Archive for the Biography Category

The White Crow

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on May 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

white_crow_ver2STARS3The White Crow could be about anything.  The cryptic title is explained in the very first frame.  It’s a Russian term for someone “unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.”  I suppose I should realize by now that color + bird = ballet movie.  Black Swan and Red Sparrow also wove the same discipline into its storyline.

The White Crow concentrates on famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko)  during his young adulthood.  Most acknowledge him as the greatest male ballet artist of his generation.  He was also the first major Soviet artist to defect to the West during the Cold War.  This contemplative film leisurely advances towards a captivating conclusion.  The account depicts his humble birth on a moving train in 1938, becoming a sensation with the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky) in the late 1950s and the rising acclaim surrounding his early career.

These episodes aren’t depicted in order but rather shifting back and forth. I’ve often felt that haphazard embellishments are utilized when a director doesn’t have enough faith in his tale to tell it in a normal fashion. As if chronological order is too conventional. However, the drama’s clarity is obfuscated by this narrative device as I was often unclear whether certain events occurred earlier or later.  Rudolf Nureyev was a man with a fascinating story.  To wit, most of the focus is on a fateful 6 week trip to Paris with the Kirov Ballet in 1961.  The developments of his life would certainly make an interesting production without the stylistic devices employed here.

Written by two-time Oscar nominee David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) and directed by also twice Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, this biopic has prestige oozing from every cinematic pore.  Hare was inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s book: Rudolf Nureyev: The Life.  Nureyev was a temperamental man and director Ralph Fiennes doesn’t attempt to make his subject likable.   Fiennes also appears in a small role as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s teacher and mentor in Leningrad.  The cast also benefits from the presence of Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), who portrays Clara Saint, a 21-year old French woman who ends up playing a key element in Nureyev’s personal revolt.

Rudolf Nureyev’s mercurial character is highlighted by first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko, a real-life Ukrainian ballet dancer.  There are brief snippets showcasing his prowess but little in the way of performances.  I wanted to see more of that talent and less brooding.  Ivenko does a good job at conveying his rebellious mood, however.  Nureyev is not a warm person but that’s not required to enjoy this movie.  The saga ultimately builds to a memorable scene with a mesmerizing climax.  While Nureyev’s ballet troupe was to continue on to London, he was being summoned back to Moscow.  The real reason is unclear but his arrogant disdain for company regulations certainly played a part.  The request was enough to send him into hysterics.  The defection is a seemingly impulsive decision that makes perfect sense.  If only it didn’t take so long to get there.  At 127 minutes, the film’s distended length doesn’t do its subject any favors.  Some thoughtful editing would improve the drama immeasurably.  Chop 20 minutes out and just get to the “pointe”.

05-16-19

Stan & Ollie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on January 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

stan_and_ollie_ver4STARS3This biopic is a somber reminiscence on the legendary comedic duo.  Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) first rose to fame through in a series of silent shorts during the 1920s, the early days of Hollywood.  Their popularity would grow exponentially until they became one of the most acclaimed comedy duos ever.  Stan & Ollie isn’t about their glory days, however. The script by Academy Award-nominated writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) focuses on their later years.  This sad little feature deals with a rather low point in their history when they were no longer making films in the U.S.  There’s talk about doing a Robin Hood parody movie.  It never materializes.  It’s 1953 and the pair is on a music tour of the UK.  Way beyond their prime, they struggle to fill seats in run-down theaters and cheap hotels.  Hardy’s failing health becomes a concern.  They also bicker about the past.  A 1937 contract dispute with the studio, depicted in the intro, is dredged up in the present timeline.

There are two good reasons to see Stan & Ollie: its stars. Steve Coogan is very good as Stan Laurel. John C. Reilly is even better as Ollie Hardy.  They ascribe such sincere sympathy to their characters and invest that with tenderness.   Stan and Ollie make personal appearances and incorporate their schtick into these everyday interactions.  The public greets their shenanigans with enthusiasm.  The antics of Coogan and Reilly come across as a genuine achievement, more than just an impersonation.  The actors truly get the mannerisms down, clearly the result of work that has been well researched.  Their work matches the production.  The attention to period detail is exquisite.  The makeup beautifully supports the superior performances.  At first, the reflective tone seems to benefit this admirable effort.  Over the course of the entire runtime however, it becomes depressing.  The atmosphere is surprisingly bleak for a team known for making people laugh.  I admired Stan & Ollie but I wasn’t enthused by it.  I can’t help but think all of this meticulousness might have better served a screenplay that centered on their earlier, more celebrated era.

01-07-19

On the Basis of Sex

Posted in Biography, Drama on January 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

on_the_basis_of_sexSTARS2.5The old adage states “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Admittedly, that’s a brutal way to begin a movie review that’s mildly indifferent. It is somewhat apropos though. On the Basis of Sex is the very definition of a well-intentioned drama. It’s adequate as a superficial biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The story idealizes her as a champion for equal rights, yet it fails to captivate. The script is penned by Daniel Stiepleman, a first-time screenwriter. He just so happens to be the subject’s nephew. If you’re an avid fan in need of a reverential memoir depicting the Associate Justice’s formative years, then this should suffice.

Directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward), this by the numbers drama merely covers the beginning of how RBG came to be.  Slick meticulous production shows how Ruth graduated at the top of her law school class.  Unable to find a job because no law firm would hire a woman, she becomes a professor at Rutgers Law School. On the Basis of Sex mainly focuses on one tax law.  In 1970 her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), brings a case to her attention.  It concerns Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) a Denver man who was caring for his elderly mother.  Unmarried, he was denied a dependent-care tax deduction.  A single woman, however, would have received the advantage.  RBG saw this situation where a man had been disadvantaged, as an opportunity to bring sex-based discrimination to an appellate court.  She believes the male judges might be more sympathetic to his plight.  In this way, she anticipates that a favorable decision would open a gateway to attack more gender-based legislation.  Indeed this has been a focus of her entire career.

On the Basis of Sex is a traditional biopic, rather conservative in style for such a liberal subject.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissents with the majority ruling have only grown more forceful with time.  They’ve given rise to memes where she’s affectionately referred to her as The Notorious RBG (a riff on late rapper The Notorious B.I.G.).  As such, she has become a pop-culture icon for young liberals.  That profile of an intimidating firebrand is not on display here.  Felicity Jones sweetly radiates hope and resolve as a crusader for equal rights.  Armie Hammer is her supportive husband, an accomplished lawyer in his own right.  Martin actually comes across as more charismatic.  This is even addressed by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), legal director of the ACLU in their mock trial practice sessions.  Those looking to see her appointment to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993 on through her current tenure will have to wait for the sequel. I’m kidding. (Sort of.)  By focusing on a tax case, On the Basis of Sex doesn’t stir the emotions as it should.  The chronicle doesn’t seem vital enough for anyone other than her most ardent admirers in need of an idealized portrait.

01-03-19

Vice

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

viceSTARS3I love a good transformation and there’s no other actor working today that can physically alter himself like Christian Bale.  American Psycho, The Machinist, Batman Begins, The Fighter, and American Hustle are among the most dramatic.  He looks like an entirely different person in each.  Vice just may be Christian Bale’s most incredible because of all his roles, he portrays a man with whom we are familiar.  His impersonation of Dick Cheney is pretty amazing.  Now you have to ask yourself, do I really want to see a biopic of the 46th vice president of the United States?  Let’s face it, he’s not a popular guy.  He was downright polarizing.  He drew a 63% disapproval rating 2 months after he left office in January 2009.  I was open to it as long as I’m going to watch an enjoyable film.  Vice is only mildly engaging in spurts.

As you expect, Vice is not complimentary to Dick Cheney.  It seems reverent for a while. At first,  Vice is the profile of a man driven to succeed.  Cheney was kicked out of Yale for drinking too much.  An angry pep talk from his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) slaps some sense into the ne’er do well drunk from Wyoming.  (This is the 3rd feature that Adams and Bale have done together following The Fighter and American Hustle.)  Cheney becomes a congressional intern and starts working for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  They become close and when Rumsfeld is appointed Secretary of Defense under President Ford, Dick becomes Chief of Staff.  The presentation of his rise to power by failing upward is a bit glib.  This is from the mind of director Adam McKay (Talladega Nights, The Big Short) after all.  He finds the humor in Cheney’s tenure.  A fateful meeting with a young Antonin Scalia clues him into a legal doctrine called Unitary Executive Theory, which means that anything the president does is legal simply by virtue of his title.  This won’t come into play until years later when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) desperately wants Cheney to be his Vice President.  Side note: As authentic and nuanced as Christian Bale is, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are complete caricatures of their real-life counterparts more suited to an SNL skit than a serious biopic.  Anyways, Cheney will concede to Bush’s request under the conditions that he grant him extended powers which oversee major departments.  Bush agrees.  Then 9/11 happens.

How fair and accurate is Vice?  The movie begins with a jokey disclaimer that it’s “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history.  But we did our f—ing best.”  That essentially absolves them of presenting the truth.  That’s going to (rightfully) annoy a lot of people right from the get-go.  If you have the stomach for politics, it’s satisfying to a point.  That playful attitude permeates the film and it honestly helps enliven a portrait that few were demanding.  As decisions are made and we see the political process play out, Vice gradually becomes the denunciation of a Vice President who used the attacks of 9/11 to justify a war with Iraq.  This is a controversial period in American history.  He didn’t do it alone.  Adam McKay’s screenplay also wants us to condemn the entire American political system that allowed his Machiavellian rise to power.  These events led to the justification of torture on detainees and unprecedented surveillance by the U.S. Government on its own citizens.  Yet it continues to elevate him as a family man who loved his daughters Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary Cheney (Alison Pill ) unconditionally.  The respect of Cheney in his private life, when juxtaposed with vilifying of the man in his public life, drives this comedic drama. The point of view can be a bit contradictory at times.  I suppose that gives it a semblance of balance.  It humanizes a man before eventually driving you to hate him. Given the subject matter, Vice does its best to both entertain and stir the pot.  Now I ask my earlier question again, do you really want to watch a biopic about Dick Cheney?  Unfortunately Vice doesn’t warrant a strong ‘yes’ to that question.

12-17-18

Mary Queen of Scots

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_queen_of_scots_ver4STARS3It really is a testament to the talent and charisma of Saoirse Ronan that Mary Queen of Scots is still worthwhile viewing.  The star is bloody good as the titular heroine.  Her achievement kept me enrapt.  I can’t say the same for the rest of the picture.

After the death of her husband Francis II, King of France, Mary Stuart returns to her native Scotland.  Both Scotland and England are under the realm of Mary’s cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).  Yet she asserts her claim to the English throne.  Elizabeth regards Mary’s actions a direct threat to her ruling authority.  The largely Protestant government there has outlawed Catholic mass.  Mary preaches tolerance of both religions.  She immediately incurs the wrath of Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) who is her vocal critic.

The colorful ensemble boosts a flawed production.  Diverse casting choices include Gemma Chan as Elizabeth Hardwick, Ismael Cruz Córdova as David Rizzio, and Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph.  These aren’t historically accurate decisions, but they distinguish this interpretation as a contemporary tale, so there’s that.  Naturally beautiful Margot Robbie is cast as the heavily made up Queen Elizabeth I.  She is suffering from smallpox under what looks like pounds and pounds of foundation. Director Josie Rourke cuts back and forth between the two monarchs to contrast their differing points of view.  Robbie is very good too. Her appearance pops up here and there, but this is Ronan’s movie.  As ancient history (16th century), nothing I discuss here should be considered a spoiler, but the two don’t even share the screen until the very end.  Even then, history teaches us they never even met at all.

I am a sucker for a stately well-done period piece. This isn’t it.   History buffs are likely to go into conniptions over the inaccuracies and even fans of tawdry soap operas are likely to find the events questionable.   I won’t get into details but certain developments surrounding Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) compelled me to research their veracity. Some of this is pure fantasy at worst and loose conjecture at best.  The costumes are sumptuous. The production design is heavenly and as mentioned earlier, Saoirse Ronan anchors it all with a captivating performance.  I say if you’re already obsessed with biographies about monarchs, this should satiate your fix.  Although the timing of this release couldn’t be worse.  There’s already an irreverent film about a queen currently playing at the multiplex right now (The Favourite).   It’s so much better.

12-18-18

Green Book

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on December 7, 2018 by Mark Hobin

green_bookSTARS4.5Green Book is the compelling chronicle of black pianist Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) 1962 music tour of the deep south.  He hires white bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard.  I admit I was skeptical. I had heard grumblings from a very small but vociferous group of detractors.  Right from the get-go, the interracial synopsis sounds like a calculated set up that promises a feel-good story about how people from contrasting cultures were able to come together and becomes friends.  In its most simplistic essence, that’s what you get. However, the sleek craft with which this road movie is assembled is a masterclass in creating an audience-pleasing feature.  It establishes characters you simply want to love. I enthusiastically embraced this picture.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Green Book is directed by none other than Peter Farrelly, one-half of the Farrelly brothers that brought the world such ribald comedy classics like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Those are well-crafted movies and this is clearly assembled by a competent artist as well. Green Book has comedic elements too, but this represents a definite shift for the filmmaker.  Green Book is a serious drama first.  A powerful work that has a respectful reverence for its subjects.  The title references a guidebook that gave recommendations to African-American travelers to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.  You see, under the era of Jim Crow laws of the Confederacy, racial segregation was actually enforced by legislation.  In short, black people weren’t allowed to stay or eat at certain establishments. The manual was published up until 1966.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, Don Shirley was the son of parents who emigrated from Jamaica.  He was an accomplished classical musician. However after a manager told him that American audiences were not ready to accept a “colored” pianist in classical music, he reverted to the more popular jazz genre.  During the 1950s and 1960s, he performed in nightclubs where there were more opportunities.  Don Shirley was a musical prodigy since the age of 2.   An intellectual, he spoke eight languages fluently.   He held a doctorate of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts.  Don decides to go on a risky concert tour of the Deep South.  We learn that he could be handsomely paid playing safer concert venues in the North.  That would have been a more comfortable living.  Yet he wanted to play for audiences that might benefit more from his talents.  He would need a driver though who could also provide some security.

Frank Anthony Vallelonga is nicknamed Tony Lip because of his ability to talk his way out of anything.  He’s the son of Italian parents and grew up in the Bronx.  He works as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.   Early in the account, Tony is seen disposing of the drinking glasses that black repairmen had used while working at his home.  Tony stands in marked contrast to his employer.  Don lives in a luxurious apartment above Carnegie Hall.  When Tony arrives there to apply for the position of his driver, Don appears to be sitting on what looks like a throne wearing an elegant robe.  He is a dignified man that refuses to eat with his hands.  Don and Tony are markedly dissimilar personalities.  Don Shirley, in particular, doesn’t fit within an established archetype.  At one point, Don exasperatedly cries into the rain “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough and I’m not man enough, then what am I?”  Their respective lifestyles and customs influence who these individuals are.

The screenplay does a deft job at depicting the point of view of each fellow.  This is a true story after all.  Green Book is based on an original script co-written by Frank’s son Nick Vallelonga with actor Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly.  Tony Lip and Don Shirley died within five months of each other in 2013.  Before that happened, Nick told the pair he wanted to make a movie based on their experiences.  According to Nick, Dr. Shirley gave his blessing with one provision “not until after I’m gone.”  There are similarities to previous works.  A chauffeur driving a passenger of another ethnicity from their own has an obvious parallel to 1990 Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy. That’s about where the comparisons end.  The stakes are much higher in Green Book. No one in Driving Miss Daisy was in danger of being lynched.

What really sets Green Book apart is the utter sincerity in detailing the lives of two very contradictory people.  Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen imbue their characters with such depth that we embrace them as fully formed people.  The narrative does a deft job at giving each person equal focus.  Despite how the studio has promoted their performances for Academy Award consideration, this is a dual affair with two equally pivotal performances at the center.  These larger than life personalities couldn’t be more different from each other.  Little details are presented that help us understand where these individuals have been and how they’ve changed. Their friendship with each other develops organically in a way that makes sense.  Each man gained from knowing the other.  Yes, it’s easy to dismiss the saga as a manipulative narrative that features a “white savior” or a “black savior”.  Yet it’s so much more than that.  At heart, Green Book unfolds like an authentic portrait of two unlikely souls that became friends.  The film is emotionally satisfying with a lot of heart.

11-29-18

The Favourite

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Dance, Drama, History with tags on December 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

favourite_ver2STARS4.5Way back on January 21, 1989, one of the highlights on Saturday Night Live’s 14th season occurred during the 10th episode.  John Malkovich was the host plugging his work in Dangerous Liaisons, an obvious forebear of this film.  One of the skits in which he starred, was a bit I affectionately remember as “Mocking Lord Edmund.”  In it, Malkovich portrayed an 18th-century aristocrat who suspects all the wrong people of insulting him.  “You mock me,” he would disdainfully rebuke.  Each admirer was bewildered at his scorn for their honest praise.  Malkovich’s deadpan delivery in a haughty accent was comical in itself.  But the main joke was that his two servants (Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey), whom he didn’t suspect, were actually mocking him behind his back.

Period pieces are inherently hilarious.  The Favorite is an extraordinary work that takes an absurdist view of the strange reign of Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain at the beginning of the 18th century.  England is at war with the French.  The ruler is attended to by her close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Sarah encourages her to fund the ongoing war with France so that her husband can claim victory.  Into this mix arrives Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a servant with designs on bettering her own station in life.  The liaison between these three develops into a genuine love triangle. There’s no evidence that Queen Anne had a romantic relationship with either of these women.  Although speculation at the time did fuel court gossip.  Yet historians do agree that Sarah Churchill’s personal friendship with the Queen afforded her a lot of power and influence in the monarch’s decisions.   Regardless, historical accuracy is clearly not director Yorgos Lanthimos’ focus.  The bitter rivalry between Sarah and Abigail for the affections of Queen Anne is the central conflict.  And oh what a competition!

The centerpiece of The Favourite is a trio of flawless performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz who form the central trio of strong women.   Queen Anne is a frail woman physically afflicted by ill health.  Olivia Coleman embodies the ruler as a woman plagued by insecurities.  She screams irrationally at a young attendant for staring at her.  She feels ugly.  She gorges on cake.  Vomits.  Then continues to gorge.  One moment she is a timid monarch afraid of choosing sides between the Whigs and Tories in Parliament.  The next minute her mind is fixed and she refuses to allow anyone to sway her.  Rachel Weisz is the Duchess of Marlborough, her close confidant.  She is a woman fiercely driven by her own political desires.  Abigail appears to enter the picture as sort of a wide-eyed innocent.  Anne Baxter in All About Eve anyone?  Emma Stone has one of the most expressive visages in all of Hollywood. The mere look of her face as she turns away in one flirtatious scene elicited guffaws at my screening.  As time wears on, the pursuit of her own selfish goals consumes her every thought.  Her poor husband Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) is frustrated by her lack of attention, even on their wedding night.

This is a visual spectacle that captivates our attention even when nothing is being said. The costumes and sets are lavish.  Sandy Powell’s monochromatic costumes stand in stark contrast to the candlelit halls of the palace.  The powdered wigs are piled ridiculously high.  And I’m talking about the males.  They wear more makeup than the women.  The beauty marks applied like stickers to the face.  Even the palace is a character itself with its massively high ceilings, cavernous hallways, and luxuriously appointed spaces.  Tapestries, art, and furniture dominate some rooms.  There is a definite sense of scope.  The cinematography by Robbie Ryan captures every inch of the spectacle mixing fisheye lenses with spinning camera angles.  It can get overwhelming.  At times we’re more focused on the way the scene is shot, not what is being shot.  But more often than not, the photography creates a sense of isolation that matches the mood of the characters.  Visually it’s an emotional experience.

Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have a playful ear for dialogue.  It’s also the first feature Lanthimos directed that he did not co-write with regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou.  I dare say it is the most quotable film of the year.  The catty one-liners abound in an artificial air of high camp.   There is an affected pomposity to these people that makes them amusing.  The script exploits the lexicon of our modern era to humorous effect.   The c-word is joined with the word struck to describe a man impossibly bewitched by a woman. The idioms of past costume dramas are subverted as well.  Abigail fawns obsequiously over Queen Anne’s hair.  “Stop it. How you mock me” the queen responds.  The screenplay recognizes how a retort delivered with withering contempt can be an exquisite joy.  At one point Sarah Churchill derisively chides crafty House of Commons dandy Harley (Nicholas Hoult).  “I can’t take you seriously when your mascara is running.”

The Favourite exaggerates what makes period pieces so fitfully entertaining.  In doing so, it becomes an artistic work of art.  There’s a lot of idiosyncratic details.  Sarah and Abigail shoot pigeons.  A splatter of blood unexpectedly covers Sarah’s face after Abigail hits one dead on.  Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits as pets symbolically representing each one of her children that didn’t survive due to various maladies.  Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) races ducks in his spare time for fun.  A hapless Tory endues fruits thrown at him as some sort of parlor game.  I didn’t understand the point, but it conveyed decadence nonetheless.  Lady Marlborough’s choreographed dance scene with her companion at the ball is a riot for its anachronistic dance moves.  It’s a fabulous spectacle lit with candles.  Ok, I’ll admit The Favourite is about as historically accurate as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yet for my money….it’s just as funny.

11-27-18

Boy Erased

Posted in Biography, Drama on November 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

boy_erased_ver2STARS2.5Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir Boy Erased has been adapted into a rather static film by writer/director Joel Edgerton.  Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of Marshal (Russell Crowe), a methodical pastor who speaks softly, and bright upbeat Nancy (Nicole Kidman) with big bleach-blond hair.  Living in Arkansas, Jared is raised in the Baptist faith.  His parents are distraught to learn their son is gay after a fellow classmate pretending to be a counselor, outs the boy.  Upon confronting him, he admits that he “thinks about men”.  He is subsequently sent to conversion therapy.

For what sounds like a harrowing set-up, Boy Erased is a surprisingly dispassionate picture.  The drama is built around Jared Eamons and his tenure at Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy program.  Director of photography Eduard Grau relies on stationary shots.  The colors are drab.  The tone is somber and bleak.  All of which effectively inhibits the drama.  While at this reform school of sorts, Jared is under the guidance of Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton too).  He is the program’s head therapist and cult-like leader.  Victor is assisted by a stern tattooed enforcer named Brandon (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea).  Apparently his responsibility is to intimidate the subjects into heterosexuality with his menacing presence.

Jared attempts to fit within the guidelines of the program.  The group is asked to detail their family tree and associate hardships with each person.  Drugs, alcoholism, gang affiliation, criminal behavior, and pornography are the options.  He struggles to assign problems to his family members.  In group, students are compelled to get up in front of the class and openly confess their sins.  A mandatory exercise requires Jared to talk to a chair as if his father were present and explain why he hates him.  The implication being animosity toward one’s father is the root of homosexuality.  “But I don’t hate my father” he explains.  In other areas, Jared is remarkably adept. The boys line up for a batting cage where they hit baseballs ostensibly to make them more manly.  He has no problem doing this.

While there, Jared meets several other students.  There’s big, quiet Cameron (Britton Sear) who plays football.  The cynical-to-change Gary is played by musician Troye Sivan.  “Fake it till you make it,” he advises supportively.  Jon, portrayed by director Xavier Dolan (Mommy), is a man excessively frustrated to make the treatment work.   There’s also Jesse LaTourette as sad, shy Sara, one of the few women in the program.  We only get very cursory introductions to these people.  Understandably, each individual lacks the opportunity to make an impression as a fully well-rounded individual.  All, that is, except the star.

Lucas Hedges’ performance is genuine. The actor seems to have a knack for choosing films that get Oscar nominations. Since 2016 he’s appeared in 3 Best Picture nominees: Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The 21-year-old actor has a youthful sincerity that keeps us invested.  He’s genuine although there’s an ambiguity to his performance that keeps the viewer at arm’s length.  He’s a soft-spoken but utterly self-possessed young man.  He doesn’t have trouble asserting himself when he must.  The drama is set at therapy.  However, the tale frequently uses flashbacks to detail moments in Jared’s life that give the events leading up to his placement in this facility.  These are the moments that incite emotion.  We get a glimpse of his life in the past.  There’s girlfriend Chloe (Madelyn Cline) who encourages him to go further sexually, a boy named Henry (Joe Alwyn) who would be a negative force in his life and art school student Xavier (Théodore Pellerin) who would be a positive presence.  Each of these vignettes is mildly more interesting than what occurs in his treatment sessions.  Yet – with one exception – very little of it is revelatory.

Boy Erased means well, but dramatically it’s inert.  The counseling meetings aren’t particularly shocking.  Most of it is quite restrained.  A mock funeral where a student’s parents are invited to attend so they can mourn over their still living son’s gay self is admittedly creepy.  That’s a rare instance where this chronicle slapped me awake.  Yet Jared is a well adjusted young man.  He doesn’t seem overly tormented about attending therapy for most of the picture.  He’s emotionally detached.  There’s very little excitement to extract from the events or the main character.  A singular moment where he defaces a bus-stop advertisement of a male model is a cathartic display that says so much without dialogue.  More of that, please.  A display of resistance occurs, but by then it’s too little too late.  Nicole Kidman predictably gets her showcase where she becomes the object of audience applause.  If she does get a Supporting Role nomination, that’s the sequence to highlight on Oscar night.  The biggest twist of the entire picture is ultimately revealed in the notes of an epilogue.  The “what happened to” one major character got an audible response in my theater.  It’s an unanticipated turn of events.  Perhaps that story might have inspired a more spirited film.

11-08-18

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on November 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

can_you_ever_forgive_meSTARS4.5Melissa McCarthy is extremely accomplished and has enjoyed enormous success. She was on two popular TV series Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly.  She has hosted Saturday Night Live on 5 separate occasions garnering an Emmy nomination each time for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. She eventually won in 2017. Her breakthrough in widespread popularity came in 2011 with the crude, but very funny farce Bridesmaids and an uncharacteristically Oscar-nominated performance. Many hugely successful comedies followed including Identity Thief and The Heat, earning millions at the box office. McCarthy has perfected slapstick to an art form, and yet, the cognoscenti still dismiss her brand of humor as low brow. I don’t feel she gets the respect she deserves.  In both St. Vincent and Spy she displayed considerable acting chops for which she didn’t receive near enough acclaim.  However, this time I hope the film is just too incredible to ignore.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a biographical drama about Lee Israel.  She was a freelance writer from New York that contributed entertainment articles to The New York Times, Soap Opera Digest and other periodicals during the 1960s.  By the 70s and 80s, she had written biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead, journalist / What’s My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen and cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder.  Kilgallen even made the New York Times Best Seller list in 1979.  These are not the works by which Lee Israel is remembered.  Our story takes place years later.  Changing tastes have deemed Israel’s writing style and subjects no longer in vogue.  Her literary agent (Jane Curtin) informs her that her writing is outdated.  “No one wants to read a biography about Fanny Brice!” By the 1990s, She has fallen on hard times unable to pay the veterinary bills for her sick cat.  In order to make ends meet she parts with a personal letter written to her from Katherine Hepburn.  Apparently, people are willing to pay for such memorabilia.  Later while at the library doing research, she discovers another letter hidden within the pages of the book she is reading.  This one penned by the actress/comedian Fanny Brice. She sells this letter for a small sum as well.  Israel is told that a higher amount would’ve been paid for more interesting content.  This triggers an idea in the skillful writer.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the profile of a woman who utilizes her talents, albeit in an illegal way, to make ends meet.  She begins by creatively forging letters by notable people like Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, and Noël Coward.  She then passes them off as if written in their voice, to autograph dealers around the country.  The film’s title comes from a passage in a forgery she writes by Dorothy Parker.  It’s clear that her abilities as a witty wordsmith, as well as a historian of these people, allowed her to convincingly pass these pieces off for a couple of years.  Of course, it caught up to her.  It must be an amusing irony that Lee Israel ultimately profited off of her crimes by writing this memoir about them.  Her book was adapted into this screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.  Given that, it’s not surprising that the movie’s tone is sympathetic.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is endlessly compelling.  Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) directs with a light touch.  As a personality, Lee Israel is a grouchy, curmudgeonly presence.  Yet her animosity towards people has a way of endearing herself to the audience as well.  An argument with a bookseller has her later pretending to be his neighbor.  She prank calls the guy to say that their apartment is on fire.  She has a deep love for her cat because a pet doesn’t let you down.  There are some humans that she can stomach.  Actress Dolly Wells portrays a bookshop owner with whom she strikes up a friendship.  She also has a very close friend.  He is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an aging gay dandy of questionable character. He becomes an accomplice in her dirty dealings.  Together these frequenters of bars form a duo of misfits united in an “us against the world” duo that is heartbreakingly poignant.  Lee is rather cold to Jack, and that’s before he makes a serious mistake that will have dire emotional consequences.  Yet these two need each other’s friendship if only to make life bearable.  It is their chemistry that elevates Can You Ever Forgive Me? from something very good into something pretty great.  I hope to hear the names of both McCarthy and Grant on Tuesday, January 22 when the Oscar nominations are announced.

11-05-18

Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on November 5, 2018 by Mark Hobin

bohemian_rhapsodySTARS3.5Never underestimate the power of music…or a great performance for that matter. Bohemian Rhapsody has both. The production is a biopic of the British rock band Queen focused mainly around the life of Freddie Mercury at the point they formed the group. The soundtrack features most of the band’s well-known hits. The inspiration for a few of the band’s signature songs is depicted. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” each receive little background stories. All of these vignettes are united by a truly mesmerizing performance. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar (now Tanzania). His introduction to the band, their subsequent stardom, and fractures within the band are all portrayed. Malek is truly extraordinary as the Queen frontman. He may not actually sing but he lip syncs so convincingly through his physical performance that you believe he is. He channels the legend and I never doubted the manifestation for a second.

Bohemian Rhapsody was a troubled production from the beginning.  It was announced in 2010. Originally set to star Sacha Baron Cohen, the picture went through development hell. The comedian and remaining members of Queen couldn’t agree on what type of picture they wanted to make. Brian May (lead guitar, vocals) and Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), are listed as executive producers. This probably explains why their characters get plenty of lines and bass guitar player John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) is basically an afterthought. Various directors were attached including Stephen Frears. Cohen exited and Rami Malek was ultimately cast. Tensions between the new star and director Bryan Singer led to Singer’s replacement near the end of principal photography with director Dexter Fletcher. Singer is still credited as sole director but Fletcher received an executive producer credit. Bohemian Rhapsody was a huge hit with audiences opening to a rather robust $50M on its opening weekend. Its success makes the negative press the film received, even sweeter.

Like most biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody takes liberties with people, dates, and events for dramatic effect. From my perspective, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan doesn’t subvert the salient details to an extent that negates the experience. Early reports that this would be a sugarcoated biopic were exaggerated. The fact that Freddie Mercury was suffering from AIDS is revealed as is his relationship with manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). I suppose every movie needs a villain and Prenter definitely fulfills that role here. The presentation feels a bit glib. He must have been a supportive guy for a while because he was close to the band for nearly a decade. Freddie rebuffs his advances in an early encounter but they seem to have this on and off again affair. The point at which their relationship went from professional to personal is ambiguous. In real life Prenter died from AIDS complications in 1991, the very same year Freddie Mercury passed, so Prenter can’t refute this portrayal. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) were not fond of the guy. Reportedly they weren’t pleased with his influence on Freddie and the changing musical direction of Queen. His villainy culminates with a tell-all TV interview.

There are moments in this saga that feel unfinished or unclear. When Freddie comes out to his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) as “bisexual”, she responds matter-of-factly with “I thought you were gay.” Then they move on to the next scene. That’s it? I wanted more detail. When did she come to this conclusion? Did she know that before they moved in together? If so, then why did she promise to wear his ring forever? They break up soon after this revelation, but they still remain friends. Growing frictions between Freddie and the band are not delineated with any real depth either. He throws a lavish celebration that has a carnival-like atmosphere. It’s extravagant but there’s nothing offensive about it. Yet the band members sitting around looking like a bunch of sticks in the mud. Apparently they were family men who didn’t like to party or flirt or do any of the typical things other rock stars did. Incidentally, it’s at this event that Freddie meets Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), one of the servers at the party. Jim would become his companion from 1985 until the end of his life.

Those seeking an outrageous tell-all R-rated depiction of Freddie Mercury’s rumored wild escapades are going to be disappointed. Instead, Bohemian Rhapsody is a more uplifting PG-13 rated biopic of the singer’s life. In that respect, it compares favorably to other music biopics like The Buddy Holly Story, La Bamba (Richie Valens), and What’s Love Got to Do With It (Tina Turner). It’s all about the music. “We will Rock You”, “We are the Champions”, “Somebody to Love” and of course the title track all make an appearance. Perhaps most surprising is the emotional weight of the song “Radio Ga-Ga”. I’ve always considered the song a throwaway ditty but sung here during the climax at Live Aid it is an audience-pleasing, sentimental high point. Live Aid was a concert held simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. I wasn’t physically there but like 1.9 billion other people across 150 nations, I watched the live broadcast on TV. This captures music’s ability to unite the world. That’s the joyous feeling you get as you leave the theater. Bohemian Rhapsody may wobble in parts, but it finishes strong and with touching resonance. Watch this film with your heart.

11-03-18