Archive for the Biography Category

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on March 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The script is the single most important component of a film. We’re talking about the story and dialogue. So it’s particularly heartbreaking when an actor delivers a sensational performance from a screenplay that is seriously flawed. There’s no question that the heart of The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a stunning achievement by Andra Day as the jazz legend. Andra is an accomplished singer in her own right. She released her debut album in 2015. It was a modest success on the charts. She received 2 Grammy nominations for the album. Who knew she was also a gifted actress? Her ability to channel Bille Holiday is uncanny. She is the best thing about the picture

Like 2019’s Judy starring Renée Zellweger, this saga isn’t a full biopic. It just focuses on the last 12 years of Holiday’s life and in particular the controversy surrounding the song “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Holiday in 1939. The lyrics convey the horrors of a lynching. Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) subsequently targets Holiday for performing that tune. He’s a snarling mustache-twirling villain without depth or subtly — a hate-monger exploiting the “war on drugs” to promote his racist ideology. The movie depicts her as a civil rights hero.

Harry Anslinger sends a Black FBI agent named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to befriend Holiday. In this way, Anslinger hopes Fletcher will obtain information so he can make an arrest. Despite working for the government, it appears Jimmy Fletcher is conflicted, so he treats her a little nicer than most. Rhodes gives the 2nd best portrayal. That isn’t saying a lot since most of the remaining characters are poorly detailed — some like Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence) and Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) are inventions, made up of composites or in the case of Talulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), caricatures that distract from the main thrust of the drama.

Andra outshines a mediocre story. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks is mainly focused on the government’s obsession with her. It also recounts how predatory people exploited Holiday for money. Director Lee Daniels frequently relies on superficial montages sloppily inserted where dramatic insight should be. There is no joy unless Billie Holiday singing on stage. This is a woman dependent on heroin and alcohol. Utterly lacking is any enlightenment into her personality. Furthermore, the narrative doesn’t hold her accountable for her addiction. This is the portrait of a sad victim. It’s a very depressing movie. More focus on Holiday’s unparalleled talent would have been nice. The movie did inspire me to listen to Billie Holiday’s music again, so it ultimately had a positive effect on my own life.

02-26-21

Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on February 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A 1968 memo issued within the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation once stated that one of their goals was to “Prevent the RISE OF A ‘MESSIAH’ who could unify … the militant black nationalist movement.” The messiah of this title is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago. The Judas is William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a career criminal who had been masquerading as an FBI agent to steal cars because “a badge is scarier than a gun.” Genuine FBI operative Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) must have admired his ingenuity. After Mitchell apprehends the thief for grand theft auto and impersonating an FBI agent, he makes O’Neal an offer he cannot refuse. In lieu of serving jail time, O’Neal is extended an opportunity to infiltrate the Black Panthers and become an informant by reporting on their activities. He accepts.

There’s an interesting dichotomy at work here. Director Shaka King seeks to recontextualize the historical depiction of this Black Power organization by the US government. There was the political party created in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale that was a heavily armed group that relied on open-carry laws to launch neighborhood police patrols. The FBI considered them an ultra left-wing institution. This led to their designation as a “Black-nationalist hate group.” Then there’s the record presented here that portrays them as a hub of free social programs for the community. There’s breakfasts for children, health care clinics, and legal aid — all for people in need. Those activities makes them sound like they’re competing with Mother Theresa. Nevertheless, King doesn’t shy away from some of Fred Hampton’s more polemical speeches. In one intense moment, Hampton urges an audience “Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction. Kill some more pigs, get some more satisfaction. Kill ’em all and get complete satisfaction!”

Judas and the Black Messiah is an incredible fable anchored by two compelling performances. The one that first seizes focus and screams “Give me an Oscar!” comes from Daniel Kaluuya. That’s not to disparage his performance. He is bursting with fiery charisma as Fred Hampton. The black leader is such an incendiary presence that it is impossible not to take notice. It’s wholly believable that people would follow this man. His oratory skills are superlative when addressing a marginalized crowd, already disaffected by police brutality. He is the quintessential “angry young man” but he alternatively displays compassion and tenderness when interacting individually with people, particularly fellow member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) who would become his girlfriend. The picture successfully humanizes him as an individual.

What lingers in the mind well after you’ve finished watching is the life of one William O’Neal. Given this is a drama that is ostensibly about Fred Hampton, that U-turn is perhaps the most unexpected cinematic surprise of 2021 thus far. Some may label O’Neal, “the villain”. This is a lot more complex than that. The film handles his existence with humanity. Actor Lakeith Stanfield imbues the man with a benevolence that presents him like the heartbreaking figure in some Shakespearean tragedy. He emerges as the spotlight as well as a personality that bookends the chronicle. Portions of actual interviews with William O’Neal from the second part of the acclaimed documentary Eyes on the Prize, are included here. I would highly recommend you seek this documentary out if you are even remotely intrigued by what you see here.

If Daniel Kaluuya is the soul, then Lakeith Stanfield is the heart. You’d assume a messiah would be more important than Judas. I find it surprising that an account that has been largely promoted to be about Fred Hampton, ultimately evolves into a chronicle of his betrayer. When (yeah not IF but WHEN) Daniel Kaluuya gets an Oscar nomination for Best SUPPORTING Actor, it will highlight this fact as further proof. O’Neal’s life is indeed astonishing for the way he must come to terms with and then justify what he is doing. He is conflicted. Agent Roy Mitchell as Bill’s handler isn’t all bad either. He is shocked — at least initially — by some of the FBI’s lawless methods which include outright murder in the line of duty. As the saga unfolds Mitchell becomes far less sympathetic. The one element that is not nuanced is that of J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) performing under (what I hope is) pounds of pancake makeup applied to his pockmarked face . He is the clear-cut, hissable villain. Hoover is an absolute monster here that makes all previous incarnations of him seem saintly by comparison.

I’ll end my review with how the movie begins. Director King introduces his creation with the title card “Inspired by true events.” These disclaimers always irk me. They come across as carte blanche to make stuff up. Granted most, if not all, movies must use a certain amount of creative license. There are too many conversations where few people were actually in the room. There’s also the filmmaker’s point of view. That’s entirely fair. Whenever I see those ubiquitous retractions, it just makes me want to read up on the actual history. That is — when I am intrigued enough — and trust that these events are uniquely disturbing. Obviously, I am a film critic, not a historian so I am not here to fact-check the narrative. I am going to assess the entertainment value of the picture. King worked with screenwriter Will Berson and comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas to pen a tale that I found fascinating. In an interview, Kenny and Keith Lucas pitched the idea of a Fred Hampton biopic as “The Conformist meets The Departed.” That’s such a perfect description, I simply had to quote it. Similarly, Judas And The Black Messiah is a taut and exciting 1960s period thriller that compares favorably with those classics.

02-12-21

The Dig

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 31, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

You don’t know how badly I wanted to simply title my review: I DUG THE DIG. Aside from the fact that it’s a corny beginning, I had to convince myself that I loved it that much. I did appreciate the film, but “dig” is a slang word that seems to imply more admiration than I truly felt. In short, this is a perfectly fine film, but it didn’t wow me.

The Dig is one of those movies “inspired” by historical events. A 2007 novel by John Preston is the basis for this leisurely paced story. The 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo is the location where a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artifacts dating from around the 6th to 7th centuries were found. The owner of the land Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has hired Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the large burial mounds on the grounds of her estate. When he discovers an undisturbed 88-foot ship buried in the dirt, national experts take over. It becomes apparent that the site is a significant archaeological find. Edith is very protective of him and her property. She wants to make sure Basil gets credit for whatever he finds.

The drama is sort of an imagined idea of what transpired during their research . The narrative is curious because the account completely shifts the spotlight midway through from Edith and Basil to the marriage of Peggy (Lily James) and Stuart (Ben Chaplin). These are archeologists who have been called in to help out with the undertaking. It does return to the central duo by the end, but why the change in focus? It’s possible that screenwriter Moira Buffini felt there wasn’t enough excitement between Edith and Basil to sustain an entire picture. I liked their chemistry, but perhaps Buffini had run out of interactions between the two. Nevertheless, the first half is better than the second, so the pivot isn’t an improvement.

The production’s greatest asset is the beauty of the exploration itself. I like the details in their unearthing of various objects and the enthusiasm of their discovery. The cinematography is lovely since it’s a beautiful portrait to savor at a gentle pace. I’ll cite director of photography Mike Eley (Made in Italy, The White Crow) as his contribution is important. It’s an understated and relaxed tale, but I enjoyed the quiet simplicity of it. The Dig is a pleasant, if not deep, excavation of the period.

And there’s the pun.

01-29-21

Mank

Posted in Biography, Drama on December 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

About 40 minutes into Mank a mesmerizing conversation develops during a soiree. It’s a birthday party in San Simeon held in the honor of Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), the notable co-founder of MGM Studios. Powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) is throwing the fete. Mayer and Hearst are close chums in case that wasn’t evident. The guests are having a discussion. Besides those luminaries, producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), are also present among others. The debate is focused on politics. Specifically the current election for California governor between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam. The script is full of exposition . It’s extremely dense with words so there’s a lot to absorb, but the dialogue crackles. My favorite moment in the entire movie.

Mank has got to be the clumsiest title ever imposed on such an erudite work. My mind immediately goes to the low-budget science-fiction horror flick MANT! which was the schlocky B movie being promoted within the most delightful 1993 release Matinee. “MANT! Half Man, Half Ant – All Terror!” was the tagline. The “Mank” in David Fincher’s creation refers to screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. He wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane. At first, it appears the narrative will concern how Mankiewicz composed the script within the confines of the studio system. Maybe how he infamously butt heads with co-writer Orson Welles (Tom Burke). Nope. It is in reality an overarching tale about the politics of both Hollywood at the time and the influential executives behind the picture.

That perspective is somewhat interesting but not the chronicle I was expecting nor embraced. That earlier described party scene is such a wow because the discourse sparkles but it helps if you are well informed about the personalities involved. A key individual in attendance is Marion Davies portrayed by Amanda Seyfried. Here she reveals herself to be a smart girl disguised as a dumb blonde. The exchange doesn’t technically revolve around her per se, but she seizes our focus. Her presence energizes the room. In fact, every time she pops up, it invigorates the film. No wonder she’s already garnering serious Oscar buzz. Sadly she is merely a small cog in this machinery of people, places, and things. The account mainly revolves around the left-leaning Mankiewicz and his irritation with right-leaning 1930’s Hollywood. We are indeed provided many opportunities to sympathize with his point of view and his underdog status. Nonetheless, it doesn’t help that he’s also an alcoholic with a poor long-suffering wife (Tuppence Middleton). These qualities don’t exactly endear the audience to his sour character.

Mank is a labor of love. This is a clear tribute to one of the most critically acclaimed and influential pictures ever made. Like Citizen Kane, it features a spiraling saga in black and white and features dramatic use of close-up and lighting. For anyone who loves that masterpiece or behind the scenes dramas, this will hold a lot of allure. It’s also a tribute to the director’s late father Jack Fincher who wrote the screenplay. Jack Fincher most assuredly deserves an Oscar nomination for the conversation he penned at San Simeon alone. There’s another at a circus-themed banquet later. Where the first is a discussion, the second is more of a verbose monologue, or perhaps rant is a better term. The screenplay freely tosses names and events around so casually it’s almost impenetrable. I defy you to watch this without consulting Wikipedia. Film studies academics and people who worship Citizen Kane should be in heaven.

The extraordinary talents of the team behind the camera are the production’s greatest asset. The score (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross), cinematography (Erik Messerschmidt), production design (Donald Graham Burt), and costumes (Trish Summerville) are gobsmackingly good and worthy of any and all accolades they acquire. However, their efforts are in ultimately service of an obtuse experience. Personally, I enjoyed the insidery window into Hollywood, but that was after watching it twice so I could fully comprehend the convoluted machinations. The first viewing felt like homework. The second time was more enjoyable. In the end, Mank is a movie that is easy to admire but hard to love.

12-04-20

Ammonite

Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance on November 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Let me just begin by saying that if Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are starring in a movie together, I’m already on board. The two are among the best actresses of our time. I am an avowed fan. Given my predisposition to appreciate the talent involved, you’d think I would be awarding Ammonite at least four stars. Then I saw it. I struggled to maintain even a modicum of interest in this story. Precious little happens.

Ammonite is loosely based on the real Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), an acclaimed paleontologist whose explorations in the Jurassic marine fossil beds along the Southern English coastline yielded an abundance of scientific finds. Ammonites were among the fossils she discovered. Yet this is not about her glory days as a researcher but rather pure conjecture as to how she spent her later life. She currently supports both herself and her dying mother (Gemma Jones) by selling common fossils to wealthy tourists. Things get — shall we say — interesting when Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives and entrusts his sickly and fragile wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), to Mary’s care. Mary begrudgingly accepts because the pay is good. Although the two women have a somewhat antagonistic relationship at first, they develop a deep bond. They amble about looking for fossils and ever so slowly fall in love.

This is the kind of experience that inspires earnest critics to consult a thesaurus. One must interestingly describe an account with a more creative word than “boring.” “Inert” is a favorite of mine. The definition includes “chemically inactive” which perfectly describes the scientific reaction this presentation had on my physical state. “Lethargic” and “listless” work too. Any comparable vocabulary word would effectively convey this saga — any except perhaps “impotent” due to its sexual connotation. This does in fact feature two sex scenes, one explicit. Yes, I realize I’ve now inadvertently recommended this to some of you. The lovemaking incongruously pops up in such direct contrast to the rest of the tepid tale. Maybe it’s not so shocking, however. Their seemingly schizophrenic personalities are rooted in an idiomatic cliché: “A lady in the streets and freak in the sheets.”

19th-century lesbians find love by the Ocean. The subject, time, and locale have all converged to be very hot in the art house circuit as of late. The well-reviewed Portrait of a Lady on Fire got a widespread U.S. theatrical release back in February. Meanwhile, Ammonite has likewise garnered critical acclaim. I won’t be adding my praise to the heap. It’s not for lack of trying. Kate and Saoirse do their capable best to imbue these characters with humanity. The actors radiate sincerity, heart, and pathos. But their thespian skill can only carry this chronicle so far. Ammonite is the follow up to British director Francis Lee’s feature debut, God’s Own Country. I’m not faulting Ammonite for its similarities to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s is a thoroughly dreary film judged on its own terms — visually drab and narratively aloof. Quite bewildering that the characteristics of both works are so similar, though. Comparisons are inevitable. If you haven’t seen either and the subject interests you, the choice is blazingly clear.

11-19-20

Hamilton

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music, Musical on July 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

hamilton (1)STARS4For those living in a cave, Hamilton is a musical about Alexander Hamilton who was one of the founding fathers of the United States.  The play is known for a couple of daring distinctions.  It stars mostly non-white actors and incorporates hip hop, R&B, pop, and soul into “a story about America then, as told by America now.”  The stage production may make creative selections in casting but it still uplifts what is known as the American Dream for a group of men who were immigrants to a new land.

No musical has had a greater cultural impact on Broadway in the last decade.  Over the past 5 years, shows have consistently sold out and when you could buy a ticket they were prohibitively expensive.  This is a filmed version of the phenomenon that debuted in 2015.  There’s no trying to hide the theatricality of it all which makes it is a rare treat for audiences.  At this point, it’s unclear when theater will resume.  Fans can now witness the visual representation of the work they know by heart.  This was accomplished utilizing the original cast.  Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda inhabits the starring role and Leslie Odom Jr. portrays Aaron Burr.  There’s also Daveed Diggs as both the Marquis de Lafayette & Thomas Jefferson, Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, and Jonathan Groff as King George.  Those are the featured actors.  There are many other talented performers as well.  I wish I could list them all.

The play received a record 16 Tony nominations and won 11 including Best Musical in 2016.  This is a chance to see the magnificent achievements of Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Renée Elise Goldsberry for which they all won.  They may not be conventional choices for those roles, but they are extremely captivating.  Furthermore, the performances from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Jonathan Groff, and Christopher Jackson were all nominated.  The cast is indeed outstanding.  You can literally see the spit fly when Groff as King George III enunciates his lines and music.  It may be surprising to realize that the rest of the cast actually outshines Miranda in both singing and acting.  One scene where he’s required to cry feel particularly forced.  I saw this performed when the national tour came to San Francisco.  An actor named Julius Thomas III played the titular role and he was incredible.  However, Lin-Manuel Miranda is still a genius for writing the music and screenplay.  This is a work of art.  (He received Tonys for the Book and Original Score.)

Hamilton, the 2020 film of the Broadway experience, is much more than simply a filmed stage play.  Director Thomas Kail edited from 3 shows (2 with an audience, one without) during June 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in Midtown Manhattan.  This all from the finest seat in the house.  This is a view better than any theater patron could have ever imagined.  Kail knows when to pull back and afford the presentation a broad overview and when to zoom in and be intimate.  He utilizes close-ups, Steadicam, crane, and dolly shots to give the viewer the very best perspective possible.  It is an impressive achievement and most definitely a perfect manifestation of Lin-Manuel’s artistic vision.  A filmmaker must make many critical decisions when presenting a live performance.  Director Kail’s craft elevates the spectacle to maximum effect.  There’s something undeniably special about being physically present in the theater.  Nevertheless, this is the optimal way to see Hamilton for most people.  Few records of this type have ever felt so immediate, vibrant, and vital.

P.S. It’s hard to catch all of the crucial lyrics of the songs and rap battles as they’re delivered. Turn on closed captioning for subtitles that will make your experience even better!

07-03-20

Shirley

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on July 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shirleySTARS2It’s now considered a classic, but when Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery was originally published in the New Yorker back in 1948 it was extremely controversial. Readers called it “outrageous,” “gruesome,” and “utterly pointless”. Most people were confused by the fable. In a similar fashion, this movie appears to seek the same reaction from viewers.  Shirley unfolds like one of her tales.

Shirley is a completely fictionalized biography of the acclaimed American writer.  Shirley Jackson was an actual person.  The author is well known for horror and mystery.  The Lottery became one of the most frequently anthologized short stories in English.  It’s essentially mandatory reading in the U.S. curriculum so chances are you were forced to read it in school.  That’s not a dig. I agree it’s an effective composition that evokes dread, but * full disclosure * my introduction to it was involuntary.   Another work of hers includes The Haunting of Hill House which has been adapted to film in both 1963 and again in 1999.

Shirley, however, isn’t really about anything that concerns those contributions.  Actually, the facts of this story are a humorous detail.  The movie, directed by Josephine Decker, is adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell.  In what I assume was an innovative attempt to make the career of Shirley Jackson more interesting, her life and that of her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) has been reimagined.  Jackson is suffering from depression, unable to write.  She rarely leaves her bedroom.  Stanley invites a couple — Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) — to come to live with them in North Bennington to help out.  This situation inspires Jackson to write a book.  There is some validity.  Shirley was a married author who released a novel called Hangsaman.  The screenplay fictitiously envisions that piece was inspired by this arrangement.  However, the rest of the narrative including the very existence of this couple is made up.  I’m all for creative license, but why in this case?  Was the truth even more dreary?  If the writers had been a slave to authenticity perhaps there might be some excuse for the banality of this tale. Yet this is a complete fabrication where the writer could have created any number of scenarios in which to delight the audience.  The fabrication they chose didn’t do it for me.

Shirley is such a bizarre film because it seems to eschew the basic qualities that make a captivating picture.  The central protagonist isn’t likable, it moves at a snail’s pace and nothing particularly exciting happens.  Elisabeth Moss conspicuously goes the actorly route by sporting unkempt hair and a pair of unflattering spectacles.  How closely her behavior matches the real author is not something I am qualified to review.   I know what I find entertaining, however, and this ain’t it.  I’ll concede that Moss is good.  She perfectly affects a decidedly unique personality so her achievement is effective on that level.  A devotee of the author could easily imagine that the actual woman might be a dark person.  However, in this portrait, she isn’t a subject that you’d want to construct an entire production around.

An amusing addendum.  I recognize that Shirley Jackson’s most famous work was originally published in the New Yorker in 1948.  That esteemed magazine was a pioneer in giving the author significant attention.  The periodical could well be considered her very first fan.  That “weekly” publication (47 times annually) still exists and continues to review films as well.  Their numerical assessment of this movie?  40/100 according to Metacritic.com.  Ouch! And I thought I was being harsh.

06-09-20

Bad Education

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on May 12, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_educationSTARS4You wouldn’t think a movie whose plot could easily be summarized as “The Bad Superintendent” would be a compelling saga but it is.  Based on the 2004 New York magazine article by Robert Kolker with the aforementioned title, Bad Education is a true-life tale about one Frank Tassone.  This release may have debuted April 25 on HBO but it would’ve made perfect sense to release it during awards season in a theater.  This is indeed one of the best films of the year.  Yeah, I know.  There’s hasn’t been much competition this year, but hear me out.

How could the embezzlement of $11.2 million from a public school — the largest in U.S. History — even happen?  It is the unbelievable foundation for a fascinating film.  Credit a charismatic and talented cast for bringing this story to fruition.  Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, a popular and successful superintendent of the Roslyn District in the wealthy enclave of Nassau County, New York.  Roslyn High School became one of the top ten best public institutions in national rankings.  That kind of success creates power.  Jackman is completely believable as someone who uses his own eloquence and charm to dupe gullible staff members and parents.  That includes Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) a much too trusting school board president.  The fact that Frank held a doctorate from Columbia University probably didn’t hurt either.

Frank Tassone didn’t act alone.  The scandal was first discovered in 2002 when Roslyn officials initially assumed that it was Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) who had “only” embezzled $250,000.  Her actual sum later revealed to be $4.3 million.  Pamela was the assistant superintendent and business administrator.  She got her niece (Annaleigh Ashford) and son (Jimmy Tatro) involved as well.  She was Frank’s close confidant and partner-in-crime.  As reported in the original article: “If Tassone was the proud father of the Roslyn family, Pam Gluckin was the fun-loving aunt.”  Nevertheless, the woman is fairly obstinate and headstrong.   Not likable but at least fiercely loyal to Frank.  As embodied by Allison Janney, the chronicle paints a picture of two like-minded individuals united in their quest for more money.  Unfortunately for Pam, Frank immediately threw her under the bus, forcing her to resign and subsequently causing her to lose her license.

Deception was a way of life for this reprehensible man and it ran deep into every facet of his being — both personally and professionally.  Frank appears to be a virtuous paragon of the community.  He eats lunch with the students and attends a book club with the parents.  He still even keeps a photo on his desk of his late wife who passed on in 1973.  It’s unclear whether she ever even existed.  However, he was definitely in a longtime relationship with domestic partner Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella).  They had been living together for many years in a tawny Park Avenue apartment.  Frank was also involved in an affair with Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal), a lover in Las Vegas.  Tom was unaware Frank kept a picture of his wife on his desk or his adultery.

The star of the account is the wrongdoer, not the champion that brought him to justice.  However, this could be looked upon as one of those great films about journalism like All the President’s Men.  The impressive difference is that the reporter was a bright, determined correspondent at the high school’s newspaper — Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan).  She uncovered school administrators had been embezzling taxpayer money.  It’s a surprising twist that the corruption was first uncovered by one of Frank’s pupils.  That gives this account an extra-added dimension that makes it even more appealing.  Rachel first reported the story in the school’s humble journal scooping The New York Times and every other periodical of note.  She is rightfully portrayed as a hero.  Her zealous pursuit of the truth bested all of her supposedly more established peers.

Sometimes style is just as important as content.  The dirty dealings are gripping but director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) along with cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) presents the subject matter with such artistic elan.  The cover-up of fraud could have been dry material but it’s presented with a healthy dose of levity.  Of course, there’s nothing funny about what happened.  Yet there are amusing details.  The reception Frank receives from the student body upon coming to work after the article is published is a memorable scene.  He is a preening peacock who tried to save his own — allegedly face-lifted — skin.  This is a person more concerned with his superficial appearance on the outside than with the quality of his character on the inside.  Bad Education is a portrait of a fallen individual with nefarious impulses that got exactly what he deserved.  The fact that his comeuppance was served by an undergraduate only makes the account all the more fascinating.  Occasionally reality is stranger — and more satisfying — than fiction.

05-09-20

True History of the Kelly Gang

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on May 6, 2020 by Mark Hobin

true_history_of_the_kelly_gang_ver3STARS2True History of the Kelly Gang begins with some text that reads: “Nothing you’re about to see is true.”  Yeah, so the title is made irrelevant within the first minute.  This western is based upon Peter Carey’s critically acclaimed 2000 novel about the very real Ned Kelly and his band of followers.  The admittedly honest warning ostensibly gives the author carte blanche to fabricate whatever he chooses.  I’m no expert on the biography of this man, but I was aware that certain facts were being distorted and other events completely invented.  I try not to fault movies for this.  I take even so-called “factual” accounts with a grain of salt, so I was ready to evaluate the drama’s ability to simply tell a compelling story. Unfortunately, even this imaginary memoir can only entertain in fits and starts.

I figure I should start with one undisputed fact about the man. “Ned Kelly (December 1854 – 11 November 1880) was an Australian bushranger, outlaw, gang leader and convicted police murderer.” — Wikipedia.  Actor George MacKay (Captain Fantastic, 1917) conveys the role with impressive intensity.  However, he doesn’t appear until later.  It’s in the beginning when we are introduced to Ned as a child where this saga truly captivates.  Special acknowledgment to casting directors Nikki Barrett and Des Hamilton for finding newcomer Orlando Schwerdt.  The talented actor gives the outlaw life as a youngster.  Schwerdt suggests his older counterpart in both appearance and temperament.  It’s here where we begin to understand Ned’s environment.  His ex-con father Red Kelly (Gentle Ben Corbett ) dies in prison after being jailed for poaching.  Mother Ellen (Essie Davis) succumbs to granting sexual favors to provide for her family.  The best scenes feature little Ned talking with a portly and grizzled Harry Power (Russell Crowe) a bushranger who becomes sort of a father figure to the boy.

Ned Kelly is one of those mythical outlaws like Jesse James or Billy the Kid — both lionized and vilified at various points.  Australia in the 19th century was a rough country populated by brutal individuals.  The screenplay upholds the idea that violence was ubiquitous, but it doesn’t give us anyone to root for.  George MacKay embodies the central personality as a product of his surroundings.  He exudes raw physicality, but he’s a man without a strong moral compass.  I’ll give the account some credit in that it doesn’t try to glorify a violent, unhinged criminal as some mythic hero.  However, this is entertainment and so it would be nice to have someone to champion.  Even the seemingly charming but corrupt Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) is a detestable heel of a man.

Given the bleak atmosphere, I suspect adapting Peter Carey’s book would test any filmmaker.  The novel inserts random bits of fantasy that the script dutifully recreates.  Most memorably is the Sons of Sieve, a relentless army descended from Irish rebels who wear dresses to frighten their oppressors.  Wearing evening gowns into battle is to make their opponents think they are mad, but it introduces a lot of confusion (and questions) for the audience as well.  Such developments are symptomatic of the entire production.  Director Justin Kurzel’s movies (The Snowtown Murders, Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) have been polarizing and this one is no different.  The quest to make a great Ned Kelly film has been ongoing ever since the release of the 1906 silent The Story of the Kelly Gang.  There have been so many others including portrayals in 1970 and 2003 by Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger respectively.  This is the 10th version.  Sadly the search continues.

Bombshell

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bombshellSTARS2.5I wasn’t planning to review Bombshell.  I saw it weeks ago.  When it went wide on December 20, it did rather poorly at the box office.  Apparently, a drama about sexual harassment wasn’t what people wanted to see right before Christmas.  Go figure.  I assumed it would be forgotten.  Then on Monday, January 13, it was unduly rewarded with three Oscar nominations.  Seven weeks later it’s still hanging on for dear life in theaters.

Bombshell is based on the accounts of several women at Fox News who decided to bring a case against chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.  It features a triumvirate of star power in the form of three actresses.  Charlize Theron portrays the very real news anchor Megyn Kelly and Margot Robbie plays a fictional associate producer named Kayla Pospisil – a character based on a composite of witnesses.  Pospisil’s uncomfortable private meeting with Roger Ailes is the acting reel highlight of the entire picture.  Both actresses garnered regrettable Oscar nods.  Either slot could’ve been filled by a host of far more deserving candidates: Awkwafina, Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lopez, Zhao Shuzhen…I could go on.  Ironically the Academy actually failed to honor the best performance in the production.  That would be Nicole Kidman as “Fox & Friends” co-host Gretchen Carlson.  Her no-nonsense portrayal is the heart of this film that sets everything in motion.

I will defend one of Bombshell‘s nominations to the hilt, however.  The MVP is makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji who won an Academy Award for transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for The Darkest Hour.  He’s responsible for the uncanny physical modifications of this production too.  John Lithgow plays Roger Ailes under pounds of old age fat makeup.  Charlize Theron, in particular, looks eerily like Megyn Kelly.  She is changed but in an intangible way.  You don’t realize her subtle alteration is due to makeup.

Bombshell is a moderately captivating piece of entertainment.  Nevertheless, you won’t feel you’ve learned anything new or that the subject has been explored with even a modicum of depth.  It’s is a slick movie with no teeth.  This story deserved a deeper and more intelligent handling.   This is directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) and written by Charles Randolph who was a co-writer on The Big Short.  The atmosphere here has that same comedic style — giving you details at a snappy pace but without the complexity that the subject demands.  The tone is flippant and irreverent.  Fans of Fox News won’t enjoy being mocked and people seeking a hard-hitting takedown aren’t going to feel any satisfaction either.  Just who exactly is the audience for this movie?

12-15-19