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Biopics are actually pretty easy to make. Take your standard music biopic, for example. You’ve got a prominent figure who has lived a life in the spotlight, one with already extant stakes and needle drops just waiting to happen. Telling the story of someone when there’s a built-in audience ready to hear it? Yeah – easy.

Making a GOOD biopic, well … that’s another story.

Now, the line can be a bit blurry. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there in the music biopic sphere, but sometimes that mediocrity can be elevated into something more – more engaging, more impactful – if both the central figure and the person playing them are compelling enough.

Take “Respect,” the new Aretha Franklin biopic directed by Liesl Tommy from a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson. In many ways, it epitomizes the formulaic nature of the genre – beat by beat, it seems to evoke all of the cliches that come with making this sort of film. There’s a paint-by-numbers quality to the proceedings; even the aspects of the story with which we are not familiar are rendered in an extremely familiar way.

And then there’s Jennifer Hudson.

Hudson offers up a legitimately incredible performance as Franklin. She embodies and evokes the Queen of Soul with a fiery, flawed majesty that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. We all know that Hudson can sing, of course (though the justice she does to some Aretha classics impresses and surprises nevertheless), but it’s her work as the woman rather than the singer that makes this a transcendent turn. Her efforts explode outward from the so-so framework by which she has been surrounded – she’s unforgettable in an otherwise forgettable film.

Published in Movies

What does it mean to take on the role of an icon?

It’s one of the fundamental challenges of a biopic – how to invoke the spirit and sensibility of a famous figure in a manner that avoids caricature. The best of these performances aren’t impressions or impersonations, but rather honest appraisals of the person being portrayed, built on actual character rather than a few plucked characteristics.

It’s worth noting that sometimes in biopics, the skill and subtlety of the central performance far outshines the rest of the film. The movie becomes less about the story and more about the person to whom the story is happening. That doesn’t mean the film is bad, necessarily – just that it doesn’t fully live up to the actor at its core.

Such is the case with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels from a screenplay adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks from part of Johann Hari’s 2015 book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” It’s a film with issues – tonal inconsistency, uneven direction, a somewhat meandering narrative and odd aesthetic choices.

And yet, many of the film’s sins are forgiven due to the sheer incandescence of Andra Day’s performance as the titular Billie Holiday. Even during stretches when the movie isn’t entirely working, Day NEVER stops working. She is absolutely magnetic onscreen, thrilling to watch. And when she starts to sing? Forget about it. Day papers over a lot of the film’s issues through sheer power of performance.

Published in Movies
Monday, 14 September 2020 17:04

Wisdom born of pain – ‘I Am Woman’

Biopics – particularly music biopics – can be difficult to pull off. Telling the stories of iconic figures is always tricky, but when you introduce a level of performance into the mix, well … it doesn’t always go the way you’d want. I tend to be more into “slice of life” biopics than “cradle to grave” – the truth is that most of the time, the beginning and the end don’t necessarily contribute significantly to the tale being told.

“I Am Woman,” the new biopic of singer Helen Reddy, falls into the former category (though the slice is pretty hefty, traversing the mid-1960s and moving well into the ‘80s). Directed by Unjoo Moon from a screenplay by Emma Jensen, it focuses on the heyday of the iconic singer, from her early struggles through her meteoric rise and on to the inevitable tumble.

It’s a charming, albeit formulaic film, hitting all the standard beats that we’ve come to expect from the genre. That’s not meant to be dismissive, though – it’s a formula because it works if it’s executed properly. And this one is, dipping in and out of the timeline as the story of a woman who was more than the song that came to define her.

Published in Movies

There are a handful of scientific figures whose names are common knowledge. These are the scientists who have so transcended their disciplines as to become part of the cultural fabric. It’s a short list. And if you want to talk about women on that list, well … there’s really only one, for better or worse.

Marie Curie is the first female scientist that many people ever learn about. For many, she might be the only female scientist they ever learn about. She is an iconic figure, one of just four people to win multiple Nobel Prizes, having won for both physics and chemistry.

It’s no surprise that such an icon would have her story represented on film. The latest attempt to cinematically share the legacy of Marie Curie is “Radioactive,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s an attempt to reckon with the legacy of Curie’s work, looking back on her life as a scientist while also trying to come to terms with how her discoveries have impacted the world.

It’s a noble effort, but unfortunately, it never quite coalesces. Directed by Marjane Satrapi from a screenplay by Jack Thorne (adapted from Lauren Redniss’s 2010 book of the same name), the film tries a little too hard to be “important.” All the awards season checkboxes are ticked, but the pieces simply don’t fit together in the way that they should. That’s not to imply there’s nothing here – there are some interesting filmmaking choices and Rosamund Pike is exceptional as Curie. It just doesn’t quite achieve the heights to which it transparently aspires, ultimately falling a bit short.

Published in Tekk
Monday, 08 June 2020 14:54

Sorry Ms. Jackson – ‘Shirley’

The biopic has been a crucial part of the cinematic landscape since the very beginning. So many of our most acclaimed films have been built around the lives and narratives of real people. Whether they are cradle-to-grave or period snapshot, they share the stories of figures that have in some way shaped the world around them.

But when is a biopic not a biopic? When it’s “Shirley.”

The new film – directed by Josephine Decker from a script adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Sarah Scarf Merrell – takes a look inside the life of the notable and notorious writer Shirley Jackson, whose genre-adjacent fiction was among the most chilling of the mid-20th century.

With a dynamite performance by Elisabeth Moss in the title role, “Shirley” is not only a deconstruction of its subject, but of the very notion of biographical film. It is a sharp, biting film – one unafraid to lay bare the basic unpleasantness of its characters. By refusing to be bound by traditional tropes, this film offers up a striking and impactful interpretation of the creative process and the emotional and physical struggles that can accompany that process.

Published in Movies

Telling true stories via movies has always been complicated. On the one hand, when one hears those words – “true story” – one has certain expectations that the events portrayed actually happened. On the other hand, the telling of stories should allow for some creative flexibility for the storyteller – these are dramatizations, not documentaries.

A movie like Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is an apt representation of the myriad gray areas that come with representing real people and their stories on screen. The story of the titular Jewell – the security guard who discovered a pipe bomb during the Atlanta Olympics and saved hundreds, only to become a very public person of interest regarding the planting of that same bomb – is a complicated one; he was a very flawed man who was treated very badly largely because of those same flaws.

Jewell is the sort of man to whom Eastwood gravitates and the sort of uniquely American story that he greatly enjoys telling. It’s also problematic in its way, with some challenging the veracity of certain portrayals. It’s an incomplete portrait of an imperfect man.

Published in Movies

There are a certain few people in this world for whom a nigh-universal affection is held. These people are beloved for reasons that essentially transcend our individual biases, people who are by all appearances genuinely decent.

People like Mr. Rogers.

I don’t care who you are – you probably have a fondness in your heart for Mr. Rogers. He is an icon, a man not just nice but Nice, a living embodiment of humanity’s innate love for our children. To so many of us, Fred Rogers is the Socratic ideal of a good human being.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” attempts to show us just how monumental an impact an encounter with such a person can have on our lives. Inspired by a 1998 Esquire profile written by Tom Junod, the film opens a window onto the one singular truth about Mr. Rogers that is both unbelievable and utterly expected – that he is precisely the man he appears to be.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:57

Race to the top – ‘Ford v. Ferrari’

One of the complaints surrounding awards shows like the Oscars in recent years is the fact that often, the movies up for these honors aren’t necessarily movies that a lot of people have seen. They are critical darlings, but that acclaim only sometimes translates to significant commercial success.

“Ford v Ferrari” is that relative rarity, a film intended to win both at the ballot box and the box office. It’s pure Oscar bait, but with a big-budget sensibility – no surprise considering we’re talking about Disney here. It’s a sports movie and a biopic – the story of Ford Motor Company’s efforts to usurp Ferrari’s place atop the racing world back in the 1960s – with two no-doubt movie stars heading up the cast.

This kind of movie was once a mainstay of mainstream Hollywood. Now, it’s an unexpected treat. And it is a treat – you’ve got a talented and flexible studio director in James Mangold, with A-listers Matt Damon and Christian Bale taking turns driving. Just like the race cars produced by its namesakes, “Ford v. Ferrari” is sleek and fast; a powerful and expensive machine.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 05 November 2019 12:30

‘Harriet’ tells tale of an American icon

As we get deeper into fall, we find ourselves rapidly approaching awards season. This is when we’re going to start seeing an onslaught of prestige films, movies that merit a different sort of critical attention than the big-budget blockbusters of the summertime.

Biopics are particularly well-suited to the prestige game. They offer actors the opportunity to bring to life a real person, someone culturally important. They offer filmmakers a chance to tell a true and meaningful story in a manner that allows them to put their own personal stamp upon it. Sometimes, they become the primary way through which the world knows this person or people.

“Harriet” is the latest example of just such a biopic. It’s the story of Harriet Tubman, legendary conductor on the Underground Railroad and true American hero. It’s precisely the sort of movie that expects to generate some awards chatter. And it will – but likely less than the folks behind it may have hoped. Call it a hunch, but I feel like this is one of those attention-worthy projects that will fall through the cracks a little.

That’s not a condemnation – “Harriet” is quite a good film. It’s a nice-looking historical drama; the period aesthetic is exceptional. And the performances, led by Cynthia Erivo in the titular role, are good-to-great almost across the board. Director Kasi Lemmons – who co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard – endows the project with her passion and talent. There’s a lot to like, and again, I won’t be surprised if it gets some attention.

I just won’t be surprised if it doesn’t, either. There’s a sense of familiarity here – the style, the choices, the narrative beats – that may breed just a little bit of contempt among awards voters. And that little bit could very well make the difference when nominations start landing.

Published in Movies

It’s rarely good news when a film’s release is significantly pushed back. Regardless of the reasons, it’s not a great look when your movie hits the festival circuit, only to disappear from view for months or even years before eventually getting a wide release.

Every once in a while, though, the end result is a better film.

That seems to be the case with “The Current War: Director’s Cut” – released as such because it has been significantly changed from its initial appearance on the scene a couple of years ago. And those changes seem to have done the trick, because while that earlier version of the film was received in a manner that would charitably be called “mixed,” this new iteration is actually a pretty solid biopic.

It’s the story of the real-life rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse as they competed to see whose electrical current – Edison’s DC or Westinghouse’s AC – would be the one that electrified America and the world. It’s a stylish and aesthetically engaging film – far more so than you might expect from a biopic such as this one – with an A-list ensemble cast and dynamic direction courtesy of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

Published in Movies
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