Archive for the ‘BioDrama’ Category

American Made

11 Oct

American Made – directed by Doug Liman. Biopicish. 115 minutes Color 2017.


The Story: A bored TWA pilot seeking loot and thrills in a CIA overthrow of a Central American country, finds himself up to his elbows in drugs, guns, and peril.
What makes the American Made protagonist, Barry Seals — a real-life gun-runner for the CIA — worth watching is partly the unlikelihood of his adventure and partly the narrative trick of Seals’ video-taping himself introducing each episode of it. But mainly the playing of Tom Cruise.

You watch and you wonder: how could anyone be so reckless as Barry Seals? And the answer is before you every instant. For Cruise makes Seals a man with absolutely no foresight, no ability to plan ahead, a man whose grasp of outcomes is wholly retarded. A character both brilliant and dim. It’s an astute choice.

This make Seals’ video-taping his adventures all the more touching, since, while the tapes might be used as evidence against his enemies, they would be impotent if Seals were dead. You can see this imprudence in Cruise’s slight accent and in his eyes, as he leaps towards and finesses all the pots of gold and the derring-do.

For what makes Cruise doubly watchable is that Seals is a king-of-the-mountain at what he does as a buccaneer drug and gun runner. No one does it better. And no one does such parts better than Tom Cruise.

In his first film, Taps, Tom Cruise was an unbilled extra on a close-order drill team. One of the leads had to leave the shoot. Cruise had played his drill-team cadet with such intention, practice, and concentration, they said, let’s try him. So Cruise got to play one of the leads, a fixated sharpshooter. Cadet or killer – the same devotion to the craft of acting and to the craft of the character.

A star was born. And rightly so.

For there is no actor on the screen today who enjoys acting more than Tom Cruise clearly does. The passion of professionalism he brings to his craft is the same signal quality of the expertise of the professionals he so brilliantly plays. A pool shark, a sports agent, a motivational speaker, a war activist, a super-detective, a Wall Street hotshot, a Courts Martial lawyer, a race car driver, a senator, a boxer. In each of these roles, the narrative depends on the character’s high professionalism. Each character does his work brilliantly, devotedly, obsessively.

Thus we see how an actor may use a single strand of his own nature to make a career.

For, despite his looks, we do not think of Tom Cruise as playing a husband, a family man, a great lover. His films do not generally show him in such roles. And the authenticity of American Made, although it includes such elements, does not depend upon them as narrative motives, but rather on the character’s dedication to and focused on the work at hand. As a businessman. Cruise’s Seals is a fool, as a husband cursory, and he is not quite sure how many children he has. But as a renegade pilot, he’s a whiz.

Cruise at 55 is the perfect age to play Seals at around 43, because, in order to stay an A-list actor, Cruise kept his figure – and his face, although a little beefy, sure looks the part in EXCU. Cruise has done his job as a star. And so Tom Cruise is the perfect producer of Tom Cruise pictures, which are pictures with great big fat parts for him. For they are vehicles for an actor who loves to act, and for us who love to see someone who does.

I don’t see all Tom Cruise pictures, for the subjects of them all may not draw me. And I have seen some that did not satisfy me. But in every one I have seen, he has given full value. And that’s because, at an early age, he fell in love with the work, and never fell out of it.

I wonder what will become of him as he enters his retirement years.

When you see him in as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder play a gut-fallen, cigar-chomping, bald, fat-fingered, Hollywood producer do a victory dance, it is evident that he has a natural gift for low comedy of character.

When you see him with Conan drive around London and you watch his responses and you see they are perfect let’s–go-with-it-improv-responses – having nothing to do with low comedy, but with the ability to arrange himself to open and exploit a comic situation which his doing these things brings into being – you see that he might perform tuxedo comedy, ala Cary Grant.

When you see him in the locker room scene desperately convince Cuba Gooding of something which Gooding can only end up laughing in his face about, you see that he is willing to make a jackass of himself, which is the necessary faculty the actor in comedy must arrive on the scene with pre-installed.

The failure of Hollywood to make mature comedy nowadays might mean that the talent to write them is atrophied. And all film depends on the writing. But wouldn’t it be entertaining to watch Cruise play out his career doing comedy? What would it be like if he had a partner, like Stan Laurel? Or doing character work, like this?

Behind the handsome/cute guy lies an actor of talent. Not all talents. But enough to keep me interested about what might come next.

Tom Cruise is American-made. Take him in. Let him take you in.

What’s coming next is, in fact, here right now: American Made. Catch it.

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20 Jan

Neruda – directed by Pablo Lorain. Biopic. 107 minutes Color 2017


The Story: A poet/politician balks authority and, because his poems are so loved and recited by the people, a bounty is put on his head and he must evade capture by the stupid detective set to accomplish it.


It is a chase film, 90% of which takes place indoors.

The riches of this arise from our expectations of a chase film being defied by what satisfies them even more.

A bouquet of relationships is slowly unveiled by the film, as each character reveals himself to be the immortal creation of the other. The detective, for instance, whom the poet Neruda has brought into necessary life, has already given himself a name and an ancestry. So each individual is also a creation of himself.

This is not some South American mental toy, but a dramatic force, and the structural principal of this film which consists in repeatedly surprising us.

Surprise is several things but it is seldom satisfying. But here surprise is. Who is the hero? The celebrity poet or the measly detective?

Both actors, Luis Gnecco and Gael Garcia Bernal give slants and lights to a script of charm and originality. They are supported by two great female performances in that of the wife, Mercedes Morán, who understands Neruda thoroughly and blames him for nothing. And by the radiant work of a transvestite entertainer in a bordello, whose defense of Neruda to the police makes everything about the popularity of his work simple, stirring, and plain.

If the film is near you and you happen to know any grown-ups, be swift to buy a ticket, for where I go, Friday and Saturday were sold out.

This is a good one not to miss. You already know to see Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea. Listing this next to them makes it authentic.


Florence Foster Jenkins

15 Aug

Florence Foster Jenkins – directed by Stephen Frears. Biopic. 110 minutes Color 2016


The Story: A New York Socialite devoted to classical music brings her collapsed singing to Carnegie Hall.


New York never looked like that then. I was alive in the 1940s and lived there. So the first falsity is in the costumes of the extras, the cars, the buildings, all of which are CGI and show it. Carnegie Hall and the other public interiors ring no truer than Lady Florence’s soprano. Is this treatment in conflict with or is it in support of the false basis of her talent in the ears of Francis Foster Jenkins herself? For the real question is, how come didn’t she know?

We never go deeply into it. And with Meryl Streep before us in the role, we could. The honest things about the piece are that Meryl Streep does her own singing and Simon Helberg does his own piano playing as her accompanist Cosmé McMoony. Otherwise all we get is the story of a flimsy delusion.

We do get that Francis Foster Jenkins was devoted to musical performance her whole life, and sacrificed a great fortune to pursue it when, as an 18 year old, her father refused to send her to conservatory and disinherited her when she left home and taught piano to continue.

The important element missing is that Francis Foster Jenkins actually made a recording of her voice – and she must have listened to it – and she must have known she was off pitch. So there is a disparity between her appreciation of Lily Pons in the ‘40s and Jenkins being knocked out by Pons’ singing. If we know Jenkins heard Pons, how come she couldn’t she hear herself?

Her vocal irregularities may have been a derangement brought on by tertiary syphilis. In which case we might sympathize with her as a human more deeply than we do, despite Streep’s success in making her a generous, charming and appealing individual, which in real life she may have been.

So one doesn’t know what to think of this film. It is certainly not the depiction of an egomaniac. Nor is it the depiction of someone whose God-given calling was to be a musical performer, although that was her God-given calling.

Hugh Grant plays her “husband” – actually her manager – one of several who fed her with flattery in exchange for the contents of her purse. He plays it well and is well cast, but it is a thankless role as written, because we never get a chance to explore him, except as a hardworking gigolo.

All this means that Streep is left with a narrow range in which to operate and operize. Still worth seeing, of course, more for Streep than Jenkins. And we humans should not deny ourselves. For, if Jenkins had done so, wherever would we be?

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The Man Who Understood Infinity

15 May

The Man Who Understood Infinity – directed by Matthew Brown. BioPic. 1 hour 48 minutes Color 2016


The Story: A mathematical genius from India is almost beaten to death by the math department of Cambridge University.


In the old MGM days biopics spelled out their story with great big letters, A B C. Their plots required neither understanding, thought, or interpretation. Only acceptance. We were supposed to swallow their regimen whole. We were supposed to digest their formula by rote, since that is how they were written and since no other option was available, save, in the end, skepticism that whoever made this film maybe didn’t get their facts straight.

The writing of such biopics prohibits those scenes of conflict known as drama. What they offer instead is tableaux. That is their narrative method. In these tableaux actors must paralyze their power to act in order to mime as best they can what is constant brass. For the emotion of these stories does not depend upon actions, actors, or even characters. In tableaux there is no emotion. Or whatever emotion the music can eke out of us. There is only the rigid formality of responsible biographical information. They are about big names and require great stars to stand there and just do them.

Such biopics constitute an actual form. Many biopics follow it. The pauper-genius makes his way into the chambers of power and is met with scorn, ridicule, banishment, deadening doubt, and so forth. But someone allies himself with him, and, against all obstacles, he wins out in the end. It is a victory scathed by bitterness because of the price required to achieve it, which sometimes almost includes his mate.

This form is called the story of the underdog. And two actors of great grace and fluidity, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, constrain their imaginations to fit into the corset of the form in this one.

Deadening doubt is what Irons is allowed to play against Patel’s Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young impoverished nonentity who arrives from Madras at Cambridge where Irons’ Harold Hardy is a don in higher mathematics. Hardy has invited him there from India. Ramanujan is a completely untrained, unschooled conceptual genius. His mathematical formulas envision the answers to problems no one has ever solved.

Ramanujan is thrown to the snobs.  Hardy demands proofs of Ramanujan’s routes to the formulas. Ramanujan resists. Toby Jones stands by. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell gives droll advice. And Ramanujan’s luscious wife has to stay in India thinking herself forgotten because her mother-in-law never delivers Ramanujan’s letters to her.

Audiences are biddable. They paid their ticket; they don’t stalk out.

Because there are other benefits here besides dramatic or narrative ones.

One of these is the setting of Cambridge in the midlands and the quad and rooms of Trinity College.

Another is the presence of these two actors who are so vivid by nature.

Irons is not here in his virtuoso mode. He plays a character hoping to save himself from the peril of disgrace by forcing his doubt on a perfect flower. That, to Hardy, mathematics itself is a poppy makes doubt grate on his wonder.

Dev Patel – he of the Slumdog Millionaire, he of the Marigold Hotels – grips one, as he always does, by the honest vitality of his being. Nothing about this actor is forced, which is a wonderful thing to see in a human. So we sit in our seats and allow the ceremony of the plot to take place before us as it has so often done before.

Dev Patel’s existence as an international star makes this story possible. Ramanujan was a great man. But who would have heard of him had not Patel been alive just now?

It’s wonderful to hear about Ramanujan. To see his name for the first time.

To see Patel fortuitously frame and make his name a name. To type it out here, over and over as someone who is now never lost.






05 Dec

Trumbo – directed by Jay Roach. Biopic. 123 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: US Congress & Hollywood-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo undergoes hard adventures surviving it.


Bryan Cranston, an actor I have never heard of before, seizes the role of the principled black-listed screen writer in his teeth and never lets go – which fits the part down to the ground. For Trumbo, whatever his gifts may have been, must be considered as more than a perdurable survivalist and more than just someone who couldn’t stop writing screenplays. He stood by his guns, even when they seem to have been pointing at himself.

It’s Oscar time, and so we get various heroic biopics, from which we are to choose a best actor. Mind you, we are not picking someone from a best drama. For, really, you know, civics lessons may be dramas of a sort but they are not dramas of the most victorious sort.

But they sure can be informative and a lot of fun. Such as when John Goodman, a producer, hires Trumbo to churn out scripts for his B-minus movies, and Trumbo ropes in his other out-of-work screenwriters to supply the deficiency. Or such as when Kirk Douglas, an opportunist of the first water, outstrips Otto Preminger in being first in giving Trumbo screen credit after Trumbo’s years of being blacklisted. And, yes, Preminger actually did say that: when Trumbo retorted, to Preminger’s complaint that every scene of Trumbo’s screenplay for Exodus must be brilliant, that, if every scene were brilliant, the story would be monotonous, Preminger actually did say: “Make them all brilliant, and I will direct unevenly.”

Trumbo’s writing by his own admission tended to the verbose and sentimental, and Cranston by his very being perhaps captures this. His is an extravagant face. It is a true actor’s face, full of moment and potential humor. It is not given to small expression but expression writ large. And this counts for everything, because it is not the face of a Hollywood hero, not the face of someone who is immune from slings and arrows.

Of course, in Hollywood all writer are outsiders, so it is as well that he does not look like Gregory Peck, but like someone who would definitely not be in a movie. Moreover, he is the only actor I have ever seen playing one whom I believed actually was a writer. The scrip enforces this by making him churn out his stuff by the truckload.

The story is well told, and Trumbo certainly had formidable opposition: The FBI, The Hollywood Producers, and most powerful of all, Hedda Hopper, whom Helen Mirren brings to millinery life for us.

The issue of naming names before a Congressional hearing is still moot. The real issue is, not whether the witnesses were or were not un-American, but whether Congress was. By which I mean un-Constitutional. Trumbo puts us in thought about it all.

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Posted in BioDrama, Diane Ladd, Helen Mirren: acting goddess, John Goodman


Big Eyes

27 Dec

Big Eyes – written and directed by Tim Burton. BioDrama. 105 minutes Color 2014

The Story: A painter marries a man who claims all her paintings are by himself.


A lousy director is made worse when he writes his own movie. For he is hardly in a position to proclaim in a voice loud and clear that such and such is missing and such and such ought to be. I don’t come to this movie claiming that Tim Burton is a lousy director, but only that his aesthetic is low. Low, suggesting that it might be perfect for a treatment of the provenance of the Keane paintings.

Vulgarity, particularly Hollywood vulgarity, can have great energy and zest. Or vulgarity can be empty. Or, even worse, it can borrow an energy from a source not proper to its subject. The expression of energy not belonging to the subject is called sentimentality. Thus the Keane big eyes into which has been injected, like heroin, the lure of an unearned pathos. It is a pathos striking on first sight. On second sight it is repulsive.

However, in me, Big Eyes, the film, produces not revulsion but inertia. On the one hand the film is a BioDrama, probably the most fragile of all film genres, particularly when so much of the subject is known that imagination of execution can take no hold. In art facts kill all.

On the other, we are also witnessing people who are not fighting over the provenance of a Rubens, but schlock. This is not Monument Men. One cannot mourn here for the unkindly orphanage of masterpieces. The child whose custody the parents battle is already dead. The person who painted the Bi Eyes is a pick-pocket of our pathos. The pathos doesn’t belong to her any more than the color of her peroxide hair does.

Finally, the part of Margaret is underwritten and mis-played by Amy Adams. She chooses to play Margaret Keane as mealy-mouthed and nothing else. It won’t do. There was a passion in Margaret Keane which is intense, constant, and ruthless, and we never see it. Oh, we see it well enough as regards her daughter, whom she rescues twice from husbands worse than death. But Margaret Keane was also a passionate painter and she was also a passionate promoter of her painting. These are kept hidden by the writer-director. We never see her own big eyes as she makes the paintings. And we never see her gather her forces to hawk them. Instead, the part exists only in relation to her husband who was so bent on the fantasy of being an artist that he claimed he himself had painted her pictures. Adams plays it as a milksop to him. We never see her calculation and inner collusion in this. Her greed, her cunning. She was a peroxide blonde, right down to her marrow.

The real story of the Keane paintings is a story of two great selfishnesses, two great passions in conflict – that is the story that is not on screen. We see Walter Keane’s passion but never Margaret’s. It’s not in the writing, it’s not in the direction, it’s not in the playing of Adams. We almost think it might be there because of the playing of Christoph Waltz, who seizes the part of Walter in his jaws and shakes it fit to kill. He displays the fanatical charm and belligerent drive of the pitchman. He gives us a smile that would fell an ox. He consumes the screen. His attack on the role is Lisztian. He is at concert pitch. The film is his.

Although – does it really seem  necessary to launch Godzilla to trounce Casper Milquetoast, a brontosaurus a bug? Two pick-pockets, each trying to o’er-balance the other? Each meager?

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Posted in Amy Adams, BioDrama, Christoph Waltz, Terrence Stamp

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