Tag Archives: biopic

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!

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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.

The Founder

the-founder-movie-2016-trailer-michael-keatonI suppose it was to be expected that Ray Kroc, the “founder” of McDonald’s, was an asshole. But, wow, was he ever an asshole. He died well before this movie was made but it seems he would have agreed with that assessment and been fine with it since it got him where he wanted to be – it made him rich, eventually.

But not without some struggles. You see, he didn’t “create” McDonald’s until he was 52 years old, and the reason for the quotation marks is because he didn’t actually create it. But as we know, history is written by the victors, and that’s Ray Kroc.

Michael Keaton is extremely good as Kroc. Good to the point that he makes Kroc seem like almost a decent guy even though he’d take your last McNugget whether or not he was hungry. The great Nick Offerman and the familiar John Carroll Lynch are excellent as well as Kroc’s former partners, the McDonald brothers. Other familiar faces will pop up for a scene or two, but this movie is mainly about Kroc and the McDonalds.

The Founder’s story is an interesting and engaging one from start to finish. It skips around noticably at parts and I felt a bit disconnected from the movie as a result, but the core tale remained crisp, clear, and entertaining throughout, to the point that the lawyer side of me wanted to yell at the screen as one particularly bad decision was made.

So bring your notepad and find out how an empire can be built from practically nothing on someone else’s idea, as long as you don’t mind being an asshole about it. The Founder gets a score of seven “fries with that” out of ten.

Genius

 

A crazy man insisting he’s a genius wanders into Max’s office. He’s ranting, he’s raving, he doesn’t know that Max (Colin Firth) is already under his spell, has already been reading his manuscript, enthralled. And when Tom (Jude Law) learns that Max is on board, he can’t quite believe it – no other publisher has found his work worthwhile. Max is the first to take him seriously.

It turns out that Tom is Tom Wolfe and Max is editor to the greatest literary minds of the genius-leadtime, counting F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) among his authors. They’re all jealous of each other, of course, all big egos with weighty demands on Max’s time, and skill.  This movie will make you feel as though editors do not get paid nearly enough. It might also question just who is the Genius referred to in the title – is it the brilliant writer, or is the man editing his writing so that it may appear brilliant to others? Certainly Max is good at spotting talent, but also at shaping it.

Not everyone is grateful, however. Max’s wife Louise (Laura Linney) feels neglected. Tom’s wife Aline feels even worse: she feels replaced. Aline (Nicole Kidman) isn’t even properly his wife – she left her husband and her children just as they were grown to be with Tom and feel needed by him. She supported him for years as he wrote feverishly, as the rejection letters piled up around them. But now that his work has found a home, and an audience, he doesn’t need her as much, and she knows it. She is obsolete, and she warns Max that he may soon be the same.

The real meat of the story is the relationship between writer and editor, the ugly push and genius-official-trailer-14960-largepull necessary to hone a manuscript into a masterpiece. Max Perkins has an excellent track record but still prefers to hide behind an editor’s anonymity, still grapples with the fear of having “deformed” someone’s work.

 

Colin Firth never sets a foot wrong, so it’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why this movie isn’t great. I suppose if I had just the one word it would be: superficial. I suppose it must be a great headache to make writing and editing, two very quiet, solitary activities, seem cinematic, and I can tell you that director Michael Grandage has not found the way to make them seem otherwise. Firth is fatherly, Law is petulant, Linney saintly though ill-serviced by the script, Kidman downright unhinged. It just never really gels. After more than 100 minutes, I was left thinking: is that it? The story is sufficiently interesting that I will look up the book upon which it is based, not because the movie left me wanting more, but because it left me needing more, which is never a good sign.

 

 

The Runaways

The Runaways is a biopic-ish film about the rise and fame of all-girl rock group of the same name. The film’s script is based on Cherie Currie’s memoir, and is produced by Joan Jett. Unsurprisingly, the film mostly focuses on these two women, Currie on the mic and Jett on rhythm guitar. Lots of other ladies came and went – most wanted nothing to do with the movie, and their parts are fictionalized.

Curie (Dakota Fanning) and Jett (Kristen Stewart) were pioneers, therunawaysand came together under the influence of scuzzy manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Like any respectable rock band of the era, they eventually combusted, but not before releasing four albums in as many years. They never made it huge in North America but had some crazy success in Japan for a while, where their sound and aesthetic were appreciated.

The movie is just okay. The leads are phenomenal, stylish and electric performances from both Stewart and Fanning (and Michael Shannon is stellar, as always). But the “biopic” aspect is less bio,832729701403947af2c28f14dac46933 more pic. It barely scratches the surface. We don’t get to know anyone, and at any rate, Joan Jett’s post-Runaways life and music is where the real meat is. That said, it’s a clichéd ride about sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but it’s one worth watching to see Dakota Fanning get salty and Stewart own the role of rock’s first goddess. But it’s a condensed version featuring some character composites. The only member of the band besides the two front ladies that is touched upon is that of Sandy West, the drummer, but by the end they don’t give a shit about her, forgetting her in the title cards. She’d died before production began. Pesky cancer. The Runaways were revolutionary, a band about self-empowerment, but not all selves are created equally.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

India is crazy with population: 1.2 billion people or so. Why, then, does Hollywood think a man born in London is the only one for hire? Nothing against Dev Patel, but he can’t be the only brown person around. On the other hand, I hate to take work away from him because of course he’s only allowed to play Indian dudes, despite being British. Rant aside, I only half-enjoyed this movie, despite being originally pleased to find it on Netflix.

Dev plays Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor, uneducated man in India who happens to be a math the_man_who_knew_infinity_2015_12516184prodigy. Of course, India rejects him because he’s from the wrong caste, and he has no degree and he looks like he sleeps in the street (to be fair, he does). So he writes a ballsy  note to professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Hardy’s just intrigued enough to send for him. It’s 1912 though, so Cambridge is not super friendly to brown-skinned people. And Cambridge is really unfriendly to self-taught brown people who think they’re better than them. So everyone hates on him and even Hardy stifles him. Ramanujan is just vomiting brilliance everywhere and no one wants to accept it.

Patel and Irons are great. You can’t knock the acting. But math is boring and this biopic is conventional as hell. Ramanujan was a real man who overcame real adversity and left behind a legacy only now begun to be understood. I don’t think the film needed to add a further layer of intrigue that involved him not being allowed to walk on the grass. I felt like he wasn’t served well by this documentary – not his life, not his work, not his memory. And that’s really too bad.

 

 

TIFF: LBJ

We had an interesting overlap this year at TIFF: we saw both Jackie, which follows First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the moments and days following JFK’s assassination, and we saw LBJ, which follows Lyndon Baines Johnson as he inherits the White House following JFK’s assassination. Both movies have actors portraying Jackie, John, Bobby, Lyndon, and Ladybird, and both movies have value.

Jackie will of course be an awards contender; LBJ was more of a wild card. It’s by director lbjRob Reiner, a venerable talent who hasn’t directed anything of note in a couple of decades. As he introduced this film to the TIFF audience, however, it was clear that this movie really meant something to him. He talked of being a young man during LBJ’s time in office, and hating him because he was the man who could send you to your death in Vietnam. Only with time, age, and political engagement could he look back at Johnson as something more. He was the president who had to shoulder the burden and responsibility of John Kennedy’s legacy. He took over lots of the civil rights work that JFK had begun, and LBJ is the one who pushed it through, though history sometimes forgets to give him credit for this.

You may be surprised to hear that Woody Harrelson plays LBJ, underneath a not inconsiderable amount of makeup and prosthetics. Jennifer Jason Leigh steps in as Ladybird, in a career move that I can only imagine is a little depressing to a 1980s babe. It may not be intuitive casting, but it is inspired – it makes them come alive, not just as historical figures but as real, flesh and blood people, in a way I haven’t seen before. Rob Reiner’s position is also that Lyndon was a very funny man, and the unexpected joy of LBJ is how much you’ll chuckle watching it.

It’s a safe movie though, a conventional one that won’t speak to audiences or to history lbj-2016the way Jackie does. That said, I still found it to be quite enjoyable. The film neglects to give us a complete picture of the man, but does focus interestingly on LBJ’s rivalry with JFK, allowing Harrelson to swing between cockiness and shame and a whole presidential gamut in between – it’s refreshing to watch him flexing so readily after a string of second-banana performances. He’s playful bordering on hammy, showing us wit, vulgarity, searing intelligence, and frustrated ambition.

One of my favourite scenes occurs between Harrelson’s LBJ and a nasty Richard Jenkins as Senator Russell as LBJ haltingly tries to explain the importance of civil rights to a bigoted southern senator while his black maid serves them dinner. So while this is in fact a clichéd biopic of “an important man”, it’s also got little touches and details that make the ride worth it. Rob Reiner is no stranger to political dramas and isn’t afraid to show us that even the most idealistic of political agendas necessitate some manipulative, under the table handling.

LBJ is Reiner’s best work in years, and Harrelson’s too. It doesn’t soar to the great heights of Jackie but it does make an interesting companion piece to it. What the heck – see them both.

TIFF: The Bleeder vs. Bleed for This

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s now time for the main event of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, coming to you live from the beautiful, historic Elgin Theatre.  

Introducing first, in the red corner, standing six feet five inches and weighing 223 pounds, with a professional record of 35 wins, including 17 by knockout, 14 losses and 2 draws, the former New Jersey State heavyweight champion, from Bayonne, New Jersey, please welcome from the Bleeder, Chuck “The Real Rocky” Wepner!!  

His opponent, in the blue corner, standing five feet eight inches and weighing in at 170 pounds,  with a professional record of 50 wins, 30 by knockout, against 10 losses, fighting out of Providence, Rhode Island, a former world champion in the lightweight, light middleweight, and super middleweight divisions, from Bleed for This, please welcome Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza!!

Jay was gracious enough to agree to include not one, but two boxing biopics in our TIFF schedule: The Bleeder, starring Liev Schrieber, and Bleed for This, starring Miles Teller.  In an all-out battle to capture my vote, who came out on top?  Let’s go ringside and find out!

bleeder

The Bleeder:

The Bleeder opens perfectly, introducing us to a guy we know even though we don’t know it.  That guy is Chuck Wepner, a human punching bag who took a punch so well he could go 15 rounds with anyone, even the Greatest.  Yes, the man himself, Muhammad Ali.  Wepner got the fight because he was the only white guy in the top ten, and during the fight he acquitted himself so well that he inspired Sylvester Stallone to write Rocky.

Along with taking a punch, Wepner’s other notable trait is the ability to consistently make the worst possible decision.  To the credit of Wepner and the Bleeder, the movie does not pull any punches with Wepner’s character.  He is a flawed person but the kind of flawed person who you can’t help but be charmed by.  Liev Schrieber is almost unrecognizable as Wepner and does a fantastic job of showcasing the charm while also making us feel for Chuck as he suffers some severe consequences, including losing his family and going to prison.

In the end, the Bleeder does justice to the Real Rocky’s story and gives us a true underdog who makes good in a real way, in his own way.  Somehow, the Real Rocky turns out to be the furthest thing from a cliche, and yet still manages to come out on top in the end.

 

Note: this movie has been renamed ‘Chuck’ and will hit theatres May 5.

bleed-for-this

Bleed for This:

While the Bleeder features the Real Rocky, Bleed for This features a comeback story too unbelievable to be used as a plotline in the Rocky franchise.  And that’s saying something considering Rocky has come back from: (a) Mickey being shoved to death by Mr. T; (b) Apollo being beaten to death by Drago; and (c) Adrien being written to death by Stallone as a convenient reason to make yet another goddamn Rocky movie.

Miles Teller makes a good showing as Vinny Pazienza, a champion boxer whose neck was broken in a car crash.  Told by doctors that he may never walk again, Paz somehow was able to return to the ring just 13 months after his accident and went on to fight boxing legends like Roberto Duran and Roy Jones Jr.  Teller looks like Paz and looks like he belongs in the ring, but in the transition to the screen the real-life magic that Paz possessed is lost and Bleed for This ends up feeling like just another boxing movie.  And that’s a shame, because overcoming this level of adversity should truly feel triumphant.

The Judges’ Decision:

The match goes the distance as both the Bleeder and Bleed for This are enjoyable films with charismatic turns by their stars.  There can only be one champion though, and by unanimous decision The Bleeder takes the belt.  The Bleeder is far more memorable because it’s not your typical happy ending, and it’s less about boxing and more about the trappings of fame.

The bottom line is that if you like boxing, you’ll enjoy both of these.   The difference maker is that even if you don’t like boxing, I am still confident in recommending that you watch the Bleeder.  It’s a fascinating story that captures the essence of the most interesting loser imaginable, a story so powerful that it inspired an entire movie genre.  It’s a credit to Paz and his tenacity that things were even this close, as in the end Rocky always wins.

TIFF: Jackie

Jackie is a beautiful film by Pablo Larrain that focuses on Jacqueline Kennedy in the minutes and days following her husband’s assassination.

Larrain is a Chilean film maker, which makes him at outsider to American politics. He poured over documents and was fascinated to read about this day that every age-appropriate American remembers so vividly: when the car turned, the location of the grassy knoll, the flag-wavers lining the street, the bullet’s trajectory – and always sitting beside the president, his wife, Jackie. e02adc223bf38b822b3e250330bde15cLarrain thought to himself, what if it was the other way around. What if he was sitting beside her? And in that thought was born a beautifully conceived film that puts its female character front and centre.

Larrain thought the script was good but sent it back with a note to cut every and any scene that she wasn’t in. The camera would be on Jackie the whole time. Obviously a film with such unerring focus would need an actress who could carry it, and Natalie Portman is that actress. This is her best role since Black Swan and honestly it may be her best role, full stop. She inhabits Jackie like a second skin. She doesn’t get caught up in the trappings of impersonation, she just embodies the grace, the thoughtfulness, and the mystery of one of America’s most beloved and glamourous first ladies.

Despite being a favourite in the press, Jacqueline Kennedy is perhaps unknowable. She was always careful about her public persona and was closely guarded when speaking on record. The film makes this abundantly clear through scenes with a journalist (Billy Crudup) about a week after tragedy has struck. She edits her remarks, strikes things from the record, and demands final approval before a single word is printed. Noah Oppenheim’s script is 14996precise and offers up tantalizing looks behind the closed doors of Camelot.

Peter Sarsgaard, as Bobby Kennedy, is a charming lurker. Greta Gerwig in her most un-Gerwig role to date is restrained and almost unrecognizable. I’d heard that Natalie Portman gave a stellar performance in Jackie but I was unprepared for how good the film would be as a whole. This isn’t just a candidate for Best Actress but I believe, for Best Picture. It’s so well-orchestrated, each piece comes together perfectly to make a very satisfying picture. JFK, one of the world’s most recognizable politicians, is a mere shadow in this film. Jackie gets her moment in the sun, which makes Natalie Portman the star at the centre of this movie’s universe.

She deserves all the acclaim she’ll receive. She’s brave and courageous here, mixing grief and poise in an intoxicating cocktail that you won’t be able to tear your eyes from. She’s magnetic. She shimmers with loss and outrage as she protects her husband (and more importantly: his legacy) from the vultures already climbing over his coffin. Jackie feels very much like an insider’s peek-a-boo on what has to be an iconic yet little-understood moment in history. Finally we experience JFK’s assassination as Jackie felt it – as the gruesome murder of her husband and the father of her two young kids. She sat beside him, scooping his brains back into his skull, calling to him even as she knew he was already dead. His blood is still fresh on her dress as LBJ is sworn in just 43 minutes later, Kennedy’s body resting just a few feet away. What to tell the children? What to tell the nation? It’s absolutely fascinating. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography allows us to get very close to the grief, while also appreciating its context: Air Force One, the White House, the Lincoln convertible. Jackie manages to be both historic and quite personal, and Larrain ushers us ably into both worlds. Both Portman and Larrain resist the temptation to over-emote. Like the former first lady herself, restraint, control, and self-possession are at its heart.