Category Archives: biopic

“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.

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“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.

‘Selma’ a stirring film

Director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” could easily have been another standard biopic, an awards-based driven film that uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy for its own Oscar potential. Thankfully, the filmmakers have wisely kept such chest pounding to a minimum as the story focuses on only a brief section of Dr. King’s life, the period of time in Selma, Alabama where blacks were voting rights drew national headlines. Much like Lincoln” two years earlier, seeing a great man act in a single event helps reveal his past, his message and the hope he instills for the future.

David Oyelowo gives a terrific performance as Dr. King, carefully blending oratory, humility and fear together in a searing portrait that gives the audience a bit of the man behind the legend. Carmen Ejogo stars as Coretta Scott King in a much too brief role, the dynamic between them really the anchor of the film, the struggle between love for the cause and love of the family. As the drama in the state begins to accelerate and pressure is put on government officials such as Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) over the rights of minorities as well as the general safety of everyone involved, the film ramps up the drama and tension to great effect, providing a parallel to our own times with recent events such as Ferguson, Missouri and other instances of police brutality. Whether intentional or not, these parallels give the film an urgent feeling of a need for righteousness.

While the overall film is very strong and the central message both timeless and current, there are some elements of the film that are a bit manipulative. Several protesters are designed as overly sympathetic, meant to pull on heartstrings. This feels manufactured and more rounded characters, with real flaws, would have produced just as strong an emotional reaction. The film also categorizes people as either racist or not, and various levels of gray between the two would have added more balance. And the presence of Oprah, while certainly a strong performance, pulls the viewer out of the story onscreen, same as the abundance of star-laden roles in “12 Years a Slave” pulled the viewer out of that story. For films about the importance of the everyday person and how groups of dedicated anonymous citizens can positively influence the world, it is usually stronger to focus on actual unknown actors rather than stars.

Some may find issue with how President Johnson is portrayed and whether or not his hesitation with the voting rights issue was true. While this is certainly a valid point, without opposition from the White House, the film would not be as strong and the message of needing to promote the general welfare despite politics would not carry across. What matters most of all is that President Johnson did sign the Voting Rights Act and his legacy is secure enough (or tarnished depending on your point of view) to not be influenced by a single film.

The violence and a call to action in “Selma” feel real. The film’s greatest achievement is its ability to not only recollect the past, but also tie in the message of equality to the present and give the audience a view of a still unfinished journey in this country. Whether that journey will ever be completed remains to be seen, but as long as movies like “Selma” continue to remind us of the roads we have crossed and have yet to cross, the call to action will not die.