Tag Archives: Biopic

Movie Review: House of Gucci (2021)

Now in theatres.

Although it’s a handsomely produced adult crime drama in grand Hollywood style, some inconsistent characterizations and abrupt tonal shifts hinder Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (B) from emerging as the soapy sensation it clearly craves to be. The first hour of the fashion family saga is strongest,  centered on a spunky Lady Gaga’s delicious ingenue in a whirlwind romance opposite Adam Driver as the Italian luxury label’s heir apparent, more at home in love than in leadership. Scott’s film soon becomes a different movie focused more intently on the political machinations of the Gucci family business, including mounting tension at work and at home and dramatic stakes of varying proportions, some emotions earned and others not so much. We get a phoned-in performance by Jeremy Irons and a roaring one from Al Pacino as family patriarchs, plus there’s an absolutely unhinged portrayal of the family’s crazed cousin by a virtually unrecognizable Jared Leto. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher if any of these actors feel like they are working in remotely the same universe, and yet mostly the story seems grounded in either Gaga or Driver’s point of view. The empire building is fascinating to behold and most entertaining when Gaga is on screen or when Driver’s cipher of a character discovers his agency. There are also curious choices involving time frames, accents, death scenes and other female performances for which the least said, the better. Still it’s often a crackling affair with much to recommend. Gaga’s performance as catalyst of this catwalk will be the element most remembered from this ambitious and sometimes operatic enterprise.

Movie Review: Tick…Tick…Boom! (2021)

Now on Netflix.

There aren’t too many movies about writers creating new work in the musical theatre idiom, although All That Jazz and De Lovely come to mind, but the autobiographical show about rejection, healing and the creative process authored by Rent creator Jonathan Larson is intriguing fodder for a feature film. Under the first-time directorial helm of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tick…Tick…Boom! (B+) casts Andrew Garfield as Larson on the verge of age 30, living in 1990 New York, waiting tables and hoping desperately the workshop of his futuristic musical Superbia will put him on the proverbial map and somehow rescue him from the punishing grind. Garfield’s characterization is wild-eyed and eccentric, like a mad scientist with dulcet voice at the keyboard; despite spending a full movie with him, the character still feels a bit at arm’s length. The show-within-a-show structure complicates matters a bit too; and Miranda’s scrapbook meets memory play presentation of it all overstuffs a little too much peripheral detail into the mix to prove his savant-like knowledge of the composer’s career. But there are large parts of the film that really resonate, especially fantasy sequences such as a tuxedo and tap style number introducing high-class living, a diner transforming into performance art and an 11 o’clock duet number blending criss-crossing female voices like a cosmic moment in time. Amidst a whole bunch of Broadway cameos, Robin de Jesus and Laura Benanti shine in sterling supporting moments. Alexandra Shipp is a powerhouse and Vanessa Hudgins a delight in underdeveloped and bifurcated roles. Garfield largely succeeds in carrying most of the momentum on his shoulders and acquits himself nicely with some soaring final act ballads. It all feels a bit like a less urgent prequel to Rent, what with the starving artists, bohemian living and battle against AIDS tropes, but theatre lovers and those working to create their own opus will find much here with which to relate. Even when the behind the music motifs seem strangely surface, watching Garfield’s Larson is still a wunderkind to behold.

Movie Review: The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

Now on demand.

Notorious televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker get a mixed blessing of a big-screen biography treatment in Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye (B-) with Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain in the lead roles. Chastain commands her every sequence and is the central protagonist as the preacher, singer and puppeteer who becomes an empathetic television personality despite her husband’s Faustian bargains leading to their public downfall. Showalter consistently struggles in this piece with tone; it’s never completely clear if this is serious drama, featherweight cautionary tale or historical diversion. Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s staunch mom and Vincent D’Onofrio as fellow Christian influencer Jerry Falwell also get some authentic acting moments as foils to the central duo. Chastain is the revelation here.

Movie Review: Spencer (2021)

Now on demand and streaming on Hulu.

Although it joins Eyes Wide Shut and Die Hard in the “I guess it’s a Christmas movie” pantheon, Pablo Larraín’s biographical psychological drama Spencer (A-), about the Yuletide weekend in which Princess Diana chooses to split from the royal family, is a melancholy masterpiece. Kristen Stewart is luminous in the lead role, brilliantly humanizing a public figure we think we all know and plumbing the depths of her spiral into despondency. Larraín’s frenzied fever dream frames its troubled protagonist with such a splendid mise-en-scène of mounting formal and claustrophobic environments, a viewer could well believe it’s a slo-mo horror film as much as a tragedy. The film is often quietly observant, which makes the moments of rage and revelations pulse all the more. For every nightmarish sequence around the corners of her lonely world, there are also tender moments depicting the fun and games Diana furtively plays with her sons. Several supporting performers stand out: Timothy Spall is a hoot as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, with a constant puss on his face as he tries to reign in our heroine to do her duty, and Sally Hawkins is a delight in a small role as a confidante and royal dresser who whispers into her wanderlust. Deck these halls with Oscars already!

Movie Review: Respect (2021)

In theatres August 13, 2021, MGM.

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.

Movie Review: United States Vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

Now streaming on Hulu.

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.

Available on Hulu

Movie Review: Ford v Ferrari

A victorious “A” for Ford v Ferrari

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.

Movie Review: Judy (2019)

Judy (2019): “B”

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.

Movie Review: Vice (2018)

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.

Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex

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.

Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian_Rhapsody_posterIf 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.

Movie Review: First Man (2018)

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.