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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
Tuesday, 15 October 2019 20:33

A star is (re)born – ‘Judy’

One of the staples of awards season is the biopic. For whatever reason, we’ve collectively decided that watching actors portray real people is more impressive than portraying fictional characters. Sometimes that’s true … and sometimes it isn’t. There are a lot of pitfalls that come with representing a living breathing human. Sometimes, good intentions give way to mishaps. Other times, you get something that’s middling. And sometimes, you get something unforgettable.

In “Judy,” Renee Zellweger gives us the latter.

The film, which tells the story of entertainment icon Judy Garland’s 1968 trip to London, isn’t any kind of wheel reinvention. Directed by Rupert Goold from a screenplay adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s stageplay “End of the Rainbow,” it’s pretty standard stuff. It’s a moment-in-time biopic as opposed to a birth-to-death biopic (though we do get some “Wizard of Oz”-era flashbacks, aiming to capture one small stretch of the subject’s life.

What elevates “Judy” is Zellweger’s work in the titular role. She is wholly committed in a way we don’t often see, giving the sort of transformative performance that requires most actors to shift their weight by 50 pounds or slather on the prosthetics … and she does it with a haircut. She inhabits the icon, warts and all. Hell, she even does her own singing, which is a major flex no matter who you are.

And it works. All of it.

Published in Movies

Few cinematic subgenres are as predictable as the musical biopic. We’ve grown accustomed to watching the lives of famous musicians broken down into beats that have been repeated so many times as to become rote – it’s a sort of rock-and-roll lifestyle shorthand. We know how these goes.

That said, that formulaicness hasn’t necessarily prevented these films from succeeding both critically and commercially. Heck, last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” made $900 million at the box office and netted Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar for playing Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.

After that kind of run, it’s no surprise that Hollywood would return to the well again, this time with “Rocketman” starring Taron Egerton as Elton John. What is surprising is this: “Rocketman” is a better movie than “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Egerton’s performance as Elton John is better than Malek’s as Freddie Mercury.

Seriously. The movie won’t do nearly the same box office numbers and Egerton won’t get a sniff of the awards-show attention that Malek received, but that doesn’t change the fact that both are better.

They’re better because “Rocketman” – directed by Dexter Fletcher (the same guy who cleaned up Bryan Singer’s mess on “Bohemian Rhapsody”) – leans into the inherent weirdness of rock stardom in a way we don’t often see, embracing the flamboyance of its subject through a liberal dusting of full-blown musical numbers and magical realism. When you’re telling the story of a provocatively stylish and over-the-top icon, you’ve got to do it in a provocatively stylish and over-the-top fashion.

(Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if in a movie about a singer, your lead performer, you know … sings.)

Published in Movies

Have you ever wondered where pro wrestlers come from? From what kind of environment does a professional wrestling star spring?

“Fighting with My Family” tells the story of how one particular wrestler – WWE star Paige – came to reach the pinnacle of her chosen pursuit. Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (yes, THAT Stephen Merchant), the film is based on Max Fisher’s 2012 documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family.” It’s the story of an English family and their devotion to the world of professional wrestling – a devotion that would help one of them reach the top of the heap.

It’s also a funny and surprisingly heartwarming story about what it means to be a family and about how those family ties can both help and hinder efforts at self-betterment. Sure, it’s a bit of on-brand fantasy courtesy of WWE, but instead of feeling calculated and cynical, there’s an unexpected sincerity to it that proves quite engaging.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 16 January 2019 13:50

OG RBG – ‘On the Basis of Sex’

Biopics are harder than you think. Telling the story of a real person – a person that your audience likely has some foreknowledge of and feelings about – requires a delicate touch, finding the balance between veracity and narrative. You want it to be true, but you also need it to be engaging.

And when you’re dealing with a person who’s currently living, it’s a good deal tougher still.

That’s where we are with “On the Basis of Sex,” the new biopic telling the story of the early days of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she crusaded for the cause of gender equality in classrooms and courtrooms – the same Ruth Bader Ginsburg currently sitting on our country’s Supreme Court. It’s the story of one brilliant woman’s efforts to be taken seriously in a world ruled by men who doubt not just her, but everyone with whom she shares a gender.

It’s a story with its compelling moments, to be sure, with a young RBG unapologetically striving to do what is right against seemingly insurmountable odds. And the cast is really talented from the top down. But it never really rises. It’s a nice enough movie, well-acted with a fascinating subject, but it isn’t much more than that – the kind of pretty good film that you expected to be a bit better.

Published in Movies
Saturday, 29 December 2018 21:53

The absurdity of venality – ‘Vice’

If you were to make a list of real-life political figures who might make a good subject for a biopic packed with satiric elements, pitch-black humor and a liberal sprinkling of absurdism, former Vice President Dick Cheney would probably sit pretty low on it.

And yet, that’s precisely what writer/director Adam McKay has done with his new movie “Vice.” The filmmaker’s follow-up to 2015’s “The Big Short,” his biting and surprisingly impactful riff on the housing crisis of the late-00s, takes on one of the most powerful and influential – for better or worse (mostly worse) – men to hold the office of Vice President.

With a virtuoso performance from Christian Bale as Cheney and an absolutely dynamite ensemble cast, McKay treats Cheney’s calculated rise through the ranks culminating in a consolidation of political power never before seen in the office of the VP. And he does it with a depth of intelligence and razor-sharp wit, bringing together stock footage and fourth-wall-breaking internal commentary with a more-or-less straightforward look at the biographical details; the end result is one of the most thought-provoking and challenging films of the year. Not to mention one of the best.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 07 November 2018 13:33

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ will rock you

You never know what you’re going to get with a biopic. Telling the stories of real-life people in a manner that is both narratively engaging and at least moderately truthful involves a lot of delicate decision-making … and results vary.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is one such biopic, relating the story of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. It doesn’t reach the heights of the genre’s best, but nor does it wallow in hagiography. It’s a bit too pat in some spots, a bit too muddy in others and there are some rather glaring omissions. But for all its relative fast-and-looseness with the truth, it serves as a lovely look back at one of popular music’s most compelling figures – a paean to a rock god.

Published in Movies
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