Tag Archives: biography

Tom of Finland

[3.5 stars]

Many things can define a culture or a group. It can be music, food, fashion…or in this case: art. You may not know his nome de pencil,  Tom of Finland, but you can’t have escaped the images that Touko Valio Laaksonen produced. He defined a great deal of gay culture starting in the 40s up through the 80s, evolving his art from providing a voice to the fantasies of forbidden desire to, ultimately, celebrations of life in the face of illness. Whether or not you were part of the leather culture, his images captured raw sexuality in a heightened way that was an equal response to, and a statement about, how repressed culture was pretty much everywhere.

Beyond his art, Laaksonen himself, had a fascinating life that we pick up during WWII. Yes, he struggled with a repressive culture and horrifying laws and bias, but he also struggled with simply being a veteran of war. His wish to avoid confrontation, to not have to fight anymore, is something universal to soldiers returned from the front. Seeing that play out in his life was an unexpected aspect of the history.

Director Dome Karukoski also told the story in an interesting way, without explanation flipping around the chronologies at times, but always with a purpose that would pay off. He maintains a respectable distance from his subjects, but allows us to invest in them and hope for them. There is an odd clinical feeling to many of the exchanges that is reflective of Finland and Germany, but it never leaves you feeling closed out. In some ways the lack of warmth heightens the brief moments of connection for Touko and contrasts nicely with his later life.

This movie works equally well as a story and as a documentary/biopic. Primarily in Finnish, it also has plenty of German and English dialogue and nothing is so rapid fire as to cause subtitle strain. In fact, a lot of the film is without dialogue, allowing the story to play out with looks and action alone. It is well done and, ultimately, educating. It will also provide you a new appreciation for Tom of Finland, his work and his purpose, not to mention his place in history.

Tom of Finland

 

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

[3stars]

Annette Bening (20th Century Women) does a wonderful job of recreating Gloria Grahame with a sort of Marilyn Monroe at the Grand Hotel vibe. Grahame had a tragically fascinating life, full of huge successes and personal regrets. But the film never feels like a biopic. Writer Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere BoyThe Look of Love) didn’t fall prey to assuming we already knew Grahame and were invested in her. He brings us to her just as Jamie Bell (Fantastic Four) and his family, Dame Julie Walters (Brooklyn) and Kenneth Cranham (Bancroft), come to and become attached to her.

Director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) also navigated the complicated plot and characters with confidence. He doesn’t make excuses for the characters, but allows them to be honest as he unpacks the truths over the course of the story.

I didn’t know about Grahame going in. In fact, I didn’t even realize the film was biographical till the end. It is simply an interesting story told and acted well. Benning, in particular, brings her A game to a very layered, and at times desperate, woman. This film would also make a great double-feature with Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.

Film Stars Don

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

[4 stars]

Bombshell is well named and well punned by first time writer/director Alexandra Dean. She brings us a wonderful examination of one of the best known faces of the 20th Century: Hedy Lamarr. It is all the more poignant is that this arrives in an atmosphere of the #metoo movement and the rising concerns of the potentially eroding position women hold in society.

What Dean makes immediately clear is that while Lamarr’s face was known, and maybe some of her life, who she really was remained ignored till recently. Through interviews with family, friends, and industry colleagues, as well as extensive recorded interviews and footage, we get a sense of the astonishing person behind the tabloid history that dominated her legacy. Which isn’t to say her life wasn’t tumultuous, but it was also full of invention…literally.

Take 90 minutes to learn about Lamarr and how she has shaped your life in ways you have never known. And, while you’re at it, gain an appreciation for both the horror of the studio system and the implicit bias that still pervades the world.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Goodbye Christopher Robin

[3 stars]

They say you should never look in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant…and in some ways that applies to your favorite stories as well. There is practically no child that hasn’t grown up knowing Winnie the Pooh. There is a magic to that silly old bear. But, having grown up, you do need to ask yourself if you want to know what the truth, real story, and inspiration were behind the wondrous Hundred Acre Wood. As several of the biographies of the last decade or so highlight, the life of the Milnes wasn’t storybook by any stretch.

But writers Frank Cottrell Boyce (Revengers Tragedy) and first-timer Simon Vaughan did a good job of distilling Robin’s story even while telling it primarily from his father’s point of view. That approach allowed them to navigate all aspects of the family, though the intent of the focus is on Robin’s experience. The tale is very layered and complex, often in subtle ways. It tackles class, war, parenthood, child rearing, love, show business in various forms, art, and the creative process, not just the specific genesis of Pooh and his friends. Probably not the story you imagine.

Will Tilston, in his first major role as Christopher Robin, was a brilliant bit of casting. While his acting may not be quite as polished as the rest of the cast, director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) elicited a great performance that struck just the right tone for his challenged childhood. Alex Lawther (The End of the F**ing World) then takes that setup as the older Robin and pays it off rather well.

But while the story is about Christopher, it is primarily told from the adult point of view. Domhnall Gleeson (mother!) delivers a powerful and sympathetic performance as A.A. Milne. Like many men (for instance Tolkien) returning from WWI, he struggled in near silence to recover. How that affected his writing is a critical part of the history. As his mother, Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) walks a very odd path of love and motherhood that is particular to that era and at that strata. There is love there, but of a particular kind. It is Kelly Macdonald (T2: Trainspotting) that Robin recognizes as the main source of intimacy in his life, and Macdonald provides a good target for it. It isn’t a new type of performance for her, but rather a comfortable and recognizable character delivered with expertise.

A side-effect of the scope of the story is that the movie is a little challenging to follow emotionally. The focus is split between the generations. That isn’t ultimately a bad thing, but it dilutes the result through much of the film, even as it pays it all off by the end. Also, it wasn’t helped by the aging make-up toward the end of the movie which really fails and broke the reality of the moments for me.

I started this write-up with a warning, which I’ll reiterate. If you want to keep the pure magic of the stories you know, you don’t want to see this film. The film has its own magic and, certainly, respects the phenomena that is the stories that are quickly approaching their first century in print. But it also exposes the reality of a difficult childhood and fumbled parenting. On a pure movie level, the acting and directing are solid, however, so I certainly recommend it if you aren’t worried about seeing how the meal was made.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Victoria & Abdul

[3 stars]

From the very beginning you know the tone of this tale is not going to be the dry historical you probably expected. Victoria & Abdul is, for a large part of the movie, a light film filled with comedy and joy, though it certainly takes on important issues while it both celebrates and lambastes the pomp of royalty and the untenable position of a monarch. Judi Dench (Tulip Fever) tackles the leader of the British empire 20 years after her previous turn in the position in Mrs. Brown. In fact, this movie picks up that persona well into her years, long past Albert, and years after Victoria was again on her own. The two would make a great double feature as you can see the foundation of what leads to Victoria’s choices and household.

In the other title role, Ali Fazal (3 Idiots) brings an interesting energy to his character that feels almost false or forced, but somehow real. He is the perfect optimist opposite Adeel Akhtar’s (The Big Sick) whingeing and political ire in opposition to the court around him. Of note in that group are Eddie Izzard (Absolutely Anything), Olivia Williams (Man Up), and Paul Higgins (Utopia), among a host of others.

What starts as silly, progresses roughly as you’d expect as jealousies and prejudice begin to assert themselves. But Victoria was a tough old cookie, even till the end;  nothing was ever going to be simple.

Having already tackled Queen Elizabeth II, it shouldn’t be surprising to see director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins) take on Victoria. He is well at home in the upper crustiest of crusts, and happy to show all the cracks as well. He coaxed a wonderfully balanced set of performances out of the entire cast and filmed it with care and love for his central characters.

And though the tale is oversimplified, Lee Hall’s (War Horse) script provides enough meat to keep it all feeling complete. The dialogue is also often delightfully unexpected.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it is entertaining and worth the investment of an evening to learn about a newly discovered bit of history. Seeing Dench take on the mantle of the monarchy again to complete the story she started back in 1997 is also a gift.

Victoria & Abdul

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

[4 stars]

At its heart, this is a movie about love. That is also a biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman and his bold choices in a repressed era becomes window dressing. Though, I have to admit, I will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.

Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train), Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon), and Rebecca Hall (The Dinner) pull off a beautiful triangle. They manage to bring to life the complex emotions, fears, and desires that drove and challenged the relationship they formed without making it puerile or cliche. In our current times, it is also a great lesson in moral fibre and learning to be who you are despite societal pressures or assumptions.

There are some very nice smaller roles that are worth noting as well, JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger) in particular. On the sidelines are Oliver Platt (The Ticket), and Connie Britton (Beatriz at Dinner) that provide some intriguing bridging characters too, though we never really get to know them.

Writer and director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) does something wonderful with this tale. She approaches it without judgement of her characters, but rather flips that to her audience and those around the unusual family. As her second feature, it is beautifully modulated and subtle. I will say that while the romance and personal aspect of the story is very effective and believable, Robinson’s other goal (layering on Marston’s psych theory as a structure for the movie) is less effective. It doesn’t distract or diminish the film, but it doesn’t really add much to it either. You can see the ideas, you can’t avoid them given the transitions, but I didn’t find them to build on or explain much either. Frankly, it is a minor criticism in this story as it is still character appropriate and adds some interesting structure, even if it is less than impactful.

Whether you know the history of of these people, or have an interest in Wonder Woman comics, this is a story that will grab you early and keep you intrigued. Marston was no ordinary man, nor were the brilliant women he had in his life. What is fascinating is just how little things have changed since their story began in the late 1920s.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Loving Vincent

[3 stars]

Have you ever wanted to fall into a painting and see what the world was like in there? Loving Vincent, whose title serves both as the core sense of the film and comes from the artist’s own epigram, does just that. Using van Gogh’s style, an army of artists hand painted each frame making it feel like you’re in his world. The result is somewhere between stop-action and traditional animation, evoking Aleksandr Petrov or even early Takahata and Miyazaki.

But the story itself isn’t what you likely anticipate given that description. Unexpectedly, this Oscar contender kicks off a year after van Gogh’s death; an event most of us grew up thinking we understood. It was suicide, wasn’t it? Turns out there is a story there to be told. Douglas Booth (Limehouse Golem) is the man trying to ferret out the truth, at first reluctantly, and eventually with solid obsession and a large collection of characters to interview.

Among the notable supporting cast: Chris O’Dowd (The Cloverfield Paradox), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Helen McCrory (Their Finest),  Aidan Turner (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Being Human), John Sessions (The Loch), and Jerome Flynn (Ripper Street, Game of Thrones). Due to the techniques of the film, the actors are more than just voices in this story. All of the actors are recognizable, their images painted over to fit into the atmosphere.

This amazing cast, listed and unlisted, are also part of the issues with the film. Though each looks a lot like the real-world counterparts in Vincent’s world, the rotoscoping is a little distracting. The style of the film, which uses overlays and masks to create the style at times, can also be a bit hard to focus on as it flows across the screen. It brings to life van Gogh, making his static indication of vibrancy real, but what worked in static can feel over amplified in constant motion. Still, the overall effect and story are fascinating and clearly a true labor of love.

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman directed and co-wrote this odd historical along with Jacek Dehnel. For all involved this was an early contribution to feature film and a heck of a leap of art to try. While it deserves its place among the Oscar notables this year, it isn’t likely to win more than the honor of nomination. However, I am very curious to see what this trio (or individuals) attack next. It took a very creative brain to recognize there was a movie here, and to conceive of way to tell it that would capture audiences in a new way. Make time for Vincent…it is truly unexpected.

Loving Vincent

Winchester

[3 stars]

Winchester struggles from the moment it starts. It can’t decide if wants to be a Gothic horror, a modern horror, a romantic supernatural, or a true history movie. Given the guts and clarity of vision of the Spierig  brothers previous Predestination, the vacillation and lack of control were surprising.

It isn’t a complete loss. There is a good story at the core of it all, but it takes more than half the film for it to come into focus and, by that point, you just want it all to resolve. There are some good scares; even the utterly predictable ones will get you to jump. Certainly it has some great production values and a heck of a cast.

Part of the story focus issues may well have been because of Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty), who was certainly the name-draw for the film. But while her story wants to dominate the film, it is really just the McGuffin to Jason Clarke’s (Mudbound) journey.  Clarke, however, doesn’t have the same level of presence nor familiarity for audiences; his efforts seem to constantly take a back-seat to the rest of Mirren’s efforts, even when they really aren’t.

Sarah Snook (Steve Jobs) and Eamon Farren (Twin Peaks) round out the important characters, each with their own sense of oddity. Neither gets to develop their character much, but neither feels unformed either.

The Winchester house is a fascinating study in guilt. Unlike the Nobel family, Winchester simply pushed away the ill gotten gains rather than trying to have it do good in the world. Unless, of course, you believe this film. In any event, there are some clever ideas and weaving in of real history. It isn’t a great movie, but does have some nice visuals and a number of good scares. Frankly, though, unless you’re a Mirren complete-ist or hooked on one of the other actors, go watch something else to get your heart pumping.

Winchester

The Post

[3 stars]

As I prepped for the Women’s March, and only a day after the current president launched The Fakies, making time for The Post seemed both a necessity and a wonderful warm-up for the cause. The Post is a phenomenally important movie and message. I’ll get to the rating later.

This is Meryl Streep’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) story, without question. It is that extra layer of her coming into her own that really makes the film. But, surprisingly, while Tom Hanks (Inferno) , may share the marquis with her, it is really her relationship with Tracy Letts (Lady Bird) that is the flash point for her evolution; and his character enjoys that moment immensely.

There are a slew of other solid performances as well. Bob Odenkirk (Hell and Back) and Bruce Greenwood (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), for instance. But it is Bradley Whitford (Get Out) that stood out for me. His weasley Arthur Parsons was a study, mostly, in subtlety and restraint as an actor. And, though the performance isn’t particularly noteworthy, Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name) makes his fourth appearance in a top film this year; we should all have such a good agent working on our behalf!

While Streep’s character rules the story, it is the papers and message that rule the plot. This is clear in the way the Speilberg (The BFG) directs the shots and provides focus, often following the papers rather than the people. His message and warnings are clear about where we are today and what we cannot ever allow to happen. And the final moments slam that home with almost embarrassing abandon.  But I have to tell you, we were all clapping come the final credits and when is the last time that happened in a movie for you? It wasn’t quite the hopeful rush that V for Vendetta brought to me during the W years, but, then again, this wasn’t a movie of hope, it was a call to arms.

All the import aside, it is only, really, a middling movie on its own. Much like Bridge of Spies, it feels somewhat sanitized. There is no grit and grime like, say, Roman J. Israel, Esq. had. It sometimes felt more like the memory of an era rather than the time itself. The beats, even if you don’t know the history, are all pretty predictable. The moments that stand out are the moments that show us Streep’s world and reality (and a couple will take the air out of your sails). But her transitions aren’t very crisp…you see them and know they happen, but I never saw the “moment” it clicked over only the moment before and after. Perhaps more of the blame belongs to fairly fresh writers Hannah and Singer, but it was still Spielberg’s to bring to life.

So yes, see it. You must. If not for the performances, for the reminder and for the energy to act. It is most certainly not a waste of your time even if it isn’t the instant classic of The Paper Chase (which would make a great double feature).

See you at the March, I hope…

The Post

Battle of the Sexes

[3 stars]

Another timely biopic, handled with honesty and consummate ability by the main actors, Emma Stone (La La Land) and Steve Carell (Cafe Society, Despicable Me). Though neither actor looks quite like their real-life counterpart, both make you forget they aren’t the real Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs through subtle facial moves, posture, and vocal control. At times it is eerie.

Additional characters help provide story vector or commentary. Jessica McNamee (Sirens) as Margaret Court is an uncomfortable bridge from the past into the film’s present while Bill Pullman (The Equalizer) is a nasty depiction of the thoughts of the times. As a fun side-note, and probably most out of place in this movie, is Alan Cumming (queers.). But it’s Alan Cumming, so I really didn’t care that it felt just a bit shimmed in; he’s too much fun.

Two of the most thankless roles in this recounting are the spouses of King and Riggs. Austin Stowell (Colossal) and Elisabeth Shue (Hope Springs), respectively, are quiet pillars in the storm of their relationships, understanding who they were married to and finding ways to deal with that. And then there is Andrea Riseborough’s (Birdman) character, who wants to be part of the support, but who struggles to understand what is really going on. This collective of people is part of what sets this story apart. None are quite what you expect either in word or action. Writer Simon Beaufoy (Everest) did his most subtle work around these characters and helped make it feel even more real.

Interestingly, this was co-directed by wife/husband power team  Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Ruby Sparks, Little Miss Sunshine) which probably helped keep the sensibilities all in line, though their particular leaning is clear. The result is both humorous and enlightening. The film is certainly a cure for thinking we’ve made no progress in the last 40 years, as well as a reminder of how much more there still is to do, even after all this time and all that effort.

Aside: Just this morning (18 January 2018) Novak Djokovic put forward the idea of paying men more because they currently have higher TV ratings, and Martina Navratilova speaks out against it…just in case you thought this was purely historical: http://www.bbc.com/sport/tennis/42729296.

Battle of the Sexes