biopic

REVIEW: Rocketman (2019)

A musical biopic about Elton John’s (portrayed here by Taron Egerton) life as he makes a name for himself in the world of music.

Rocketman is a fantastical, over the top musical and it totally works as a way to tell the story of Elton John’s life. Given the time span of the film, there’s certain events that are no doubt abbreviated or missed out completely, but you do get to experience the rise and fall, and rise again of Elton John’s career, relationships and life. Rocketman hits all the usual biopic clichés but it’s easy to forgive it for that as it hits them with the full force John’s discography and a magical take on this man’s life.

Taron Egerton is brilliant as Elton John. He captures the many facets of John’s personality wonderfully, the anger, the love, the despair and the joy, it’s all there to see. Egerton’s minute facial expressions show the conflicting emotions as his relationships become strained as he goes into a downward spiral of drink, drugs and sex. His singing is great too, with echoes of John’s distinctive voice while never imitating it.

Jamie Bell and Richard Madden also deserve recognition for their work here. Bell plays John’s long-time song writing partner Bernie Taupin and he is full of charisma as he and Egerton have such chemistry that even though their relationship is purely platonic (and seeing two men openly say they love one another in a mainstream film is great) you can feel the love and respect they have for one another. Madden portrays John Reid, Elton John’s manager and boyfriend, and he’s perfectly charming yet calculating.

Rocketman is joyful and fun though it never shies away from the darker side of Elton John’s life. The dialogue can be cheesy but with the full-on musical numbers, outrageous costumes and brilliant performances make Rocketman a fantastically weird yet wonderful experience. Rocketman manages to juggle and unite all its contradictions, it’s silly yet serious, earnest yet outrageous but overall it is really quite wonderful. 5/5.

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REVIEW: Woman Walks Ahead (2017)

Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a painter from 1980s New York, travels to Dakota to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and becomes invested in the Lakota peoples’ struggle to keep their land.

The direction and script hit all the usual biopic buttons but it’s the relationship between and performances from the two leads that really stands out in Woman Walks Ahead. Jessica Chastain is brilliant as Catherine Weldon, she’s a determined woman but she also has her fears and makes mistakes as she attempts to learn about the Lakota people. Michael Greyeyes’s is steely and calm as Sitting Bull but there’s also a wit to him. There’s a surprising amount of amusing moments between Sitting Bull and Weldon as they get to know one another. Their relationship is one of deep friendship, but there’s also those hints of something more, if life was kinder.

The wide-open spaces of Dakota’s plains and the ever-changing sky is both harsh and beautiful. It’s a fitting setting for this story as Catherine see’s the beauty in things that most people would not, and the story of the Lakota people’s struggles is one that’s deeply tragic and the film never shies away from the atrocities committed.

As the focus is so much on Weldon and Sitting Bull, the military personnel who are all the villains of the piece, are largely cardboard cut-outs of characters. Though Sam Rockwell’s Colonel Silas Groves is an intriguing character, the reveals about his backstory comes too late to have a lasting impact. Groves and the other military men are deeply racist and when the film attempts to show Groves in a better light, it ultimately falls flat.

Woman Walks Ahead is based on a true story about an unlikely and touching friendship. The performances and cinematography are both beautiful and often haunting, but unfortunately they don’t quite elevate this film to greatness. 3/5.

REVIEW: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

When author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) falls on hard times as her books aren’t selling, she turns to forging letters from famous dead authors, poets and playwrights in order to make a living.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a witty and entertaining heist film that has a lot more going on than one might think. While it’s certainly a small-scale heist film, behind the crime Lee is committing, is a story of loneliness. Lee is grouchy and often nasty, and she much prefers to spend time with her cat than with people. Her reclusive and curt nature doesn’t make her popular with her agent (a brilliantly scathing Jane Curtin) nor make her well-known enough to have people want to buy her books.

Melissa McCarthy gives a great performance in a more serious role. Her sensitive take on Lee’s hostilities makes her more than an unlikeable cat lady, instead being someone who has layers and is afraid of getting hurt. Richard E. Grant almost steals the show though as street smart charmer Jack Hock. He helps Lee fence her forgeries and his friendship comes along when she needs it the most. Their chemistry is wonderful as both Jack and Lee were gay, they appear to have a unique understanding of one another. In many ways they are complete opposites but for the most part they work together, their interactions are certainly very funny.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a darkly witty little crime film. The script and direction make you like an unlikable character from almost the very beginning and the performances are brilliant. 4/5.

REVIEW: Stan & Ollie (2018)

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) attempt to reignite their film career as they embark on a gruelling theatre tour of post-war Britain.

Stan & Ollie opens with a four or five-minute-long tracking shot of Laurel and Hardy as they make their way through a film studio, passing cowboys, Roman soldiers and crew members, as they discuss their marital situations and their next move career-wise. This was a great way to introduce these two men and show off how films were made, and the stars were controlled in the Classical Hollywood era.

Soon after that though it’s 1957 and Laurel and Hardy aren’t as young or as famous as they used to be. Coogan and Reilly both do a great job in their roles. They’re clearly having a lot of fun with the slapstick sketches, which are fun to watch too, but they both are well-suited to the more dramatic and emotional moments too. There’s a lot of history between the Laurel and Hardy we follow here, but there’s a deep friendship too. Great performances and cracking chemistry make them a compelling duo.

The supporting cast are great too and the whole film is almost stolen by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson, playing Ida and Lucille, Laurel and Hardy’s wives respectively. The majority of the laughs come from these two. Their interactions with each other are often scathing and witty, while their interactions with their husbands are equal parts caring and amusing.

Stan & Ollie is lovely and charming. As someone who knew little to nothing about Laurel and Hardy before seeing this film, I found it accessible, engaging and fun. It’s not exactly ground-breaking in terms of what a biopic can be, but the performances make this film more than worth the price of admission. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Tale (2018)

After her mother (Ellen Burstyn) discovers a story she wrote when she was thirteen, Jennifer (Laura Dern) tries to re-examine her first sexual relationship, the people involved and what truly happened that summer.

The Tale is based on writer and director Jennifer Fox’s own experiences and based on the story she wrote as the teenager. This makes this story all the more compelling and heartbreaking as it’s a sexual abuse survivor, telling her story in her own words as she tries to come to terms with what happened to her.

This is not just a story about abuse, but a story about memory. Jennifer can remember her riding teacher Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and her coach Bill (Jason Ritter) so vividly but has difficulty picturing herself in those memories and remembering how she felt and what she knew. As she reconnects with people who spent the summer with her at the riding school, Jennifer begins to realise that some of her memories don’t match up with other people’s recollections.

The Tale is told with two narratives running parallel to one another; Jennifer as an adult, suddenly having to confront her past, and Jenny as a child (Isabelle Nélisse) living the experiences Jennifer is now recalling. Both Nélisse and Dern give powerful performances. Nélisse is brilliant as she slowly becomes less naïve about the world but still believing that what she’s experiencing is a relationship and that Mrs. G and Bill really love her. Dern is phenomenal as she perfectly captures the anguish as she revisits her past and now she’s older she can start to put into context what she experienced. The scenes where young and present-day Jennifer are in the same space helps show the haziness of memory as between the two of these points of view they try to find the truth of what happened.

The Tale handles the sensitive subject matter with grace and care. It’s a tough film to watch as it doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable and sexual content. However, it’s powerful to see an independent and strong-willed woman reassess the trauma she experienced and decide what to do with that information. 5/5.

REVIEW: Denial (2016)

Acclaimed historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) must battle to prove the historical truth of the Holocaust when renowned denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) sues her for libel.

Denial is an engaging courtroom drama that respects the history it is debating. While it gives Irving the space to put across his views, it never says those views are right or fair. The film frames Lipstadt and her team of lawyers as the speakers of truth and rightly so.

The scenes set at Auschwitz concentration camp are very respectable. The actors’ reactions to the environment they’re in is visceral and nothing is over-played in these scenes. The shorts of the hundreds and thousands of suitcases and other belongings of the Jews who were there is haunting, and the film doesn’t flinch away from the cold, harsh truth of the place and its history.

The courtroom scenes are tense as Irving and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), Lipstadt’s lawyer, verbally spar over points of racism, anti-Semitism and what is fact and fiction. It’s touching how this case becomes so much to all of the defence team, Rampton can be blunt in his questions when investigation Auschwitz but it’s only so he can be best prepared.

There’s a few scenes between Lipstadt and a holocaust survivor (Harriet Walter) that are touching but almost feel like they are there to hammer home the point of getting some form of justice or closure for the victims and survivors, when it’s not really needed thanks to Weisz’s performance. Lipstadt is a Jew and that emotional connection can be found through her, and she acts as a voice for those who suffered.

Denial is a gripping true story. It’s a tough watch at times but great performances by all involved makes you root for those fighting for the truth in a very clever and complicated way, while Spall plays a man who you can’t quite believe is a real person, who apparently truly believed what he did. 4/5.

REVIEW: Molly’s Game (2017)

The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a self-made woman who ran the most exclusive high-stakes poker games in America, attended by film stars, musicians, businessmen, and unbeknownst to her, the mob, and the subsequent court case when she becomes an FBI target.

Molly’s Game is a fast-paced film, with rapid quick-cut editing and a voiceover from Bloom throughout. This voiceover adds details such as she was thinking and, when it comes to the poker games, explains some of the slang terms for hands and cards. While the film does offer these moments of explanation, there’s a lot to take in and it might have been easier to follow, and perhaps that bit more enjoyable, if you have more of an understanding of poker. It’s still an engaging film though, there’s just a lot of information being giving to you almost constantly through the voiceover.

The script is razor sharp, which is unsurprising really as it’s penned by Aaron Sorkin (writer of The West Wing, The Social Network and many other shows and films). The dialogue is funny and lively, and the scenes jump between the present and Bloom’s court room battle, and her rise and fall in the world of poker.

Jessica Chastain gives another stellar performance here. She’s commands every scene she’s in and outshines just about any other actor she’s on screen with. Idris Elba plays Charlie Jaffey, Bloom’s lawyer, and their verbal sparring matches as they slowly begin to understand one another are electric.

Molly’s Game is an entertaining film, albeit perhaps a bit overlong, with great performances, some laughs and high-drama. 4/5.