Even the Queen of Soul herself can be enhanced by a judicious editor, and Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic Respect (C) would have been improved if the filmmakers had commenced to condense. Instead the film takes a fairly circuitous journey in the telling of the songstress’ life and gives cursory treatment to some significant incidents of trauma she experiences as both a child and adult. Jennifer Hudson’s singing is sublime, but there’s a hollowness to the character and portrayal, slighted and undermined by unfocused writing and narrative. Forest Whitaker and Marlon Wayans also have rather thankless roles as the controlling men in the musician’s life. There’s also a relative paucity of musical sequences, which is disappointing given the film’s ample duration. After a rather absorbing first hour, the film doesn’t trust its most creative instincts and instead resorts to paint-by-numbers behind-the-music conventions for nearly 90 more minutes. The movie imparts lots of great data points about why Aretha Franklin was a trailblazer, but Tommy’s film largely misses the mark in taking viewers beneath the surface of the legend.
In a film filled with the oft-sung promise of showing “All of Me,” a meandering narrative fails to do justice to a legendary chanteuse. Newcomer actress Andra Day’s breakthrough success in the title role is inversely proportional to the failure of storytelling in Lee Daniels’ The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (D). In the 1940s, Holiday is targeted by the government in an effort to racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” This premise is stretched into a misbegotten biopic that rarely finds its focus. Daniels is a director who doesn’t shy away from dark psycho-sexual, violent and drug-induced depravity; but his penchant for wallowing in the worst impulses of his subject’s life and times simply punishes his subject and audience. Trapped in this very bad movie is a “star is born” level performance by Day, a raw and honest portrait brilliantly acted and sung. She brings fearless vocal chops and searing screen presence to the occasion and is met with a zigzagging creative vision that consistently shortchanges her committed work. In breathing life into a short and tragic character, Day stands on the shoulders of giants Diana Ross and Audra McDonald who have portrayed the singer before and compares favorably with a low-key freshness. Regrettably, an unfocused and unpleasant narrative, an often dimly lit parade of loosely connected episodes, and a chaotic tone adds up to a sleepy, sloppy slog that keeps its central character at a distance. Classic jazz music and sometimes lovely production design and costumes mask a truly confused production. The men in the film, Garrett Hedlund as a one-note federal agent and Trevante Rhodes as a complex love interest, are mediocre in underwritten roles. Didn’t we just see other better films about sting operations to thwart racial progress and period pieces about making music against a backdrop of social upheaval? Expect accolades for the new Lady Day and little else about this tedious film.
James Mangold’s ‘60s-set Ford v Ferrari (A) is a triumph, precision tuned with grit and grace and a combination of spectacular acting and “how did they do that?” practical action effects. Matt Damon and Christian Bale punch up everything fueling their winning screen personalities as the real-life racing team tilting at windmills to help America’s iconic automaker gain a shot at victory against Italian racers in the rigorous 24 hours of the Petit Le Mans. Mangold accomplishes a magnificent feat for historical drama by finding surprises around every turn. The film features an excellent ensemble, a cracking screenplay and stunning art direction and should please those who and aren’t typically enamored by car chase sequences. Damon’s character’s genuine swagger and boldness against the odds and Bale’s imaginative ingenuity plus a tender subplot with his family balance the film and anchor its action. Some of the best moments evoke the sheer wonder of boys and their toys as the central duo wrestles – sometimes literally – with the Herculean task they’re undertaking. It’s a tribute to friendship and teamwork and breaking out of conventions. The film is high-concept when it needs to be but possesses enough nuance to temper its ambitions. It’s a sterling entry into the American cinematic canon and deserves to be feted as year-end accolades are awarded.
There’s no place like home on a stage as a fantasy respite from a troubled life. Rupert Goold’s Judy (B) is the anticipated biopic with Renée Zellweger playing actress/ songstress Judy Garland in the fading fog of a salvage effort for money and maternal rights while in residency at a London concert hall. The story is slight, and the supporting characters make very little impression, but “Judy via Z” is a brass band of a performance. Ms. Zellweger finds the soaring voice (literally) and stirring humanity in a tragic real-life legend gone too soon. Through the haze of booze and pills, under puckered makeup and vice-grip hair and in poignant backlot flashbacks of being a controlled child performer in the Hollywood Studio System, there’s a stunning character portrait here. Goold conjures warm nostalgia amidst the melancholy and even captures some witty moments of acerbic humor. The music numbers don’t quite achieve the pulse of the moments in the margins, but you won’t want to miss a trip over the bittersweet rainbow with this talented woman of incomparable smarts, heart and courage.
Adam McKay’s genre-hopping Vice (B) is a distant cousin to Oliver Stone’s similarly dark comedic Natural Born Killers, admirable for creative storytelling about issues ripped out of the headlines but a bit confounding in what it’s intending to explore about its caricatures. Christian Bale is as good as you’ve heard brilliantly inhabiting the enigmatic role of Dick Cheney at various points in his life; he’s best in his quietest moments utterly lacking in expected reactions (his multiple heart attacks are treated like an occasional case of the hiccups). Amy Adams is magnificent as his deeply humanizing wife Lynn; she’s in fact his beating heart and just as ruthless. Many others in the ensemble simply feel like stunt casting, although Sam Rockwell does indeed make a spiffy W. The plot largely explores the build-up of the case for unilateral presidential (and strong vice presidential) authority and for the Iraq War. McKay so blissfully plays with the conventions of cinema – never trust a closing credit scroll or that a sequence won’t show up in iambic pentameter – that he often loses track of his central themes. In the film’s straight down the barrel of a shotgun portrayal of Wyoming’s famous son who stays pretty resolute in his principles and doesn’t care if you like him or not for it, you can find traces of character to please both sides of the aisle. But largely it’s a blistering assessment of power and an indictment of what the Cheney/Bush (or was it the other way around?) administration did with said power when they had it. There wasn’t a big record to clear up here, and the film doesn’t attempt to rose color it.
Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex (B) takes a page out of the Spielberg Lincoln playbook by telling the story of a pivotal player in American life through the lens of a single subplot that succinctly illuminates an individual’s singular belief system. In this new movie, that person is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (also chronicled in an awesome recent documentary RBG); and she’s splendidly embodied by Felicity Jones, playing the part with a quiet ferocity. Opposite a game Armie Hammer as her supportive lawyer husband and opposite old-fashioned adversaries played by the likes of Sam Waterston, Jones’s Ginsburg gets a lovely pedestal on which to shine. She’s most rousing in the moments in the margins, like when she notices she’s being fetishized by a make job interviewer or when she realizes her teen daughter has inherited her stubbornness. Her public performances lack some of their intended punch, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the case setting her destiny in action. The filmmakers were shrewd to choose a rather cut and dry example of discrimination on which to base the film’s central narrative; there were certainly pricklier scenarios they could have spotlighted which would have challenged the director and audience more. The storytelling is a bit predictable but still very lovingly rendered, and it’s a thrilling showcase of both actress and subject. In these times, there can hardly be enough films like this.
If you’ve self-selected as curious about Bryan Singer’s Queen rock and roll biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (B), you will undoubtedly find yourself floating around in ecstasy at how the troubled production turned out. A star is reborn onscreen and his Gaga is radio ready as Rami Malek fully inhabits the role of flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury. This “behind the music” style melodrama is too often color by numbers, but Malek – a power ballad powerhouse in every frame – helps the film transcend the limitations of the form and, well, break free. The story dispenses with a series of greatest hits moments such as band origin story, early studio time, world tours and setbacks and is equally enjoyable in moments of grandeur and intimacy. Told with a lack of sentimentality and with pleasurable details and detours, the film strips down myths and legends and aptly showcases how some of the best songs surfaced. It’s fun to see how some of the zanier tunes emerged and how on trend this unconventional band was during its brief life as a quartet of outcasts. There are a few music tracks such as “Who Wants to Live Forever?” and “Another One Bites the Dust” which take on added poignancy given Mercury’s struggles with relationships and fading health. By the time the film culminates in a reenactment of the band’s famous Live Aid reunion performance, the audience is bought in completely. The ensemble is solid with no extraordinary standouts except Malek who transforms body and voice and should emerge an awards season champion. Malek’s Freddie is certainly somebody to love in a surprisingly deft crowd pleaser.
Damien Chazelle, Hollywood’s celebrated enfant terrible who burst onto the scene like a supernova with Whiplash and La La Land, delivers exactly the opposite of his expected output with a brooding and tortuously technical biopic about Neil Armstrong, and it’s no wonder the sky-high critical and box office promises of First Man (C-) have remained unusually earthbound. Ryan Gosling’s interior performance as an Armstrong who is near-paralyzed by human interaction after suffering personal tragedy may be imbued with a north star of accuracy, but it’s just not what people go to inspiring movies about heroes to see, and all the sullen solemnity eclipses any attempts at showcasing the highs and lows of the early space program. Claire Foy’s similarly macabre take on his long-suffering spouse doesn’t help either in penetrating the pioneering spirit behind this dark side of the moon. The film lingers on highly technical elements of several space missions so long that by the time the Eagle lands, the viewer is just appreciative to get on with it. Perhaps the most annoying element of the film is its score by Chazelle’s jazzy frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz, whose music sounds lost between a ghoulish fun-house and an Italian café for much of the film’s prodigious duration. A few supporting cast members such as Corey Stoll get some nice bits, but it doesn’t look fun sharing orbit with a sad sack protagonist. The film isn’t clear what it’s trying to say or even if Armstrong enjoyed his day in the sun on the moon. Adrift in storytelling and pacing, this linear lunar biopic shines brightly for just a few moments but remains largely a waning gibbous.
This is one of those declassified historical true stories like Argo that’s stranger than fiction and eerily prescient in its parallels to events of today. Pop cultural and historical provocateur Spike Lee’s brilliant 1970’s-set biopic BlacKkKlansman (A-) is an absorbing and gripping instant classic, the best non-documentary “joint” the writer/director has made in nearly two decades. The film’s success rides largely on John David Washington and Adam Driver, playing real-life undercover cops who mastermind and manifest a fascinating infiltration of white supremacists. Washington is charismatic and determined in his performance as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, determined to make a name for himself. Laura Harrier is sensational as a civil rights activist, and Topher Grace is amazing in a career trajectory redefining role as David Duke. The filmmaker is acutely aware of the power of cinema to change perceptions and dots the movie with bygone celluloid images and contemporary references that put his work in a march toward progress in representation. Aside from lensing a few moments that seem superfluous to the central themes, Lee has crafted a tight and taut thriller. He provides powerful point/counterpoint sequences weaving subversive themes and an unexpected premise into great storytelling.
Joe Wright’s historical biopic The Darkest Hour (B) takes few creative liberties as it chronicles Winston Churchill’s resolve to protect England from Hitler’s military, but the film is most notable because it affords Gary Oldman a rich fully inhabited central performance as the decisive and divisive prime minister. The direction is physically and metaphorically claustrophobic, shot in tight quarters and in confined conversations, to show the encroaching danger. The film is a straightforward companion piece to the propulsive Dunkirk, depicting much of the same time period, and the dandy drama The King’s Speech in which its protagonist monarch overcomes personal adversity and rises to the occasion. Honestly, aside from Oldman’s lived-in characterization of mania and mumbled and his arch to make his actions soar as profoundly as his oratory, Hour rarely gets great lift. The supporting characters including Kristin Scott Thomas and Stephen Dillane are unmemorable, and the film’s muted color palette of mostly dim interiors leaves the actions a bit in the shadows. It’s recommended for history buffs but offers few surprises or detours from the expected except for seeing exactly what the PM eats, drinks and dictates and how he one time rode on a train with commoners. There are parallels to contemporary leaders, whose nil by tweet stubbornness could tilt the world’s fortunes for war or peace. The present day overlay offers more prescient daydreams of adventurous storytelling than Wright actually commits to the screen.
Thoughts from outside The Tara theatre in Atlanta:
Benny Boom’s by the numbers Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me (B-) is buoyed by Demetrius Shipp Jr. who is electric in the lead role and Danai Gurira who is effective in a supporting role as his political activist mother. Shakur the man spent his short 25 years as an entertainer, provocateur and man of contradictions, so it’s disappointing the film doesn’t get deeper under the surface at some critical junctures. The film starts as a bit of a superhero origin story, becomes a “behind the music” string of montages for a while and ultimately settles into a gangster epic as our hero joins Death Row Records. Shipp wears it all very well, even when his motivations aren’t always crystal clear. It’s still extraordinarily watchable, absorbing even, if fairly predictable and a bit overlong. Tinged with highlights of the rapper’s music and of period detail, the movie will take lots of folks back to the ’90’s and remind people about a magnificent talent taken away too soon.
In John Lee Hancock’s biopic of McDonald’s executive Ray Kroc, The Founder (B), the hunger of the protagonist is so palpable you can almost taste it. It’s a rather ruthless portrait of a business tycoon with Michael Keaton in fine serpentine form, part Midwest milkman charm, as wily as a Music Man, relentless as a cattle driver. While it’s ironic a man named Hancock fails to leave much of a signature in his ambivalent lens on the historical figure responsible for spreading the world’s most famous hamburger stand beyond its humble California origins, it is a fascinating business case and mostly compelling in its story (gulp) arch. As the humble and inventive McDonald’s brothers, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are fabulous foils to Keaton’s Kroc. The film’s best sequence, although awkwardly placed in flashback, depicts the McDonald’s brothers designing a kitchen schematic in chalk on a blacktop, with crew “blocking the scene” like theatre directors would do. Kroc’s troubles on the domestic front including an estranged marriage (Laura Dern simply has to look sad a lot) and a fixation on a bottle of his own form of special sauce get short shrift as business machinations take center stage. The cynical themes about persistence and ambition trumping actual genius or invention, juxtaposed against sunny nostalgic art direction, are timely and prescient; but after more richly textured tales such as The Wolf of Wall Streetand The Social Network, this film could have used a bit more super-sizing in ambition.