Tag Archives: biography

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.

The Upside

[3.5 stars]

When do American remakes ever really stand up to the originals? They creatives involved typically just go for the cheap laughs or the silly sap and forget the humanity that often marks the small foreign successes they are copying. Adding to my doubt going in was that this is an adaptation of a retelling and my confidence on the potential result was low. The original, Intouchables, was a heart-warming, but often gritty tale of two men finding their way. It was full of surprises and interesting tensions that captured audiences and helping it gross nearly 500M worldwide. I suppose with only 10M of that coming from the US, studios saw an opportunity.

Jon Hartmere’s rewrite, The Upside, keeps the base story laid out in the original, but finds a different tale and path. The story remains  surprising, but in different ways. As a first feature script, it was a surprisingly effective achievement. Even with the momentary lapses of Kevin Hart (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) drifting back into his shtick, the movie holds up nicely. In fact, much better than I expected.

But it is Neil Burger’s (Divergent, Limitless) direction that keeps it all on track. Everyone is in a restrained tension within themselves and with each other. It helps that he balanced Hart with two extraordinary performers in Bryan Cranston (Isle of Dogs) and Nicole Kidman (Destroyer). Both of their performances are compelling and spot-on. Kidman even manages to look frumpy with some very minor changes of appearance. Against them, Hart feels appropriately abrasive and out of tune. But Hart also gets his moments. I can’t say I truly invested in his reality, but Cranston and Kidman kept me anchored and pleased with the story.

If you haven’t seen the original, you should. But the two movies really are different, despite the main plots tracking closely. Two very different story tellers are at work and the results will transport you in different ways.

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

[3 stars}

We all know Mapplethorpes (both sides: people, flowers), Worhals, Lichtensteins, Michaelangelos, Calders, Pollacks, Van Gogh, Banksys, and Degas (the list can go on and on), if not by name by familiar sight. But did you ever wonder why you knew them? Why, when these artists were pushing the boundaries of art, who was it that was explaining to the world why it mattered? Or, at least, convinced the world it mattered. In centuries past, it was dynasties like the Medici. In current times it is critics and collectors who have the ear of the museums and media.

The Square attempted to tackle this question a couple years ago in fiction. But this documentary takes on the life and impact of a single man who was a fulcrum point for many artistic movements and shifts in public perception, not to mention culture: Sam Wagstaff. Not a name that comes trippingly to the tongue, but an important one nonetheless.

Learning about Wagstaff’s life and impact are the best parts of James Crump’s documentary, which is otherwise extremely staid, dry, and in its way, scholarly. In other words this 80ish minute walk through history and lives is more like a class lesson than a gripping bit of documentary. That doesn’t make it less interesting, but certainly shrinks its audience to the PBS crowd even if the subject matter might intrigue a wider group.

Despite the title, this really is about Wagstaff, with some passing information on his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe is important to Wagstaff’s story, but the title is a bit misleading. Mapplethorpe was a flashpoint in American art, arts funding, and the government. He was the tipping point that conservatives used to start killing the NEA and NEH and using it, instead, as a propaganda machine for conservative values. The terrified conservatives weren’t completely successful, but you can trace the approach and hate and battle that is going on today between government funding for the arts in a fairly straight line back to the early 80s and artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano.

This is far from a great documentary, but it is some interesting background and a huge amount of visual representation, video and stills, of the pieces involved. Many people, including Patti Smith, who knew the men well provide first-hand accounts of their lives and interactions. As a lesson in art history it is a nicely condensed overview of Wagstaff and his life and impact, with nods to Mapplethorpe. As a question raised as to the veracity of taste and what drives what is accepted, it is somewhat intriguing. As a movie, even as a first documentary for Crump, it is middling but for its willingness to show and discuss material that is often avoided.

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.