Archive for the ‘Biopic’ Category

W.

Friday, October 24th, 2008

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The most surprising aspect about Oliver Stone’s new biopic about our controversial current president (that is other than Josh Brolin’s starling, brilliant lead performance; more on that later) is how, well, even-handed it is. Considering that Stone is pretty well known for how he feels about Bush, I was surprised at how the film didn’t paint him as a tyrant or a mad man, but then again, it doesn’t paint him as a hero or a political genius either.

I think the film paints Bush as a well-meaning kind of guy who wasn’t really sure what to do with his life, and ended up as the leader of the free world. Stone paints Dubya as a man whose key decisions in life seem to be made by other people (his father, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove), not that Dubya seems to mind this too much. In one key scene, Bush mentions that a plan seems to have “a lot of words.” George W. is a man of action, not of logic and thought.

That he was a man ready to go to war there is little doubt, though the film does question whether we went after the right people. The voice of reason/sanity in the Bush Administration is provided by Colin Powell (played with class and strength by Jeffrey Wright, that chameleon of an actor). Condoleeza Rice (eerily portrayed by Thandie Newton) and Paul Wolfowitz (portrayed by Dennis Boutsikaris, you know, the psychiatrist from The Dream Team) are viewed as Dubya’s Yes Men, while Ol’ Rummy (played by Scott Glenn with a mix of all smiles and aw-shucks, and a dash of menace) moans about how they used to do it “old school,” and regrets new rules and protocol.

Of course, most of Bush’s policies, doctrines, strategies and decisions are decided and set by Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss is dead on in his ruthless performance), and Karl Rove (Toby Jones disappears into this character). James Cromwell is well cast as George Bush Sr., and Ellen Burstyn gives fire to her scenes as Barbara Bush. Elizabeth Banks is fine as Laura Bush, but since this is Dubya’s story, all other characters are seen as Bush sees them, so Banks pretty much plays the long-suffering wife character. There is one terrific scene where Dubya, having just lost a local election, drives the car through the garage door, and then lays on the charm as he escorts Laura back to her door to say good night.

Josh Brolin’s performance as President George W. Bush Jr. is a revelation. Yes, he’s a very good actor (as recent performances in No Country for Old Men, Grindhouse and American Gangster have shown), but his work here shows astonishing range, depth and complexity. He creates something more than an impersonation or a caricature; he is the embodiment of our current president. Brolin makes a film that could have just been a series of satirical vingettes, and creates something richer and more interesting.

Oliver Stone has created a satisfying biopic, but his cast (most notably Brolin) makes the film.

Charlie Wilson’s War (** 1/2)

Monday, December 24th, 2007

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The story of Charlie Wilson, the congressman from Texas who helped defeat the Russians from Afghanistan, could’ve made a great movie. It still could, but this film isn’t it. When a film has this much star power, both on and off the screen, you think it might make a pretty good flick. You’d be wrong. One problem with the film is its short running time. 97 minutes is not long enough to tell a story of this magnitude, you need time to develop the characters, the plot, give it depth and meaning. It feels like how scenes and character relationships have been left out of the final film. Mike Nichols is a good director, but he needs to file this movie away in the “almost” file. Charlie Wilson’s War starts out as a satiric character study of a flawed but deeply fascinating man, and then, once Charlie Wilson visits a refugee camp on the border in Pakistan, it turns into a deeper, more thought-provoking film. Either of these types of films would be fine, if Nichols could’ve pulled either off. The aforementioned refugee camp scene is successful on its own (especially the shot of Wilson looking at the enormity of the camp), but I wish it belonged to a film that deserved it. The same goes for the performances of Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson and Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. Hanks is such a famous star that sometimes it’s easy to forget what a good actor he actually is. Here, he creates a character who charms and aw-shucks his way in and out of potentially career-ending situations with graceful ease. He also gets to deliver several pretty good lines. And Hoffman’s Avrakotos is a force of nature, or at least for his first four or five scenes. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, is totally miscast as a Texan ultra-right wing millionaire. I’d say her work here is borderline awful, though it doesn’t help that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin hasn’t really written her much of a role. That’s another thing about the film, it’s written by Sorkin, who is usually such a witty and intelligent writer, and Charlie Wilson’s War is more or less a slog fest, with the occasional good line here or there. Amy Adams also has a thankless role as Wilson’s hero-worshipping assistant. There is a type of film I call a “Golden Globe Picture.” A “Golden Globe Picture” refers to a mediocre film that is obviously awards-season bait, usually a half-baked script directed by a well known director and with a seasoned cast. If you must see this movie, do me a favor and wait until DVD. You’ll thank me later.

I’m Not There (***)

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

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When I first heard about Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic, I wondered how it could possibly work: several different actors portraying the same character? It seemed like an artsy-fartsy stunt that just couldn’t work. It wasn’t until I actually saw the film that I realized the error of my ways. Bob Dylan’s own time line is so schizophrenic, is full of so many different lifestyles and choices and musical genres and religious beliefs, that he had to be played by more than one actor. In fact, it took six actors, playing at least seven different characters (maybe it’s eight or nine, depending on how you look at it) to accurately portray Mr. Dylan in this film.Each character is a different aspect to Dylan’s personality, I guess. Cate Blanchett, for instance, plays Dylan right when he went “electric,” and the controversy that he caused by daring to play something other than folk music is depicted in this film. Blanchett’s performance is startling not because it’s a woman playing a man, but because I didn’t even notice the gimmick. I mean, I have no idea how Haynes’ knew that Blanchett would make the perfect Dylan, but man, he was right. It is an eerie, terrific performance. (There are a few shots where Blanchett looks identical to Dylan.)Marcus Carl Franklin plays Dylan as a young black runaway in the late 1950s who is greatly inspired by Woody Guthrie’s folk music, and in fact is going under that name. This plot strand seems to address Dylan fans’ frustration in the sixties when Bob refused to be a spokesman for his generation. I say “seems” because this film, like Dylan himself, is kind of hard to figure out. In one scene, the Guthrie/Dylan character is confronted by his obsession with Depression era music, and is told “write about your own time.” The struggle to maintain your vision while the whole world is telling you you’re wrong seems to be a theme that recurs throughout the different Dylan stories in this film.Christian Bale plays two Dylan-esque characters: Jack Rollins, who represents Dylan as folk hero, and Pastor Jack who mirrors Dylan’s “born-again” period. Bale is a phenomenal actor, and it’s hard to think of another actor who has played such an eclectic range in characters over the last few years (co-star Cate Blanchett would probably be in the running, though.) I mean, Bob Dylan and Batman, c’mon, that’s range. Ben Whishaw’s scenes as Dylan attempt to explain the man to an unknown group of interrogators, though it seems as he might just be confusing them more.Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid as Dylan, in a series of scenes that play as homage to Sam Peckinpah’s classic western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (which Dylan scored and co-starred in), but also help underline Dylan’s role as a mythic kind of hero (or maybe they don’t.) Heath Ledger plays an actor who is portraying the Jack Rollins character in a half-hearted biopic of the folk singer’s life. Charlotte Gainsburg plays his wife in these scenes, and their painful separation and divorce mirrors Dylan’s first marriage. The film’s multi-layered narrative, which ping-pongs back and forth between years, stories, film styles and themes, helps underline just how hard it is to define or explain Dylan.It also helps that Todd Haynes directs the material with such manic intensity. Keep in mind that although the film has many different stories and film styles, it has only one director. Haynes’ vision is playful, satirical, angry, cruel, heartbreakingly sad and fiercely political, sometimes all at once. Make no mistake, this is the director’s baby all the way.I’m Not There is a difficult film to explain, but in a way, not really. After I watched the film, I became convinced that this film does, in fact, help explain Dylan. At least, as much as one film could ever explain a person’s life. This movie is a puzzle, a joy for film buffs and Dylan fans, but I’m not sure how it will play if you come into the movie cold. It’s challenging and not for everybody, but for those who can tap into it’s wavelength, it’s a fascinating, entertaining journey.