Archive for the ‘biopic’ category

England Is Mine

September 3, 2017

england-is-mine-2017-jack-lowdenEngland Is Mine is a somewhat interesting drama about depression and about women as lifelines, and a much less interesting biopic about Morrissey. The erstwhile Smiths frontman is only vaguely to be seen in this portrait of Steven Patrick Morrissey’s teenage years in Manchester in the ‘70s, enduring banal jobs and idiots all around him and constant rain and the loneliness that comes with being a self-proclaimed genius. This is a Morrissey — if such a thing is possible — even more insufferable than he was after he got famous. And I say that as a huge fan of the Smiths and Morrissey. The man is a pompous ass and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately the younger pompous ass in the film never quite strikes us as Morrissey, but as a generically mopey teenager rolling his eyes in disdain at everything. There’s little of the self-aware wit of the genuine Morrissey. Jack Bowden gets the thankless task of inhabiting Morrissey, and in the lad’s shaggy-haired period, Bowden looks more like a young Daniel Day-Lewis. Then he cuts his hair and suddenly more closely resembles Jim Parsons. Toward the end of the film, Bowden shows up in Morrissey’s signature quiff and almost gets there. Looks aren’t everything, of course, but Bowden also lacks Morrissey’s fiery miserable core, the inner passion. And we can’t seek solace in at least hearing the grand Morrissey voice, either, I assume because the film couldn’t afford the music rights.

So really the only way we know we’re watching a film about Morrissey is that the film tells us. He could be just any sensitive Mancunian goof who goes on to bigger and better things — after the film ends, which is to say the film ends before it becomes entertaining. But when the movie focuses on Morrissey’s relationship with various women in his life — his sympathetic mother, female friends who boot his ass a rung or two up the ladder — it becomes a different and more emotionally sound film. Girls like Anji Hardie (Katherine Pearce) and Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) take young Steven by the scruff and more or less forcibly get him connections, a band. (I have learned that Morrissey and Linder are friends to this day; he’d better take her out for dinner regularly.)

I would’ve loved The Steven and Linder Story, but the film keeps remembering it’s a biopic of a musician, so we get tepid scenes like the one in which Steven first sees the Sex Pistols in their legendary Manchester gig, except they’re blurred out and the fake-Pistols music is mixed down so it sounds like generic punk. That one night could support its own movie, but here it’s just perfunctory and dull. Steven’s tastes are fully formed (girl-group melodrama, kitchen-sink British films) yet only vaguely alluded to; someone already versed in Morrissey could sit there and check off the influences, but someone who goes in knowing nothing about the man will see only the surface, the occasional photo or song snippet. Towards the end, the mighty guitarist Johnny Marr enters the picture (played by Laurie Kynaston as a warm if inarticulate presence) and points the way to the genesis of the Smiths, and that’s a film I might have liked, too.

 

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Alien: Covenant

August 14, 2017

aliencovenantClosing in on eighty years old, Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to be able to leave his legacy alone. October will bring a sequel to his Blade Runner, which he’s executive-producing but not directing, and he has now directed two prequels to the Alien saga, which he started in 1979. The first of them, 2012’s Prometheus, was a ponderous though gorgeous slog through questions of life’s origins — did he who made the xenomorph make thee? Now we have Alien: Covenant, a direct follow-up to Prometheus that bows to commercial demands and actually calls itself an Alien film. Which it is, more or less. Prometheus was dull but at least attempted something larger; Covenant (named after the spacecraft in the film) is a regression to the original Alien’s set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down schematic.

Michael Fassbender, at least, is back, this time in two roles: as David, the android from Prometheus, and Walter, a later, upgraded version of David. Walter serves on the crew of the Covenant, which seeks to colonize a remote planet. Two Fassbenders is even better news than one, and the actor plays the duty-bound Walter and the somewhat more emotional David with a variety of gradations. The rest of the crew are either non-entities or played with one or two notes, with the exception of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, whose close-cropped hair and general aura of torment (Daniels is widowed early in the film) reminded me of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

Daniels is clearly being groomed as the new Ripley (the hero of the original four films, played by Sigourney Weaver), and as long as Waterston plays her, I’ll need to come back for more. She’s about the only dab of humanity in this aggressively designed, biomechanical movie, which like Prometheus has the best technical bona fides money can buy (returning editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) but labors under a convoluted plot overlaying the slasher-flick structure. The aliens, it seems, were deliberately created and have been maintained on some ghastly planet where they killed all the Engineers (the weird-looking folks who apparently created life). These critters keep being called “the perfect organisms,” but all they do is shriek and hiss and drool acid and reproduce. They were never the interesting aspect of the Alien series; that was Ripley.

Will Daniels be allowed to take on the metaphorical, #YesAllWomen struggles of Ripley, with the soulful Waterston stepping into Weaver’s boots? I hope so, because Alien: Covenant doesn’t otherwise point to a promising future for the franchise. The movie is sleek and morbid, with the usual ugly undercurrent of gnashing teeth, shredded flesh, misting blood. More than once, I heard myself sighing at the predictability not only of the film’s and-then-there-were-none structure but of the supposed twists. I called the big twist a mile off, and anyone who’s seen a movie before will, too; the reveal is delayed a bit, so that the real twist is that, oh yeah, there is a twist after all. It still does away with a character with no explanation and lazily expects us to accept and overlook that.

Alien: Covenant isn’t all bad. Some of the images have a dour beauty; the various alien landscapes glow like a sunrise in Hell. I was happy to hear Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous, minimalist theme for the first Alien, an echoing strain that has always sounded to me almost prophetic, prefiguring the newly remorseless sci-fi/horror blockbusters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It turns up in Covenant now and again, reminding us of the Ridley Scott who scared the crap out of us in 1979 without having to yoke the movie to some half-assed creation myth involving bodybuilders with Easter Island heads making life out of black liquid. I suspect that Scott, looking his eighth decade in the face, wanted to make his what’s-it-all-about saga with Prometheus but couldn’t get the budget unless it could be marketed as Ridley Scott’s return to the series that made his name. Alien: Covenant shows, rather dispiritingly, that Scott is not resentful about regressing; on the contrary, he has gotten comfortable in this old pair of slippers. And despite the blood and teeth, that’s what the movie feels like.

Hidden Figures

December 11, 2016

hidden-figures-df-04856_r2_rgbAll things considered, Hidden Figures wraps some fairly radical themes — three African-American women entrusted with important NASA jobs at a time (1961-1962) when Jim Crow was still the law of the land — in a largely unradical package. Whistle-clean, one of the few modern films to get an uncomplicated PG rating, the movie hits all the standard biopic beats. For every scene enlivened by the retro R&B of Pharrell Williams, there’s another in which Hans Zimmer’s strings try ineffectually to pluck at our heart’s. It was made, seemingly, to be shown in schools.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and Hidden Figures is affecting in ways that a less squarely conceived movie couldn’t be. It is a balm of sorts in a world in which women, people of color, and even the sciences will likely be respected far less in a few weeks. Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie tracks three NASA employees — math genius Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), unofficial computer supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer-to-be Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — as they face racism and sexism while slowly getting to the point where their efforts help John Glenn circle the earth. (Sadly, Glenn passed away last week, probably without getting to see himself played by Glen Powell, a blonde hunk in the Chris Evans mold.)

A white male hand passes a piece of chalk to a black female hand: the image succinctly says everything important Hidden Figures wants to say. The white man confers whiteness — importance, credibility — on the black woman. Near the end, though, a white male hand brings coffee to a black woman, as is her due. (A cynic might say, sure, give the black woman caffeine so she can continue to help white men go into space; it was 1983 before the first black man hit space, 1992 before the first black woman did.) The movie speaks of a country where a lot of things are about to flip; we get a few glimpses of the battle for civil rights. The mostly white male NASA environment is a little more enlightened than the general population, but only a little; Katherine has to run to a separate building to use the “colored women’s” bathroom.

Kevin Costner passes the chalk; this actor keeps trying to bridge the gap between races, but here, at least, he brings an edge of gruff pragmatism to it. His character, a composite NASA manager, needs a math genius who can think outside the box, who exists partly in the future, and Katherine is it. Katherine, though, is no John Nash or even Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons plays a sizable role in the film, as persnickety as Sheldon with a side order of racist-sexist disdain). Katherine is conceived as basically a normal woman with normal tastes and desires; I didn’t see a lot of continuity between her home life (widowed with three daughters) and her work life. She’s supposed to devise “math that doesn’t exist yet,” as per Costner, and she also uses ancient math; she’s not only a math savant but a math mystic, yet Taraji P. Henson isn’t encouraged to give her any quirks or sharp edges or even nerdiness. The same goes for Spencer and Monáe; these freakishly gifted and self-possessed ladies don’t have the stubborn oddness that many people at their intellectual level might have.        

Again, though, depth of portrait isn’t really on the movie’s agenda. Hidden Figures exists primarily to pay tribute to the space race’s forgotten heroes, secondarily to inspire. I don’t quite have it in me just now to come down on a film, however narratively conventional and artistically inert, that prizes the intelligence and strength of black women and the gains made possible by math and science. The Daily Beast has already called it “the movie Trump’s America needs to see,” which I suppose is true, though it’s also a relic of Kennedy’s America by way of Obama’s America, and in the chalk being passed you can almost see the line being drawn between Jack and Barack.
       

Jackie

November 27, 2016

jackie

When considering Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I remember Priam’s line from The Iliad: “I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; / I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.” Jackie, of course, was not the first First Lady to be widowed, but surely the first to be so publicly widowed, her agony magnified and reflected back to her by the media. Once the Zapruder footage was made accessible, there she was, spattered and panicked, forced to move through the motions of abrupt bereavement over and over for the edification of conspiracy theorists everywhere for all time (“Back and to the left … back and to the left”). She did not have to put her lips to the hands of Oswald (or whoever pulled the trigger), but she did, I think, endure what no other mortal woman had endured, at least on that scale.

Jackie is the latest attempt to dramatize the 20th century’s most famous widow’s experiences, anchored by an uncanny vocal impersonation by Natalie Portman, whose Jackie is appropriately brittle and confounded. Towards the finish, the movie administers a couple spoonfuls of sugar to make the existential medicine go down — John Hurt appears as a priest to explain to Jackie and us why Jackie, and we, go on in a world without meaning, and there’s a bit too much dewy-eyed romanticization of Camelot. (I swear I could hear old Gore Vidal snorting in disdain from wherever he is.) But most of the film is a delicate, trickily structured poem of sadness, the kind of sadness that recalls Aeschylus’ “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

That structure, by way of screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín, flips back and forth as Jackie talks. She talks to the country while giving a tour of the White House and her revamp of same; she talks to the aforementioned priest; she talks to presidential chronicler Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). So the woman rendered hysterically silent by that Zapruder footage is given a chance to speak copiously for herself, even if she engages in conscious mystification. (More than once, she tells White that something she’s just said is off the record or that she didn’t say it at all.) Again and again, Jackie explains herself in plain English. Past a certain point, though, words are inadequate. Her husband is gone. Her two (surviving) children no longer have a father. This experience has been shared by millions, famous and not, but the details distinguish Jackie’s unique suffering.

With the aid of Mica Levi’s boldly emotive score, Larraín distills tragedy down to a few potent drops. (Larraín has said he dislikes biopics, but he’s got two out this season — this one and the upcoming Neruda.) He pretty much hands the movie to Portman, who finds volumes of variations on Jackie’s poised and sometimes archaic speech (“I’d rather them at home,” she says of her children at one point, in the sort of syntax one seldom hears any more). The editing, by Sebastián Sepúldeva, stitches it all together firmly enough but is occasionally too fancy — there’s a cut from Jackie angrily trying to remove her wedding ring to Jackie swallowing a pill, and it took me out of the movie for a second (“Wait, did she just swallow her ring?”).

For the most part, though, Jackie keeps things clear and preserves its subject’s sadness in amber. Some people forget she had a whole other marriage and life after JFK; for them, she is forever defined by her first marriage and its brutal end. Portman brings the icon of widowhood to sharp, sometimes prickly life — her Jackie will control how her story is told, thank you very much. After a while, we see how the pieces fit together. The reporter, the priest, the TV tour of the White House hosted by Charles Collingwood (father confessors all) — it all speaks of a woman who did everything a mid-20th-century woman was supposed to do: married well, made a beautiful house for herself and her family, but then lost it all. Like a lot of women in the ‘60s, she then had to find meaning without all those things to define her, and she did, though beyond the movie’s purview.

Kate Plays Christine

October 30, 2016

960At the beginning and end of Kate Plays Christine, as the lead actress Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil) is prepped by make-up artists to film her character’s suicide, I think we’re meant to remember Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Kate wears a wig cap that makes her look bald, and her expression bespeaks despair in expectation of doom, yet relief that the despair will be over soon. The image is allusive and electric, an anomaly in an otherwise rigidly interiorized film with bland visuals to match. Kate Plays Christine is a sort of documentary, or a mockumentary (though mostly laughless), about an actress researching her role in a movie that doesn’t exist outside of the movie being made about it.        

The role is Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV reporter who was notorious for a while back in 1974, when she put a gun to the back of her head and pulled the trigger while sitting at her newsdesk on live television. She prefaced her act with this deathless contemptuous snark: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.” That’s some heavy-duty nihilism, and Chubbuck, cast from the same dark mold as Susan Sontag and Anne Sexton, had a hooded and harrowed look. Some people are unreachable; nobody was ever going to reach this woman or get behind those pained, inward-focused eyes.       

For whatever reason, Chubbuck’s story — a lonely woman, a virgin at 29, driven to public self-execution by the demons she heard gibbering in her head after sundown — has inspired two films this year, the other being Christine, a more conventionally structured biopic. Kate Plays Christine questions its own existence and, by extension, that of any movie that presumes to speak for the dead, or any male director who tries to interpret a female subject. The writer-director Robert Greene likes to play with format and interrogate performance, and his work here is no different. He uses Chubbuck’s tragedy and Kate’s immersion in it as a way to critique the inherent voyeurism of movie-watching as well as the inherent exploitative nature of moviemaking.       

We watch Kate, an earnest 31-year-old actress with soft, sad features, drift around doing research and asking questions. Kate is convincing as this meta-version of herself, but the footage we see from the movie in which she plays Christine looks — intentionally? — amateurish. Greene may be saying that this flat, clumsy footage, or something like it, is the natural result of any attempt to trap the wildness of true experience in the amber of narrative. This may all sound intriguing on paper, but in practice it’s often dull and strained, and we get the queasy sense that this woman, likable enough, is beating herself up doing something that Kate Plays Christine essentially says is not worth doing.        

Whatever the intentions, Kate steeps herself in morbid homework, reading up on suicide, buying a gun from the same place that sold Chubbuck her gun, swimming in (and ruining her wig in) the same waters that Chubbuck swam in. In brief, the movie answers any possible criticism of itself by pre-emptively including that criticism in its DNA. In the end, Kate profanely sums up the movie’s own self-hatred and lashes out at its audience for good measure. Boy, she sure told us. This, at least, feels true to the saturnine Christine Chubbuck, but it still gives us nothing about her except the surface. For all its self-aware shame, the movie doesn’t have the balls to ask the biggest question: if making a movie and performing a role with a suicide at its center is morally dodgy and not worth doing, what then makes it worth watching?

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

September 18, 2016

henry-portrait-of-a-serial-killerHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has a creepy, city-after-dark overtone, an existential chill. It carries a true grindhouse whiff while staking its claim as art. There’s a deep tension between content and context here; the movie shows you hyperbolically grotesque things, but often at a remove, with the camera tracking in or out. The tracking happens during the opening credits, when we see various (usually female) corpses left in the wake of the titular Henry (Michael Rooker). Whether we’re pulling back to take in the entire scene of the crime or pushing in for a better look at a woman’s ruined face, we’re led to look at the carnage as a series of tableaux, as works of art out of time, suspended forever in death and by death.

After making one documentary, director/co-writer John McNaughton made his feature debut with Henry — and directed nothing remotely like it in the three decades since. Despite a few genre pieces here and there (The Borrower is goofy fun), McNaughton has never worn the label of “horror director” well. Henry has more in common with Cassavetes than with Herschell Gordon Lewis, though the movie’s purest demographic exists in a Venn diagram of fans of both directors. The movie is cold and bleak, shot in the bowels of Chicago at night or on sunless days, usually in godforsaken alleys or among dead-looking roadside flora, the kind of places where corpses can be hidden, sometimes maybe found, almost never cared about.

The motor of the minimalist plot involves Henry’s roommate and “friend” Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ visiting sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Tracy grows sweet on Henry, who doesn’t know quite what to do with her feelings. Otis has a thing for Becky, but also puts his hand on the thigh of a guy he’s dealing weed to. Henry is a moral blank, but Otis is a true monster, sexually twisted, possibly by his tightly lidded homosexuality, possibly by his abusive father (who raped Becky throughout her childhood). When this pair invade a well-to-do family’s home, even Henry, recording the whole atrocity on a camcorder, is appalled by what Otis does. It’s as though proximity to Henry has unchained Otis’ demons, and the demons make him giddy. Rooker has since, of course, gone on to many different types of roles, but Towles, I think, here bravely nuked any chance he would have of playing anything other than a slimeball (he died last year).

We need the existence of Otis in order to be able to relate to Henry at all; Henry’s a killer, too, but an affectless one who never seems to enjoy it. He’s gentlemanly towards Becky, and disgusted by Otis’ incestuous/necrophiliac kinks, and that makes him the closest thing to a moral center the film offers — yes, he’s a moral blank, but he’s not actively, gigglingly evil like Otis. Towles manages to make Otis more than a caricature of redneck rabies, and Rooker smolders implosively, hardly moving his lips as he pulls out painful bits of (contradictory) memories about his mother as though prying shards of glass out of his skin. I submit that the scene in which Becky and Henry sit around the table trading familial sex-horror stories is the entire movie in microcosm — everything proceeds from this grim and grimy reality of mothers and fathers who scar their children sexually. Henry’s murders involve the soul more than the body. That’s what makes the movie more drama than horror.

War Dogs

August 21, 2016

ARMS AND THE DUDESThe wrong guy narrates War Dogs, a wannabe-wild comedy-drama about two guys who do well by doing bad — buying weapons and selling them to the U.S. military. The guy we’re interested in is Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a bullshit artist who has started his own gunrunning company. Efraim surfs into the movie on a wave of bad-boy stubble, hair gel, and Beastie Boys beats; he wants to be a Jewish Scarface, and Jonah Hill plays him as an irrepressible sleazeball smitten with the lifestyle. Unfortunately, our putative hero is Efraim’s old yeshiva buddy David Parkouz (Miles Teller), whose mopey, bewildered voice tells the tale on the soundtrack.

The way the movie tells it, Efraim offers David a 30% partnership in his company because David is financially desperate: his girlfriend Iz (Ana da Armas) is pregnant, and he can’t support a family on what he makes as a Miami Beach massage therapist. Soon enough, anti-war David is helping Efraim close gun deals with officers, while poor, deluded Iz thinks David is selling high-thread-count bedsheets to the Army. Iz is a thankless role in a mostly very male movie; she and the baby are there solely to explain why David leaps at the chance to make big bucks. Damn it, men wouldn’t have to profit off of death if you chicks didn’t keep popping out sprogs!

War Dogs is pretty much as jejune as that last sentence indicates, despite the efforts of its director, Todd Phillips (of the Hangover trilogy), to follow in the farce-to-true-life-dramedy footsteps of, say, Adam McKay (The Big Short). Phillips’ idea of making a roughhouse testosterone morality tale is to pile on the anachronistic needle-drops (the budget for the soundtrack, which includes Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, must’ve been enormous) and ape Scorsese by way of David O. Russell — so War Dogs is faux Scorsese twice removed.

Miles Teller is a fine enough actor (my respect for his craft goes back to Rabbit Hole), but he’s no Ray Liotta, nor is David anywhere near Henry Hill. David never does get any illicit charge out of what he does. He’s in it only for the money, whereas Efraim is an appetitive Id who wants to be an American bad-ass. As antically funny as Jonah Hill is in the role, his coruscating work in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street dwarfs this; he simply doesn’t have the script (or the director) to let his freak flag fly, nor does he have any drop-dead-funny lines to touch Wolf’s “Smoke some crack with me, bro” or the one that never fails to make me lose it, “I’m never eating at Benihana again, I don’t care whose birthday it is.” In the end, Efraim is a tired dark mirror on David, who doesn’t have the personality to make us care whether he gains the world or loses his soul.

Of the movies to walk down the mean streets of war profiteering (including William Friedkin’s Deal of the Century and Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War), the most resonant one, to me, was the John Cusack-meets-Naomi-Klein satire War Inc., which saw war as a ludicrous but horrid mash-up of empty pop culture and opportunistic scorpions. I wish more people would go back and look at that film. War Dogs isn’t nearly as radical. It has no point of view about the war (Iraq/Afghanistan) or about gunrunning. In what amounts to an extended cameo, Bradley Cooper turns up in a few scenes as a glowering, stubbled rock star of a gunrunner whose presence on a terrorist watchlist has reduced him to being a middle man. Cooper’s suave professionalism is welcome. It shows one committed path the movie could have taken, one in which the stakes were larger than whether a friendship-by-convenience will survive the rigors of scamming armies the world over.