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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.)

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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

There are some stories that should be told over and over again. These are the stories that are a part of the fabric of who we are as a society, stories that represent the pinnacle of human capability in a tangible, visceral way.

The story of the moon landing is one such story. No matter how often the story is told and retold, no matter how many times it is referenced directly or obliquely in popular culture, it isn’t enough. It will never be enough. It’s a story we should keep telling with every increase in our capability to tell it.

“First Man” – directed by Damien Chazelle and adapted by Josh Singer from James R. Hansen’s “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” – stars Ryan Gosling as that titular astronaut and relates his story as he walks the path that inexorably draws him toward space. It’s a portrait of the quiet aptitude and stoic readiness that made Neil Armstrong an ideal candidate for this leap into the unknown; it also examines the impacts of this journey (positive and negative alike) on those around him – particularly his family and his NASA compatriots.

Published in Movies

Casual comedy fans – particularly those of a younger generation – may not be familiar with Doug Kenney. However, anyone who has any interest in the comedic craft has reaped the benefits of his groundbreaking work.

Kenney – who co-founded the subversive humor magazine The National Lampoon before branching out into stage, radio and film – was a weirdo shooting star in the comedy world, one who shone brightly and ultimately burned out too fast.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” – based on Josh Karp’s book of the same name – tells the story of Kenney’s rapid ascent and subsequent fall. Directed by David Wain, the film goes out of its way to paint its subject as a genius, a true icon, but despite its sprawling efforts – including a deep and talented cast - it never quite goes beyond a surface-level exploration of Kenney. The result is a serviceable biopic with a few flashes; not terrible, but not nearly what we might have hoped it to be.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 30 August 2017 10:39

‘Birth of the Dragon’ lacks punch

Compelling Bruce Lee story rendered bland, boring

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