Tag Archives: biopic

The Dirt

You may not even believe that the dudes of Motley Crue are literate, but in fact, they released their Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band in 2001. The chapters (because yes, of course I’ve read it, I’VE READ EVERYTHING) alternate between the guys, and everyone’s got a version of the story they’re selling. Lots of the details conflict. In fact, lots of the big stuff conflicts too, but that’s part of the book’s charm. The guys sort of interact within its pages, rebutting each other’s alternate versions and extolling their own. The Dirt is even dirtier than you’d imagine.

So it’s kind of surprising that it took someone this long to make a movie out of it, but Netflix has, and it’s ripe for the streaming. 

The film alternates its point of view between the band members but the story is a little more cleanly told than it is in the book. And while almost by definition the antics are somewhat toned down, you’ll still get plenty of the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that Motley Crue was known for. In fact, you won’t have to wait more than 3 minutes to see a woman squirting. Stay tuned for the heroin overdoses, vehicular manslaughter, and anonymous head.

Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth), Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly), Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), and Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) have some stories to tell. Tommy’s wholesome upbringing contrasts sadly with Nikki’s, while the other two get lost in the dust. The truth is, the 107 minute run time is brisk, and gives more screen time to trashing hotel rooms than it does to insightful backstory, because this is what draws the audience to any Motley Crue show: not the lessons learned or the underdog story, but the fights fought loud and proud and bloody. You come for the famous girlfriends and the venereal disease and the mountains of dope and the increasingly inventive use of leather. And fear not: director Jeff Tremaine delivers. He does best with those scenes of complete debauchery than he does with stitching them together into some cohesive story. And weirdly, the music is very nearly an afterthought. But if you’ve come for The Dirt, I promise you, you’ve found it.

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Stan & Ollie

Better known to the world as Laurel & Hardy, two things are communicated with the title Stan & Ollie: 1. There’s another side to this comedy duo, a lesser known side, and we’re about to be privy; 2. This is a more intimate look at the team, an insider’s look as we are invited to know them by their first names.

In the 1930s, at the height of their career, Stanley Laurel (Steve Coogan) & Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) were like a 90s-era boy band and Hal Roach (Danny Huston) is their Lou Pearlman. Laurel and Hardy were as manufactured and packaged as any boy band; they started out as strangers, but when producers threw them together, their careers became inextricably combined. They became the most famous comedy duo on the planet, but the trouble was, they didn’t own any rights. Their movies weren’t their own. They drew salaries but never saw profits akin to their success. Producers and managers pocketed their millions.

When Stan’s contract was up (and Ollie’s was not), he saw it as an opportunity to 2negotiate – or leave. He got himself a better deal elsewhere, but the problem was, Ollie didn’t walk with him. Too afraid to risk his small piece of the pie for the whole damn dessert, Hardy stayed behind, and even allowed himself to be reteamed with someone else. Ultimately their careers tanked and that was the end, or nearly the end, of Laurel & Hardy.

Which, interestingly, is where the movie begins. It’s been 15 years since those unsuccessful contract negotiations, and the world has assumed that the pair have been retired.  Laurel & Hardy mount a comeback tour over in the UK, supposedly culminating in a movie deal. But the grueling tour is humbling, the small theatres not selling out, the world having moved on. Plus, Hardy’s health is no good. Can his body even do this anymore, even if the people showed up? Not to mention the resentments quietly roiling beneath the surface. Both are nursing hurt feelings.

This movie is a really interesting look at what it takes to forge a creative bond with someone. And what it takes to stay together! Though their job was to make the people laugh, it often came at a cost to them. This movie isn’t overly anxious to uncover dirt, it’s got a tread about as heavy as their soft-shoe routine. Small in scope, it’s actually better than the average biopic, focusing on the lows rather than the better-known highs experienced in the spotlight.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are well-matched. They certainly make us believe in a shared history and an easy\uneasy rapport. They’re both a lot of fun to watch, despite this movie being more about their despair and their failings. Stan & Ollie is a peek behind the clown’s smile, and the truth is that grease paint is slippery and imperfect, but it makes a helluva compelling story.

Vice

So Dick Cheney is an evil piece of shit. You may remember him from such roles as acting like a cardboard cutout of the American Vice President while he secretly usurped the president’s powers to rewrite the U.S. Constitution, orchestrate wars, and author ISIS.

Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is a power-hungry beast who doesn’t let anything stop him from acting as the Leader of the Free World – not ethics, not the well-defined roles of President and Vice President, not democracy, not NUTHIN. Adam McKay’s film, Vice, MV5BMDY1MTdkODgtZjYyYy00ZTQ4LTliN2YtOWZhZGFiMzNmNjdjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg2ODI2OTU@._V1_shows Cheney’s reluctance to be George W.’s running mate. Even though Cheney views VP as a “zero job,” he is always thinking dozens of steps ahead; he’s not going to sit around waiting for the president to die so he can wear the crown. In W., Cheney found a moron so empty, so distracted, so willing to give away all the actual power, and Cheney’s astute enough to surreptitiously pull the oval office throne right out from under Bush Junior. McKay brings Cheney’s machinations to the silver screen – every scheme, every lie and every gory detail.

This movie takes some big risks and its story-telling bravely exists outside the normal narrative bounds (though fans of The Big Short won’t find it nearly so fresh). With such big swings, there are inevitably some big misses.  This movie didn’t always work for me, but I still admired it for having such a distinct voice.

Christian Bale undergoes quite a transformation to play Cheney, though I never forgot I was watching Bale like I did when I was watching Sam Rockwell play Dubyah. Credit to the actors of course, but I believe the incredible hair and makeup effects team will be recognized for astonishing work – Tyler Perry as Colin Powell is a prime example. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney round out an enviable cast doing some very fine work.

Unfortunately, the script isn’t consistent. This isn’t really a Dick Cheney biopic, it’s the incredible true story of how a rogue Vice President hijacked George W. Bush’s entire administration. It would be a monumentally impressive heist if it wasn’t so mind-meltingly devastating to the world at large. But to tell the story in sufficient detail, McKay has to take some moon-gravity-sized leaps. Decades of Cheney’s life are not just gone, but forgotten, which results in some swiss-cheese-plot-holes that were hard to forgive – though a liberal sprinkling of heart attacks like sea salt on fries went a long way.

The truth is, though, that Sean and I dissected this movie backwards and forwards and then we poked at it from the side too, over Doritos-dusted mac and cheese bites, and while that doesn’t mean Vice is a flawless movie, it must mean that it’s a good one, a worthy one. In fact, part of its brilliance is how it draws you in at the end, turning audience members into characters partially responsible for these atrocities. Vice depicts events of recent history, and like it or not, we’re complicit, and McKay inspires us to take a hard look in the mirror and a cold drink at the well of social responsibility.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see…

Bohemian Rhapsody is the story of Queen, although if we’re being honest, it favours front man Freddie Mercury quite heavily.

Freddie Mercury was a complicated, effervescent, talented, charismatic man. The film is much more straight-forward than that. He was also sexually flamboyant. While not exactly openly gay, at least not publicly, he did adopt a look that easily identified him as MV5BZjEwODQ3ZDAtYzM4Zi00YWQxLThmZDEtNzhjNGJhMzFkNThjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc0NzQzNTM@._V1_such. But he was more than gay or straight; he was fluid. He could wear a unitard on stage so confidently that he made people forget to be so judgmental. He won them over with his energy and stage presence. But after the show, Freddie was his own man. He did not lead a PG-13 life, so the PG-13 movie that attempts to immortalize it is of course sanitized. There is not much in the way of sex or drugs but the rock and roll – oh man.

That’s the reason to watch this film. The music is great, and the scenes revolving around the music tend to be its best. The decision to recreate their Live Aid set, widely considered to be the greatest 20 minutes of love music ever, in its entirety is the best thing that ever happened to a music biopic. I felt tears pricking my eyes the minute they stepped onto the stage.

Rami Malek is great. It’ll take a few minutes to see beyond the fake horse teeth he’s wearing of course, those are regrettable, but Malek is a fun casting choice who does indeed bring an intense Freddie energy to the role. The whole cast is great, actually, although I see Mike Myers is determined to make a comeback and I’m really not here for it, though he does have a pretty epic line.

Lucy Boynton has a meaty role as Mary. Mary was Freddie’s lifelong friend; they stayed close until the day he died. In the movie she gets to be Freddie’s significant other, which is great for the actress but less great for an audience who values authenticity. Yes she was a part of his life but she wasn’t his whole life. Mercury would have had many partners of course, but he had a great love, Jim, who lived with him during the last 6 years of his life, and nursed him when he got sick. Freddie died wearing Jim’s wedding ring. But in the film we get only the briefest glimpse of Jim and double eyefuls of Mary. Have they straight-washed a gay icon?

At any rate, if you came for the music, you’ll stay for it, and struggle not to burst out singing. The movie is more of a greatest hits compilation that an intimate evening with Freddie, but when the hits are so good, it’s hard to complain too loudly.

TIFF18: First Man

You know the story. The whole world knows the story. Neil Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer and Apollo astronaut, was the first man to walk on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – that was him. American hero, international phenomenon, global icon. First Man is his biopic, tracing the 304400 km path he took from humble test pilot to living legend.

First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the ethereal La La Land, which made him the youngest Best Director to ever be awarded the prize at the Oscars. To say I was highly anticipating screening this movie at TIFF is like saying Armstrong was kind of an interesting guy – a resounding understatement. But when the lights came back up, I was feeling a little…underwhelmed? Bored? Disconnected.

Feeling uncomfortable with my initial reaction, I turned to my favourite critic in a whole cinema full of press, and invited him to discuss and unpack this movie over sushi burritos. First – Ryan Gosling. He gives a terrifically reserved, very stoic performance as a famously quiet, attention-shirking man. Armstrong is surprisingly passive when encountering life-altering choices. He’s dispassionate. He’s obsessed with technical detail and getting things right but he never seems overly impressed with the great heights involved in his job. Wait a minute – is it possible Neil Armstrong was on the spectrum? To be clear, I’ve never heard that he’s an Aspie, or had high-IQ autism. Nor have I heard it mentioned in the context of this film. However, his wife at the time, Janet (played in the Film Title: First Manmovie by Claire Foy), called him “emotionally disconnected.” In the film, he struggles to speak to fellow astronauts and even his own children, and goes out of his way  not to. But it’s not that he doesn’t care. He clearly grieves the loss of his infant daughter, and thinks of her often. And he’s sensitive to the deaths of his colleagues. But these are internal struggles that rarely get expressed, or expressed correctly. He’s not unfriendly or unapproachable, exactly, but human connection is hard for him. Is undiagnosed autism what Gosling is hinting at with such a performance? And with that question in mind, the rest of the movie unlocks before me.

I trust Damien Chazelle as a director. If I’m feeling underwhelmed, isn’t it because he wants me to? After all, this is the guy who made me sweat while watching a movie about jazz (sorry, jazz). If he wanted me soaring among the stars, he certainly has the vision not to mention the skill. He swept me away with La La Land; I danced out of the theatre even as I ugly-snot-cried. If my feet are more firmly planted on the ground for this film, there has to be a reason.

What if Chazelle is attempting to put us not just in Armstrong’s shoes, but in his head? I felt very removed during the movie, but maybe that’s exactly his intention: to show the greatest, most ambitious, most adrenaline-fueled achievement in the history of humankind through the eyes of someone who doesn’t express feelings in the usual way.

Whoa.

Now that I’m re-examining the film through this  new filter, I realize that I don’t remember Gosling smiling even once in the whole 120+ minutes. He doesn’t cry when he’s sad, nor does he ever appear to be particularly happy. At a pre-flight press conference, a journalist asks him how it feels to find out he’ll be the first to walk on the moon, to which he simply responds “I’m pleased.” Finding this response lacking, the reporter probes further, asking him to compare it to finding out he’d been selected for NASA’s astronaut program, to which Armstrong can only repeat “I’m pleased.” Although he’s certainly capable of more complex emotions, communicating them seems impossible. Another scene that struck me is one in which Armstrong is trying to sneak out of the house without saying goodbye. He’ll be gone for 2 months, strapped to a bomb that will explode him out of the atmosphere to land or crash on the moon and no one knows for sure if he’ll ever come back. His family has attended the funerals of many friends and colleagues who’ve perished in various missions. His two young sons are sad and scared and he tried to sneak away. His wife has to beg him to say a few words, but “I love you” are not among them. Knowing his father doesn’t like hugs, his brave son offers a handshake instead, not knowing if this is to be their last embrace.

This film is strangely muted, with even the score a tad alienating with unfamiliar instruments. And check out that photo from above – doesn’t that blue wash make him seem lonely, and isolated? This great adventure in the sky should be exciting and staggering, but the biggest sensation we’re given is physical discomfort as we’re rumbled and tumbled about during liftoff sequences. Not that Armstrong complains. There’s no swelling pride or patriotism, no heroic speeches or manly tears. In fact, there’s very little awe. In the vastness of space, the screen is often filled with a solitary face. I wonder if the emphasis on extreme close-ups is supposed to symbolize Armstrong’s challenge in deciphering non-verbal cues, or if it’s merely to give us a better view of his consistently flat affect.

The camera seems to offer things up from Armstrong’s point of view – one small chunk of moon dust rather than an entire lunar landscape. His trip into the infinite universe feels very small, and very  humble, but he’s not unmoved. He just has a narrow focus, more fascinated by his own boot print than by the multitude of stars. Does Armstrong feel more at home in the empty quiet of space? Maybe. But we’ll never know because he sure as heck didn’t say so.

If my little theory is correct, I wish I had know it going in rather than piecing it together in hindsight. What more would I have noticed? I can’t wait to re-watch and find out. I can’t wait to appreciate Armstrong and his accomplishments in this new light, and to celebrate Chazelle as a director who can so completely immerse and saturate you in someone else’s experience. Remarkable.

TIFF18: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

If you’re asking for forgiveness, Melissa, you’ve got it. Not that I really believe you have anything to be sorry for. The Happytime Murders was a misfire, but hardly your fault, and I admire any attempt to do something different.

With this movie, both Melissa McCarthy and the character she plays are trying something different. McCarthy is trying on a more dramatic role, and though Lee Israel has a teriffic wit, she’s got no slapstick about her at all. canyoueverforgiveme_0HEROMcCarthy only has her own skin to live in, face naked save for an inept smear of lipstick on only the most special of occasions (ie, when asking for money), hair constantly overdue for its next dye job, frumpy clothes in various shades of poop. But it’s Israel’s personality that poses the real problem. She’s abrasive and reclusive and just doesn’t really know how to exist among people, so she’s basically stopped trying. It’s just her and her cat – a daunting thought when it’s just her and a blank page. A once-celebrated writer of biographies, her agent nowadays can’t get so much as a $10 advance for a book on Fanny Brice that nobody wants.

Living in semi-squalor, Lee finds there’s good money selling literary mementos from great authors. Is it her fault that better content fetches higher prices? Isn’t it just good business sense to exploit her natural gift for writing and put it to use making money again?

Crime pays, for a while. And then the FBI gets curious about all the fraud and forgery and whatnot.

I love this script. McCarthy’s very first line earns a laugh out loud, and the script continues to reflect Lee’s caustic humour throughout. And McCarthy is just brilliant in the role, aggressively unpersonable, but also sympathetic. There’s a whole framework of supporting cast to admire too, particularly Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, and Marc Evan Jackson.

This isn’t just a film about forging letters, it’s about loneliness, and friendship, and purpose. It’s hard to say which Lee needs more – human connection or the sense that she is creatively fulfilled. Of course, when you’re crediting your best work to someone else, it’s plagiary of the heart and perhaps this is what hurts her most in the end. Lee Israel is not anyone’s idea of a hero, but her flaws are all-too-human, and it’s fascinating to slide down the rabbit hole with her.

TIFF18: White Boy Rick

The trailers for White Boy Rick deceived me. I expected a frenetic, over-the-top throwback full of 80s excess, rollerskating, and outlandish behaviour as fifteen year old Ricky (Richie Merritt) breaks into the Detroit crime scene in 1984, assisted by his gunrunning dad (played by the madcap Matthew McConaughey). I expected a dark comedy. I hoped for Scarface, the teenage years, with lots of action and quotable dialogue. I would have settled for half-assed ripoff of Boogie Nights, with a naive rising star breaking into a criminal enterprise.

But instead, I got a melancholy family drama about a group of deadbeats with whom I had no interest in spending any time at all. Not as friends, not as neighbours, and certainly not as the subjects of a two hour feature. Ricky’s story is not a story that deserves to be told on screen, and that’s fatal. I never could bring myself to care about him or his family, not even a little bit. That is in no way the fault of Merritt or McConaughey. It is also not an issue arising from the screenplay or the direction. It’s more basic than that: there was no saving these characters. They were simply irredeemable.whiteboyrick_01

It’s unfortunate because there is a story underlying White Boy Rick that does deserve our attention: the fact that the 80s “War on Drugs” was primarily a scheme to keep America’s prisons stocked with young black men. And, as a bonus in many states, strip them of their right to vote once convicted of a felony, which many might even plead to if they were locked up and mistreated for long enough prior to trial.

That is a story that has been much better told by Ava DuVernay’s 13th (which is definitely worth your time). That is also a story that should probably not be told from a white family’s perspective, as doing so suggests that mandatorylife sentences without the possibility of parole for crack dealers are only a problem when white people start getting locked away too.

Yet, here we are. Ricky’s life is onscreen for you to shake your head at, if you so choose. But you have much better options available to you in the coming weeks (such as The Predator and Life Itself, to name two I saw this past weekend at TIFF). Then again, if you are about bad choices, like choosing White Boy Rick over either of those, then maybe you will find the movie more enjoyable due to having something in common with little Ricky and his family, who never met a bad choice they didn’t like. Yes, I just went there, but it’s for your own good.