Tag Archives: biography

Wait for Your Laugh

[4 stars]

Rose Marie was a fixture in comedy for close to 90 years in the industry. She was one of the original megastars of vaudeville and radio, and transitioned to TV and film without missing a beat. But that’s what she accomplished, not who she was. She was also a fascinating character with a life you couldn’t invent and be believed.

This documentary by Jason Wise and partner Christina Wise is funny, well-paced, and a great overview of the entertainment industry as it evolved. And for those that only grew up knowing Rose Marie as the sharp-tongued, gravelly voiced actor from Hollywood Squares, it will probably be revelatory.

But beyond the factual, this is also a wonderful tale of love, endurance, and persistence. It’s a reminder that life is constant change and effort…but doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it along the way. When you need a break from all the craziness, this is a wonderful distraction.

I’m A Porn Star

[3 stars]

Through interviews, and copious amounts of often graphic footage, writer/director Charlie David introduces us to a range of adult film/web performers, gay and straight, and delves into their lives and drives. Thanks to the subject matter, this docu also makes a wonderful adjunct to Circus of Books.

The result is, admittedly, a bit raw in many respects. However, you can see promise in David’s early attempt to share a story through non-fiction; especially his sense of humor and whimsy. On the weaker side, the footage is often repetitive and reused; but the stories themselves are probably not what you expect, which makes the movie a bit stronger. And, unlike Rocco, these are not self-congratulatory or even celebratory stories, generally. Not that any of these performers are embarrassed by their choices, but neither have they tried to build cults around their bodies. Instead, they are focused on making a living and enjoying life. And, seven years after its release, some of the men have also achieved their goals and exited the industry.

As interesting as some of the conversations are, it’s David’s abbreviated history that introduces the film that really sets up the stories and makes it more relevant. In addition, his ability to keep the subject entertaining without turning it into porn on its own (graphic yes, but not porn) that normalizes it for critical viewing. Though, to be fair, David would likely argue that wouldn’t have been a big deal if it had crossed the line in any case.

If you ever wondered about the people on the other side of the lens, both performers and crew, this is a brief visit with some insight. It isn’t a great movie, but it does show off David’s budding abilities.

I'm a Porn Star Poster

For My Father’s Kingdom

[3 stars]

Documentarians create films to expose truths, answer questions, and to understand the world. Lately, a number of these began as attempts to understand their own families, but exposed even broader and more universal stories than they originally imagined. Stories We Tell comes to mind, or Circus of Books.

Such is the case here for Vea Mafile’o. This story, inspired by her desire to understand her, if not estranged, certainly distant father and his actions, becomes a fascinating look at Tongan culture and church. As a window into both, it becomes a compelling story for those of us watching. This isn’t a society that is often depicted, even if there are many universals in the details as it unfolds. The story emerges despite some challenging choices in how it is put together, but it does still emerge. As an initial feature for both Mafile’o and co-director Jeremiah Tauamiti, their willingness to be honest and non-judgemental shows some solid promise for their projects ahead.

This is also an opportunity to see an outfit committed to capturing and promoting the Pacific islander life from the inside. In an age where society is trying to become so much more woke, outfits like Mafile’o’s  Malosi Pictures and her colleagues are indispensable. For that matter, just capturing and preserving the current cultures of the area as we homogenize is just as important.

Radioactive

[3 stars]

What saves this oddly structured biopic from falling apart, like The Current War did, is the sheer will and power of Rosamund Pike (A Private War) and Sam Riley (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil). Their performances, particularly Pike’s, are endlessly fun to watch and feel raw and honest rather than forced. This is no small feat as Marie was driven and blunt; but Pike finds all the layers of that drive, making her focus only an aspect of her character and depicting this strong woman as a whole person. Too often historical women are shown in wildly different moments just to bring out their “womanhood” in order to appease the audience. Not so here…Pike is a complete person all along; abrasive at times, but in a way that feels like there’s someone real underneath it rather than just a mask or a different human each time we see her in different situations, for instance: family vs. work.

There are also a couple of nice, smaller performances. Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma.), Simon Russell Beale (The Death of Stalin), and Katherine Parkinson (Humans) are the ones to note. And I will add that Riley is practically unrecognizable in his role of Pierre Curie, whom he imbues with a fierce intelligence and a complicated approach to the mores of the time.

Admittedly, depicting the lives of complex people is always a challenge. Just look at the recent biopics of Freddy Mercury and Elton John. Both movies were by the same director, but each had utterly different approaches in an attempt to capture the men and their impact. Jack Thorne’s (Wonder) script of Marie Curie’s life, in its attempt to do the same, is both fascinating and baffling. Fortunately it was smoothly tackled by Marjane Satrapi (The Voices), who is adept at slipping back and forth between wildly different aspects of a tale when she directs.

The challenge with the story is that it attempts to show the long-term impact Curie’s discoveries had. Since some of the most impactful applications and issues didn’t even begin to become common till 20 years after her death, it presented a problem. The solution Thorne and Satrapi settled on was to intercut future scenes with the contemporary.

This had two effects. First, it forced commentary around the Curie’s efforts that wasn’t there at the time and blurs the their truth. And, second, it creates an odd fantasy during the end of M. Curie’s final moments that felt wrong to me. In other words we’re forced to see her life through historical eyes and lose a good deal of the contextual reality.

But despite any issues these choices caused, the performances of the two leads is truly wonderful and worth the time to see the film. Also, while some of the Curies’ life is taught to children, a lot of it is missed in school. The family is truly extraordinary, and the story they were a part of is both inspirational and horrifying.

Radioactive Poster

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