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Biopic

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is for everybody out there who feels like a complete fraud. The movie is based on writer and literary forger Lee Israel’s confessional memoir. When her career as an author of celebrity biographies stalled due to lack of critical or commercial success, Israel got desperate. She spent a year in the early 1990s forging letters by dead celebrities like Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and selling them to autograph brokers for hundreds of dollars each. The film is ostensibly about Israel successfully flimflamming the entire literary document community before the FBI caught onto her. But it’s also an examination of her sense of identity being stripped away when what she’s built it on – her work as a writer – is destroyed because both her colleagues and the public tell her she’s no good at it.

If you couldn’t tell from the opening sentence of this review, I count myself as one of those people who feels like a fraud.

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Vice

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Vice

We all have that acquaintance, friend, or family member who use their Facebook profile solely to antagonize members of their social circle whom they consider their political enemies. These are almost always people who would never do the same thing in a face to face setting. They like to “start shit,” but from the safety of their phone. These people are a shade different from what are popularly known as internet trolls, because they believe in the opinions they’re expressing, so it’s not 100% about getting under their target’s skin. It’s only 75% about that. Vice, Adam McKay’s inflammatory, obnoxious biopic about Dick Cheney, arguably the most destructive vice president in American history, is the cinematic equivalent of these true-believer assholes.

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Green Book

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Green Book

There’s been plenty of digital ink already spilled about Green Book being a White Savior Film. While I’ll also spill a bit of my own on the topic, there isn’t much I can add. For me – an average white dude who’s seen his fair share of movies – the most glaring fault about the picture, a dramedy dealing with race relations in the Jim Crow era, is the paint-by-numbers feeling of it all. This is a movie that strives to hit every standard beat in the uplifting “inspired by a true story” template. As an exercise in mediocrity that serves up something we’ve all seen dozens of times before, Green Book is an unparalleled success. It’s utterly predicable and is the kind of movie that would have felt fresh had it been made 20 or 30 years ago. Still, for all it’s flaws, Green Book isn’t entirely without its charms. In addition to a superb turn from actor Mahershala Ali, the movie does provide some inspiring moments and a message about race that plenty of people still haven’t absorbed.

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On the Basis of Sex

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On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex stresses that its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is uncompromising and unmatched when it comes to the mastery of her chosen profession. The film is right to do so. In 1956, Ginsburg was one of just a few women admitted to Harvard Law School, and she graduated at the top of her class at Columbia after transferring there so her husband could take a job in New York City.

She later used a unique case – the focus of the film – to challenge the constitutionality of legal gender-based discrimination. She would eventually reach the pinnacle of American jurisprudence when she was confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. It’s disappointing, then, that the cinematic tribute to such a historically significant, dynamic figure like Ginsburg should be as middling as it is. On the Basis of Sex tries to cover too much ground in its first half, and the picture only really hits its stride in the last act. It’s a biopic that covers a vital individual in an unsatisfying, if entertaining, way.

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Beautiful Boy

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Beautiful Boy

It appears that the opioid crisis has finally reached far enough beyond fly-over country for Hollywood to notice it and feature it as the social problem of the moment. Two awards season hopefuls showcase not just drug addiction, but the kind of drug addiction that has been making headlines for almost a decade now. Both Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back focus on men in their early 20s who are opioid addicts and how their parents struggle to help them break free of the addiction.

I have no opinion yet on Ben is Back, because I haven’t seen it as of this writing (although the screener is sitting on my desk in the “to watch” pile) but looking at the cast and a brief plot synopsis, I’m willing to venture a guess that it shares the same problem Beautiful Boy has. While the picture achieves what it sets out to do, Beautiful Boy is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the easy way of exploring the devastating opioid epidemic.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody

A crucial part to the formula of a biopic about a popular entertainer is giving the audience plenty of moments of foreshadowing in which they can knowingly smile and nod their head to what’s coming. Freddie playing the first ten notes of Bohemian Rhapsody on a piano for his girlfriend early in the movie is a prime example of this. The girlfriend, Mary, tells Freddie she likes the music, and he responds, “I think it has potential.” Yes, Freddie, yes it does have potential, we are meant to think as we share a collective hushed chuckle. The picture is full to bursting with moments like this.

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First Man

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First Man

Director Damien Chazelle is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. The protagonists of his films make great sacrifices to achieve their goals. In Whiplash, Andrew Neiman will forsake friends and family, spending his every free moment to become a better jazz drummer. In La La Land, Sebastian and Mia are willing to let their relationship crumble while they chase their respective dreams of becoming a successful musician and actor.  In First Man, Chazelle turns his perfection obsessed gaze to a real-life figure. Astronaut Neil Armstrong and the rest of the people involved in the Apollo space program had one goal: to set foot on the moon. Several people gave their lives in the effort to achieve this goal.

Screenwriter Josh Singer is also no stranger to projects featuring characters who are intensely focused on their work. Singer co-wrote both Spotlight and The Post, and he served several years as a writer on the television series The West Wing. Singer’s attention to technical detail and Chazelle’s emotionally stirring, at times lyrical, depiction of Armstrong work in tandem to produce a compelling picture. It is one, however, that never quite gives us a satisfying view into Armstrong’s inner turmoil.

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Blaze

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Blaze

I have to wonder if Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s luminous music biopic about little-known country music singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, would have been as transfixing if Hawke hadn’t focused so much on romanticizing poverty. This is Hawke’s third feature film directorial effort. Telling the Outlaw Country musician’s story became a passion project for the Texas-born actor. Foley’s story is one of crushing deprivation, self-sabotage, and ends in the singer’s tragic death at the young age of 39 (don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler; we learn about Foley’s death in the first ten minutes of the picture).

Our society exalts the idea of the starving/suffering artist, and Hawke taps into that with Blaze. Foley was a man who was seemingly incapable of doing anything but making music, regardless of whether he could make a living at it. He was also good at bestowing back-country philosophy on those around him, earning him the nickname Duct Tape Messiah. I think we all know how little money there is in being contemplative about life and our place in the universe.

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BlacKkKlansman

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BlacKkKlansman

It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.

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Darkest Hour

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Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the movie that most fits the bill in 2017 for the title of Important Film; it’s tailor made for awards season, in particular for that most coveted prize, Oscar Best Picture nominee. It satisfies many of the requirements that we often think of when we think about an Important Film. Is the movie about a major historical event or a biopic of an important historical figure? Check. Does the movie feature a powerhouse performance by an actor who undergoes a complete physical transformation for the role? Check. Is the movie a crowd-pleaser, ending on a rousing note that sends the viewer out on an emotional high? Check. Darkest Hour is, to its detriment, a box-checker of a movie.  It’s so focused on these elements that it never does much else to set itself apart.

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I, Tonya

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I, Tonya

Movies like Lady Bird and The Florida Project introduced us to people either living close to poverty or people who can’t escape it. Both pictures did it without being exploitative. They brought their subjects to life in a thoughtful, humanist way.

The economic underclass is a major preoccupation of I, Tonya, as well. Like The Florida Project, I, Tonya’s subject, who just happens to be a real-life person, is proud and unapologetic. I, Tonya is a punk rock look at poverty, among other things. It’s also, improbably, one of the most hilarious movies of 2017. Its humor is biting and sarcastic. It isn’t afraid to call its audience out as hypocrites for watching the story of Tonya Harding with a sick voyeuristic glee.

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The Post

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The Post

When future filmmakers craft the pop culture version of history about our current political age – and what a sad, sickening history it will be – they’ll no doubt have an almost bottomless pit of stories to tell. Stories about people who worked tirelessly to uncover corruption, collusion, and incompetence at the highest levels of government. Let Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay for The Post be a guide to telling those stories. It stands in the company of movies like All the President’s Men and Spotlight.

This is Hannah’s first attempt at feature screenwriting, and she wrote it solo in early 2016. Singer, who won a best original screenplay Oscar with Tom McCarthy for 2015’s Spotlight, was brought on board to do a rewrite just before filming began. Their movie is about the vital role a free and open press has in a democracy.

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Molly's Game

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Molly's Game

The best movies about poker are often about more than the game itself. A great example is Rounders. That movie isn’t so much about turning a losing hand into a winner through the power of bluffing as it is loyalty and the limits of friendship. So, too, is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s work rarely just about what can be covered in a plot synopsis. The 30-year veteran of stage, TV, and film writing crafted two of the best biopics of this decade with 2010’s The Social Network and 2015’s Steve Jobs. Those films are character studies that seek answers to questions concerning true genius and the uglier traits of driven and brilliant men.

Critics and audiences have often lamented Sorkin’s less deft skill at writing female characters. The women he writes are sometimes two dimensional; they serve to add overwrought hysterics or a love interest to the story. With Molly’s Game, Sorkin has challenged himself to confront this weakness. His protagonist, Molly Bloom, is as driven as the subjects in The Social Network or Steve Jobs. Her story is also as complex, fascinating, and as rewarding of a character study as anything Sorkin has ever written.

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The Disaster Artist

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The Disaster Artist

James Franco did it. He found the role he was born to play. It’s not a role that just fell into his lap, either. Franco crafted the opportunity for himself. He optioned the rights for a book through his buddy Seth Rogan’s production company, Point Grey, and then signed on to direct himself as the lead. That’s rather poetic, considering the history behind his role of a lifetime.

Franco is playing real-life director/writer/producer/star Tommy Wiseau in the story of what is arguably the worst movie ever made, the ironically celebrated cult hit The Room. One of that movie’s stars, Greg Sestero, wrote a tell-all book, The Disaster Artist, about his experiences making The Room with his friend Wiseau. Franco read the book and became fascinated with the director. Here was a man who refused to let any obstacle get in the way of his dream. He’s a mercurial figure with a mysterious eastern European accent – whenever he’s asked where he’s from, he’ll only say New Orleans – and an even more mysterious bottomless pit of money. While it might not seem it, upon reflection, Franco and Wiseau have more in common than you might think.

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Loving Vincent

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Loving Vincent

What’s more important to know about Vincent van Gogh ­– the man art historians consider the father of modern painting – how he lived, or the circumstances of his death? That’s the question the visually stunning new film Loving Vincent tries to answer. If that’s all you’re thinking about after seeing the film, though, you’ve missed the point. That’s why it’s forgivable that the movie’s story is the weakest thing about it. The way the story is told, though, is unforgettable. Every frame of Loving Vincent was oil-painted by hand. It took a team of 125 painters two years to complete. The movie is a beautiful exception to the rule “form follows function.”

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Battle of the Sexes

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Battle of the Sexes

It’s hard to miss the parallels between the tennis match at the center of Battle of the Sexes and our most recent presidential election. The similarities go much deeper than the one event, in fact. Sexes acts as a depressing reminder that despite the progresses we’ve made in the last 40+ years in regard to gender equality and LGBTQ rights, the old cliché remains as true as ever: the more things change, the more they stay the same. This realization is made all the more bittersweet because it’s wrapped up in a crowd-pleasing confection of a movie. The directing team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, gave us the feel-good Little Miss Sunshine as their feature debut, after all.

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Jackie

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Jackie

“Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Jacqueline Kennedy crafted the idea of her time in the White House as the second coming of Camelot. Jackie, which takes place in the days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is more Shakespearian tragedy than Arthurian musical. More precisely, it’s the aftermath of one of The Bard’s tragedies. Director Pablo Larrain, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, and star Natalie Portman have given us a compelling and intense character study of the former First Lady. She was at the epicenter of a catastrophic event in 20th century American history, and their film humanizes her in a profound way.

The main plot of the film covers the week between JFK’s assassination and his burial...

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Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge

If all you knew about Hacksaw Ridge was the title, you might think it was a horror movie. That’s what I initially thought before I saw a trailer or even a poster. Hacksaw Ridge sounds like the newest Eli Roth torture-porn entry, or maybe the title of a Rob Zombie film. While it’s not a horror movie per se, director Mel Gibson’s World War II drama does share some of the genre’s iconography. It’s a function of Gibson’s preoccupations with physical suffering. There are plenty more of Gibson’s fixations present here: his hero is a Christ figure, the moral of the story involves being true to your convictions at any and all costs. Hacksaw Ridge is also a deeply flawed film, but one that manages to overcome those flaws through compelling action and a moving conclusion.

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Gold

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Gold

There’s a well-known maxim in Hollywood:  the best way for an actor to get an Oscar is to play a role in which he or she is ugly or disfigured. See Charlize Theron in Monster, or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Typically, this strategy only works in tandem with one other element – the movie showcasing the performance must be good or interesting in some way. Matthew McConaughey has the first part down in his new film, Gold. He isn’t exactly disfigured in the movie, but to lose his trademark good looks for a role amounts to the same thing. He plays an average schmo, complete with a potbelly and male-pattern baldness. That’s the most interesting thing about the movie, and it’s not nearly enough to salvage the mishandled structure and uninteresting story.

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The Founder

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The Founder

Mark Zuckerberg only thought he was an original. Long before he upended all of our lives with social media, Ray Kroc did the same thing with burgers. According to The Founder, the biopic about Kroc and the fast-food empire he swindled from a pair of brothers, the two even shared a few of the same tactics. The subject matter of both this film and David Fincher’s The Social Network, about the founder of Facebook, make comparisons between the movies almost unavoidable. In any such assessment of the two, The Founder is bound to come out as the lesser work of art. That’s mostly because director John Lee Hancock is not as assured or stylistically bold as Fincher. Robert D. Siegel’s script also lacks the verbal pyrotechnics of Aaron Sorkin’s dialog for The Social Network

All that makes it seem like The Founder is a failure, which isn’t true. The movie is entertaining and even, at times, compelling. The core performance, Michael Keaton as Kroc, is a wonder to behold. Almost every actor around him turns in similarly solid work. There’s just a missing sense of pathos in the overall effect of the movie that, were it present, would transform The Founder from good to great.

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