Tag Archives: biopics

The English Way

Spencer

by George Wolf

The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, it is a story draped in sadness and longing, but one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.

Much like 2016’s Jackie – his compelling take on Jackie Kennedy – director Pablo Larraín has no interest in the overreaching realism of bland biopics. Here, he chooses to dissect a few precious days over the Christmas holiday, roughly ten years after Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart) married Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and became Princess Di, worldwide obsession.

Diana is late arriving at the family gathering on the sprawling Sandringham estate in Norfolk, and this, like so many other aspects of her behavior, simply will not do. Diana and her two young sons often complain about feeling cold, and though she wonders why they can’t just “turn up the heating,” screenwriter Steven Knight isn’t just referring to the thermostat.

Through evocative visual storytelling and restrained, insightful dialog, Larraín and Knight set clear parameters for the haunting pressure of Diana’s daily life.

A new head of security (the great Timothy Spall) seems to lurk around every corner, reminding Diana of expectations and missteps. Her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins, perfect as always) has been sent away, apparently for the crime of being Diana’s one true friend. And as Charles’s longtime affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles becomes impossible to ignore, unsettling visits from Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) make their way into Diana’s dreams, reinforcing her belief that past and present have conspired to deny her a future.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves. Yes, she has the mannerisms (shoulder turns, head tilts), the lithe movements and even the voice and accent down, but Stewart carries this film by completely embodying the quiet desperation (“the English way,” as Pink Floyd famously dubbed it) of a woman suffocating in real time.

Jonny Greenwood’s score should also be an Oscar contender, as his cascades of alternating strings, organs, drum rolls and a solitary horn give Larraín a major assist in setting a disorienting, almost Hitchcockian mood.

Diana must work hard to enjoy even a few moments of happiness, like a beach stroll with Maggie or eating KFC and singing along to Mike + the Mechanics with her boys. But when Charles admonishes Diana for forgetting that public persona always trumps whatever the heart might crave, the true weight of her crown is finally felt.

Spencer approaches Diana’s story from perhaps the only angle that fits such an icon. The goal here isn’t to tell her life story, but instead to reimagine it, and rethink what it may have cost – and Larraín is clearly unconcerned with any cost from alienating Royal Family fans. He chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20BIS4YxP5Q

Cat Fancy

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

by Hope Madden

Did you know that there was a time, at least in England, when cats were not a popular house pet? And it wasn’t really that long ago. How weird is that?

Not weird enough to stand out in the highly unusual and very endearing film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

The ever-reliable Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain, artist whose drawings of adorably anthropomorphized cats took Victorian England, and then the world, by storm. Will Sharpe’s biopic looks to introduce us to the eccentric, charming, and ultimately tragic world of this friend of the feline.

Sharpe’s film is a swirl of color and energy led onward by the droll musings of narrator Olivia Colman, who gets all the best lines. (“Aside from its bizarre social prejudices and the fact that everything stank of shit, Victorian England was also a land of innovation and scientific discovery.”)

As Wain’s life unravels before us, wonderful actors populate the screen: Toby Jones as the publisher who sees great, if unusual, things in Wain; Claire Foy as the governess-turned-wife whose love would bring Wain joy and scandal; Andrea Riseborough, as the eldest sister far better suited to the world of business and awfully frustrated with her unsuitable brother.

At the center of everything is Cumberbatch, more than up to the challenge of creating a lovable outsider, a man so full of something wonderful and so destined to be eaten alive.

Sharpe has trouble with that balance, even if Cumberbatch does not. While Wain’s talent brought joy to many across the world, his gullible nature, wild lack of business savvy and likely mental illness made him an easy mark in a callous world. Sharpe, who co-wrote the script with Simon Stephenson, has a difficult time conveying the madness that would be Wain’s undoing.

He keeps us at arm’s length from Wain, even as Cumberbatch repeatedly invites in. The actor and performance are wonderful, outdone only by an underused Riseborough as the one character even more shackled by the realities of the world.

But Sharpe’s vision is not sharp enough, and he ties up Wain’s frantic and messy life with far too much tidiness, a cinematic shortcut that doesn’t suit the film or the subject. Too much effort goes into wrestling Wain’s madness into a coherent, cinema-friendly plotline and it feels like the artist is being cheated once again.

Beyond Pearlygate

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

by George Wolf

Some facial prosthetics and a crap ton of makeup give Jessica Chastain the physical features of Tammy Faye Bakker, but it’s the way Chastain embodies Bakker’s sympathetic garishness that ultimately keeps your eyes on The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

Tammy Faye LaValley met Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at Minnesota’s North Central Bible College in the early 1960s, but both had to drop out when they got married. Taking their endlessly upbeat sermonizing on the road, they developed a mix of song, scripture and puppet shows that was a perfect fit for television.

After launching The 700 Club for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Jim and Tammy set out to build their own empire in 1974 with the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club. The show’s massive success led to an entire PTL TV network and then to Heritage USA, a Christian-themed theme park and retreat in South Carolina.

And then, of course, it all crashed in the late 1980s, under a wave of sex scandal, bankruptcy, and Jim’s conviction on fraud and conspiracy charges.

Taking inspiration from the 2000 documentary also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, Hello My Name Is Doris) and writer Abe Sylvia (TV’s Nurse Jackie and The Affair) make this an unabashedly sympathetic portrait. And while capitalizing on Chastain’s excellence is entirely understandable, it comes at the expense of developing some other major players (Garfield’s Bakker, Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell) that could have deepened the overall context.

Only the great Cherry Jones, as Tammy Faye’s mother Rachel, is given the space for nuance, and it is this mother-daughter dynamic that gives the film its heart.

Though the Tammy Faye persona is outwardly cartoonish, Chastain shows us a woman driven to make others feel the love that she did not; a wife unafraid to fight for her seat at the table; and a Christian committed to loving, helping and forgiving. An advocate for the Gay community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Tammy Faye also championed social programs for the poor and even brought the subject of penile implants to Christian TV.

And all of those revelations make the moments when Showalter’s tone flirts with patronization all the more curious. Late in the film, Tammy Faye admits to “loving the camera” and a producer simply asks, “Why?” Though it lands as the moment Showalter and Sylvia have been building toward, they ultimately move past it as a frustrating afterthought.

If the goal here was to spotlight an award-worthy lead performance in an entertaining hat tip to Tammy Faye, well then mission accomplished.

But the frequent use of real news broadcasts and headlines – paired with an early look at the strategy behind Republican Jesus – make us eager for a broader context, one that The Eyes of Tammy Faye misses by a false eyelash.

Tilting At Windmills

Mank

by George Wolf

Since its release in 1941, Citizen Kane has earned such a prodigious place in film and popular culture that the utterance of merely one word can summon it.

And as much as Orson Welles’s masterwork has been dissected over the years, Mank reveals its essence in unique and wondrous ways.

Director/co-writer David Fincher (who honors his late father Jack’s script by listing him as the sole writer) takes us into Citizen Kane through the shadowy side entrance of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz. Officially, Mank and Welles shared the Kane writing credit, though just who did the heavy lifting is still a source of debate for film historians.

Fincher’s view is clear. But even the dissenters may feel powerless to the seductive pull of Mank‘s immersion into Kane‘s creation, and to the stupendous lead performance that drives it.

As Mankiewicz (“and then out of nowhere, a ‘Z’!”), Gary Oldman is out-of-this world-good. His Mank is a charmer, a gambler and a frequent drunk, bedridden by injuries from a car accident and under the gun to deliver Welles a script in just 90…no make that 60 days. And no drinking!

Tick. Tock.

The first few pages bring a critique that “none of it sings,” which is funny, because all of this sings.

Fincher’s rapid-fire dialogue is beautifully layered and lyrically precise, more like the final draft of a script than authentic conversations, which only reinforces the film’s commitment to honoring the power of writing. Onscreen typeface and script direction transition the flashbacks to Mank’s years in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, running in social circles with power brokers such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s not-so-dumb blonde mistress Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried).

Oldman expertly sells Mank’s truth-to-power rebellion as a sly reaction to his own feelings of powerlessness. His charm as a “court jester” belies a growing angst about America’s power structure that Welles (Tom Burke) is eager to illustrate.

And though much of Mank‘s power is verbal (just try to catch a breath during Oldman’s drunken Don Quixote speech), Fincher crafts a luscious visual landscape. Buoyed by Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous B&W cinematography, Fincher recreates the era with sharp period detail and tips his hat to Welles with Kane-esque uses of shadow, forced perspective and one falling glass of booze.

Talk of “getting people back to the theaters” and manufactured news will feel especially relevant, but Mank provides a nearly endless peeling of satisfying layers. So much more than a story about how a classic story was told, it’s a sweeping ode to the power of courageous art, no matter how flawed the artist.

Portrait of a Lady of Science

Ammonite

by Hope Madden

Writer/director Francis Lee’s Ammonite is a beautiful, insightful, lonesome film about European women falling in love in a time when patriarchal society only allowed that to happen because they weren’t paying attention. It boasts beautiful cinematography and two utterly stellar performances.

And it suffers by comparison to Celine Sciamma’s similarly summarized 2019 masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing—it absolutely is. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan—simply two of the most talented humans ever to grace a film screen—play, respectively, British paleontologist Mary Anning and the married woman she falls for, Charlotte Murchison.

Anning is, in fact, among the most influential scientists in British history. Being a woman in Victorian England, her work was accepted while she herself was not. There’s an interesting tale to tell right there, but Lee chose that repressive cultural landscape as more of a backdrop, like the forbidding English Channel coast town of Lyme where Anning did her fossil hunting.

There’s no historical evidence that Anning was gay. There’s also no historical evidence that she was not, and filmmakers have told Emily Dickinson’s story dozens of times, only once actually addressing her sexual preference. If it’s OK for them to fictionalize, why not Lee?

The telling gives Winslet opportunity—partly thanks to excellent support from Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones and Alec Secareanu—to present a woman so ill-used by and out-of-step with the world around her that she sees a miscarriage of justice in every exchange. Winslet is sharp and brooding, superior and insecure. It’s another quietly outstanding performance.

Aglow and lilting, Ronan is all warmth, offering a swoon-worthy counterpoint to Winslet’s chill. But there is something rushed about her attraction, and the deep, risky longing never feels authentic.

The affection, however, feels painfully true, and that’s at the core of a story about limited possibilities. Lee’s no Tarantino, but keep an eye out for bare feet and (less Tarantino-esque) insects. There is something slightly melancholy in these images of freedom and vulnerability that suit the effort.

Lee doesn’t try to answer every question he raises or resolve every conflict he presents. Instead, he brings us into a story of outsiders trying to define their own realities, however limited they may have to be.

Elemental, My Dear

Radioactive

by George Wolf

Honestly, I’m not digging this title, yet it somehow fits.

For the story of an intellectual giant, Radioactive seems too easy, too cheesy, and a bit dismissive. Similarly, the film itself becomes a sum of often conflicting parts, flirting with greatness while chasing too many bad pitches.

Rosamund Pike stars as Marie Sklodowska Curie, the Warsaw-born scientist who became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the first person to win it again and the only person to win it in two different scientific fields. Her groundbreaking work in France with husband Pierre Curie identified two new elements (polonium and radium) and the theory of radioactivity itself, leading to world-changing advancements in medicine and, of course, warfare.

Director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, The Voices) seems intent on honoring Curie’s spirit via the most experimental film treatment she can get away with. Animated graphics attempt to illustrate Curie’s theories on atomic movement, while tones are jarringly shifted with futuristic vignettes that glimpse the more devastating consequences of radioactivity.

Too often, Satrapi is hamstrung by screenwriter Jack Thorne’s overly broad and simplified adaptation of Lauren Redniss’s source book, which is itself a work of original art, photographs, graphics and text. Bringing such hybrid energy to the screen demands a unified vision from writer and director, but Satrapi and Thorne seem at odds whenever they try to expand their scope.

Pike is the unifier here, with an instantly engaging and fully formed portrait of a genius understandably ferocious about defending her work from being usurped or dismissed by male colleagues. Pike humanizes Curie with a mix of defiance and insecurity, frank sexuality and a fierce commitment to husband Pierre (Sam Riley, in a thoughtfully understated and effective turn).

The third act addition of Anya-Taylor Joy as the Curie’s eldest daughter Irene (who would also win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry) only cements the film as being most resonant when it is the most personal.

And it can’t go unnoticed that in these science-denying times, Curie’s story is a needed reminder of the importance of pursuing knowledge, of research and researchers.

Curie was one for ages. Radioactive does suffer from scattered elements, but ultimately turns in watchable, satisfying results.

Just the Two of Us

The Two Popes

by Hope Madden

How funny is it that Hannibal Lecter is playing Pope Benedict XVI?

That’s not the only sly jab Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) takes at the pomp and scandal of the papacy in his latest, but the punches come early and make way quickly for a tone of reconciliation.

Indeed, The Two Popes may be more forgiving than many people will appreciate. Or accept.

But it’s hard to fault the casting.

Anthony Hopkins is better here than he’s been since his Oscar turn as the flesh eater. Frail and humorless (but trying!), Pope Benedict becomes a recognizable figure, one whose solitude and study have isolated him from the people he’s meant to protect and lead.

Jonathan Pryce is perhaps better than he has ever been. An ever reliable “that guy,” Pryce has built a career on versatility, never so showy he outshines the lead, never so unfussy as to be easily ignored. That facility with chemistry elevates his performance here, and as the “everyman’s” pope, Pryce becomes the vehicle for the audience.

Together the two banter back and forth, easily turning Anthony McCarten’s lofty theological and spiritual dialog into passionate conversations between two peers.

The Two Popes offers considerably more nuance than The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour or Bohemian Rhapsody, although McCarten will never be chastened for writing an unforgiving screenplay.

What he’s done with this script is imagine what the dialog between these two men might have been like as Catholicism moved headlong toward a pivotal event unseen for 600ish years. A bit like The Two of Us, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 2000 fictional conversation between Lennon and McCartney (a pair the popes mention more than once), this film is a smartly crafted fantasy of the behind closed stained glass meetings that might have led to the changeover.

The humor is undoubtedly the brightest surprise the film has in store, but Meirelles keeps the film quick and interesting, his filmmaking simultaneously intimate and elegant. The missteps come as he refocuses attention on the future Pope Francis’s rocky past. These sequences drag, boasting neither the visual flair nor the vibrancy of the modern footage.

It’s hard not to also mark as a weakness the way the film simultaneously admonishes and reflects the Church’s tendency to be too forgiving of clergy.

Still, The Two Popes is hard to resist. In the end – especially at the end – the film is almost criminally charming.

Good Neighbors

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

by Hope Madden

My God, I love Fred Rogers.

I didn’t watch the show as a kid, preferring Under Dog, Scooby Doo and other dog-related animation. But the last time I cried, not from sadness but from gratitude and longing, was during Morgan Neville’s beautiful 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I sobbed. In public.

When news reached the world that Mr. Rogers was due for a biopic, surely each of us realized in our own separate ways that Tom Hanks was A) perfect, and B) going to make us sob all over again.

No way that was just me.

Hanks doesn’t love Fred Rogers as much as he entirely accepts him, and that’s the magic of this performance. While the rest of us may look on Rogers and his deep, genuine and implausible goodness with suspicion or awe, it’s nearly impossible to accept him as one of us. Hanks does. He doesn’t plumb for human frailty, he takes Fred Rogers on Fred Rogers’s terms, and that’s why Tom Hanks has two Oscars already. His performance here is unerring, eerily so.

Truth be told, though, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not really Fred’s story. Rather, Mr. Rogers is the transformative catalyst for cynical NY magazine writer Lloyd Vogel. Vogel is played by Matthew Rhys and loosely based on real-life journalist Tom Junod, whose Esquire article is the inspiration for the film.

Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) structures the film much like an episode from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and that almost-surreal-but-not quality serves to underscore the absurdity of the situation as Lloyd sees it: Who is this guy? Is this really what he’s like?

That healthy skepticism and Rogers’s ability to break it down creates the thrust of the film, but it’s also a window for the audience to question, accept and then celebrate this lovely man.

With two films in two years, the late children’s programming icon is having quite a moment. It’s hard to be sad about that.

Nice Guys Finish Last

Ford v Ferrari

by Matt Weiner

Director James Mangold has a knack for turning the comfortable biopic formula into something genuinely gripping, even when it’s not surprising. In the case of Ford v Ferrari, the film manages to be both.

Anchored by contrasting performances from Matt Damon as the legendary racer and auto engineer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as his prickly driver of choice Ken Miles, Ford v Ferrari condenses the staid American automaker’s quest to challenge Ferrari’s dominance in sports car racing as a way of injecting the company with a shot of glamor for younger car buyers.

The site chosen for that showdown is the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, a grueling endurance race that no American-made car had yet to win. Shelby previously notched a victory with an Aston Martin in 1959 before retiring as a driver due to health problems.

Although Shelby and Miles were accomplished designers and engineers, the story (by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) uses a light touch when it comes to detailing the actual car building. There’s almost as much time spent in the boardroom as there is on the racetrack.

And the film is all the better for it, as the conflict turns out to be less about Ferrari and more between the misfits Shelby and Miles and the rigid executives at Ford. (The exception is Lee Iacocca, archly portrayed by Jon Bernthal as a budding Don Draper of Detroit.)

But Ford v Ferrari is still a racing movie, and Mangold delivers when the action moves onto the track. In fact he probably deserves extra credit for heightening the tension during a 24-hour endurance race. How many tea breaks were there in Days of Thunder?

There are also the requisite glimpses of danger (this is a biopic), but the script—and especially Bale’s giddy Miles—bring out the meditative joy as well. It hasn’t been this entertaining to hear Bale yell at people in his accent since Terminator Salvation.

Miles and Shelby get a bit of the tortured artist treatment, but just a bit. The film is after something that in its own small way is more subversive: the friendship, love and respect these men have for each other. (Yes, the focus is almost entirely on men, boys and their toys, but at least Caitriona Balfe gets to do more than sketch the faintest outlines of a long-suffering wife. Barely.)

The film builds to the race in France, but Mangold is in top form when he’s remixing and interrogating Americana, from country in Walk the Line to the western in Logan. Ford v Ferrari continues these reflections on our most storied icons, and the world-weary characters who must bear those burdens for the myth to survive.

Born in a Trunk

Judy

by George Wolf

Call it a comeback, a re-introduction or a friendly reminder, but Renee Zellweger’s channeling of Judy Garland is an awards-worthy revelation.

Since winning an Oscar for Cold Mountain over fifteen years ago, Zellweger’s resume has been scattershot and curious enough to make seeing her name on top of the marquee a rather nostalgic blast from the past.

But here, she’s just a blast, bringing a can’t-look-away magnetism to every moment she’s on screen, and leaving a noticeable absence when she’s not.

Based on Peter Quilter’s stage play The End of the Rainbow, Judy shows us a legend struggling to get work and fighting to retain custody of her children. By the late 1960s, daughter Liza was off starting a career of her own, but Judy’s two young kids with producer Sid Luft needed a stable home that Garland could not provide.

Accepting a lucrative offer for a string of concerts in London, Judy leaves her son and daughter with their father in hopes that the British engagement will give her the resources needed to take them back full-time.

Focusing on this late, sad period in Garland’s life is a wise move by director Rupert Goold (True Story) and screenwriter Tom Edge (The Crown). A limited scope can usually provide biopics with a better chance for intimacy, and true to form, Judy’s false notes arrive with the flashbacks to Garland’s days as a child star.

Showcasing her mistreatment as a young cog in the MGM studio system is well-intentioned but unnecessary, the blunt forcefulness of this thread adding little more than jarring interruption.

Zellweger is all we need to feel the tragedy of Garland’s fall. Her portrayal comes fully formed, as both remarkable outward impersonation and a nuanced glimpse into a troubled soul. Nary a movement seems taken for granted by Zellweger, and her delivery of Edge’s memorable dialog is lush with an organic spontaneity.

And though she barely sang publicly before her training for Chicago, Zellweger again shows impressive vocal talent. Of course she can’t match the full richness of the real Judy (who could?), but Zellweger’s style and phrasing are on-point bullseyes, never shrinking from Goold’s extended takes and frequent closeups during some wonderfully vintage musical numbers.

In one of the film’s best moments, Judy joins two male superfans (Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira) for a late night dinner at their apartment. I won’t spoil what happens, but have some tissues handy. It’s a beautifully subtle and truly touching ode to Garland’s status as an early gay icon, and to the universal pain of loneliness.

Ironically, this brilliant performance should bring Zellweger the second act that Judy didn’t live long enough to enjoy. I’m guessing she’ll appreciate it, and I know she’s earned it.