Tag Archives: biography

Lambert & Stamp

[3.5 stars]

This is another odd documentary that isn’t exactly focused on what you expect. Lambert and Stamp were the guys behind The Who. They didn’t pull together the band, but they were the guiding force, for good and ill, behind their rise, direction, and, ultimately in many ways, their demise. But The Who are merely the foil to discuss the men and their work. At least that is the intent (and the title backs that up).

But, let’s face it, we’re talking about The Who… Townshend and Daltrey figure heavily in the present-day interviews, and there is a ton of performance footage. Of course the band and the men draw focus despite all efforts by the first-time-feature director, James D. Cooper.

What really sets this movie apart is that Lambert and Stamp had always intended a movie of their efforts managing the band. Mind you, they thought that would be a couple years before the band (whichever band they picked) would flame out and they could then focus on their purported first love: film. But as fate would have it, they ended up with The Who, one of the longer lasting forces in modern rock, which has ended up outlasting even them. But that plan and intent means is that there is a lot of high-quality footage and interviews from the very beginning of The Who’s journey with their producers/managers rather than the type of  “found footage” you’re stuck with 40 years down the pike looking back.

Cooper did an amazing job sifting all these years of archival footage and new interviews to pull together a story. It may not have been the story Lambert and Stamp had envisioned when they started their efforts, but it is still a fascinating one. And, with The Who as the backdrop for it all, it tends to be interesting generally.

Saint Laurent

[1.5 stars]

When you watch a biopic, you come to it with two main objectives. First, you hope to learn a bit about the subject themself, their life and personal drives, successes, and demons. You also want to know more about how they impacted the world and people around them.  Bertrand Bonello’s painful Saint Laurent focuses very much on the first, but neglects just about everything else.

To begin with, you have to care about fashion to even approach this movie. Why else would you care? I’ve seen many such biopics on the fashion industry and was tangentially involved in it for many years as well. But even with my more-than-average knowledge I had trouble following the plot and points Bonello wanted to make. He structured the film using multiple time frames, always jumping ahead to an inflection point in Yves’s life and then rewinding to show us how he got there, and then setting the next point and doing it all over again through to his death…sort of.

The point is that we just don’t care about the man. We don’t really see anything positive from his actions, only his debauched and depressing spiral trying to find himself while somewhere offscreen, somehow, he builds a fashion empire. We have no sense what he really contributes to that empire, other than his name, nor what made it so important to world fashion. I can’t even tell if Bonello did it from love or loathing.

Honestly, this is a movie to avoid regardless of your interest, unless it is entirely puerile for either the main actor Gaspard Ulliel, who does a lot with what he was given to work with, or for the gay clubbing world of Paris fashion in the 70s-90s. Ulliel is backed up onscreen by Jérémie Renier (Frankie), Léa Seydoux (The Lobster), and Aymeline Valade (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), not to mention the suitably weird and creepy Louis Garrel (The Dreamers). Well “backed up” is a little of an overstatement. They provide some local color and framework, but very little substance.

In the end, Bonello does bring it to a point/comment: regardless of Laurent’s life, it didn’t affect his art and impact on women’s fashion. In other words, love the art not the man or, perhaps, an artist’s personal life shouldn’t be part of the equation. Either is a legitimate point to argue, but it didn’t require 2.5 hours of descent into disaster (if it is to be fully believed) that was his life.

Te Ata

[3 stars]

One of the great joys of a good historical drama is that you learn something new. I knew nothing of Te Ata, the woman. And even if I had, I don’t think my opinion of her would have been as positive as it was after this biopic. Q’orianka Kilcher (Color Out of Space) brings this Chickasaw legend to life in surprising ways, without remaking her for modern tastes.

There is just about no story about Native Americans that isn’t going to twist your gut at some moment or another, but this story manages to be relatively honest while focusing on the positive. And Te Ata made that life for herself by being both driven to find it and determined enough to keep trying.

The movie itself is competently written and directed. It isn’t groundbreaking in any way movie-wise. But it boasts a solid cast and some surprises. Gil Birmingham (Wind River) and Graham Greene (Molly’s Game) and Brigid Brannagh (Runaways) as Kilcher’s family each have a moment or two worth seeing. And Mackenzie Astin (The Magicians) brings in something nice for the final third.

As I implied, this movie isn’t going to remake your life, but it will provide some perspective and, even, inspire you a bit by the end.

Cantinflas

[3 stars]

Cantinflas: if you grew up in the States, probably the most famous and well-paid actor you never heard of. This biopic attempts to correct that blind spot. Unfortunately, though each of the parts are there, the story, like Mario Moreno’s (aka Cantinflas) comedy, didn’t translate well in Edui Tijerina and Sebastian del Amo’s script. But neither had a lot of experience on their cv’s at the time to help them. And, adding to the challenge, del Amo also directed.

The story is told across two timelines, primarily in English and Spanish, that eventually converge. One tracks Moreno’s origins and rise and the other the efforts by Mike Todd, played solidly by Michael Imperioli (The Scribbler), to produce and direct Around the World in 80 Days. Spoiler: the movie does get made, Moreno (as Cantinflas) plays Passepartout, and both make huge box office history and win several prestigious awards. Why give that away? First, it’s history and you’ll likely start to look it up during the movie just to find out how true it is. Second, without that knowledge the movie is empty to those who don’t know or care about Moreno’s story going in.

That isn’t the fault of Óscar Jaenada (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), who is wonderfully cast as Cantinflas. He captures the man’s Chaplin-esque comedy and movements. He comes across as both shrewd and capable. But the movie doesn’t provide him a clear story and progression. We get a series of vignettes that hit important moments which never quite all come together as a triumph in the industry or his life. Amusingly, this movie won more awards than Around the World, but none of those were in the majors–however it speaks to the appetite for the insights into Moreno’s life.

It also has to be noted that, other than Jaenada and Imperioli, the casting in the film is awful. No one looks like their historical counterparts, which is a problem when you’re dealing with icons like Brando, Brynner, and others (though I will admit that Bárbara Mori comes passably close to Taylor).

As a bit of historical context and some interesting insights into the waning years of United Artists, when the studios were crushing the independents (though never quite successfully), this is an intriguing film. As a story itself that stands on its own, it’s far less successful. This will appeal to those that know Cantinflas and to cinefiles who’s knowledge contains gaps about international stars.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

[3 stars]

In case it wasn’t obvious, this has a really targeted audience…if you weren’t/aren’t a fan of the original Alien or its sequels on a deep level it won’t likely resonate. Unlike Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, there isn’t as much context setting and obvious industry shift caused by the movie’s subject. That said, after a slightly overwrought opening and set up, it’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the creative process that led to the iconic movie. In addition, you can see where many of the choices that appear in the later movies grew from.

This isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is solid and, for the intrigued, interesting. Despite knowing a lot about the production, it certainly ferreted out a lot that I didn’t. I don’t know if it increased my appreciation of the movie any more (still one of the best horror films ever), but it provided a framework and some interesting background on writer Dan O’Bannon, who is the primary subject. If you appreciated the original that made Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) a household name and set a whole new bar for such films, give it the 90 minutes it deserves.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Red Joan

[3.5 stars]

Movies of political intrigue are often entertaining but, because they tend to concentrate on the action and suspense and lose the humanity, they are not typically great movies. Red Joan is all about the humanity, with enough suspense and intrigue (though no real action) to keep it riveting. Based on a true story, and a timely one in many ways, it’s a wonderful depiction of living with a moral ambiguity in a world that wants all things to be simple.

Judy Dench (All is True), who is far from a frail old woman, manages to crumble before us as Joan. She is clearly tired and, in her way, happy to finally have the truth come out rather than keeping all the secrets that have influenced the direction of her life. While Dench’s moments are powerful and essential, it is Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) as her younger self that carries the movie in the main. She does so as a woman in search of acceptance in a man’s world, though never giving into that aspect; she remains both strong and human throughout.

Tom Hughes (About Time), Ben Miles (Collateral), and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Child in Time) fill out the critical roles around Joan. Each brings a particular element and challenge. And each has their own contribution to the resolution.

Trevor Nunn (Lear) directed Lindsay Shapero’s first feature script with an honest eye. There are few, if any, histrionics despite the tension and stakes; but they aren’t needed. The story carries itself in quiet moments that are stretched to breaking. But this isn’t a Le Carre tale like Little Drummer Girl, the tension is in the characters more than the risks. The personal story itself is enough, especially when delivered by such a solid cast.

Red Joan

Wild Nights with Emily

[3 stars]

Emily Dickinson has remained a surprisingly controversal character in the field of poetry.  This somewhat comic biography/exposé of her life isn’t likely to reduce that. In fact, for some, it may shatter their sense of her.

The movie is at its best when writer/director Madeleine Olnek (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) is using the story to skewer the literary world and literary criticism. Primarily this is through the voice and actions of Amy Seimetz (Pet Sematary), who’s smarmy, self-important Mabel Loomis Todd provides the narrative thread to explain what we thought we knew about Dickinson’s life and art. Olnek counterpoints it throughout with the re-enactments/fictional conceptions based on the recent revelations of Dickinson’s letters and poetry.

Molly Shannon’s (We Don’t Belong Here) is often restrained as Dickinson, but occasionlly a little unleashed. She and Susan Ziegler (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) present the challenge of a life-long relationship in an era where it should have been impossible. And yet, it appears to have been one of the worst kept secrets of its village and family. It was the rewriting of that history that hid that truth for over 100 years.

Where Olnek’s film is at its weakest is when she allowed the comedy to get too broad (no pun intended). Some of this is with Shannon, but it extends to side characters too, such as maid Lisa Haas (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) or Emily’s brother played by Kevin Seal (Laggies). Also, the overall structure is somewhat fractured, slipping between a sort of forced period movie approach and contemporary speech and editing. The combination isn’t always comfortable or effective.

The odd sensibility and choices aside, the film works. The angering absurdity of the time and situation, not to mention the impact of the decisions, hits home well. For something a little different that will entertain and even educate a little, this is a good choice.

Wild Nights with Emily

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Sylvia

[2.5 stars]

Are famous people interesting because they’re famous or famous because they’re interesting? Which is to ask: why did Christine Jeffs (Sunshine Cleaning) decide to take on John Brownlow’s (The Miniaturist) weak attempt to dramatize Sylvia Plath’s tale? And I ask because, while there are some nice performances, the story is a vapid and male-filtered view of Plath’s struggles with writing and mental health, not to mention life in general. Not what you’d expect from a female director taking on this icon of poetry.

It’s important, I suppose, to note this movie is 16 years old at this point, well before #metoo, though still in a world that was self-aware enough to recognize the issues with the cleansed biography. While Gwyneth Paltrow’s (Iron Man, Sliding Doors) journey as Plath finds many levels and nuances, the presentation is not kind nor sympathetic to her (unlike Joker was for Phoenix) when portraying mental health issues.

Despite the point of view being clearly through Plath’s eyes, her story seems to be lensed through her husband’s experience, Daniel Craig (Knives Out) as Ted Hughes, and her friend, Jared Harris (Carnival Row). Michael Gambon (Judy) and Blythe Danner (Hello I Must Be Going) add some sympathy and insight to Plath’s portrayal and life, but not enough to overcome the inherent issues.

The story is neither honest enough nor gripping enough to excuse its nearly two hours on screen. The issues here are very much with the direction and script rather than the performances, so if you want to catch some earlier roles for the leads, particularly Craig before his breakout in Layer Cake, you can invest your time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Harriet

[3 stars]

Cynthia Erivo’s (Widows) award-worthy performance is several steps above the overall execution of this important story. I don’t say that to dissuade you from the movie itself, just to be honest about the effect. Both Kasi Lemmons’s (Eve’s Bayou) direction and her co-written script (with Gregory Allen Howard) are fairly standard, which is to say the film is a simple and straight-forward narrative with few surprises. In addition, the incidental music is heavy-handed and over-used, making it feel more melodramtic than viscerally horrific. There is power in the situation and impactful moments throughout…Lemmons should have trusted that and just let us feel rather than try to force it.

The rest of the cast supporting Erivo is solid, with few standouts by design. Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has one of the more interesting challenges, and Vondie Curtis-Hall and Leslie Odom Jr. each get a few moments of note. But Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) never quite felt right or real. His scenes always came across as forced; he was never allowed to have “normal” moments in this ugly period of history to balance his shrill confrontations.

While the movie is an engaging depiction of Harriet’s life and defining moments, it missed a couple of opportunities as a film. One aspect missing was its reflection on today. It is done purely as an historical with no reflection on the echos and carry-over to present times. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation, but it feels like an important gap, especially today. I also think it missed an opportunity at the very end… they should have just flashed a $20 without comment and let it stand. (Certainly one of the more embarrassing and overtly racists acts of our current administration.)

Harriet, as a teaching tool about this titan of a woman certainly succeeds and should be seen, whatever its general flaws. It is time well spent and it will likely endure for a long time as a staple of many educational journeys in the years to come.