Archive for the Biography Category

Valerie

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Shorts with tags on May 2, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In the 1970s the definition of feminism was changing. The idea that a woman could reclaim her sexuality by exploiting it to her advantage was becoming a thing. Few women better embodied this ideal than Valerie Perrine. The actress was certainly comfortable in her skin. She was never afraid to flaunt raw, unbridled sensuality. This documentary short does not shy away from that reality.

Born in Texas, Perrine began her path to stardom as a Vegas showgirl. Early on, she was cleverly cast as stripper Honey Bruce in the 1974 biopic Lenny. It was a raw, credible performance. In fact, she was so memorable she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Later parts would also often rely on her physical assets. She was fully aware of this. However, she was much more than a voluptuous beauty. She gave authentically earthy performances in many movies and held her own alongside some of the biggest names of the decade. These include Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Jeff Bridges (The Last American Hero), Robert Redford (The Electric Horseman), and Jack Nicholson (The Border). I was a child in the 1970s. She will always be Miss Teschmacher in Superman and Superman II to me. She made the character iconic.

Valerie is the celebration of the life of a star. She is currently 78. Perrine would continue to act well after her 1970s and early 80s heyday, but would ultimately fade from the limelight. In a heartbreaking development, Perrine was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. The chronicle opens with her voice narrating how she ended up in the hospital. We see a daily struggle with illness. The film then flashes back to the beginning of her Hollywood career. The contrast between the past and the present can be jarring. Yet she consistently remains a vibrant and compelling personality.

Valerie is a complimentary account — occasionally excessively so. In archival footage, photos, and memorabilia, we are presented with a flattering homage. Interviews with celebrities including Jeff Bridges, Angie Dickinson, George Hamilton, Stacy Keach, Richard Donner, Loni Anderson, and David Arquette attest to a life lived on her own terms. What comes through is the humanity of a talent who understood her charms and utilized them to the fullest. I now understand what made this woman tick a little better than before. Director Stacey Souther (an actor in his own right) presents this intimate portrait as a friend. This warm and loving memoir is like hanging out with Valerie for 36 minutes. It was time well spent.

Valerie is streaming Tuesday, May 3 on Amazon, iTunes, AppleTV, YouTube, and Google Play. Available for pre-order on DVD through Amazon.

04-19-22

Lucy and Desi

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Documentary with tags on March 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The fascination with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is stronger than ever. Coming on the heels of Aaron Sorkin’s drama Being the Ricardos, which was released in December 2021, we now have this documentary about the duo. Lucy and Desi debuted on Amazon Prime Video on March 4. The documentary is one of the better things I’ve watched this year. I figured I should sing its satisfying praises.

Lucy and Desi is a record of how the two met, started their TV show, formed Desilu studios, and their eventual breakup. This is comedian Amy Poehler’s third directorial feature (Wine Country, Moxie) but her first documentary. It also includes a lot of archival footage which is pretty standard for these kinds of records. What elevates the profile is her access to previously unreleased audiotapes recorded by the couple. They occasionally narrate the corresponding video. We get a nice feel for their offscreen personalities. We are privy to the events behind the scenes while they were filming their sitcom. The innovations they introduced during their professional careers are lauded. Meanwhile, home movies shed light on their private life as well. This includes time spent with their kids.

I’m a huge fan of I Love Lucy. I’ve seen every episode to the point I can recite the dialogue from most of them. The TV program ranks up in my personal Top 10 of all time. As such, I’ve read a fair amount about her life and the series in general. There aren’t any revelations in this chronicle. People unaware of how integral Desi Arnaz was to the making of the sitcom may be surprised. Overall it’s a pretty conventional retelling of their story, but it’s thoughtful too. Fans will enjoy it especially because it highlights what made Lucille Ball such a revolutionary talent. Luminaries like Carol Burnett, Bette Midler, and Norman Lear wax rhapsodic over her impact on them. Lucy and Desi’s daughter Lucie Arnaz was an executive producer on Being the Ricardos and here she is an interviewee.

Lucy and Desi is a loving tribute. There’s overlap between the recent drama Being the Ricardos. Events like Lucille Ball’s pregnancy with Desi Arnaz Jr, accusations that she was a communist, and Desi Arnaz’s alleged affairs are all mentioned. However, where Aaron Sorkin’s biopic simply focused on one turbulent week in the making of their hit television show, this covers a much wider part of their lives. This is a varnished portrait. It promotes the two stars as TV legends and rightfully so. The narrative details their lives with the requisite ups and downs. Any knowledgeable fan will already know this stuff so the info isn’t earth-shattering, but it is entertaining. Sometimes the cinematic version of comfort food can really hit the spot.

03-06-2022

American Underdog

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on February 3, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Pride of the Yankees, Hoosiers, Miracle…in the genre of sports movies, they don’t get more inspirational than American Underdog. The biographical sports film is about National Football League quarterback Kurt Warner who became a superstar with the St. Louis Rams. How a decent, hardworking guy went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming NFL two-time MVP couldn’t be a more unbelievable fable if you created it out of whole cloth. That’s what makes this saga so captivating. Sometimes nice guys don’t finish last.

The account details an unlikely rise to the top. The future NFL Hall of Famer initially plays for the University of Northern Iowa. Kurt is a talented player, but he’s often sidelined on the bench because he defies his coach Terry Allen (Adam Baldwin). Kurt moves “outside the pocket” when the defense attacks. Following his fifth year of college, he goes undrafted in 1994. The Green Bay Packers cut him before the regular season. Then Jim Foster (Bruce McGill) offers him a position on the Iowa Barnstormers of the significantly smaller Arena Football League. Kurt would much rather play for the NFL, but he takes the job just to make ends meet. He would play for them for three seasons. Then he catches the attention of the St. Louis Rams in 1998. The rest is history.

At the heart of American Underdog is a portrait of the man himself. Actor Zachary Levi physically embodies the broad-shouldered, handsome athlete but with the genteel humility of a sweet good-natured fellow guided by an enduring faith in Jesus Christ. This is the sixth feature directed by the Erwin Brothers. Andrew and Jon have specialized in films influenced by their Christian beliefs (I Can Only Imagine). Yet this uplifting tale (based on Warner and Michael Silver’s book All Things Possible) is a universal one. It should appeal to anyone who simply enjoys a feel-good experience. I mean the title should clue you in. This is about someone who triumphs over the odds. The reliance on hope and optimism is de rigueur for sports biopics, but his path to the NFL is anything but predictable.

This tale is uniquely more about the man himself than what he accomplished on the football field. Oh, there’s plenty of gameplay action in the second half once he signs with the Rams. His interactions with head coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) are particularly supportive. However, his courtship of future wife Brenda Meoni (Anna Paquin) is the foundation of this chronicle. Brenda is a single mother with two kids — including Zack, who is legally blind. In one memorable scene, he walks three miles to her house just to get her number. He instantly bonds with her son in an impulsive but touching moment. Through it all, Kurt has an unfailing devotion to football but also the woman he loves guided by his strong beliefs. His affable charm is hard to resist and so is the movie.

12-28-21

Munich – The Edge of War

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 30, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Munich: The Edge of War is an intimate period piece. OK sure we’re dealing with countries on the brink of World War II but at heart, it’s a human drama about individuals. As such, the portrait employs lots of tight close-ups and conversations framed by a constantly moving hand-held camera. The technique is ostensibly employed to create a sense of urgency, but I got motion sickness from all the movement.

That objection is honestly the most critical complaint I have. I rather enjoyed this handsomely mounted political thriller. The chronicle is set in September 1938 over the four days of the Munich Agreement. For the uninformed — myself included before seeing the film — this was a settlement reached by Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy that ceded a portion of Czechoslovakia, (called the Sudetenland) to Germany. At the time, most of Europe celebrated the pact which was presented as a way to prevent a major conflict. Unfortunately, it was completely signed on Hitler’s terms. As history has shown, this so-called “agreement” was merely the very beginning of Hitler’s conquests.

The movie is set during the events of real history but it features two fictional characters. These are childhood friends who work in the government. Fresh-faced George MacKay portrays Englishman Hugh Legat with all the naivete his appearance can muster. He is the secretary of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (sympathetically portrayed by Jeremy Irons). Actor Jannis Niewöhner is Paul von Hartmann who works as a German translator in the Foreign Office in Berlin. Paul may hold strong nationalistic beliefs, but he is still part of the German resistance. Paul acquires a top-secret document and comes to realize Hitler has been underestimated. He’s just getting started and far more dangerous. Actor Ulrich Matthes presents the most emaciated version of the Führer I have ever seen. Although Matthes registers a flicker of madness behind the eyes. Paul challenges his friend Hugh to help stop this contract from being signed. The two become reluctant spies.

Munich is conveniently based on having the 20/20 hindsight of what would ultimately happen but it is a fascinating tale of “what if”. It’s an expertly crafted and well-acted saga with an adapted screenplay by Ben Power (The Hollow Crown TV series ) from Robert Harris’ novel. Interestingly, the view of Neville Chamberlain’s actions is a decidedly positive take that gave Britain and France more than a year to prepare for combat. The somewhat revisionist view frames his rather submissive lack of opposition as an overall plan for the greater good. This political procedural can drag occasionally. However, people who love historical dramas — particularly those about the events that led up to WWII — will find a lot to enjoy here.

01-28-22

Flee

Posted in Animation, Biography, Documentary, Drama with tags on January 25, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“What does the word home mean to you?” an inquisitor asks. “It’s someplace safe,” the subject responds. The interviewer is Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The man he’s talking with is 36-year-old Amin Nawabi, although that is an alias. A title card informs us “This is a true story.” However, “some names and locations have been altered in order to protect members of the cast.” Flee is the saga of a man born in Afghanistan who fled his native land to preserve his own life. It was a difficult journey, but he found sanctuary in Denmark as a refugee. Jonas and Amin met in the 1990s when they were teens. They have remained close friends ever since. This is Amin’s tale.

Amin is a now successful academic on the precipice of marriage. He lives a good life in Denmark though he hides a painful past. The sacrifices of his family weigh heavily on him. Here he publicly reveals his hidden trauma for the first time to anyone. That includes his partner. He begins 30 years prior. As a little boy, he enjoyed flying kites, listening to A-ha, and wearing his sister’s nightgowns in public. Jean-Claude Van Damme fascinates him. However, they weren’t all happy times. The Mujahideen seized the capital city of Kabul in 1992. His father was seen as a threat and was arrested by the communist government.

The family had to leave. Conditions in Afghanistan were simply too dangerous. Initially, Amin joined his brother, two sisters, and mother on a perilous expedition across countries. First a terrifying getaway to Moscow. Then Amin escapes to Estonia via corrupt human traffickers and winds up in prison. His brother Abbas makes arrangements to get him to Sweden. Amin ultimately finds a literal home in the Danish countryside with his fiancé Kasper. What makes the chronicle so compelling is the vivid recreation of a trek. Flee is a unique depiction in that it presents these recollections as an animated movie rated PG-13. Visually the drawings are simple but realistic and immersive. Occasional live-action newsreel footage of Kabul and Moscow are inserted throughout.

The intimate narrative vividly conveys Amin’s traumatic ordeal. One harrowing nightmare follows another. It is an experience that many refugees must endure before finding asylum in a new country. Its scope is impressive. Flee is a captivating portrait of self-preservation that has attracted widespread attention. Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau serve as executive producers. It has acquired unanimous acclaim from film festivals and critics winning numerous awards. As such it’s a potential Oscar contender for Best Animated Feature but as a factual account made in Denmark, it could also compete for Best International Feature and as Best Documentary. In that respect, it shares a kinship with the Israeli animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir which earned a nod for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. Will it be the first picture to make history with a nomination in all three categories? I’d love to see it.

12-20-22

Being the Ricardos

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on December 16, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I discovered the TV program I Love Lucy when I was 5. I’ve been hooked ever since. I used to watch it regularly when it was broadcast in reruns. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I saw every episode — many more than once. Then the DVDs were gradually released between 2003 and 2007. They afforded me the luxury to see the show whenever I felt like it. At some point, I had seen every single one at least ten times and classics like “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” or “Job Switching” on more occasions than I can even count. I’ve bought numerous books on the series and read extensively on the matter. It would be an understatement to say I adore I Love Lucy.

Being the Ricardos is about the creators and stars of that sitcom. Yet the focus is much more fixed. It’s centered on one turbulent week in the preparation of their hit television show. The account revolves around the 22nd entry of their first season, “Fred and Ethel Fight,” which was filmed on January 30, 1952. The episode itself is not particularly memorable, but it features Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons). The narrative compresses a variety of challenging developments into that narrow period. Issues include Lucille Ball’s announcement of her actual pregnancy, accusations that she was a communist, and Desi Arnaz’s alleged affairs. These all veritably happened, just not in the same week.

Being the Ricardos is an intriguing window into the production of their program. Most of the events depicted here occurred in different years. The biopic seeks to educate and entertain but stuffing so much in this cramped time frame can get a little chaotic. An assortment of time hops also includes recreations of two other installments: “Lucy Tells the Truth” and “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” Then flash-forwards depict actors portraying the writers in the present day reflecting back on their show documentary style. It’s a lot to absorb.

This is an intense study of the details in putting on a TV show. A heightened discussion about how the episode at hand should even begin is a bone of contention with the star. Ricky sneaks up behind Lucy as she sets the dining table to play a game of “Guess Who.” The scene doesn’t sit right with her. TV rarely mirrors real life. If your image of Lucy is that of a ditzy redhead, prepare to be shocked. Lucille Ball was one tough cookie. This presentation furthers the idea that she was a demanding woman in charge. She frequently spars with producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) in fighting for what she wants. The writing team of Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy) are also heavily featured as well.

The audience must have a willing suspension of disbelief. The performances are not transformative. I never forgot these were actors portraying Lucy and Desi. Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem neither look nor sound like their real-life counterparts. And that’s fine. It may have taken me roughly 30 minutes before I could get past this fact, but once I did, it’s pretty good. I will always favor an in-depth analysis of an individual’s persona in a biopic over a superficial impersonation. That’s what you’ll get here. Both ultimately rise to the challenge. Kidman has brief flashes where her mannerisms eerily channel the legend. The actors give life to Sorkin’s fascinating screenplay. His signature rapid-fire, extended monologues entertained me with an insider’s perspective. As such, this is a movie for aficionados of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, not fans of the comedienne. It’s an edgy portrait, not a loving one. Nicole Kidman embodies the relentlessly determined control freak behind the scenes. Sadly Kidman lacks the brilliant comedic timing that Ball had in front of the camera. This is an engrossing chronicle about one of, if not THE funniest sitcom ever made. The irony is that it’s a largely serious affair, oddly devoid of humor.

11-27-21

King Richard

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports on December 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You’d think a sports biopic about tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams would frame them as the stars. That’s what makes King Richard so radical. The chronicle centers on their father and how he raised them to be champions. But the surprises don’t stop there. This is an engaging portrait of a difficult, even irascible man. He can be downright aggravating. Fiercely controlling, his choices occasionally hinder their advancement in the tennis world. However, the love and devotion he holds for his daughters are never in doubt. He’s a flawed hero.

As the title would suggest, Richard Williams is the centerpiece. He is a self-taught coach with a 78-page blueprint for his daughter’s success. He and his wife have raised their daughters since birth to excel. Venus’ (Saniyya Sidney) early rise takes the spotlight in the 2nd half. Serena’s (Demi Singleton) talent is somewhat less conspicuous by comparison. We know that would change. The drama features another career-defining performance from Will Smith. He’s been acting for three decades. We know he’s a good actor, but it’s nice to be reminded. I haven’t seen him disappear into a role so convincingly since The Pursuit of Happyness where he also portrayed a dedicated father. He received an Oscar nomination for that part, and it’s all but a foregone conclusion he will receive another.

As you can appreciate, he is a demanding authoritarian — an overly protective father if you will. There’s an inherent understanding of the racial dynamics. He must be this way, although the script rarely makes an explicit point of it. It’s 1995 and 14-year-old Venus Williams is being interviewed shortly after she turns professional. She emanates determination over her next opponent. Venus affirms, “I know I can beat her.” The reporter is incredulous, taken aback by her brazen courage. “You say it so easily,” he presses, “why?” Richard promptly interrupts the conference. He doesn’t want his daughter’s confidence diminished. His angry outburst tells us so much. The confrontation happened exactly the same in real life. I’ve seen the original video.

If anyone can stand up to his strong temperament, it’s his wife Oracene Price. Actress Aunjanue Ellis embodies the woman that radiates steely resolve. Oracene — who goes by Brandy — is a force of nature herself. At least one passionate outburst unleashed on her husband comes from years of frustration. “I stay here because of my girls,” she attests. “I stay here because I answer to something higher than Richard Williams. Because if I was staying here for you, I would have been gone a long time ago.” The declaration is so powerful I thought, “There’s your Oscar clip.” Brandy is a captivating individual. She has three daughters from a previous marriage and is a talented trainer in her own right. Also worthy of mention is Jon Bernthal as coach Rick Macci. His sweetly comic personality lightens the narrative. He is amusing and understandably exasperated by Richard’s somewhat bullying behavior.

The story of two black girls from Compton, California who became legendary tennis icons is an anomaly so compelling it demands a movie, more than one. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) working from a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Zach Baylin, takes a specific section of their lives and details it brilliantly. The account is such a family-friendly flick, a wholesome audience-pleasing sentiment. King Richard entertains with fascinating characters and allows their mission to drive the feel-good narrative. It’s gratifying to see an uplifting — if simplified — idea promoted that hard work and perseverance pay off. Although I still contend that even if I practiced 24/7 during my teenaged life, I would have never achieved the level of athletic achievement that these girls did. Ah, but the story made me believe that I could.

11-2-21

Tick, Tick… Boom!

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

11-19-21

Spencer

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

11-09-21

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

09-19-21