Posts Tagged biopic

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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Gypsy

Year of Release: 1962     Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.      Starring Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Ann Jillian, and Suzanne Cupito.

“I had a dream, a dream about you, baby.”  So sings Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russel) as she begins Gypsy’s most famous number, which serves to prep her daughter Louise (Natalie Wood) for the show business.  It does not matter that Louise has never showed tremendous talent as her younger sister June (Ann Jillian) did.  Never mind that Rose’s attention had previously been solely focused on making June a star.  Now that June has left, she can be forgotten.  It is all about Louise now, or so Rose claims.

Anyone who has any familiarity with Gypsy will of course know that Rose’s plans for June’s stardom were never about June, and later those modified plans were certainly not about Louise.  Rose wants a child who will be a vaudeville star.  It does not matter who that child is, and ultimately, it does not matter in what venue she is a star.  Nor does it matter what the child wants.  When June tells her mother that she wants a certain opportunity, Rose dismisses her as a child who does not know what she is talking about.

To underscore Rose’s projection of her own ego onto her daughters, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” utilize a brilliant conceit.  The first and last words of the song are both first person pronouns, and the music emphasizes them.  The title of the song also references Rose’s name, further underscoring that the obsession with show business is for her, not her daughters.  Whenever the song’s title is sung, a rhythmic augmentation stresses the importance of these words, and orchestral accents highlight “roses,” again depicting that Rose’s passion is for herself.

The other songs are equally well crafted.  Louise and June’s duet “If Momma Was Married” contains several witty references to show business, which Louise and June wish to pursue on their own, without their Mother overseeing their every move.  Naturally, the word that receives the most rhythmic elongation is “momma.”  “Let Me Entertain You” is a straightforward, vaudeville-style swing that serves to showcase the talent of the Hovick daughters as they are exploited by their mother.  It is the first number when June performs it, and it returns at a crucial moment much later in the film.  Rose is sweet and manipulative with “Small World,” and the melody descends as she lures Herbie (Karl Malden) into being her business partner in her small show business world.

The entire cast gives decent performances.  Both Russell and Malden, neither of whom were known for musicals, perform and act their songs very convincingly, merging the music into the storyline naturally.  Natalie Wood captures both the initial awkwardness of Louise and then her debonair talent that emerges later.   Both Ann Jillian and Suzanne Cupito are very talented as the adult and child June respectively.  They both make Rose’s focus on June believable and clearly show that June was the more talented daughter in musical theatre.  Both of them also portray June as a kind and caring sister, who wants what is best for herself and her sister, and she is clearly conflicted about leaving her mother.

Any good production of Gypsy will belong to the actress who plays Rose, and the movie mostly belongs to Russell, even if she is less than convincing in her big final number.  She is domineering when everything is going her way and vulnerable when others leave her and her small world is threatened.  After she steals silverware from a restaurant to save money, she is oblivious to the irony of asking the waitress for a spoon to stir her tea.  Her selfishness drives everyone away from her sooner or later, and yet she always blames them for leaving her.  Louise is the only person who is still remotely with her at the end, and the effect of the relationship shows in the way that Louise has become a star.  Rose may have achieved her dream, but at the same time it is the opposite of her original dream.  However, this is not surprising; just as Rose reflected her ego onto her daughters, she reflected her immorality and relativism onto Louise as well.  Additionally, Louise’s career spirals more and more out of control, just like Rose’s ambition has done throughout the musical.

Director Mervyn LeRoy stages the production very well, successfully moving it from stage to screen.  The choreography is skilled and appropriate for era.  The lip-synching is accurate and professional.  There is a brief sound mixing problem on “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” and the ending is robbed of its full potential because Russell cannot quite breakdown the way she needs to.   Nevertheless, Gypsy not only entertains the audience in a grand fashion, but provides a serious and realistic look at the allure of fame, which may appear as roses, but in reality has many thorns.

Content Advisory: Several mildly suggestive stripteases, intense family discord, partially revealing costumes, and mild crass language.                            Not Rated

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B

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The New World

Year of Release: 2005     Directed by Terrence Malick.  Starring Colin Farell, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, and Christian Bale.

The New World is Terrence Malick’s poetic and meditative telling of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and the subsequent fictionalized love story between Pocahontas and John Smith, and later John Rolfe.

In Malick’s film, John Smith (Colin Farell) is not a brazen expedition leader, but a reclusive and thoughtful individual.  Smith is portrayed as an outcast from the beginning.  He is first seen in the ship’s stockade and supposed to be hanged upon landing for mutinous remarks.  The captain (Christopher Plummer) has a change of heart and, after pardoning Smith, selects him to meet with the leader of the Native Americans to discuss trading for provisions.  The mission fits Smith’s character; the outcast is cast out into the wilderness to risk his life after near execution.  While living among the naturals, as the British call them, Smith begins to feel more at home as he learns the ways of this new land.  But once he settles into the lifestyle and begins romancing the chief’s daughter Pocahontas, (Q’Orianka Kilcher) Smith feels just as awkward about his new situation as he did about his previous one.  Smith’s reclusiveness and desire for adventure stay with him throughout the film.  Towards the end of the film, one character asks Smith if he ever found what he treasures, and he responds, “I may have passed it.”

Kilcher is incredible as Pocahontas.  She gives an understated performance that captures the character’s vulnerability and strength, her insecurity and resolution.  The understated performance also captures Pocahontas’ wonder and fear as she discovers English culture.  While she does suffer heartbreak, loss, and mistreatment, she also discovers joy and compassion.  Her two suitors represent two aspects of the new world Pocahontas discovers.  While one of them brings suffering, the other brings redemption.

There are two new worlds in this film, and Malick skillfully balances their portrayal and revelation.  The first half of the film concerns Smith’s discovery of America and the customs of the natives as he falls in love with Pocahontas.  The second half of the film depicts Pocahontas as she discovers English customs and culture.  During this time, she leaves her love for Smith in her old world, and embraces John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and the new world that he introduces to her.  The first thing that Smith saw in the village was the homes of the Native Americans.  Pocahontas first admires the architecture of the British when she goes to England.  When Smith first arrived at her village, Pocahontas saved his life through a surprise appearance and gesture of kindness.  He was released from his bonds and could be free among her people as a result.  At the end of the film Smith repays the debt through a surprise appearance to Pocahontas, which releases her from old bonds, allowing her to find happiness in his world.  Both Pocahontas and Smith have extensive voiceovers, letting the viewer learn their innermost thoughts as they discover their new worlds.

Despite marvelous discoveries, the most important thing in either world is connections and relationships.  For all the beauty and potential of America, Smith is most preoccupied with Pocahontas.  Rolfe is equally smitten when meets her, and he does not care in which world they live as long as they are together.  Pocahontas tries to foster community between her people and the settlers, and fears for the safety of both groups.

There are no stereotypes in the film.  All the characters that Malick created have believable emotions and actions.  There are no overtly malicious villains like Radcliffe in the dreadful Disney Pocahontas.  Antagonistic characters are driven by human emotions such as fear or destitution.  The Native Americans are rightfully concerned about the presence of the English.  Both groups are capable of tremendous violence but also kindness.  Christian Bale’s Rolfe is one of the most respectful portrayals of an onscreen Christian.  Even though he has all the markings of a stereotypical villain who ruins the romance between the crossed lovers, Rolfe is compassionate and caring.  He brings hope, light, and love to Pocahontas, even to the point that he risks losing her by allowing her to leave.

The only major flaw with the film is that Malick takes too much for granted regarding the viewer’s knowledge of American history.   Pocahontas and John Rolfe are never actually named; it is assumed the viewer will automatically know who they are.  Other historical names are quickly tossed around as the characters build the Jamestown settlement, but the viewer is not given enough time to determine who is who.  It does not really matter, because the focus of the story is on Smith, Pocahontas, and Rolfe.  But the historical dabbling seems slightly out of place without a little more connection to the rest of the film.

On the other hand, no director whom I can think of captures the beauty of nature better than Malick.  If one stopped his films at any point, the picture on screen would make a breathtaking photo that could be framed on its own.  Malick’s cinematography creates a mesmerizing, relaxing, and engaging atmosphere that transports the viewer through the world of the film.  This world contains fish swimming through the water, a sunset across a lake, sunlight pouring through the branches of a forest, a rippling brook, the swirling first snowflakes of Winter, new buds forming as Spring arrives, well-kept English gardens, and the royal courts.  All of these elements are portrayed with such care and appreciation for their natural beauty that the viewer almost feels as if he is there basking in the glory of nature.

The use of Wagner adds greatly to the film; Malick selected some of the best possible excerpts.  The main theme is from the opening of Das Rheingold, a simple melody and harmony played by the horns and strings.  It has a motionless, yet awestruck quality that grows in dynamic and in range as the settlers appreciate more of the new world.  James Horner contributes to the score with Smith’s theme, a melancholic melody for solo piano that captures his reserved nature.  It is also out of place in comparison to the rest of the score as Smith feels out of place among the Englishmen and among the natives.

The New World is more than a fictionalized retelling of an historic event.  It poetically captures the beauty of both American and England in 1607, bringing the viewer into the new worlds and allowing him to discover them along with the characters, while watching a poignantly filmed romance as if he is discovering another beautiful new world.

Content Advisory: Some brief but intense combative violence and fleeting shots of naturalistic partial nudity.                     MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon)

Year of Release: 2007     Directed by Julian Schnabel.  Starring Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestup, and Max von Sydow.

Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) flicks his eyes open and sees himself surrounded by hospital staff in a blurred room.  The doctors begin speaking to him and he answers them.  At least, he thinks he answers them.  Although Jean-Do can hear his responses as he formulates them, he has lost his ability to speak.  The doctors inform him he has woken up from a coma following a stroke and all of his body, except his eyes, is paralyzed.

The importance of Jean-Do’s eyes is stressed in the opening fifteen minute montage.  This entire sequence is shot from his perspective as he lies unable to move in the hospital bed.  The doctors move about him; he follow them with his eyes.  Due to an injury in one eye, the picture is appropriately blurred.  Once the bad eye is sown shut, the picture becomes clear whenever the camera adopts Jean-Do’s point of view in order to reflect his good eye.

Jean-Do’s good eye will be more important than he can imagine.  After a period of despair, he decides to make the most of his situation.  Using his one good eye, Jean-Do blinks in order to communicate.  At first his communication is simple: one blink for yes and two for no.  Soon one of his therapists devises a system in which he can dictate by blinking.  Using this system, he begins writing a book for a contract that he had with a publisher prior to the stroke.

Director Julian Schnabel makes incredible use of cinematography.  He alternates between Jean-Do’s point of view and an observant third person viewpoint.  Once Schnabel has firmly established Jean-Do’s perspective, he switches to a third person viewpoint so the viewer can observe Jean-Do and his visitors as they interact.  At this point Amalric does an incredible job of holding a single pose and portraying a vegetative state.  Through his one open eye, Amalric depicts concern and interest in his surroundings.  A particularly touching scene occurs at the beach with Jean-Do’s children as they embrace their father, care for him, and play hangman with him.  Another moving scene takes place towards the end of the film when Jean-Do begs for some time alone to listen to one person speak to him.

In addition to the aftermath of the stroke, the film also portrays Jean-Do’s imagined fantasies and flashbacks before the stroke.  To differentiate from the present, these scenes are always shot in third person.  One recurring fantasy is an underwater shot of a diver trapped in a diving bell, helpless and dependent on the wire for life.  Another fantasy occurs out in forests and open fields with young butterflies flying through the flowers after hatching from the confinement of their chrysalises.  It is fairly obvious that Jean-Do views the diver as himself and the butterflies as what he wants to become, springing out of his impaired body and flying away.

The flashbacks show the viewer the moments of his life that Jean-Do valued most.  Caring for his aging father, bonding with his son, and spending time with his mistress are the most frequent flashbacks.  There is one brief flashback to his career as a magazine editor, but this occurs when someone mentions his former job, and it does not return.  His connections with others were most important to him, and in his paralysis he values other people’s presence more than anything else.

From the very beginning of the film, there is a clear element against euthanasia.  In the opening scene Jean-Do is mentally active, aware of all his surroundings, and very much alive.  Even though he can neither move nor speak, he mentally responds to questions and is shocked when the doctors cannot hear him.  His inner monologues are voiced and he comments on everything that people say and do around him.  When Jean-Do becomes depressed about his situation and asks for death, his therapist lectures him on how lucky he is to be alive and to be able to communicate at all.

The score reflects Jean-Do’s mood and his struggles.  At first there is very little underscoring.  Only an occasional melancholy solo piano reflects Jean-Do’s isolation and despondency as he accepts the severity of his situation.  During the butterfly fantasy the music becomes more lively and begins to incorporate other instruments.  This continues as Jean-Do incorporates more people into his life at the hospital.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly provides a breathtaking and inspiring glimpse into a paralyzed man’s life, a window into a life just as meaningful and complete as any other life.

Content Advisory: Several fleeting but explicit scenes of nudity, sexual situations, and occasional crass language.                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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