Tag Archives: biopic

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.

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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.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

Gloria Grahame was a big name in black and white movies, always playing the tart, seducing the audience with her pout and her smoldering eyes. Now people have to search their memories for her name (or their mother’s memory, or their grandmother’s), but her star quality and talent remain.

Gloria (Annette Bening) recently moved in to a crummy flat in Liverpool to conquer the Royal Shakespeare Company and met a young man, Peter (Jamie Bell), willing to help her learn a new dance the kids are calling “disco.” Peter doesn’t seem to mind their age film-stars-dont-die-in-liverpooldifference and can’t help but fall for her. And the attention of a younger beau is just the stuff Gloria’s ego needs (and perhaps she is not unaccustomed to being the December to someone’s May, perhaps it is her M. O.).

But as fantastic as it is for both the veteran and the struggling actor, there are problems, because the kind of relationship that begins and ends in someone’s neediness is not exactly healthy. They separate, but are drawn back together when Gloria falls ill and refuses to return home, or to contact her adult children. Peter cares for her in a delicate balancing act between her mortality and his desire. She can’t stand illness, or aging, or, worst of all, undesirability. And he hasn’t learned to let go.

This movie really messed with my head for a while – the editing is such that I wondered if I was watching a scrambled copy, or if I was stroking out. It’s not always the easiest to follow. Eventually I sort of matched its rhythm and stopped worrying about things like chronology and plot. I enjoyed getting to know Gloria Grahame, a real-life, Oscar-winning actress from Oklahoma and It’s A Wonderful Life. Annette Bening, it goes without saying, is wonderful. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you she’s still beautiful because that’s a crock of shit. Annette Bening is beautiful, period, and I hate this notion that aging somehow changes or diminishes that. But I also hate the belief that attractiveness equals worth. We have some pretty fucked up core beliefs in our culture and while this movie isn’t going to change them, it might just give you pause.

Jamie Bell is good also, and I enjoyed the irony in his character arc, that he’s actually the one who is, perhaps not visually aging, but certainly maturing. And since he’s a man, maturing = saying less dumb shit. But the proof is in my struggle to write this review, which I’ve had open for the past several weeks. The words aren’t coming because I didn’t really connect to it, despite it having several admirable working parts. As a biopic, it’s really rather basic. But Bening is its saving grace (with a quick shout-out to Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave, also stupendous) and some movies are worth watching for the performance alone.

 

 

 

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.

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.