Tag Archives: biography

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.

Mrs. Wilson

[3 stars]

This is one of those true stories that is stranger than fiction. In the beginning of this three part drama, Ruth Wilson (The Little Stranger) loses her husband of many years, Iain Glen (Cleverman). Quickly, she discovers that he wasn’t the man she thought in work, in life, or in love. Watching her struggle with the revelations is quite a shift from her usual more overtly tough characters.

The story is mostly about her wresting the truth from those who did know and then struggling with the knowing. Primarily, that is from Fiona Shaw (Colette) and Anupam Kher (The Big Sick), who still make her work for her answers, such as they are. Keeley Hawes (The Bodyguard) and Patrick Kennedy (London Has Fallen) add some other interesting aspects to the life being revealed.

Richard Laxton helms the triptych nicely, slowly peeling layers from the mystery and the characters. It is a fascinating story, if not an entirely satisfying conclusion. But the ending isn’t the fault of the actors or story, but rather of life, if the final credits are to be believed. Ultimately, it is a reminder to consider what makes your life right and good more than it is about collusion and deception. If it were placed in a more current time, I’m not sure we’d have gotten the same story, but it somehow feels right in its period.

For the performances and the slow ride of the story, it is worthy of the time spent. At this point I’m even curious to try and dive into the real history to learn more. And you may have noticed that the lead and the main character share a name…you may have wondered, and the answer is yes.

On the Basis of Sex

[4 stars]

Who would have thought that a movie about tax law could be so riveting? It brings to mind The West Wing, which famously made the census and picking a postage stamp must-see TV.  But, of course, this film isn’t about tax law, it is about equality and a social movement that still struggles today. In fact, next week will mark the third Women’s March, inspired by the continuing fight against people who would like to throw the country back to an earlier era where women, in particular, were seen as second class citizens at best, and property at worst.

On the Basis of Sex isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a solid one thanks to a heart-felt script and a solid cast. Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) takes on the mantel of RBG, bringing her to life as a young woman and, more importantly, a person. With Armie Hammer (Sorry to Bother You) by her side and Cailee Spaeny (Bad Times at the El RoyaleVice) as their daughter, we see a family engaged in the process and devoted to one another’s efforts and successes. Depicting them as a family adds the deeply personal to the deeply political that could have easily overwhelmed the story.

Justin Theroux (Mute), as the ACLU’s Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates (The Great Gilly Hopkins) have nice supporting roles who both guided and impeded RBG at times. But ultimately, they helped push her to becoming the great, practicing jurist she has become.

On opposing counsel, Sam Waterston (Miss Sloane),  who continues his lifelong career of onscreen litigators, got to portray an out and out asshole, mired in a past that is far too reflective of a good part of today’s political world. Along with Jack Reynor (Kin) and Stephen Root (Life of the Party) the three become the voice of fear and oppression. They are true believers, and perhaps a bit too emphatic in their delivery, rather than calm. Emotionally, it is more palatable for them to be evil and wrong, rather than contemplative and wrong, but it made them less believable as people.

That said, the strength of Daniel Stiepleman’s first script is that it tends to remain focused on the human rather than the political in the story. Yes, the law and the impact are central, but the motivations and the impact are all personal. That the real story of RBG is, in fact, a wonderfully dramatic starting point didn’t hurt his efforts.

For all the great joy, impact, and subtlety of this film, Mimi Leder’s direction let it all deflate at the end. Honestly, I was ready to applaud when the final credits rolled, as was the fairly packed theater I saw it in. And then Leder let the story just sort of die with blocks of text. Truly a shame. It didn’t ruin the film, but it certainly robbed it of a feeling of triumph and possibility. And, frustratingly, a small set of edits could have kept up the energy and feeling rolling so that the last moments of zipping into the present would have felt triumphant rather than as a quiet button to the tale. Despite that let down, it does leave you with a sense of how far we have come and what we risk losing as a society if we don’t keep fighting to protect it.

So, yes, you should see this wonderful depiction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and impact on law in this country. Bring  your daughters and sons or young person of your acquaintance. Remind them how new and vulnerable the law is and society can be, why we fought and why we must continue to fight. Getting entertained at the same time is a nice bonus.

Cutie and the Boxer

[4 stars]

Certainly you can approach this purely as a documentary about Ushio Shinohara and/or Noriko  Shinohara, but that is just the surface of this odd window into the lives of the couple.

Zachary Heinzerling’s first film captured, as well as forced, a story to creation simply by being present in lives of these two people. We learn of their art and their impetus, but we also watch them change and say things that have clearly long been gestating…and you get the strong sense that they never would have been said without the cameras being present. That aspect brings an odd and wonderful layer to this documentary. It creates as well as captures art, simply by existing.

While this may all sound rather breezy, the story that unfolds is actually rather complex and, at times, dark. But it is also full of powerful attachment and love. Love we come to understand and, ultimately, see played out during the final role of the credits in a very direct way.

The result of Heinzerling’s efforts was the well deserved receipt of multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination. How you view the final product, as art, story, performance, or simply couple’s therapy is part of the charm and fascination of the piece.

McFarland, USA

[3 stars]

When McFarland came out three years ago, it was seen as a movie of possibility and perseverance in the vein of Brooklyn Castle or Spare Parts. Today, with the rise of 45 to office and the rhetoric about immigrants, it has an entirely different resonance. It is, in fact, a view of society that a good part of the country needs to see to be reminded of who immigrants are, what they endure, why they came here, and how they contribute. But, to be fair, that is all subtext to the main story of young men learning to believe in themselves rather than to believe other’s opinions of them.

This is one of those perfect Kevin Costner (Hidden Figures) vehicles; a slightly curmudgeonly middle-aged man with a big heart and belief in others. There is a large and talented supporting cast as well, though Maria Bello (Prisoners) and Carlos Pratts (The Bridge) are the main standouts for the story.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) sells the story in a Hallmark sort of way. The last third of the movie really diminishes its possibilities. However close to truth, it is primarily designed to manipulate, losing some of its credibility in exchange for cheap emotional punch. It still works, but it becomes very predictable and forced.

For a feel-good evening and, perhaps, education, it is worth your time. Certainly the real story deserves to be heard, however heightened the transition to screen made it.

Marwencol

[3 stars]

Before there was Welcome to Marwen, there was this  2010 documentary that brought the real Mark Hogancamp’s story to the world beyond his gallery events and photos.

There are two aspects to discuss here. The first is the documentary itself on its own merits and the other is how that translated into the recent movie. I purposefully didn’t watch this docu before the adaptation to avoid mental frisson; it seemed easier to take on the truth later rather than untangle it while watching the fiction. It was the right choice as the fiction reveals things in a deliberate way and aspects would have been spoiled had I known going in. So, if you haven’t seen either, start with Welcome to Marwen and then learn more. And, yes, I recommend both for your time.

As a first full-length documentary subject for director Jeff Malmberg, Hogancamp’s tale was a gem of a find in terms of uniqueness. The story is unlike anything else. However, his completed result is a little less crafted and smooth in narration than it might have been. There is a great deal of interesting information and revelation, but it all feels rather fragmented in the way it is told. The story comes across as a bucket of interesting facts rather than a complete narrative. While there are times avoiding putting together that thread can be a good thing for a documentary, in this case it was more jarring than revealatory. I will say that he did manage to maintain an objective distance from the information. In the end, however, I didn’t feel that I got to know Hogancamp very well, but only just got a flavor of his experience and struggles, with a sense of hope and direction of where he was going.

In the fictionalization, Zemeckis took the bones of this information and sewed them together into a story. Some of it is clearly pure fiction; the presentation of Hogancamp is more a distillation of the indicators of what we see in this documentary rather than the factual truth. But the core of the movie is very much obviously drawn from what we see in this documentary. Zemeckis simply finds a story to pull it all together in a satisfying way. It is also interesting to see which shots he directly took from the documentary and how he evolved, in particular, the Belgian witch, Deja, to provide a spine for Hogancamp’s struggles and a message for the audience.

The two movies together create a wonderful lab for learning about adaptation. The actual facts and recordings are not always the best way to get a point across…or, for that matter, the truth. In many ways, the fictional movie manages to surface more of the struggles and realities of Hogancamp’s life and the world than the documentary, even if some of it is patently changed and made-up. But each of these films provide different insights and work well together to give a more complete picture of Marwen(col) as well as a peek inside each of our own dark mental meanderings that get us through every day.

The Favourite

[3.5 stars]

This makes three for three highly noticed, and very different, films for director Yorgos Lanthimos who hit the cinema consciousness with The Lobster followed by Killing of a Sacred Deer.  The first was surreal look at love, while the second was dark examination of family, life, and suburbia (or perhaps something else…honestly that one baffled me).

Despite the wildly different styles, there are some commonalities in his work. First, he gets great talent to bring his vision to life. In this case Olivia Colman (The Night Manager) and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience) reunite with Lanthimos to bring us two very different women. Colman as Queen Anne is a bundle of emotional issues, but with the power to move continents. Weisz, as her long-time friend, confidant, and adviser is either a Machiavellian blight on England’s rule, or Anne’s and her country’s protector from a ill-prepared monarch. Into this steps Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes), a fallen aristocrat, and cousin to Weisz, trying to survive. Dark hilarity ensues.

And that is the second aspect of commonality for Lanthimos: dark humor. It is a language he revels in and that suffuses his stories. Supporting that humor from the sidelines are Nicholas Hoult (Equals), Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Boy Erased), and James Smith (In the Loop), but this is very much the women’s movie.

One of the other striking commonalities for Lanthimos’s movies are the endings…or lack of them. His three most recent offerings all have contemplative endings that are open to interpretation. While he wrote Lobster and Sacred Deer, Davis and McNamara’s script for the Favourite fits comfortably with these other two at the final credits. I would say that the end of this movie is a bit clearer and has some powerful commentary, but also some aspects that left me pondering the meaning. That open end is likely pure Lanthimos as it is about the presentation rather than the dialogue. Honestly, it is the ending that dropped my rating of the overall film, which is otherwise an incredibly entertaining tale of court politics with enough of a contemporary flare to reach a wide audience and powerhouse acting to sell it.

This isn’t quite the laugh-fest I had hoped for when I sat down, but I did enjoy it a great deal. Colman, in particular, delivers a wonderful performance, only bits of which were spoiled by the trailers. That isn’t to diminish Weisz or Stone’s equally strong performances, but Colman ultimately controls this story.

Lanthimos continues to prove himself capable of delivering gripping, dark stories about people that entertain and make you think. I would still prefer slightly less cryptic endings, but the journey is worth the uncertainty at the end.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

[3.5 stars]

Watching a train wreck occur is not something that usually appeals to me. But this painfully honest depiction of Lee Israel’s adventure in forgery is a fascinating look at what someone is capable of if sufficiently desperate and full of a sense of entitlement. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it is packed with bleak and dark humor served perfectly by Melissa McCarthy (The Happytime Murders) and Richard E. Grant (The Hitman’s Bodyguard). Their performances are at once moving and disturbing, and not just a little bit funny.

McCarthy, all to often goes for broad, slapstick humor. I’m sure it pays the bills, but it is wonderful to see her use her real skills…those that make her comedy work so well…to give us something a bit more memorable and serious. Grant, as well, creates an indelible character that lives on well after the movie in your mind. Both are worth consideration of all the awards nods they’ve wracked up, and I expect they will be seeing more.

While these two dominate the story, supporting performances by Dolly Wells (Boundaries), Jane Curtain, and Anna Deavere Smith (Black-ish) help push along the story solidly. In fact the recreation of NYC of the early 80s, particularly in the circles they traveled, is spot on.

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is no stranger to darker material that needs to be handled with emotional care. The script by Holofcener and Whitty helps her out by finding a wonderful through-line that doesn’t feel forced or manipulated, even though it is obviously a fictionalization of the true events. Impressive for two writers without a many credits behind them. It never blinks and never makes an excuse for either main character. They are who they are…the title tells you everything you need to know about their attitudes.

You’ll be hearing about this film all through awards season, so make time for it. It will entertain, even with its dark filter, and it certainly is an unexpected ride.