Tag Archives: biography

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.

Just Mercy

[3.5 stars]

Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle) has a way of telling stories that find the emotional core in the chaos while still making a point. Admittedly, drawing that out for injustice on death row isn’t as hard as his previous work co-written with Andrew Lanham. But Bryan Stevenson’s efforts with the Equal Justice Initiative are an important story to tell because the work isn’t done. And, in these politicially divisive times, it is actually sliding back in some areas.

Jamie Foxx (Robin Hood) is the primary focus of Michael B. Jordan’s (Creed II, Gen: Lock) newly minted lawerly efforts. While Jordan and Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) are effective in their roles, they are really the bread upon which the tastier bits of the story are laid. Foxx lays out Walter McMillian’s  life for us in subtle shifts of emotion and unexpected responses. Tim Blake Nelson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) likewise twists himself into Ralph Myers’s skin and brings his struggle to life through small moments and pauses.

The movie itself is engaging, but not overly revelatory because the story and the narrative format are very familiar. However, the depth and scope of the problems are still shocking. Updates through the first part of the credits slam that home. Just Mercy isn’t an easy movie to watch, and it isn’t, to be honest, the best film you’ll see this year, but the performances are solid, the journey gripping, and the story is important to see.

Ford v Ferrari

[3 stars]

If you’re a gearhead or follow racing, there is much to love in this throwback tale of US ego battling European drive.

If you’re not into cars, there are still some interesting aspects and insights into Ford reinventing itself (the story of iconoclast versus the system). However, the real draw is more likely to be the solid performances by Matt Damon (Downsizing) and Christian Bale (Vice). Much has also been made about Caitriona Balfe’s (Money Monster) supporting role as Bale’s wife. And it is a good performance, though I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the role as others, but that was more script than Balfe’s efforts.

Ultimately, this movie a slice of history that provides a view of a turning point in car manufacture, but the impact of the new direction didn’t really make me want to cheer. The film just sort of falls flat at the end. As this is based on history, I tried to give the story a break, particularly for its ending. But it’s up to the writers to frame a tale that is effective and interesting. While the story pulled me through, I can’t say I was satisfied or even clear at the end as to the point.

So if you want to know more about, or re-experience, Le Mans in the mid-60s, or if you want to see how Ford began to turn itself around during the same period, this is the flick for you. Likewise, if you want to see a bromance that is entertaining, but not entirely with a solid story, Ford v Ferrari may work for you. Or, perhaps, if you want to see Tracy Letts (Indignation) bring Ford Jr. to life, not to mention a sense of old industry and the issues at the core of many large companies, it may suffice.

However, if you just wanted an entertaining movie with a fun ride and clear story that leaves you exhilirated, you probably want to look elsewhere. While James Mangold (Logan) got fabulous performances out of his actors, the script and story just aren’t as gripping. Should you go, though, choose the biggest screen with the best sound you can find. The racing scenes deserve every bit of positional sound and subsonic rumble you can absorb.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

[3 stars]

Have you never heard a song and been transported back to a different time and place? For anyone aware in the 60s-90s (and even a bit more) Linda Ronstadt had songs for all occasions and all styles, blazing a trail for female rockers as she went. And because she was so varied and so successful for so long, it’s easy to forget just how wide a path she trod, and how many songs she recorded that mark out lives with milestones of sound.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are no strangers to documentaries or stories from past eras from Howl to The Celluloid Closet to Lovelace they are constantly seeking corners of pop culture and history to explore and explain, and winning awards while doing so.

This latest offering is told through Ronstadt and many of her friends and collaborators. It’s an interesting, but not exactly gripping, biography. For one, Ronstadt is just a nice person with little, if any, controversy associated with her (or at least little the directors were willing to expose). What does come out is her impact on the industry and those around her, which is likely much bigger than you remembered. Certainly it was for me.

Despite the lack of “oh wow” moments or deep dark secrets, the film pulls you along and, ultimately, tells a story. Honestly, for much of the docu, you’re pretty sure it won’t resolve into a cohesive point or tale, but the music combined with the archival and contemporaneous footage are more than enough to keep you engaged until it all comes into focus.

For anyone who likes music or who simply want a nostalgia trip, this is a solid 90 minutes worth your time. If nothing else, it will reinvigorate or establish some serious respect for this diminutive woman with an outsized voice and confidence to set her own path.

Judy

[3.5 stars]

Like the near-mythic star she portrays, Renée Zellweger (Same Kind of Different as Me) rises above Tom Edge’s (Strike) rather bad adaptation, to breathe life into Judy Garland. In fact, until the final few moments of the film, the story, and good part of the dialogue, doesn’t come close to providing the superstructure her performance and energy have on screen. Simply put, Zellweger makes this movie.

There are a few nice supporting roles. Jessie Buckley, also in contention for Best Actress this year for her Wild Rose performance, is probably the most notable. The rest, even such big names as Michael Gambon (Fearless) and Rufus Sewell (I’ll Follow You Down), rightly vanish in her bright light.

Whether you subscribe to the cult that surrounds her persona or love her for the luster of Hollywood she embodied, Judy Garland’s story is affecting and important. And Zellweger sells it with all the tragic verve that icon has ever mustered.

Judy