Archive for the ‘biopic’ category

Goodbye Christopher Robin

November 6, 2017

goodbyechrisrobinTo the short subgenre of biopics about children’s-book authors (Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild, J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks) we must now add the modestly touching Goodbye Christopher Robin, about A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. This one, though, concerns itself more with postwar trauma than with the usual biopic tropes and beats. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) goes off to World War I, and is injured in the notoriously brutal Battle of the Somme. Once home with his young wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), Milne broods on war, how it seems to render all the world’s sources of happiness impotent. Then Daphne, with misgivings, bears him a child, who will lead him out of himself and into fame and fortune — and a whole other set of problems.

Directed with a stiff sense of dignity by Simon Curtis, Goodbye Christopher Robin is about men and boys, fathers and sons, losing and finding themselves. Curtis, though, with Gleeson’s help, convinces us that Milne has been broken by the nightmare meat-grinder of the Great War, and this runs underneath every scene Milne is in. It’s kept quiet, though, not obnoxiously obvious. And given that this is a very polite PG-rated film, with only the most oblique glimpses of war bloodshed, Curtis impressively conveys the eternal dread of the postwar life. We gather that Milne saw hell. Out of this darkness, improbably, blossoms one of English letters’ most enduring creations of whimsy (not beloved by all, of course, as those who recall Dorothy Parker’s legendary dragging of The House at Pooh Corner can testify).

Inspired by the playtime of his son Christopher (Will Tilston) using a variety of stuffed animals, Milne creates Ashdown Forest and its inhabitants, a place of safe and gentle adventure, as opposed to the real world and all its dangerous, vicious adventure. Milne gives himself a fantasy into which to escape, but in the meantime he has made an unwilling celebrity out of his son, upon whom the books’ Christopher Robin is based. The real Christopher is pressed into service hosting tea parties for lucky young contest winners and posing for photos with a fake Pooh bear. We spend most of our time with the younger Christopher, until the magic of movies telescopes time while he’s at school, so that he becomes a teenager (Alex Lawther) beaten and ridiculed by bullies because of his literary connection. It’s this Christopher, hardened after years of a public childhood, who decides to go off to war himself, this time World War II.

By then, we know what such a decision will do to Milne. A couple of fine, pained scenes between Milne and fellow WWI veteran E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) — who goes on to illustrate the Pooh books — show us what this shared experience does to men, and there’s an equally fine scene near the end, when another pair of men sit and take note of the beauty that the world can also offer. When things look bleak, Daphne excoriates Milne for “fixing it” so that their son (who’d failed the physical) could go to war, but what could Milne do? It was what Christopher wanted, and for Milne to deny him would have driven the last wedge between them. Sidebar stuff like this, which has little to do with the origins of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, deals with things we seldom see in movies; a father and a son bonded by horror, ready to embrace the future and abandon the agony of the past.

Much of Goodbye Christopher Robin is honorable, even if the tears are jerked a little too strenuously near the finish. One thing, however, prevents me from giving the film more than a middling mark. I know this isn’t her movie, but the cavalier, seemingly unloving behavior of Daphne throughout the film is baffling, all the more so because no one else seems to notice it. She leaves her husband until he starts writing again; she seems ruthlessly unsentimental, which is fine, but it seems at odds with everything else in the movie. Margot Robbie plays her as a borderline flapper who seems to yearn for champagne and glitz over a stuffy old house with a stuffy old writer. (When they married, Daphne was 23, Milne 31.)

Eventually, offscreen apparently, Daphne gentles into a vaguely worried mom tinkering in the garden, and Kelly Macdonald steals the movie as Olive, Christopher’s faithful caretaker. Macdonald brings that tired cliché the selfless nanny to life, and her expressions of despair and later joy are far more compelling than anything else going on. Goodbye Christopher Robin is refined, tactful, competent. Its dark undertone of war and its deforming power lifts it above the usual schmucky Hollywood stuff. But it’s missing that gratifying sense of everything coming together to create a vision based on subtle thematic work — that almost audible click when the elements hang together coherently and with originality of purpose. (We feel this, for example, at several points in Pulp Fiction.) The movie seems to be about a man who, when creating a fantasy into which to escape war memories, inadvertently drives his own son into another war. How does a movie even begin to deal with that? This one doesn’t.

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Tom of Finland

October 15, 2017

tomoffinlandTouko Laaksonen, better known as the fetish artist Tom of Finland, liked to draw what aroused him: beefy men in uniform, or leather, or leather uniform. A veteran of World War II, Touko seemed to draw his aesthetic partly from the Nazis, with whom the Finnish army fought against the Soviet Union in an example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend — kind of.” (Finland stayed independent and never formally allied with Nazi Germany; near the end of the war the two countries got into it with each other anyway.) I don’t think the new Finnish biopic Tom of Finland gets into the Nazi thing, which is probably for the best; by his own admission, Touko was never particularly political at heart, though his work ended up being plenty political.

Touko (Pekka Strang) cuts an artsy figure — with his porkpie hat and mustache, he resembles a Eurotrash R. Crumb (whose bizarrely sexual comics, like Touko’s art, are as notorious as they are renowned). He slouches around Finland, furtively pursuing men in parks or at “poker parties” and risking arrest. (Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in Finland until 1971.) He has a job in advertising, and on the side he draws painstaking pictures of men posing alone or in twos or threes, sometimes busy, sometimes just bulging. What made Touko’s drawings so magnetic to gay men in later years, and what gives them a spark that transcends the usual porn, is that they come from such an obvious, desperate place of, well, concupiscence. It was his inner orgy life given form, though in technique it was, as one critic said, illustrative but not expressive. The men’s expressions are sullen or glazed over with lust (there are some exceptions). The blankness of their faces is a good screen on which the viewer can project his fantasies.

The movie’s Touko seems to follow suit, eventually shopping for leather-daddy gear and becoming one of his own stolid cartoons. Touku never seems especially cheerful or even happy. The frequent same-sex encounters are filmed rather neutrally by straight director Dome Karukoski. The heart of the movie is in the relationships between Touku and those who love him, such as his disapproving sister (Jessica Grabowsky), or his younger lover who succumbs to AIDS, or the Californian gays who invite him out to see the impact he had on American rough-trade culture (in the West Coast ‘70s as well as the Helsinki ‘40s, it’s all about butch hair and mustaches and shared cigarettes and sexuality so aggressively lunging it seems almost like Kabuki at times). What we don’t know is whether he loves them back — or can. The film cites Touko’s wartime stabbing to death of a Russian paratrooper as the event that froze his soul, took him out of the human race and sidelined him as a watcher, an artist.

Once the movie gets to California and the snarky twinks and amiable bears who revere Tom of Finland’s work, its outlook improves and it shakes off, at least temporarily, the Helsinki blues. It does spend a lot of our time beforehand being dreary (though, as lighted by cinematographer Lasse Frank, gorgeously dreary — not drearily dreary as in the recent England Is Mine). I found myself wanting a whole movie documenting Touko’s bright years in the ‘70s, before AIDS decimated the community and before Touko himself fell to emphysema in 1991. But in order to appreciate Touko’s liberation and vindication in his later years we need to see the repression/oppression of his youth. In the ‘40s, Touko passes one of his naughtier drawings under a toilet stall as a come-on; he gets a fat lip for his troubles. Fast-forward to the ‘70s, and dudes are dueling with giant inflatable phalluses at pool parties where wayward police, rather than being feared, are catcalled.

That juicy round of hooting at embarrassed cops who, in another time and place, would have been arresting the whole party is gratifying and about as close as Tom of Finland comes to pure comedy — except when it shows us Touko’s work. The drawing has the fizz of an artist mesmerized by his own onanistic images, like all those so-aroused-it-hurts drawings by R. Crumb of fat-bottomed girls, or S. Clay Wilson’s seething panoramas of filth. It has wit, and a refreshing lack of sentiment. Would that the same were true of the film, which goes a little soft (flaccid, if you will) near the end, with a bunny brought into a dying man’s hospital room — the scene is, I think, a mistake. But most of the handsomely assembled film pays tribute not to the man’s pornography but to the way it pointed gay men away from shame towards pride, like an arrow, or like something similarly shaped.

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.

 

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?