Posts Tagged biopic

Rocketman

 Year of release: 2019             Directed by Dexter Fletcher.  Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Gemma Jones.

An unreliable narrator covers a lot of storytelling sins. If a plot point seems unbelievable or outlandish, but it’s coming from the lips of a narrator who’s extremely dishonest, an addict, or highly depressed, that plot point can and should be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of Rocketman, highlights from Elton John’s life are shaped into a musical fantasy, framed by narration from Elton recounting his life’s story in group therapy.

That life story follows the standard beats of a biopic: talented child becomes famous, hits rock bottom, and then turns his life around. There’s nothing particularly new about this sort of musician biopic, especially compared with last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which largely follows the same narrative pattern.

However, when compared with Bohemian Rhapsody, all the ways Rocketman excels become apparent. As Roger Ebert famously said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Rocketman embraces its musical form and doesn’t shoehorn songs into a clichéd narrative. Instead, it works a narrative around those songs much like Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, or Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

After an elaborately and outlandishly costumed Elton Hercules John (Taron Egerton) marches into a recovery group at the film’s beginning, the film flashes back and forth between that meeting and memories of his life, which ultimately led Elton to seek help with his addictions. The first memory receives a song of its own as Elton sings, “I was justified, when I was five…” and then the film transitions into a full-scale production number of “The Bitch Is Back” to set up Reginald Dwight’s (Matthew Illesley and later Kit Connor) childhood and serve as a welcome to the show number.

Much like 2007’s Beatles inspired Across the Universe, the songs are re-orchestrated to fit the context in which they are being sung. For example, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is used for a bar fight and passage of time as Elton plays there for several years. The overall effect throughout the film is both a moving tribute to Elton John and his music and an effective use of the music to underscore the drama.

The drama draws from mostly well-known episodes in Elton John’s life. His classical piano background, which is apparent in all of his songwriting, and his prodigious ability are the focus of the first section. The latter is obviously exaggerated, but that is in perfect keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. His meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) by chance and their years long collaboration as well as Elton’s abusive relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden) form most of the film’s narrative. The backstory is a little too thorough, trying to cover too many details, and it slightly bogs down the film’s pacing. This is the type of story where a nonlinear recollection of memories from Elton at rock bottom would probably have made a stronger effect.

However, despite the predictable trajectory of the narrative, the film soars in its presentation of the music. The best musical choice among many great ones is the song that frames the film. Coupled with Elton walking into therapy is an instrumental of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which returns as an 11 o’clock number at a crucial moment between Bernie and Elton. Since that song is about dreams not turning out as planned and walking away from the razzle dazzle of showbiz, it is a perfect and highly poignant choice, especially when the chords of that song are the first thing we hear in the film.

One song I was truly surprised not to hear was “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” For a film that takes this unflinching a look at the dangers of addiction, there were countless places where it would have been a perfect fit, either as a testament to Bernie’s support through Elton’s substance abuse or in regards to Elton acknowledging his homosexuality and escaping his unhealthy relationships.

As Elton, Taron Egerton does a commendable job singing some rather difficult songs and convincingly portrays the high highs and low lows of Elton’s life through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Dexter Fletcher, after completing the last couple scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody, shows he does have a good eye for staging musical numbers.

Lee Hall, who collaborated with Elton John on Billy Elliot the Musical, has penned a script that honors his friend and his music while refusing to lionize him or his mistakes. Most beautifully, it shows the power of any great art, in this case Elton John’s music, to transform, inspire, and be a means for both creator and partaker to share in something greater beyond themselves. And for that, I’m exceedingly grateful to have seen this movie too.

 

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Unplanned

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon.   Starring Ashley Bratcher, Brooks Ryan, Jared Lotz, Emma Elle Roberts, Andee Grace Burton, and Robia Scott.

Orson Welles famously said that the two things he always found laughably fake when depicted on screen were sex and prayer. Unplanned, being a Pure Flix production, obviously has no scenes of realistic or unrealistic sex. However, it does feature several scenes of prayer, which in my opinion showcase the wisdom of Welles’ statement.

The most preposterous prayer scene comes at the film’s climax, when members of 40 Days for Life pray over a container of aborted fetus parts about to be disposed, which is crosscut with Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson having her breakdown after witnessing an abortion firsthand, which ultimately led to her becoming a leader in the pro-life movement. It is such a neat and tidy culmination to the story threads that it feels more contrived than anything else, and the actors’ delivery of the lines with their hands outstretched makes the prayer seem like a sort of incantation, which is proved to work by the crosscutting to Abby.

That moment isn’t any less on the nose than the rest of the movie, but it probably best summarizes the weaknesses of the latest film from the makers of God’s Not Dead. Unplanned isn’t nearly as atrocious as the former movie from writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, who also direct this time, but a similar preaching to the choir and lack of subtlety significantly undermines this film as well.

Unplanned tells the story of Abby Johnson (Ashley Bratcher) who went from being Planned Parenthood’s employee of the year and director of their clinic in Bryan, Texas to pro-life activist after she witnessed an ultrasound guided abortion. After an opening scene celebrating Abby’s picturesque family life with her husband and daughter—setting an unmistakable tone that this is a pro-life Christian film—the next scene is a depiction of that turning point in Abby’s life. Then the film flashes back eight years to show how she got there.

As a woman who undergoes a drastic conversion, Bratcher gives a fine, mostly believable performance. The conversion narrative is substantially weakened not only by opening the film with the catalyst for it, but also by the incessant voiceovers, reminding us roughly every five minutes that the conversion is going to happen. It is clear that Konzelman and Solomon do not trust their audience or their material and feel obligated to tell the easiest story for their target audience to hear, despite Abby’s voiceover to the contrary.

The movie is not completely devoid of merit. The lighting and cinematography are well above the average faith-based production. Two scenes stand out in particular for landing the dramatic punch that the filmmakers blatantly wanted the entire film to have. One is a flashback to Abby’s first abortion in college where the disorientation of the procedure to the recovery room is conveyed through skilled lens, lighting, and editing choices. The other is a scene when Abby lies about the blood on her sneakers to her daughter Grace (Andee Grace Burton) to the disapproval of her pro-life husband Doug (Brooks Ryan). The shot reverse-shot confrontation punctuated with the sound effects of Abby removing said sneakers is undeniably well crafted and underscores the moral seriousness the rest of the film could have had.

The flashback structure does not work on a purely dramatic level, because it gives away the denouement of the story from the beginning. When the movie attempts a flashback within a flashback, presumably before Abby started volunteering for Planned Parenthood her junior year of college, the timeline quickly becomes muddled, and it is not clear whether she had two abortions, a one-year marriage, and a divorce while in college before she started working at Planned Parenthood or after that time.

Dramatic license is obviously going to be taken in any adaptation of a true story, and I do not begrudge the filmmakers for streamlining events or choosing more dramatically exciting alternatives (such as taking the injunction Planned Parenthood filed against Abby all the way to a trial). However, enough events seriously stretch credibility (e.g. there is hardly any conflict between Abby and her staunchly pro-life parents over working at Planned Parenthood, Abby picks at a dissembled fetus seeing its human form but later is traumatized by the human-like features of an ultrasound picture of a fetus) that I several times questioned the reliability of Abby’s narration.

One thing I am truly surprised to read in praise of the film from pro-life circles is the “sympathetic” portrayal of Planned Parenthood employees. They are all either sneering, predatory, malevolent witches (such as Abby’s boss Cheryl, played by Robia Scott) or well-meaning, but naïve and moronic enablers of said witches. The best comparison I can think of would be to imagine a film about the sex abuse scandal that portrayed all Catholics as falling into one of those two categories. Would anyone say such a portrayal is respectful or sympathetic?

The movie is very slightly more successful in its challenge to the pro-life movement, depicting two instances of violence and harassment from pro-lifers. However, it immediately suggests that such antics are from fringe lunatics who are in no way a natural extension of the rhetoric of the movement as a whole, while simultaneously trotting out right-wing talking points (George Soros! Liberals only say they want to reduce the number of abortions) that were used by pro-life leaders to elect a sex predator who dehumanizes women, immigrants, and refugees much in the same way abortion dehumanizes the unborn.

I’ve heard accounts of pro-choice viewers watching Unplanned and changing their mind on abortion. Not to belittle those claims, but this movie so relentlessly preaches to the choir that I would be shocked if it changed anyone’s mind regarding abortion, unless they were already on the fence about it. I’ve seen more than one pro-choice viewer say it inspired them to donate to Planned Parenthood.

If one believes abortion is the termination of a human life, then the movie’s depiction of that will probably be a powerful and horrific reminder of the value of all human life. If not, those scenes will probably come across as cheesy CGI. Given how contrived the rest of the film is, it would be hard to argue with anyone who feels that way.

 

Personal Recommendation: C

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (uncredited).             Starring Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Lucy Boynton, and Mike Myers.

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Considering Bohemian Rhapsody unexpectedly and undeservedly won the Golden Globe award for best picture—drama last Sunday, I thought now would be a good to share my thoughts on it.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that does exactly what you expect it will do. It shoehorns Freddie Mercury’s life into a formulaic biopic, and it also showcases enjoyable covers of Queen’s greatest hits in what is basically an extended music video.

In other words, if one enjoys this movie at all, that enjoyment will be directly proportionate to how much they enjoy the music of Queen. And for the record, I’m a pretty big fan of Queen.

At just over two hours in length, Bohemian Rhapsody almost evenly splits its runtime between depicting a fictitious, streamlined creation process behind Queen’s most famous songs and performances of those songs as well as depicting a simplified and highly fabricated summary of Freddie Mercury’s life, focusing on his rise to stardom, his relationship with Mary Austin, his homosexual affairs (but not his heterosexual ones), and his role as a member of Queen.

The half that is essentially a lengthy music video of Queen’s greatest hits is a lot of fun, and it’s almost enough to carry the movie. The half which attempts to provide some portrait of Mercury’s life is a total train wreck.

Rami Malek gives a commanding performance, impersonating Mercury’s dance moves almost perfectly. However, he never rises above imitation. The movie makes a big deal about his very noticeable prosthetic teeth, far more noticeable than Mercury’s, and that becomes a tiring distraction when he’s not performing. As the other members of the band, I thought Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, and Joe Mazzello played off Malek passably well, and as trite as the lines about a band being a family are, the dynamics among the four actors are enjoyable enough that it didn’t matter too much that they were all taking a backseat to Malek’s Mercury.

The first big problem is that there is no driving force beyond enjoyment of Queen. The second big problem is that for the extreme liberties the film takes with Mercury’s life, those liberties form a dull, clichéd story about a lower class nobody rising to fame, the fame going to his head, fighting with his friends, then reconciling in the nick of time for a big concert. Most of that never happened. While Mercury (and other members of Queen) recorded some solo albums, the band never broke up, and the Live Aid Concert was not a last-minute plan after a hurried reunion, and I seriously doubt Mercury ever became this insufferable.

The other big problem with the movie is how massively unlikeable Mercury becomes while under the influence of his abusive, manipulative boyfriend Paul (Allen Leech), which takes up a significant portion of the film. I spent much of the film shocked that anyone would portray gay men as pejoratively as this in 2018, especially one who, in the world of the film, is a victim of abuse.

That brings us to the unavoidable issue that Bryan Singer, himself accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, directed the majority of Bohemian Rhapsody, and it seems the film’s unhealthy understanding of sexuality mirrors his own, as can be seen when the film shrugs off Mercury attempting to grope a man as an innocent drunken mistake. Admittedly Singer was fired from the film, but it seems that was because of a scheduling conflict, and he was hired with those counts of sexual assault against him well known.

The very fleeting relationship Freddie has with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) at the film’s end hardly makes an impression after the time spent on the toxic relationship between Freddie and Paul. The other major issue with the film’s depiction of Mercury’s sexuality is that it refuses to let him define it. In an early scene Freddie tells his distraught fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) that he’s bisexual, and she corrects him that he’s gay. Considering that the film never challenges her, and that it neither acknowledges that Mercury continued to identify as bisexual nor shows any of his affairs with women, calling the film an act of bi-erasure, as some critics have done, is not underserved.

At the same time, the music of Queen is incredibly powerful, having moved and inspired millions, and the film respects and acknowledges that, even as it fails to spin an engaging story around that power. Nonetheless, roughly half of the film is a decent music video with a soundtrack featuring “Killer Queen,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” “Love of My Life,” and the title song. And when the film ends with a rousing rendition of “We Are the Champions,” it makes it easy to focus on the real star of the movie: the music of Queen.

 

Personal recommendation: C+

 

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American Sniper

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Clint Eastwood.  Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik, and Keir O’Donnell.

It is always unfortunate when a film generates such strong political reactions that those reactions dominate any discussion of the film. Such reactions make it difficult to discuss the film and its merits without first addressing the controversy. I must admit I’m baffled disappointed to see the intense politicized responses American Sniper is receiving because it supposedly celebrates the Iraq war and glorifies a man who may have been a war hero, but was apparently less than a role model in real life. I think that in calling the film a straightforward defense of the Iraq war, critics are seriously undermining the film’s strengths and selling short its sense of conflict and its depiction of the tragic effects of the war and a career dominated by violence.

In his four tours of duty during the Iraq War, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (a very good Bradley Cooper) is credited with 160 kills out of a probable 255, and he feels confident that every shot he took was the right thing to do. Kyle, having a penchant for violence, is eager to join the army, fight for his country, and kill those damn terrorists. Having hunted all his life he is a natural sniper, and he soon becomes a hero to his fellow soldiers who feel safe when he is overseeing them. American Sniper is the story of a very pro-war, pro-gun soldier, and thus, it makes total sense that the Iraq War is accepted as something that happened. Just because the film depicts the war without questioning its wisdom or lack thereof, does not mean the film glorifies the war or condemns it. American Sniper is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it is just war.

More importantly, there are many scenes which show the tragic effects and heavy toll of both the war and Kyle’s many killings. I really do not understand how someone could watch the scenes between Kyle and his wife, his son, and his colleagues and call the film unapologetically pro-war. When Kyle takes his wife for her prenatal checkup, his resting blood pressure is 170 over 110. He screams at a nurse who does not respond to his crying daughter quickly enough. He is unable to accept a complement from a marine when he is out with his son. The breakdown he has at a child’s birthday party is very painful to watch. To call the film a celebration of the Iraq war is to badly sell those scenes short.

American Sniper undoubtedly has some pacing problems, and there are a couple miscalculated subplots which should either have been removed or developed into much larger segments. The standoff/manhunt between Kyle and rival Iraqi sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) plays too much like a conventional thriller, and the half-baked attempts to set up a rivalry between them would only have worked if Mustafa had been given much more back story. As it is, the scenes of him hunting Kyle distract from the story and make it too obvious how their standoff will eventually end. The resolution of that subplot is the film’s weakest moment, because it is handled like a triumphant moment out of a mediocre Marvel movie.

I also wish the final twenty minutes had been developed into a full hour. There is rich, poignant material in that section concerning PTSD, guilt, adjusting to a quiet life after being one of the deadliest SEALs, and one’s duty as a husband and father. While some scenes do capture the tension, raging emotions, and painful consequences, as a whole that part of the story is rushed through too quickly.

As a point of comparison, when Francis Ford Coppola was asked to write the screenplay for Patton, his first thought was, “Oh crap. Half the country loves him because they think he won the war, and half the country hates him because they think he was a sadistic war criminal. If I chose either side, I’ll alienate half my audience.” He chose to respect both sides, portraying Patton as a brilliant general who loses his temper and gives in to nasty violence, a conflicted character who too often gives into his violent nature but still has a strong sense of dignity. Jason Hall did something similar with his script for American Sniper. He does not shy away from portraying Kyle’s violence and even showing it to be at times successful, but he also portrays a damaged human being whose choices harm not only on himself but his family as well. The scene when Kyle’s brother (Keir O’Donnell ) makes a disparaging comment about the war, only to have Kyle look at him as if he were a stranger is a particularly acute example.

Kyle’s first kill, which opens the film, is another powerful example of the cost of violence. As a mother hands her son a grenade, Kyle hesitates to shoot. It is the first scene, we have no context, and this a perfect textbook example of self-defense. Taking the shot seems like a no-brainer. Before Kyle pulls the trigger, there is a half hour flashback to his childhood and training, showing him bonding with his equally violent father, protecting his little brother, grieving on 9/11, and flirting with his wife-to-be (Sienna Miller). After witnessing the hardships and joys of Kyle’s life, when the film returns to Iraq, his hesitation is perfectly natural, and the tragic evil of deliberately ending any life is fully dramatized.

Finally, if anyone doubts Eastwood’s stance on violence, remember, he wrote and directed this:

 

Content Advisory: Some brutal wartime violence, disturbing gory images, profane and obscene language throughout, intense themes of PTSD and family discord, and mildly sensual foreplay.                               MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: B-

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Jersey Boys

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen, Mike Doyle, Christopher Walken, and Joseph Russo.

Formulaic but mostly enjoyable, and if not enjoyable, certainly watchable. Beyond that I am not sure there is much more to say about Jersey Boys. I suppose I should add that its target audience, those who have fond memories of listening to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons as young adults as well as those who appreciate their unique sound, will absolutely love it.

Likewise, if one finds Valli’s unique nasal sound insufferable, then I imagine he will most likely feel the same way about this film. Personally, while I do not think The Four Seasons were one of the greatest bands, I do enjoy their music and think they were a good band, even if, as one critic points out in the film, some of their songs had a tendency to be derivative.

While I most certainly enjoyed Jersey Boys, I cannot deny that the film itself suffers to some degree from the same derivative quality that debatably plagued The Four Seasons’ songs. There are random instances of Scorsese influences throughout, the storyline is very generic, and having all four band members act as narrators causes the story to lose focus as it haphazardly recounts different events, unable to settle on a definitive perspective from which to tell the story.

The film opens with Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) breaking the fourth wall, promising the audience the true version of how The Four Seasons started. The camera follows Tommy to the local barber shop where Frankie Castelluccio -soon to be Valli – (John Lloyd Young) works as an assistant. At the shop, it becomes clear that Frankie has a powerful friend in the local mafia boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken, in a performance right out of a Scorsese film). That friendship will come into play towards the end of the film, but until then, DeCarlo mostly disappears once he makes a few comments that the world will know Frankie’s voice.

After a few run-ins with the law, Tommy’s band loses their lead singer, and Tommy decides to give the position to Frankie so they have a trio: Frankie on lead vocals, Tommy on lead guitar and tenor vocals, and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) on bass guitar and bass vocals. Since trios are falling out of fashion, Tommy’s friend Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci played by Joseph Russo) introduces them to Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a keyboardist and composer, who is eager to write for Frankie’s unique falsetto voice.

Once the film introduces Bob, he primarily takes over the narration, detailing how the band agreed to hire him, how they came up with the name The Four Seasons, and how they became famous by recording with Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle). After several years of incredible success, sixteen number one hits, and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the inevitable setback occurs.

After Bob Gaudio’s narration culminates with a disastrous fallout, Nick begins breaking the fourth wall to tell his version of events. The film flashes back two years and recounts the lead up to the inevitable fallout from the quiet band member’s perspective. Shifting the narration to Nick was an interesting choice, but I am not convinced it was a good one. The fallout was obviously coming, because there were too many strong, conflicting personalities in The Four Seasons, most notably Tommy and Bob. When the film focused on their perspectives, it set up a good contrast. When the film introduced a third narrator, the sense of conflict and plot direction was lost, and too much of the film ended up feeling like mildly interesting vignettes.

Breaking the fourth wall is often maligned by critics, but in Jersey Boys I think it worked for the most part. It created an atmosphere of down to earth simplicity and gave the feeling of being there at a concert.

John Lloyd Young reprises the role he won a Tony for originating on Broadway, and his ability to emulate Frankie Valli’s actual voice is very impressive. The entire cast clearly has a blast performing the musical numbers, and their enjoyment is somewhat infectious.

The Scorsese references make the film unsure whether it is a gritty story of struggling backstreet boys from New Jersey or a tale celebrating the rise of a famous American band. Portraying the characters as seedy Scorsese-esque gangster-types does not help. Even Scorsese reigned in the grit for his musical, New York, New York. However, I must admit that I laughed loudly at the direct GoodFellas reference, even though I think I am the only one at my screening who understood the joke. When Joe Pesci first appears, Tommy tells him he’s funny, and quoting the line that Pesci himself famously improvised in GoodFellas, Joe retorts, “Funny how?”

As much as I love musicals, I never had an opportunity to see Jersey Boys on stage, and I cannot speak to the accuracy of the adaptation. It is risky to create a musical based on preexisting songs, but Jersey Boys pulls it off well by inserting the songs in the story at the point which they were created. Thus it dramatizes a story that already exists, highlighting key moments with musical numbers. That is a much wiser approach than trying to paste fragments of a story onto songs that do not work with that story as the colossal train wreck Mamma Mia did.

At my screening, the fairly large audience of septuagenarians gave it an enthusiastic ovation, and I expect fans of The Four Season will share their sentiment. Due to a few obvious flaws, mostly predictability and heavy-handedness, I could not bring myself to participate in that applause, but I did think the film was a decent musical which I would not discourage anyone from seeing.

 

Content Advisory: Rough language throughout, some profanity, an off-screen encounter, a fleeting anti-clerical jab, and scenes of family discord.                              MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: B-

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