Archive for the Biography Category

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

09-19-21

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

09-21-21

Val

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

08-09-21

Respect

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

08-17-21

The Courier

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dream Horse

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

06-08-21

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