Tag Archives: biopic

TIFF19: Harriet

Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta “Minty” Ross in Maryland. She suffered all the usual indignities and violence inflicted upon slaves, but one injury in particular left her with permanent brain damage, which gave her, as she described “premonitions from God.”

According to a legal will, she was supposed to have been freed long ago, but when she eventually went to plead with her owner, it wasn’t for her own freedom but that of her unborn child. She had married a freeman who visited her frequently, but he didn’t want to have a baby who would be born a slave, and I suppose you can guess how her masters answered her.

So that’s when Harriet got it in her head to run away. I mean, it must have been in every slave’s head every day of their lives, but finding the courage and the opportunity to do it was prohibitive. Runaways were brought back and tortured before being put to death, to set an example for others. It would have been a powerful motivator for staying put, to say nothing of having to leave behind your loved ones. Of course, when your loved ones can be sold away without notice, it is perhaps not such a big risk after all.

At any rate, Harriet did leave one night, alone. She traveled to Philadelphia on foot, 145km, evading slave catchers and bounty hunters, hiding by day, guided by the north star at night. Eventually she made it to freedom: she survived.

In the film, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He is a meticulous record-keeper and Harriet’s is but one of many, many entries in his logbook. She then meets Marie (Janelle Monae), a black woman born free, who owns the rooming house where Harriet lives. Marie teaches Harriet a different kind of life. Of course, posing as a free woman is an improvement, but not exactly without risks or complications. People are still looking for her. Harriet could spend her whole life looking over her shoulder. But she doesn’t.

Instead, Harriet chooses not only to look back, but to go back. To rescue family, friends, and in fact dozens if not hundreds of strangers. To go back for others, and free them as well. If it’s hard enough to understand how someone could endure so much pain and torment, and then find the courage to escape, it’s darn near impossible to picture the kind of person who would risk it all to go back. But she does.

In fact, she went back 13 times over a period of 11 years, though each trip only put her more at risk. She became an esteemed conductor on the Underground Railroad, never having lost a soul on her midnight runs. Every successful conductor had a network of friends and allies, and though some were white abolitionists whose participation was a great risk, there were also many black people along her route who risked much more but did it anyway.

It’s about time someone put Harriet Tubman up on the big screen for all to admire, and director Kasi Lemmons seems to understand the weight of her responsibility. The incredible thing is, she chooses to do it without the usual trappings of the slave film. Of course, those are largely understood by now, and their threat is still heavily felt. Instead Lemmons focuses on Harriet’s repeated runs, and though their repetition does make each one feel less of a thrill, their sheer number begins to impress. Harriet is not a slavery movie. Harriet is a freedom movie. It is a showcase for resilience, and hope. It’s also a reminder of the kind of impact one single person can have.

To that end, Cynthia Erivo shines as its star. Harriet may not be a complete biopic, but it is a fascinating origin story for one of history’s greatest super heroes. If Erivo isn’t talked about at Oscar time, it would be a crime.

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Rocketman

Elton John has had a life full enough to fill many biopics, but Rocketman shines its spotlight on his most troubled years, as he shot to success and earned the world’s respect and adoration but struggled to know and love himself.

Little Reggie Dwight was a brilliant but shy piano player. His parents were by times abusive and neglectful in their own unique ways, and he retreated into the safe space created by music. As a young man, the self-styled Elton (Taron Egerton) could compose music easily but the lyrics came hard. So his meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) was a special gift from the universe – together, they wrote pop songs that would change and infect the world with catchy, raucous tunes.

Elton developed an on-stage persona that was larger than life: in costume he could be brave, and better still, he could be merry. He could play for thousands despite being torn up inside by grief and self-doubt. He was tormented by the possibility that he would never truly be loved – this, even as he continued to seek the approval from parents who could never give it to him, and affection from a man who would use and abuse him.

Rocketman chronicles both the highs and lows of Elton’s life, whether plumbing the depths of his despair in group therapy or lifting an entire audience off its feet – this latter shown quite literally through the magic of cinema. These fantastical elements really elevate the material beyond the standard biopic and help establish a sense of the unreal. In other parts, the film’s a little draggy, and though his unhappiness is obviously a recurrent theme in his life, I wish it was a little less returned to in the film.

The monstrously successful, deeply conflicted, young, gay addict Elton is brought to life on the big screen by Taron Egerton, doing all his own singing, dancing, wallowing, and dazzling. He may not be his physical twin, but he embodies his spirit and he nails his tight-lipped grin. He manages both the bravura and the pathos, and nails them both.

Director Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is a bedazzled piece of inventiveness and daring. The movie truly thrills when he embraces his creative vision, translating the highest of emotions into visual delights that pair amazingly well with songs we still want to sing along to. While it’s by no means an exhaustive list of his hits, the movie folds them into itself with purpose and delight. It’s easy to get swept along by this engaging, vulnerable, triumphant story.

I Saw The Light

This movie meant to be Hank Williams’ Walk The Line, but it fails in every way imaginable.

Tom Hiddleston, as the country-western crooner, is no Joaquin Phoenix, and I do mean that in the nastiest way possible. I’m never a fan of Hiddleston, but in this he’s charmless and unforgivably bland, though it’s at least as much the fault as writer-director Marc Abraham who apparently thinks Hank Williams is the most boring man on earth but decided to make a movie about him anyway.

It doesn’t help that Hank Williams just isn’t that interesting a subject. Oh, he drinks, you say? Cheats on his wife? Squabbles with his bandmates? As if we have seen MV5BMTg3MDcxNzc3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTMxNDA1MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_exactly those issues in better movies than this a hundred times before. And Williams just doesn’t have the allure of Johnny Cash or the talent of Ray Charles or the magnetism of James Brown. He’s just an entitled white dude who made life rough for himself. He made some music and then he died. Hank Williams may be a legend, but you’d never know it from this movie. It makes him seem banal and tiresome. And that’s gotta be hard to do to a man known as the King of Country Music, influencer of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, prolific song writer, winner of a posthumous Pulitzer for craftsmanship.

Of course, the film itself is unstructured and just sort of plods along, dragging its feet through the obligatory musician-biopic tropes like womanizing and shenanigans on tour. Abraham seems to be a pretty dull fellow and he’s fully committed to bathing everyone else in that same flat light. The only thing consistent about I Saw The Light is how relentlessly lifeless it is. Neither Hiddleston nor Elizabeth Olsen can do a single thing about it, and you’d kind of expect more from a Loki-Scarlett Witch combo. There should be sparks at the very least. Instead, Olsen’s Audrey Williams (Hank’s first wife) has a heart full of self-interest and their turbulent marriage seems always to be two paths rapidly diverging. Only Hank’s semi-weird relationship with his mother (Cherry Jones) provides the slightest kindling, but that’s neglected and the smoke dissipates before there’s fire. Pity.

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.

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.