biopic

REVIEW: Flee (2021)

Animated documentary telling the true story of Amin, who arrived as an unaccompanied minor in Denmark from Afghanistan. Today, at 36, he is a successful academic and there’s talk of marriage between him and his long-time boyfriend. In a series of conversations with a close school friend, Amin finally tells his secrets that he has been hiding for over 20 years.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animated documentary before and I think the two elements really complimented each other. The animation is so good that when there is a little real news footage scattered throughout the film it’s almost jarring, though it does help to drive home certain points or atrocities, giving the real news story to back up Amin’s accounts. What’s really striking about the animation is how the style changes when Amin is deep in a memory or is thinking what could’ve happened. Instead of the colours and neat lines it becomes dark and almost as if it’s in charcoal. These abstract and often faceless images highlighted the fear and darkness Amin and his family faced.

With the music and the animation, Flee manages to be bother beautiful and haunting at the same time. The things Amin saw and went through are more often horrible than not, but there are some moments of fun for him in his childhood, even when things look bleak. The animation and music captures that duality of life incredibly well.

I think Flee is the kind of film that would be a good way to show children what a lot of refugees can go through in the hopes of keeping with their family and being safe. The corruption of the police and greed of the traffickers are clear – at one point it is heavily hinted at that a young woman would be raped by Russian police as she didn’t have any money or valuables for them to take, so they had to make her pay for not having the correct papers somehow.

Flee shows how quickly a person’s life can change. Amin and his family were all normal, living happy lives until things changed in Afghanistan. His father was arrested, never seen again, and eventually he, his mother and older brother and sisters had to flee to Moscow, with the hope of making it to Sweden where another older sibling lived.

Flee is thought-provoking and equally devastating and hopeful. Amin has gone through so much but has managed to make a life for himself, with a man he loves. That’s another aspect of Amin’s life that he struggled with, being gay and from a culture where it was not talked about or even seen to be a thing. 4/5.

REVIEW: Shirley (2020)

Famous American horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) take in young couple Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young).

I don’t know anything about Shirley Jackson and haven’t read any of her books, and to be honest after watching Shirley I don’t think I have much more of an idea about who she was. Shirley is a strange take on a biopic. Instead of being a linear story about Shirley Jackson’s life, it’s more of a character study about how she, and to a lesser extent her husband, affect and manipulate a fictional couple who come into their lives.

There are interesting elements to Shirley, but interesting elements don’t necessarily make a compelling film. There’s a lot of extreme closeups on characters faces, tilted angles and some beautiful cinematography but it’s not enough to make the film memorable. The costumes and set design are also striking, as is the frequently intense score, but it often feels like window dressing on a film with a plot that’s just not interesting.

Elizabeth Moss does crazy and intense very well. Her chemistry with Odessa Young is strong as Shirley Jackson turns Rose into her housekeeper/assistant/muse for her latest novel that she’s trying to power through writer’s block to write. Real life merges with the fantasy of Jackson’s would-be novel as scenes from her book play out on screen, with Young portraying the missing girl in the novel.

The relationships between the four characters are supposedly important to the plot of the film but so many of them are pushed to the side that things happen between certain characters so out of the blue it’s jarring. Lerman’s Fred is absent for a lot of the film and his relationship with Rose suffers as she becomes more enamoured with Shirley Jackson. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is also largely absent but when he does make an appearance, he does have more of an impact. Towards the end of the film Shirley and Stanley’s desires are revealed but because the way the film is put together, where you’re not sure what’s real or what’s fantasy, it’s hard to see the threads that led everything to that conclusion.

Shirley has a powerhouse performance from Elizabeth Moss but the film that surrounds her isn’t as engaging and leaves you feeling a bit confused as to what it was trying to say. 3/5.

REVIEW: 42 (2013)

Over the weekend Chadwick Boseman’s family released a statement saying he had passed away on Friday night from colon cancer – a disease he was diagnosed with in 2016. Personally, this was very upsetting and I couldn’t comprehend what had happened or the fact he’d been living cancer and getting many treatments and surgeries for years while still working, making multiple films including Black Panther and the other films in the MCU he starred in. a couple of months ago I wrote about How the MCU Helped Me Grieve Over the Loss of my Dad, and T’Challa and how he described Wakandans view of the afterlife was one of the big things that helped me.

This weekend I watched the few films from Chadwick Boseman’s filmography that I had yet to see and rewatched my favourite film, and performance, of his from outside the MCU – 42.

42 is a biopic about Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) who was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era after the innovative Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) signed him.

Jackie Robinson was a trailblazer. While there are a lot of sports movies that deal with racism and discrimination as teams have to integrate e.g. Remember the Titans (2000), Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, having previously played for the Montreal Royals in the minor league the year before, and he was alone out there, breaking down barriers while horrendous abuse was hurled at him and he wasn’t allowed to react to it once.

As Harrison Ford’s growly Rickey says to Robinson, if he says something back or retaliates in anyway the blame will be on him. Boseman is great as Robinson. He’s a quietly confident kind of guy and also a genuinely nice person who’s strong and knows what he wants. However, he does such a good job of showing how the abuse gets under his skin but not allowing any of the spectators see it, meaning when he’s finally alone and not in the spotlight, he explodes in rage and anguish.

The whole supporting cast in 42 are good too. A lot of the other Dodgers players get a moment or two to see what Jackie’s dealing with and how they decide whether or not to face up to any of their own unconscious prejudices. Alan Tudyk play an opposing teams’ coach who hurls vitriol at Robinson, and he does it so well that you hate him and feel so much sympathy for Robinson.

There’s a surprising amount of humour in 42, a lot of which comes from the baseball commentator played by John C. McGinley. How he narrates the games is funny as it’s often the quick-witted radio friendly version for what’s really happening, especially when Robinson’s teammates get involved, physically standing up for him when he cannot.

42 follows a lot of the usual sports movie tropes but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, in fact I think it’s one of the best sports dramas around. The baseball sequences are tense and exciting, the characters are compelling – especially as it’s a true story – and the cast are all perfectly suited for their roles.

42 shows Boseman’s talent and poise on screen, and it’s fascinating watching 42 back to back with Get On Up (2014), a film in which Boseman plays larger than life James Brown. These were two iconic and important men in their fields but were vastly different in terms of personality and Boseman plays them both so well. Chadwick Boseman really was a star in his own right and it’s a shame that we won’t get to see him be regal King T’Challa again, or on our screens in general. 5/5.

REVIEW: Misbehaviour (2020)

True story about the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant in London, the women competing and the women who hatch a plan to disrupt it.

Misbehaviour is a feel-good British comedy drama and once you know that, you’ll have a good idea of how things will go but it makes that formula work in a very pleasing way. It’s funny and engaging with a lot of fun characters and it mixes the drama of political tensions with the glamour of a world beauty pageant so well.

Misbehaviour has a wonderful ensemble cast who all give great performances. There’s unfortunately too many to mention here so I’ll just focus on four key women to the story.

Two of the main characters in the Women’s Liberation Movement are Sally (Keira Knightley) and Jo (Jessie Buckley). They both want to bring down the patriarchy, but they come at it from different angles. Sally has a young daughter and is studying at university with the idea that if she has a seat at the metaphorical boys table, she’ll be able to change things there. Jo is more rebellious, graffitiing slogans on walls and is living in a commune with likeminded men and women. It’s interesting to see how the two of them butt heads on their ideas but also learn to listen to one another and work together to make the protest work. Knightley is the queen of period films (no matter the time period) and again it’s clear how good she is, showing her frustration and anger while still keeping it bottled inside as she knows she’d be ridiculed for showing it.

In the pageant the Miss World contestants the story focusses on are Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the first Miss Grenada, and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) the first black South African to take part. For them, Miss World presents the chance for new opportunities for them, but they also have frank discussions about their chances of winning because they’re not white.

There are so many interesting discussions that can come from Misbehaviour. What it means to be a woman, what’s their “role” in society and what opportunities are there for one woman may not be there for another based on their looks or background. The intersectionality of feminism isn’t explored that deeply but there are black women and disabled women in the protest, and Sally and her co-conspirators make it clear that they aren’t against the contestants but the prevalent attitude of judging women just based on their looks. While possibly contrived, there is a moment between Sally and Jennifer where Jennifer gets the chance to explain what winning could do for little girls who look like her around the world, and it brings home that not all women’s experiences are equal.

Misbehaviour is a wonderful snapshot at what women’s rights were like fifty years ago, and how in many ways’ things have changed for the better, but in others there’s still a long way to go. The performances are brilliant with Knightley and Mbatha-Raw being the standouts, the soundtrack is ace and it’s just a really fun, feelgood film about sisterhood. 5/5.

R is for Ray (2004)

Biopic about rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx), from his humble beginnings in the South, where he went blind at age seven, to his rise to stardom during the 1950s and 1960s.

I knew little about Ray Charles before watching this film. In fact, all I knew was the name, I didn’t even know he was blind, and I wasn’t even sure if I knew any of his songs. Turns out I did though because Ray Charles composed and performed so many songs that have transcended time and are so easily recognisable.

Ray follows Ray Charles’s life from his early twenties as he tries to make it in the music business. Along the way he meets a lot of different people, businessmen and musicians, and it’s sad that there were so many people that were willing to try and take advantage of him because he was blind, and therefore in their eyes stupid and defenceless. It soon becomes clear that Charles knows his own mind and will stand up for himself, even if that might hurt people who do care about him. It’s through flashbacks you learn more about Charles’s childhood, how he became blind, and how it was his mother who did what she could to instil a desire in him to not be dependent on anyone.

Jamie Foxx really is the heart and soul of this movie. He gives an incredible performance, full of charm and charisma but also has a steely edge too when needed. After watching Ray, I read how Foxx would have his eyes glued shut each day so he could really immerse himself into the role and put himself in Ray Charles’s shoes.

Foxx has great chemistry with the various women in the film, notably Kerry Washington as Charles’s wife Della Bea Robinson and Regina King as one of his many mistresses, Margie Hendricks, but he also has great chemistry with his band and singers on stage. The scenes where Foxx performs on stage as Ray Charles are magic. They are fun and dynamic, and you can feel the energy from the crowds watching him, it helps that the songs are great too.

While Ray does follow Ray Charles’s rise to stardom, the film ends rather suddenly. There feels like there’s so much more of Ray Charles’s story left to tell but instead it sums it up in a few lines of credits. Obviously, the film had to end sometime, and its runtime was already two and a half hours, but to end so suddenly after a major event in Ray Charles’s life seemed ill timed.

Ray is an engrossing biopic about a complex and interesting man. The music and Foxx’s performance are both fantastic and make Ray compelling viewing. 4/5.

J is for Jarhead (2005)

True story about US marine sniper Anthony Swofford’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) experience in the Gulf War. As he and his unit are stationed in the Persian Gulf for months on end with little chance of seeing any action, he struggles with thoughts that his girlfriend back home is cheating on him and his mental state deteriorates.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a fantastic lead and Swofford is a compelling character that your eyes are drawn to whenever he’s on screen. The moments of intensity when he loses it are as scary as the dead look in his eyes when his superior Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) is reprimanding him. The supporting cast are great too which include Peter Sarsgaard as Swofford’s spotter and Lucas Black as a marine who criticises the politics of the conflict and the often-faulty equipment they are given.

Seeing how Swofford and the others cope, or don’t, with the monotony of waiting in a desert for something to do and how their idea of war is vastly different to the reality, is interesting. Especially as even if you see no or little action, your mind and body are still almost constantly focussed in order to react at any second if needed.

That being said, it’s difficult to figure out what this film is trying to say and who you’re supposed to be sympathising with. So many of the men are eager to kill an unknown enemy and are desperate to see action. It’s a bloodlust that’s uncomfortable to watch but when you see the environment that that attitude is bred in it’s hard to see how anyone wouldn’t go almost feral. The arduous bootcamp, where superior officers belittle, abuse and yell at the soldiers, forces the men to develop thick skin and a whole other way at looking at the world.

It’s understandable that those on the frontline need to be tough and capable, but to the extents that the men are pushed to are debatable. Plus, it’s like those in charge whose rhetoric is treated as gospel don’t learn that their actions have consequences, and superior officers are almost surprised when their men act out due to boredom or depravity.

No soldier deserves the abuse they receive by their superior officers or their fellow soldiers. And there’s no denying the effects of war, whether they see action or not, can be incredibly mentally taxing. However, are these all good men who are mistreated or lied to by the system they joined up to? Or do some of them use their training and perceived superiority in order to act however they wish? Perhaps in some cases it’s both, and maybe it’s a good thing that Jarhead leaves that decision up to the viewer.

Jarhead is a well-shot film with good performances. It can be tense and unsettling and the way it gives an unflinching look at a soldier’s life during war can make you take a long, hard look at the military system as a whole. 3/5.

B is for Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

A young man named Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) navigates love, life, and being transgender in rural Nebraska in the early 90s.

I feel I should mention a lot of content warnings for Boys Don’t Cry. It contains transphobia, homophobia, rape, violence, deadnaming, transphobic violence, misgendering, murder, references to transition/surgery/hormones – and I’m probably forgetting some things. In short, Boys Don’t Cry is very tough to watch and it’s probably, unfortunately, a testament to the time it was made in terms of how it treats its trans main character, even when it tries to frame things to show the film is on Brandon’s side.

Hilary Swank gives an incredible performance. It’s perfectly measured as someone who is confident in who they are but don’t always have the safety and security to do so. Brandon is flirty and charming, if a little awkward at times and it’s easy to see why Lana (Chloë Sevigny) could become enamoured with him. All the other men in her life are fighters, and macho men stereotypes, Brandon is kinder and listens to her more than people like her mother (Jeannetta Arnette) and her friend John (Peter Sarsgaard) do. Brandon and Lana’s relationship is sweet and loving and Lana cares deeply about Brandon, no matter what other people think of him.

There’s almost a dreamlike quality to Boys Don’t Cry at times. Like when Brandon is racing down the highway or looking across the open plains of Nebraska. It’s down to the score and the way these things are shot to feel at once distant and immediate, like Brandon can escape and be free at any moment.

Boys Don’t Cry is an unflinching look of what life can be like for a trans man in a place where bigotry and ignorance run rife. It’s an upsetting and harrowing film and while things like the terminology and (hopefully) attitudes have changed, it’s a film that can make those who are unaware of the struggles trans people can face, see things from a new perspective. 4/5.

A is for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who’s idolised Jesse James (Brad Pitt) since childhood, tries hard to join the reforming gang of the Missouri outlaw, but gradually becomes resentful of the bandit leader.

The way this film unfolds is interesting. It’s narrated by Hugh Ross and with his dulcet tones and the way this film is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, it almost feels unreal. Like this tale of the legendary outlaw is a myth or legend and even as you get to know more of the man, everyone’s reactions to him and the aura he has makes him seem like he’s more than just a man.

The cinematography in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford really is gorgeous. Couple it with a score that’s often haunting, it makes the wide-open plains of the Midwest beautiful and lonely.

The cast is great, with the likes of Jeremy Renner and Sam Rockwell give strong performances throughout. However, naturally there are few female characters here, but Mary-Louise Parker does what she can with what she’s given as James’ wife. Casey Affleck plays the many sides to Robert Ford very well. The jealousy, the bitterness, the idealisation, the nativity – he’s unsettling to watch due to his obsession with James and by the end of it, you find you may have more sympathy for him than a lot of the people who surround him do. Affleck is great but it’s Brad Pitt who is truly mesmerising. He is fantastic as Jesse James. There’s an underlying tension nearly every time he’s on screen due to his intensity that’s simmering beneath a calm exterior. It’s because James is so smart and paranoid that even when characters don’t have something to hide, they act as if they do.

While there are gunfights and a train robbery, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is more of a slow character study of the two titular roles. That means it can be a bit hard to get into to begin with, but it’s well worth sticking with it and fully immersing yourself into this snapshot in time.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a slow but thoughtful take on a legendary outlaw and the man who killed him. 4/5.

REVIEW: Dark Waters (2019)

Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defence attorney, takes on an environmental lawsuit against the chemical company DuPont that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.

Dark Waters is based on a true story and that makes this film and what the characters go through, all the more amazing and terrifying.

Rob Bilott is contacted by a farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows keep dying, leading him to believe there’s something in the water from a chemical company who has a landfill nearby. This is where Bilott’s investigation starts but over time it becomes clear that it is just one part of a decade’s long conspiracy. It’s like he falls down a rabbit hole and each piece of information he uncovers is as shocking as the last, especially the lengths to which the company goes to to cover things up, and how deadly their practices are.

Something that Dark Waters does well is show how much time and effort it takes to put together this case and get justice for those affected by the pollution. Bilott’s quest for justice takes up years of his life and the scenes of him going through hundreds of boxes of documents is just as gripping as when he’s in court or trying to convince his boss that they should continue with the lawsuit. Dark Waters is also the epitome of one of my favourite things (is it a trope? I don’t think so) in films – competent people being good at their jobs. It’s Bilott’s resilience and ability to think outside the box that allows him to make so much headway even when everything is stacked against him.

All the performances are great here and many of the actors have at least one inspiring or impressive speech. Ruffalo is brilliant as a man who puts everything on the line, including his career and his homelife, to do the right thing, and continuing to fight even when this huge corporation with all their money and power throws so many hurdles in his way to try and stop him. While Dark Waters is definitely Ruffalo’s movie, the supporting cast are all terrific to. Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman deserve a mention but it’s Anne Hathaway that stood out in the supporting cast. She plays Rob Bilott’s wife and while naturally she has a smaller role, it is still an important one. These court cases and the investigation takes up Rob’s life for years, and it’s important to see how this affects his family, and while his wife is understanding of why he has to do this, she is the one keeping everything together.

It’s easy to compare Dark Waters to the likes of Spotlight and Erin Brockovich; Spotlight for Ruffalo and the investigative aspect and Erin Brockovich for the one person fighting against the big corporation. Dark Waters is easily as good as those two films, but it also stands on its own merits. It’s an engaging investigative movie where unfortunately you’re left feeling equal parts stunned and unsurprised that corporate corruption and greed can be so powerful.

It’s a film that needs to be seen, because the products that this company makes are just everyday things that are in everyone’s homes, and I for one was unaware of what the chemicals they produced could do, and how prevalent they are. 5/5.

REVIEW: Le Mans ‘66 (2019)

When American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is tasked with designing and building a Ford that will beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he and his team including driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), have to battle corporate interference and the laws of physics to win.

There’s nothing overly surprising about Le Mans ’66, even if you know nothing about the titular race or the people involved, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining film.

Le Mans ’66 is an underdog story. In the broader sense Ford is the underdog to Ferrari’s powerhouse as they attempt to put the Ford name on the racing map and make a lot of money while doing it. But then there’s Miles, Shelby and his team. They are the underdogs to the men in suits at Ford. Shelby and Miles know how to make a car go fast and they know no matter how fast the car is, you need the best driver to drive it. That’s Miles but as he does not get on with 95% of the people he meets, Shelby must fight for him to be able to race in the car they’ve built together.

It’s a lot of fun seeing Shelby verbally – and sometimes physically – spar with the paper pushers at Ford. His main foe is racing director Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who wants everything done in his way, no matter how little he may know about what it takes to make and race a car. While there’re many obstacles put in his way, Shelby does find an unlikely ally in marketing guru Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal).

The racing sequences are thrilling. Quick cuts between long shots and extreme closeups adds to the intensity of the races and you never feel lost or isolated. Instead, you’re right next to Miles in the car as he weaves in between his opponents and races towards the finish line.

The scenes where Shelby and his team test and break and rebuild Ford’s cars are a lot of fun as they highlight the differences between Shelby’s approach to making cars and the executives at Ford’s approach. These scenes are also little snapshots into Shelby and Miles’s friendship and the way Damon and Bale bounce off one another is very entertaining to watch.

Le Mans ‘66 follows the usual beats for a true sporting story, but with a talented cast and solid and entertaining performances from Bale and Damon, Le Mans ’66 is an enjoyable and often exciting film. 4/5.