Archive for the Biography Category


Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on November 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spotlight photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe difference between when a story explodes in the media and the time it actually happens, can be two totally different things. Just ask Bill Cosby. Such is the case with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. On January 6, 2002 the Boston Globe ran the first of many reports detailing a shocking pattern of molestation and cover-ups that had been going on for years. The ignominy went deeper than the actual acts. It was also that the Church knew about the crimes and knowingly shuttled priests to different parishes when incidents would rise. The events in the Archdiocese had local repercussions. Cardinal Bernard Law ultimately resigned as the Archbishop of Boston for his administrative role in the crime. However what originally appeared to be a problem within the local diocese caused other victims to come forward in parishes across the United States. The sheer number of people attested to a pattern that went back decades. The ensuing scandal spread and became a nationwide crisis for the Catholic Church.

Confession: The scandal had far reaching consequences. The victims had been harmed directly but the news also disturbed faithful members of the Church. As a practicing Roman Catholic, the scandal shook me. It was a powerful reminder that a religious organization is not God. Of course I knew what Spotlight was about even before I saw it. This was going to be a painful reminder of a very embarrassing chapter in the Catholic Church. What I didn’t expect, however was the balanced level at which the movie treats faith. At one point in their investigation, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team comes into contact with an ex-priest turned psychiatrist. He was not involved in any wrongdoing, but they wanted his comment on it. Incredulous they ask over a phone call, how he can still be a practicing Catholic. His response, “My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two.”

First and foremost, Spotlight is about investigative journalism. The story itself is secondary to the way reporters conduct their procedure. The narrative is fashioned as a finely tuned ensemble piece. It’s fascinating that an entire film can be constructed simply out of conversations. But rest assured, these are extremely eye opening discussions. Liev Schreiber is the newly appointed Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron, presented as a Jewish outsider in the largely Roman Catholic enclave of Boston. At first the exposé appears to be about John J. Geoghan, one former priest found to have a history of abuse, but Marty suspects a systemic problem. Before they publish, he presses the team to dig deeper. Was the hierarchy of the Boston diocese aware of this misconduct? Editor Baron pays a courtesy call to Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). Their chat highlights a happily upbeat Law, who mistakenly assumes the Boston Globe will work WITH the Catholic Church.

At the heart of Spotlight is the investigative unit. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James portray the core reporters of the team. As Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr., John Slattery oversees them. Spotlight certainly puts the Catholic Church on notice for the way it handled the allegations, but it also has a harsh critique for journalists themselves, even the very ones who finally broke the story. Interestingly, all of the the “Spotlight” reporters admit to being lapsed Catholics. Despite having fallen from organized religion, their lack of desire to offend their readership underlies their hesitancy at first. The way news stories are buried and ignored, sometimes for years, is a very key point of the drama. The information was always there. It just wasn’t reported properly. Lawyers (played by Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup) are on opposite sides that have represented the plaintiffs and defendants for years. They each have extensive knowledge of the cases and are key to understanding the depth of this problem.

Spotlight is a pragmatic and clear headed approach to investigative journalism. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win) and his co-writer Josh Singer (TV’s The West Wing) do not sensationalize the subject. For example, there are no flashback scenes of the abuse. Discussions with the now adult victims are carefully handled as fact finding interviews. At one point, a man only offers he was “molested” as a boy. Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, gracefully presses that he needs to be more specific as that word can have a variety of meanings to different people. Our witness to the rest of their conversation ends there. In a later scene, Sacha knocks on the door of another former clergy member: Father Ronald H. Paquin (Richard O’Rourke). Their brief, matter-of-fact interaction is one of the most memorable dialogues in the entire film. It stays with you because it reveals so much in mere mommets. The trust we place in trusted figures of authority, the role of journalists to report the news, the way scandals affect our faith, the lasting effects of sexual abuse – Spotlight touches on all of these issues and more in a 128 minute runtime that flies by. It does all this in the guise of a straightforward drama. The account could have been about almost any report, as long as it were true. The nature of this story obviously gives the chronicle an emotional component, but Spotlight is somewhat dispassionate. Yet that weakness of sorts is also its strength. The drama is efficient, objective and direct and that’s exactly what good news journalism should be.



Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 29, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Suffragette photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgYou’d think a period piece concerning the women’s suffragette movement in the U.K. would be an uplifting slam dunk. I mean championing a women’s right to vote is not exactly a controversial notion unless, according to the movie’s closing credits, you’re Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of accessible femininism that everybody can get behind. Unfortunately what should have been an unimpeachable drama becomes a tedious chore with a mangled narrative that thwarts an inspiring true story.

The screenplay has fashioned the UK suffrage crusade around a fictional group of working class women. If your knowledge about their struggle is centered around actress Glynis Johns singling “Sister Suffragette” in Mary Poppins, then this movie should be quite an education. Yes they do in fact wear those sashes and bonnets, but they aren’t interested in peaceful protest. These women are violent. First it starts with throwing rocks at store front windows. Then it’s on to blowing things up, first mailboxes, then the prime minister’s home.

Meryl Streep pops up briefly to inspire the masses as a leader of the British suffragette campaign. And by briefly, I mean if you use the restroom, you’ll miss her. She plays political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the few roles literally based on a real person. Women have been fighting for more representation in Parliament for some 50 years, she laments. Civil disobedience has now given way to a radicalized cause prone to violence as the sole route to change. She inspires Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) to go from law abiding housewife to rabble rouser. “We break windows, we burn things, because war’s the only language men listen to” she cries.

A great actor can rise above conventional, even bland, filmmaking. I thought this as I watched Carey Mulligan in Suffragette. She is convincing as Maud, a working wife and mother, who is indirectly recruited into the movement. This occurs when she is asked to read a speech detailing horrible conditions at the laundry to a cabinet committee, on behalf of her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud does this because her friend’s face is badly bruised after having been beat by her husband. It would seem that condition would actually lend more power to Violet’s words, but that idea is never even considered. Carey Mulligan as Maud is barely concerned about the vote at the beginning, but her transformation into a raging extremist becomes a compelling character arc.

Maud’s conversion from mild mannered housewife into left wing revolutionary is effective in Carey Mulligan’s hands. She transcends the material. The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. The film is filled with clichés not people. Meryl Streep’s part is too small to make a difference. Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai all portray fictional composites that represent types. Natalie Press, on the other hand, is the very real Emily Davison. It’s unfortunate she’s more of a plot device than a person. She provides a climax of sorts. Oh but the men fare even worse. Ben Whishaw plays Maud’s husband as an unforgiving man who’d rather kick his wife out into the street and give up his only child for adoption, than have a conversation with his wife. Maud’s boss (Geoff Bell) is a snarling sexual predator and shop-floor tyrant that does everything but twirl his mustache. Meanwhile the police bash lady demonstrators senseless with batons.

Suffragette is a pedestrian account that fails to be incisive. The screenplay by Abi Morgan paints their experience in broad strokes. These are supposed to be our mothers and daughters, but they aren’t human, they’re shortcuts to character development that short change a powerful saga. It’s interesting to note that Abi Morgan also wrote The Iron Lady which was another narratively weak script. Maud loses her husband, child, job, home, basically everything in her life. She’s even thrown in jail and force fed with tubes in a particularly hard to watch scene. On paper, this chronicle should’ve been a soft sell for today’s viewer. It’s the ultimate indignity to the struggle of these brave women that you unwittingly start to question Maud’s decisions. Was becoming a domestic bomber and arsonist really the correct path? This shouldn’t happen in a tale about courageous women fighting for equal rights, but strangely it does.


The Walk

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on October 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Walk photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe tale was famously told onscreen once before in James Marsh’s Man on Wire, an Oscar winner in 2009 for Best Documentary Feature. On the early morning of August 7, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He completed the death-defying stunt 1,350-feet above the ground, making 8 passes on the wire for 45 minutes. The story behind this unauthorized feat was a carefully planned exploit that he referred to as “le coup”.

At first glance, Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) might appear to be an odd fit for this fairly introspective little dramatic piece. But upon closer inspection, the concept doesn’t seem like such a random subject for the director. This is the saga of a dreamer, and as such, it feels like a labor of love for the wildly successful auteur who helmed Forrest Gump. The cinematic valentine comes across as both an ode to the idealistic spirit of Philippe Petit as well as a tribute to the memory of those impressive buildings that once towered above New York City.

A large part of the picture is merely setup to his celebrated act. The planning and organization of the caper is presented with all the anticipation of a heist. Robert Zemeckis frames the movie with charismatic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the similarly charming Petit speaking right into the camera while atop of the torch in the Statue of Liberty. Petit narrates his chronicle. That’s a whimsical touch. I suppose Zemeckis makes all of the prelude as interesting as possible, but it’s not unlike someone clearing their throat before giving an oratory address.

Zemeckis surrounds Gordon-Levitt with a colorful cast of accomplices. These include a photographer portrayed by Clément Sibony and a math whiz played by César Domboy. There’s also James Badge Dale as an American who speaks French, Steve Valentine as an American admirer with a WTC office, and Charlotte LeBon as a fellow French street performer/love interest. Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel are the final two conspirators. To be honest I couldn’t tell you what purpose they serve. Oh and there’s Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, a circus performer who inspires Petit in his native France.

Like the recent Everest prior to this, The Walk debuted exclusively in 448 IMAX 3D theaters a week before its wide release. What could have been a gimmick becomes a fundamental component of the moviegoing phenomenon. This may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that utilized 3D and IMAX more perfectly than this one. The spectacle is nothing less than revelatory. I’m not saying the first half is expendable, but compared to the spectacular climax, it pales in comparison to the realism of the tightrope performance. You actually suffer the dizzying vertigo first-hand.  The experience truly illustrates the danger of Petit’s achievement. This will scare the heck out of you. The technology elevates the sensation into something unforgettable.


Pawn Sacrifice

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on October 1, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pawn Sacrifice photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s easy to see how a chess match between American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) became the ultimate Cold War showdown amongst two superpowers. Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union was the defending champion. The Soviet Chess School had long held a monopoly on the game at the highest level and Spassky was the latest in an uninterrupted chain beginning in 1948. The political rivalry separating the Soviet Union from the United States laid the foundation for a clash of mental dexterity that played out in a chess tournament on the world stage. It fascinated America and ignited a widespread chess fever at a height that has never been duplicated since.

Pawn Sacrifice is a handsomely mounted period piece – a fastidiously rendered production with shifting cinematography styles. Director Edward Zwick combines archival footage with shots made to look like the real thing. He uses cinematic tricks like digitally inserting Tobey Maguire into The Dick Cavett Show, as well as using real news reports from the era. When Fischer goes AWOL at the championship, a dozen different news anchors question Bobby’s whereabouts. These filmmaking techniques are showy but they’re never quite as satisfying as good old fashioned conversation between two people. Zwick has assembled an impressive supporting cast including Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Robin Weigert as his attorney, his coach, and his mom respectively. Liev Schreiber speaks Russian as Boris Spassky, though his performance is mostly emotive. Each extracts a component of Fischer’s intense intellect.

Ah but Bobby Fischer was one of those marvels tinged with madness. I’d fault the “tortured genius” narrative for endorsing a biopic cliché if it weren’t actually true. Pawn Sacrifice is undoubtedly a skillfully constructed docudrama. However for those hungry for a movie about chess and the intricacies of the game, they will be disappointed. This is a chronicle detailing paranoia, with chess as a backdrop. The filmmakers are more concerned with Fischer’s fragile psychological state than his brilliant mind. The child prodigy that became the youngest international grand master at the age of 15 is merely subtext. Many of the chess matches are kept off screen. Tobey Maguire plays Jewish Brooklyn born Bobby Fischer as a man haunted by demons. He’s a seething ball of neurosis. He tears apart his hotel rooms searching for wiretaps. He complains that his food has been poisoned. The script doesn’t explicitly say chess made him crazy, although the association seems to be that chess exacerbated his mental illness. Why chess became his obsession, and not another pursuit, remains unclear.

Pawn Sacrifice presents Bobby Fischer as a most unlikeable individual. He suffers from moods that fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. He avows the Soviets have been cheating by throwing games to create draws. His devotion to the Worldwide Church of God and its radio evangelism is presented as peculiar. He is anti-Semitic, even though he himself is Jewish. When Fischer finally gets to Reykjavik for the World Chess Championship, he makes everyone wait, taking the stage at the very last possible minute for his first game. Then forfeits the second game by not turning up at all. His prima donna behavior escalates with one outlandish demand after another. He complains that the audience and the TV video cameras are too noisy, refusing to continue unless the tournament is moved from a public hall to a private room. Save for a few coughs, the room appears quiet to us. When Fischer threatens to quit, Henry Kissinger calls to offer words of encouragement. The organizers relent anyway, giving into his demands. This doesn’t endear Bobby to us. Certainly it isn’t necessary to like the central character in order to appreciate a film. Yet we should feel something for this man. The movie entertains in parts but while showing how Bobby Fischer could be a jerk, it neglects to present his humanity. I was captivated during much of Pawn Sacrifice. I wanted to know more about this boy genius, particularly in his early life. It wasn’t until the climax that finally I realized that, after getting to know fellow American Bobby Fischer, I found myself rooting for Boris Spassky.



Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History, Sports with tags on September 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Everest photo starrating-4stars.jpgLace up your boots, strap on your pack, and let’s hit the trails. Everest concerns an ill-fated climbing expedition in 1996 to summit the world’s tallest mountain. The account mainly focuses on a crew in the Himalayas headed by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a guide for Adventure Consultants.

Everest has an extended cast of famous names. Most don’t get more than a few lines of dialogue, but nevertheless their familiar presence aids in our affinity for their characters. Rob’s clients include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a seasoned hiker, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a former mailman pursuing his dream, and climbing veteran Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has scaled 6 of the 7 summits. Only Everest remains for her. Another excursion is led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the chief guide for Mountain Madness. These tourist treks highlight the commercialization of Everest, which is an underlying theme. Initially they happen to each meet at the base camp first, in preparation for their attempt to reach the apex. The two caravans communicate with Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), who manages the base camp compound. Everest is loosely inspired by the book Into Thin Air by Outside magazine journalist Jon Krakauer. He’s portrayed here by Michael Kelly.

Icelandic born director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns) ups the ante over his previous American films and produces something far more ambitious. Granted this isn’t intellectually deep or technically rich. Narratively it’s fairly straightforward. However there is grace in trusting that the genuine drama of the true story will captivate the viewer….and it does. Green screen technology is used sparingly. Everest was shot on location at Everest base camp. The Dolomite mountains in northern Italy stands in for higher elevations. At times, the chronicle has such a visceral quality, it almost feels like documentary. It does a nice job in depicting the physiological effects of the climb. At higher altitudes even breathing becomes a task because the percentage of oxygen in the air is lower. The conditions force the team to acclimate to the low atmospheric pressure first before continuing.

Everest is a rather simple tale about a quest that ended in tragedy. It’s an old fashioned rip roaring adventure ideally suited to the big screen. Early theater engagements were shown exclusively in IMAX 3D. The attributes of those formats serve this subject well. The visual splendor is beautifully conveyed. Sweeping vistas and aerial photography convey a sense of grandeur. One dizzy overhead shot above a high suspension bridge triggers feelings of acrophobia. This is a saga where nature is the enemy. A grueling storm, frostbite, blindless and the wind all threaten the safety of our courageous explorers. I am neither an experienced mountaineer nor was I present on the actual expedition. Therefore I am not here to vouch for the authenticity of facts of the sport or what really happened. What I am is a film critic, and I can say that Everest absolutely delivers thrilling entertainment.


Black Mass

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama on September 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Black Mass photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBlack Mass is the true story of Whitey Bulger, an organized crime boss of the Boston Irish mob faction known as the Winter Hill Gang. Indicted for 19 murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus five years for his offenses on November 14, 2013, he is currently incarcerated. Prior to this, starting in 1975, Bulger served as an FBI informant. He reported on the inner workings of his rivals, the Italian American Patriarca crime family. In exchange, the bureau turned a blind eye to murder. His organization and their illegal doings went unchecked for years. Once Bulger’s relationship with the FBI was finally exposed by the local media, he went into hiding on December 23, 1994. For 12 of the 16 years he was on the lam, Bulger was #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list, behind only Osama bin Laden.

The infamous Whitey Bulger has been the stuff of legend in popular culture. In 2006 actor Jack Nicholson portrayed Frank Costello, an individual loosely based on Bulger, in The Departed. The reference is especially apropos because Black Mass frequently calls Martin Scorsese to mind. Not just the Best Picture winner, but Goodfellas as well. Watch Johnny Depp rebuke an FBI agent for too readily revealing his “secret” family recipe for a marinade. The intensity with which he takes him to task for a seemingly honest remark, evokes Joe Pesci’s iconic “How am I funny?” scene in Goodfellas.

Black Mass is a well acted character piece. Joel Edgerton is important as John Connolly, the FBI agent who strikes up an alliance with Bulger, abetted by their childhood friendship. Also Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s more respectable brother who chose the political world instead. Billy Bulger was President of the Massachusetts Senate for 18 years. Also of note is is Julianne Nicholson as the wife of John Connolly, who wants nothing to do with her husband’s schemes, and Corey Stoll as no-nonsense prosecutor Fred Wyshak. The latter two take nothing parts and turn them into the kind of roles that justify Oscar campaigns.

The only one that comes up a bit short is its star. I’ll admit, this is the most captivating Johnny Depp has been since Finding Neverland. He’s engaging and fully committed to the portrayal. Bulger is a frightening figure, as mean as they come. He’ll choke a friend’s stepdaughter with his bare hands if he thinks she might know too much. Regrettably his performance must still rely on an elaborate Tim Burton-style makeup job to “age” Depp into the role. The thinning blonde hair, brushed back to reveal a bald scalp, the rotten teeth, the ghostly, icy blue eyes aided by contacts. His pale, angular appearance makes him somewhat unrecognizable, but the transformation is distracting. It’s exaggerated, unnatural. He preys upon the innocent like a seething vampire. I remember back in 2012, critics were comparing Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows to Nosferatu. Well it’s happening all over again.

Black Mass is a solid, well-structured crime drama. The production is handsomely mounted. The cinematography is well photographed. The account doesn’t hold back from what a horrible man Bulger truly was. He puts a bullet in the head of a contrite friend in mid apology. It’s got brutal events carefully detailed in a fascinating true life tale of corruption. So what’s the problem? It’s a well presented series of facts, but it’s not much more. The studied approach requires passion. The film’s deliberate pace is so stately, it’s almost lethargic. In short, it lacks momentum and depth. It’s entertaining enough, a gripping character study bolstered by a supporting cast of earnest performances. However Black Mass won’t join the ranks of the greatest crime dramas. Along the way it often recalls them, but it pales in comparison.


Straight Outta Compton

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Straight Outta Compton  photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe formation and eventual breakup of seminal rap group N.W.A (Niggaz with Attitude) is the subject of Straight Outta Compton. The biopic mainly charts the careers of 5 artists from Compton, California who greatly influenced hip hop in the 90’s and beyond. In 1988 N.W.A was dubbed “the worlds most dangerous group”. Much of this due to their explicit and profanity-filled lyrics about urban crime and the gangster lifestyle. The FBI even sent them a warning letter. In retrospect, they couldn’t have asked for better publicity. Their music, including songs like “F— tha Police,” received no airplay from mainstream radio. Yet publicity fueled the album’s success and their popularity grew with the masses.

Any memoir must edit facts in order to streamline a narrative. Straight Outta Compton is definitely a bit guilty of selective history. The lineup of N.W.A. began with Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube. Although N.W.A formed in 1986, MC Ren actually didn’t join until 1988 just before the release of their first album Straight Outta Compton. Arabian Prince left shortly after but he did contribute to their debut. As a matter of fact, he appears on the album cover. So why doesn’t he rate a mention here? Even a bus driver gets a credit. Delving a little into this personnel shakeup would’ve been nice.

The film mainly centers on members Ice Cube (real life son O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) are key people too but remain somewhat in the background. All of the aforementioned three get ample screen time, but interestingly it’s Eazy-E’s story that is the most compelling. From drug dealer to last minute replacement rapper, his drama is never short on surprises. His solo debut single “Boyz-n-the-Hood” is presented as almost an afterthought. Short of stature with a voice pitched in a higher register, his characteristics belie an intriguing personality. The strength of his business partnership with manager/friend Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) was a development I wasn’t expecting.

Straight Outta Compton does a nice job of encapsulating a fairly dense plot that juggles a myriad cast of characters. The era leading up to N.W.A’s creation is dramatized but also the period following their breakup. Dr. Dre’s association with Suge Knight is detailed, as well as his split from Death Row records amid rising tensions, to form his own label Aftermath. At 2½ hours, it is a bit long but there is still a lot of interesting material here. The first half that focuses on N.W.A’s inception and transformation is best. Occasionally director F. Gary Gray falls victim to the standard rise and fall cliches of music biographies. The fable succeeds most when detailing the harsh realities of urban LA that inspired the song lyrics of their true-to-life tales. They were rallying against poverty and prejudice. We’re given news events that establish a timeline. The Rodney King trial is referenced for example. In light of current ongoing media investigation of police brutality, their social commentary rings even truer today. The details behind N.W.A is something of which I knew little. Yet the movie gave me a reason to care. The complex evolution of how influential artists popularized a burgeoning subgenre called gangsta rap, is frequently fascinating.



Posted in Biography, Documentary, Music with tags on July 27, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Amy photo starrating-4stars.jpgAn effective documentary sheds light on a subject heretofore seen as an an enigma. For those casually aware, Amy Winehouse was a troubled singer that fell prey to the perils of drugs, drinking and that catch-all term we call the rock & roll lifestyle. To many she was a lamentable figure gifted with the soulful voice of an artist twice her age. Her existence cut short at 27 by her own self destructive behavior. On March 23, 2011 Amy recorded the duet “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennet. 4 months later to the day, she died.

Director Asif Kapadia assembles a portrait of a vocalist we apparently didn’t know at all. The chronicle charts Winehouse’s life from her childhood in Southgate, North London, to her death in 2011. Her hard partying public personae was the subject of talk show hosts’ jokes, but privatively she was a depressed soul needing guidance, someone to say “No” to her vices. Amy’s mother, Cynthia, reveals she was afraid to get tough with her young daughter. Amy told her mom she was “too soft.” Amy’s parents’ divorce when she was 9 is a turning point that negatively affected her behavior. By 13 she was already on antidepressants. Kapadia interviews her friends, family members and the collaborators who knew her. These sound bites play as recorded narration behind home videos. Few had the intimate picture of Winehouse as her first manager, Nick Shymansky. Her early path to fame taped with a cheap video camera. Her raw talent on full display along with her addictions, depression and bulimia. Both sides are recounted through newly assembled interviews, rare photos and unearthed films.

Director Asif Kapadia presents a legend-in-the-making. What impresses is the striking contrast between the simplicity her life before she achieved massive fame and the way it changed afterward. The frail singer dogged by aggressive swarms of paparazzi stalking her with flashbulbs that go off like strobe lights in a disco. Amy was driven by a love of jazz music but also plagued by demons. She was unprepared for the rabid notoriety she archived. By the time of her final concert in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, she was a woman completely unraveled. Unable or unwilling to even perform as she stumbled about the stage in an apparent daze while thousands screamed for her to sing. What ultimately comes through is the tender portrayal of a shy but gifted singer whose outrageous conduct often overshadowed her stunning talent during her lifetime. Friend Tony Bennet compares her to the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It might sound like hyperbole, but coming as it does near the end of this documentary, it sounds perfectly reasonable.


Love & Mercy

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on June 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Love & Mercy photo starrating-4stars.jpgCo-founder of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson gets the biographical treatment in Love & Mercy. Taking its name from a song off his 1988 self titled solo album, the picture is an engrossing portrait of a complicated man. A complex man deserves a likeminded biography and as such, the production submits his life as two halves, each played by a different person.

In the 1960s the chronicle shows Wilson as the mastermind behind the unique California sound of the Beach Boys which culminated in the critically revered Pet Sounds in 1966. Actor Paul Dano embodies the very talented young man who endured a rough childhood at the hands of a hard-hearted father (Bill Camp). Music was a creative outlet. The group comprised his two younger brothers Dennis and Carl (Kenny Wormald and Brett Davern), their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers). Together they poured their hearts into song with Brian as their primary composer. The chronicle presents the songwriter as a gifted genius struggling to reconcile the “voices in his head” and then put that into music. Wilson had several nervous breakdowns. Paul Dano has a quality that lends itself to Brian Wilson’s off kilter personality.

The other half of his life takes place in the 80s when Brian Wilson was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. From the start, he is already under the care of “psychologist to the stars” Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy has an around the clock presence in the musician’s life. Wilson meets car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabath Banks), one day while shopping for a Cadillac. The two strike up a relationship. An actress usually known for playing comedic parts, the dramatic weight is a stark contrast to the roles she usually plays. Banks is a revelation. A nurturing presence, she is a foil to Landy’s svengali like control. Her speechless reactions while Landy barks at Wilson, perfectly conveys her growing unease with the situation. Landy clearly sees Wilson’s burgeoning romance with Ledbetter as a problem. She becomes a calming force. I will admit that the story could have just as easily been told from Landy’s point of view and dismissed Ledbetter as a gold digger. This is not the case, however. Landy is vilified as a doctor with no redeeming qualities. The portrait then begs the unanswered question, how did this particular man obtain so much authority over Wilson’s life?

Love & Mercy wisely narrows its focus. By staging the existence of Brian Wilson as two separate people, we get a richer appreciation for the complexities of the man. It puts distance between two stages of his life. Paul Dano is particularly good as the younger Wilson. It’s easier to accept him as the talent that guided the Beach Boys because he looks quite a bit like the guy. He does a great job portraying his musical obsessions in a very natural way. John Cusack has a harder time because his long face and dark hair deviate so sharply from the physical features of the actual person. It’s an interesting idea though. Cusack’s mannered performance highlights a compelling soul. Two sides that link one man, unite the story as it jumps back and forth between the past and the present. His mental illness compounded by abusive people, first by his father and then his doctor. Through it all we get glimpses into the creative process. Love & Mercy effectively depicts the hidden torment behind some of the 60s most uplifting music. Thankfully it’s not all misery. In the 80s, it’s his bond with Ledbetter that gives us hope with his troubled life. Elizabath Banks is that oasis of calm that compels you to watch.


Red Army

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on February 14, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Red Army photo starrating-3stars.jpgRed Army is a documentary about hockey in the Soviet Union. More precisely, it concerns a nearly unbeatable unit known as the “Russian Five” on the national team. But even more specifically it profiles one member, hockey captain Slava Fetisov. It’s his point of view that shapes the perspective.  The film is essentially a chronicle of how cold war politics played a role in his life.

Most Americans knowledge of US-Soviet hockey centers on what went down at Lake Placid in 1980. Gabe Polsky’s documentary certainly addresses the American hockey team’s victory at the Olympics. However that is presented as merely an aberration in “ the most successful dynasty in sports history.” The Russians won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991. The groundwork was set by coach Anatoly Tarasov. His development of innovative training techniques centered on passing. The intricate maneuvers of the Soviet team are compared to the grace of the Bolshoi Ballet. Their mental strategies correlated to that of a chess player. Indeed watching the Soviet team skate circles around the cruder tactics of the Americans is a startling contrast. Then in 1977, the coach that everyone loved was replaced by former KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov – the coach everyone hated, at least by the athletes. He was even more successful making the Soviet team the most dominant in the world. Despite his accomplishments, he does not come across well. Their life is a nightmare under a totalitarian regime. He puts the players in training camps isolating them from their families for 11 months out of the year. Yet there is a link between his dictatorial methods and the well oiled machine that he elevated under his tutelage. Not surprisingly Tikhonov declined to be interviewed. He died on November 24, 2014 so his voice remains silent here.

Soviet Player Viacheslav Fetisov or Slava, as he is known, is front and center in this documentary. His transformation from national hero to political enemy is the dramatic arc of this tale. He’s a cantankerous old man and director Gabe Polsky doesn’t hide this fact. Right from the start, Slava keeps his interviewer waiting while he fiddles with his cell phone, even flipping him off (and the audience) when asked a question. It’s a defiant behavior that pops up occasionally throughout their conversation. A former KGB agent trying to speak about politics is constantly interrupted by his young granddaughter playing nearby. It’s these unexpected asides that make the account a bit odd at times. Mostly the parallels between sports and politics are highlighted. The rise and fall of the Red Army team with that of the Soviet Union forming the underlying background for everything that happens. Their success was proof “that the Soviet system was the best system”.  Fetisov’s career is profiled with various ups and downs. Through it all he remains a very patriotic fellow despite remaining embittered toward his past coach. Perhaps the “bad old days” of the brutal regimen under which he trained weren’t really so bad in his eyes after all. You’ll understand when you see how this ends.


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