Tag Archives: biography

The Irishman

[4.5 stars]

Some films are good by themselves and some acquire additional greatness in the context of an entire opus. Martin Scrosese’s Irishman is definitely in the latter group; a masterpiece of epic storytelling that stands alone, but is also a reflection of his entire past. It presents a huge canvas and expansive story that is, at its heart (and to its success), a very simple tale. But as a piece of his entire canon, Irishman resonates both with humor and across time. It takes the harsh and frenetic world of Goodfellas and blends it with with tense normality of Raging Bull to come up with charged banality that occasionally explodes with moments, but is simply a tale of life.

Scorsese’s shaping and moulding of Steven Zaillian’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) script is a wonder to watch. The script disappears and the story, though it crosses decades, reamains easy and interesting to follow through its 3.5 hours. There are many clever milemarkers across the years, from fashion to historic events to movie titles. And, through it all, the growth and shift of the characters.

Robert De Niro (Joker) is at the center of it all. It is his story we experience; the world through his eyes. Joe Pesci (Love Ranch) and Al Pacino (Danny Collins) create the additional focal points of the tension in the story as the three men each exert influence. There are dozens of other great smaller roles, some nearly silent such as Anna Paquin’s (Furlough) powerful turn as De Niro’s daughter.

This is definitely in contention for Scorsese’s best so far. His control of the scope, the handling of the performances, and the execution of the final edit are all lessons in brilliance. He manages to infer much more than is ever there, avoiding a lot (though not all) of the extreme violence in his previous movies about organized crime. And that is probably its greatest aspect of success. All of those issues and ideas are there, but they aren’t the focus despite the purile allure it might have exerted on lesser directors.

Irishman is also a showcase for technology, particularly de-aging, in a way that is jaw-dropping. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci evolve through decades, though often in counter to their current realities. But, if you didn’t know that, you’d never spot the fantasy the digital work and make-up have wrought.

The Irishman, despite all the hoopla and arguments over its theatrical release versus streaming, or Scorsese’s narrow minded thinking about modern stories, such as superheroes, and despite its lack of diverstity (in large part due to the realities of the subjects and era), is a new and instant classic. Find a day to carve out the hours needed and tuck in for a great ride.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

[4.5 stars]

Fred Rogers was a unique man, and one that touched a huge swath of hearts over his years in his Neighborhood. The recent and wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was a great reminder of that. This story, which may be about him, is centered more on his legacy and effect than it is a dramatization of his life. In fact, what director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) managed to accomplish with writing duo Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script is just short of glorious.

Now, before this becomes overhype, let me be clear. It isn’t so much an in-your-face brilliant piece of cinema. It is simply structured so perfectly for its purpose, and so delightful despite the depth of its material as to transport you back to those days as a child sitting with Rogers and his crew as they helped you navigate the world.

Tom Hanks (The Post) isn’t a perfect visual fit for his role, but he exudes compassion and honesty in a way that makes you forget he isn’t the real thing. We learn about the man, but mostly through his actions and the comments of others.

The story really focuses on Matthew Rhys (Death Comes to Pemberly) and his family. Susan Kelechi Watson (This is Us) as his wife and, in particular, Chris Cooper as his father deliver amazing supporting roles.

The movie is just shy of perfect due to one extended fantasy sequence that, frankly, could have been much shorter or excised. I know why it was there, and it was amusing, but I think it was unnecessary. The rest was handled, performed, designed, and acted wonderfully. Look for this to get a slew of nominations and even, possibly, suprise in a few categories. It is an unassuming film, but it manages to be as magical as the subject it wishes to expose on screen. It is a must see for everyone, especially in these stressful times.

The White Crow

[3 stars]

Dance biopics are often disappointing because the actors playing the subject of the film can’t…well, dance. That is not a gap here. Is Oleg Ivenko as good as Rudolf Nureyev? No, and the movie even highlights that in the credits. However, he is credible and you never watch thinking “a shame the guy can’t dance.”  The guy, and the company, can dance.

With that first challenge successfully won, you can watch the story. And the story is interesting. I do have to admit that the great David Hare’s (Collateral) script wasn’t quite up to his usual quality. The story meanders and isn’t particularly focused. What drives Nureyev both in dance and in life is left quite a bit to the imagination. Perhaps that’s fair. But there were subjects Hare danced around (no pun intended), and others he poured out in exposition. I’m not sure I ever really understood Nureyev or many of the people around him. By the time we get to the pivotal moment near the end, I can’t say, other than the obvious, why he or Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) act quite as they do.

While Ralph Fiennes (The Lego Batman Movie) directed, not to mention acted, competently, he wasn’t able to expose the subtleties of the character as cleanly for me as I’d have liked. Perhaps that was my own problem and density, but it was all a little muddled. More concerning was Fiennes handling of the timeline, which bounces through three periods trying to build out Nureyev’s character motivations. Finnes didn’t negotiate those boundaries as cleanly as he could have. It was easy to lose track of which period you were in and where it was in his life even with some cinematic clues helping.

My concerns aside, it is a story worth seeing. It’s one of the most believable portrayals of a dance giant as well as peek back at a period of history that’s worth remembering as its spectre reasserts today. Finnes likes tackling tough subjects and, as his directing chops grow, I look forward to seeing more of what he can accomplish.

The Current War: Director’s Cut

[2.5 stars]

After a long, torturous road to screen, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) image of this story finally made it to theaters. Unfortunately, what arrived was a soulless outline of a story, however well acted and filmed, due to first time feature writer Michael Mitnick’s (Vinyl) script. But I’ll come back to that.

The cast is loaded with recognizable talent. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Child in Time) and Matthew Macfadyen (Ripper Street) work with what they have reasonably well, though with little payoff. They are also both rather sanitized from their infamous and documented personalities. Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien) is a great, but wasted, Tesla (you get a more interesting and complete picture of Tesla from The Prestige). Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) isn’t particularly good, but he isn’t bad…he’s just a bit too young to sell his role. The women (all two of them), Tuppence Middleton (MI-5) and Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald), are actually both intriguing, but are tiny parts of the tale. Only Michael Shannon (What They Had) has a character with any real depth to it, allowing him to take over the center of the story….but who was going to come out to a movie about George Westinghouse?

What this movie needed was Aaron Sorkin on script to bring the past to life or Baz Lurhman to transform it into a modern fantasy as a dark mirror for our times. And that was the real brass ring it could have aimed for, but it missed its mark, in making the story applicable to today. The story of Edison v Tesla v Westinghouse v Morgan is a wonderful parallel for the current battle between Amazon, Google, and Facebook to control the internet and information. But that layer is completely lost, though enough of a whiff of it remains to make you long for it.

Current War should have been a timely story of the fight for the American future and soul at a time when industrialists got to control that fight unchecked. It looks eerily familar to the now times. So, assuming you can connect the dots for yourself, take this as entertainment or as object lesson. But do it at your leisure, this isn’t really worth your time to run out and see it despite Chung-hoon Chung‘s gorgeous cinematography.

Tolkien

[3 stars]

Where Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody each used fantasy as a way to tell their realities, Tolkien went the other route: it uses reality to tell the fantasy. Well, about the fantasy, at any rate. The movie is a bit of a confused mess, but it does eventually come together to its point.

Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) is really quite good at negotiating both the complex emotional challenge and the age challenge of his role as the story unfolds. Lily Collins (Okja), likewise, gets to work a lot of levels, not all of which are comfortable. The rest of the cast is servicable, with folks like Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) and Patrick Gibson (The Darkest Minds) probably standing out the most. But, frankly, no one really matters outside the main couple.

The main challenge with this film is that it isn’t very focused. It jumps back and forth in time attempting to show the connections in Tolkien’s life that led him to author his stories. But the narrative is a little forced as we follow him through the trenches while his febrile brain keeps triggering memories. It wasn’t sustainable for the whole movie, so the approach ends about two thirds of the way through. A more chronological telling may have been more effective for the majority of the story; or, perhaps, a more complete commitment to the flashback. The mix and unbalance of the two leaves the rhythm of the film uneven and confused.

Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) certainly took care with his portrayal. And writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford (Pride) were likewise sympathetic. It doesn’t feel like a real biography or look at the man, but rather an homage to him and the work he left behind. And perhaps that is the better way to view the movie: as a biography of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring rather than of Tolkien himself. On that level it succeeds quite a bit more than as an historical recounting.

Mary Shelley

[3 stars]

Mary Shelley wraps the well-known, apocryphal tale of the genesis of Frankenstein. But where the earlier movie, Gothic, focused solely on the infamous and inspirational evening, this movie focuses primarily on the romance and disappointment of Shelley’s life that fed that inspiration. The two depictions of Mary herself are also significantly different, but they make an interesting pairing.

Alone, this movie is much more of a period romance than it is an historical retelling. It plays with feminism, as it should given the characters involved, but ultimately focuses more on character than polemic. Elle Fanning (Teen Spirit) is a perfect choice for the soft-spoken, galvanized young woman who wrote one of the most enduring pieces of literature in the last two centuries.

Douglas Booth (Loving Vincent) provides the story with a charismatic rake that we eventually recognize for what he is. Tom Sturridge (Velvet Buzzsaw) as Byron helps goad him along and serve as catalyst for the main event. The men in Mary’s adult life are complexly narcissistic, even while often being supportive. Her family, given life by Stephen Dillane (The Tunnel: Vengeance) as Mary’s father, and Bel Powley (Carrie Pilby) as her sister, are also constantly at odds with their own support of her.

Director and co-writer (with Emma Jensen) Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda) delivers a tale of women, their place in society, and their strength to ignore those boundaries. Al Mansour’s Mary isn’t a woman to be trifled with or ignored. Though she is failable, she is also aware and learns from her choices. While the result gets tied up in the realities of period drama, there is also a clear message to women to be who they want to be, even when it may not be easy or pleasant.

This isn’t as clean a film as I’d have liked in its message and intent. Given its purpose, it needed to take more lessons from Coppala’s Marie Antoinette than, say, Downton Abbey. It is still well executed and entertaining, at least at times, but it feels more weighed down by its period setting than transcending it. That said, it is one of the more complete views of Mary Shelley’s life I’ve seen.

Hustlers

[4 stars]

Probably the funniest sad movie you’ll see in a long while. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) tackled the world and people of Hustlers with open eyes. No one comes off great in this film, but everyone comes off as someone real. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t stylized and energized, but it also isn’t entirely sanitized.

Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) are the primary focus of the movie. While Lopez sells the hard as nails aspect more than Wu, Wu captures the desperation and emotional drive for their decisions. Both performances are gripping and win you over. And then, of course, there is the delightful, though somewhat throwaway role, for Mercedes Rheul. Rheul, other than her “motherly” role, exists in this story for continuity and information, but she sells it well. There are plenty of other fun performances populating the film as well, but Julia Stiles (Jason Bourne) is the only other major player to stand out. In fact, Stiles does so with much less screen time than anyone else, not to mention hardly any lines.

Hustlers is an entertaining and fascinating peek inside a few different worlds. We’ve seen these worlds before, though often from very a different perspective. And rarely has the result felt as honest without becoming a diatribe or so dark that the watching was a chore.

Hustlers will let you laugh (a lot) and enjoy the story, it just won’t apologize for not covering up at least some of the darker realities of the lives it is sharing. And, more importantly, it is definitely a film and performances worth your time to see on the big screen, where the intimacy is forced upon you. On a small screen this movie will lose some of its punch by providing you distance and the ability to more easily look away from what you don’t want to see.

 

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Best of Enemies

[3 stars]

When tackling difficult material, like racism and the Klan, you have to find a way into the material that doesn’t drive your audience away. BlacKkKlansman took its own approach, as did Green Book. And Blazing Saddles took yet another as part of its comical tale. But, when truth is stranger than fiction, you sometimes just have to go with it head-on.

Taraji P. Henson (What Men Want) transforms into activist Ann Atwater with both humor and heart…and the help of some prosthetics. Along with Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon), as Klan leader C.P. Ellis, the two drive this story in often unexpected ways. But, as good as he is in this, I am getting a little tired of seeing Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon) reprise his “bad guys with a heart” (or at least some form of integrity) that started with Three Billboards. He nails it every time, but because it is becoming his signature, the impact is diminished. Ultimately, his actions aren’t a surprise, and it becomes less triumphant with each repetition.

But the reason this film doesn’t succeed at the level it should goes back to my first comments: how do you tackle material like this in a way that doesn’t drive away your audience.  To get us into the story first-time writer/director Robin Bissell opts for an almost dark comedy presentation as we meet the characters and watch their despicable acts. He does this to provide some distance from the horror, though it comes perilously close to making it feel acceptable. Given the overall sense of the film, I can understand the approach, though it was discomforting. Perhaps that was Bissell’s intention?

But as a first film I’m willing to handicap Bissell’s result. Despite the initial odd feeling of the movie, he brings it back around to a satisfying, even hopeful ending. An ending hopeful even more so because it is true. In this case it is also an important reminder that, despite today’s politics, we can still listen to one another and change for the better.

If this is what Bissell does with little experience, it will be interesting to see what he can do with some tempered tools in his belt. In the meantime, set aside an evening for this story, if nothing else to learn about a story you probably didn’t know and would never think could happen.

Step

[3 stars]

Step is an interesting look at the lives of three young women trying to escape poverty. It isn’t, however, a great documentary about how Step made that possible for them, despite the title. Unlike Brooklyn Castle, the story promised in the title of this film never really takes shape. Step isn’t so much the goal and glue that shapes the women as it is simply the crossroads that brings them and the filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz, together to tell their story.

That doesn’t make it uninteresting as a long form piece of journalism, but it is better going in knowing the real focus. In addition, Lipitz had no idea how to film the Step performances so you could see them well either, which was frustrating. Step is best viewed from a little distance so you can see whole team. But this film does a lot of close-ups, odd angles, and unnecessary quick cuts that keep you from ever appreciating what the team put together.

For the stories of the women and to see what a school that takes its charge seriously, to teach and improve the lives of its students, this is worth the viewing time. As a film, it is middling at best. Go in expecting an extended 60 Minutes piece and you’ll be better attuned to the journey you are provided.