Tag Archives: biography

I Am Heath Ledger

Sometimes a disc just jumps to the top of your Netflix queue for unknown reasons. This one was way down my list, but appeared unexpectedly in my box the other day. It offers a 90 min docu which is part of Derik Murray’s “I am…” series of biographies; a genre he is drawn to. I’ve not seen the others, but while interesting, I can’t say this was a particularly insightful piece of biography or strong enough for me to search out the others.

Certainly, the loss of Ledger was a blow to many. I can honestly say I spotted him in Roar and followed him up through his triumphant Joker in The Dark Knight. He had amazing charisma and significant talent.

But a biography should be intended to provide insight and a balanced view of its subject, warts and all. That is what gives you a true appreciation for the person and context for their lives. The result of this film is purely a love letter to Heath. In fact, I left it feeling that if anyone had stood up to Ledger, rather than just idolizing or following him, he might still be alive; surely not the intended message. Heath was a manic and creative soul that seemed to just run rampant. Though there are indications of struggles, none are really explored, only hinted at. 

And this is part of the root of the problem with the film, the lack of any sense of real struggle on his part. Also, the structure of the piece is odd. For example, the revelation that he was a chess fiend, and pushing to be a Grand Master, comes very near the end of the story, but was clearly an important part of his personality and life from the time he was small. Yet that aspect of his daily routine and life is utterly absent till we are forced to re-evaluate him with that revelation near the end. 

Basically, if you want a nice, relatively light review of Ledger’s life and art, with some intriguing glances behind the curtain of his other pursuits, this will do. If you’re hoping for a real look at his life, who he was, and what really drove him, you’ll probably have to wait another 10 years for someone with distance to tackle the subject again.

I Am Heath Ledger

We are X

Sometimes a trailer catches you by declaring similarity to something you do know. In this case, We are X claimed affinity with Searching for Sugar Man, which was a delightful and unexpected treat of a documentary. It was not an apt comparison by any stretch, but the movie has its own merits.

So, let’s start with the obvious: Who is X Japan? Probably the biggest band that you’ve never heard of. I certainly hadn’t, as their rise to popularity beyond Japan was outside of my music exploration days. Learning about their path was interesting, but not overly different from any other big rock group. They met young, they had trials, they had losses, and they had triumphs.

However, what sets this docu and the group apart is Yoshiki, the drummer (amongst other instruments) and primary brains behind the band (and primary filter for this movie). Not because of his songs or playing, though both are notable, but because of his drive. Yoshiki is definitely not the typical drummer personality. He is the primary lryics and tunes man, the business manager, and the primary front personality of the band. I couldn’t think of a single, prominent band that had a drummer in the same role, though I’m sure someone out there will prove me wrong now that I’ve stated it. Rush comes close, but they really are more ensemble.

The docu is much less about music than it is about artistic integrity and life. Sure, it is a little self-conscious and controlled, but it is also fascinating, empowering, and inspiring in many ways. What is missing is the insight into creation of their music. This is more an homage to X Japan and/or their fans (it sort of works in both directions). That is a great gift if you were a fan, but of less value if you didn’t know them going in.

Gimme Danger was a better look inside a band, in large part because a third eye was brought to the tale. History wasn’t only lensed through the eyes of the band itself, there was some critical thought to it all, however filtered.

Beyond the emotional journey, what We are X does have to offer is some nice behind the scenes views of their Madison Square Garden concert. No matter how many times you see that kind of event being put together, it is awe-inspiring what it takes to create it and how simple they make it look during performance.

This is an oddly compelling story. Seeing what an artist like Yoshiki will sacrifice (quite literally everything) in order to create is pretty fascinating. How much of this is promotion and how much bald fact, frankly there is no way to tell. And he did get me interested in digging out their tunes and learning more, so perhaps it served its purpose.

We Are X

The Salt of the Earth

I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this powerful piece. Perhaps the right way is with the director, which is counter-intuitive, but the result of this movie is directly related to Wim Wenders’ (Pina) involvement.

Making a film about a photographer is fraught with issues. A medium of moving pictures trying to elicit an understanding of a medium that relies on single, frozen moments is practically at odds from the start. Wenders, who narrates a large part of the film, comments on that in a way at the top of this documentary. But Wenders was a perfect choice as a man who could take this story and make the film feel like a Salgado photo from beginning to end. He captured the sense, sensibility, and framing of the great photographer’s works and filmed Salgado commenting on his photos while looking at them. The overall feel is often like an intimate, private show.

Tackling this subject also meant finding the story of Salgado’s life, the narrative by which Wenders captures your imagination and exposes the root of the art. He went with the title as it is now, but it could also have been “The Life, and Death, and Life of Sebastião Salgado” given the shape of his life and tale. Salgado has led a fascinating life both in deeds and trajectory.  His story is as inspiring as his art, not only for its unlikely path but also for its intensity and dedication to the purpose and result. To discuss it would be to rob you of the journey and revelations, so I won’t.

I discovered Wim Wenders as a narrative filmmaker. His power, however, as a documentarian is proving to be equally or more emotionally and artistically impactful for me. He embraces his subjects and holds them close, for years in some cases, before embarking on trying to tell their story in the right way. This movie is no exception and the result is something that has to be seen.

The Salt of the Earth

Gimme Danger

Music is a visceral thing. It gets into your head, your blood, and your bones as you grow up. It is all about time and life, love and loss. It is why a few notes can bring back memories, both good and bad, for just about anyone on the planet. The Stooges were a powerful force in the evolution of modern rock, by personality if not by talent. They fought manufactured music, created the stage dive, and were a large part of the force that ushered in what would become Punk rock.

Director Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) corners the members and gets from them some of the most jaw-droppingly honest interviews about an icon I’ve seen captured. Jim Osterberg/Iggy Pop, in particular just lays it all out there, not that he was ever particularly shy. But none of the interviews, current or past, try to hedge who they were and how utterly messed up things got for them. The film never devolves into wound-licking, however. It remains poised and comfortable with itself, perhaps a bit too much so as it glosses over some of the darker aspects of their lives. I don’t know if it is a weakness in this film that we never really see into that dark mirror clearly or a strength that it can be acknowledged and skipped over. You can infer a lot, but it does feel like you hear the story and, on reflection, realize you’re missing big chunks of information. If you want some nice intersections with their tale, watch CBGB and Velvet Goldmine within proximity to this docu; Iggy and The Stooges show up in both.

Jarmusch starts the story at the end of the band’s original career and then rebuilds your respect for and understanding of them. It is an intriguing way to attack such a seminal group; understanding how they dropped off the cliff is as much a part of how they climbed the mountain. Their collaborations, particularly in the UK, are mentioned, but a lot of that is also left to your own memory and/or researching.

There is a ton of archival footage and, of course, music. I would have liked a bit more of the latter, but it is just as interesting to hear how the band viewed their music and their approach to creating it; the structure under the chaos. This is a compelling film if you have any interest in rock music, particularly of the late 60s into the 70s and beyond.

Gimme Danger

I Am Not Your Negro

Probably the most brilliant aspect of Raoul Peck’s challenging documentary is that he doesn’t make you work to understand how it applies to today. Very often, the footage playing to Baldwin’s writing is from today. It is clear how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. Another powerful choice was his selection of Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) as the voice of Baldwin. Though he pointedly tried not to imitate Baldwin, by his own interviews, it fits with all of the archival footage almost seamlessly.

James Baldwin was a scholar, an icon, and a man with the ability to bring an outsider’s view to the troubles and hypocrisies of American life and the history of the country. He was a quiet, but intense revolutionary bringing his intellect to bear in both printed and live forums. We could sorely use him today, but his lessons are all still applicable, if not any more as immediate.

Peck took Baldwin’s surviving notes for a planned book to create this film. It is full of archival footage and, as mentioned, brilliant voice over of Baldwin’s writings. As a window on the soul of this country, and any country where there was an institutionalized underclass, it is more than a little disturbing and unflinching. The power of the message and insight is uncomfortably bare and unavoidable.

As a film it is a bit less effective. Though there is the stated conceit of telling Baldwin’s life through his friendship with Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr., it isn’t really about that at all, though they all play roles in the narrative. We get little of Baldwin’s personal life… instead, the material lectures (brilliantly) on the world around him.  While impactful, it doesn’t feel personal.  It is more of a survey course of American history with the touch-points of the assassinations. Part of Peck’s challenge, no doubt, was the incomplete outline that had survived Baldwin he was working with, which was all framework and little flesh.

Regardless, this is a film worth seeing; particularly now. The reflection of today against the past is chilling, even if you have already recognized the similarities. We all want to believe that as we move forward as people and as a country we learn and improve. I Am Not Your Negro reminds us that mistakes, beliefs, fears, and self-delusions are not so easily shed and remain as ongoing subtext or repeat themselves until they are acknowledged in full and faced.

I Am Not Your Negro

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

As a documentary, writer/director Nancy Buirski’s (The Loving Story) efforts are mixed in this film. She builds up an interesting story, but often has weak visual support and has some challenge with the through-line of the piece. It is still fascinating, but not as crisp as it could have been. As her second documentary, however, it certainly shows promise.

Faun is filled with interviews, archival footage, and photos that provide intriguing insights into American dance. Tanaquil Le Clercq (Tanny), the focus of the tale, was muse and influence to two of the most impactful choreographers in modern ballet and Broadway: George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Her life is a study in perseverance, drive, and not a little luck.

The title is an interesting choice as well, and telling, though not really ever discussed. Afternoon of a Faun is both one of the most recognizable and one of the most notorious pieces in dance. Typically the first performance it elicits in memory is that of Nijinski’s for the tumult it caused when first performed (view a version here). It even came back into culture with a notorious version in Queen’s I Want to Break Free.

But in the case of Tanny, it is a more contemplative reference to the trajectory and pace of her life. It opens and closes with a ground breaking interpretation by Robbins of the title music danced by Tanny. It is charged with all the same aspects of Nijinski, but in a more intriguing venue and approach. But the intent is to consider the moment in time, its perfection and its brevity.

This is far from a brilliant documentary, but as a piece of history, told often from first person accounts, it is interesting. If you have any interest in dance, particularly modern dance, it is a great education. It is also a nice complement to Pina, if you’re looking for some of the impact and overlap of influence that Le Clercq had.

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

 

Codebreaker

When I first saw The Imitation Game, I felt it was missing something. It was well done and superbly acted, but there was so much more to the story than it covered… much I knew and some I didn’t. At the time, I had tripped across this 2011 documentary from the BBC but I only finally got my hands on it recently.

I admit that it is a bit staged in its re-enactments, but they are all based on recorded facts and add a level of humanism to what is a fascinating and tragic story. A story, I must say, feels even more relevant today than when it was released or even since Imitation Game hit screens a few short years ago.

This is as much a story of modern computing (with a bit of a snub to Babbage and Lovelace) as it is about prejudice, governments, and abuse of power. All very topical subjects these days.

Paul McGann (Luther) narrates well and unobtrusively. Turing, played by Ed Stoppard (Youth), equals Cumberbatch in skill, though with only short scenes to go by it isn’t a completely fair comparison. And Henry Goodman (Avengers: Age of Ultron) as his psychologist, friend, and confident is suitably open and sympathetic. These dramatized moments interposed with interviews and explanations very much help to ground the story and give is a face. In the end, it is a view of Turing that even Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, didn’t manage to fully capture because in both cases, movie and stage play, they decided to pick a focus rather than to absorb the whole.

If you have an interest in Turing or want to know more about the genesis of the modern computing age, this is an excellent way to learn more.

Codebreaker

Séraphine

“Struggling artist” is a cliché that, sadly, is born far too much from truth. The reality is that most ground-breaking artists, artists that truly impact those around them and through time, have led complicated and challenging lives and have either struggled to get recognition or are so driven to create that recognition is an afterthought… and often comes after their death. See again: complicated and challenging lives (sometimes of their own making as they hyperfocus to create). Séraphine Louis was such a soul, though timing played a fair bit into her struggles too.

While there are many fine performances in the cast, the film circles around only two characters. Yolande Moreau (A Brand New Testament) as Séraphine is magnetic and inscrutable. She seems permanently surprised by the world and yet completely engaged with it. Driving the events is art dealer and taste-maker, Wilhelm Uhde, played equally brilliantly and tragically by Ulrich Tukur (Lives of Others). Both are outsiders in their worlds, though for different reasons, and each battles for their right to be part of the world despite what it throws at them.

Director and co-writer Martin Provost (Violette) worked with his oft-time collaborator Marc Abdelnour to create this quietly powerful movie about art, drive, class, and belonging. One of the fascinating and clever aspects of this script is that we are never in Séraphine’s head, only near her orbit. While there is a strong POV of her, we really know her through Uhde and observation. We can appreciate her drive and stand amazed at her efforts, but we never really understand her. To pretend we did would imply that anyone could accomplish what she and other artists have over the centuries, and that would do nothing but cheapen the art. 

Séraphine landed a number of nominations and awards when it was released. It is easy to understand why. Moreau, in particular, has an air of magic about her. This is both a good movie and, from what I can tell, a rather good depiction of the Séraphine and Uhde’s lives; it manages to tackle big questions quietly while focused on the humanity of those involved. Tackle it yourself at some point, if nothing else for Moreau’s performance.

Séraphine

Loving

For a movie about huge and echoing results across history, this is a very quiet film. Loving v. Virginia changed this country and became bedrock law that set marriage as a fundamental, constitutional right; a right that could not be subverted by bias or prejudice. Among other things, it also led to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

You’d expect with those kinds of stakes and that kind of impact that this would be a tense movie of struggle and strife with soaring music and wailing babies. In fact, this movie overlaps heavily with Hidden Figures, Selma, and 13th. It also is referenced and part of later stories, such as When We Rise. Each of these, for all the character work in them at times, focuses on the politics and edits the story for energy.

Right or wrong, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) chose to avoid that route. Certainly there is struggle throughout, but it is all very quiet and contained. The broad impact of this, essentially, quiet couple is almost jarring in balance. Instead of focusing on the civil rights fights going on all around them, the film concentrates on the devoted relationship of these two people and their family.

In some ways I understand the choice. Ruth Negga (Warcraft) and Joel Edgerton (Black Mass) turn in sweet performances that are full of subtle moments of reality. Their story is completely removed from the storm they created. The struggle is very personal and theirs alone. That is a point of view that is often lost in the tumult of how large sea changes are depicted. Then again, many of those changes were all-consuming for those involved. For the Lovings it was important, obviously, but the fight was tangential to their day-to-day lives.

Even characters such as Marton Csokas (The Equalizer) bigoted sheriff are very measured in their engagements with the Lovings. In fact Nick Kroll’s (Adult Beginners) lawyer is often baffled by the Loving’s lack of engagement in what he sees, clearly, as a life changing event for both him and the country.

But what does that do to it as a movie? Well, honestly, it makes it a bit slow. Even if the people are compelling and the perspective true and somewhat unique for these kinds of tales, that doesn’t make it a great film. Which, I admit, is frustrating. If this hadn’t been about the Lovings, but instead was about someone who was helped by the seminal ruling, it would have worked better for me. But as it is about the central characters in the event, I wanted more … something. More emotion, more risk, more stakes. Nichols took a very naturalistic approach… that takes guts, but it doesn’t necessarily take my emotions with them.

Perhaps I’m just too trained by the media to expect more. Perhaps I’m just an adrenaline junky who wants a better ride out of my films. But I honestly think it was a tactical error in the script to focus where it did given the tenor of the film it was going to be. The performances, as I mentioned, are very good and the story is important and interesting. But this is a great example of why adherence to the truth in an event isn’t always the best way to tell the tale.

Loving

Queen of Katwe

This is a feel-good, true story with a modicum of inferred hardship. Much like Lion, Katwe tries to stay focused on the positive while allowing the darkest part of the story to stay at the fringes of the camera’s vision. The value of the positive role models in this tale offsets some of that concern. It is also a wonderful reminder and example that intellect has nothing to do with circumstances, though opportunity certainly plays into the ability to take advantage of it.

David Oyelowo (Selma) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) are both impressive in their roles. However, it is newcomer Madina Nalwanga who is the center of this story. And that is, perhaps, the biggest aspect that challenges this film. In trying to tell the whole story, which began with with a short film, “A Fork, A Spoon, and a Knight” about Oyelowo’s character, it is unfocused for the first half of its run-time. It isn’t uninteresting, nor uncompelling, but it isn’t crisp.

The award winning director Mira Nair and writer Wheeler reteamed after The Reluctant Fundamentalist to deliver this adaptation of Crothers’ ESPN article and subsequent book. It is easy to see what the attraction was in the material but, as I mentioned, they resisted cutting out material to focus it more cleanly. It is, admittedly, a tough story to simplify. All three main characters are interesting and it is the combination of their interaction and efforts that bring about the results. The main challenge is how the groundwork gets laid in the first half of the tale; this is where the fracturing of what we are learning weakens the overall results as a film even if it doesn’t affect the message. Regardless of this fumble, the story is entrancing and worth seeing for adults and children, of tween age and above, alike.

Queen of Katwe