Category Archives: Biopic

SIFF 2017: Endless Poetry ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini western El Topo single-handedly redefined the meaning of “WTF?” for cult movie aficionados, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book writer Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the envelope on all creative fronts. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as an aspiring poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only conveys that its creator possesses the soul of a poet, but stands, in and of itself, as an almost tactile evocation of poetry’s soul.

After my date with tragedy: Jackie ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2016)

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In his 2009 Vanity Fair article, “A Clash of Camelots”, Sam Kashner gives a fascinating account of the personal price author William Manchester ultimately paid for accepting Jackie Kennedy’s invitation to write an authorized account of JFK’s assassination. Death of a President sold well, but by the time it was published in 1967, Manchester had weathered “…a bitter, headline-making battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy.” Among other things, Kashner’s article unveils Manchester’s interesting take on Jackie K. herself:

On April 7, 1964, Jacqueline, dressed in yellow Capri pants and a black jersey, closed the sliding doors behind her in her Georgetown home, and Manchester came face-to-face with the president’s widow for their first official meeting. “Mr. Manchester,” she said in her soft, whispery voice. Manchester was struck by her “camellia beauty” and thought she looked much younger than her 34 years. “My first impression—and it never changed—was that I was in the presence of a very great, tragic actress.… There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness,” he later wrote, and Jacqueline Kennedy had “provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation’s First Lady.”

That particular aspect of Jacqueline Kennedy’s persona – the “very great, tragic actress” – is a tragedian’s dream, an opportunity seized by director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, who take it and run with it in the speculative historical drama, Jackie.

The film is fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Most of the narrative focuses on the week following the president’s assassination, as Mrs. Kennedy finds herself immediately thrown into the minutiae of moving her family and belongings out of the White House, planning her husband’s funeral, and preserving his presidential legacy; all while still reeling from the horror and shock of what happened in Dallas just days before (which I’m certain would be enough to completely crack anyone).

Therein lays the genius of this film. Who among us (old enough to remember that day) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jackie’s head on November 22, 1963? You wake up that sunny fall morning, you’re beautiful, glamorous, admired by millions, and married to the most powerful leader in the free world. By that night, you’re in shock, gobbling tranquilizers like Pez, standing in the cramped galley of Air Force One in a daze, still wearing that gore-spattered pink dress, watching the Vice President being sworn in as the new POTUS…while realizing you are already getting brushed to the side.

No one but Jackie herself will ever truly know what it was like to be inside her head in the wake of this zeitgeist-shattering event, and she took that with her to her grave. That gives the film makers much creative leeway, but there are still many points grounded in reality. For example, it’s no secret that Jackie fiercely (and famously) guarded her privacy; so the insinuations that she shrewdly cultivated her image (in one scene, she demands the right of final edit for the journalist’s article) are not necessarily exaggerated.

That said, the narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. Two films came to mind while I was watching Jackie that I would consider stylistic cousins: Francois Girard’s 1993 Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Satoshi Kon’s 2001 Millennium Actress; the former for its use of episodic vignettes from its subject’s life to construct a portrait, and the latter for doing the same, but with the added similarity of using a journalist’s interview for a framing device.

Larrain also evokes Kubrick, in his use of classical-style music, meticulously constructed shots (with lovely photography throughout by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine) and deliberate pacing. The film ultimately belongs to Portman, who may not physically resemble Jackie, but uncannily captures her persona, from her “soft, whispery voice” and public poise, to her less-guarded side (replete with chain-smoking and sardonic wit). There is excellent supporting work from the aforementioned Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard (as Robert F. Kennedy), and a cameo by the always wonderful John Hurt (as Jackie’s priest).

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK)…why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Mr. Robot goes to Washington: Snowden ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2016)

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“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”  

       -from “1984”, by George Orwell

Reality can be a tough act to follow. As I noted in my 2008 review of the biopic, W:

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish.

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives […] But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

Such is the conundrum for Snowden, writer-director Oliver Stone’s new biopic about Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices.

The “tough act of follow” is Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour. In 2013, Snowden invited Poitras, along with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, for a meet at the Hong Kong hotel he was holed up in. This was the culmination of months of email exchanges between Snowden (sending encrypted text under the pseudonym of “Citizenfour”) and Poitras. Poitras found herself in the unique position of being a (circumstantial) “co-conspirator” in the story she was filming. The result was a gripping documentary that played like a paranoia-fueled thriller.

Now we have Oliver Stone, a filmmaker often accused by detractors of infusing his own politically charged, paranoia-fueled conspiracy theories into historical dramas like JFK and Nixon, diving head first into one of the most polarizing public debates of recent years: is Edward Snowden a hero…or a traitor? It seems to be a marriage made in heaven. Surely, this should be a perfect impetus for the return of that fearless, rabble-rousing Oliver Stone of old…speaking truth to power through his art, consequences be damned.

This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond even the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society.

In other words, you couldn’t make this shit up, either.

After opening with a cloak-and-dagger vignette set in 2013 on the streets of Hong Kong, Stone flashes back to 2004, where we see a younger, gung-ho Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) humping it through a grueling Special Forces training course. His Army reservist career is cut short after he breaks both legs in an accident. A few years later, still determined to serve his country, he finds a more ideal fit working at the CIA, where his (apparently) sharp computer hacking skills land him a position as an info tech. Stone follows Snowden’s various job relocations, from D.C. to Japan; eventually ending up at the NSA subcontracting firm Booz Allen in Hawaii (where he famously “did the deed”).

Stone alternates between the personal bio, which includes Snowden’s longtime relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and the increasingly furtive interview sessions with Snowden in the Hong Kong hotel room in 2013 by Guardian journalists Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), while Poitras (Melissa Leo) dutifully continues filming. Gordon-Levitt uncannily captures Snowden’s vibe; although by the time credits roll, he remains a cypher. Then again, Snowden has said, “This really isn’t about me […] It’s about our right to dissent.”

Stylistically, the film felt to me like a throwback to cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Defector, Funeral in Berlin, and The Deadly Affair. This may not be by accident; because one of the core themes of the screenplay (adapted by Stone with Kieran Fitzgerald from Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, and Anatoly Kucherena’s Time of the Octopus) is that we are, in fact, in the midst of a new “cold war”…in cyberspace.

As Snowden’s (fictional) mentor “Corbin O’Brien” (one of the more interesting creations in the film, especially as played by a scene-stealing Rhys Ifans) tells him, “The new battlefield is everywhere.” True that. It’s happening every day, all around us. It used to be a novelty, but it seems like my bank is issuing me a new credit card about every 6 months anymore, due to some nebulous “security breach”. Or how about the “DC Leaks” story…hacktivists with alleged Russian ties breaking into White House accounts at will?

But the question becomes, of course, how much of our privacy should we, as tax-paying citizens, be willing to sacrifice in the name of national security? As Greg Lake once sang:

Knowledge is a deadly friend, if no one sets the  rules                                      The fate of all mankind, I see, is in the hands of fools 

Luckily, we have filmmakers like Stone and Poitras, journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill, and whistle blowers like Edward Snowden, who do not suffer such fools gladly. Big Brother is watching us, but now we feel emboldened to ask: What are you lookin’ at?

Sketches of pain: Born to Be Blue ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2016)

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My pebble on the beach is gettin’ washed away                                                       I’ve given everything that was mine to give                                                              And now I’ll turn around and find                                                                               That there’s no time to live

-from “No Time to Live” by Traffic (Winwood/Capaldi)

The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide. There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died).

Baker has a mystique that has inspired filmmakers over the years. Jess Franco’s 1969 cult film Venus in Furs  (my review) was seeded by a  conversation the director once had with Baker (the protagonist is a haunted jazz trumpeter, who falls in love with a woman who may or may not exist). Bruce Weber’s beautifully photographed 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost is a heartbreaking portrait of Baker toward the end of his life. Which brings us to writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue (limited release and pay-per-view).

Budreau’s film is a highly stylized “re-imagining” of the jazzman’s slow, painful professional comeback that followed in the wake of the beating that virtually destroyed his embouchure. In a super-meta opening scene, Chet (Ethan Hawke) is on a movie set, working out a scene for a biopic about himself, with his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo). An off camera romance ensues, with Jane pulling triple duty as lover, muse and drug counselor; trying to keep him off the junk as he struggles against the odds to regain his playing chops with a fractured jaw. Along the way, the couple takes a road trip to Chet’s boyhood home in Oklahoma, where he introduces Jane to his parents (Janet Laine-Green and Stephen McHattie) and feebly attempts to patch things up with his estranged father.

Jane isn’t the only person in Chet’s orbit who find themselves fulfilling a caretaker’s role; his long-time manager (Callum Keith Rennie), musical mentor Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard), and his parole officer (Tony Nappo), continue to prop him up, against their better judgement (you know what they say: “Never trust a junkie.”). How much of this aspect of Baker’s life is being “re-imagined” here is up for debate; but it’s interesting to observe that in Weber’s 1988 documentary, even Baker himself admits (in so many words) that he knew he was a natural-born charmer, and he was never afraid to exploit it.

While the “junkie/alcoholic (musician, artist, writer, or poet) with God-given talent and a maddening gift for self-destruction” narrative is a cliché, Budreau’s film is bolstered by a very strong performance from Hawke; it’s an immersive portrayal that ranks among his best. Supporting performances are excellent as well. Overall, the film is moody, highly atmospheric, and evocative of the time period, with striking cinematography (by Steve Cosens). The dearth of original Baker music is glaring (copyright issues?), but Kevin Turcotte’s faux-Chet trumpet provides a reasonable facsimile thereof. Hawke does his own singing; very convincingly capturing Chet Baker’s essence (if not his exact tonality).

The Zen of Yen: Ip Man 3 **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  January 23, 2016)

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You know what they say-everybody has to start somewhere. Bruce Lee was no exception; he had a mentor, a gentleman known as Ip Man, who was a master in a Shaolin martial arts discipline called Wing Chun. Hong Kong director Wilson Yip’s new film, Ip Man 3, marks his third installment in a franchise dramatizing specific periods of Master Ip’s life.

Donnie Yen (Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey) returns in the eponymous role. The story is set in 1959, which was the year (at least as dramatized in the film…Wiki begs to differ) a young and cocky Bruce Lee (Danny Chan) first approaches Master Ip and expresses his desire to become his disciple. But apparently, he’s just not “fast” enough yet (like I said-everybody has to start somewhere). After this brief interaction in the opening scene, the Bruce Lee character drops from the story (unless I wasn’t paying close enough attention).

Keeping Bruce Lee in the story might have propped things up; otherwise you’re left with a standard genre pic, with Ip Man taking on an ambitious, mobbed-up property developer (Mike Tyson…yes, that Mike Tyson) who has built up a network of surly youth gangs to intimidate, terrorize, and generally soften up the locals so that they will become more pliant. Thankfully, Tyson doesn’t have too many lines; although his call-out challenging Ip Man to go mano a mano (“Lethee who hath the fascist fifths!”) is eminently quotable.

The ensuing vignettes of explosive street violence are interlaced with family melodrama, as Ip Man deals with his wife’s terminal illness. To the director and cast’s credit, these scenes are sensitively handled and genuinely touching at times; but unfortunately the juxtaposition with the action sequences (well-choreographed and entertaining as they are) is jarring. In the end, the soap could render the film as too slippery a slope for action fans.

I’m a cork on the ocean: Love and Mercy ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2015)

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What is it with talented musical families and evil, abusive fathers? When you read about how Joe Jackson mistreated his children as they were growing up, it’s no wonder that Michael (and a couple siblings) ended up as  freak shows. Then there’s Murray Wilson, father of Beach Boys Brian, Carl and Dennis. Like Joe, Murray intuited his children’s gifts early on. Undoubtedly, both sensed the potential gold mine . Giving both dads the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they initially guided their children’s careers in the spirit of parental mentoring, but as we know, money is the root of all evil.

It’s possible that genius envy played a role as well. There’s a very revealing scene in Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy. The year is 1966, and Brian (Paul Dano) is in the process of working out a song cycle that will soon coalesce into the now-legendary Pet Sounds album. He sits at a piano in front of his father (Bill Camp) and bangs out a rudimentary version of a new song that he’s jazzed about. Even at this early stage, it’s beautiful, inspired, and (with the gift of hindsight) we of course recognize it right away. Murray pisses all over it. No hit potential, dumb lyrics. The title? “God Only Knows”.

History did eventually prove Murray to be an ass, but Brian’s famously complex “issues” actually stemmed from a combination of factors, aside from the open derision from Dear Old Dad. The pressures of touring, coupled with his experimentation with LSD and his increasing difficulty reconciling the heavenly voices in his head eventually led to a full scale nervous breakdown (first in a series). Still, he managed to hold the creeping madness at bay long enough to produce the most amazing, innovative work of his career.

This particular period (1966-1967) is recreated by Pohlad with uncanny verisimilitude, especially in the “fly on the wall” depictions of the Pet Sounds sessions (these scenes reveal the core essence of the musical creative process like no other film I’ve seen since Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil). Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance is a revelation, capturing the duality of Brian the troubled genius and Brian the sweet man-child to a tee.

If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with Brian’s bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). Landy (played here with full-throttled “don’t you love to hate me?” aplomb by Paul Giamatti) was the therapist/life coach who “treated” Brian for his mental problems by essentially putting him under house arrest (and very heavy medication) for the better part of a decade (and charging his star patient a cool half mil a year for the privilege of his services). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack.

It may require some viewers a little time and patience before accepting Cusack as Brian; especially since he does not bear the same (almost eerie) physical resemblance, but once you do, it won’t be the distraction that you may initially fear it to be. And there is a good reason for that…Cusack has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. Also, if you have seen the “real” Brian in interviews, you will appreciate Cusack’s turn all the more; he has really done his observational homework. Like all the best actors do, Cusack has picked up on the essential nuances, more than making up for his relative lack of physical resemblance. His Brian is sweet, touching and heartbreaking all at once.

Elizabeth Banks is wonderful here as well, as Melinda, who meets (latter-day) Brian when he strolls into the Cadillac dealership where she works, then eventually becomes his significant other (she was the first “outsider” to glean that Dr. Landy’s Svengali-like control of Brian’s life was doing him more harm than good). There are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I always try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’n’roll biopics I’ve seen in years. The matinee I attended had an audience of approximately five (and it was opening weekend), so I would recommend you rush out to see it before it gets eaten by a dinosaur.

Let’s get lost again: Low Down ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)

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I will admit being unfamiliar with jazz pianist Joe Albany prior to watching Jeff Preiss’ fact-based drama Low Down, yet the late musician’s career trajectory seems depressingly familiar. Credited as a be-bop pioneer, he made his bones in the 1940s, accompanying the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Unfortunately, he suffered an early “lost period” due to heroin, and spent most of the 50s and 60s chasing the dragon and collecting ex-wives. He came out of seclusion in the 70s, recording a number of albums through the decade (still battling smack). He died alone, in 1988. Oddly enough, that was the same year trumpeter Chet Baker died. Baker, whose career was beset by similar woes, was profiled in Bruce Weber’s outstanding 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost. One of its most compelling elements was the moody, noirish cinematography…by a Mr. Jeff Preiss.

Preiss’ film (which marks his feature-length directing debut) covers a 3-year period of Albany’s life in the mid-70s, when he was living in a seedy Hollywood flophouse with his teenage daughter Amy (Elle Fanning). Albany (John Hawkes) is struggling to stay focused on the work, jamming with his trumpet-playing buddy Hobbs (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, giving us a taste of his first instrument). Amy is cheer leading for her Dad, doing her best to keep him on track. Speaking of tracks, a surprise visit from his parole officer reveals Dad isn’t quite holding things together, and he’s whisked off to stir. Amy goes to stay with her grandmother (Glenn Close) until Joe is released. Dad still has issues. Amy tries to keep sunny, but it’s tough to be Pollyanna when your social circle is surging with hookers, junkies, drug dealers and, er, porno star dwarves (Peter Dinklage!).

The screenplay (by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien) is based on Albany’s memoir about life with her father. Albany’s recollections about the extended family of eccentrics she encountered inject the film with a Tales of the City vibe. The naturalistic performances and Preiss’ cinema verite approach also recalls Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drama, The Panic in Needle Park, an episodic character study about a community of junkies. Some may find the deliberate pacing stupefying, waiting for something to “happen”, but as John Lennon sang, “life is just what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Taken as a slice of life, Low Down just lets it happen…improvising on grace notes while keeping it in perfect time.

Hawking tall: The Theory of Everything ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 15, 2014)

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“There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”

Dr. Stephen W. Hawking

 There’s a truly jaw-dropping moment in James Marsh’s new biopic about theoretical physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking, in which lead actor Eddie Redmayne (without the benefit of camera trickery or CGI) literally “unfolds” his paralyzed, crumpled body from the confines of his wheelchair, and walks offstage into the audience to gracefully kneel down and pick up a pencil. A lump formed in my throat, and I began to cry like I haven’t cried at a film since…I don’t know when (maybe Old Yeller, when I was 6?). I know what you’re thinking. I might as well write: “I saw this film today. There was this one incredible scene, where this guy gets up off the couch, and flips on a light switch. I wept.” But it’s all about context. In context of all the events leading up to that scene, it makes for an extraordinarily moving moment (as ‘they’ say…”You weren’t there, man!”).

Hawking’s back-story is fairly well-known; that he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 21, and given 2 years to live. At the time, he was studying cosmology at Cambridge, and already formulating the patented type of eloquent equations that deign to explain Life, the Universe, and Everything…which would one day become his stock in trade, elevating him to rock star status within the realm of theoretical physics. Of course, being a young man in his 20s, he also had a healthy interest in, erm, “biology” whilst at university. He became smitten with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), who stood by him through thick and thin as his physical condition deteriorated, and eventually became his wife. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay mostly focuses on this personal aspect of Hawking’s life; not surprising when you consider he adapted from Jane Hawking’s 2007 autobiographical account, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.

Depending on your expectations going in, this could be perceived as either the curse or the blessing of Marsh’s approach to Hawking’s story. If you have a geeky interest in getting a handle on exactly how Dr. Hawking derived his most lauded theories over the years, you’ll be disappointed at the notable lack of hard science in the film. However, if you’re not in the mood for a physics lecture, and instead looking for (yes, I’m going to say it) another inspirational biopic about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, this one is right in your wheelhouse. In that respect, the movie is somewhat formulaic, but so well executed and skillfully acted that only the clinically dead would fail to be moved. Marsh is an elegant filmmaker; he directed one of the most beautifully constructed documentaries of recent years, Man on Wire (my review).

That being said, there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that, by all accounts, the “real” Stephen Hawking couldn’t care a whit as to whether the story of his physical travails inspires you, me, or the fence post; he famously balks at any empathetic interest in that part of his life. For him, it’s all about the work, and the seemingly boundless inquisitiveness and capabilities of his mind which (thankfully) has remained largely unaffected by his hellish maladies. On the other hand, you get a sense from the film that Hawking would still not have been able to achieve everything that he has with that great mind without the stalwart devotion, encouragement and assistance of people in his life like Jane, or Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) a personal nurse who became his second wife. Consequently, Marsh’s film is just as much their story as it Hawking’s (as should be).

I suspect I will not be the only reviewer who feels compelled to draw parallels between Redmayne’s performance and Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation in My Left Foot, Jim Sheridan’s 1989 biopic about cerebral palsy-afflicted artist and writer Christy Brown. And it’s not just about the obvious similarities in how both actors appear willing to (literally) suffer for their art, contorting their bodies into gruelingly uncomfortable positions for periods of time. It’s more about how each was able to express his character’s humanity, in a manner transcending gimmickry of performance. At least that’s my theory.

WW 2, the B-sides: The Wind Rises ***1/2 & Generation War **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2014)

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Jiro dreams of Zeros: The Wind Rises

If I understand Hayao Miyazaki’s take on the life of Jiro Horikoshi correctly, he was sort of the Temple Grandin of Japanese aviation; a photo-realistic visual thinker who lived, breathed, and even dreamed about elegant aircraft designs from childhood onward.

The fact that his most famous creation, the Zero, became one of the most indelible icons of Japanese aggression during WW2 is incidental. As I was hitherto blissfully unaware of Horikoshi prior to viewing the venerable director’s new (and purportedly, final) anime, The Wind Rises, I’m giving Miyazaki-san benefit of the doubt; though I also must assume that Miyazaki’s beautifully woven cinematic tapestry involved…a bit of creative license?

Those who have followed Miyazaki’s work over the past several decades may be surprised (perhaps even mildly disappointed) to learn that the director’s swan song is a relatively straightforward biopic, containing virtually none of the fantasy elements that have become the director’s stock-in-trade. Still, he makes his fans feel at home right out of the starting gate with a dream sequence…about flying (a signature theme that recurs throughout Miyazaki’s oeuvre).

The young Jiro has nightly dreams about meeting his hero, the Italian aircraft designer Caproni, who gives him tours of fantastical flying machines that spark his imagination and creativity. Too nearsighted to become a pilot himself, Jiro finds solace in his natural gifts for engineering and design. As he follows Jiro into adulthood, Miyazaki gives us a crash course in Japanese history between the wars. Also along the way, Jiro meets the love of his life, a young woman named Nahoko.

Miyazaki largely maintains an apolitical tone (and leapfrogs over the war years to go straight to the denouement), although there is some implied conflict of conscience in a scene where Jiro laments how the military just wants to subvert the aesthetics of his elegant designs into weapons of destruction (I suppose you could argue that one can’t fault Einstein for coming up with an elegant equation that was subverted into a mushroom cloud of death).

At the end of the day, The Wind Rises is an old-fashioned love story and elegiac look at prewar Japan. And there is no denying the sheer artistry on display (a recreation of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is the most epic and technically brilliant sequence I have ever seen in the realm of cel animation). Incidentally, Miyazaki has “retired” at least once before. I hope he doesn’t mean it…again.

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Dedicated followers of fascists: Generation War

German filmmakers step into a PC minefield whenever they tackle a WW2 narrative from the perspective of German characters; it’s a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum. If you present your protagonists in too much of a sympathetic light, you’re a revisionist, or (at worst) an apologist. If you go too much in the opposite direction, you’re feeding the stereotype that every German who was alive during Hitler’s regime was an evil Nazi. Okay, a lot of Germans were party members, and the Nazis were evil, but that’s beside the point. The politics of war are seldom black and white; there’s plenty of gray area for an astute dramatist to navigate.

The most well-known example of successfully navigating that gray area is Lewis Milestone’s 1930 WW1 drama, All Quiet on the Western Front, which follows a group of young Germans as they transform from fresh-faced, idealistic recruits into shell-shocked combat veterans with 1000-yard stares (well, those who survive). The humanistic approach gives the story a universal appeal; it’s a moot point that the protagonists happen to be “the enemy” (war is the great equalizer). While less-celebrated, I would rank Masaki Kobayashi’s 1959 epic The Human Condition as the greatest achievement in this arena (9 hours…but I’d still recommend it).

Falling somewhere in the middle (epic in length but somewhat tepid in narrative) is Generation War, a 5-hour German mini-series hit that has now been repackaged as a 2-part theatrical presentation. Directed by Philipp Kadelback and written by Stefan Kolditz, the film is sort of a German version of The Big Red One, with echoes of the Paul Verhoeven films Soldier of Orange and Black Book.

The film opens with five close friends enjoying a going-away party on the eve of Operation Barbarossa (which will change all their lives…forevah). Actually, only three of them are “going away”. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), an officer in the Wehrmacht, and his younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) will be off to the Eastern Front, and Charlotte (Miriam Stein) hopes to lend her nursing skills to the Red Cross. Greta (Katherina Schuttler), an aspiring chanteuse and her verboten Jewish lover Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) will hold down the home front. After much drinking and dancing, there’s consensus that the war should wrap by Christmas.

Of course, the war doesn’t wrap up by Christmas (besides, as the audience, we’ve still got 4 ½ hours left on the meter at this point). Unfortunately, what ensues is more cliché than bullet-ridden, and the film itself becomes as much of an arduous slog as Wilhelm and Friedhelm’s 3-year trudge toward Moscow (with Wilhelm’s interstitial voice overs excerpting Deep Thoughts from his war journals to serve as the Greek Chorus). The five leads give it their best with commendable performances, but (with the exception of one or two scenes) are handed barely-above-soap opera level material to work with. Also, there is one too many “Of all the gin joints of all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” moments.

To give credit where credit is due, there is one eminently quotable epiphany, via one of Wilhelm’s journal entries. It arrives too late in the film to fully redeem the lulls in the preceding several hours, but it bears repeating: “To start with, on the battlefield, you fight for your country. Later, when doubt sets in, you fight for your  comrades…whom you can’t leave in the lurch. But when nobody else is left, when you’re alone, and the only one you can deceive is yourself? What do you fight for then?” Granted, that may just be a long-winded variation on  “War isn’t about who is right, but who is left”…but as far as rhetorical questions go? It’s a doozy.

Oh, that mean, mean, mean, lean green: The Wolf of Wall Street ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 4, 2014)

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Do funny things to some people: DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

A few weeks back, in my review of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, I wrote that the film was “…best described as New Yorkers screaming at each other for an interminable 2 hours and 19 minutes”. I went on to lament that it was “…kinda like GoodFellas, except not as stylish.” OK, so it’s time for full disclosure. On one level, The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s very similarly-themed film, could be described as “New Yorkers screaming at each other for three hours” (and I suppose that technically, most Scorsese films fit that bill). One could also say that it is “…kinda like GoodFellas“. However in this case, it is as stylish…because (as they say) there ain’t nuthin’ like the real thing, baby.

The American hustle takes many forms. For example, your everyday “con artists” can’t hold a candle to the institutional grifters of Wall Street. And when it comes to the American Oligarchy, nothing exceeds like excess. That axiom seems to propel Scorsese’s deliriously vulgar, spun-out tweaker of a biopic, based on the 2007 memoir by Jordan Belfort, a successful “penny” stockbroker whose career crashed in 1998, when he was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering. Belfort wasn’t shy about reveling in his wealth; and Scorsese is not shy about reveling in Belfort’s revels.

Breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera a la Ray Liotta’s protagonist in GoodFellas, Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) narrates his own rise and fall with that air of smug, coked-out alacrity that has become de rigueur for such self-styled Masters of the Universe. We see the wide-eyed neophyte at his first brokerage gig, where he receives the first of several variations on the classic “second prize is a set of steak knives” monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross that screenwriter Terence Winter sprinkles throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, delivered by his boss (Matthew McConaughey). He imparts a dictum that comes to define Jordan’s career: “Fuck the client.” He also ascribes his financial acumen to a daily regimen of masturbation and cocaine consumption (hmm…a few possible root causes for the Global Financial Crisis are suddenly coming into focus, eh?).

Belfort takes to both the work and the lifestyle like a fish to water, soon becoming a top earner. However, when a recession hits (1988, I’m guessing?) he finds himself unceremoniously out of a gig. After scraping by for a spell, he lands a job at a low-rent Long Island brokerage that specializes in “penny stocks”. His effortless mastery of the “boiler room” bait-and-switch playbook gives him the inspiration to start his own brokerage. With a stalwart (if initially ungainly-seeming) right-hand man named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) by his side, Belfort leases a vacant warehouse, persuades some of his pot dealer pals and boiler room co-workers to come aboard, bestows the business with a prestigious-sounding moniker (“Stratton Oakmont”), and he’s off to the proverbial races.

The 1990’s turn out to be belly belly good to Stratton Oakmont, which starts raking in money by the truckload, in fact so much that Belfort starts running out of ways to spend it and places to put it (hello, Switzerland!). I mean, you can only buy so many cars, mansions and yachts, snort so much coke, drop so many ‘ludes, and hire so many hookers (or little people, to be tossed at Velcro targets) before you have to really start getting creative. But…but…what about the victims of the financial scams Belfort and co. cooked up in order to make all that filthy lucre, you might ask? Well, fuck them!

This is the most polarizing aspect of the film; and indeed Scorsese has been catching considerable flak from some quarters for seemingly glorifying the bad, bad behavior of the perpetrators, and barely acknowledging the countless number of people who were fleeced by these scam artists. To my perception, however, that is precisely the point of the film-to demonstrate how inherently corrupt the culture of Wall Street is. It is a culture that rewards the Jordan Belforts and Michael Milkens of the world for their arrogance and enables them to thrive. Oh sure, eventually they “get caught” and “pay” for their crimes, but more often than not it amounts to a slap on the wrist (Belfort and Milken both served a whopping 22 months in jail), after which they happily reinvent themselves; in this case Belfort as a motivational speaker, Milken as a philanthropist. It’s the American Way!

This is one of Scorsese’s most engaging films in years, and a return to form; even if its overdose of style borders on self-parody (Swooping crane shots! Talking directly to the camera! Hip music cues! Marty does Marty!). I probably should warn anyone who is offended by excessive use of profanity…there is excessive use of profanity (according to Variety, the film has set the all-time record for what they timidly refer to as “the f-bomb”…506 utterances (Fuck! I feel sorry for the poor fucker who had to sit through all three hours pushing a fucking clicker every time someone said “fuck”. I hope he gets fucking Workman’s Comp for the fucking carpal tunnel. Fuck!).

DiCaprio and Hill pull out all the stops in their over-the-top performances; but then again they are playing over-the-top characters, so it is apropos. Other standouts among the sizable cast include Rob Reiner (as Belfort’s father) and the always delightful Joanna Lumley and Jean Dujardin (adding continental class as Belfort’s British aunt and Swiss banker, respectively). As your movie broker, I advise you to buy a share (or ticket) immediately.