35 posts categorized "Biopic"

August 03, 2018

NICO 1988

Nico 1988Writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli crafts a brief biopic about Velvet Underground legend Nico that is at turns inspired, frustrating, thrilling, and inchoate. Trine Dryholm’s unvarnished performance holds the film together with a weathered beauty teetering on the edge of an abyss that only her drug-addled character can see. One element missing from the film is any regard for the stunning beauty of Nico’s youth — she worked as a model — who captured the hearts, minds, and libidos of Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Jimmy Page, and notably Alain Delon with whom she had a son named Ari. Never mind that Delon never claimed the child who Nico abandoned when he was four-years-old.

Dryholm embodies the tone-deaf chanteuse with the same nihilistic charisma that Lou Reed freely exhibited for most of his career. Nico clearly copped Reed’s heroin habit and refused to ever let it go. Her fascination with death comes through in the songs of her later career as featured in the film.


Audiences unfamiliar with Nico’s ‘60s era collaborations with Reed and The Velvet Underground, under the guidance of Andy Warhol, receive no hand-holding in this film. If you don’t already know the haunting sound of Nico’s baritone European accented voice on the songs “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Femme Fatal,” or “Sunday Morning,” then you’ve got some homework to do.

Living a junkie existence with a band of amateur musicians, save a classically trained violinist, Nico (real name Christa Päffgen) performs for small audiences around Eastern Europe. Border crossings pose imminent danger. She hates the communist youths that risk jail to host her performance. She also loathes her fans, especially if they appear in the guise of naïve young women.  


We get that Nico was a child of war; she carries around a portable recorder to capture source sounds from the environments she visits, in the hope of rediscovering the sound of Berlin being bombed when she was a tyke. Nico longs for annihilation.

Ultimately, “Nico 1988” fails because it never convinces the audience as to why we should empathize with this brutal person. That Nicchiarelli omits the moment of Nico’s lonely death on a bicycle in Ibiza, comes across as laziness on the part of the filmmaker. “Nico 1988” is a solid showcase for Trine Dryholm but it doesn’t make a case for Nico’s music.  

Rated R. 99 mins. (C+) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

January 02, 2018


Darkest_hour_ver3Joe Wright is a director who specializes in period kitsch. His 2005 version of “Pride & Prejudice” is a well-defined dollop of cinematic tough love as experienced through Jane Austen’s emotional turbulence of class struggles.

“Atonement” (2007) found Wright following his muse Keira Knightly through the war-torn romantic terrain of Ian McEwan’s novel with emotional grace notes played in ringing succession. The keen-eyed filmmaker maxed out with his visually embellished adaptation of Anna Karenina, once again featuring Keira Knightley, this time as the title character of Tolstoy’s epic love story.

However deft Joe Wright clearly is with clearing his theatrical space for actors to deliver finely crafted performances in “Darkest Hour,” the filmmaker is hamstrung to liberate the film from screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s staid text and dull plotting. There is no question that Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill is a portrayal for the ages. As well, Kristin Scott Thomas is purely grounded as Churchill’s wife Clemmie. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI casts a long shadow that few living politicians could pretend to fill.


The problems with this dull, drawn-out film announce themselves early on through Dario Marianelli’s bombastic musical score that attempts to mask narrative shifts that clash rather than mesh with the aural hamburger-helper. The story takes place over a one-month period during May of 1940, when Winston Churchill took over as Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Germany was winning World War II. For as unpopular as Churchill was at the time, he put his head down and got to work, or so the story goes.


"Darkest Hour" gets overwrought and fussy regarding Churchill’s mistreatment of his youthful secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who has to develop much thicker skin if she is to endure the demands of taking dictation from the head of the British Empire. We accept the sub-plot ruse in the beginning, but it runs threadbare by the time Churchill is pressured toward engaging in peace talks with Hitler.

References to Dunkirk come across as gratuitous considering that awful film’s recent engagement to a plethora of fawning critics who seem to have never seen a competent war film in their lives. There should be a moratorium on World War II films considering that era's disconnected irrelevance to our drone-dominated modern warfare, and the fact of Cinema's already mile-high coverage of World War II.

When Oldman’s Churchill boards a London subway to get a feel for the will of the people, it’s clear that the filmmakers have sunk to a new basement level of pandering to their audience. The scene works in spite of itself, but it nonetheless represents an unforgivable sin of sewing up a mess of a movie with a flurry of hand-stitching. “Darkest Hour” is a brief, and presumably misleading, biopic aimed more at winning awards for acting than in connecting our modern political problems with those of the past. Here is a film to sip tea over, rather than watch with any sense of urgency or relevance beyond the endearing performances of its cast.    

Ben Mendelsohn

Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

COLE SMITHEYA small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon, and receive special rewards!


Groupthink doesn't live here.

November 24, 2017


I_tonyaCraig Gillespie, the Australian director behind the great magical realist film “Lars and the Real Girl” (from 2007) is destined to become a household name based on his work for this unforgettable film. “I, Tonya” is a beautifully crafted and executed brief biopic of Tonya Harding, an American figure skater made notorious by the same American media landscape that that gave rise to the presidential ascendancy of Donald Trump.

The film is as much a snapshot of American hypocrisies, and its ingrained ideology of cruelty, as it is a diligent portrayal of a gifted figure skater trapped by her impoverished social circumstances and abusive relations with the people closest to her — namely her mother and her husband.

With its convincing depictions of Margo Robbie [apparently] executing Harding’s signature triple axel in mind- blowing competition figure skating sequences, “I, Tonya” (written by screenwriter Steven Rogers) adopts a narrative style that flips between direct-to-camera confessionals and straight-ahead drama.

The subject matter is pitch dark but the film's tone frequently borders on slapstick. Robbie’s performance is an exercise in acting-chops virtuosity; she holds nothing back. Even when Robbie’s audacious portrayal turns her natural beauty into a monstrous visage, you can’t help but accept and respect Tonya Harding as a human being doing her best against impossible odds. An Oscar nomination most certainly looms for Robbie. 

I tonya

Intimidated, bullied, and ruthlessly punished by her self-promoting mother LaVona (brilliantly played by the ever-dependable Allison Janney), Tonya Harding is shown to have grown up indoctrinated by a white trash mentality synonymous with Donald Trump’s reckless approach to the world. Romantically following the first boy who pays her any attention brings a streak of bad luck when Tonya takes up with, and marries, Sebastian Stan’s Jeff Gillooly. Every bit as physically abusive as Tonya’s mother, Jeff Gillooly delivers love with his fists, and even with a gun, when he’s sufficiently frustrated. He doesn’t keep good company either, as evidenced by his best friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a man clearly suffering from intellectual developmental disorder.

I  Tonya

This is not by any means a feel-good movie. Every beat of mental and physical anguish that Margot Robbie nails with her pitch-perfect portrayal of Tonya Harding, brings the audience to an intimate understanding of story misstated and mishandled by the media and by the judge who oversaw Harding’s case related to a brutal attack against fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by Shane Stint (Ricky Russert).


Even this film’s supporting roles are perfectly cast. Julianne Nicholson is wonderful as Harding’s skating coach Diane Rawlinson. For his part Bobby Cannavale does a lot with a little as a “Hard Copy” tabloid producer whose bent for exploitation runs as deep as TMZ’s Harvey Levin.     

Rated  R. 119 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

COLE SMITHEYA small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon, and receive special rewards!


October 29, 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)

COLE SMITHEYA small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon, and receive special rewards!


April 04, 2016


BLUEEthan Hawke certainly has the acting chops to play the legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. What's more, Hawke resembles Chet in middle age before the ravages of heroin devastated his iconic good looks. But there’s more to Hawke’s portrayal of Chet Baker than keen acting skills and physical resemblance; demons. The Gen X survivor who caught fire in 1994 with “Reality Bites” has battled plenty of personal sprites, all the while testing the limits of his talents by writing (plays, novels and screenplays), directing, and acting. Always acting. His work here represents his finest performance to date.

“Hello fear. Hello death. Fuck you.” Hawke’s Baker repeats the lines being fed to him by the scantily clad actress playing a one-night stand in a film-within-the-film about his life. She uses a tourniquet to tie his arm off before giving him his first shot of heroin. He’s a wounded child seeking sex, approval, escape, and love in equal parts. Chet’s personal life comes barging though the hotel room door in the guise of his jealous girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo). The narrative telescope compresses as black and white turns to color. We’re on a film set in 1966 Hollywood where Chet tries his hand at playing himself for a film director who rescued him from a filthy Italian jail where he was due to spend the next couple of years. So it is that writer/director Robert Budreau submerges his audience into the appropriately cold narrative waters of Chet Baker’s mid-life story.


The role of Chet Baker’s heroin addiction in ruling, and ruining, his life is fully expressed when he tells Jane that he’s “only hurting himself.” Hawke downplays the self-delusion in the statement. Passive aggression is just another defense mechanism in Baker’s arsenal of survival tricks.

When angry drug dealers pistol-whip Chet in the mouth, the vicious attack comes with the cruel soubriquet, “no more jazz motherfucker.” Relearning to play the horn with dentures means creating three placements of embrasure — left, right, and center. As painful as it is watching Baker bleeding from the mouth while attempting to play, Hawke’s performance hooks us.


Where Don Cheadle’s concurrently running Miles Davis filmic love letter “Miles Ahead” is an ambitious embrace of the great jazz trumpeter’s music, humor, and imagination, “Born to be Blue” is an impressionistic chamber piece made up of composite elements from Baker’s life. Linear facts don’t matter. Both films eschew the traditional biopic formula, and in so doing achieve a sublime dramatic effect of floating through the air that both trumpet players breathed. Forget about dueling super-heroes, “Born to be Blue” and “Miles Ahead” are the real McCoy to see phenomenally gifted men sparring for supremacy on their chosen field of battle. The blood and spit they spill is in the service of a transcendent musical beauty that no comic book creation can imagine.

Rated R. 97 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


October 11, 2015


JobsFor a movie that resists the traditional biopic movie formula of career-high-and-low flashbacks (witness Ashton Kutcher’s disastrous “Jobs” about the same subject — now streaming on Netflix), “Steve Jobs” is a droning tone poem of a character study. That the Apple CEO seems to have never digested the milk of human kindness supports our shared realization that capitalism’s ruthless quest for unlimited profit is headed to a dead end.  

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s flawed format sets the abstruse biographical narrative in three acts, each placed in the backstage areas of auditoriums, at different points in Jobs’s career. The petulant “genius” prepares to introduce Apple products that exemplify his bloated career as a cult figure who might have been drawn from Mike Myers’s Dieter character from the “Saturday Night Live” Sprockets skits. The difference is that Jobs made people pay to “touch his monkey.” 

Sorkin’s affinity for overlapping conversations, infused with artificial traveling tension (à la television’s “The Newsroom”), wears thin just when the movie should take off, namely at the start of its second act. In each tortured segment, we catch Michael Fassbinder’s mercurial computer mastermind getting ready to go on stage to introduce his latest creation. Distractions abound. Jobs’s temper explodes, as when his production team fails to make the Apple II computer say “hello” to the audience of press and industry at the product launch. The Steve Jobs presented here is an egomaniacal huckster with a gift for gab and a mean streak when it comes to women. Don’t look for any humanity here because the Steve Jobs we come to know from this film may as well be a capitalist robot come to “save” humanity by extracting its money. No need to thank this cult leader, profit and worship are all he desires.  


In this ostensibly cinematically dynamic hotel environment of dressing-room mirrors and nervous assistants, Jobs suffers the company of people to whom he should be loyal, but can’t find it in himself to even be civil. First up are Steve’s ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterson) and her five-hear-old daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss). Chrisann is furious over Steve’s public denial of being Lisa’s father in a magazine interview where Jobs couched Chrisann in a brutally misogynistic analogy. Steve Jobs isn’t in the business of giving apologies. While he gloats over the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s worth, Chrisann lives in poverty. Only after she holds his feet to the fire does he finally agree to financially support her and their daughter. Talk about a wealthy skinflint not worthy of procreating, Steve Jobs puts the cherry on the cake.   

Danny Boyle does an admirable job of adding dimension and resonance to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Boyle deploys three different camera formats, one for each act. The filmmaker uses 16mm film for the first act, circa 1984 before shifting to glossy 35mm footage for the film’s 1988- era second act. Naturally the film’s final act (circa 1988) is filmed digitally. The artistic effort shines through even if it can’t elevate such a flawed script. The movie is too pat. 


Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak (to whom Jobs refers as “Rainman”) is presented as two sides of an ongoing joke. All Woz wants, and he wants it really bad, is for his partner-in-crime (they stole the software they used to design their early computers) to acknowledge the “Apple II team” for their contributions to the company. Wozniak’s request seems more than reasonable since Jobs continues to milk that team’s success while tinkering with future failures, like the NeXT computer platform.

Walter Isaacson’s authorized Steve Jobs biography might have been the basis for Sorkin’s adaptation, but this film is all surface and punchlines. Jobs brags that “musicians play their instruments,” but that he “plays the orchestra.” Where, you might wonder does he do that? Off-Broadway perhaps?


Even by anti-hero standards, Steve Jobs was a bad person who treated the people closest to him like dirt. Besides, he was no Elon Musk when it comes to inventing. This movie helps in its own heavy-handed way at peeling back onion layers of a conceptual inventor who took all of the credit for other people’s work. As many of us know, it’s not always the best idea to meet your heroes. Personally, I never found much fascination with Steve Jobs. After seeing this movie, that hasn't changed.   

A small request. Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


October 10, 2015


Miles Don Cheadle’s independently produced labor of love is an exquisitely polished love letter to the iconic genius who revolutionized music five times over during the 20th century. This is a big movie with Miles Davis’s music and mind, front and center. Narrative information seeps from every pore of this appropriately larger-than-life film.  

Clever filmic storytelling devices filter historical fact with apocryphal cinematic flourishes to get at Miles Davis's charismatic personality. The filmmakers adopt a daring and original approach that works like a charm. As Don Cheadle said at the New York Film Festival press screening, this is the kind of movie Miles would have wanted to act in. One viewing isn’t anywhere near enough to drink in all that this great movie has to offer. This film has multiple Oscar nominations written all over it even if the powers that be will make sure no such thing ever occurs. Nonetheless, film-lovers will seek this motherfucker out. 

Cheadle directs himself with attention to the story’s overarching tonal and rhythmic ebbs of musical influence. A lot of thought and attention went into every note that the audience hears.

We see Miles Davis when we see Cheadle playing the trumpet. His transformation is absolute. The effect is hypnotizing. It would be selling the veteran actor short to say that he was clearly born to play Miles Davis if only for his similarly structured visage of Davis's handsome and athletic bearing. There is so much more to Don Cheadle's dramatized incarnation of a legend that you should stop reading this review and just get down with the movie.

The diligent Cheadle walked many psychological and physical miles in Davis's ubiquitous shoes to arrive at the incredibly high level of performance that he gives here. I'd give him the Best Actor Oscar right this minute. It simply doesn't get any better than this. Dustin Hoffman in "Lenny"? Yep, this movie does all that and more. "Pollock"? Yes, Cheadle shows off real horn chops just as Ed Harris threw real paint as Jackson Pollock. And, still this movie does so much more than either of those estimable examples of the biopic genre achieves. It is no small feat to reinvent the biopic genre. Tarantino might talk shit about biopics, but I bet he'd love this one. Witness Aaron Sorkin's failed attempt at the same goal with "Steve Jobs," a movie that comes nowhere near the level of narrative sophistication that "Miles Ahead" flicks, punches, and grooves on like nobody's business.  

When asked at a New York Film Festival premiere screening how he juggled so many tasks while making the picture, Mr. Cheadle replied, “Drugs.” Watching his wonderfully inspired portrayal of Miles Davis is like taking an emotionally charged musical journey drug for the audience. It doesn't hurt that Mile's former bandmate Herbie Hancock oversaw the film's musical aspects with the assistance of veteran composer Robert Glasper

Don Cheadle Directing Miles Ahead
Cheadle and his fellow screenwriters break the typical biopic cradle-to-grave format with an approach compatible to the way Miles Davis's actively creative mind worked. Sturdily constructed subplots weave between two days during Miles’s ‘70s era retirement from music, and earlier periods related to his time with Frances Davis (1958 – 1968), the woman featured on the cover of Davis’s 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come.” A hot chemistry boils between Cheadle and the impossibly beautiful actress who plays Frances with an elegant poise and feminine power that is out of this world. Muse? You bet.

The “Sketches of Spain” recording sessions make for a cool peek at Miles directing his band with the assistance of Gill Evans (Jeffrey Grover). We are entranced by Cheadle’s elegant command of his characterization.

“Miles Ahead” has a floating sense of Miles Davis’s human essence hovering everywhere you look. Everything works. Especially enjoyable is Cheadle’s pitch-perfect delivery of Miles’s wonderfully laconic sense of humor, as expressed though his famously rasp of a voice. (Miles blew out his vocal chords when he yelled while recovering from polyp surgery). Hilarious zingers fly left and right. The picture is funnier than most Hollywood comedies.

It goes on. The artistic cinematic ingenuity on display here is staggering. The film’s lighting and production designs are lush like you can’t believe. Naturally, the film’s editing (courtesy of John Axelrad and Kayla Emter) is perfect down to the millisecond. These filmmakers clearly took their time. You never doubt the shifting tempos that map out the thickly layered storyline.

Although the film doesn't open until April, 2016, it is being given a limited release qualifying run, in order for it to be considered for the 2016 Oscars. 

As the only film at the 53rd New York Film Festival to feature black actors, “Miles Ahead” made a powerful statement that transcends the music of Miles Davis as an ongoing social and cultural connector. Don Cheadle makes a point to include a scene where Miles tells a reporter not to call his music “Jazz.” “Call it social music,” Miles says. Cool man. Dig it, 'cause if you can't dig this, you can't dig nothin'.

Rated R. 100 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

A small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


Featured Video

SMART NEW MEDIA® Custom Videos



Throwback Thursday

Podcast Series