biopic

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.

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.

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.