Archive for the Biography Category

Thirteen Lives 

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography with tags on August 13, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

On June 23, 2018, a junior association soccer team went missing after setting out to explore the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand. The twelve boys aged between 11 and 16 and their 25-year-old assistant coach were on a sightseeing trip after a practice session. Shortly after entering, heavy rains overflowed the tunnel system, blocking their way out, and trapping them deep within. The subsequent attempt to rescue them became a massive operation that garnered worldwide public interest. Simply determining whether the children were even alive took days. British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton ultimately located the group on an elevated rock about 2.5 miles from the cavity opening. Wonderful news! Nevertheless, the ability to extract them from the flooded twisty cavern would be difficult. Even with scuba gear and guidance, the kids would likely panic during the long treacherous swim out.

There are so many perspectives from which to tell this epic tale. I was fascinated with the fortitude of the trapped victims. Somehow they survived over two weeks in a pitch-black cavern without food. Once discovered, there is mention of meditation. Their perseverance through prayer and hope is undoubtedly a fascinating saga. The details of their struggle are mentioned in passing. However, we don’t see the boys for a large portion of the picture. Theirs is not the endeavor presented here.

This is a tale about the British divers played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell and Australian medical specialist Richard Harris portrayed by Joel Edgerton. They saved the day when everyone else — even the Navy SEALs — could not. A casual glance at the famous names in the cast does not suggest an account focused on the vulnerable victims. The fact that Ron Howard (Backdraft, Apollo 13) is directing should have clued me in that the effort to extricate them takes center stage. Ok, that’s an exciting perspective too. Those men were genuine heroes. Their commitment is an awe-inspiring consolidation of human ingenuity that saved lives.

Yet the chronicle is not produced in a way that maximizes the drama. It always felt like we were observing these events from a distance. The individuals here are two-dimensional characters that lack personality. I derive more emotion from footage on the 11’oclock news. The excitement improves in the second half when the claustrophobic, muddy-water environment conveys just how difficult it was to save these lives from the underground chamber. Yet Ron Howard and editor James D. Wilcox frequently cut to less interesting activities on land that kill the momentum. Furthermore, the developments plod for nearly 2 1/2 hours. I’m not saying it isn’t an uplifting experience. It’s currently the most watched title on Amazon Prime, after all. (Box office flop The 355 was the previous #1). Although, I enjoyed it more divided up over two nights.

This life-affirming tale is inherently captivating. It would be near impossible not to make a thrilling picture out of this piece of recent history. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things is universally compelling. These ripped from the headlines stories are even more effective because they’re true. Ron Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson (working from a story by Don MacPherson) offer a movie that inspired me to read up on the actual account and watch the award-winning (and more efficient) National Geographic documentary The Rescue (2021).

08-07-22

Jerry & Marge Go Large

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on July 20, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Books often inspire movies, but I’m intrigued when factual stories can trace their humble origins to nonfiction articles. My mind immediately goes to “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” a 1976 essay by British rock journalist Nik Cohn that was the basis for Saturday Night Fever. More recently The Bling Ring traced its roots to “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales, and Hustlers was derived from “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler. Now we’ve got a new example. Jerry & Marge Go Large is a fascinating true tale based on Jason Fagone’s 2018 Huffington Post piece of the same name, and it’s charming.

A Michigan couple figured out how to beat the lottery. Recently retired Jerry Selbee (Bryan Cranston) is a math whiz. While going through a brochure describing the details of the Winfall lottery, he discovers a mathematical flaw within the game. The sweepstake’s pool “rolls down” whenever the jackpot remains unclaimed. Subsequent prizes are smaller but easier to win in those weeks. As long as you buy enough tickets afterward, you are guaranteed a win greater than the money spent according to probability.

Discovering how to beat the lottery was difficult, but carrying out the plan was even more challenging. This would require a large sum of money. Simply buying that many tickets and then manually scanning them all for winning numbers would also involve a significant amount of time. The thing is, Jerry and his wife Marge (Annette Bening) had nothing but time on their hands. They invited everyone they knew to invest, so their little venture wasn’t so small. The endeavor became a corporation, and the profits benefited the entire town. In a late development, Tyler Langford emerges as an undergrad at Harvard who also figures out the Winfall loophole. Actor Uly Schlesinger plays a smirking and condescending villain. He goes toe to toe with the Selbees to put them out of business.

This account is an uplifting slice of life. The saga is all the more enchanting because this really happened. Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening are refreshingly plain-spoken and pragmatic as the titular duo. Yet the pair is far from cloying. Jerry Selbee, in particular, lacks warmth. He’s a man more comfortable with numbers than people. These qualities subvert a quaint tale about older adults that could have veered into mawkish sentimentality. Nevertheless, Jerry still sweetly flatters his wife with, “I won the jackpot before we even started.” Ultimately their strong marriage and commitment to the community make an impression. The good vibes linger after the film is over. In this day and age, any production that dares tell a compelling story about people in their 60s is a bold decision.

Jerry & Marge Go Large has been exclusively available to Paramount+ subscribers since June 17. It has remained the #1 movie in the U.S. on that platform for the better part of a month. Distribution to other channels and streaming services is expected.

07-17-22

Elvis

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on June 27, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

On a superficial level, the latest account of the King of Rock and Roll could be considered a biopic. It covers 42 years through his death in 1977. However, it does much more than simply detail the dramatic beats of a life. It captures the feeling of a performer. Think of it as an ode to a cultural icon. This is Baz Luhrmann’s joyous celebration of the best-selling solo music artist of all time.

If you’re familiar with the work of Baz Luhrmann, you know the director can be a little frantic and over the top. The Great Gatsby, Australia, and Moulin Rouge weren’t known for their subtlety. Here his manic style has been carefully manipulated and applied perfectly. You can feel the director’s enthusiasm for this entertainer. I will admit the narrative is a bit chaotic. The chronicle is edited like a trailer as events transpire rapid-fire. A whirlwind of developments are thrown at the viewer. The presentation has all the giddy excitement of a fan who can’t wait to extol the virtues of their favorite star. You can barely catch your breath before another happening occurs.

The events aren’t in chronological order either. We begin in 1997 with the death of Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. He is our narrator. “I didn’t kill him. I made him,” he declares. We jump to Las Vegas in the 1970s, at the International Hotel where Elvis is headlining. Things aren’t going so well for the rock star as he can barely stand. Then we leap yet again to the mid-1950s at a carnival where Jimmie Rodgers (Kodi-Smit McPhee) is holding a record and singing the praises of a new artist. The frenetic account bounces around details served up in a flashy presentation befitting the legend himself. I admit I had to find my footing, but I grooved into the rhythm of the story. It’s like randomly dropping the needle on various cuts of a greatest hits album in cinematic form with one spectacular scene after another.

Major credit goes to Austin Butler in the title role. The musical numbers in front of a crowd are where he comes alive. The young actor channels the vocalist so perfectly that I did not view his triumph as a mere actor playing a part but as the genuine article. At one point, Elvis performs while gyrating his hips in front of an audience for a TV program. He whips half the throng into a frenzy, and the other half blankly stare, mouths agape in shock. You completely understand at this moment why Elvis was so charismatic and yet so dangerous to the social norms of the day. It’s a mesmerizing depiction. There have been memorable efforts in the past. Kurt Russell in the 1979 film Elvis and the 2005 CBS miniseries starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers come to mind, but Butler’s portrayal surpasses them all.

It is an odd irony when the same production can boast both the best and worst performances of the year. As revelatory as Austin Butler is in the title role, Tom Hanks is woefully miscast as Colonel Tom Parker. Underneath pounds of makeup and grotesque prosthetics that include a fat suit, the actor slinks and sneers his way through the picture in a manner so misguided it threatens to derail every scene in which he appears. A Bond film affords the villain more nuance. Early on when Parker realizes that Elvis is not a black man, the camera zooms into a close-up so he can incredulously proclaim, “He’s…… white?!” Hanks is so bad it blights this assessment from being a 5-star review. It is an absolute testament to the glory of Austin Butler’s achievement that he seizes focus.

Elvis is a kaleidoscopic extravaganza that taps into the energy that was Elvis. It won’t be easy to assemble an order to his discography as it’s bestowed here. It’s a celebratory feeling to what the man meant more than the sequential facts of what he did. The collage of melodies includes Austin Butler singing Elvis’ early tunes, lip-syncing to the real deal in his later output, and a pastiche of songs sung by other artists swirling in the background. The screenplay frequently touches upon the musician’s reverence for inspirations like B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh). The exhibition is dazzling for both its sweep and depth. There is so much to take in this emotionally exhilarating spectacle. It is breathtaking. Movies that often stretch past 2 hours rarely need to be. This film is 2 hours and 39 minutes. When it was all over, I wanted more.

06-23-22

Valerie

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Shorts with tags on May 2, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In the 1970s the definition of feminism was changing. The idea that a woman could reclaim her sexuality by exploiting it to her advantage was becoming a thing. Few women better embodied this ideal than Valerie Perrine. The actress was certainly comfortable in her skin. She was never afraid to flaunt raw, unbridled sensuality. This documentary short does not shy away from that reality.

Born in Texas, Perrine began her path to stardom as a Vegas showgirl. Early on, she was cleverly cast as stripper Honey Bruce in the 1974 biopic Lenny. It was a raw, credible performance. In fact, she was so memorable she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Later parts would also often rely on her physical assets. She was fully aware of this. However, she was much more than a voluptuous beauty. She gave authentically earthy performances in many movies and held her own alongside some of the biggest names of the decade. These include Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Jeff Bridges (The Last American Hero), Robert Redford (The Electric Horseman), and Jack Nicholson (The Border). I was a child in the 1970s. She will always be Miss Teschmacher in Superman and Superman II to me. She made the character iconic.

Valerie is the celebration of the life of a star. She is currently 78. Perrine would continue to act well after her 1970s and early 80s heyday, but would ultimately fade from the limelight. In a heartbreaking development, Perrine was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. The chronicle opens with her voice narrating how she ended up in the hospital. We see a daily struggle with illness. The film then flashes back to the beginning of her Hollywood career. The contrast between the past and the present can be jarring. Yet she consistently remains a vibrant and compelling personality.

Valerie is a complimentary account — occasionally excessively so. In archival footage, photos, and memorabilia, we are presented with a flattering homage. Interviews with celebrities including Jeff Bridges, Angie Dickinson, George Hamilton, Stacy Keach, Richard Donner, Loni Anderson, and David Arquette attest to a life lived on her own terms. What comes through is the humanity of a talent who understood her charms and utilized them to the fullest. I now understand what made this woman tick a little better than before. Director Stacey Souther (an actor in his own right) presents this intimate portrait as a friend. This warm and loving memoir is like hanging out with Valerie for 36 minutes. It was time well spent.

Valerie is streaming Tuesday, May 3 on Amazon, iTunes, AppleTV, YouTube, and Google Play. Available for pre-order on DVD through Amazon.

04-19-22

Lucy and Desi

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Documentary with tags on March 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The fascination with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is stronger than ever. Coming on the heels of Aaron Sorkin’s drama Being the Ricardos, which was released in December 2021, we now have this documentary about the duo. Lucy and Desi debuted on Amazon Prime Video on March 4. The documentary is one of the better things I’ve watched this year. I figured I should sing its satisfying praises.

Lucy and Desi is a record of how the two met, started their TV show, formed Desilu studios, and their eventual breakup. This is comedian Amy Poehler’s third directorial feature (Wine Country, Moxie) but her first documentary. It also includes a lot of archival footage which is pretty standard for these kinds of records. What elevates the profile is her access to previously unreleased audiotapes recorded by the couple. They occasionally narrate the corresponding video. We get a nice feel for their offscreen personalities. We are privy to the events behind the scenes while they were filming their sitcom. The innovations they introduced during their professional careers are lauded. Meanwhile, home movies shed light on their private life as well. This includes time spent with their kids.

I’m a huge fan of I Love Lucy. I’ve seen every episode to the point I can recite the dialogue from most of them. The TV program ranks up in my personal Top 10 of all time. As such, I’ve read a fair amount about her life and the series in general. There aren’t any revelations in this chronicle. People unaware of how integral Desi Arnaz was to the making of the sitcom may be surprised. Overall it’s a pretty conventional retelling of their story, but it’s thoughtful too. Fans will enjoy it especially because it highlights what made Lucille Ball such a revolutionary talent. Luminaries like Carol Burnett, Bette Midler, and Norman Lear wax rhapsodic over her impact on them. Lucy and Desi’s daughter Lucie Arnaz was an executive producer on Being the Ricardos and here she is an interviewee.

Lucy and Desi is a loving tribute. There’s overlap between the recent drama Being the Ricardos. Events like Lucille Ball’s pregnancy with Desi Arnaz Jr, accusations that she was a communist, and Desi Arnaz’s alleged affairs are all mentioned. However, where Aaron Sorkin’s biopic simply focused on one turbulent week in the making of their hit television show, this covers a much wider part of their lives. This is a varnished portrait. It promotes the two stars as TV legends and rightfully so. The narrative details their lives with the requisite ups and downs. Any knowledgeable fan will already know this stuff so the info isn’t earth-shattering, but it is entertaining. Sometimes the cinematic version of comfort food can really hit the spot.

03-06-2022

American Underdog

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on February 3, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Pride of the Yankees, Hoosiers, Miracle…in the genre of sports movies, they don’t get more inspirational than American Underdog. The biographical sports film is about National Football League quarterback Kurt Warner who became a superstar with the St. Louis Rams. How a decent, hardworking guy went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming NFL two-time MVP couldn’t be a more unbelievable fable if you created it out of whole cloth. That’s what makes this saga so captivating. Sometimes nice guys don’t finish last.

The account details an unlikely rise to the top. The future NFL Hall of Famer initially plays for the University of Northern Iowa. Kurt is a talented player, but he’s often sidelined on the bench because he defies his coach Terry Allen (Adam Baldwin). Kurt moves “outside the pocket” when the defense attacks. Following his fifth year of college, he goes undrafted in 1994. The Green Bay Packers cut him before the regular season. Then Jim Foster (Bruce McGill) offers him a position on the Iowa Barnstormers of the significantly smaller Arena Football League. Kurt would much rather play for the NFL, but he takes the job just to make ends meet. He would play for them for three seasons. Then he catches the attention of the St. Louis Rams in 1998. The rest is history.

At the heart of American Underdog is a portrait of the man himself. Actor Zachary Levi physically embodies the broad-shouldered, handsome athlete but with the genteel humility of a sweet good-natured fellow guided by an enduring faith in Jesus Christ. This is the sixth feature directed by the Erwin Brothers. Andrew and Jon have specialized in films influenced by their Christian beliefs (I Can Only Imagine). Yet this uplifting tale (based on Warner and Michael Silver’s book All Things Possible) is a universal one. It should appeal to anyone who simply enjoys a feel-good experience. I mean the title should clue you in. This is about someone who triumphs over the odds. The reliance on hope and optimism is de rigueur for sports biopics, but his path to the NFL is anything but predictable.

This tale is uniquely more about the man himself than what he accomplished on the football field. Oh, there’s plenty of gameplay action in the second half once he signs with the Rams. His interactions with head coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) are particularly supportive. However, his courtship of future wife Brenda Meoni (Anna Paquin) is the foundation of this chronicle. Brenda is a single mother with two kids — including Zack, who is legally blind. In one memorable scene, he walks three miles to her house just to get her number. He instantly bonds with her son in an impulsive but touching moment. Through it all, Kurt has an unfailing devotion to football but also the woman he loves guided by his strong beliefs. His affable charm is hard to resist and so is the movie.

12-28-21

Munich – The Edge of War

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 30, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Munich: The Edge of War is an intimate period piece. OK sure we’re dealing with countries on the brink of World War II but at heart, it’s a human drama about individuals. As such, the portrait employs lots of tight close-ups and conversations framed by a constantly moving hand-held camera. The technique is ostensibly employed to create a sense of urgency, but I got motion sickness from all the movement.

That objection is honestly the most critical complaint I have. I rather enjoyed this handsomely mounted political thriller. The chronicle is set in September 1938 over the four days of the Munich Agreement. For the uninformed — myself included before seeing the film — this was a settlement reached by Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy that ceded a portion of Czechoslovakia, (called the Sudetenland) to Germany. At the time, most of Europe celebrated the pact which was presented as a way to prevent a major conflict. Unfortunately, it was completely signed on Hitler’s terms. As history has shown, this so-called “agreement” was merely the very beginning of Hitler’s conquests.

The movie is set during the events of real history but it features two fictional characters. These are childhood friends who work in the government. Fresh-faced George MacKay portrays Englishman Hugh Legat with all the naivete his appearance can muster. He is the secretary of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (sympathetically portrayed by Jeremy Irons). Actor Jannis Niewöhner is Paul von Hartmann who works as a German translator in the Foreign Office in Berlin. Paul may hold strong nationalistic beliefs, but he is still part of the German resistance. Paul acquires a top-secret document and comes to realize Hitler has been underestimated. He’s just getting started and far more dangerous. Actor Ulrich Matthes presents the most emaciated version of the Führer I have ever seen. Although Matthes registers a flicker of madness behind the eyes. Paul challenges his friend Hugh to help stop this contract from being signed. The two become reluctant spies.

Munich is conveniently based on having the 20/20 hindsight of what would ultimately happen but it is a fascinating tale of “what if”. It’s an expertly crafted and well-acted saga with an adapted screenplay by Ben Power (The Hollow Crown TV series ) from Robert Harris’ novel. Interestingly, the view of Neville Chamberlain’s actions is a decidedly positive take that gave Britain and France more than a year to prepare for combat. The somewhat revisionist view frames his rather submissive lack of opposition as an overall plan for the greater good. This political procedural can drag occasionally. However, people who love historical dramas — particularly those about the events that led up to WWII — will find a lot to enjoy here.

01-28-22

Flee

Posted in Animation, Biography, Documentary, Drama with tags on January 25, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“What does the word home mean to you?” an inquisitor asks. “It’s someplace safe,” the subject responds. The interviewer is Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The man he’s talking with is 36-year-old Amin Nawabi, although that is an alias. A title card informs us “This is a true story.” However, “some names and locations have been altered in order to protect members of the cast.” Flee is the saga of a man born in Afghanistan who fled his native land to preserve his own life. It was a difficult journey, but he found sanctuary in Denmark as a refugee. Jonas and Amin met in the 1990s when they were teens. They have remained close friends ever since. This is Amin’s tale.

Amin is a now successful academic on the precipice of marriage. He lives a good life in Denmark though he hides a painful past. The sacrifices of his family weigh heavily on him. Here he publicly reveals his hidden trauma for the first time to anyone. That includes his partner. He begins 30 years prior. As a little boy, he enjoyed flying kites, listening to A-ha, and wearing his sister’s nightgowns in public. Jean-Claude Van Damme fascinates him. However, they weren’t all happy times. The Mujahideen seized the capital city of Kabul in 1992. His father was seen as a threat and was arrested by the communist government.

The family had to leave. Conditions in Afghanistan were simply too dangerous. Initially, Amin joined his brother, two sisters, and mother on a perilous expedition across countries. First a terrifying getaway to Moscow. Then Amin escapes to Estonia via corrupt human traffickers and winds up in prison. His brother Abbas makes arrangements to get him to Sweden. Amin ultimately finds a literal home in the Danish countryside with his fiancé Kasper. What makes the chronicle so compelling is the vivid recreation of a trek. Flee is a unique depiction in that it presents these recollections as an animated movie rated PG-13. Visually the drawings are simple but realistic and immersive. Occasional live-action newsreel footage of Kabul and Moscow are inserted throughout.

The intimate narrative vividly conveys Amin’s traumatic ordeal. One harrowing nightmare follows another. It is an experience that many refugees must endure before finding asylum in a new country. Its scope is impressive. Flee is a captivating portrait of self-preservation that has attracted widespread attention. Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau serve as executive producers. It has acquired unanimous acclaim from film festivals and critics winning numerous awards. As such it’s a potential Oscar contender for Best Animated Feature but as a factual account made in Denmark, it could also compete for Best International Feature and as Best Documentary. In that respect, it shares a kinship with the Israeli animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir which earned a nod for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. Will it be the first picture to make history with a nomination in all three categories? I’d love to see it.

12-20-22

Being the Ricardos

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on December 16, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I discovered the TV program I Love Lucy when I was 5. I’ve been hooked ever since. I used to watch it regularly when it was broadcast in reruns. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I saw every episode — many more than once. Then the DVDs were gradually released between 2003 and 2007. They afforded me the luxury to see the show whenever I felt like it. At some point, I had seen every single one at least ten times and classics like “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” or “Job Switching” on more occasions than I can even count. I’ve bought numerous books on the series and read extensively on the matter. It would be an understatement to say I adore I Love Lucy.

Being the Ricardos is about the creators and stars of that sitcom. Yet the focus is much more fixed. It’s centered on one turbulent week in the preparation of their hit television show. The account revolves around the 22nd entry of their first season, “Fred and Ethel Fight,” which was filmed on January 30, 1952. The episode itself is not particularly memorable, but it features Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons). The narrative compresses a variety of challenging developments into that narrow period. Issues include Lucille Ball’s announcement of her actual pregnancy, accusations that she was a communist, and Desi Arnaz’s alleged affairs. These all veritably happened, just not in the same week.

Being the Ricardos is an intriguing window into the production of their program. Most of the events depicted here occurred in different years. The biopic seeks to educate and entertain but stuffing so much in this cramped time frame can get a little chaotic. An assortment of time hops also includes recreations of two other installments: “Lucy Tells the Truth” and “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” Then flash-forwards depict actors portraying the writers in the present day reflecting back on their show documentary style. It’s a lot to absorb.

This is an intense study of the details in putting on a TV show. A heightened discussion about how the episode at hand should even begin is a bone of contention with the star. Ricky sneaks up behind Lucy as she sets the dining table to play a game of “Guess Who.” The scene doesn’t sit right with her. TV rarely mirrors real life. If your image of Lucy is that of a ditzy redhead, prepare to be shocked. Lucille Ball was one tough cookie. This presentation furthers the idea that she was a demanding woman in charge. She frequently spars with producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) in fighting for what she wants. The writing team of Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy) are also heavily featured as well.

The audience must have a willing suspension of disbelief. The performances are not transformative. I never forgot these were actors portraying Lucy and Desi. Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem neither look nor sound like their real-life counterparts. And that’s fine. It may have taken me roughly 30 minutes before I could get past this fact, but once I did, it’s pretty good. I will always favor an in-depth analysis of an individual’s persona in a biopic over a superficial impersonation. That’s what you’ll get here. Both ultimately rise to the challenge. Kidman has brief flashes where her mannerisms eerily channel the legend. The actors give life to Sorkin’s fascinating screenplay. His signature rapid-fire, extended monologues entertained me with an insider’s perspective. As such, this is a movie for aficionados of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, not fans of the comedienne. It’s an edgy portrait, not a loving one. Nicole Kidman embodies the relentlessly determined control freak behind the scenes. Sadly Kidman lacks the brilliant comedic timing that Ball had in front of the camera. This is an engrossing chronicle about one of, if not THE funniest sitcom ever made. The irony is that it’s a largely serious affair, oddly devoid of humor.

11-27-21

King Richard

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports on December 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You’d think a sports biopic about tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams would frame them as the stars. That’s what makes King Richard so radical. The chronicle centers on their father and how he raised them to be champions. But the surprises don’t stop there. This is an engaging portrait of a difficult, even irascible man. He can be downright aggravating. Fiercely controlling, his choices occasionally hinder their advancement in the tennis world. However, the love and devotion he holds for his daughters are never in doubt. He’s a flawed hero.

As the title would suggest, Richard Williams is the centerpiece. He is a self-taught coach with a 78-page blueprint for his daughter’s success. He and his wife have raised their daughters since birth to excel. Venus’ (Saniyya Sidney) early rise takes the spotlight in the 2nd half. Serena’s (Demi Singleton) talent is somewhat less conspicuous by comparison. We know that would change. The drama features another career-defining performance from Will Smith. He’s been acting for three decades. We know he’s a good actor, but it’s nice to be reminded. I haven’t seen him disappear into a role so convincingly since The Pursuit of Happyness where he also portrayed a dedicated father. He received an Oscar nomination for that part, and it’s all but a foregone conclusion he will receive another.

As you can appreciate, he is a demanding authoritarian — an overly protective father if you will. There’s an inherent understanding of the racial dynamics. He must be this way, although the script rarely makes an explicit point of it. It’s 1995 and 14-year-old Venus Williams is being interviewed shortly after she turns professional. She emanates determination over her next opponent. Venus affirms, “I know I can beat her.” The reporter is incredulous, taken aback by her brazen courage. “You say it so easily,” he presses, “why?” Richard promptly interrupts the conference. He doesn’t want his daughter’s confidence diminished. His angry outburst tells us so much. The confrontation happened exactly the same in real life. I’ve seen the original video.

If anyone can stand up to his strong temperament, it’s his wife Oracene Price. Actress Aunjanue Ellis embodies the woman that radiates steely resolve. Oracene — who goes by Brandy — is a force of nature herself. At least one passionate outburst unleashed on her husband comes from years of frustration. “I stay here because of my girls,” she attests. “I stay here because I answer to something higher than Richard Williams. Because if I was staying here for you, I would have been gone a long time ago.” The declaration is so powerful I thought, “There’s your Oscar clip.” Brandy is a captivating individual. She has three daughters from a previous marriage and is a talented trainer in her own right. Also worthy of mention is Jon Bernthal as coach Rick Macci. His sweetly comic personality lightens the narrative. He is amusing and understandably exasperated by Richard’s somewhat bullying behavior.

The story of two black girls from Compton, California who became legendary tennis icons is an anomaly so compelling it demands a movie, more than one. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) working from a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Zach Baylin, takes a specific section of their lives and details it brilliantly. The account is such a family-friendly flick, a wholesome audience-pleasing sentiment. King Richard entertains with fascinating characters and allows their mission to drive the feel-good narrative. It’s gratifying to see an uplifting — if simplified — idea promoted that hard work and perseverance pay off. Although I still contend that even if I practiced 24/7 during my teenaged life, I would have never achieved the level of athletic achievement that these girls did. Ah, but the story made me believe that I could.

11-2-21