Tag Archives: biography

Fosse/Verdon

[3 stars]

I usually wait for a series to complete before writing it up. But watching the initial episode of Fosse/Verdon I was struck by a couple of aspects immediately that brought me to post.

First, if you really want to see the genius that was Fosse, see All That Jazz. The infamous movie covers many of the same questions and issues (not to mention scenes), but presents it much better. And, as meta to the whole thing, Fosse directed which gives you a real example of what a great editor Fosse was in pulling that film together.

Second, was that Michelle Williams (Venom) makes a very credible Gwen Verdon, much more so than Sam Rockwell (Vice) does Fosse. Rockwell has none of the charisma nor physicality that was Fosse, he just comes across as sweaty and slimy. Williams, on the other hand, had Verdon’s look, sound, and movement down beautifully. The story also gives Verdon her due for her own genius and contributions to what we think of as Fosse alone in the general public history.

But the bigger question is why do we need this series when there are hours and hours of archival footage, as well as some of the principals still being alive? I imagine you could argue that this was intended as a dramatization to help us see more, but the drama isn’t that gripping and the ‘impersonators’ aren’t that good…but, then again, we are still seeing some of these people walking around, so why try to imitate them. Why not wait another 10 or 20 years when a retrospective look as a drama may be less haunted by the present?

Admittedly, it is early in the series, and perhaps I know more than the average or intended viewer about this power couple that helped set the template for modern musicals. But, generally, the audience for this story is going to be older by virtue of the subject…and Fosse and Verdon aren’t history to them, they’re a part of their lives. Creators and writers Thomas Kail and  Steven Levenson certainly have a love for the subject, but they aren’t up to the task of emulating Fosse or Verdon in pulling together this story. Frankly, it is best seen as an appetizer to digging into the opus of both those artists rather than as an end unto itself. And, perhaps, that makes it valuable to a new generation of viewers who weren’t aware of these two Broadway and film greats.

I’ll be giving it an other episode or so to see if they can pull me in, but my first impressions aren’t overly enthusiastic, even if they aren’t completely negative.

 

Hitchcock/Truffaut

[4 stars]

What makes this documentary fascinating is less the presentation of the material than the insights it provides. It is also one of the oddest adaptations I think I’ve encountered. Kent Jones attempts to bring to life the infamous 1960s interviews that produced the book Hitchcock/Truffaut by Truffaut…a book which he later revised and re-released in 1985 a few years after Hitch left us and just before his own death.

What emerges, however, is more of an audio book and commentary about the interview’s revelations, cherry-picked by Jones and his collection of famous directors who were influenced by these two giants of cinema. Think of it as skipping through the book to some of the more interesting parts and getting to chat about them. The result is still a fascinating look at Hitchcock’s thinking, though more so at the way others interpret him. It also likely expands your knowledge of size of Hitchcock’s opus. You may find  yourself trying to find at least some of his earlier films that are much less well known.

This docu is certainly an interesting multiplier to the fictionalized look at his life in The Girl and Hitchcock even if its shape is a bit amorphous. If you love cinema and are drawn to understanding it, this is a must see film. But even those with passing interest will find something to chew on and will recognize the men…and it is all men…discussing how watching Hitch and Truffaut provided the impetus and artistic goals that have guided their lives and our viewing history for the last nearly 100 years.

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Free Solo

[4 stars]

How many people spend 8 years waking up every morning thinking: I’d like to risk my life climbing that sheer rock face without a rope?Well, Alex Honnold did, planning and then executing a nearly inhuman feat. You end the journey with him feeling entirely inadequate…and also full of possibility.

Through phenomenal photography and honest story-telling, you spend 90 minutes on the edge of your seat, riveted and tense. Frankly, it is both exhilarating and exhausting. But you leave with an appreciation of the skills needed to accomplish such a feat and the kind of mentality it takes to even consider it.

Of course the story may be centered on the scaling of El Capitan, but it is the “why” of it all that adds the emotional tension to the very real physical fear Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary manages to elicit. They layer the physical challenge with Honnold’s personal and emotional challenges in life. We never quite get a full picture of of him, past or present, but much is teased. We are left with an incomplete metaphor for Honnold’s efforts as they reflect in his life, but it adds to the moment the entire film is focused on. Had this just been about the climb on the final day, it may have been pretty and intriguing, but it would have revealed nothing about the man, the sport, nor, to be a bit broad, the human condition.

It is clear that it takes a particular kind of mindset and approach to life to free solo at the level Honnold and his colleagues do. The film doesn’t exactly celebrate nor judge that mindset, but it definitely attempts to present it with genuine affection and wonder. It is beautifully and amazingly filmed. Without distracting from the story, the documentary even becomes part of the story itself. And, yes, it is most definitely worth your time. It definitely earned its Oscar.

A Private War

[3.5 stars]

Making war real on screen is incredibly challenging. Making it personal without losing the greater issues is even harder. A Private War, much like the writings of its subject Marie Colvin, manages to do both.

It succeeds thanks to both the behind-the-scenes guidance and the on-screen talent. However, even with the likes of Jamie Dornan (Robin Hood), Tom Hollander (Bird Box), and Stanley Tucci (Patient Zero) on screen, the only person that matters, the only story as her character would have put it, was Pike’s Colvin. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is this movie. Though I will say that Hollander delivers an uncharacteristically understated and sobering performance as Colvin’s bureau chief.

Colvin states it in her own words at the top of the film: fear comes later. Marie Brenner’s (The Insider) script captures how controlled and confident Colvin’s character was in war, and what a mess she was outside of it. An added aspect to this film’s success was director Matthew Heineman’s documentary roots. He manages to step back from the action to allow the story to tell itself.

In a growing collection of on-screen news-related tales, this one is a bit different. It isn’t about newspapers saving the world, like The Post, or destroying the world, like The Front Runner, or even being manipulated, like Vice. It is about war and the human cost on all sides. It is about what drives people to risk their lives to bring us the truth, without glorifying their choices.

In a fluke of the story and the timing, I was watching the film almost 7 years to the day from the last moments of the action, which provided one of the most chilling aspects of the film. I found myself doing the math and realizing that the horror of Homs, Syria being portrayed may have been from 7 years ago…but it was still going on today despite Colvin and other’s efforts and risks to get the world to notice; a final gift of the film reminding us that it is still up to all of us to act and not just observe.

The Front Runner

[3 stars]

I want to start with what is good with this story because, honestly, it is a film worth seeing even if it doesn’t accomplish what I’d have liked.

At the top of the positive aspects of the film is Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman) who delivers a solid performance as the idealistic Gary Hart. Vera Farmiga (Boundaries), as his wife, also tackles the challenge of her situation with a decidedly adult demeanor. The rest of the cast is solid, but none pop. Even J.K. Simmons (The Snowman), who normally stands out amid a crowd, just isn’t enough of a focus to make him memorable. This is mostly because the story is very focused on Hart and his family. The resulting story is neither a whitewash nor a vilification of Hart, Rice, or even most of the journos involved. Jason Reitman’s (Tully) direction keeps the story honest (even if the script misses the mark by a wide margin on making it’s point).

So let’s talk about what the movie missed. This moment in history was a seminal moment in politics and journalism, one from which we’ve never recovered. But the impact of that is never really achieved on screen. Recently, Vice laid out another aspect of the dismantling of objective journalism and the ending of the Fairness Doctrine. But it was only one aspect of the changes that have occurred. The story of Gary Hart is the other.

Front Runner never establishes what things were like before the moment the Miami Herald made Donna Rice a household name. There are brief conversations, but no real sense of the indelible change and the impact that has brought us to today. A day when there is absolutely no privacy and journalism, real journalism, is a dying skill…a skill who’s value is not even understood by a large portion of the public it used to serve. Worse, the highest offices in the land seem fit to claim open, honest, balanced journalism is “an enemy of the people.” Well, this is how it all really started. But without a clear touchstone for what it had been, it simply becomes a story we watch rather than comprehend.

With a well-documented serial philanderer in the White House, and blatant racists serving in Congress and state houses, it is easy to forget that politicians not only used to be held to a higher standard when confronted, but that any information on their private lives was not even considered germane only 35 years ago. Everything changed with the journalistic and self-destruction of Gary Hart.

Unfortunately, this movie didn’t quite capture that aspect. While there is still real investigative reporting out there, the larger group of news, print, and online are chasing entertainment or simply printing what they need to get eyeballs, regardless of the rigor behind the story or the veracity. And by doing so, they’ve often become the unwitting weapons of those they are trying to expose. And many readers have lost the ability to take in the information critically to pull apart fact from conjecture and opinion. They’d rather take their news in unverified tweets. In other words, the Fifth Estate is under siege from both within and without.

Think this is all hyperbole? Consider that just last week (blog time) Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion suggesting that libel law protections for journalists and their papers put in place by New York Time vs Solomon should be overturned.

OK, rant over. As a movie Front Runner is definitely worth seeing. You may want to dig a bit more into the information to understand the context. This isn’t The Post, it is really more about the man than the implications. That was a legitimate choice, but not the more important one in my opinion.

At Eternity’s Gate

[3 stars]

Willem Dafoe (Aquaman) gives one of his most quiet, contained and intense performances as Vincent Van Gogh in this odd biopic. The story, as it is presented, is odd not for its subject, but for its style, but let me come back to that.

Dafoe is the lynchpin in this biopic. While there are other performances that help him along, Oscar Isaac (Life Itself) as Paul Gauguin, Rupert Friend (A Simple Favor) as his brother, and Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange) and Mathieu Amalric (Grand Budapest Hotel) as confessors, only Dafoe really drives this story. Given that is through the eyes of a deeply disturbed and unsteady artist, that is either a strength or a weakness, depending on your experience of the story.

Director and co-writer Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) has a thing for artists. He is driven to explain and capture the fine line between genius and madness. For a lot of this film we are forced to view the world through a shaky-cam or with split focus to achieve at least part of that goal. It is disorienting and alienating and, frankly, far too obvious. Given Dafoe’s performance, he should have trusted the actors and audience more to understand. The camera tricks were off-putting and, at times for me, unwatchable. Had he used the approach only for a few crisis moments in the film I could have understood and handled it better, but it is better than three-quarters of the film which was already 20-30 minutes longer than necessary.

What is even more disappointing than the camera choices is that we really don’t learn a lot about Vincent’s life. We see events, but never really get to understand them. Vincent clearly does and makes many decisions due to them, so we’re not even emulating his thinking process. The script simply jumps about to various points in his life and assumes we either know the background or can guess it. As a first script for Louise Kugelberg, I can understand that gap, but because Schnabel co-wrote, along with the massively prolific and talented Jean-Claude Carrière (The Patience Stone), I was a little surprised by the result.

For Dafoe’s performance, and some of the inner life of the creative process the film portrays, this is a fascinating film. If you want to learn more about Van Gogh’s life, and mysteries surrounding it, even the recent Loving Vincent will provide more. And, perhaps, I am being unfair to Schanbel’s intentions with this story, but that is in part because the story does try to answer some questions, but never really does full enough. Clearly that was part of the intent as there are black-screen monologues and text explanations to try and fulfill that purpose. Had the film makers focused solely on Vincent’s inner life and process, it may have felt more complete. As it is, we get some interesting ideas and a fabulous performance to appreciate, but not much else.

Stan & Ollie

[4 stars]

How much of a comedy genius team was Laurel & Hardy? Watching their 90 year old routines elicit belly laughs in audiences, even when performed by stand-ins, is a clear indication. Steve Coogan (Ideal Home) and John C. Reilly (Ralph Breaks the Internet) resurrect the seminal comedy team of Laurel and Hardy so believably and effortlessly it is breathtaking. They inhabit the men and their material, playing them with love and subtlety. Reilly, in particular, disappears into Hardy’s bulk. And both men reassert that they’re capable of real acting and not just the broad, silly comedy they are more often associated with. In some ways, that background makes them perfect for these roles, adding meta layers to it all.

Despite the scope of years and geography, the cast isn’t much bigger than the titular characters. Nina Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Shirley Henderson (Lady Bird), as their respective wives add to the reality and humanity of the duo while also bringing their own characters into the light. And Rufus Jones (Holy Flying Circus) has a nice driving role as their tour manager in England. Combined, the five create a huge world out of a small ensemble.

My one frustration with the film is that the opening scene in 1937 doesn’t really give you a solid sense of the duo at the top of their game because it almost immediately dives into a conflict. It makes it hard to fully understand the change in 1953, where it leaps to in short order to the end of their career. It isn’t a fatal flaw in the movie, but one I wish director Jon S. Baird and writer Jeff Pope had polished away. I will grant, however, that the script does a delightful job of reflecting the comedy routines into their off-stage lives…sometimes in irony and sometimes not.

It’s wonderful to see an adult film that doesn’t rely on explosions, car chases, or action, but rather purely on the characters involved in a very quiet and real way. This is a story about two men that happen to be legends and are very much human and very much bound to one another. It is also a wonderful peek behind the performance curtain.

Beautiful Boy

[3 stars]

Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) continues his career high with another brutally emotional performance. Make-up could have ravaged him a bit more for the sake of reality, but Chalamet certainly captured a good part of the life of Nic Sheff in all its joy and horror and frustration.

Honestly, the rest of the cast, while not superfluous, doesn’t quite reach that complexity. As his father, and main character driving the story, Steve Carell (Welcome to Marwen) might have, but the script didn’t really establish his life and drives to flesh him out. He became the rice upon which the rest of the story was told. Maura Tierney (The Affair) fared better in her supporting role, eventually breaking out in a wonderful scene. But Amy Ryan (Goosebumps) is more a cipher and window dressing than full participant in the story.

Director and co-writer Felix van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) managed his actors well, but his editing was challenging at times. Told with many flashbacks, often inter-cut in short segments with the present, sometimes left me with cognitive whiplash. There weren’t enough clear clues where we were in the storyline in every scene. Complicating that issues is that we start in the present, go back a year, catch up to that moment, and then continue on, but the past is constantly interceding. I understand the intent, but it sometimes fought my ability to stay connected to the characters and moments rather than providing me deeper understanding of those moments.

But there was as much at issue with the script that Groeningen co-write with Luke Davies (Lion). In trying to tell such a big story, adapted from both the father’s and son’s point of view, they made choices that never quite all came together nor felt fully balanced. At the least, they did appear to stay very honest.

Beautiful Boy is a powerful film and warning. It is certainly well acted and inventively told, even when it isn’t as effective as I’d have liked. But it certainly isn’t an easy film and far from what I’d describe as entertaining. This is for a night when you’re feeling pretty solid and looking for insight into addiction and family struggles. But don’t expect catharsis, just expect a bit more comprehension. Regardless, Chalamet definitely proves his mettle yet again.

Kusama: Infinity

[3.5 stars]

Like Cutie and the Boxer, this is a documentary about art, but it is much more about the politics of art and the artist’s life. Kusama has had a fascinating and challenging life. All of which has led to her impetus for creation, but not necessarily a penchant for happiness. She is also probably one of the more important artists of the modern movement that you may not have heard of, or at the least, understood her place in art history. (I know I didn’t before seeing this portrait of her life.)

Kusama’s art is challenging and, often as not, may leave you scratching your head. But the results of her efforts and ideas had profound impact on art you do know. I imagine that is a large part of why Heather Lenz was drawn to this story as her first directing feature. It is epic in scope and also a disturbing example sexism and racism, and it is has demonstrable historical importance. Though, it should be noted that that Kusama is still alive and producing and having sell-out shows around the globe.

As a movie, it is oddly constructed, but it also didn’t have an obvious path for the telling. Lenz jumps back and forth in Kusama’s life to provide context and a sense of her influences. It makes for some jarring moments, but told purely chronologically it would have been less interesting. Given Kusama’s art, the more gestalt approach to her story is probably appropriate. And, at less than 90 minutes, it isn’t a large investment for a glimpse inside an fascinating mind and a clearer understanding of many aspects of the modern art movement.