Archive for the Biography Category

Fire of Love

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on February 1, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Katia and Maurice are a married couple who share a passion. They’re volcanologists from France. As you probably can deduce, that’s a scientist that studies volcanoes. The Kraffts are geologists that focus on their incendiary formation and explosive activity. They travel the world looking for the next eruption. The beauty of this documentary is twofold. (1) It profiles two idiosyncratic individuals who together risk their lives doing something they love. (2) It highlights some of the most awe-inspiring footage of active volcanoes I have ever seen. This is where the program excels.

Images and music artfully combine in this hypnotic record. Assembling the Kraffts’ archival material, director Sara Dosa (The Last Season) presents breathtaking closeups of fiery mountains and rivers of fire. This is a loving tribute to the pair who truly cherish each other and I’d speculate volcanoes even more. Given its somewhat cheesy title, you fully expect to hear Jody Reynolds’ 1958 rockabilly hit (later covered by The Gun Club) pop up somewhere. That tune never appears, but the soundtrack does include an original score by Nicolas Godin, half of the French duo Air. The group’s songs “Clouds Up” and “Casanova 70” also appear.

“Curiosity is stronger than fear.” Filmmaker / performance artist Miranda July provides the narration. Her words prepare us for the inevitable. The work of Katia and Maurice started in the late 1960s and abruptly ended in 1991. A pyroclastic flow on Japan’s Mount Unzen wiped them out, along with 41 others. Yet it’s apparent in every frame that they were fully aware of the danger in which they willingly placed themselves. Maurice mentions a desire to row a titanium canoe down a river of lava. He wasn’t kidding. Maurice never did that, but he and Katia do things that defy death many times over. At one point, they enter an active volcano site and walk on black lava. The magma oozes from the underground depths of the earth and hardens, but it still emits fire from the cracks. Anyone witnessing their startingly closeup video of blazing eruptions as their backdrop will be amazed. “How in the world did they shoot this?” is a question I asked myself repeatedly throughout the 94-minute runtime. I could’ve watched a feature twice in length. As such, the rewatchability quotient is exceptionally high.

Fire of Love is currently streaming on Disney+ and Hulu. The movie received a limited release (191 U.S. theaters) by National Geographic Films in July 2022. It will compete for Best Documentary Feature at the 95th Academy Awards on March 12.

01-29-23

She Said

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on December 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

She Said concerns Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times. The reporters broke the story that exposed film producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of abuse and sexual misconduct against women. The scandal was a watershed moment for Hollywood and ushered in the #MeToo movement. The conversation would not end with Weinstein. Their coverage was the impetus that reexamined sexual harassment and changed the fabric of the workplace forever.

The newspaper drama is part of a grand tradition. This is the latest addition to a category that includes All the President’s Men and Spotlight, but the film could learn a thing or two from those classics. Watching people hunt down the details of a story while waiting for cell phones to ring so they can interview people and subsequently type up their findings can be rather dull. Our interest in a work of cinema demands both great performances from actors and a crackerjack screenplay.

This news event could form the basis for a gripping movie. However, She Said is a matter-of-fact recap. How two women at the New York Times got victims to go on record to share what happened to them presents the basic facts. It’s a sensible by-the-numbers retelling of a newsworthy event. However, it isn’t particularly innovative or ambitious. I didn’t learn anything new. Nevertheless, Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan are compelling. I respect their craft.

However, the approach could’ve cut a lot deeper. Directed by Maria Schrader from a script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the account is adapted from the 2019 book of the same name by Twohey and Kantor. She Said draws attention to a sobering truth. The first documented case occurred in 1984. Harvey Weinstein’s behavior would go unchecked (some might even say subsidized) within the industry for over three decades. Over 80 women eventually accused Weinstein of such acts. The screenplay has plenty of condemnation toward Weinstein, but It fails to hold Hollywood accountable. Rape charges would finally be filed in 2018. He’s now serving a 23-year prison sentence, but he’s also facing up to 135 years behind bars if convicted on other charges,

This journalism procedural is an efficiently made celebration of how the truth came to light, but it isn’t incisive or revelatory. On the plus side, the narrative dutifully applauds the brave women who stepped forward and told their stories. Jennifer Ehle as Miramax employee Laura Madden and Samantha Morton as Zelda Perkins, Harvey Weinstein’s personal assistant, are the highlights. Ashley Judd even appears on screen as herself. It also celebrates Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who tirelessly worked to help make that happen. I’m encouraged that justice was served in this case and that a major Hollywood studio like Universal Pictures financed a movie about it.

She Said is currently playing in theaters, where it has earned $5.7 million since November 18. On December 6, it was made available to rent on digital platforms like Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Vudu.

12-08-22

The Fabelmans

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 29, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The most basic (and oft-repeated) piece of writing advice is “Write what you know.” When directors hear that, it translates to “make a movie about your childhood.” It seems to work. Woody Allen (Radio Days), Barry Levinson (Avalon), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), and Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) have all taken the advice to heart and delivered superior work. Now Steven Spielberg has entered the fold and created a beautifully realized portrait of his formative years.

The Fabelmans defies easy categorization. The chronicle of the director’s life from ages 7 to 18 features a screenplay with frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln, West Side Story). The narrative is basically a coming-of-age tale that begins with a memorable experience. Sammy Fabelman (played by Mateo Zoryan at first, then Gabriel LaBelle) falls in love with cinema after witnessing the spectacular train crash in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus drama (and Best Picture winner) The Greatest Show on Earth. The spectacle has such a profound impact on him that he re-creates it with his Lionel electric train set. Unfortunately, his numerous attempts break the toy. So his mom gives him a movie camera and suggests he record the event so he can watch it over and over.

It’s the perceived authenticity of these reminiscences that captivate the viewer. Seeing the depth of Sammy’s creativity and the admiration he incurs for his directorial efforts is so exciting. His appreciation for motion pictures develops with the early productions he helms. Sammy’s early actors include his sisters Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera). In one, they’re riding on a stagecoach. In another, he wraps the girls in toilet paper to be mummies for a horror picture. He directs a western while in the Boy Scouts for his photography merit badge. His abilities are growing more skillful and adept. Later, his war movie receives a warm reception from the entire troop and their families.

What commences as a chronicle documenting the seeds that inspired his passion for film morphs into a deeper portrait of his family. Life isn’t all smooth sailing. His film of a camping trip will expose a devastating truth. Spielberg has cast these personalities with an eye for charismatic people. Newcomer Gabriel LaBelle is a likable presence that suggests the director as a teen in temperament and looks. Michelle Williams as mother Mitzi has garnered significant praise for her performance. She is a kooky individual that demands to be the center center of attention. As a concert pianist, the clickety-clack of her fingernails can be heard when she plays the piano. This talent is sidelined to raise her children. Her decision to put Sammy, Reggie, and Natalie in the car and drive toward an oncoming tornado implies eccentricity verging on undiagnosed mental illness. In contrast, Paul Dano is his straight-laced father. Burt is a successful electrical engineer who hopes his son will follow in his dependable footsteps.

The social dynamic is particularly engaging around the dinner table. Here the clan eats off paper plates and uses plastic utensils on a disposable tablecloth. (Mitzi hates doing dishes). She cleans the table by grabbing the four corners of the covering in one fell swoop. His grandmother Hadassah is slightly annoyed but tolerates these shenanigans nonetheless. Jeannie Berlin stands out in that small part. Seth Rogen is his Uncle Bennie, who is really just his father’s best friend, and Judd Hirsh portrays his jaded Uncle Boris. He’s a black sheep who shows up unannounced and delivers his unvarnished view of Hollywood. Boris paints the industry as a struggle between art and family, and his rant is intense.

As with any cinematic depiction of one’s life, there’s an expected blend of fact and fiction. This is a “semi-autobiographical” story, so not everything rings true. However, it’s hard to tell what’s real and fake. Sammy grows up in an Orthodox Jewish family. He’s embarrassed by how their dark house stands out as an undecorated eyesore during the Christmas holidays. After moving from Phoenix to California with his family, he attends high school in an affluent Bay Area suburb. Tensions arise. Being Jewish and terrible at sports makes him the target of two bullies. Jocks Logan (Sam Rechner) and Chad (Oakes Fegley). The worlds of socialization and art collide when he is tapped to record the “Senior Ditch Day” at the beach as a fellow senior. His document makes an indelible impression on his peers, and one in particular. Despite his outsider status, he meets Monica Sherwood (Chloe East), who takes a liking to him. She is a Christian girl who tries to convert Sammy to accept Jesus as his savior. The methods she uses do strain credulity, but they are amusing. Oh, and at one point, a random aside details the day his mom comes home with a pet monkey.

Steven Spielberg lovingly reflects on the childhood that shaped him. The art of filmmaking and the complicated relationship between his parents intertwine in this fascinating saga. There’s no question that Spielberg is a master storyteller. The filmmaker has honed his craft since the early 1970s. Think of The Fabelmans as a gymnastics routine. The vignettes are like a series of leaps and turns. They seize the viewer’s focus like the choreography of impressment movements. Perhaps The Fabelmans most memorable and authentic moment arrives at the end with the meeting with a famous director. That scene truly sticks the landing.

11-23-22

The Good Nurse

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on November 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The good nurse is Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), a single mother working in the intensive care unit of a hospital. But the reason this feature exists is because of a bad nurse. The depiction is based on the real-life tale of Charles Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), who worked at ten healthcare facilities from 1988 to 2003. A series of mysterious deaths followed him. It turns out he was a serial killer who would later plead guilty to 29 murders. However, some investigators believe that number to be in the hundreds.

This saga recounts the developments that eventually led to his capture. In retrospect, it’s bizarre that Charles and Amy started as good friends. In this dramatization, they meet in 2002 at Parkfield Memorial Hospital. Charles is an experienced RN hired to help Amy work the night shifts. She confides in him, and he gives her emotional support. Things get strange when an elderly patient named Ana Martinez (Judith Delgado) unexpectedly dies under questionable circumstances. Amy and Charles were attending to her. The health center’s administrative board contacts the state police. When detectives Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) show up to investigate, hospital board risk manager Linda Garran (Kim Dickens) downplays the severity of the situation. Even Amy defends Charles …at first.

These true crime stories are often more shocking than fiction because they genuinely happened. That’s the part that shook me. It’s an unsettling portrait of a very disturbed man. Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne elevate the account with straightforward performances. Although what makes a monster like Charles Cullen tick remains an enigma. This is adapted from the 2014 book The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber. There’s a lot more to this tragedy. If you crave details after watching this, there’s a documentary: Capturing the Killer Nurse (also on Netflix). It gives more information, particularly on a U.S. healthcare system that allowed these crimes to continue for so long. It likewise highlights that Amy was instrumental in getting the evidence needed to put this murderer behind bars. The undeniable fact in both movies: Amy Loughren is a hero.

11-15-22

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Music with tags on November 9, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“Weird Al” Yankovic is nothing if not self-aware. “It’s odd to be like a footnote in musical history,” he opined in 2019. “Like you pick up a Kurt Cobain biography, and you’ll look in the index, and there I am.” Yankovic was referencing “Smells Like Nirvana,” which was his spoof of that band’s song “Smells Like Teen Spirit. His parodies of famous songs have sold millions, so some would argue he’s more than a footnote. “Eat It” and “White & Nerdy” were massive hits. His discography includes four gold albums and six platinum. He’s even earned five Grammy Awards. Some of the most celebrated artists of rock and roll can’t boast those statistics.

Yet given the comedy genre in which he works, “Weird Al” has always preferred jokes over great art, and that’s precisely the spirit in which this so-called memoir is presented. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a satire of the biopic genre. As such, it has more in common with This Is Spinal Tap or Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Even then, it falls far short of the high bar set by those films. For one thing, it would help if there was more than a kernel of truth. The events depicted here bear little resemblance to anything he actually did.

There is one laugh-out-loud sequence. It occurs about 30 minutes in. Radio broadcaster Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) takes “Weird Al” (Daniel Radcliffe) under his wing and offers him an opportunity for success. At his pool party, Demento introduces Al to various celebrities. It’s an incongruous gathering of eclectic individuals that includes Andy Warhol (Conan O’Brien), Tiny Tim (Demetri Martin), Pee Wee Herman (Jorma Taccone), Salvador Dali (Emo Philips), Divine (Nina West), Alice Cooper (Akiva Schaffer) and Gallagher (Paul F. Tompkins). Unconvinced of his talent, Wolfman Jack (Jack Black) dares him to come up with a new parody song right there on the spot. Someone shouts out, “Another One Bites the Dust” as a suggestion. Turns out it’s John Deacon (David Dastmalchian), the bassist for Queen. The fact that no one at the party has ever heard of him is a hoot.

The rest of the movie isn’t as inspired. The narrative follows the same formulaic beats of a music documentary but with all sorts of random feats the man never accomplished. His debut album goes quintuple platinum. He gains fans worldwide, including talk show host Oprah Winfrey (Quinta Brunson) and drug lord Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro). Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a mishmash of developments so far-fetched that this could have been fabricated around any celebrity. In an extended tangent, Al has a torrid affair with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood). Their relationship would make this a better biography about, say, Vanilla Ice — a singer that did, in fact, date Madonna. A kidnapping plot involving the “Material Girl” grows tiresome. The point is the whole thing is a complete joke. By the end, the chronicle descends into a Jim Morrison-esque fall from grace. It’s so stridently relentless in attempting to be funny…it isn’t. I give this movie the same response “Weird Al” offers after John Deacon invites Al to perform with Queen on stage at Live Aid: “Hard pass!”

11-05-22

Till

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on November 7, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Emmett Till was a Black teenager, abducted, tortured, and brutally murdered in 1955. A Chicago native, Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi. While shopping at a small grocery store there, he was accused of whistling at the proprietor, a white woman. Several days later, her husband and his half-brother kidnapped the youth in the middle of the night. They savagely beat and killed him. Emmett’s body was recovered in the Tallahatchie River.

Till details that tragedy. Yet it’s not focused on Emmet or the physical attack. Instead, director Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency), who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, has fashioned this historical record around the subsequent fight for justice spearheaded by Mamie Till. This is the portrait of a devastated mother who must contend with the murder of her son and figure out what to do next. As such, it is a fascinating drama that evokes genuine emotion from heart-wrenching events.

Any discussion of this film must begin with actress Danielle Deadwyler. She delivers a searing performance galvanized by that horrific slaying. I can’t fathom how she prepared to portray this woman. Her achievement is pure and honest. When first confronted with the sight of her dead son, she expresses a loss so unbearable it’s primal. Her manifestation of agony is profound. Later on, during a memorable scene in court, the camera fixates on her compelling visage in an unbroken shot while the defense attorney tries to disparage Emmett’s character. The rest of the cast — while solid — isn’t required to extract the same depth of despair. Whoopi Goldberg– the only bona fide celebrity in the ensemble — is an understated presence as Maime’s mother. Also worthy of mention is Jalyn Hall as her smiling, beaming 14-year-old son and Frankie Faison as Mamie’s supportive father.

Mamie Till is presented as an icon. When the account focuses on a mother’s grief for her son, the production shines. The exceptional costume and production design further elevate this document into the pantheon of movies on social justice. Less successful is when the saga adheres to the story beats you expect from a Hollywood production. It eventually climaxes as a courtroom drama. Anyone familiar with the well-documented outcome will not be surprised. Nevertheless, the movie wisely downplays the verdict and Till’s attackers and redirects focus on Mamie and her tenacity.

The tragedy of Emmett Till is profoundly depressing. It could have been even more harrowing. Till spares us a depiction of the lynching. Still, this is a hard film to watch. Mamie Till famously insisted that the casket containing his body be left open. The exhibition is vividly explicit in its shocking detail. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my boy,” she proclaimed. That fueled the civil rights movement. The chronicle has reframed her suffering as the spark that inspired a hero. Audiences willing to brave painful subject matter will be richly rewarded with Danielle Deadwyler’s performance. She brings this courageous woman to life.

11-03-22

Tár

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on October 26, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If an ordinary person — let’s say an American citizen — were asked to name a famous conductor, Leonard Bernstein would likely be the answer. Name a second, and they might struggle. Now ask for a female conductor, and you’d encounter a blank face. Orchestras can and do navigate their way through complex pieces of classical music without someone waving a baton in front of them. Yet the director of a classical performance remains a noble talent. Yes, they beat time by moving their hands up and down to the music, but they also select the score, interpret the piece, and prepare the musicians in rehearsal. Tár is a fictional profile of Lydia Tár, a captivating individual who has achieved excellence and renown in this field.

At its bare essence, Tár is the portrait of a woman, but that depiction is so thoroughly realized the film becomes a dazzling spectacle. She is an authoritarian, to be admired and hated. Watching Cate Blanchett inhabit this role is akin to an actress completely channeling a spirit. Lydia is, in fact, a protegee of Leonard Bernstein. She wields power over the Berlin Philharmonic like a massive colossus, controlling the orchestra literally and figuratively. Her angular visage, that broad forehead, and high cheekbones that converge to a pointed jawline are all the more emphasized. She is an assertive woman who barely acknowledges that she is female. Chilly, androgynous, and gifted — she is a force of nature, a talent that reached this influential position despite — or rather because of — a refusal to temper her opinion or behavior. This proves to be controversial as the story develops.

Tár is an account built upon the art of talking. It opens as she’s being interviewed onstage at Lincoln Center by a star-struck journalist, Adam Gopnik, culture writer for The New Yorker, playing himself. He rattles off her list of accomplishments that boast EGOT status – an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony. She has just written a memoir, “Tár on Tár,” and the public is hungry for more information. In a dialogue that makes no editing concessions to the rules of cinema, it feels like the full unedited interview from an actual TV show. Tar is relaxed but thoughtful as she pontificates on various topics. She bristles at the idea that women conductors be referred to as Maestra, the feminized form of Maestro. “They don’t call astronauts astronettes,” she offers as she confidently smiles at her own joke. That sets the tone as interactions with other people convey a multifaced personality.

The production highlights a highly eloquent screenplay. Actor/director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) has been attached to a plethora of projects over the past 16 years but hasn’t produced anything since Little Children in 2006. He writes and directs here. Occasionally his screenplay can feel a bit unwieldy and verbose. A meeting with Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), an investor and less accomplished conductor, goes on far too long. I lost the subject of their conversation at one point. However, more often than not, the dialogue is thrilling. It’s good to have Todd Field back, writing and directing again.

Tár is Cate Blanchett’s movie, but her dealings with other people elucidate her character. Lydia’s romantic partner is Sharon, but actress Nina Hoss is more than “the wife.” Sharon is First Violin, so she fully understands Lydia at work and home. They have a six-year-old adopted daughter named Petra (Mila Bogojevic), who accentuates Lydia’s protective mother instincts. Olga Metkina is the attractive young cellist (British-German musician Sophie Kauer) that captures Lydia’s attention in more ways than one. Then there’s her hard-working and long-suffering assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), waiting in the wings so she can one day be a conductor herself. Francesca keeps secrets and supports her boss at every turn…until she doesn’t. Things start to turn after Lydia, a guest lecturer at Juilliard, disagrees with a student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who dismisses the Western canon of people like Beethoven and Bach. Lydia rejects his evaluation of art based on identity politics, exhibiting bold confidence to express her opinion in an environment where people, wary of social media, often mince words. This confrontation, in a manipulated form, will return to haunt her.

To call Cate Blanchett, the best actress of her generation doesn’t seem like hyperbole at this point. An impressive filmography includes Elizabeth, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Lord of the Rings, The Aviator, Notes On A Scandal, I’m Not There, Blue Jasmine, Carol, and Thor: Ragnarok. Blanchett’s career may span genres and styles, but one thing holds. She elevates every production in which she appears. It seems crazy to say this of an actress with so many great performances, but Tár might be her most accomplished. She dominates every scene. Every so often, a performance is so mesmerizing, I can watch someone simply speak for 2 hours and 38 minutes, and I am enthralled. Cate Blanchett is that actress, and Tár is that movie.

10-13-22

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