Category Archives: biopic

“I, Tonya” a searing portrait of “truth”

Tonya Harding is one of the most infamous characters of the 1990s, but what is the real story about her and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan? Was Harding involved? Is she a villain or a victim? “I, Tonya” tells the story from Harding’s perspective, but with a wink about the nature of truth.

Directed by Craig Gillespie from a script written by Steven Rogers, the film starts with a young Tonya (Margot Robbie) as she grows up under the fierce tutelage of her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who verbally and emotionally abuses her. She marries the violent Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who keeps pushing her to excel on the national and international stage. Her connection to him leads to a bizarre series of events that culminates with a crying Nancy Kerrigan, a public evisceration and years of scandal.

The film is organized around a “Goodfellas” style of voiceover, intermittent interviews and talking to camera. By framing the story around the words of those who were directly involved in the events, the issue of what is truth takes center stage. Tonya tells one story, her mom tells another, her ex-husband tells yet another. And then they change their minds about what happened. And on top of that, the media quickly comes to their own interpretation and defines the story regardless of the facts. It’s an interesting examination similar to “Rashomon”, but with a distinctly American feel. The film dares you to examine your own preconceived notions about the crime and examine if you what you believe is still what you believe.

All of the actors, particularly Robbie and Oscar-winner Janney, excel and the script motors along at a brisk, never-boring pace. You really feel for Harding as she is portrayed as a victim of circumstance rather than a villain. Whether or not that is true is up for debate, even by the film. But this is Harding’s story by Harding. Whether we take it as vindication for her past is up to us.

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“The Theory of Everything” misses the point

Another British film. Another leading actor who transforms himself for a role and is helped by a supportive female character without much depth. Another biopic. Another overcoming-physical-ailment plot. Another love story that ebbs and flows and plays fast and loose with the facts. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before because “The Theory of Everything” is exactly the type of film you’d expect it to be.

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, the film examines young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his relationship with his girlfriend and then wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). As Stephen’s ALS ravages his body, his bond with her is tested and outside influences change their relationship.

The film deals much more with the familial relationships in Hawking’s life rather than the physics which makes him world-famous. In a way, this is a detriment as it minimizes Hawking’s contribution to the world of scientific thought and instead looks at him as some sort of inspirational figure, plugging in a story that really isn’t there and is meant solely to pull at the heartstrings.

The film is a cookie-cutter, Oscar-bait narrative meant to tell a simple story, not offend anyone, and not to engage beyond purely surface detail. There’s as little thought here as in many a modern blockbuster.

The acting is good. Both Redmayne and Jones fill in the empty story with a degree of relatability and charm. You can always count on that with a film like this.

But “The Theory of Everything” should have been so much more than just another Oscar-bait narrative. You could imagine an exploration into Hawking’s theories and dramatic representations of them onscreen. You could see the mental fortitude needed to come up with his ideas while restricted to a wheelchair. Perhaps the film balances Hawking’s life with his theories and shows how one influences the other. There’s a moment near the end of the movie where the film plays back in reverse, highlighting one of Hawking’s theories about time, and we see how his life is played out back to a single instant. It’s just a glimpse into the kind of film we wish we had.

“Battle of the Sexes” a solid crowd pleaser

“Battle of the Sexes” details the 1973 tennis match between professionals Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Dubbed as “man versus woman” as the feminist era was growing, the contest garnered national attention and illuminated feminist ideals in a changing world.

The film fully illustrates the personal lives of Billie Jean and Bobby, showing how their relationships with the men and women around them influence their tennis-playing ability. For the married Billie Jean, will her budding lesbian relationship with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) distract her and doom her chances? For Bobby, will the separation from his wife over his gambling addiction drive him to failure? For a film that is really all about the final 20 minutes, it does a good job of building the pressures up to that moment with filler that has purpose.

Carell and Stone are solid as Bobby and Billie Jean. Both have excelled in the past in these types of roles so it is no surprise to see Stone accentuate Billie’s determination and Carrel to highlight Bobby’s goofiness. As two of the premiere actors working today, they are at the top of their game.

The film mixes equal bits humor and drama. It is very much the type of movie you expect it to be. It doesn’t try to be flashy or wow your socks off. It just tells its story, imbued with a pertinent sense of feminism. You could maybe wish for a little bit more jazziness, but you can’t really ask for anything more.

“American Made” a solid ride

The 1980s seem to be the decade of nostalgic choice at the moment. With “Stranger Things” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Americans” all paying homage to the style and attitudes about the times, that trend continues with director Doug Liman’s “American Made.”

Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal. He’s a commercial airline pilot with a yearning for danger and excitement. When he’s approached by CIA operative Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take pictures over rebelling Central American countries, a series of events leads him to the drug empires, the Contras and a personal fortune that threatens to doom him with every branch of the US government.

The film is a lot of fun as we see Barry’s illegal deeds escalate over the story. It does a good job of building dramatic tension through Seal’s riskier and riskier behavior.

There is always a lingering sense however that we know that most of the story presented to us is fictionalized and dramatized. The real Barry Seal does not look like Tom Cruise. Nor did he have a wife who looks like Sarah Wright or a perfect family. Nor was he so personable and charismatic in his run-ins for and against the law. The lack of belief in the possibility of the narrative holds the story back somewhat, but if you just take it as a well-told spy story and throw logic to the wind, the experience is enjoyable.

Much in the same vein of similar stories like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “Goodfellas”, the film glorifies crime as an American ideal. Filmmakers see the 1980s as an era of  capitalism run-amok and this film fits in well with that nuance. Whether or not that is necessarily true is up to interpretation.

While the film is not the most original story in terms of narrative, it is fun to watch and experience. As confidence in the United States government continues to erode, stories like “American Made” and the issues it represents seem to grow greater significance.

“Love and Mercy” an alright film

Love and Mercy is the dramatized version of two different parts of The Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson’s life. In the 1960s, he is abused by his father as he attempts to create a “new kind of music” while a burgeoning psychosis and a drug habit start to take hold of his life. In the 1980s, he is broken and under the tutelage of a maniacal therapist (Paul Giamatti) who over-medicates him to keep him in line until he meets a car saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Needless to say, this is heady stuff.

Paul Dano and John Cusack do a commendable job as past and future Brian Wilson and Elizabeth Banks is strong, the heart of the story. Newcomer director Bill Pohlad also does a very good job in screen direction and utilizing his frame.

The issue however is that this is not a new story. It seems that all biopic films about musicians of the 1950s and 1960s feature the same tropes: parental drama, drugs, an unlikely romance that saves the soul of the artist and the allure and depredation of fame. One need only look at films such as Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), I’m Not There (2007) and La Vie en Rose (2007) to see the formula used again and again. Granted, there’s only so much filmmakers can do when so many artists have had similar pitfalls and career trajectories, but it has become so repetitive. The film does offer a twist on the formula by showing how manipulation by a close friend (Paul Giamatti as Eugene Landy) can overtake someone’s life and presenting a dual view of Wilson’s issues, but it is still an ‘overcoming drugs and fame through love’ story.

And the film offers little in terms of happiness. It succeeds brilliantly in putting us in Wilson’s shoes (a tribute to the strength of the acting and directing), but it is such a sad and sorry point of view that it’s a bit hard to feel uplifted at the film’s ending since we never really see Wilson happy. A few moments of joy along the way would have gone a long way towards making the emotional conclusion really work.

In addition, Melinda Ledbetter’s role is a little too perfect. She is more representational of “feminine virtue” in a role that could be more dimensional.

Love and Mercy is not a bad film nor a great film. It does some things well and misses at others. You’ll remember some parts and forget others. You’ve seen it before, and you’ll probably see it again. But it illuminates another one of the classic musicians of the 1960s, and you can’t help but feel closer to Brian Wilson at the film’s conclusion. That is at least worth an interest.

‘The Imitation Game’ a fine yet standard Oscar-bait film

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, a mathematician recruited by the British army in an attempt to decode the “Enigma” Nazi code used against the Allies during World War II. Assisting him are a rag tag group of codebreakers and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), his mental companion. As the casualties mount and the war gets worse, the pressure on Turing magnifies, and a secret he has kept for years threatens to destroy him.

Benedict Cumberbatch is great in the role of Turing, able to keep his quirks from being too offputting while hinting at a deep level of unease in his character.

The rest of the cast is solid as well. Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies provides welcome bits of comic relief as one of the closest spies to Winston Churchill and Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander is suave as one of Turing’s code breakers. Keira Knightley’s Joan is a bit of an enigma in herself. While the chemistry is strong between her and Cumberbatch, she serves no real purpose to the story other than as a foil to Turing. She also seems to be a character that was added solely for the purpose of having a woman in the cast and without more integrity to the plot, her storyline is a bit lacking.

The direction by Mortem Tyldum is rather padantic with standard shot-reverse shot editing and no real artistic flair in the direction. The screenplay similarly suffers as a by-the-book plot. The film also has trouble escaping the feel and look of a film that was intended to win Academy Awards. There is the crying scene, the call to arms we’re-going-to-save-the-country moment, the social commentary vibe and the historical movie-of-all-times aspect. It is remarkably similar at times to similar Oscar fodder films The King’s Speech (2010) and A Beautiful Mind (2001). Focusing on awards is never a strong way to tell a story and the film suffers at times for trying to be “that” film. When it focuses on just telling the story, and the story is quite interesting indeed, the film succeeds.

The Imitation Game is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it contains everything you want in a film. There’s some action, some drama, some laughs, a deep lesson and an interesting historical story that you won’t forget.

‘Hidden Figures’ a fine if predictable film

Directed by Theodore Melfi and based off a true story, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African-American NASA engineers, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Jenson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who help coordinate John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) space orbit.

The cast is great and the direction is steady and sturdy. It is great to see Hollywood tackle not just the concept of strong women, but also the concept of smart women. The well-written script bursts with clever quips and strong characters.

The problem is that the film is primarily focused on message over story. The struggle of the women against a white chauvinist world prevents the film from being anything other than a simple morality tale: Racism bad, perseverance good. It’s not very deep and doesn’t really offer anything other than surface level viewing, not really sticking with the viewer nor offering new thought-provoking ideas about class, sexism or racism.

So while “Hidden Figures” wears it’s heart on its sleeve and is a solid work, it really is just a retread of a very similar theme we’ve heard before. It doesn’t really offer anything other than an anecdote, but its message is timeless.