Tag Archives: biography

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

[4.5 stars]

Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom)  has put together a lo-fi cure for hopelessness in these dark and desperate times. This is not a flashy film. It is full of old, grainy footage, talking heads, and simple conversations, much like Fred Roger’s shows. And yet it is profoundly powerful, like watching old, previously lost films from the attic of your childhood or of your family (or the family you wish you had).

If you grew up on Roger’s shows, it is easy to miss how subversive they were. This is especially true if you watched them from the beginning in the late 60’s. His willingness to discuss hard subjects with children, his inherent belief that children were people capable of understanding and, more importantly, were wells of potential goodness in the world was unlike anyone else in the media. Both he and his show embodied that in the tone, the pace, and the simplicity of its presentation. Reflecting on those shows, the events surrounding them, and his philosophy is to acknowledge something we’ve lost.

Not that it really matters, but given it has been 15 years since Roger’s passing, I did wonder about the impetus for this documentary. Part way through the movie, I think I got my answer when Yo-Yo Ma made an appearance; Yo-Yo Ma and Rogers were long-time friends. My guess is that Neville was inspired during the creation of The Music of Strangers to look at Rogers as a subject. The timing of the release may well be happenstance, but I expect it is, in part, in recognition of how far society in this country has drifted from Roger’s simple ministry of ideals and hopes.

Personally, I went into this film despondent over the last week in the news. Shattered, actually. Won’t You Be My Neighbor gave me back a sense of hope, but not in a blind way. Roger’s moment fighting for PBS in Congress subtly sums up so much of what has gone wrong in this country and shows that it could be something else…because it once was. It is a perfect film for a troubled time as a reminder of what we are capable of and how we should approach people and the world and, yes, even politics.

[If you want to see just how low I had gotten prior to this film, you can read When Hyberbole Meets Axis (password: politicalplace)]

Won

American Animals

[3 stars]

It’s easy to dismiss this as a story that depicts the basic truism “criminals are stupid” because, well, they certainly were in this case. However, that would be selling this quasi-documentary short. Bart Layton wrote and directed something that wasn’t so much unique as it is impressively seamless as it bounces between the real subjects of this story and the actors and situations depicting their tale from 13 years previous. It is a wonderful melding, raising re-enactment to an impressive level that maintains truth and also becomes a movie on its own.

Part of that success is how well Layton cast the younger criminals. Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) each manage to embody their real-life counterparts and deliver nicely layered characters. Most importantly, you can see them growing into these men. But while Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers a performance that, under other circumstances, would have been great, I had great difficulty seeing him grow up to be the real Spencer Reinhard. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the story and people involved, Reinhard and his cohorts deliver interviews and color commentary throughout the film…we see them and get to know them, which makes the younger portrayals all that more important. Around them are a solid ensemble making it all work. There are also some specific supporting bits from Udo Kier (Downsizing)  and Ann Dowd (Collateral Beauty) that stood out.

But ultimately, as engaging and suspenseful as the story is, the real question is what is this movie about? Certainly it chronicles the events and, to a degree, the lives of those involved. It raises some interesting questions about motive and growing up as a Millennial. It encourages us to wonder what we would do in these situations. But what it doesn’t do is provide satisfactory answers or a sense of conclusion. There is no indication that those involved even had answers to those questions or ideas. And that, perhaps, is part of Layton’s point in making American Animals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to justify having made the film, however well crafted it is.

Still, for the ride and to experience the beautiful craft that Layton employs, this movie was worth my time. I wanted more, but I can also acknowledge the filmmaker’s vision.

American Animals

RBG

[4 stars]

Legal icon. Trailblazer. Intellectual champion. Übermensch. Octogenarian superstar. Notorious RBG has earned her moniker and the respect of multiple generations. Quietly and steadily, this unassuming 5′ 4″, soft-spoken woman reset the course of law in this country in support of equal rights for all. It is story that will give you hope in these divisive and regressive times…and really make you wonder how we went from people of her caliber to nominations like the decidedly unqualified and poorly spoken Gorsuch,  or 45 (not that I have an opinion there).

As a documentary, this is a fairly straight-forward recounting of Ginsburg’s life and career and the steps that have led her to be such a loud voice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Some you probably know, a lot you probably don’t. There is little subtlety to the film, but there is great respect and a surprising range of voices in her corner. The film-makers go out of their way to avoid too much controversy, which is a bit of a shame. Given that the Red Scare is the reason Ginsburg is a judge, and particularly a judge focused on civil liberties, they had an opportunity to create something a bit more pointed for the present day. As it is, there are hints and nods, but it is generally very matter-of-fact with some delightful peeks at her family life and out-of-court persona.

RBG is worth seeing just to get a sense of history and change that has occurred over the last 50 years; a lot of it very good. It is important to remember there has been movement…and just as important to remember you must always defend the gains lest people take them away. With stalwarts like RBG still on the bench, at least we have her voice when things go in the wrong direction. Sometimes that voice alone is enough to move mountains…just ask Lilly Ledbetter. And that is comforting.

RBG

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