The Iron Lady & The Two Popes Walk Into a Bar: Thoughts on the Biopic

LnD not so recently experimented with the Netflix Party Chrome screen sharing extension. This really didn’t go anywhere as there was no one there in person to poke D awake, like there is in real life.

Since then I’ve learned that Netflix Party Chrome extension is most popular as a hack that kids use to thwart parental controls — cool! 

Once we got past the need to use an emphasis in the word biopic (/ˈbīōˌpik/) I was off to the races on my review. These two films include some high powered talent but only one hit the mark for me.

In The Two Popes, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio the future Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict leave you with the feeling that they were both born to play these roles. 

But this is not your Dad’s Pope movie. And it’s not a simple good Pope vs. bad Pope story. The one major standout element of this film, besides the uncanny acting, is the scope and originality of the cinematography. 

If you’re settling in for a film where two dudes sit on a bench and have a theological conversation for two hours you are going to be sadly disappointed. Two Popes moves, even wide angle shots track, overhead shots go right through helicopter rotors and the torture scene will stand your hair up at attention. It’s not a movie about romanticizing the past but examining the current situation through it. 

On the other hand, The Iron Lady is a film where you never get away from the fact that this is Meryl Streep playing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The camera lingers on her. You start to wonder, who was the Director? Was Streep the Director? (No. No she wasn’t. (Phyllida Lloyd.) This isn’t some vanity piece. And Streep who no doubt uses an Oscar statuette as a toothbrush holder has got more chops than Chopin at an Austin BBQ. In fact, she slays in another Netflix film with Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, directed by Soderbergh, The Laundromat. But here, she never gets lost in the character and so we can never transcend her being her fabulous self. We can never really understand the complexities of the times and the struggles she may have had with her choices. (Yes, Streep won her, yawn, third Academy Award for this role).

You don’t have to agree with someone in order to find them interesting. Often, it’s quite the contrary. But The Iron Lady seems stuck in a debilitated present, that lacks movement, that lacks a living history—and motivation. If a film doesn’t offer the audience transcendence, even on a visceral level, the most basic level that cinema can give, then the audience will also never get perspective on either the historical figure as real person or their own lives in relation to that figure. 

In terms of biopic, it’s really a challenge to make a sweeping historical film meaningful. There are so many possible storytelling detours and dead ends. It’s easier and I’d argue more effective to take a situation, like in the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg film, “On the Basis of Sex” and turn your narrative around that. That film was about the late great Notorious RBG’s first time arguing a case in court as an attorney. And by concentrating on those specific events, the story speaks to universal truths. However, this is not to say a sweeping biopic can’t hit you hard or inspire you, because it’s achieved with aplomb and passion in The Two Popes

Justice

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Most films are either about proving your worth to your dad (or mom or family). …Quick Example: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Or about being the best at ___________. …Quick Example: Ford v Ferrari. In other words family dynamics or ambition. It’s easier to tell a story with these themes because the conflict (i.e. drama) and heroic journey are built-in. …Quick Example: Joseph Campbell.

But recently LnD screened three films that had stories driven by a wholly different theme: Seeking Justice.

Although Little Women telegraphed scenes…Quick Example: A lonely man’s daughter has died. He has a piano nobody plays in his house. There happens to be a little girl in the house next door who plays the piano beautifully…what is going to happen? Exactly. And there is also a bit of navel gazing and outright yawn inducing scenes. Does this mean I don’t think it’s a great film? No, it’s a great film. I actually highly recommend it. It’s about being taken seriously as a women but also as a person. Why even the next day I found myself exclaiming to my wife that, “I am a person with my own ideas!” So, yeah, the film did have an actual impact on me. The fact that Director Greta Gerwig is not up for an Oscar is something that I think should bring true shame to the Academy. Not even with Meryl Streep, who probably uses an Oscar statue as a toothbrush holder, acting in this film could the vote be swayed towards Gerwig. As we learned in this great article, the Directing award is voted on by the Directors section of the Academy. So you can imagine that it skews male a bit. Just a bit. However, Little Women is a cinematic film, it deserves the highest recognition, my above stated objections not withstanding. It’s a powerful film. 

Next we saw Bombshell. This film didn’t suffer the pace of Little Women. If you have ever worked even one day in the news world you know the take no prisoners speed and attitude of that work — it was reflected in the storytelling. Bombshell is like what if 9 to 5 with Dolly, Lilly, Jane and Dabney wasn’t funny. Not funny at all. Welcome to Fox News. John Lithgow as Roger Ailes was simply mesmerizing. Full disclosure, he is already one of my favorite actors, so I’m biased. And speaking of Oscars, Charlize Theron is rightfully nominated for Best Actress. And I hope she wins. At first you wonder about her speech and its affectation but then you realize that she is an anchor on and off screen. She breaks only enough to remind her husband, who gives her a hard time after a softball interview with a Presidential candidate who’d personally attacked her, who pays the fucking mortgage and health insurance around here! Pretty great stuff. Now the fact that you find yourself rooting for someone who believes that SPOILER ALERT: a fictional character named Santa Claus belongs to the domain of one race, in this case caucasian, over all the other races, is an issue for me. But overall, the film plays to the complexity of her situation. Reveals the forces working against her and in the end aptly portrays her move towards doing the right thing in the sex scandal that took down the head honchos of the so-called news division of this media empire. 

Finally, Just Mercy. I think this film should be required viewing for every American. Actually for anyone. Even more egregiously than Little Women it runs long and the pacing is off. But realize that all these films are carrying a lot of weight. They are trying to encapsulate and explain, in as entertaining a way possible, centuries, even Millenia of injustices. Starting with Jaime Foxx, besides all his awards, including the Oscar, he just lights up the screen with his charisma. Even in a role like this, where he plays a falsely convicted death row inmate, where his character is translated into a simmering frustration, he takes over each scene. Michael B. Jordan is no lightweight and he also carries this film, which plays like a social document, laying out each detail, nailing each twitch of each supporting character down, convincing the audience as the Alabama Supreme Court had to be convinced. Because even with absolute evidence, the law can be tricky dance partner, especially when local politics is playing the tune. And if you don’t think our justice system, especially in regards to the death penalty, needs some fine tuning, here is a list of 166 Americans who were falsely accused of murder and put on death row since 1973. What watching this film gave me — some films leave you with a feeling like you have been robbed of your time, intellect, etc., all of these films give you something in return — was a sense of perspective. When I find myself complaining about what I perceive are the injustices in my life, it’s laughable compared to the injustices exposed in these three great movies.

Power

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In the last calendar year and in this year so far, the political biopic, i.e., biographical movie, has been a constant movie occurrence. Or is it eternal? It seems we will always wonder about the lives of people who shape history. 

In this essay I cover some of the political biopics that caught my eye and moved me one way or another. Though there are others, the recent depiction of Winston Churchill comes to mind, that don’t make the cut here. 

But let’s take these: L and D’s top film of 2018, The Death of Stalin, Chappaquiddick, The Front Runner, The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scots, Vice and On the Basis of Sex. 

One of the foundational rules of filmmaking is to show, don’t tell. Just keep that in your back pocket as you read this. Another rule of thumb is that in a short film, having one strong protagonist is the best way to keep an audience involved in the story. And you can extrapolate that to features. It’s easier to keep the audience if your film isn’t meandering or involving many points of view. There are exceptions of course. The most recent Murder on the Orient Express had a fantastic cast and even though I deduced who the murderer was in the first 5 minutes it didn’t fail to captivate me as a story. A film can also cover many years and still be powerful, it’s just more of a challenge. Citizen Cane does a good job of it. As I said, there are exceptions. Now if it were just a case of dramatizing a given situation, some kind of winning formula, I wouldn’t have had one of my greatest movie going disappointments, Sully. Moments after take off a plane crashes into the Hudson River. The pilot is able to land the plane without loss of life. Sounds like an incredible movie but really, it’s just an incredible moment. There is no formula for a hit movie, just some guidelines. 

I won’t rehash our review of The Death of Stalin here. Suffice it to say, you get to know Stalin in the exposition. You witness his death. There is a mad power vacuum that ensues. Society, which was absurd and unjust during Stalin’s lifetime, threatens to absolutely unwind in the time shortly after his death. The performances are outrageously good. It’s a true masterpiece of dark humor and grim reality. It gracefully paints a portrait of one dramatic moment in time.  It trusts that you understand something of the workings of the Bolshevik revolution and something of what happens after the time in question. 

Chappaquiddick and The Front Runner are films that needed to come out around the time of the incidents they portray. They are past relevancy, poignancy.  They, Like Mary Queen of Scots, would have you support protagonists who are well past complicated and simply obstinate. I would say that the Mary Jo Kopechne drowning scene in Chappaquiddick is so powerful that you could never argue that the filmmakers are Ted Kennedy apologists but they are not far from it. And though that film does concentrate on a specific moment in time, the drama gets completely bogged down in rooms and meetings. It fails to show as it falls back on telling, on merely depicting people talking into phones and scheming. “But that’s what happened” you could argue. Well, it’s not cinematic. 

The Front Runner also gives us a clueless presidential candidate who seems totally out of touch with the times. But it does smack of apology for bad behavior. I will never get over how the defining moment for presidential hopeful Gary Hart was a trip on the boat Monkey Business but it is somehow not even the title of the film.  In the film there is a scathing one minute monologue by Johnny Carson via a TV set Hart is watching.  The entire film is summed up by Carson. Like Chappaquiddick, Front Runner tries to milk this one defining moment and devolves into representations of phone calls with his wife and spin meetings with his staff.  Talking not showing.

Mary Queen of Scots certainly does a fine job of depicting action. There are plenty of horse rides, a battle, a stabbing and even a decent explosion. But if you have a political character that’s not likable, whose motives aren’t honorable or who feels entitled and again, out of touch with the people, all the action in the world will not save that story. There is also plenty of staring into space by the protagonist, the movie seemingly falling in love with its very existence. There is also no backstory whatsoever besides titles. I’m not sure if titles are even worse a sin than talking vs showing in film. Again, there are always exceptions, like the opening titles of Star Wars. One of the more interesting aspects of another film I will get to, Vice, is the depiction of the early, more formative years of Dick Cheney. You may never agree with him but you understand where he is coming from and his drive for power. This never happens with Mary Queen of Scots. The audience never gets invested in her story. 

Which brings me to the aptly titled, The Favourite.  The audience here is instantly invested in the fortunes of a former lady as she attempts to regain her status in proper society. As the intrigue at Kensington Palace thickens the feeling of suspense only grows. There is plenty of blood and guts, scars and plain ol’ wild outbursts in this film. You understand exactly the perils which the protagonist must endure, the indignities she has to suffer and the level of cunning needed to ascend. It’s a startlingly good performance by all of the main players and easily a top L & D 2018 pick had it been released sooner. But to go over what works, it focuses on a main protagonist, during a specific time period with well established obstacles and goals. As each scene should have obstacles and goals for the players so should each film for its story.  It’s completely cinematic at every opportunity and lets the audience sympathize with the plight of the protagonist and share in her plots, schemes, victories and defeats. There are moments when the star of this film stares off into thought, but those are moments of gravitas that are not overused and therefore dulled or self-serving. 

I had high hopes for Vice. It starts off strong enough, as we discover the ne’er-do-well Dick Cheney. The man is a simple mess, looking at life through the bottom of a beer bottle. This really sets the story up nicely. However, it goes off the rails, at once blaming Cheney for every ill in society since 1974 and trying to excuse his politics. The side splitting laughter of then secretary of defense Rumsfeld when asked by Cheney, “What do we believe in?” is all you need to know. It’s tough for an audience to get behind a character whose own moral compass blows with the wind. And perhaps to answer why he did what he did in a word would be — power. Because he could. The yin to the yang of Alex Honnold free solo climbing El Cap is Cheney being the puppet master behind the 2003 Iraq war.  

Vice’s meandering is quite unlike On the Basis of Sex, which is a beautiful and elegant movie that surprised me with a succinct narrative. Cinematically told with great period shots of Harvard, Denver and New York City. Focusing on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s days at college, starting out as a professor and eventually arguing a case before a federal appeals court.  It didn’t try to cover all of her cases and therefore the story never gets muddled. It stays specific to one early case, complicated enough to be interesting yet simple enough to be enjoyable. And obviously we follow the one main point of view, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s, as it evolves into the voice of a generation who fight to set a new legal landscape for women in America. 

So power can be represented in many ways. There is no formula for a successful political biopic film. But there are things that work. Letting the audience get to know the characters, their early lives and motivations. Remaining cinematic throughout the film and not getting bogged down in conversations and static shots of one actor on a phone in a small room. Understanding that one event alone does not make a film. Not trying to cover too much historical ground but creating a story around specific defining moments. Establishing a few simple obstacles and goals that the audience can be involved in as the protagonist strives and achieves. Is it easy to make a great film? It’s not easy.  But it’s fair to say that of this most recent slew of biopics only a few filmmakers have been able to surpass this high bar. 

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — Essay

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Thanks to you film fans, including D!, who came out to the Almodóvar Series opener Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the 602 Club here in Appleton, Wisconsin. It was a cool evening paired with another 6 oh 2 event, Noche de Español. We ate well to say the least and even the “despacito” sign wasn’t enough to stop the sangria from spilling. Oh well.

The version of Women on the Verge that I screened was a pristine Criterion Collection copy, a remastered version with wonderful liner notes from Elvira Lindo which I picked up at the equally wonderful Appleton Public Library. They do have a top notch collection that I find difficult to stump, which is saying something. And the APL is also great at digging up more obscure titles for me. Doing research for my little pre-screening spiel I discovered that a lot of early Almodóvar came about from something called La Movida Madrileña. A time after the death of ironclad dictator Francisco Franco’s 40 year rule of dogmatic, machiavellian inspired Roman Catholicism. Franco himself died only in 1975. It shocked me to realize that the rapid societal attitude changes toward individual freedom that have happened in Spain occurred during my lifetime. It made me consider how I take a lot of the freedoms we have here in the West for granted. So what happened in Spain? As I mentioned in my little film intro, people went ballistic with this new found freedom in a kind of non-gendered “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” kind of way. Maybe it’s a similar feeling a first year college student has in the dorms after deciding they are not fit for religious vows of chastity after all—“Sorry mom and dad!…and hey! Stop bogarting the bong!” And it was within this zeitgeist of personal freedom, art, music, fashion and yes filmmaking, La Movida, that the person — the film auteur— we know as Almodóvar was truly born.

We shouldn’t take our freedoms lightly. I don’t necessarily think we do but I think that there is nothing like a threat to shake us from our complacency. One thing I love about film is its ability to illuminate history like this and light us along in our path to being fully human, warts and all and respecting one another. Now if you can do this with bright primary colors, amazingly painted on fake eyelashes and totally barbiturate spiked gazpacho, as in the world of Almodóvar and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, better still.

— The next installment in The 602 Club Almodóvar Series is Saturday January 6th, 2017 at 9:PM, when I’ll screen, All About My Mother. Preceded by a Noche de Español event. Save the date and leave room for tapas.

An L&D Digression: The Mayweather-McGregor Fiasco

I’ll admit it, I’m a boxing fan.

And I will say that I am not looking forward to the Mayweather-McGregor event coming up this evening posing as a boxing match.

Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is possibly the greatest fighter of this past generation, and is certainly the greatest defensive fighter I have ever seen (save, perhaps, Pernell Whitaker).   His phenomenal athletic talent and dedication to training are legendary. Add to that his father’s defensive techniques, including the elusive shoulder roll, and what you have a fighter that is virtually unhittable.  And so McGregor will not hit him. Unless, that is, Mayweather is careless or clowns or gets old overnight, none of which are likely.

What is more likely is that Mayweather picks his spots, lands a lot of straight rights, and skates to a unanimous decision victory.  This is the likely outcome.  It is possible that McGregor will be so poor defensively and so open to shots that Mayweather will pummel him into submission.  Although this seems possible, Mayweather’s last knock out was a victory over Victor Ortiz on what was arguably a cheap shot.  But, McGregor is clearly the rawest and weakest fighter Mayweather has faced in about 15 years, so maybe we’ll catch a break and this will be over early.

At any rate, I don’t know much about McGregor, other than that he is some sort of UFC phenom.  What I do know is that he brought in Paulie Malignaggi, a light-hitting, lighter weight, former “champion”, to spar with him, and the results provide nothing to suggest McGregor possesses any tools to break down Mayweather’s defense or land a “big punch”.   Bringing in Malignaggi as a sparring partner for Mayweather is akin to reading Fun with Dick and Jane as preparation for the National Spelling Bee.

But this fight was never about boxing.  Mayweather has an extraordinary talent for promoting himself, and he saw an opportunity here to exploit McGregor to the tune of $100 million by appealing to the crassest elements of combat sports (and that’s saying a lot). How many PPV snoozers does Mayweather have to be in before people get wise? That people are shelling out $100 for this is almost beyond comprehension, just underscoring how gifted Mayweather really is.

For McGregor’s part, he certainly knows as much as I know, specifically that Mayweather is not a puncher.  So McGregor is evidently willing to take some straight right hands and look like a chump for his $30 million purse, not a bad deal.   And I suppose it’s possible that he’s delusional enough to think he has a chance of overwhelming Mayweather and landing that big white whale of a shot and ending it all.   Who knows what is in the depths of a man’s heart?

Possibly the most interesting part about the fight is what has happened with the gambling lines.  They opened at -2000 or so for Mayweather (that is, bet $2000 to win $100), but so much money came in on McGregor that the line has shifted to -500.   This being boxing, there’s probably a 5% chance or better that Mayweather hurts himself, gets disqualified, or is subject to some heinous decision — prime Roy Jones, Jr. was unbeatable, and he got hosed at the Olympics and was DQed for punching Montell Griffin after knocking him down.  Indeed, I thought that Mayweather could have been DQed against both Ortiz (for the cheap shot) and Zab Judah (when Mayweather’s trainer jumped into the ring).  So a Mayweather loss isn’t out of the question.  My theory on the money is that people are treating a McGregor bet like a lottery ticket — it’s a lot more fun to bet $100 to win $1500 or so than to risk $2000 to win $100.  As a result, so much money has poured in that the Mayweather odds have moved all the way to -500, fire-sale price for sure.  Consequently, the smarter, well-heeled heads have brought some very tall dollars in, sending Vegas into a tizzy.  Hell, I would take -500 in a heartbeat if I had a book handy.  It’s like betting that Steph Curry hits his next free throw.

It might be the case that the fight is the least interesting part about this fight.

The bottom line is that if Mayweather wanted to box the best and prove his all-time greatness, he’d move up to 160 and fight the improbably named middleweight champion, Gennady Golovkin (39-0, 33 KOs).   But, that would entail real risk against s real puncher with a real chance for much less money, so what’s the point of that?  And, honestly, who can blame him?

My advice is to save your money and pay for Golovkin-Alvarez on September 16.   Mayweather easily defeated Alvarez a few years back, and my guess is that Golovkin will go to 40-0 and add another knock out to his resume.  But, at least this will feature a real fight with real fighters in a legitimate boxing match, not the clown show that is McGregor-Mayweather.  I hope you, like me, will keep your money in your pocket and find some other way to pass the time this evening.

 

Collide and John Wick Chapter 2 — Essay

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I am not the intended audience for these films. In fact, they demand a suspension of disbelief that only a child could allow. “Collide” could easily be renamed “Implausible”. Let’s consider human consciousness, it resides in the brain, right? But you can’t quite put your finger on it. It doesn’t reside in one exact part of your brain. You can’t take human consciousness, put in a bottle and then display it in a museum. In fact, human consciousness, like PTSD resides in every part of your body. My friend, the filmmaker Wynn Padula, just released his latest documentary, Resurface, about combat vets who take on surfing as a way to deal with PTSD. It’s an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. Wynn did a Zoom session with the documentary film class I teach and told us about his experiences with the soldiers and how PTSD affects them. No one in Collide or John Wick ever had PTSD. They just get a few scratches, dust themselves off, elude a thousand rounds and keep going.

When Collide gathers together bona-fide actors like Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley to rehash successful performances, when it takes us on high speed chases on the autobahn and includes sexy, sexy, ladies. Well, isn’t that a recipe for success? Or is it, as it turns out, just a recipe for a Frankenstein monster of film. One with no consciousness and no heart. If it was that easy to stick together a hit film, then everyone would do it.

Now if you are going to be over the top with violence, totally blurring the line between first person shooter video game and movie — in a sense creating a first person shooter game where the player can eat pop-corn and never be killed or even wait to spawn again — you should at least have a sense of humor and some humanity about it. When John Wick enters the Continent Hotel after one of his many bloody firefights, he doesn’t even ask the concierge, who is in charge of his beloved dog, how the old fella is. Those seemingly benign moments are perfect opportunities to inject a little comedy, humanity and even sympathy for a protagonist whose exploits make them more and more robotic. And besides, the audience wants to know how the dog is doing! Don’t forget about us. We paid to watch this. Even if it was only $5 and with free pop-corn in the reclining La-Z-Boy red leather loungers of the Valley Grand Marcus Cinema. We. Still. Care.

I watched another film last night. It was at the Wildwood Film Festival here in Appleton, Wisco. The film is called Halfway and stars Quinton Aaron, who you might recall from “The Blind Side”, as an ex-con who ends up living with his extended family on a farm in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin.  Aaron’s portrayal of life on the outside was truly stirring and there were times in the drama when I got chills. Films like “Halfway” are the ones we should be watching and celebrating as a society. If I want to play a video game, or in the case of these films, watch someone else play a video game for me, I will go to gammer convention or head over to D’s house. I know he gets his video game on in the basement.

Finally, I would like to mention that I love action movies and even enjoy violent ones. “Shooter”, “Deadpool” (one of our combined top movies of last year) and even last years’ over the top Hardcore Henry were all films I really got into. And also, this is not a knock on Keanu Reeves who I worked with on a documentary called “Sunset Strip”. He was the nicest, coolest person, sincerely. He will probably start a foundation to help Hawaiian sea life, if he hasn’t already.   It’s just that if a film has no heart, I can’t get into it and it becomes a meaningless series of gore and cinematic mush. I am not the intended audience for these films.