Tag Archives: biography

Mary Shelley

[3 stars]

Mary Shelley wraps the well-known, apocryphal tale of the genesis of Frankenstein. But where the earlier movie, Gothic, focused solely on the infamous and inspirational evening, this movie focuses primarily on the romance and disappointment of Shelley’s life that fed that inspiration. The two depictions of Mary herself are also significantly different, but they make an interesting pairing.

Alone, this movie is much more of a period romance than it is an historical retelling. It plays with feminism, as it should given the characters involved, but ultimately focuses more on character than polemic. Elle Fanning (Teen Spirit) is a perfect choice for the soft-spoken, galvanized young woman who wrote one of the most enduring pieces of literature in the last two centuries.

Douglas Booth (Loving Vincent) provides the story with a charismatic rake that we eventually recognize for what he is. Tom Sturridge (Velvet Buzzsaw) as Byron helps goad him along and serve as catalyst for the main event. The men in Mary’s adult life are complexly narcissistic, even while often being supportive. Her family, given life by Stephen Dillane (The Tunnel: Vengeance) as Mary’s father, and Bel Powley (Carrie Pilby) as her sister, are also constantly at odds with their own support of her.

Director and co-writer (with Emma Jensen) Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda) delivers a tale of women, their place in society, and their strength to ignore those boundaries. Al Mansour’s Mary isn’t a woman to be trifled with or ignored. Though she is failable, she is also aware and learns from her choices. While the result gets tied up in the realities of period drama, there is also a clear message to women to be who they want to be, even when it may not be easy or pleasant.

This isn’t as clean a film as I’d have liked in its message and intent. Given its purpose, it needed to take more lessons from Coppala’s Marie Antoinette than, say, Downton Abbey. It is still well executed and entertaining, at least at times, but it feels more weighed down by its period setting than transcending it. That said, it is one of the more complete views of Mary Shelley’s life I’ve seen.

Hustlers

[4 stars]

Probably the funniest sad movie you’ll see in a long while. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) tackled the world and people of Hustlers with open eyes. No one comes off great in this film, but everyone comes off as someone real. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t stylized and energized, but it also isn’t entirely sanitized.

Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) are the primary focus of the movie. While Lopez sells the hard as nails aspect more than Wu, Wu captures the desperation and emotional drive for their decisions. Both performances are gripping and win you over. And then, of course, there is the delightful, though somewhat throwaway role, for Mercedes Rheul. Rheul, other than her “motherly” role, exists in this story for continuity and information, but she sells it well. There are plenty of other fun performances populating the film as well, but Julia Stiles (Jason Bourne) is the only other major player to stand out. In fact, Stiles does so with much less screen time than anyone else, not to mention hardly any lines.

Hustlers is an entertaining and fascinating peek inside a few different worlds. We’ve seen these worlds before, though often from very a different perspective. And rarely has the result felt as honest without becoming a diatribe or so dark that the watching was a chore.

Hustlers will let you laugh (a lot) and enjoy the story, it just won’t apologize for not covering up at least some of the darker realities of the lives it is sharing. And, more importantly, it is definitely a film and performances worth your time to see on the big screen, where the intimacy is forced upon you. On a small screen this movie will lose some of its punch by providing you distance and the ability to more easily look away from what you don’t want to see.

 

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Best of Enemies

[3 stars]

When tackling difficult material, like racism and the Klan, you have to find a way into the material that doesn’t drive your audience away. BlacKkKlansman took its own approach, as did Green Book. And Blazing Saddles took yet another as part of its comical tale. But, when truth is stranger than fiction, you sometimes just have to go with it head-on.

Taraji P. Henson (What Men Want) transforms into activist Ann Atwater with both humor and heart…and the help of some prosthetics. Along with Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon), as Klan leader C.P. Ellis, the two drive this story in often unexpected ways. But, as good as he is in this, I am getting a little tired of seeing Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon) reprise his “bad guys with a heart” (or at least some form of integrity) that started with Three Billboards. He nails it every time, but because it is becoming his signature, the impact is diminished. Ultimately, his actions aren’t a surprise, and it becomes less triumphant with each repetition.

But the reason this film doesn’t succeed at the level it should goes back to my first comments: how do you tackle material like this in a way that doesn’t drive away your audience.  To get us into the story first-time writer/director Robin Bissell opts for an almost dark comedy presentation as we meet the characters and watch their despicable acts. He does this to provide some distance from the horror, though it comes perilously close to making it feel acceptable. Given the overall sense of the film, I can understand the approach, though it was discomforting. Perhaps that was Bissell’s intention?

But as a first film I’m willing to handicap Bissell’s result. Despite the initial odd feeling of the movie, he brings it back around to a satisfying, even hopeful ending. An ending hopeful even more so because it is true. In this case it is also an important reminder that, despite today’s politics, we can still listen to one another and change for the better.

If this is what Bissell does with little experience, it will be interesting to see what he can do with some tempered tools in his belt. In the meantime, set aside an evening for this story, if nothing else to learn about a story you probably didn’t know and would never think could happen.

Step

[3 stars]

Step is an interesting look at the lives of three young women trying to escape poverty. It isn’t, however, a great documentary about how Step made that possible for them, despite the title. Unlike Brooklyn Castle, the story promised in the title of this film never really takes shape. Step isn’t so much the goal and glue that shapes the women as it is simply the crossroads that brings them and the filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz, together to tell their story.

That doesn’t make it uninteresting as a long form piece of journalism, but it is better going in knowing the real focus. In addition, Lipitz had no idea how to film the Step performances so you could see them well either, which was frustrating. Step is best viewed from a little distance so you can see whole team. But this film does a lot of close-ups, odd angles, and unnecessary quick cuts that keep you from ever appreciating what the team put together.

For the stories of the women and to see what a school that takes its charge seriously, to teach and improve the lives of its students, this is worth the viewing time. As a film, it is middling at best. Go in expecting an extended 60 Minutes piece and you’ll be better attuned to the journey you are provided.

All Is True

[3.5 stars]

It is fair to say that if anyone currently had the right to take on Shakespeare, the man, in his later years, it is Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express). From his early launch into the public eye with Henry V and his unedited Hamlet, not to mention all his other adaptations on stage and film, he owns the Bard. Even Julie Taymor (Tempest), who has assailed his works as well, isn’t as immersed on all sides of the process like Branagh, who has adapted, directed, and played the roles. That isn’t to say there aren’t others (the Donmar Warehouse comes to mind) as well, but in scope and depth, again Branagh has earned the right and has the deep, personal affinity to do it.

And Branagh brings all that experience, love, and ability to bear on this fictionalized look at Shakespeare’s last years. But, that said, he isn’t the best actor of the movie, despite tackling the title role. That actually goes to Judy Dench (Victoria & Abdul) as Shakespeare’s wife and his screen daughters Lydia Wilson (Requiem) and Kathryn Wilder who all have very complicated and fraught relationships with the men around them.

Ben Elton’s script is a brilliant bit of detective and fictional effort to explain everything from Shakespeare’s will to his final years sans quill.  It is clever and entertaining, but also unwilling to let anything go. A point in fact, Ian McKellan (X-Men: Days of Future Past) has possibly one of the most beautiful and most unnecessary scenes in the movie. It would have been a shame to cut it, but cut it Branagh should have. It did nothing to advance the main, or even secondary, plots and was just a possible explanation of one of the most enigmatic collections of Shakespeare’s writing. Interesting? Sure. But not part of the movie that made it to screen.

How great figures exit this world has long fascinated people. The truth is that most just fade out of public scrutiny until they simply disappear. This film provides a sympathetic framework to understand one of the most celebrated and long-lasting writers in human history. It is sumptuously filmed and honestly delivered. It isn’t perfect, but it is a delight…especially so if you know his works and the various hypotheses that have followed him through the centuries. It is most definitely worth your time and worth it on the big screen if you can see it there. I barely caught it myself during its brief expansion. But, even on the small screen, make time for it if you have any interest in the Bard at all… or just to see some truly remarkably subtle performances.

Hotel Mumbai

[3.5 stars]

Have you ever watched an action film and wanted to shout at the characters for monologuing or otherwise doing stupid stuff rather than just taking the shot? That isn’t an issue in this depiction of the 2008 Taj Hotel siege. It is an utterly chilling recounting of the events executed (literally) with a cold and realistic eye. The terrorists truly don’t see their victims as human and callously dispatch them with calm and self-righteous demeanors.

The result is an incredible inside-view of events, at least in feeling. As a first feature film as director and co-writer, Anthony Maras truly pulled no punches. Against the backdrop of violence, he provides a few people for us to invest in and follow. Among them Armie Hammer (Never Look Away), Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin), Dev Patel (Lion), Tilda Cobham-Hervey (The Kettering Incident),  Nazanin Boniadi (Counterpart), and Anupam Kher (Mrs. Wilson) each have stories for us to follow. Some of their narratives feel a little forced and overly contrived, but the truth is also that surviving such an event is usually due to a collection of odd circumstances.

Maras, in an attempt to provide some sense of completion and hope at the end of the film, stretches out the final moments a little too much. The ending could have been trimmed considerably and still provided the needed sense of relief and whatever solace was going to be possible. In fact, the end sequence had the only real moments that dragged during the story.

I want to stress again that this is not an entertainment. It is a fascinating look at a horrific event, but don’t go into it lightly or expecting a actioner with the good guys spouting quips and homemade grenades. It is a true horror show, all the more so because it really happened and because we are not shielded from the nature of the evil. In fact, you barely can comprehend them enough to even react to them…they are a cold force of nature beyond the understanding of sane, empathetic individuals. Like I said, not for a night’s entertainment on the couch, but still a story worth understanding when the world is what it is today.

Fighting With My Family

[3 stars]

Who would have thought a sweet film about family and personal dreams would come out of a true story about a family of wrestlers…and that it has little to do with wrestling?

To be up front, I am not, and never have been, a fan of professional wrestling. For whatever reason, neither the stories nor the staged athleticism ever caught my interest. And yet, Dwayne Johnson (Skyscraper) is becoming a solid favorite for pure entertainment films and, frankly, as a person. But he is just a side character here. It is Florence Pugh (Little Drummer Girl) who adds the real heart to this story. Not much reality or sense of believability, but there is heart. And heart can be enough.

The issues with the story are down to writer/director (and even actor in this jaunt) Stephen Merchant (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). While he elicits honest emotions from his cast, and keeps the story flowing nicely in his sophomore outing, he didn’t quite get me to sense Pugh’s achievements, nor Jack Lowden’s (Mary Queen of Scots) losses and resurrection.  I wasn’t there to cheer with them as I should have been.

Nick Frost (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Lena Headey (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Game of Thrones), however, did add some great comedy and energy…and even their own sense of romance. You can barely believe them as characters…until you see the real family in the credits and realize they likely toned it all down for the film.

This movie is a perfect example of the truth sometimes being less interesting than fiction. I suspect the script cleaves closely to the reality of the Knight family. But it needed a bit more fiction and a bit more structure to let the human side of the story really soar. Sure it would have been manipulated, but it would have been in service to the story rather than pushing against it. Regardless, it is a surprisingly effective and inspiring tale of growing up and following your dreams, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not.

Farinelli

[3 stars]

Stardom has been with humanity since its earliest days. What excites the masses shifts, but there is always something that captures imagination. In the 18th century, for a time, it was castrati; singers sans balls who’s life altering choices were made for them as young boys. Farinelli was one of the biggest. Singers, that is.

Though made in 1994, the movie resonates with current tastes and reflections. From the camp to the glitz, you can’t watch this without thinking of Freddie Mercury’s story as told in Bohemian Rhapsody, the docu Studio 54, or even reflect on the careers of Bowie and Elton John. This is Glam Rock in its infancy.

The story, however, is more of an opera: overblown and extreme. But the film struggles a little on bringing us into it all. In large part that is because it is more than halfway through before you start to understand the character’s motivations. In fact, it wasn’t until after the final moments and thinking about it more that it came into full clarity. That either makes director and co-writer Gérard Corbiau’s result very clever art or a poorly constructed film. It isn’t an easy call to make on that point.

Stefano Dionisi’s Farinelli is everything you’d expect. His brother, taken on by Enrico Lo Verso is more cryptic. The two play off each other well…but it is a curious and fraught relationship that is as much confusing and it is sibling battles. Arrayed against them is the better known actor (stateside), Jeroen Krabbé, who tackles a much-conflicted Handel. Some of the film smacks of Amadeus because of this conflict, but the stories, while philosophically often sharing ideas, are very different.

This would be a really fascinating movie to remake today. Given the sexual politics that have dominated so much of the news, not to mention the tensions mounting around the world, there is fertile ground for both spectacle and commentary. For now, however, we’ll have to settle for this incarnation of it, which hits on many historical accuracies, even if that isn’t its real intent or focus.

Rocketman

[4.5 stars]

Are you more interested in the truth or the lie? What sets this biopic apart from other musical tales is that Lee Hall (Victoria & Abdul) wrote a fantasy that tells the truth rather than a fantasy that replaces it. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, fun as it was, it was a fantasy that obscured the truth and was empty of message. Rocketman is a soaringly beautiful but honest account, in idea if not specifics, about John’s life growing up and, finally, accepting himself and getting sober. And, of course, there is the music.

Taron Egerton (Robin Hood)delivers an Elton John that is charismatic, warts and all, showing yet again his ability and range. And, unlike Malik’s Freddy Mercury, Egerton actually sings the role (though admittedly John’s voice is much easier to replicate than Mercury’s).

Director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) reteamed with Egerton for this musical. He took Hall’s script and made it sing, literally and figuratively. It is a non-stop reimagining of John’s catalog of songs, giving many of them new life. Just to see John’s debut at the Troubadour as conceived by Fletcher, Hall, and Egerton is worth the price of admission. It is a perfect example of fantasy making reality more real. If I have any gripe about how the story was told, it is that chronology is challenging…to be fair, it isn’t clear if John knew what year it was at that point either, so perhaps it was more a disorienting choice rather than a gap.

While Egerton is certainly at the center of all that is Rocketman, he is surrounded by talent that completes the story. Bryce Dallas Howard (Pete’s Dragon) as his mother, Steven Mackintosh (Robot Overlords) as his father, Jamie Bell (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) as lyracist Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden (The Bodyguard) as John’s manager and lover, and Gemma Jones (God’s Own Country) as his grandmother all add important aspects and deliver great performances. Howard, in particular, walks a terribly difficult line to bring John’s mother to the screen in a consistent and believable way.

The story is exhilarating and will have you rethinking the pop phenomena and music that is Elton John. His songs may be pap, most of the time, but it is pap that wrote a good part of the score for world over the last several decades. And his story, as cautionary or exemplar is worth seeing. This is the honesty I wanted from Bohemian Rhapsody which had no sense of truth to it, even if it was entertaining. I’m glad Fletcher got a second bite at the apple, after finishing Bohemian for screen, to do this kind of story right. Rocketman is triumphant in the right ways, even if its underbelly is quite a bit more scuffed by life.