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Biopic

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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Hidden Figures

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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a great example of a fascinating story told in an uninspired way. The title of the film hints at how important the true-life subject matter is. It tells the tale of people who made critical contributions to the success of a defining moment in human history, but who went unrecognized because of their second-class status. They are finally getting the credit they deserve, but it’s a shame that the style doesn’t do the content justice. The movie indulges in every biopic cliché imaginable. The way it handles race issues of the early 1960s is similarly flawed. Missing are the nuanced shades of gray that made a movie like Selma so rich. Instead, Hidden Figures focuses on easy crowd pleasing moments that are cathartic, to be sure, but that lack the subtle nuance that would make them emotionally complex and satisfying. It’s A Beautiful Mind meets The Help, with all the problems of both.

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Rules Don't Apply

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Rules Don't Apply

It’s hard to overstate how big of a disaster Warren Beatty’s film Rules Don’t Apply is. The man who ruled Hollywood for over two decades has delivered the first movie he wrote, directed, and starred in since 1998’s Bulworth, and it’s a complete mess. Beatty became an instant sex symbol in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, and he won the Best Director Oscar for Reds, his 1981 ode to John Reed, one of only two Americans ever granted burial at the Kremlin in Moscow. Almost none of Beatty’s earlier successful filmmaking skills are visible in his latest project.

Like Reds, Beatty’s focus for Rules Don’t Apply is also a real-life figure, mercurial billionaire Howard Hughes. The legendary stories about Hughes, a man who inherited his father’s oil drill bit company and used his fortune to focus on his twin passions of aviation and filmmaking, are practically the makings of a fantastic movie all on their own. If you need proof, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a remarkable example. Not only was Hughes an eccentric and mysterious figure of great renown from the 1920s through the 1960s, he was also plagued with mental health issues, most notably a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Beatty’s movie, by contrast, suffers from bipolar disorder. 

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Snowden

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Snowden

Oliver Stone liberally blends fact and fiction to create his portrait of the NSA whistleblower at the center of his film Snowden. The director, who co-wrote the script with Kieran Fitzgerald, admits as much, confessing that the way Edward Snowden secreted highly classified information out of an NSA facility was stylized for the movie. “[W]hen he lifted these materials and helped get them out to the public, it is not done in the realistic way that it was done. It was—we gave it a little juice, because it’s a drama, and because, frankly, it’s probably much more banal than you think, the way he did it.”

Stone is a filmmaker who is famous for using creative license to bring a bold streak of drama to real-life events. With Snowden, his amalgamation of truth and Hollywood spectacle is a magnificent success. Stone humanizes Edward Snowden, making him a guy with whom we can all relate, while portraying his actions and the events surrounding them as the tense, establishment-shaking moments they are.

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Sully

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Sully

Clint Eastwood is a director who is masterful at orchestrating deeply powerful movie moments. From the dramatic standoffs in Unforgiven to the highly charged combat scenes in the controversial American Sniper, Eastwood is exceptional at delivering thrilling cinema. His tension-building skills are on full display in Sully, the dramatic retelling of the real life 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson.” It’s a story that’s tailor-made for a movie: US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his airbus A-320 on the Hudson River when a flock of geese flew into the plane, disabling both engines. He and First Officer Jeffery Skiles performed this ‘miracle’ without losing a single passenger or crew member.

Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki revisit the crash multiple times, interweaving it with scenes of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation in the weeks following the unbelievable landing. It’s these scenes of the investigation that threaten to bring the movie down. But Sully stays aloft, delivering a tense, powerful, and ultimately uplifting study of quiet heroism.

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