Archive for the ‘biopic’ category

Jackie

November 27, 2016

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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.

The Danish Girl

February 14, 2016

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Once upon a time, perhaps back in 2000 when David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl hit stores, a movie based on that book about a trailblazing transwoman might have felt fresher. Now, though, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have been in the news, and we’ve seen more challenging and advanced narratives about transfolks. Besides that, we’ve seen actual trans performers play trans characters, both well-known (Cox on Orange Is the New Black) and not (Michelle Hendley in the underseen Boy Meets Girl), so a well-meaning Oscar-bait biopic with a cisgendered male (Eddie Redmayne) as trans legend Lili Elbe smells a little fishy. Shouldn’t an actor be free to play any reality?, some may ask. Let’s reframe the question: shouldn’t an actor of an often persecuted part of humanity be able to tell the stories of his or her own experience?

The Danish Girl recounts the early struggle of Lili (née Einar Wegener) to deal with her male-to-female transition while fighting the blinkered intolerance of her milieu (1926 Copenhagen) and trying not to hurt her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who supports Lili up to an understandable point, past which Gerda genuinely can’t go with her. Vikander actually owns the movie — she effortlessly conveys the pain of a woman too enlightened to be horrified by her once-husband’s transformation, but too human not to mourn the passing of the man she fell in love with. It’s the clearest inner conflict in the movie, but it’s been done before. So has Lili’s arc, despite the Right Stuff gendernaut angle of Lili’s (allegedly) being the first to have The Surgery.

Redmayne’s frail, hairless frame does much of his work for him; how odd that he should have headlined two elite biopics in a row, the Stephen Hawking movie being the first, both detailing body’s misalignment with mind. (He’s about ready to go make a film for David Cronenberg, whose work is built upon the Cartesian mind-body split.) But he never made me feel Lili’s vertiginous fright and relief at finally presenting as her own gender. That’s because he doesn’t have the material. The movie is too genteel and antiseptic, and eventually it resolves into a dull fable of Being True to Oneself. Someday a transgender writer/director will tell her/his community’s stories on film, and it will be felt from the inside, not observed from the outside, however compassionately. We will learn more from such a film than we could from movies like The Danish Girl made by people who haven’t actually endured Lili’s pain — who don’t have skin in the game.

In my Les Miserables review I hypothesized that the film’s director, Tom Hooper, might be the worst director ever to own an Oscar for directing. After seeing what he’s done with The Danish Girl, I’m no longer sure the qualification is necessary. You can certainly tell a Tom Hooper film at ten paces. That’s the film that’ll be composed with artsy whimsy, generally with people seated way off to the side of the frame and near the bottom, or scrutinized in punishing close-up, and the shots don’t cut together with any kind of grace because of the fancy compositions (sometimes the shots don’t match each other or the camera blatantly crosses the axis), and scenes just kind of start, go on a bit, and end. That’s the Oscar-winning Tom Hooper touch. If you care at all about movies as constructions of time and rhythm as well as image and sound, the aesthetically ugly cinema of Tom Hooper may cause physical revulsion.

Pompous yet banal, Hooper’s style fits this prestigious bore of a movie. For whom has it been made? Trans audiences will yawn — Lili’s story as presented here isn’t good fodder for inspiration. Transphobic bigots won’t see it in the first place, so they wouldn’t be swayed even if the movie were persuasive. So it’s for nice cisgendered viewers (i.e., those whose gender identities align with their bodies) who enjoy watching other people’s pain if it’s done tastefully enough. No blood is shown during Lili’s two dangerous surgeries, so it won’t spoil your dinner; neither will the scene in which two louts descend on Lili in boy mode, leading to the most ineptly-staged beating I’ve seen in years. Being cisgendered doesn’t disqualify you from making a movie about transgender subjects, but maybe being incompetent should.

Spotlight

January 24, 2016

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Various representatives of the Catholic Church have given a thumbs-up to Spotlight, a docudrama about Boston Globe reporters breaking the story of the Church’s cover-up of scores of abuses by Boston priests. Well, how else is the Church going to react to it? Condemning the film would be fantastic free publicity; praising it is brilliant tactical aikido against possible new detractors of the Church. Anyway, I happen to agree with the fine film critics at the Vatican and the Boston Archdiocese. Spotlight is an undemonstrative journalistic almost-thriller with an even but urgent heartbeat, driven as much by reporters’ need for their paper to be first to crack the story as by actual concern for truth, justice, and the American way. We are, for example, asked to be horrified at the idea of the Herald getting its sulfurous, tabloidy claws into this once-in-a-generation scoop.

The movie takes its name from the Globe’s elite investigative team, instituted in 1970, known for its devotion to going deep on afflicting-the-powerful stories and taking its sweet time getting there. Here, they don’t have much sweet time. The new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), makes a pitch to Spotlight commander Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton): why not look into this business about Father John Geoghan abusing children and Cardinal Law dealing with it by reassigning Geoghan and keeping silent? The team — rounded out by passionate Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), compassionate Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and dogged Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) — swings into action, soon finding that the story extends far more broadly than only one priest playing Musical Parishes.

A welcoming round of applause for the return of director/cowriter Tom McCarthy, who emerges unbloodied from his prior experience on the Adam Sandler flop The Cobbler. This is indeed the kind of “small” (well, $20 million is small these days) mid-budget drama for adults that seems so endangered now; technically, it’s an indie production, distributed by Open Road, owned by theatrical giants AMC and Regal. McCarthy, who has roots in indie comedy-drama, gives us a film that looks like television without really feeling like it; the conflicts feel major even as McCarthy and writing partner Josh Singer mostly avoid melodrama. The few encounters with victims, now grown, of pedophile priests are handled with tact but with a steady eye for relevant detail; one man shows us, almost too quickly to catch, needle tracks on his arm. The men look haunted, mutilated in their souls; they stare inward into hell.

It was a hell that few knew or cared to know about. The Spotlight team has an unwilling ally in abrupt, irascible lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who has zero patience for adults but, we discover in a late scene, all the affectionate patience in the world for his young clients who have suffered abuse. Muddying the moral waters a bit is a meeting with a molesting priest who cheerfully admits to his crimes, because he doesn’t consider what he did to be rape; rape is what happened to him. The movie doesn’t clarify whether he, too, was a boyhood victim of a priest, and whether some victims of abuse become tireless advocates for justice while others, their souls incinerated, continue the cycle of abuse themselves. A psychologist and ex-priest, played as a phone-voice of authority by an unbilled Richard Jenkins, suggests that the problem with the Church stems from psychosexual deformity caused by celibacy — or does the priesthood, and other positions of trust like school coaches, attract the psychosexually deformed? Spotlight gets us thinking about that, but ultimately leaves the answer to other movies (I recommend, for starters, the two-part powerhouse The Boys of St. Vincent). Decently, it focuses on the victims, and why there continued to be victims for so long.

The Revenant

January 17, 2016

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For all the stark realism and ballyhooed “natural light” cinematography of The Revenant, the movie tips its true hand as an aggressively directorial film when the hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is so close to the camera that his anguished, halting breath fogs the lens. You see, this is a deathlessly significant work about man’s inhumanity to man against a backdrop of unforgiving nature, but there is a man behind it all — a man of vision and integrity, you serfs — and you’d better appreciate his hard, crucifying labor, and Leo’s, too. See, there he is, suffering before you, steaming up the damn camera lens. Well, which is it? Is this a spiritual document of peerless verisimilitude, or is it filmmaker preening, reminding you that, above all else, this is a movie?

Based on his debut Amores Perros, I’ve been loyal to director Alejandro González Iñárritu for years, but after one bummer after another, as well as last year’s well-acted but show-offy Oscar winner Birdman, it’s probably time to admit that Iñárritu has a loud voice but not much to say with it. At its core, The Revenant is a simple story about Glass, a fur-trappers’ scout left for dead after a bear tears him up. He survives, and spends the rest of the long and winding movie trying to catch up with his chief betrayer, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and presumably put serious hurt on him. By the end, Glass rejects the idea of revenge, though he’s already brutalized Fitzgerald so much — in an ugly, endless brawl — that the movie gets to have its gory cake and eat it too.

Sitting through The Revenant, I kept recognizing other movies in it. The natural-lighting gimmick was done better by Kubrick in Barry Lyndon; the basic story was told before in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, which took up nearly an hour less of our time; the sometimes discordant score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto among others) recalls Neil Young’s fuzzbox music for Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man (and this film’s dependence on an Indian helping an ailing white man was already parodied nicely by Jarmusch); and the symbolic heaviness of man against nature got some play in Joe Carnahan’s underrated existential drama The Grey. No grey here; this is strictly black and white, with the half-scalped Tom Hardy practically twirling his mustache as he refers to Indians as “tree niggers” — one of the few things he growls through his Brillo beard that you can understand. (At times, I thought I could discern phrases like “kung fu” and “jolly brisket” in that mop-spatter of sad, orphaned syllables.) Hardy’s Fitzgerald also gets a monologue about how he met a man who thought a squirrel was God; then Fitzgerald killed and ate the squirrel. So he’s not only the Devil, he’s a god-devourer, like Galactus or Darkseid in the comic books.

In contrast to the racist, mutilated Fitzgerald, the thick-maned Glass (he even has all his teeth) has a dearly departed Indian wife and a half-breed son. He’s spiritually an Indian himself, just like Jack Crabb and John Dunbar. Despite that, we are shown that there are good Indians (the Pawnee) and there are “savage” Indians (the Arikara, responsible for the Saving Private Ryan massacre that kicks off the movie, though they too come in handy for the white man later on). Can it be that the critics’ dartboard The Lone Ranger actually boasted a more nuanced vision of indigenous Americans than this lionized sadomasochistic trip offers?

Iñárritu was already working on The Revenant when he won the Oscar for Birdman, otherwise I’d call this the classic post-Oscar folly. Now that it has twelve nominations of its own and is favored to take the big win in a month or so, it seems ready to become a folly atop a folly. There are a lot of elements yanking us out of possible absorption in this supposedly realistic film — a bear that doesn’t look quite real, other shots and sequences with obvious CGI doctoring. And yet the movie doesn’t even get as gnarly as the real story did — the actual Hugh Glass let maggots feast on his bearclaw wounds to prevent gangrene, and Indians sewed a bear hide to his back to cover the gashes. If you’re waiting to see that happen to Leonardo DiCaprio in a $130 million motion picture, keep waiting.