Tag Archives: biopic

Rebel In The Rye

J.D. “Juvenile Delinquent” Salinger gets thrown out of schools just to piss his father off. It’s his mother who encourages him to enroll in a writing class, while his dad doubts there’ll be a single paycheque in his future. In his writing program he meets professor Whit Burnett, a hard-ass he grows to love. “Jerry” writes because he’s angry and he needs to express it somehow. Burnett shows him how to do this without alienating his reader. He’s also the one who encourages him to turn Holden Caulfield into a novel, and the one who worries him when he goes off to war.

Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) returns from war a better writer perhaps, but messed up in other ways, unsurprisingly. Catcher In The Rye is an enormous hit. That messes him up lead_720_405too. I wondered how I’d come to miss this movie, with notable subjects and stars, but I didn’t have to wait long to figure out the why if not the how: Kevin Spacey. He co-stars as the beleaguered, bloated professor, which means the accusations against him would have left the producers scrambling, and they buried it in a shallow Hollywood grave.

But to be fair, Spacey’s involvement isn’t the film’s only problem. It’s too neat, too well-packaged, perhaps even too kind to the author, who no doubt was an interesting, tortured recluse. Hoult is fine as Salinger, and he plays well against the likes of Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, and even Spacey. But this is a pretty ordinary, banal biopic that’s a little starry-eyed about its subject, which dilutes its power and keeps us at arm’s length from the real artist, a man who loved writing but gave it up to live privately, to meditate for his mental health, and to avoid press at all costs.

It’s also, if we’re being honest, hard to reconcile a beloved and important work with so much pain. This movie is both too much (too broad) and not enough (no depth). Rebel in the Rye is more like Mediocre at the Movies.

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SXSW: Blaze

Ugh. You know how they say opposites attract? Well, I wish that was more true. I mean, Sean and I are opposites in some ways: he’s quiet, I’m loud; he’s analytical, I’m passionate and creative. But our flaws are all the same, which is deeply unfortunate. We’re both slobs (Sean will no doubt want to argue this, so I will amend: he’s a slob, I’m just too lazy to clean). We’re both argumentative. We both have poor memory. We’re both procrastinators.

When we saw this movie at SXSW, I’m not even sure we’d gone a full block before I’d declared “not it.” I did not not not want to review this movie. Sean acquiesed, and to be fair, I wrote 27 SXSW reviews, and he wrote 5, so he kinda owed me. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a month. As you may have guessed, we’re also both Assholes, and we’re both deathly stubborn. We occasionally bring up this review with much throat-clearing, and then we discuss it in that overly-polite way that couples who have been married a long time have in order not to divorce over literally every third conversation they have. Still no review.

So fuck, white flag, here it is:

There once was a Texan singer-songwriter who went by the name of Blaze Foley. He was a good musician but not a super successful one; in fact, he wasn’t very successful at life. He struggled with addictions and pushed away the woman who tried to love him. He MV5BNTAxZWU4MjktYmNkNC00NGRiLTk2MDMtNDhhMjkwMWIwYTUzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzM1MTEwMTE@._V1_accessorized his western wear with duct tape and lived in a tree house with no plumbing or electricity. He was mentally unstable, volatile, poor every damn day of his life, and then he got shot in the gut and died. Lucinda Williams called him “a genius and a beautiful loser.” Townes Van Zandt suggested “He’s only gone crazy once. Decided to stay.” The only hits he ever had were when his songs were recorded by other people, and even then lots were posthumous (Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, John Prine). And for some reason Ethan Hawke just really, really wanted to make a movie about the guy. So, using Blaze’s ex-lover Sybil Rosen’s book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze as his guide, he did.

If you’re a music nerd who knows the likes of Van Zandt, Gurf Morlix, Guy Schwartz, and Billy Block, then this film is the perfect way to worship your duct tape messiah. Ben Dickey in the title role and Alia Shawkat as his bride are both wonderful. But I found the movie sluggish, the content unremarkable. I think Sean enjoyed the film more than I did (at the very least he could argue as to why anyone would want to make a film about this particular life) but he wouldn’t write the damn review so this is what you get: meh.

Of course, screening the movie on Blaze’s old stomping grounds means having a lot of his musician friends in the audience, and later on stage, which was cool. But I didn’t know the man and I don’t think I’d have wanted to. And if Julia Roberts can’t get me to listen to Lyle Lovett then no one can. So this was a lost cause for me, a bore and a chore.  Sorry, Blaze. I hope you’re resting in peace.

 

Indian Horse

imagesThe residential school system is not the only black mark on our country but it has to be the darkest stain. We and our government could not have done worse by our indigenous people if we tried. We should have known from the start that this imperialistic plan would go horribly wrong. After all, we chose to put the Catholic Church in charge of many of these awful residential schools (and not just the Catholic Church, but a bunch of others share the blame, including the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches of Canada), because it wasn’t enough to tear children from their families and literally beat their culture out of them, it seemed appropriate for some reason to facilitate child molestation too, feeding 150,000 potential altar boys and girls to more than a few insatiable priests over the lifetime of the program. 150,000!

Not surprisingly, the end result of this utter disaster was the destruction of generations upon generations of indigenous people, something we cannot ever be ashamed of enough. And this is not something we can blame on our long-dead racist ancestors, since the last residential school did not close until 1996.  1996!

Indian Horse tells the story of one of those unfortunate kids who was sent to residential school, a boy named Saul Indian Horse. Saul happens to be a natural at hockey, quickly becoming the star of the school’s team. But for some reason, despite his hockey-playing prowess, Saul is clearly struggling to find his place. Could the reason for his struggles be that he and everyone he knew were subjected to horrific abuse every single day?

You don’t have to watch Indian Horse to learn that yes, all those years of abuse hurt Saul really, really badly. And you don’t have to watch Indian Horse to grasp that his story is just one of 150,000 about those who were directly and irreparably harmed by residential schools, not to mention the thousands more who were harmed just as badly by the loss of their family members to the schools, and not to mention the subsequent damage caused by attendees of the schools when, surprise, surprise, after being removed from their families and their culture as kids and abused by those who were supposed to take care of them, they were unable to even care for themselves, let alone their children, a cycle that we still haven’t been able to break. But you should watch Indian Horse anyway.

You should watch Indian Horse to remember that to the extent that Saul or any other survivor of residential schools fell short, it’s not for lack of will or effort on their part. It’s because the Canadian government, and by extension the white Canadian majority, failed them monumentally.  Indian Horse demonstrates our country’s massive failure clearly and effectively despite its shoestring budget, while at the same time paying tribute to the inner strength of one survivor who, but for his race, would have been a hockey-loving Canadian kid on his way to stardom.

So here’s to Saul and to each of his friends. I’m so sorry for what you had to suffer through, and I promise not to ever forget it or let anything like this ever happen again.  I know that’s not enough to right these wrongs and nothing ever will be.  But hopefully it is a step in the right direction after hundreds of years of horror. It is truly a shame that the Pope doesn’t feel that way, but hardly surprising the Catholic Church won’t acknowledge any of its wrongdoings – we’ve seen that movie already.

 

Roxanne Roxanne

Imagine your surprise when you issue a challenge to (rap) battle the Queensbridge Project’s champ, and she turns out to be a little girl. She has to ask her mom permission in order to curse and stand on a milk crate just to look you in the eye.

In 1982, at the age of 14, Lolita “Roxanne Shanté” Gooden is smart, fierce, and is still the most feared (if not respected) battle MC in Queens. She won’t get out of bed for less than $250, but those winnings are going to support her family. Her mother (Nia Long) is raising a family of sweet young girls all by herself, teaching them hard lessons because her own life is nothing but disappointment.

Watching Shanté (Chanté Adams) navigate the world is tough. She may spit rhymes to MV5BOTM0MzhmMjUtY2UxMy00MTQyLWJhMzItN2EzYWRjYmZjMThhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODY2NTE3MTM@._V1_destroy her competition, but she’s a kid, one who engages the audience’s protective instinct. You may or may not know Roxanne Shanté, but she was well on her way to becoming a hip hop legend before she finished high school (not that she ever went). This film doesn’t feel like a typical musical biopic. Instead it’s more of a character portrait, quite intimate, and quite focused on the day to day details, which is a nice window into her little-known private life, but not much of a door to the bigger picture. Luckily, director Michael Larnell’s emphasis favours the excellence of his cast.

Roxanne Roxanne is a testimony to all the people who wanted to take advantage of a rising star. And to the dark, gritty, violent experiences lived by women of colour, in and outside of the rap game. Some of the shittiest, most shocking things are mentioned so casually that you can hardly believe what you’re seeing. And with every beating and robbery Roxanne Shanté suffers, we know what she really bleeds is her creativity, the real theft is of her talent.

When this film debuted at Sundance, Chanté Adams was its breakout star. Now it’s available on Netflix, for you to relive the golden days of hip hop (which are actually quite black) and to pay tribute to one of its founding but forgotten stars.

 

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a Netflix original film that takes some chances. Netflix knows it has some leeway for experimenting in film, and this one was a particularly obvious choice for a little outside-the-boxing. It’s a biopic of sorts for Doug Kenney, the founder of National Lampoon. He was a funny guy who coloured outside the lines and this movie is a fitting tribute to him; it keeps you guessing.

Told in retrospect and narrated by an older, wiser, omniscient Doug Kenney (played by Martin Mull) who watches the events of his life unfold with a little disdain and a huge grain of salt. This device allows for a fair amount of editorializing and joke making at his own expense.

Will Forte plays Kenney, ages 18-33, and despite the fact that he’s 46 in real life, he’s a A-Futile-and-Stupid-Gesture-trailer-700x300great choice. He can pull off the sadness and the savage humour, playing it straight, breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to us, talking to himself. Doug Kenney was the Harvard editor of the Lampoon, and he had such an epically good time just fucking around with his good buddy Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) he decided to just keep it going and took their little humour magazine national. And as if the phenomenal success of the National Lampoon wasn’t enough, they expanded into radio shows, during which they enlisted the talents of Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, and Gilda Radner. And then they started writing movies like Animal House and Caddyshack.  And while some might feel content with having their dreams come true and writing the most successful comedy movie EVER, Kenney never can be. He tries to fill the hole in his heart by shooting stuff up his nose. It’s a circuitous route that doesn’t work very well, but  not for lack of trying.

Director David Wain assembles an incredible ensemble to help him out, and by incredible I mean, lots of recognizable faces, but not necessarily well-suited for the parts. Joel McHale gets to play Chevy Chase, and even though the two were on a TV show together for many years, it’s like McHale doesn’t realize he’s a real person with tonnes of footage on which he could base his performance. Instead he does Joel McHale in a bad wig and unless someone is loudly calling him Chevy, I forget which one he’s supposed to be.

I admire this movie more than I like it. I think it’s okay, and at times quite funny, and probably worth a watch if you don’t mind weird stuff. But the thing is, the writers and director are a complete mismatch. The writing is unconventional and wacky and striving for something extra but the director is a little more conservative and a little less inspired so the whole thing just sort of clashes awkwardly. Forte and Gleeson are kind of wonderful though – maybe a little futile, but definitely not stupid.

Breathe

Breathe is the directorial debut of motion-capture artist Andy Serkis, and if there was any justice in this world, it would be his last. [there isn’t: he’s already got a live-action Jungle Book slated next – but at least he seems uniquely qualified for that]

It’s the based-on-a-true-story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an adventurous, fun-loving couple who are brought low when Robin (Andrew Garfield) is suddenly and irrevocably paralyzed by polio. He wants to die, but she wants their unborn son to know him, so they compromise: she springs him from the hospital, and he does his best to stop being so gosh darn glum. He’s the first of his kind to live away from a hospital setting, and it’s thanks to the devotion of his wife (Claire Foy) and the ingenuity of a friend (Hugh Bonneville) that he’s able to do more than just survive.

So yes, there’s an inspiring story in there somewhere. This is Andrew Garfield’s most hero_Breathe-TIFF-2017Eddie Redmayne role yet, but he can’t quite live up to those man-in-chair heights. As his character is paralyzed from the neck down, all he has to use is his face, and of course he overuses it. I liked Foy’s performance a lot better than Garfield’s. He came off as grating; Sean called it nearly unbearable. But he’s far from the only problem with the movie. First, the script is cloying, predictable, and overly sentimental. It’s an emotional predator, designed to wring tears from your face. I refused to comply. It hits the all-too familiar beats of a biopic and doesn’t stray once from conventional story-telling. But Andy Serkis’s direction does stray from the norm, and from the tolerable. It’s shot in an ultrawide aspect ratio that I hated. I felt like I was watching a skinny rectangle at best, but often felt as though I was viewing the movie through a fishbowl. Serkis’ angles are often weird, and not quirky weird, but uncomfortable and off-putting. But I suppose the worst crimes against this little against-all-odds love story is that Serkis rushes through the prologue, the courtship, the thing that should make us understand why this guy deserves so much devotion, why their love is so strong that she’s willing to wipe his shitty bum and go without sex for the rest of her life in order to keep a suicidal man alive. It’s a crap life for her. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, just that it’s always going to be difficult. And I realized that though there are seemingly lots of movies about men being tended by loyal wives, the same is not true in reverse. Husbands cut and run. So really the movie’s most interesting character is Diana, and we know little about her. We don’t see any of her struggles or her inner life. In fact, for Breathe’s 117 minute runtime, I’m not sure we got to know anyone particularly well in this movie. And that’s really too bad.

Maudie

Maudie was born “funny” – sharp in her mind but infirm in her body. She is discounted, invisible to the world. Abused then neglected by her brother, his monthly sum to her caretaker aunt doesn’t mean the aunt is nice to her, not at all. So it shouldn’t be surprising when Maudie seeks to improve her situation by lending herself out as a housemaid. The only person who’d have her is an ornery (possibly autistic, in a time way before that would be diagnosed) fishmonger who lives out in rural Nova Scotia.

maudie_01Maudie (Sally Hawkins) and Everett (Ethan Hawke) are a couple of odd socks – the world has discarded them and they do not belong together but for lack of anything better have somehow become a pair. Their relationship doesn’t exactly blossom into romance but their mutual tolerance and sometime thoughtfulness or generosity does translate into a partnership of sorts, and marriage. And while Maudie may neglect her household chores, she blossoms in Everett’s house as a painter. Her arthritis makes it increasingly hard to even hold a brush but her joyful spirit paints their modest, one-room home in bright, colourful designs. Soon the community around her will embrace her for it. Maud Lewis (1903-1970) is one of Canada’s best known folk artists.

Sally Hawkins is phenomenal. She underplays everything because she can, because she can rely upon her talent to communicate big things in small ways. Her eyebrows alone are Oscar worthy. Her smile is reminiscent of the real Maud – wide and innocent. She gives such dignity to this character who really led a simple life, a life of poverty, but a life that was more than enough for a woman who needed only some space and a paint brush in her hand to feel happy. Maudie is not just a tribute to the artist, but to her way of life. I was moved by this film, for Maud specifically and women generally, for anyone who was marginalized and squashed and found a way to bloom anyway.

Nico, 1988

nico-1988-trine-dyrholmYou may not know Nico by name, but I bet you have heard of some of her friends, people like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Nico, born Christa Päffgen, was part of the Velvet Underground for their first album (getting co-billing in fact) and, as a musician, that would seem to overshadow anything else one might do from then on. Nico, 1988 joins Christa in 1986 as she tours in support of her latest solo album. Understandably, Christa would prefer to keep the focus on her new music, but the press keeps asking about her past.

Nico, 1988 makes the viewer feel the weight of that past. This film gives a revealing and honest look at Christa’s life, stitched together from memories of those who knew her, including her son. It feels like a documentary, in large part due to a great performance by Trine Durholm in the lead role. Durholm shines both offstage as well as onstage, handling vocal duties herself.

The music is the beating heart of Nico, 1988, which is entirely appropriate for a biopic about an avant garde innovator whose music Rolling Stone called “a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity”, music that others have described as desolate, terrifying and unlistenable.

Judging from the soundtrack in Nico, 1988, all those descriptions are accurate. Sometimes, Christa sounds horrible, but once in a while, it’s magic. One ill-fated concert in Prague shows the heights that Christa can hit. Her energy and the crowd’s mesh perfectly and draw the viewer into the front row. Not coincidentally, that’s the only performance in the film that Christa delivers drug-free. Christa’s struggles with addiction are part of her story, and they feature in this film just as they did in her life.

For music lovers in particular, Nico, 1988 is essential viewing. It provides a behind the scenes look at the life of a true artist, a musician’s musician who cast a shadow too large for herself to escape from. Catch it if you can!

Nina

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was a tour de force. She was a classically trained pianist who studied at Julliard. She applied at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was rejected despite an excellent audition because of the colour of her skin. Never intending to sing, she was forced to in order to make a living being a musician of the non-classical variety, the only option open to a woman of colour. She played a blend of jazz and blues, folk and gospel, and probably more besides. She changed her name to avoid embarrassing her family now that she played “the devil’s music.” And she became an activist, an outspoken proponent of the Civil Rights movement. Her music had always spoken to her roots, but soon she incorporated political themes there as well. A beautifully angry song “Mississippi Goddam” written in response to the bombing of the Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama (that killed 4 little girls) particularly comes to mind, because how could it not? It’s spectacular and heart breaking. There was a great documentary made about her life not too long ago, but Nina is not a documentary, which means someone had to step into her shoes.

MV5BODk1NDY2MjcyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzkzNzM2ODE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1502,1000_AL_Mary J Blige was originally cast but had to drop out. Nina herself had hoped that it would be Whoopi who’d portray her on screen. Instead director Cynthia Mort went with Zoe Saldana, and thus created a furor. With Dominican and Cuban ancestry, Saldana identifies as a black woman, but critics felt she was not black enough. Not black enough? The notion makes me queasy. But when Saldana said she was honoured to play Simone, the Nina Simone Foundation nastily replied “Dear Zoe, please keep Nina’s name out of your mouth for the rest of your life.”

Saldana’s talent is bigger than the criticism. She has a great voice, which you may have heard in The Book of Life, but no, she doesn’t sound like Simone. No one does. But she brings a lot of strength and dignity to the role, a mean feat considering the film focuses on the latter years of Simone’s life, which were turbulent to say the least. Mentally and financially unstable, Simone was committed to a psych ward, where she met a nurse she would later make her assistant, and then her manager. David Oyelowo plays the nurse. Biopics generally benefit from a narrow focus, but this one is perhaps unfair to her memory since Simone was so much more than just her struggles. See the documentary for a clearer picture of her life, but to see Saldana shine, this is one good role among many.

 

 

Two days before she died, the Curtis Institute of Music bestowed granted Simone an honorary degree.

SXSW: The Most Hated Woman In America

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was an activist. For atheism. Perhaps you remember her? She was reviled by some and praised by others, I suppose depending on which side of god’s fence you sit on, if you believe there’s a fence, and whether you believe other people have the right to picket that fence. She took pride in being a nonconformist; it suited her already abrasive personality. When she was unable to defect to the state atheist USSR (they wouldn’t have her), she moved in instead with her mother in, and took on the Baltimore public school system. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and led to prayer being banned in schools. Hate mail sometimes contained actual shit but praise mail sometimes contained cheques. Her penchant for nonconformism led to “creative accounting” with her so-called non-profit.

large_MHWA-posterAnyway. This movie is NOT the story of Madalyn’s gleeful adoption of a derisive nickname given to her by Life magazine on its front page (“The Most Hated Woman in America”). No, this film instead focuses on that time in 1995 when Madalyn (Melissa Leo) was kidnapped from her own home, along with her son (Michael Chernus) and granddaughter (Juno Temple) by the likes of Josh Lucas and Rory Cochrane. A friend of the family has trouble convincing anyone that a crime has occurred, and only a reluctant journalist (Adam Scott) pursues their disappearance.

O’Hair was clearly a complicated individual but this film is not the best gauge. Narratively it’s full of jumping beans, skipping around like it can’t find an interesting thread even though actually any thread would have been fascinating if only the film had the courage to stick with it. Melissa Leo and cast are able enough; Leo serves this prickly character rather perfectly but the rest are more or less wasted. This film only manages to scrape the tip of an ice berg, story-wise, but if you’re surfing Netflix looking for some true (ish) crime and an Oscar-winning barbed tongue, you could do worse.