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Entries in Biopic (5)

Wednesday
Nov212012

Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock is a director who is disputed over constantly. Those disputes aren’t about whether or not he was talented—all agree he was—but rather on which of his movies stands head and shoulders above the rest. With so many great ones to choose from, opinions inevitably vary. Some argue Vertigo was his finest work. Others point to North by Northwest. I personally hold Psycho up as his greatest achievement. That was a film that pushed the boundaries of the time with a subject matter that many deemed vile and unworthy. Its road to the big screen was a bumpy one, but the results were magnificent. Creepy low angle shots and brilliant use of shadows and props created what is still to this day one of the scariest films ever made. This week’s film, succinctly titled Hitchcock, takes place during its filming and the results are a mixed bag. Despite an Oscar worthy turn by Anthony Hopkins in the title role and endless material to borrow from, the film itself feels substanceless, neither an in-depth biopic of the man nor a particularly involving “making of” look at Psycho. It’s definitely a good movie, but it needed more meat to truly stand out.

Being an avid Hitchcock fan, both of the person and of his films, will bring simultaneous feelings of disappointment and appreciation to Hitchcock. Numerous film references abound, some subtle, some blatant, but they’re all something that will give viewers of his work pleasure, like the numerous shots of Hitchcock’s famous silhouette from his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, if you’re aware of his personal demons, those that extend from what he captured onscreen, you’ll find surprising and unwelcome restraint.

Hitchcock had a weight problem, one that haunted him his entire life, like when he was rejected from the military during World War I for his weight. His weight fluctuated his entire life. He could never seem to truly keep control of it. In the film, little is said about this subject, which is explored only through a nagging wife, played by Helen Mirren, who tries to get him to eat fruits instead of junk. When he passes out at one point in the movie, it seems to be more a byproduct of his constant stress from filming Psycho rather than from his unhealthy physical condition. Similarly, Hitchcock was famous for obsessing over his female stars, which is mentioned only in passing dialogue rather than shown as an attribute of the man as portrayed in the film. In these ways, the writing lacks focus. Its title implies a biopic, one that will reveal who Alfred Hitchcock truly was behind the camera and elsewhere, yet it’s as shallow an exploration of a larger than life person as I’ve ever seen.

Nevertheless, the film somehow remains fascinating. Not once was I bored, nor was I angry that it wasn’t living up to its potential, even if that feeling of disappointment was lingering in the back of my mind. This is in large part due to a brilliant performance from Anthony Hopkins, who perfectly nails Hitchcock’s mannerisms, right down to the way he would slightly upturn his head when staring head on and cross his arms over his protruding belly. The only thing preventing a full transformation is Hopkins’ recognizable voice, which he seemingly doesn’t even try to hide. That in no way diminishes the care he put into who he was playing; everything else is so perfect, the voice hardly seems a distraction. He pulls off some truly great scenes, including a late one as he stands outside the theater doors on Psycho’s opening night, orchestrating the screams of viewers inside who have just reached the famous shower scene.

Some of its more intriguing moments come when the film explores Hitchcock’s inherent interest in the macabre or when they show off his cunning, like when he argues his way past the infamously strict censors who enforced Hollywood’s Production Code (which was then abandoned a mere eight years later in favor of the current MPAA ratings system). It concludes on a high note as well, with an ingenious ending where Hitchcock addresses the audience regarding how he will be on the lookout for inspiration to lead him to his next movie, just as a bird lands on his shoulder. But these moments are fleeting and don’t encompass the film as a whole. Hitchcock is such an interesting man and Psycho such an amazing movie that led a troubled production that there’s a wealth of content to explore, yet nearly all of it is brushed over. Frankly, a documentary would have suited this subject better. It’s difficult not to criticize the movie for what it isn’t rather than what it is, but I suppose that’s not such a bad problem to have. It may not be what one might hope, but at least what it is, is good.

Hitchcock receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jan132012

The Iron Lady

There isn’t a movie buff out there who would argue that Meryl Streep is a bad actress. There probably isn’t even one who would argue she’s only good. The fact is she’s great. She always has been and she continues to impress year after year. Her yearly nominations in awards shows of all types are all wholly deserved. The same can be said for her performance in The Iron Lady. She is phenomenal and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her clutching an Oscar a couple months from now. That said, the movie is awful. It’s so bad on so many different levels, it boggles the mind. It may very well be the worst movie I’ve ever seen with a truly phenomenal, applaud worthy performance. Meryl Streep is fantastic. Everything else is rubbish.

Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, the first Prime Minister of England. The film, in the loosest and strangest way possible, traces the steps through her life, from a young adult with dreams of political grandeur to the old maid she became. Though a biopic in nature, The Iron Lady tries to be more. Director Phyllida Lloyd, whose only other notable feature is Mamma Mia!, doesn’t trust in the inherent intrigue of such a life and tries to spice up Thatcher’s story with premonitions of her dead husband and child, panicked zooms, slow motion, extremely out-of-place canted camera angles that serve no metaphorical or narrative purpose and pretty much every other over-stylized technique in the book, including an awkward shot where Thatcher floats down the hall while a crowd of people walk behind her. The pizzazz is misplaced. Add some scary music and half of this movie could play as horror.

What The Iron Lady really boils down to is a brilliant performer at the top of her game in front of the camera and a pretentious director behind it. The movie is over-stylized nonsense, a visual mess. But its problems exist in every other facet too, including the terrible editing where it would be too much of a compliment to say it doesn’t have a good flow (that would imply it has a flow at all). There are multiple cuts between past and present, some of which give no indication the switch was even made, and there are multiple moments where a time lapse happens, but the audio stays the same. Take, for instance, an early scene where young Thatcher’s point of view (and thus, position in the room) changes while her father’s words continue uninterrupted. These are rookie mistakes and they pervade the entire film.

To see those mistakes, however, you’d first to have to get past the writing, which is heavy laden with unbelievable and grating dialogue. Thatcher, a powerful figure and intelligent (though controversial) woman, comes off as a joke in the film, always speaking in “speech,” as if she’s addressing a crowd or nation. Even when she goes to the doctor’s office for a check-up, she goes off on an unnecessary rant made all the more laughable given that she’s in a patient’s robe. By the time, you get to the end, you’ve already stopped caring (if you ever did at all), but the movie still manages to amaze by offering a silly, stupid, inane conclusion to the premonition plot thread.

The Iron Lady is dry, bland, slow, boring, pretentious, over-stylized, grating, amateurish and pretty much every other negative adjective in between with one shining star in the middle. As much as she deserves it, Streep’s shoe-in awards nominations will only give the film more exposure and lead more people to watching it, wasting precious hours in their short lives. Perhaps, just this once, we should ignore the power of Streep and let her movie fade into oblivion. We'll be doing the world a favor.

The Iron  Lady receives 1/5

Wednesday
Nov092011

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood is a man everybody respects. As an actor, director, producer and composer to dozens of movies, his filmography is an impressive one indeed. With that said, his last few cinematic endeavors have been considerably less than. Not since 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima has he made a truly great movie and last year’s Hereafter proved to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. His latest, J. Edgar, is not a return to form, but it’s certainly a step up. While not a great movie by any means (and sloppy in more areas than one), it nevertheless has a goal and reaches it.

That goal, at its simplest, is to depict J. Edgar Hoover’s life as he builds and legitimizes the power of the FBI while also exploring his alleged homosexuality. The film, in a well done balancing act, creates a juxtaposition between his two halves, as a man who was forced to hide his true self while also serving as one of the faces of a growing America. It’s that contrast that gives the film its weight. It portrays him as an intensive man that was so caught up in his job he didn’t have time for friends, perhaps as a way to cope with the falsity of his normal life. His time spent working was the only time he was truly himself. He didn’t have to fake his passion for his work, he simply had it.

Of course, the controversy of Hoover’s life is on display as well and you get to see that his passion is sometimes misplaced. Never mind the fact that he was so adamant about his men dressing nicely and sporting a clean face (perhaps as a way to bring at least a portion of his true self to his work). He harasses people suspected of subversion and abuses his authority to get what he wants. If the reach of his authority becomes limited, he blackmails his superiors into giving him more.

But if he was imperfect, he was also quite smart. While the film doesn’t shy away from criticizing him, it nevertheless treats him like a man of high intelligence and unwavering principles, however wrongheaded they may be. One can’t help but simultaneously loathe and revere Mr. Hoover in a way that is uncommon among many one-dimensional, poorly developed characters that exist as either black or white, good or evil, wrong or right. Hoover hits all extremes and numerous places in between. He is a strong, but flawed individual with hidden demons and a clear mind, though certainly troubled and distant from his own reality.

All of that can be seen clearly for those who are interested in dissecting the character. While some of that can certainly be attributed to writer Dustin Lance Black, who was responsible for 2008’s truly wonderful Milk, most of it is due to Leonardo DiCaprio’s masterful performance as Hoover, once again proving that he’s one of the best actors working today. In a movie that is very talkative, dry and sometimes dreary, he delivers his lines with vigor and makes them something more. Even with dark eyes, pale skin, slicked back hair and strange lighting that makes him look like he would fit comfortably in a 1920’s version of Twilight, he manages to impress. He overcomes any shortcomings, visual, verbal or otherwise, and makes the character his own.

J. Edgar is, at times, like many of Clint Eastwood’s films: heavy handed. Movies like Hereafter, Invictus and Gran Torino, for instance, were too thematically intense, taking its central idea and shoving it down your throat. This, on the other hand, is emotionally too much. It doesn’t toy with yours, but it overdoes the emotion in its characters. Despite its intentions, the film is hard to take seriously when certain scenes are so over-the-top, but just when it seems to be going too far, it calms itself down. These redemptions are what make the movie good, but the fact that they exist to begin with is what keeps it from being great.

J. Edgar receives 3.5/5

Friday
Sep302011

Machine Gun Preacher

If you’re anything like me, the title Machine Gun Preacher gets you excited. It’s a great name that forced visions of a good, old fashioned exploitative Grindhouse movie to rush through my head in excited anticipation. I could see the poster all too clear: a man of the cloth holding a giant gun front and center with the tagline in dripping red, “Jesus died for your sins. He’ll kill you for them.” I assumed the title was an all-you-need-to-know type, like Snakes on a Plane or Cowboys & Aliens, but perhaps I let my excitement get the best of me because Machine Gun Preacher is not what I pictured. It’s a true story with religious significance that thinks its artistic endeavors are reaching something profound when, really, it isn’t.

The story begins in Southern Sudan where we get to witness the brutality of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a vicious military group that abducts and murders the people in surrounding villages. Flash forward to “Pennsylvania, USA, a few years earlier” (a title card that is, oddly, both specific and unspecific at the same time) and Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is being released from prison. He is a violent, abusive junkie who treats his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), like a lesser individual. After a night of drug use with an unnamed pal (Michael Shannon), he attacks and stabs a man, placing him in critical condition in the hospital. Thankfully, he seeks help and begins going to church with Lynn, where he finds God and considers it his calling to help others. He begins by building a church across the street from his home, but soon winds up in Africa, rescuing orphaned children and fighting back against the LRA.

Machine Gun Preacher strikes me as a movie that only a select few will enjoy. Despite its Christian themed story and values, it features explicit sex, graphic violence, atrocities of war and offensive language, including racial slurs. It will undoubtedly turn off the more conservative viewers who would not normally watch this sort of thing. On the other side of the coin are the non-believers who, if they even venture into the theater at all, will see everything through cynical eyes. At one point, Sam is distraught and thinking about giving up after the LRA burns down the church and orphanage. Lynn tells him it was merely a test from God, but if He truly sent them to destroy, then surely He must have condoned the killing of the innocent too, a conundrum that goes against the very basis of religious indoctrination. It’s moments like these where the more skeptical among us will roll their eyes.

Still, at least Sam has that thought. As any normal human being would, he begins to question his own faith after witnessing the murder and destruction around him, wondering how a just and loving god could allow these terrible events to occur. It’s a natural progression that is, unfortunately, impeded by a screenplay that doesn’t take the time to develop it. His character goes through the motions without ever truly experiencing them. His loss of faith is barely touched upon (perhaps so as not to alienate the Christians in the audience) and his journey into it is rushed past the point of credulity. For the first 20 minutes, you watch him attack, steal from and abuse those around him, but after attending one, only one, church service, he finds himself a changed man. Before you know it, the racist you just watched shove a gun in a black man’s face is sharing a Coke with an African. This is a moment that should be heartwarming, but it instead feels forced, cheesy and manipulative because the necessary work to get us there had not been done.

Machine Gun Preacher has a rough start. The performances and character actions are so wildly over-the-top, they’re hard to take seriously, the heavy-handedness gets grating—the filmmakers try far too hard to make Sam an outrageously sinful man, so as to make his eventual redemption that much sweeter— and the churchgoers are stereotypes, waving their arms around in the air like they’re swatting bugs. Eventually, as the title suggests, Sam goes Rambo on the rebels, emerging from clouds of smoke with rocket launcher in hand, and it begins to pick up. Regardless of what one may think of his violent approach to helping, it can’t be argued he doesn’t make a difference.

So many people use religion wrong, but Sam Childers is a guy who uses it right. He was a lowlife, drug using criminal who turned his life around and dedicated it to helping others. He’s still going strong today. One can’t help but admire him, but his biopic is decidedly lackluster. Machine Gun Preacher feels like a made-for-television movie and is missing the gravitas it needs to tell its story.

Machine Gun Preacher receives 2.5/5

Wednesday
Dec222010

Casino Jack

If the name Jack Abramoff sounds familiar to you, it’s because it probably is. Convicted in 2006 of fraud, he pulled off one of the biggest con jobs in American history, practically stealing money from and destroying American Indian tribes who had hired him to do the opposite, protect them. However, if you aren’t aware of the finer details surrounding Abramoff’s story, no worries. I’m not either. Although I like to think I’m more in tune with what happened than the average person, the details can prove a bit confusing.

Casino Jack, the newest biopic of the corrupt lobbyist (as portrayed by Kevin Spacey) attempts to give those details without providing the necessary context to back them up, scarcely explaining key things like the “gimme five” scheme he pulled off with his partner in crime, Michael Scanlon, played by Barry Pepper (who drops the word “dude” in this movie more than Matt Stone and Trey Parker in BASEketball). Much like the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money earlier this year, the film throws out names and information so fast that it can be hard to keep up. Just in the first few minutes, most of Abramoff’s cohorts are introduced and it speeds through important points that led to his eventual conviction, like his work on a textile mill on the Marianas where employees were basically treated as indentured servants. Everything that is detailed in Casino Jack has already been explored in the documentary and most of what is new is purely speculative, like conversations that happened behind closed doors or over the phone.

Basically, the documentary did a better job of presenting us this man. It was done more in depth and without the speculative nonsense. However, it is how they present him that offers up the largest change from film to film. The documentary deals with facts and doesn’t attempt to go into the personal life of Abramoff. Casino Jack does. It takes a wholly wretched man and attempts to make him (at least somewhat) likable. He is shown as a family man. He quotes movies. He does impressions. He makes jokes. By the end, they try to make his situation sympathetic, but I could find no sympathy to give. He knew what he was doing and deserved everything that was about to happen to him.

The clear attempt at empathy for Abramoff sinks the movie because he’s a man who is clearly self involved, though he pretends he’s not. He calls himself “a man of faith” and thinks he’s doing God’s work when in reality he’s swindling people out of their money. When he arrives at his prison cell, his biggest concern is whether or not they serve kosher. When the scandal is breaking and he is told he is on the front page of the Washington Post, he simply asks, “Is it above the fold?” Although he surely didn’t want to go to prison, he’s a person one could see as liking the attention because he could show America just how smart he thinks he is.

If you couldn’t tell, I hold Jack Abramoff with the highest contempt. Just thinking of the corruption in all areas of the world is sickening to my stomach and it’s because of people like Abramoff and his lackeys that our country finds itself in dire straits. Of course, that’s why knowing this story is so important, but I find myself leaning away from Casino Jack and towards the superior documentary.

If you do watch the documentary first, one of two things will happen. You’ll either enjoy Casino Jack because you’ll be going into it with a better understanding of the actual man, or you’ll dislike it because you'll realize how much unnecessary drama and speculation there is in its telling of his story. At the end of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, I was enraged that someone could do something so destructive, but I also found hope in the idea that corruption could be uncovered and punished. At the end of Casino Jack, I felt nothing.

Casino Jack receives 2/5