Tag Archives: movie biographies

The Showman and the Snowman

Elvis

by George Wolf

If you’re looking for someone to bring a fresh perspective to the Elvis Presley story, Baz Luhrmann would seem like a no brainer. Though he can certainly lean too hard toward style and away from substance (Australia), he can also fill a screen with tremendous energy, visual pizazz and musical exuberance (Moulin Rouge!).

And by now, any by-the-numbers take on Elvis would just be silly. Think more Rocketman, less Bohemian Rhapsody.

Luhrmann’s Elvis succeeds – to a point, as inspired choices often push the film forward while others seem to hold it back.

At the top of the win column is Austin Butler’s mesmerizing performance as The King. Beyond capturing the smoldering good looks and iconic speech pattern, Butler finds power in the raw physicality of role, an essential part of believing how this one man’s sexuality shook the world. No doubt Butler will be remembered comes awards season.

And yet, this film is only partially about Elvis.

GD national treasure Tom Hanks – an awards contender himself under layers of impressive makeup and prosthetics – narrates the film as Elvis’s longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker. Ill and seemingly nearing his end, Parker wants to tell us his side of story, and why he’s maybe not as bad as we’ve been told.

And while focusing on the perspective of the “Snowman” (Parker’s term for a master of the snow job) without legitimizing it is an interesting approach, it also keeps us detached from the Showman.

Even when depicting Elvis’s childhood, Luhrmann (co-writing as well as directing) frames him as akin to a comic book hero. So as we follow the meteoric rise, the Hollywood floundering, the comeback and the Vegas rot, the film is more interested in holding Presley up as a mythical figure than holding him accountable as a mere mortal.

There are moments with show-stopping visuals and stand-up-and-cheer performances (especially the “If I Can Dream” sequence from Elvis’s TV special in 1968), but they never feel like enough. Luhrmann drops in occasional clips of the real King, and peppers the impressive cast with Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (as B.B. King), Gary Clark, Jr. (Big Boy Crudup) Yola (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jimmie Rodgers Snow) and more, gearing you up for a gloriously indulgent showcase that never comes.

Elvis is stylistic, well-performed and often highly entertaining. But with an overlong running time of 2 1/2 hours plus, you’d think there would be at least a little room left to go full Luhrmann.

Hey You Guys!

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It

by George Wolf

By now, we can probably guess your age by how you first came to know Rita Moreno.

Singin’ in the Rain? The King and I? West Side Story? The Electric Company? The Rockford Files? Oz? Jane the Virgin? Carmen Sandiego? The One Day at a Time reboot? Even if you just got here, there’s the recent In The Heights Twitter feud and if you’re on your way, it’s almost time for West Side Story again!

The point is, Rita is among the most legendary of entertainment legends, and Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It is a completely captivating tour through an iconic, trailblazing life.

A Puerto Rico native, Rosita Alverio emigrated to New York with her mother at age 5 – and never saw her native family again. “Rita” made her dancing debut at age 6 in a Greenwich Village nightclub, and by 16 she had landed a contract with MGM Studios.

Through countless “shut up and be sexy” roles that prompted self-loathing, to Emmy, Oscar, Grammy and Tony Awards, an abortion, a suicide attempt, marriage and family, political activism and therapy, her 90th year has found Rita to be a fulfilled, thankful survivor.

And beyond the treasure trove of archival footage, home movies and interview praises from the likes of Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (also one of the film’s producers), director Mariem Pérez Riera finds the most resonance in the personal journey told by Rita herself.

Looking back on the obstacles she faced and the successes and failures of her life and career, Moreno displays a hard-won self-worth and an honest self-awareness, one that – as evidenced by her In The Heights second thoughts – she continues to probe.

This is not just an entertaining Hollywood story, it’s an inspiring American story and a hopeful human story. It’s just a damn good story, from someone worthy of celebrating while she’s still here.

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.

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.

Attention Getter

Seberg

by George Wolf

Another film on the blonde 60s starlet who died far too young, and under mysterious circumstances? Yes, a starlet, but not Monroe.

She may not have been the icon Marilyn was, but Jean Seberg’s celebrity life and tragic death had its own “Candle in the Wind” comparisons, all embodied with beguiling grace by Kristen Stewart even when Seberg falls back on superficiality.

Seberg’s breakout in 1960’s Breathless made her a darling of the French New Wave, but Jean was an Iowa native. As the winds of change in her homeland began raging, Seberg took an interest in the counter-culture that was strong enough to make her a target of the FBI.

Director Benedict Andrews anchors the film in Seberg’s involvement with the civil rights movement, and her relationship with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Two FBI agents (Vince Vaughn and Jack O’Connell) report Seberg’s status as a “sympathizer,” and the increasing surveillance throws her life into turmoil.

Andrews, a veteran stage director, seems most at ease recreating Seberg’s glamorous life, enveloping the film in an effective old Hollywood gloss and Stewart in consistently loving framing. She responds with what may be her finest performance to date.

We meet Seberg when she is already a star, and Stewart conveys a mix of restlessness, conviction, selfishness and naivete that is never less than compelling. In just over an hour and a half, Stewart takes Seberg from confident fame to paranoid breakdown, and the arc always feels true.

O’Connell leads the strong supporting cast (also including Stephen Root, Margaret Qualley and Zazie Beets) with a nuanced performance as the young agent with a nagging conscience. But while the script from Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (The Aftermath, Race) wants to draw comparisons with more recent government overreach, Andrews has trouble meshing the FBI thriller with the introspective biography.

Too much of the spying agenda (“This comes from above!”) seems paint by numbers, but it never sinks the film thanks to Stewart’s command of character. Much like her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, Stewart has followed her blockbuster fame with a string of challenging projects and impressive performances.

In case you’ve missed any, Seberg is a good place to start catching up.

Forming the Fellowship

Tolkien

by George Wolf

Better confess right now: the whole Hobbit, Lord of the Rings thing just isn’t my bag. God bless you if you love the books, films and all, but the whole story just leaves me cold.

That’s not to say I can’t respect and admire the incredible imagination of author J.R.R. Tolkien, or the biopic about him that’s full of so much respect and admiration.

But what’s strangely missing in Tolkien is the wonder, the spark of endless creativity so abundant in the author’s expansive literary landscapes.

Writers Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson anchor Tolkien’s pre-Hobbit life in the trenches of WW1. As Officer Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) searches the battlefield for a boyhood friend, flashbacks fill us in on his upbringing as an orphan adopted into wealth.


With an eye on “changing the world through the power of art,” Tolkien forms a “Dead Poets” – type secret society with his mates at Oxford, where he impresses esteemed language professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi in a wonderful cameo) as well as the lovely Edith Bratt (Lily Collins).

Both Hoult and Collins are committed and pleasing, but the courtship becomes just another informative but less-than-engrossing leg the film stands on.


Though director Dome Karukoski keeps things well-assembled and plenty reverent toward his subject, this film never quite conveys the spirit of inspiration it seeks to celebrate. With a frustrating lean toward safety over enlightenment, Tolkien turns an ambitious quest into a rather pedestrian journey.

Notorious

On the Basis of Sex

by George Wolf

In his wallet, my friend Jake keeps a picture of an attractive young woman he’s never met, just so he can use it for a bar trick.

It’s a picture clearly taken decades ago, and after a few cold ones, Jake will put the snapshot in someone’s face and challenge them.

“Who is this?!”

Most times they don’t know.

“RUTH BADER GINSBURG!”

That’s just one example of the rock star status RBG has achieved since joining the Supreme Court in 1993. A progressive champion at age 85, her every sniffle draws attention while more serious issues (like the recent surgery that caused her to miss SCOTUS opening arguments for the first time) elicit regular Google searches on her health.

But behind the pop culture status and “Notorious RBG memes” lies a truly heroic life. Already profiled last year in the Oscar-contending documentary RBG, On the Basis of Sex adapts her story for a big screen feature unable to contain its pure fandom.

Biopics on such legendary figures are usually wise to keep the focus tight rather than tackle the entire life story, and OTBOS works best when it digs deep into the first gender discrimination case Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) argued in court: Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1971.

She presented the case alongside husband Marty (Armie Hammer), giving the film an organic mix of the personal and professional that first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepelman (who is also RBG’s nephew) uses as his opening to also salute the sweetness of the Ginsburg love story.

It’s an understandable approach by an understandably biased party, but one that leads the film toward a path of hagiography and intermittent schmaltz that director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward) is seldom interested in resisting.

Jones carries the film with a terrific lead performance, Hammer delivers his usual fine support, and there’s no question Ginsburg is worthy of a big screen tribute, but this one can’t free itself from the admiring glow RBG basks in today. The sexism she faced is addressed, of course, but in ways that never feel more threatening than annoying flies this Superwoman will easily swat away.

Though its finale scores big, with Jones delivering a stirring closing argument before a cheer-worthy walk up courthouse steps, On the Basis of Sex rests as a film always competent and sincere, but seldom revealing.