58 posts categorized "Biopic"

September 23, 2017


Colesmithey.comIt’s a given that Emma Stone would seamlessly slip inside Billy Jean King’s skin. It’s equally predictable that Steve Carell would embody aging tennis star and gambling addict Bobby Riggs with a portrayal that walks a fine line between a comic and tragic figure. But what impresses most about co-directors’ Jonathan Dayton’s and Valerie Faris’s equality-focused time capsule is how Andrea Riseborough’s lesbian hairdresser Marilyn Barnett encompasses emotional, political, and social issues being put through a cartoon media blender regarding a tennis match in 1973.


“Battle of the Sexes” is a rebellious movie set during the confusion of the Watergate conspiracy that witnessed President Richard Nixon's resignation from office a year after Billy Jean King played Bobby Riggs. Upset by the much higher pay awarded to male tennis players over their female counterparts by the USLTA (under Jack Kramer – Bill Pullman), Billy Jean King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) break with the USLTA to start their own women’s tennis tournament. Ironically, it’s a tobacco company that takes on sponsoring the Virginia Slims Womens’ Tennis Tournament.


Andrea Riseborough is this film’s secret weapon. The romantic chemistry between Stone and Riseborough give the audience something to root for other than an exploitation tennis match promoted by three-time Wimbledon champion who could teach boxing promoter Don King a thing or two.

The tennis match scenes are well-crafted even if the movie doesn’t end on the strongest note. Pamela Martin’s editing is this film’s biggest stumbling block. The movie could lose 15 minutes and achieve a greater effect. Goofy secondary plot elements, such as Fred Armisen as a vitamin guru, go nowhere. There is a better movie hiding inside the one you see.

Rated PG-13. 121 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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April 01, 2017


Neruda posterDirector Pablo Larraín’s filmic love letter to Pablo Neruda (Chilean poet and politician) works better than it should considering the nature of Guillermo Calderón’s objectively baroque screenplay. The screenwriter manages to paint a wildly exotic (partially fictionalized) brief biopic that fleshes out colorful aspects of Pablo Neruda’s life in exile.

Neruda’s complex relationship with his wifeDelia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) reveals layers of emotional, intellectual, and ideological determination on both their parts. Here is a great example of literary license being taken with graceful precision.

Potentially damning voice-over narration from Gael Garcia Bernal’s uncultured but determined detective Óscar Peluchonneau creates a sleek stream of consciousness subplot from the viewpoint of the man (or kind of man) tasked with tracking down and capturing the Communist Senator and beloved poet after Neruda goes on the lam with his wife rather than let himself be arrested by Chile’s fascist element after Communism is outlawed. Neruda plays a game of cat-and-mouse with the detective for whom he leaves behind copies of a book.


Significant credit goes to Luis Gnecco’s wonderfully underplayed portrayal of Neruda as a man of earthy desires and ethical responsibility. If Gnecco’s performance comes across as a breakthrough, it is a premiere act more than three decades in the making. Nothing is wasted, and nothing is held back in a performance that is Oscar-worthy regardless of your global perspective. Mercedes Morán empowers Gnecco’s efforts with a caring femininity that balances the couple’s power dynamic of unconditional love.

“Neruda” is a fascinating movie for any number of reasons. Although it doesn’t articulate as much of Pablo Neruda’s heartbreakingly sublime poetry as the film could have, it provides valuable insight into a man whose gift for words was equal to his lust for life.


Rated R. 107 mins. (B+) (Four Stars — out of five / no halves)

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October 09, 2016


SnowdenOliver Stone achieves his obvious, if straightforward, motivations at telling Edward Snowden’s journey from Coast Guard brat to grand scale whistleblower.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt fulfills his thorough portrayal of Edward Snowden with an easy meticulousness that is comforting in its confidence. This is Oscar-worthy stuff. Shailene Woodley gives a serviceable performance as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, even if the chemistry isn’t what could have been with a better cast actress.

Stone takes dramatic liberties to fill the screen with richly stylized sets, such as the artistically lit NSA location where Snowden smuggles out a boatload of classified information. We take these artificial environments on their own merits as places where inorganic computers [run by robot-like men] dissect every second of every person’s life on the planet, from cradle to the grave. Anyone looking for a 100% factual depiction of Edward Snowden’s complex journey is playing a mug’s game. Glossy though this rendition of Snowden's ongoing path to justice is, this movie runs like a Swiss watch. 

There is no question that Edward Snowden exhibited a rare brand of bravery that deserves a good dose of character study at the movies. “Snowden” manages to be as entertaining and informative as you would expect from the filmmaker responsible for “Salvador,” “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” and “JFK.”


“Snowden” fits into to fact-based political thrillers like “All the President’s Men.” What makes it different is that this is the story of one man, a computer genius with a deeply rooted sense of integrity and responsibility. This is a personal story about one man, whose brave disclosures effect all of humanity. The unspoken hook of the film is why the NSA hasn’t been shut down since Snowden’s leaked documents prove this unconstitutional surveillance of our global citizenry is going on.

I have no idea if this film will change anyone’s mind about whether Edward Snowden is the greatest patriot of the 21st century. That isn’t the goal of this movie.


Rated R. 134 mins. (B+) (Four Stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 04, 2013


Salinger Searching for Salinger
Shane Salerno’s Documentary Gets Close

Shane Salerno’s exhaustive bio-documentary about one of America’s most enigmatic and reclusive literary figures nonetheless manages to leave out essential elements that are only alluded to in the film. A cavalcade of interviews with J.D. Salinger’s associates, admirers, biographers, friends, girlfriends, family members, and those on the periphery of the author’s career trajectory of spectacular success, combine to flesh out an abstract portrait of a deeply committed writer whose demons are evident yet never clearly defined.

Stylistic choices — such as a theatrical stage setting where projected images oversee an actor seated at a manual typewriter with pages scattered about — help to fill in where a greater wealth of archival photos and film clips of the camera-shy Salinger would have been helpful. The filmmaker is forced to repeatedly recycle a handful of photos to portray a complex man with a longstanding affinity for much younger women. Salinger's obsession with the loss of innocence found footing in more than merely his writings.

The film peaks during its descriptions of “Jerry” Salinger’s 299 days of military service during World War II, starting with the writer-soldier’s participation in D-Day, which left many of his fellow fighters dead or mutilated. Commentary from a war buddy, and the son of another soldier in Salinger’s unit, provide insight into Salinger the soldier, who carried copies of his unfinished book on him at all times. Salinger’s traumatic experiences inspecting a burned-out Nazi concentration camp where the corpses of thousands of Jewish victims lay rotting provide some context for his fragile mental state as he was writing “Catcher In the Rye” — a book that has sold over 60 million copies, and continues to sell 250,000 copies each year. We learn that Salinger suffered from a nervous breakdown after the horrors he witnessed and survived. Unfortunately, we don’t get a detailed explanation of what the “breakdown” entailed.

Accounts of Salinger’s failed marriages — one to a “Nazi,” and another to Claire Douglas, with whom he had two children Margaret and Matthew — fail to provide much perspective on Salinger’s changeable personality, which kept him sequestered in a cabin "bunker" away from his family for days and weeks at a time while writing. Hardly any discussion of the author's flirtation with various religions — such as Paramahansa Yogananda and Christian Science — is given. Even Salinger’s preferred method of wooing girls, by writing letters, receives a cursory treatment behind an otherwise illuminating series of interviews with Joyce Maynard, the young writer who Salinger brought to live with him for nine months when she 18.

“Salinger” culminates with information about the scheduled release of five books that J.D. Salinger spent the last 45 years of his life writing. The film functions well as a clarion publicity bell for an author who never again wanted to suffer the anonymity-stealing effects of fame after finding himself in its inviting waters, regardless of how hard he had worked to get there.

Rated PG-13. 123 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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November 21, 2012


Hitchcock“Hitchcock” falls prey to its unfocused narrative intentions. Based on Stephen Rebello’s popular book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” there were a dozen roads screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”) could have gone down toward shedding light on Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking process at the height of his creative powers. Sadly, McLaughlin chooses the least dramatic one.

The context is well laid out. The 1959 press are hungry for Hitchcock’s blood after his success with “North by Northwest.” Press conferences allow the media to pepper the revered director about why he doesn’t retire while he’s ahead of the game. You can taste their jealousy. Hitchcock takes up the challenge, taking out a loan against his family home to produce “Psycho,” a nasty little tabloid story about a Texas serial killer named Ed Gein. Hitchcock’s loyal wife and assistant Alma (Helen Mirren) eventually comes around to agreeing with her husband that making “Psycho” is the right thing to do. Perhaps she has an ulterior motive.

The story shifts away from the making of one of the scariest films in history to a would-be adulterous affair between Alma and her screenwriter friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Whitfield goes to great lengths to establish a private retreat where he and Alma can be alone to co-write a script together. Houston’s miscasting in the role is beside the point. With the table set for the impeccably cast James D’Arcy to chew scenery as Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates, the audience gets a bait-and-switch gambit. The emphasis shifts to a moment of jealous pique that comes when Hitchcock suspects Alma of cheating.

Although Anthony Hopkins inhabits the corpulent master of suspense with an admirable command of Hitch’s savory enunciation, he never gets the jump on Hitchcock’s droll sense of macabre humor. We buy Hopkins incarnation of Alfred Hitchcock only up to a point. Nonetheless, it’s great fun watching Hopkins tap his well appointed arsenal of acting techniques.

Like Louis Bunuel, the master of surrealist cinema, Alfred Hitchcock was an unrequited fetishist who procured erotic satisfaction by proxy. Only by filming his idyllic ice queen platinum blonde actresses in various states of violently charged sensual situations could he achieve his artistic vision. Even if the audience didn’t consciously recognize they were peaking into the subconscious of what used to be called a “perverted” mentality, the effect added considerable depth of subtext to the movie at hand. It would have been a no-brainer to take “Hitchcock” behind the scenes of the myriad of specific choices Alfred Hitchcock made to prepare and film “Psycho.” Instead, we get a soap opera substitute.

Rated PG-13. 98 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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May 28, 2012


Boys Don't CryKimberly Pierce’s remarkable 1999 filmic version of Brandon Teena’s final days is a scalding indictment of the conscious intolerance that runs through America’s Midwest and South. The film is also a celebration of youthful romantic desire. In the role that launched her career, Hillary Swank plays Lincoln, Nebraska-born Brandon Teena (née Teena Renae Brandon). With short hair, a chiseled jawline, and handsome charm, the “transgendered” Teena experiments with the fine art of passing as a boy. A rolled up sock or artificial penis and scrotum fill Brandon’s underwear. A tightly wrapped Ace bandage flattens her chest. Threats of violence by local boys, and run-ins with the law due to forged checks and shoplifting, make Brandon’s escape from Lincoln a necessity. The 21-year-old Brandon sublimates his sexual identity crisis by reinventing himself in the Falls City region of Richardson, Nebraska.


In this culturally desolate location, Pierce places Brandon’s tragic story primarily in nighttime settings to give the film a sense of floating through a nocturnal atmosphere of rural routes. Brandon temporarily explores his romantic desires with a young single mother named Candace (Alicia Goranson), whom he meets at roadhouse bar. A fistfight with slur-slinging bar patrons ensues. The episode introduces Brandon to a couple of seemingly benevolent ex-cons, John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III). It becomes clear that Brandon is out of his depth during a “bumper-skiing” contest in which Brandon stands on the bed of a fast moving pickup truck while holding onto a rope — rodeo-style. John and Tom are temporarily fooled by Brandon’s ruse, but they won’t remain deluded for long.

The film soars during Brandon’s passionate sexual encounters with the true object of his romantic yearnings, Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny). A moonlit tryst between Brandon and Lana on a blanket in an open field directly addresses Brandon’s capacity for lovemaking. The exquisitely erotic sequence surges into a musically embellished transition with a bong-toking car ride where Brandon sits in blissed-out ecstasy between Candace and Lana while another girl drives. Liberation exists.


Co-writing with Andy Bienen, Kimberly Pierce anchors the narrative with the theme of following your dreams regardless of the circumstances stacked against you. The filmmakers choose not to bog the film down with factual backstory elements of Brandon’s youth, which involved abandonment and sexual abuse by his uncle. They recognize that there's a limit to the amount of cruelty an audience can stand. Brandon’s confidence of self-identity enables him to live—however briefly—as a fully expressed person with a wellspring of loving emotion.

Rated R. 118. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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December 02, 2011

The Iron Lady

Profiling Thatcher
Phyllida Lloyd Plays it Safe
By Cole Smithey

Iron LadyBetween Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar Hoover biopic and director Phyllida Lloyd's ill-told life story of Margaret Thatcher, it might seem on the surface there's a concerted effort to lionize two of the Right's most reprehensible examples of absolute power corrupting absolutely. On closer inspection however, each of the films reveal latent hypocrisies in their political subjects. Both movies feature iconic performances from enormously talented actors giving their all to embody tragically flawed political figures. Meryl Streep makes somewhat more of a big-screen splash than Leonardo DiCaprio given that Margaret Thatcher was a higher profile public figure. Her every gesture and facial expression comes across with an astounding degree of authenticity, thanks in part to some terrific prosthetic assistance by the film’s highly skilled make-up department.

Phyllida Lloyd last directed Streep in the 2008 musical “Mamma Mia.” Here, she depends on a less than solid script by British playwright Abi Morgan, the same woman screenwriter responsible for 2011’s most overrated film “Shame.” Morgan shapes the backward gazing biopic from the perspective of a decrepit Thatcher suffering from severe bouts of dementia that allow for flashback reveries that frequently slip into a realm of the absurd.

Suspended within its retired subject's senile vantage point, that constantly converses with hallucinations of her deceased husband (played by Jim Broadbent in full tweet-tweet-arf-arf mode), "The Iron Lady" quietly equates Margaret Thatcher's distorted mental state with that of Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. The obvious deduction is that she wasn’t entirely in charge of her mental faculties when she served as Prime Minister--aka “Britain’s Fighting Lady.” The film inadvertently gives a persuasive sense of how hated Margaret Thatcher was by British citizens, and by the IRA who repeatedly attempted to assassinate her. Protesters assail her in public, and bomb blasts follow her. Unfortunately, for fear of dipping its toe into politics, the filmmakers dodge Thatcher’s public policies. Still, an emphasis on Thatcher's heavy-handed military response in the Falklands rightly paints her as a warmonger. The film goes to great lengths to present Margaret Thatcher as a hardened woman battling for her place in a man’s world with the closet weapon at hand—stubbornness. It doesn’t however make mention of crucial aspects of her formative experiences as a research chemist or as a barrister.

It's easy to come away from the movie with an idea that Margaret Thatcher was at best a penny-wise-and-pound foolish woman guilty of turning on her own kind; she was the daughter to a family of grocers. At worst, Margaret Thatcher contributed to the world's current economic collapse with a cunning brand of daring cruelty that defies logic and reason. Not even Meryl Streep is capable of making Margaret Thatcher a likeable human being in spite of the film’s doting attention to the character’s frail human dilemma. While "The Iron Lady" doesn't give Britain’s former Prime Minister anywhere near the historical justice of Elvis Costello's contemptuous ode to the Iron Lady, "Tramp the Dirt Down," it does remind us of one of the primary contributors to the world's economic crisis. History will not be kind to Margaret Thatcher.

Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

November 13, 2011

J. Edgar

J-edgar-movie-posterStructural flaws that include inexplicable time flips, and so much voice-over narration that you feel like you're watching an audio book version of a movie, all but derail Clint Eastwood's otherwise thoughtful biopic of one of America's more problematic historical figures. J. Edgar Hoover was a man who demanded respect more than commanded it. Leonardo DeCaprio brings his usual 120% of performance energy to his portrayal of the obsessive bureaucratic head of the FBI from the early days of its inception through the turbulent times of Richard Nixon’s failed administration. His Herculean efforts present the most compelling aspect of the film. Problems with Dusting Lance Black’s overreaching screenplay are compounded by a lackluster desaturated color palate born of fluorescent light and sleeping pills. Eastwood’s regular production designer James J. Murakami does the film no favors by giving it the same drab color scheme as he applied to “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Changeling.” However faithful to the poorly lit beige and brown corridors of power that Hoover frequented, the effect functions as a droning visual device that wears out its welcome.

The film's primary storytelling device puts Hoover dictating a fictionalized version of his life story to a turnstile group of writers completing his biography. Flashback sequences compete with forward moving events in a dueling narrative context that eventually reneges on some of its key thematic points. We get that J. Edgar Hoover was a closet homosexual bullied by his overbearing mother (Judi Dench), with whom he lived until her death. Judging from the film, there's no question that much of Hoover's political career ambition and anti-radical political stance grew out of a desperate attempt to repress sexual desires he was never able to fulfill even if he had ample opportunity in his more than willing gay accomplice permanently by side. Armie Hammer gives a nuanced portrayal as Hoover's right-hand Clyde Tolson who rarely ever missed dining for lunch and dinner with his domineering boss during their decades-long partnership. While the film touches on Hoover's infamous proclivity for cross-dressing, and his list of career-making achievements, the episodes are contained in bubbles of exposition weighted down by a need to compartmentalize messy aspects of a complex personality. “J. Edgar” is a flawed but worthy biopic seemingly constrained by a lack of access to its enigmatic subject’s well-kept secrets. Evidently there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the lying hypocrite named J. Edgar Hoover who successfully posed as a patriot as so many politicians before and after him have done.

Rated R. 137 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

October 09, 2011

My Week With Marilyn - NYFF 2011

Michelle_WilliamsDiamond in the Buff
Michelle Williams Embodies Marilyn Monroe

Michelle Williams delivers an Oscar-worthy performance playing screen siren Marilyn Monroe. The vehicle is director Simon Curtis's thoughtful adaptation of Colin Clark's diaries. At the age of 23 Clark worked as third assistant director to Laurence Olivier for his 1956 romantic comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl." The film came between "Bus Stop" (1956) and the all-time classic screwball comedy "Some Like it Hot" (1959). Eddie Redmayne movingly portrays Colin, the star-struck young Brit who momentarily wins the heart of the most sensual creature on the planet while serving as Marilyn’s hand-picked liaison to the British theatrical world she encroaches upon with the aid of her acting coach Paula Strasberg.

Michelle Williams effortlessly evokes the tragic icon's fragile layers of insecurity and hopeless romanticism that cause her to slip into fits of manic depression. Williams's mesmerizing set piece performance of songs such as a climatic rendition of "That Old Black Magic" transports the film into a territory of erotic euphoria that Monroe stirred in the hearts and libidos of men. Equally effective is a charming dance number Williams reenacts from the film within the film. Williams's magical transformation into Marilyn Monroe is uncanny; you never question it for a moment. We witness the distinction between Norma Jeane Mortenson and Monroe's carefully developed alter ego as differing shades of emotional water color.

Eddie Redmayne is the film's secret weapon. Because the story is told from Colin's point of view, we share his character's hormonally charged excitement about "working" with Marilyn Monroe. Like Marilyn, Redmayne's Colin is himself a bundle of contradictions. He's tenaciously ambitious, and yet is still struggling to overcome his innate shyness. He's not yet in his skin.

My-week-with-marilynThe temporary presence of Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) as Marilyn's husband of three weeks does little to stunt her erratic behavior when cameras aren't rolling or flashing. Kenneth Branagh is saddled with the thankless task of playing Laurence Olivier who, as the film-within-the-film’s director couldn't care less about Monroe's commitment to method acting even if its results are undeniable. A supporting character arc comes through his character’s gaining respect for the American actress he not-so-secretly hopes to bed. Branagh's portrayal of the man who famously served as England's greatest actor for several decades is at cross purposes with Williams's necessarily posed and poised performance. You don't get the sense that Branagh is in any way emulating Olivier, but is rather interpreting the character for himself. Branagh’s approach is a sound one because it removes any sense of competition with Michelle Williams to fulfill her character in the most physically accurate and emotionally truthful way.

Although the movie has its weak spots--Julia Ormond gives a one-note portrayal of Vivian Leigh, and Zoe Wanamaker veers toward caricature as Paula Strasberg--Michelle Williams delivers a deftly multi-dimensional character study built on truthfulness and soul. “My Week With Marilyn” isn’t just a gem; it’s a diamond.

Rated R. 101 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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