Archive for the Biography Category

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

Tick, Tick… Boom!

Posted in Biography, Drama, Musical with tags on November 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Jon’s 30th birthday is approaching. He is suffering an existential crisis because of his lack of success. “Stephen Sondheim was already composing for Broadway at the age of 27!” he whines. Meanwhile, Jon is toiling way in obscurity as he attempts to write his magnum opus. This “rock monologue” has a very elaborate structure. It is confusing, fabricated with convoluted plot devices and various story threads. The best way to describe Tick, Tick… Boom! is that’s it’s a messy play about a composer who writes a messy play. It’s very meta.

Andrew Garfield portrays Jonathan Larson, the real playwright who died in 1996 the night before Rent would have its first performance. The rock musical became a sensation on Broadway. He would posthumously receive three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. This production, however, is not about that triumph. It concerns a play that Larson wrote well before that called Superbia — a sci-fi musical that was never fully produced. He invested six years tirelessly working on that ill-fated piece. Tick, Tick… Boom! was written by Larson in 1991 as a response to that disappointment and the difficulties of being a struggling artist in general.

Director Lin Manuel Miranda in his feature debut as a director embraces the theatrical setting. He starts the action on a stage where a fictional version of Larson and two singers (Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry) are performing. Later it dramatizes the same action in the real world with the 20/20 hindsight of what came next. It certainly is a bold choice, but picking out a coherent narrative in this mess is an exercise in frustration. The torturous construction employing these affected trappings didn’t stimulate a desire for me to “give a care” about the various developments. Sadly a depth of feeling is neither extracted nor displayed. The musical is emotionally vacant and the songs aren’t memorable either. That is what ultimately makes this saga so hard to get into. It couldn’t captivate my attention.

This is a heavily stylized display for theater kids who live and breathe the theatricality of the stage. It’s self-aware and indulgent. “I’m the future of musical theatre,” Jonathan answers when asked what he does for a living. He excessively contemplates himself. His neurotic need for constant validation becomes an exasperating study of narcissism. He argues with his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), and buddy Michael (Robin de Jesús). The former’s dance career is taking off. The other has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Yet Jonathan is consumed by an overwhelming fog of self-interest. When each one symbolically slaps the self-absorbed artist with their coherent and passionate wake-up calls, I cheered for them both. I felt their anger.

I can understand why fellow songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda was attracted to this project and why he chose to direct it. He loves Jonathan Larson — perhaps even more than Larson loves himself. I just wish that love translated into a compelling movie. I did have a favorite scene though. There’s a lot of cameos. A sequence set at a writing workshop contains several, but the one at the restaurant was the highlight. By day, Jonathan earns a living by waiting tables at the Moondance Diner. The setting is the backdrop for a captivating ditty called “Sunday.” During the song, he imagines the greasy spoon to be filled with Broadway notables. The number is a tribute to personalities who have done theater. Phylicia Rashad, André De Shields, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, and Bernadette Peters as well as many others populate the eatery. It’s an opportunity to play “Can you name the star?” I sincerely welcomed that delightful bit.

11-19-21

Spencer

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 14, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Spencer presents the most literal version of “clutching the pearls” that I have ever seen. At Christmas dinner, the royals are seated around a banquet table. The setting is opulent but the mood is chilly and austere. Dressed In their refinery, the family begins to dine. Staring at one another, they continue to eat but fail to converse. The violin music swells. The atmosphere is too much for Diana. With a grand motion, She forcibly seizes her necklace as if to strangle herself right there. She yanks with a hard tug and the strand breaks. The pearls come crashing down to the table, some tumble into her soup. No one says a thing. With fiendish delight, she spoons a single bead and inserts the foreign object into her mouth. Lodged in her oral cavity, she bites down hard on the sphere. She runs to the bathroom and vomits. The pearls still noticeably around her neck. Clearly, this didn’t happen. It’s unlikely that much — if anything — happened in this story. A little title card at the beginning tips the viewer off (and absolves the filmmaker): “A fable from a true tragedy.”

Spencer takes place over three days in December 1991 while the royals spend the Christmas holiday at Sandringham — the queen’s country estate –in Norfolk. It’s a jarring fusion of factual people and places reimagined in a contrived work of fiction. The drama dispenses with introductions. The screenplay by Steven Knight ( The Hundred-Foot Journey, Allied) assumes you know these personalities and what they were going through at the time. We get depictions of Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet), and various attendants of the staff. Actor Timothy Spall is particularly memorable as a menacing equerry. He oversees the manor like a vampire with a watchful eye. Even Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Emma Darwall-Smith) appears briefly. She doesn’t speak, but she’s giving some knowing glances.

Of course, Diana is the central figure. Before Diana met Prince Charles, her maiden name was Spencer. Kristen Stewart is Diana. The whole thing is told from her point of view. You can quibble over whether an American should be playing this icon, but Kristen Stewart is indeed mesmerizing. The actress’s mannerisms and expressions eerily suggest the princess. Diana is married to the first in line to the throne, but she openly wants none of it. She loathes to show up on time, exasperated by their traditions, tortured by the idea of having to wear expensive clothes, irritated by the attentive staff, and other such indignities.

Diana is a victim trapped in a house / marriage / family / dynasty she desperately wants to escape. These are first-world problems of the upper 0.00001 %. As such, the circumstances are not easily appreciable and we aren’t provided the insight to commiserate with her plight. She is detached and petulant, behaviors that render her unlikable. Nevertheless, the situation is designed to engender our sympathy. She is tormented by a predicament that grows progressively more traumatic. This is the portrayal of a woman disturbed. If she has a cinematic parallel, it’s Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. The 1965 classic also detailed a fragile woman falling apart. That’s the assignment and the actress is effective within that context.

Spencer doesn’t cater to your expectations. That’s a compliment of sorts. This is not some stately affair of the British monarchy, but a gothic horror tale. It mixes real people and places in a portrait of an individual coming completely undone. Kristen Stewart gives a highly mannered and stylized performance. She does exactly what director Pablo Larraín has demanded. In Jackie (2016), Larraín detailed the emotional toll on Jacqueline Kennedy immediately after her husband was assassinated. The similarities between the two pictures are evident. You’ll have to be on board for a heavy-handed nightmare that underlines the intention of every event, puts it in boldface, and then italicizes it to emphasize the statement. There’s even a cheesy 80s pop song at the end with lyrics that telegraph what she is feeling with uplifting precision. The production is a unique take, but I can’t say I was delighted by this highly exaggerated version of events.

11-09-21

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on October 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s not uncommon for a musical to have origins in the theater, but how many of those works sprung from a documentary first? Everybody’s Talking About Jamie can trace its beginnings to the BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 — a 2011 portrait of Jamie Campbell, a 16-year-old boy who wanted to wear a dress to the prom. His true story inspired a West End stage play by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae. Jonathan Butterell directs this film adaptation of that smash hit musical.

Jamie New (Max Harwood) — as he’s re-named here — is gay. However, that’s not even the issue. His classmates already know this. Jamie is out at the beginning of the picture. While his peers are thinking about what they want to be after graduation, Jamie wants to be a drag queen. He craves the spotlight and needs to be a star. The upcoming prom is the pivotal location where he hopes to unveil his new persona. His best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) and his loving single mother, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) may register slight surprise initially, but quickly shower him with unwavering support. There’s also local drag legend Hugo Battersby / Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant). He acts as a mentor. Even Jamie’s schoolmates seem mostly OK with his decision save for the obligatory class bully (Samuel Bottomley). The underwritten character casts a dismissive remark here and there, but never physical violence. Providing more genuine conflict is his absent father (Ralph Ineson), who wants nothing to do with him and one teacher, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan).

Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan) is a fascinating character. She imbues the saga with some unexpected nuance and complexity. She isn’t so much intolerant as irritated by this diva who demands to be the center of attention in her class. “I’m a superstar and you don’t even know it,” Jamie sings in a lively production number where the boy daydreams a full-on performance with his classmates as backup dancers. Miss Hedge has no problems with his desire to wear a dress and be a drag queen. However, the prom she contends is not the setting. The yearly dance is a place for all the kids to shine. Jamie’s desire threatens to seize focus. The gala for many becomes a celebration of one. In a musical where you’re playing to the back of the house, her negativity has the undermining temperament of a villain, but here it’s registering a little subtlety. Her pushing back on his narcissism starts to make sense.

The central conceit could have been handled in any number of ways. Here the drama is presented as a cheery and upbeat crowd-pleaser. The lesson promotes the timeworn mantra “Be true to yourself.” Disregard what other people think. The thing is, Jamie does care. His biggest fear: being ignored. He is supremely self-absorbed. He aspires to be famous and demands that everybody love him. His personality is all ME! ME! ME! His ego grows a little less inspiring after a while.

Propelling the lighthearted spirit is an energetic collection of show tunes. Full disclosure — initially, I thought the songs were merely pleasant. I couldn’t recall a single one immediately after I watched the film. Then I started listening to the movie soundtrack. Its buoyant energy started to work its way into my consciousness. I’ve been humming it ever since, “Everybody’s talking ’bout J-J-Jamie. Everybody’s talking ’bout the boy in the dress who was born to impress” the students sing at school. The title track occurs after they attend Jamie’s drag show the night before. Other highlights include Jamie’s mother’s poignant ode “He’s My Boy” and “This Was Me,” a vulnerable reminiscence from Hugo about the past. The aforementioned “And You Don’t Even Know It” is perhaps the stage musical’s best-known ditty. These hook-laden melodies paired with the imaginatively staged routines elevate the production. The subject of self-acceptance comes across as superficial at times but the colorful, catchy compositions have a joy that propels the message of encouragement with vitality and verve.

09-19-21

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on September 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Let’s be clear. The downfall of Jim Bakker and his PTL Club TV program became public in 1987. It was then that Jessica Hahn alleged that she had been drugged and raped by the televangelist and another preacher (John Wesley Fletcher) back in 1980 when she worked for the PTL Club as a secretary. Jim Bakker would later contend the act was consensual. Regardless, Bakker still paid the former employee $279,000 at the time to keep her silent. None of this is presented within The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The details of what led to their disgrace are frustratingly vague. I was more uncertain about what happened after I saw the movie than before.

True to its title, this is a story told from the (apparently cloudy) eyes of Tammy Faye. That’s not a makeup joke. I’m saying her perspective was extremely limited and that’s the point of view of the film. But how does a screenplay attempt this tale and only briefly namecheck Jessica Hahn in a random news montage? In the aftermath of the sex scandal that made headlines, all of the PTL Television Network’s finances were called into question. The misdirection of funds is his undoing in this account. Michael Showalter directs and Abe Sylvia (TV shows Dead to Me & Nurse Jackie) adapts from a 2000 documentary by filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. The five-time Emmy-winning duo co-founded the production company World of Wonder in 1991, most famous for RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye elicits compassion for a woman who initially received none. The intentions of the screenwriters are admirable. Tammy Faye (and her husband Jim) were essentially a punch line back in the late 1980s. Here however the woman exudes warmth, sincerity, and kindness. The consideration and reevaluation gives the religious figure back her humanity. Jessica Chastain is more than up to the task in the titular role. She is a compelling presence. I can understand why the actress has garnered serious Oscar attention for her role as the embattled televangelist. She could well earn her third nomination (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty). The chronicle is not charitable to her husband Jim though. Nevertheless, Andrew Garfield still manages to convey a little of what drew Tammy Faye to this deeply flawed character.

Engendering sympathy for “women wronged by the media” has captured the zeitgeist. Lorena Bobbitt, Anna Nicole Smith, Tonya Harding, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Pamela Smart, and Monica Lewinsky all became obsessions in the media for wildly different reasons. I don’t mean to compare their contrasting notorieties to each other. However, each woman experienced a negative burst of fame for something that some apologists now defend. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is part of this tradition. This feels like the fanciful recollections of a woman who was duped. The performances are what elevates this drama. Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s mom and Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell both add significantly to the narrative as well. I found the saga fascinating as I was riveted throughout.

09-21-21

Val

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on September 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Val of the title is actor Val Kilmer. You know his films: Top Gun (1986), Willow (1988), Tombstone (1993), True Romance (1993), Heat (1995), The Saint (1997) are just a few. The star appeared in some of the biggest Hollywood movies during the late 80s and on through the 1990s. He perhaps achieved the apex of celebrity when he played Batman in Batman Forever in 1995. He may have never received an Oscar nomination, but many thought his role as Jim Morrison in The Doors was worthy of one.

Val is a documentary assembled from 40 years of 16mm home movies of his life shot by the entertainer himself and saved over a lifetime. This includes thousands of hours of footage, everything from time spent with his family to the on-set experiences on his many productions. This is the first-person narrative of a celebrated performer as told through his cinematography. Filmmakers Ting Poo and Leo Scott are producers, directors, and editors of the feature. What they’ve done is the impossible. They’ve scrutinized over four decades of material and put together an insider’s view of what it’s like to be him. The task had to have been daunting, but the filmmakers are successful in distilling a coherent and interesting movie from that footage.

The best moments are little vignettes that shine a light on his interactions with other people. Throughout his life, Val Kilmer has always been known as intensely dedicated to his craft. However, his reputation for being a moody and demanding personality often preceded his renown as a gifted thespian. Some labeled him difficult. In 1996, Kilmer appeared in a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau with his idol Marlon Brando. It was a notoriously troubled production. Kilmer’s strained relationship with director John Frankenheimer is captured. This is painful to watch but oh so transfixing. At one point, he refuses to act or take direction. Instead, he turns his camera on the director and videotapes him while voicing his disapproval. I wish there were more candid episodes like this. The acrimony is a rare exception.

Val is a largely sympatric portrait. It is a most heartbreaking coda that Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014. Following radiation and chemotherapy treatments, along with a tracheostomy, he is now cancer-free. However, he has great difficulty speaking. The movie uses captions when he talks. His son Jack is his voice as the narrator for much of the documentary. His participation is deeply poetic. In a more recent development, Kilmer travels to Texas for a public appearance at a screening of Tombstone. He is warmly greeted by a large gathering of enthusiastic and idolizing fans. Addressing the viewer directly, he admits “I don’t look great and I’m selling basically my old self, my old career.” Yet the image of the actor today in front of an adoring crowd is so poignant. It’s scenes like this that make Val such a fascinating watch.

08-09-21

Respect

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Let’s start with the fact that the Queen of Soul herself handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her before she passed in 2018. She knew what she was doing. Jennifer Hudson is an entertainer whose life story could also form the basis of another fascinating biography. Hudson initially rose to prominence as a finalist on the third season of the singing competition American Idol in 2004. She even sang two Aretha songs on the show: “Share Your Love With Me” and “Baby, I Love You.” Despite making the Top 12, she struggled to maintain popularity with the audience and only placed seventh. Then somehow turned that relatively mediocre finish into a feature film debut as Effie White in Dreamgirls in 2006. The role garnered widespread universal acclaim. A slew of awards followed including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The accomplished Grammy-winning singer has continued to appear in films.

If it wasn’t obvious from my introductory paragraph, Jennifer Hudson is the heart and soul of Respect. She is incredibly compelling. Conversely, the production follows the rote story beats of a traditional biopic. It begins with Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner ) as a 10-year-old girl circa 1952 growing up in Detroit. We meet a domineering father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), and a sympathetic mother Barbara Siggers (Audra McDonald). They are separated. The young girl performs to the delight of partygoers at her father’s behest with luminaries like Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke in attendance. It sounds idyllic, but her childhood was tainted by trauma and tragedy.

Aretha’s adult life had its share of difficulties. She gained notoriety but was also fraught by dark periods. These episodes are referred to as her “personal demons.” After a string of 9 albums with Columbia and no hits, she changed labels. At Atlantic, she meets veteran record producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and eventually achieved mainstream success in 1967 with her 10th record Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. The title track and the #1 “Respect” were both smash hits. Her career would take off from there. The chronicle recounts an abusive relationship with husband and manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans). After they break up she dates tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones). Along the way, the pressures of fame predictably drive her to drink. The trials and tribulations culminate with her biggest selling disc, the live gospel recording Amazing Grace in 1972.

Aretha Franklin would continue to have hits well into the 1980s. A string of successes for Arista Records included the classic 1985 album Who Zooming Who. A follow-up would include her duet with George Michael. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was a #1 single. That kind of achievement for women of a certain age is such a rarity. I wish the film had touched on that decade.

Respect is a conventional account that offers a smattering of wonderful numbers. Of course you’ll hear the title track, which was recorded by Otis Redding first, but you’ll also learn the genesis of the arrangement. The recreation of an iconic concert where she performs the song at Madison Square Garden is mesmerizing. There’s a host of other performances each one a joy in their own right. Aretha Franklin sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, and “Amazing Grace” among them. The vocals are so good that you’ll be fidgeting in your seat waiting for the next tune. This is a 2 hour and 25-minute movie. There’s a lot of information packed in this chronicle. Truth to tell, I didn’t know much about Aretha Franklin’s life. I did learn some things, although her Wikipedia article is just as informative. Respect is a serviceable biopic that presents the highlights of a career. This works best as a Broadway-style jukebox musical where the songs are the point. Jennifer Hudson makes it worth watching.

08-17-21

The Courier

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Thriller, War on June 24, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you love Cold War spy films? Well then I have good news!

Greville Wynne is a mild-mannered British businessman with no connections to the government. That’s a plus. His frequent trips to Eastern Europe on business is another advantage. The two qualities make him a perfect candidate to be a spy. MI6 recruits him to be just that. Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) is an American CIA officer who assists. Greville is tasked with acting as a courier transporting classified information to London. His contact is Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) — a high-ranking foreign military officer providing top-secret intelligence

The fact that this is a true story makes it infinitely more interesting. The confrontation in 1962 was between John F Kennedy in the U.S. and Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR. The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear conflict. That’s the historical basis but this is a character drama first and foremost. The friendship between Greville and Oleg, two men from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain forged a bond that is affecting. Greville’s wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) is kept in the dark about her husband’s activities but she suspects something is amiss. At one point she mistakenly thinks her husband is having an affair.

These portraits of history are fascinating. It’s all about the point of view. This unsurprisingly aligns with American and British interests. From the U.S. perspective and its allies of the Western Bloc, Penkovsky is a hero. His undercover operations helped put an end to the Missile Scare. However, to the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc, he was a traitor. How Penkovsky weighed patriotism vs. his moral compass would have been a compelling study. Although those ideas percolate underneath the surface, the screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into that conversation. This is a simple movie with clearly delineated characters representing the “good” and “bad” positions.

The Courier is very much an old-school espionage thriller. They were all the rage in the 1960s: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Ipcress File, Torn Curtain, The Double Man, Ice Station Zebra. They’re something of a vanishing breed these days. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies are recent examples of note. If I’m being charitable, I’d say this is less engaging. If I’m being blunt, the account is a bit stodgy and dull. It’s a decent well-acted movie with nice production values though. I’d recommend it to fans of those films.

The Courier debuted domestically back on March 19. After earning a paltry $6.6 million in theaters, it went to video on demand April 16, where it’s currently available. It got a DVD release June 1st.

Dream Horse

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on June 10, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Feel-good movies get a bad rap. How could something that uplifts the spirit ever be a negative thing? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure happiness is a feeling we enjoy. Dream Horse is a delight. It’s a cozy blanket — a warm and inviting experience that I’ve felt before but was more than willing to appreciate again.

This is the true story of a racehorse with humble beginnings. By day, Janet Vokes works as a grocery store cashier in a small town in South Wales. At night she’s a bartender at a local pub. One evening at work, Janet overhears Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), a tax adviser, discussing a thoroughbred he once owned. Up until then, she had only bred whippets, rabbits, and pigeons. Howard’s words inspired her.

Janet and her husband Brian (Owen Teale) buy a mare for £1000. They then bring the mare to Kirtlington Stud in the UK so she can be bred with a racing stallion. Of course this is expensive. Jan convinces her neighbors to chip in their earnings to help out. Ultimately over 20 different people joined the ownership syndicate. The ensuing offspring is aptly named Dream Alliance. The foal is then brought to trainer Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). The expectation is that they might raise a racehorse to compete amongst the champions of the privileged class. “Remember, there’s a less than one percent chance this horse will ever win a race,” Howard cautions. As I sat watching a film called Dream Horse, I suspected the odds were a little better.

I’ll admit the plot sounds like a piece of sentimental hokum and it would have been in lesser hands. Certainly, screenwriter Neil McKay and frequent TV director Euros Lyn deserve credit for their contributions. However, Toni Collette really must be cited for her flawless performance. The actress is simply captivating. Whether pleading for a risky medical procedure that could prolong the horse’s life or deciding whether to enter him in yet another race, she is eminently relatable. Collette radiates warmth and enthusiasm with utter sincerity. As Janet, she can be aggressively enthusiastic but also vulnerable. Few actors can convey all this with such ease. She manifests these emotions with authenticity. It never comes across like acting. The rest of the ensemble rise to her level. The coterie of working-class investors includes a lonely widow (Siân Phillips), the town drunk (Karl Johnson), and a resident know-it-all (Anthony O’Donnell). Misfits all, we truly want to champion the citizens of this Welsh village.

The British have a way with these heartfelt tales. Over the last three decades, successful comedic dramas include Enchanted April (1991), Brassed Off (1996), The Full Monty (1997), Waking Ned Devine (1998), Billy Elliot (2000), and Death at a Funeral (2007). There’s a through-line in each that effectively extracts genuine emotion within a disparate cast of characters united by a common struggle or goal. Dream Horse continues that hallowed tradition. Among 2021 movies that give you hope, it’s a front-runner.

06-08-21