jerry” will appeal primarily to fans of the original “Tom and Jerry” cartoon series or people who want something for their young children to watch, but this clumsily made and boring film can’t come close to the exuberant spirit of the original “Tom and Jerry” cartoons.

Goldie, Jerry, Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña and Rob Delaney in “Tom and Jerry” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Animation technology has come a long way since the “Tom and Jerry” franchise was created in 1940 with a series of short films by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. But having better technology still can’t replace good storytelling. And in that respect, the live-action/animated film “Tom and Jerry” (directed by Tim Story) is vastly inferior to all the “Tom and Jerry” films that came before it. Even if the movie might have been “dumbed down” with the intent of making it easier for very young children to understand, it’s still an insult to children’s intelligence to make this such a dull and awkward film.

Written by Kevin Costello, “Tom and Jerry” is a movie that looks like a haphazard collection of short sketches that were forced into a flimsy overall plot. In the movie, main characters Tom (an animated cat) and Jerry (an animated mouse) wreak havoc at an upscale New York City hotel that’s the venue for a high-profile celebrity wedding. Tom and Jerry are famously mute, while other animated animal characters in their world can talk. It’s too bad that no one muted this lazy and unimaginative movie by not making the movie at all.

What’s supposed to pass as comedy in this film is very stale. The action sequences are forgettable. And there’s no suspense in this story because everyone, except for people who’ve never seen cartoons before, will know exactly how this movie is going to end. The live-action actors all look like they did this movie for their paychecks, not because their hearts are in it.

“Tom and Jerry” takes place in New York City, where Tom and Jerry have known each other for an undetermined period of time and have crossed paths on the streets of New York City, where they live. Jerry is the “brattier” one of the two. In an early scene in the movie, a marquee sign at Madison Square Garden shows that Tom is a keyboardist who’s supposed to be appearing as an opening act for John Legend.

But, as an example of how poorly written this movie is, Tom is then shown playing his keyboard in a park, busking for change to a small group of people and pretending to be a blind musician. It doesn’t make sense that an artist who’s reached the level of playing Madison Square Garden, even as an opening act, would have to stoop to the level of doing these small-time con games. The marquee could have been Tom’s fantasy but it’s presented in the movie as real.

Jerry knows that Tom isn’t really blind, so it isn’t long before he causes some mischief and exposes Tom for being a fraud. It’s one of many “back and forth” acts of revenge that the cat and mouse play on each other throughout the story. None of these acts is particularly inventive or exciting in this movie. Tom has two imaginary alter egos that can talk and represent his inner thoughts: an “angel” that represents Tom’s “good side” and a “devil” that represents Tom’s bad side. Both characters are voiced by Lil Rel Howery.

As Tom chases Jerry for ruining Tom’s “blind keyboardist” act, they both crash into Mackayla “Kayla” Forester, a temp worker in her 20s who was on her way from picking up dry cleaning in her work as a personal assistant. Of course, the clothes go flying in different directions and get dirty.

The next thing you know, Kayla is on the phone with her boss (played by Craig Stein) at the employment agency, and he tells her that she’s suspended. She begs for another chance and offers to be his personal assistant. He refuses and says she might not be suited for this type of work. She agrees and quits on the spot.

Kayla is apparently having financial problems because she’s been going to the Royal Gale Hotel by pretending to be a guest and getting free meals at the buffet-styled dining area. The hotel’s main doorman Gavin (played by Daniel Adegboyega) knows that she’s been doing this freeloading. The next time he sees Kayla arrive at the hotel one morning, he asks if she’s back for the free food.

After getting some free breakfast, Kayla is in the lobby when she sees a prim and proper woman who looks like she might be able to afford a personal assistant. The woman is seated by herself in the lobby. Kayla sits down next to the woman, who is a Brit named Linda Perrybottom (played by Camilla Arfwedson), and strikes up a conversation.

Kayla is wearing a black leather jacket and tight black jeans, so she’s not as well-dressed as most of the hotel’s usual clientele. Linda notices it immediately, and she’s a little standoffish when Kayla tries to figure out if she can finagle her way into this stranger’s life for some money. Kayla asks Linda if she needs a personal assistant, and the answer is no.

It turns out that Linda is not a guest at the hotel, but she’s applying for a temp job in the hotel’s events department. Linda tells Kayla that she wants the job so that she can work on the upcoming wedding ceremony of a celebrity couple named Preeta Mehta (played by Pallavi Sharda) and Ben Jacobson (played by Colin Jost), who are famous enough to be on the cover of a gossip magazine that Linda shows to Kayla. It’s implied that Preeta and Ben are in the entertainment business, probably as actors.

Although Linda seems wary of Kayla, Linda ends up talking too much and giving away too much information about herself. Kayla sees an opportunity to steal Linda’s identity by first lying to Linda and saying that she’s an undercover supervisor who works for the hotel and was testing Linda to see how she treats strangers at the hotel. Kayla tells Linda that she failed the test because Linda was rude and indiscreet about Preeta and Ben’s wedding.

Kayla then asks Linda to see her résumé and tells Linda that she didn’t get the job. And just like that, Kayla takes Linda’s résumé, goes to a copy center to replace Linda’s name with her own. The résumé is so impressive that Kayla is hired on the spot for the job that Linda wanted. Needless to say, Kayla has no experience in hotel hospitality work or in event planning.

Kayla’s immediate boss is Terence Mendoza (played by Michael Peña), the hotel’s events manager. Terence reports to Henry Dubros (played by Rob Delaney), the hotel’s general manager. They both meet Kayla for the interview and put her immediately to work.

Terence is a smarmy character who becomes suspicious of Kayla’s qualifications early on, so she has to always keep one step ahead of him to prevent him from finding out that she’s a fraud. Terence is more likely to dismiss Kayla’s ideas, while Henry is more open-minded and willing to give Kayla a chance. Terence is desperate for Henry’s approval, so he’s often two-faced in how he deals with employees, depending on how well he thinks it will help further his career and impress Henry.

During Kayla’s first day on the job, she’s introduced to some of the other hotel employees who are featured in the movie. Chef Jackie (played by Ken Jeong) is a cranky taskmaster who likes to yell at his subordinates. Joy (played Patsy Ferran) is a nervous and socially awkward bellhop. Cameron (played by Jordan Bolger) is a laid-back and friendly bartender, who ends up giving Kayla some pep talks when certain things start to go wrong for her.

The first problem that Kayla encounters is finding out there’s a mouse loose in the hotel. The mouse is first spotted in one of the worst places to find a mouse: in the kitchen. And we all know who the mouse is. Tom the cat is lurking around too, so Kayla decides to “hire” Tom to capture Jerry. There’s a scene where Tom is literally wearing a bellhop cap, as if that is automatically supposed to be funny.

The rest of the movie is just more run-arounds, mishaps and sight gags, leading up to the big wedding. There’s a very dull subplot about how Ben ignores that Preeta wants a simple ceremony, and he becomes caught up in the idea of making the wedding more and more elaborate. It’s supposed to be a traditional Indian wedding, but Ben has taken over the wedding planning, as if he wants it to be a big movie production.

Ben is also very nervous about getting the approval of Preeta’s stern father (played by Ajay Chhabra), who acts like he can barely tolerate Ben. There are some humorless scenes where Ben and Mr. Mehta interact with each uncomfortably. Preeta’s mother (played by Somi De Souza) and Ben’s parents (played by Patrick Poletti and Janis Ahern) are also there, but their characters are written as very non-descript and unremarkable.

Ben’s obsession with wanting a lavish wedding reaches a point where he gets two elephants and a tiger for the ceremony. The idea is to have Ben and Preeta ride in on the two elephants, whose names are Cecil and Malcolm. All of the wild animals in the movie are animated characters. So too are the movie’s many domesticated animals, including Ben and Preeta’s pets: a bulldog named Spike (voiced by Bobby Cannavale) and a pampered cat named Toots.

The other animal characters in “Tom and Jerry” are three alley cats that are members of a gang that sometimes menace Tom: gang leader Butch (voiced by Nicky Jam), red-haired Lightning (voiced by Joey Wells) and diminutive Topsy (voiced by Harry Ratchford). There’s also Goldie, a goldfish that lives in Henry’s office and becomes a hunting target for Tom. And there’s a rapping bird named Pigeon (voiced by “Tom and Jerry” director Story) that acts as a narrator.

Because “Tom and Jerry” is a live-action/animation hybrid, the movie relies heavily on how convincing the actors look next to these animated characters. Moretz fares the best in putting the most effort in expressing different emotions with these imaginary animals. Peña at times looks uncomfortable, while Jeong dials up his angry and sarcastic persona to the highest and campiest notches.

There are some very predictable hijinks that ensue that often happen in movies with a wedding as the center of the action. A ring goes missing, a cake is in danger of being destroyed, and certain characters will inevitably have a big fight. It’s nothing that hasn’t already been done in other movies.

In addition to the formulaic plot developments, the dialogue and gags are often cringeworthy. When Kayla first meets Preeta and Ben, she gushes over them and tells them what a cute couple they are. Kayla also compliments Preeta on Preeta’s enormous engagement ring: “That rock! You can see it from outer space!” Ben smugly replies, “You can see our love from outer space.”

And it should come as no surprise that Spike the bulldog character is used for the inevitable fart and defecation jokes that every kids-oriented animal film seems to have these days. Spike eats a burrito that doesn’t agree with his intestinal system. And there’s a scene where Terence has to walk the dog after the dog ate the burrito. Enough said.

The direction and tone of “Tom and Jerry” are best described as a movie that doesn’t have any clever ideas and jumps around too much from antic to antic, in order to distract people from the very weak plot. The alley cat gang, which could have been used for more comedy, is very under-used in the film. Tom and Jerry do their expected slapstick shenanigans, but they’re surrounded by human characters that are just too bland.

And the movie’s visual effects aren’t very impressive, since some of the animation looks really out-of-place with the live actors. An example of a live-action/animation hybrid that did everything right is 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which didn’t have a lot of the animation technology that exists today. “Tom and Jerry” isn’t the worst animated film ever. But considering that people have so many better options, this movie is not essential viewing. It’s just not worth watching if you’re interested in engaging entertainment that’s truly fun to experience.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Tom and Jerry” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on February 26, 2021.

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