‘Vice’ Examines The Most Powerful Vice President of Them All

vice movie poster

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

“I would rather be feared because fear lasts longer than love.”

-from “A Bronx Tale”

There is a key scene in Adam McKay’s “Vice” which serves as a reminder of how Dick Cheney was the most powerful Vice-President who ever lived. It takes place on September 11, 2001, and Cheney and the key members of George W. Bush’s administration are gathered together in room, but Bush himself is away from the White House. During a conversation with a military general, Cheney orders any suspicious aircraft to be shot down. Another person quickly raises an objection, but Cheney simply raises his hand ever so slightly to silence her. He doesn’t have to yell at or ask her to be quiet; just a simple movement was all that was needed to remind everyone in the room who was the one with all the power. Cheney instilled fear in everyone, even George W.

Christian Bale goes to great lengths in transforming his body into the characters he portrays, and his performance as Cheney will definitely go down as one of his memorable to say the least. There were times where I kept waiting for Bale to raise his voice a little higher as the monotone he was speaking at threatened to be more grating than the voice he gave Batman. But again, Cheney never has to speak up to get his point across. It reminded me of what Henry Hill said about Paulie Cicero in “Goodfellas:”

“Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”

Bale put on 45 pounds for to play Cheney, and he gets the former Vice-President’s mannerisms down perfectly to where you completely forget it is an English actor playing this American politician and one-time CEO of Haliburton. It is such a mesmerizing portrait as he makes us see how slowly but surely Cheney got seduced into the realm of power hungry politicians whether it was serving under his mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) or being manipulated by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). But even better is the way Bale, as Cheney, subtly worms his way into becoming George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) VP to where he has more control over certain areas of government than Bush, as he is portrayed here, would care to have.

The fact we have any kind of biopic on Dick Cheney is astonishing as he and Lynne remain very secretive about their lives to where McKay employs a disclaimer at the film’s beginning which is as wickedly clever as the one Steven Soderbergh gave “The Informant.” This disclaimer ends with McKay saying he and his fellow collaborators “did our fucking best,” and I guess that’s all we can ask for.

It’s no surprise the director and co-writer of “The Big Short” has chosen an unorthodox approach to making this biopic as it shifts back and forth in time to Cheney’s college days where he spent more time getting drunk than studying or playing football. McKay also has Jesse Plemons playing Kurt, an everyman narrator who says he has a close connection to Cheney, a connection which will eventually be made clear. Throughout, we are shown images from real life which, if they haven’t already, should forever be burned into your conscious memory. Among them is former President Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention where he vows to “make America great again.” From here on out, this is a phrase which should forever live in infamy.

One of “Vice’s” most inspired moments comes when McKay begins the end credits midway through the film. What’s especially hilarious about this is how it reflects the conclusion many of us would have preferred Cheney’s to have had in American politics; the kind where he never would have become Vice President. But those familiar with American politics and the Bush Administration cannot and should not expect a happy ending here. Cheney left a lot of damage in his wake, and his political power still remains constant even though he no longer holds public office.

Indeed, Dick Cheney is a tough nut to crack as “Vice” can only get so far under his skin to where you wonder if this man has anything resembling a soul to explore. As the film goes on, he is shown increasingly to be a heartless individual, both figuratively and literally speaking (he did have a heart transplant), and he comes across as such a cold human being to where his muted reactions to the multiple heart attacks shouldn’t be seen as much of a surprise. The fact he even noticed he was having them is more surprising.

Where McKay really succeeds is in showing those closest in Cheney’s inner circle, among which is his wife Lynne. Amy Adams gets the opportunity to play a Lady Macbeth-like character much like the one she played in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” and she is fantastic from start to finish. Adams makes Lynne into the key motivator for Dick’s ascent into American politics to where she fearlessly campaigns for her husband while he is laid up in the hospital. Lynne recognized she lived in a time where she could not do all the things she wanted because of her gender, and she finds immense satisfaction through her husband’s rise to power. Adams is brilliant in portraying Lynne’s fascination with the political world and in showing her quick concerns when anything threatens Dick’s standing in Washington D.C.

Another great performance comes from Steve Carell as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Carell makes Rumsfeld into a gleefully cynical politician whose values have long since been corrupted by the quest for power. Just watch when Cheney asks him what they are supposed to be believe in. The gut-busting laugh Rumsfeld gives off speaks volumes as it illustrates exactly where his interests lie, and it is not with working class Americans.

As for Sam Rockwell, his portrayal of George W. Bush feels pitch perfect as he portrays a man whom even Cheney can see is more interested in pleasing his father when it comes to running for President. After watching Will Ferrell’s classic impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” and Josh Brolin’s portrayal of him in Oliver Stone’s “W,” it seemed all too difficult for any other actor to offer a unique interpretation of this unfortunate White House resident. Then again, Rockwell proves once again what a brilliant actor he is as he captures George W.’s mannerisms while humanizing this man in a way I did not expect or was ever in a hurry to see.

I was very much entertained by “Vice,” but I did come out of it feeling like it could have dug deeper into Dick Cheney’s life. Also, the nonlinear storytelling format is at times jarring as we are thrust from one moment in history to another with little warning. Then again, in retrospect, I wonder what more could have been said about Cheney as he seems to be this malignant vessel of a human being who is never has the look of someone who could ever be fully satisfied by anything. The only positive thing I saw of him was his acceptance of his daughter Mary’s (played by Alison Pill) sexuality when she comes out as a lesbian. If only Cheney had treated all Americans like they were Mary, things would have been much different than they ended up being. Of course, when his other daughter Liz runs for public office…

One of the last moments of “Vice” has Bale breaking the fourth wall as Cheney where he looks directly into the camera and tells all those listening he is apologizing for who he is or anything he has done. I’m fairly certain Cheney has not made any statement like this on camera in real life, but the speech Bale gives as him rings frighteningly true. Considering how complicit the former Vice-President was in war crimes which included torture and sending American troops into a war based on false evidence, he has a lot to apologize for, let alone answer to. But let’s face it, he’s never going to apologize. Ever. “Vice” has as many funny moments as it does haunting ones, and this speech is especially haunting because, let’s face it, he will die before he ever considers apologizing. Heck, he almost did.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Blaze’ Gives a Late Musician the Audience He Never Got in Life

Blaze 2018 movie poster

There have been a number of music biopics in the last few years like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Love and Mercy” and “I Saw the Light.” Looking back, I wonder if my enjoyment, or lack of, was the result of how much knowledge I had of their main subjects: the rap group N.W.A., Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, and country singer Hank Williams. Typically, biopics focus on people we know of, and I went into them wondering if the filmmakers had anything new to say about these iconic figures. Biopics are, of course, “based on a true story,” so you can expect many liberties will be taken with the source material, so this just complicates things even more.

I bring this up because “Blaze” deals with a country singer and songwriter whom I am not familiar with, Blaze Foley. Many consider him a cult figure in the realm of country music, especially in Austin, Texas. What results here is an absorbing motion picture which delves into the life of a musician whose life, like many of his ilk, was cut short at far too young an age. Part of me wonders if my enjoyment of this movie would have been affected had I known more about Blaze Foley before I walked into the theater, but considering how much I liked it, I suppose the answer doesn’t matter much.

Based on the memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” weaves together three different timelines which examines this musician in life and death. We see him develop a loving relationship with aspiring actress Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) to where she becomes his muse. Then we see him being discussed post-mortem by his close friends Zee (Josh Hamilton) and Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) on a radio show, and they reflect on his life with both respect and bafflement. And then there is the Blaze’s last night on earth which is presented in an unspectacular fashion, and we come to mourn a loss which was deeper than many realized at the time.

The narrative of “Blaze” shifts back and forth quite often, but I never lost track of where the story was going. This is saying a lot as the editing job on this movie could have rendered it into a complete mess, but it instead makes “Blaze” into an especially interesting motion picture as I was never sure which direction it would end up taking. Viewing a person’s life while they were alive and after they died proves to be endlessly fascinating here as we see all sides of the man in a way which feels both subjective and objective.

While watching “Blaze,” I kept thinking of “I Saw the Light” which focused on the life of Hank Williams. While it featured a stellar performance by Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, the movie was a narrative mess even though it was told in a linear fashion. There were moments where it took me some time to figure out what was happening as events jumped from one place to another with very little warning. “Blaze” could have been a similar mess, but Hawke never lets us lose sight of where things are going, and kept my attention throughout as I was intrigued to see where the movie would head next. I can’t say that for a lot of biopics these days.

When we first see Blaze Foley, he is a complete mess and screwing up a recording session to where a producer does little to hesitate in throwing him out of his studio. But then we rewind back to when he was an up and coming musician who showed the great love he had for music. Sybil asks him if he wants to be famous, but Blaze replies he how he instead wants to be a legend. As the movie goes on, we see him struggling with being a true musician and becoming a star in a way which he feels will dilute everything he does. When the movie started, I felt it would be like Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” which made Jim Morrison into the kind of musician you thought you would like to spend time with, but ended up wanting to avoid at all costs. Instead, the movie dares to look at Blaze’s life in a way which evokes both sympathy and pity.

In his unorthodox way of wooing Sybil, we see Blaze defying ordinary conventions in showing his love to another human being. As the movie goes on, we watch as he struggles with both his artistic ambitions and the fear he has of becoming a commodity which may make him a rich man, but will also rob him of any artistic integrity he ever hopes to have. Clearly this is a musician who wants to leave his mark on society, but like any stubborn artist, he wants to leave his mark on his own terms. The trouble is, does anyone get to leave their mark on this world on their own terms?

“Blaze” was co-written and directed by Ethan Hawke, an actor who has struggled with his place as a celebrity. We know him for acting in box office hits like “Dead Poets Society” and “Sinister,” but he is also well-known for delving into movies which defy mainstream convention like the “Before Sunrise” trilogy. I can see how the story of Blaze Foley appealed to him as Blaze is an artist who wants to be true to his art, but he is also subjected to the pressures of commercial success, or the potential for it, to such a degree that they fold under the pressure or have an overwhelming fear of being seen as a sellout. Hawke continues to walk the fine line between Hollywood and indie movies, and I believe it when he says how long it took for him to become comfortable with the fame he had achieved.

Hawke has directed a few movies previously such as “Chelsea Walls” and “The Hottest State,” both of which had their share of flaws but showed him to be a filmmaker willing to take chances even if critics questioned his methods and material. With “Blaze,” he has given us a motion picture which feels assured in its vision, and it features some of the most ingenious editing I have seen in movie in some time.

Playing Blaze Foley is musician Ben Dickey, a man who has never acted before. But in a movie like this, the actors are meant to inhabit their characters more than play him, and Dickey ends up inhabiting Blaze in a way few others could. His life is similar to Blaze’s in a number of ways as he also has music running through his blood and has traveled throughout America playing songs filled with cinematic imagery which deal with life at its most hopeful and at its darkest.

As Blaze. Dickey gives the movie its heart and soul as we see him traveling through life wanting to be pure as an artist while dealing with a past and a heartache that will never let him be. He is matched perfectly with the fantastic Alia Shawkat as Blaze’s wife and muse, Sybil. I admired her work in a movie which came out earlier this year called “Duck Butter,” and she brings same emotionally raw power to the role of a person who lives to be another’s muse until it becomes too much to bear.

My only real complaint with “Blaze” is it never digs too deep into the singer’s life. We get only hints and implications of how troubled his childhood was, but no real specifics are given so we can only guess what led him to be such a tortured soul. We do get a nice cameo from Kris Kristofferson as Blaze’s father who is seen asking everyone for a cigarette, but it only tells us so much about their relationship. Perhaps Hawke felt it was better to imply certain things without spelling everything out to audience.

Hawke has had quite the year with this and “First Reformed,” and “Blaze” shows he has long since arrived at a place where he can do passion projects like this and Hollywood films to where he can transition from one to the other with relative ease. More importantly, he makes Blaze Foley into a complex human being who may have alienated many people close to him, but we never lose our empathy for the struggles he endures. I have seen many biopics which try to present a complex portrait and have failed to get below the surface, and it says a lot that Hawke doesn’t make the same mistake here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Theory of Everything’ Gives Us the Stephen Hawking We Never Got to Know Until Now

The Theory of Everything movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2014. I am posting it here out of respect for Stephen Hawking who just passed away in March 2018 at the age of 76. Once diagnosed with ALS, he was expected to live only a few years more, but he succeeded in living on despite what the disease did to his body, and he lived one hell of a life. RIP Stephen.

It is shocking to see Stephen Hawking, as played by Eddie Redmayne, riding around recklessly on his bicycle at the beginning of “The Theory of Everything.” We have long since gotten used to seeing him in his motorized wheelchair as ALS robbed him years ago of the ability to move around on his own, and we all know the sound of his computerized voice which has provided us with an insight to his brilliant mind and allowed him to provide lyrics to Pink Floyd songs. But this movie reminds us he was not always like this, and that there was someone in particular who saved his life in more ways than one.

“The Theory of Everything” is based on the memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” which was written by his first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, and it focuses on their courtship which took place during their time as students at Cambridge University. Stephen looks like a perfectly dressed nerd who has the appearance of someone destined never to have any luck with women, and yet he still manages to catch the eye of the beautiful Jane (may we all be this lucky). At first it looks like an ill-suited coupling as Stephen is a student of physics while Jane’s main studies are in romantic languages. She believes in God, but Stephen’s love of science appears to imply he does not. We watch as they come to love and understand how the other thinks, and the way it is presented to us is both lovely and very believable.

But of course, we all know what will happen to Stephen eventually, and it is shown here in excruciating detail as he suddenly trips and falls down right on his head (ouch). Upon discovering he has ALS and told he has only a couple of years to live, Stephen finds himself shying away from everyone around him including fellow students, professors and even Jane as he desperately doesn’t want to be a pity case for anyone. But Jane has fallen deeply in love with Stephen, and she is not about to give up on him because there is too much to lose.

It’s hard not to think of movies like “A Beautiful Mind” while watching “The Theory of Everything” as both feature strong female characters determined to save their afflicted husbands from the diseases which appear all but fatal. For a time, it looks like this film will be no different in the way it portrays the strained relationship Stephen and Jane as they sacrifice so much to make things work between them. But as the movie goes on, it defies conventions and shows us a relationship which does suffer, but any impediments thrown into their path do nothing to tear apart the infinite respect they have for one another.

The eyes of the world are on Eddie Redmayne right now who as his performance here is utterly astonishing. I would love to ask about how he went about portraying Stephen’s bodily deterioration because he achieves doing so in a way which feels painfully real, and it’s amazing what he’s able to convey when Stephen is no longer able to communicate vocally (at least, until he gets that computerized voice). We always talk about how certain performances are more about imitation when it comes to playing characters based on real people, but Redmayne inhabits Stephen to such an amazing effect to where I found it impossible to label his performance as being one of mere imitation. Even as ALS continues to ravage his body, Redmayne makes the case for why Stephen remains such a respected individual to this very day as well as one who continues to fight the odds.

And let’s not forget the fantastic performance by Felicity Jones who portrays Jane Hawking as the lovely and strong-willed woman she is. While it may look like she has the easier role to play, Jones has an equally challenging role as she shows the unending struggles and sacrifices Jane went through to keep Stephen alive. It’s painful to watch Jane as she uses an alphabet sign to communicate with Stephen after his tracheotomy, and Jones makes you feel her pain as she wonders if she has suddenly taken too much away from him.

“The Theory of Everything” was directed by James Marsh who previously made “Man on Wire,” the Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the two World Trade Center buildings in New York. Marsh does excellent work in keeping all his actors in check to where they never go for scene-hogging moments of an embarrassingly dramatic nature. Truthfully, it is the ordinary moments of these characters lives which are the most fascinating to watch, and Marsh succeeds in taking us back in time to a most romantic period in these couple’s lives.

The other great thing is how Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who spent ten years trying to get this movie made, refused to let the audience look at Stephen Hawking as if he’s a complete invalid. Despite the damage ALS has done to his body, Stephen still managed to live a full life which has included two wives and three children, and it didn’t stop him from doing his work which eventually led to the publication of his novel “A Brief History of Time.” Heck, he even got to guest star opposite Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” What more could someone ask for?

“The Theory of Everything,” is by no means a movie which falls victim to conventions or clichés. It presents us with a marvelous story about two people who come to love one another for their thoughts and minds, and of how their love helped them through various struggles which would have worn anyone else out in less than a year. It also contains some of the best performances of 2014 from Redmayne and Jones who are as brave as they are daring. Portraying real-life people onscreen is always a challenge, but they both took roles based on very well-known individuals and succeeded in making them their own.

Seriously, “The Theory of Everything” is one of the best movies of 2014 that I have seen and it is deserving of many of the accolades it has received.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Simon Curtis about ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’

Goodbye Christopher Robin Simon Curtis

Filmmaker Simon Curtis gave us one of the best adaptations of the Charles Dickens’ novel “David Copperfield” back in 1999, he brought Marilyn Monroe back to life along with the help of Michelle Williams with “My Week with Marilyn,” and he directed Helen Mirren to one of her many great performances in “Woman in Gold.” Now he gives us his latest directorial effort, “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which looks at the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters who inhabit the 100 Acre Wood. But while it looks to be a simple biopic focusing on the creation of classic literature, it also proves to be an examination of the scars war leaves behind, the importance of having a regular childhood, and of the damages fame can cause before others can realize it.

I got to speak with Curtis while he was in Los Angeles recently, so please feel free to check out the interview below.

Goodbye Christopher Robin poster

Ben Kenber: From a distance, this movie looked like it would be a simple story of how A.A. Milne came up with Winnie-the-Pooh, but what I really liked though was how the story developed from the effects of fame to a childhood being stolen. Was this inherent in the screenplay (written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan) when you first read it?

Simon Curtis: That’s a good comment. Yes is the answer. I loved the script from the get-go because you think it’s going to be exactly that, but it is about so many other things: family and creation and the impact of war. And yes, Christopher Robin was almost like the prototype child celebrity. And to be fair to the Milne family, it was such an unknown territory. They couldn’t have predicted that the stories would become so popular and the attention it would bring to the boy.

Ben Kenber: There’s no way they could have been prepared for it, and this is what makes A.A. Milne and his wife, Daphne, so incredibly complex. On one hand, you want to get mad at them for robbing Christopher of his childhood, but at the same time, they both come to realize the damage being done. But by the time they stop it, it is too late.

Simon Curtis: Yes, that’s right.

Ben Kenber: I found it very fascinating, and I liked how the movie deals with the PTSD flashbacks. If you’re in a theater with really good sound, you feel the impact of each bang and balloon pop.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, you do. I was trying to make the point that war doesn’t only impact on the men and the women who fight in the war, but their families and their descendants as well. So, the boy is a victim of World War I even though he wasn’t born until it ended.

Ben Kenber: When it comes to introducing the stuffed animals, I loved how Margot Robbie and Domhnall Gleeson introduced them. She had the voices, and he came up with Eeyore’s name. Was there anything about the stuffed animals which you wanted to include in the movie but were unable to?

Simon Curtis: I don’t think so. I love how it’s this almost accidental thing that they buy bear at Harrods or wherever it was, and suddenly it becomes this iconic thing. One of my favorite moments, in terms of when she first gives him the tiger and she says “happy” and then she hands it to him. Then the father says, “Well what should we call it?” “Tigger.” “Why?” “Because it’s more tiggerish” (laughs). It’s just lovely writing.

Ben Kenber: It is. The names all come by accident. It is not some pre-destined thing.

Simon Curtis: Absolutely. They were just little puppets, and that’s the great thing about art. There’s a surprising element to it.

Ben Kenber: A.A. Milne is very eager to say something about war and reality. The interesting thing is, in terms of the way the Pooh stories were written, he found a way of dealing with reality of writing readers with an escape from it.

Simon Curtis: Yes, good.

Ben Kenber: The young actor who plays Christopher Robin Milne, Alex Lawther, was excellent, and he is a very tough role to play here as you see him revel in seeing this stuff animals come to life, and yet he is thrust into a spotlight you couldn’t be less prepared to deal with. Was it hard casting this role?

Simon Curtis: It was lengthy. But I cast a nine-year-old boy would never acted before, do you know that was? Daniel Radcliffe (Curtis cast him in “David Copperfield”), and he had never acted before, so that gave me some confidence. But this boy Alex was a joy and a gift. He was fantastic.

Ben Kenber: Domhnall Gleeson brings a lot of depth to this role.

Simon Curtis: He does.

Ben Kenber: He has scenes where he says one thing, but his eyes have to say something else. How do direct an actor in scenes like those?

Simon Curtis: I don’t know is the answer. You just try to make every scene as good as possible and help the actor to do their best work, and Domhnall is one of those actors who thinks a great deal about it in advance. It brings a lot to the dad, and he was a real partner. The film improved because of his work in the scenes and elsewhere.

Ben Kenber: Margot Robbie has a very tricky part to play here because in some cases the audience may find her to be not for a likable, but she does come across as a very loving mother. It’s a British thing that they hold back. Some of my friends said Daphne is not very likable.

Simon Curtis: But that’s missing the point because that’s the way people were. Not everyone has to be likable in the world, and that’s the way people were mothers in those days. They had the baby, handed it over to a nanny, and waited for the wedding.

Ben Kenber: I always tell people it is not a question of whether a character is likable or not in a movie. It’s whether or not they are interesting.

Simon Curtis: Exactly.

Ben Kenber: Robbie’s performance is really good because she delves into the unlikable parts of her character, but you never doubt the love Daphne has for her son.

Simon Curtis: Yes, and she doesn’t shy away from it. She has such natural warmth herself as a woman, and that kind of balances it out on another level.

Ben Kenber: For many years, there has been a long battle between the Milne family and Walt Disney over the rights to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Was this something you considered including in this film?

Simon Curtis: No because that’s in the future, that story.

Ben Kenber: The movie’s ending could have been too sentimental with two characters hugging, but they don’t hug and I like that they didn’t because it would’ve seemed too manipulative.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, that’s England. Someone said astutely I thought how in England we are the world storytellers from Shakespeare to JK Rowling, but we can’t say I love you to our kids (laughs).

Ben Kenber: I loved the scene where A.A. Milne tells Christopher you will not write another word about Winnie-the-Pooh. The way the same was played was brilliant because it’s straight to the point.

Simon Curtis: I agree. That was Domhnall’s idea for him to be seated and looking up at Christopher who is standing. It was a really good idea. As a director I look like a genius, but it was totally the actor’s idea.

Ben Kenber: Do you give a lot of freedom to your actors?

Simon Curtis: Yeah. Plus, to be perfectly honest, there are so many little things, you can’t have them all solved in your head.

Ben Kenber: The stuffed animals we see in this movie are replicas of the original ones which are now part of a museum exhibit in New York. Did you have any issues with Disney over the rights to show these stuffed animals here?

Simon Curtis: I don’t think so in this case because they all predate Disney. They are not Disney. Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t have his little red vest. We just wanted him to be this Victorian toy.

Ben Kenber: Were there any dramatic liberties you took with the factual material?

Simon Curtis: Well I think the fame comes much more quickly than a probably would’ve done, so it was that sort of thing.

Ben Kenber: The movie takes a real left turn when the books become incredibly popular, and the sun becomes an unwitting celebrity to where A.A. Milne begins to question the effect fame is having on Christopher.

Simon Curtis: I love that scene where he thinks he is speaking to his dad on the phone, and it is revealed to be a radio interview.

Ben Kenber: It is such a painful moment because you see in the dad’s eyes that he really shouldn’t be doing this.

Simon Curtis: That’s exactly right.

Ben Kenber: Kelly Macdonald’s character of the nanny, Olive, is wonderful as she serves as the Mary Poppins of this story.

Simon Curtis: She is certainly the emotional heart of it.

Ben Kenber: How did you come to cast Macdonald in this part?

Simon Curtis: Well she did a play with my wife about 10 years ago so I’ve always loved her work, and she just struck me as the perfect person at the perfect time.

Ben Kenber: I like how you portrayed England as still recovering from World War I.

Simon Curtis: Very much so, and I think it chimes in now because it feels like were living in wounded times now.

Ben Kenber: Was that something you planned?

Simon Curtis: It just happened in a way.

Ben Kenber: There are a number of things about A.A. Milne I didn’t know before watching this movie such as the fact he was a soldier and a playwright.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, I didn’t know he was a successful playwright.

Ben Kenber: At the beginning of the movie, A.A. Milne does not look the least bit prepared to be a parent. It’s almost like the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Simon Curtis: Yes, it is. We talked about that actually. There’s the first breakfast and then there’s the expert breakfast in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Ben Kenber: The arc of this movie goes from father and son being strangers to them coming together and then later becoming estranged from one another.

Simon Curtis: The thing that bonded them became the thing that tore them apart.

Ben Kenber: The segment where Chris for a sent off to school was handled very quickly. Was this a segment you ever wanted to expand on?

Simon Curtis: Not really because the last thing you want at that point in the film is to be slow.

Ben Kenber: “Goodbye Christopher Robin” has a running time of 107 minutes. I usually expect biopics like this one to go one for over two hours as filmmakers seem desperate to get every little about their subject’s life onto the silver screen. Did you ever feel this pressure when making this movie?

Simon Curtis: I don’t know really how to answer that. I was just doing the script.

Ben Kenber: This movie is dedicated to Steve Christian. Can you tell me more about him?

Simon Curtis: He was one of the producers who supported this script through years of development and who unfortunately passed away after he saw the first cut.

Ben Kenber: Well, it’s nice to know he did see a cut of the film.

Simon Curtis: Yes, it is nice.

Ben Kenber: The way I see this movie, I feel it is about the long journey to happiness. When father and son come together again, they realize to get to a point of happiness, they have to experience a lot of sadness and pain in order to better appreciate joy.

Simon Curtis: To me, the theme is pay attention to your loved ones while they are around because they won’t be around forever. And also, we punish ourselves over getting this or getting that done, and actually just being with your loved ones is the greatest gift of all. Somehow, that’s embedded in the film. I’m so glad when my kids were young because it was before these (cell)phones because I would’ve been totally on them the whole time.

Ben Kenber: In the movie’s postscript, it is revealed A.A. Milne did get to write his anti-war piece. Was this something you wanted to include in the movie as well?

Simon Curtis: Yeah. He didn’t intend to be known only as the writer of Winnie-the-Pooh. There’s a quote (by A.A. Milne) in the “Goodbye Christopher Robin” book introduction by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Just read that.

Ben Kenber: “…little thinking

                     All my years of pen-and-inking

                    Would be almost lost among

                    Those four trifles for the young.”

Simon Curtis: Yeah. In fact, it’s not almost, it’s now completely. So that’s good, isn’t it?

I want to thank Simon Curtis for taking the time to talk with me. “Goodbye Christopher Robin” will arrive in movie theaters on October 13, 2017. Click here to check out my review of the film.

‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ Has More On Its Mind Than Winnie-the-Pooh

Goodbye Christopher Robin poster

Like many, I was raised on the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and watched the various Disney movies which brought the “silly old bear’s” exploits to a whole new generation of fans. More importantly, I became a die-hard fan of the beloved donkey of these stories, Eeyore, as his depressed demeanor came to resemble my own for a time. The human boy at the center of these books, Christopher Robin, had a wonderful imaginary life which brought him to a place of love, happiness and adventure, so perhaps it’s not a surprise to learn the author of these books, A.A. Milne, did not always lead the happiest life. Yet in the process of trying to confront the horrors life inflicted on him, he found a wonderful way to escape from them, and millions of others joined him in this escape as well.

Goodbye Christopher Robin” offers the viewer a look into the complex relationship between A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne whose collection of stuffed animals came to inspire the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh. I went into it thinking it would be a standard biopic which would recount how this honey-addicted bear and his various friends came into being, but I was stunned to see how the filmmakers covered more ground as the movie went on. Just when I thought the story was about to end, the movie takes another turn as it explores the effects of war, society, growing up, and fame have on both the youngest and oldest members of a family. It’s also a reminder of how no one, whether they have it good or bad, will ever get out of this life unscathed.

When we first meet A.A. Milne (played by Domhnall Gleeson), he is a World War I veteran and a noted playwright, and it doesn’t take long to see the damage war has done to him as he repeatedly suffers from flashbacks every time a loud sound goes off or a balloon pops near him. He and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), have just become the parents of a baby boy, but it is shown to have been a difficult birth which almost killed Daphne. They name their son Christopher Robin Milne, and for a time there is a bit of a distance between father and son. Just watch as Gleeson picks up his baby for the first time. The audience I saw this movie with couldn’t help but laugh at what they saw.

Once the family moves to a house out in the woods, A.A. begins work on an anti-war book as he feels London is still suffering long after “the war to end all wars” was concluded. However, he suffers from writer’s block and finds himself in the same position William Shakespeare was in while he was trying to write “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” in “Shakespeare in Love.” He is determined to write one kind of story, but he eventually comes to write a completely different one.

Seeing A.A. and Christopher come up with the characters for the Winnie-The-Pooh stories feels wonderfully organic as does their growing relationship. After Daphne disappears from the family for a time, father and son are forced to deal with one another in ways they didn’t anticipate. The porridge Milne makes for Christopher does not look the least big appetizing, but it serves as an ice breaker between the two as the distance between them decreases until they find themselves truly enjoying the imaginary world they have created for themselves.

From there, I figured “Goodbye Christopher Robin” was going to be a simple tale of father and son coming together in a wonderfully unique way, but then the focus shifts. We see the Winnie-The-Pooh books become a literary sensation to where the public cannot separate Christopher Robin Milne from the fictional character of Christopher Robin. As a result, this young boy is suddenly thrust into a spotlight no one can ever easily deal with, and the film almost turns into a horror flick as we know this will do irreparable damage to him. While some may consider him to be the luckiest boy alive, it becomes apparent his life is no longer his. Christopher should be allowed to have a childhood, but his parents don’t realize they have denied him this in time.

What surprised me about “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is how it is a biopic which cannot be boiled down to one sentence. This film is not just about the creation of a literary classic filled with characters who remain very popular to this day, but also one which deals with a multitude of themes, each of which is given a lot of meaning and depth. None of the real-life characters featured here are painted in an easily broad manner, and their evolution throughout was never less than fascinating to me.

Domhnall Gleeson has since created a name for himself outside of his father’s, Brendan Gleeson, success as an actor to where it is easy to separate the two of them. Domhnall has given terrific performances in “About Time” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and he does superb work here as a famous writer whose creations eventually take on a life of their own. At this movie’s start, he portrays A.A. Milne as a man traumatized by his experiences in war and slow to warm up to his role as a father, and he fully inhabits this man to where you can never catch him acting. Gleeson makes A.A. a wonderfully complex human being as he becomes more receptive to the world Christopher has created for himself, and he shows how this famous author quickly gets caught up in his book’s success to where he feels obligated to make his son a celebrity figure despite his growing concerns of what this will do to him. Although he eventually comes to see the damage he is doing, this realization comes too late, and he is left to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship which may never be fully repaired.

Robbie, who burst into our collective consciousness with her scene-stealing role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” has an even trickier role to play here as Daphne de Sélincourt is shown to be both a loving mother and a very needful wife. You want to berate her for using her son to get a level of attention she might not otherwise receive, but there is no doubt as to the love she has for him. Daphne also provides the voices for Christopher’s stuffed animals to where A.A.’s cannot compete in the slightest, so her presence in Christopher’s life still has a tremendous amount of influence. Whatever you may think of Daphne, Robbie makes her into an individual who is undeniably flawed but still a loving mother.

One performance worth singling out above others in “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is Kelly Macdonald’s as Olive, Christopher’s beloved nanny. While Christopher’s parents get caught up in the fame these stories have brought about, Macdonald shows how Olive is thankfully objective to where she is never easily seduced by forces which have easily seduced many others away from a normal, ordinary life. She understands better than anyone how Christopher is being subjected to something very unhealthy for him, and she does her best to make his parents see how they need to see to remove them from the public eye.

And yes, Will Tilson makes a wonderful Christopher Robin Milne and shares a lot of great scenes with Gleeson.

As “Goodbye Christopher Robin” came to its conclusion, I came to realize how it was about the long and rough path towards happiness. We all want to be happy in our lives, but happiness is not as easy to come by as we are lead to believe when we were young. While some may complain about the exceptions made to historical fact, I loved how this film built up to an exhilarating point as Christopher comes to make peace with his dad to where he realizes what it means to be a happy person. The path to happiness is never a straight line or an easy road to travel, and the fact this biopic truly understands this fact is something I am very thankful for as its path still remains a torturous one for me after all these years.

Simon Curtis has directed a few biographical films previously (“My Week with Marilyn” and “Woman in Gold”), but he really outdoes himself here. In a time when biopics range from excellent (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Love & Mercy”) to incredibly disappointing (“I Saw the Light”), “Goodbye Christopher Robin” thankfully ends up on the positive side of the critical spectrum.

* * * * out of * * * *

Click here to read my exclusive interview with “Goodbye Christopher Robin” director Simon Curtis.

‘Big Eyes’ Marks a Return to Form for Tim Burton

Big Eyes movie poster

Tim Burton’s unique talents as a filmmaker have floundered in recent years with his abysmal remakes of “Planet of the Apes” and “Alice in Wonderland” which was lacking in wonder. But with “Big Eyes,” he gives us his best and most human movie in a long time as he examines the life of American artist Margaret Keane whose paintings of children with oversized, doe-like eyes became very popular in the 1950’s. It reunites Burton with his “Ed Wood” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who have provided us with some of the most unique biopics in recent memory like “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on The Moon.” Yes, it is based on a true story, but for once it helps to know this as the movie is a tale which proves there are things much stranger than fiction.

“Big Eyes” starts with a narrator saying the 1950’s was a good time if you were a man. This certainly seems to be the case with Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) as she is in the process of leaving her husband and drive herself and her daughter Jane out to San Francisco to start all over again. This decade had women relegated to the role of housewife, and they could do very little else as feminism had yet to become a movement. Margaret has trouble finding work until she gets a job at a furniture company painting baby cribs. At the same time, she is quite the painter who paints pictures of children, most of which resemble her daughter, that stand out because of the big eyes she gives her subjects.

While at an art sale, Margaret meets Walter (Christoph Waltz), a fellow painter who quickly becomes enamored of her and her paintings, and he quickly begins to encourage her not to sell herself short. They soon fall for one another and get married, and they become determined to sell their art to the masses. When their attempts to get their work hung up at art houses fails, Walter resorts to renting the walls at The Hungry I club owned by Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito). It is there the paintings begin to gain notice, but patrons are far more interested in Margaret’s work than they are in Walter’s. In the process, Walter starts to take credit for his wife’s paintings, and this is where things take a rather interesting turn.

Margaret is repulsed at first by the idea of Walter taking credit for her work, but she finds herself giving in to him as he promises to give her everything she ever wanted in life like a big house to live in. But as the popularity of the paintings grows, a rift forms between them as Margaret ends up residing in the background while Walter takes center stage at various talk shows and public engagements. Soon, Margaret goes from being timid to becoming a very determined person as she aims to reclaim the art she created.

What happened between Margaret and Walter Keane became the story of one of the most epic art frauds in history, and I have to admit I was not aware of this piece of history before I saw “Big Eyes.” If this story were presented to me as fiction, I’m fairly certain I would not have bought it as this story would have been far too bizarre to be the least bit believable. But these events did happen, and Burton’s strong affection for Margaret’s work is definitely on display here.

I’m so glad Alexander and Karaszewski are still getting away with making these renegade biopics about individuals who might otherwise not get cinematic treatment. The fact they brought this particular story to the big screen is extraordinary as it involves an act of plagiarism which didn’t take place in Hollywood. It sounds like a typical good guy/bad guy story, but the way the story develops shows this to not be the case.

Adams is her usually remarkable self as she takes Margaret Keane from the depths of isolation and bitterness to the heights of confidence and self-assertion. She also presents Margaret to us with flaws and all to where we respect her deeply even if some say she put herself in the position of having her work stolen. The 1950’s may have not been the best time for women, but the victory Margaret achieved opened doors for them to where they would never ever be held back by the role society expected them to play.

Waltz won his two Oscars for good reasons as he portrayed his characters in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” with such relish. His performance in “Big Eyes” proves to be equally wonderful as he makes Walter into such a charismatic figure to where it’s no wonder Margaret falls under his spell. While his character is essentially the bad guy of this piece, Waltz does give Walter some empathy as his actions result from a rather unconscious need for approval in a world which has deemed him a fair artist at best. While we can’t condone his actions, we can certainly understand where his motivations come from.

For Burton, “Big Eyes” is a return to the low budget roots he started out in. While it may not feel like the typical Burton movie along the lines of “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” or even “Batman,” it’s certainly his most heartfelt movie in a long time. He recreates the San Francisco many of us know from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and he shows us how Walter succeeded in commercializing art to where it became available at all the local supermarkets. But at the heart of it all, “Big Eyes” fits in with the kind of stories Burton loves to tell; of outsiders who are seen as far too different to succeed in popular culture.

“Big Eyes” falters a little towards the end as Walter starts to come across as less complex and more of a one-dimensional bad guy the audience understandably wants to see go down. Part of me wanted to see Burton delve a little deeper into his psychology as making him the typical bad guy in this movie seemed much too easy. Still, it makes for a very entertaining courtroom scene where both he and Margaret fight for the right to Margaret’s work like never before.

It’s heartening to see Burton give us such a heartfelt motion picture like “Big Eyes” as his last few movies kept taking away from his distinct talent as a director. Even with a lower budget than what he is used to working with, he still gives us a wondrous if roughened up look at an artist caught up in a real-life situation which threatens to rob her of the work she created. Here’s hoping we see more movies like this from Burton in the near future.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Lincoln

lincoln-movie-poster

The one thing which always drove me nuts in history class as a kid was how the teachers and the books we read made the past seem so much better than our present. We were taught about how Presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were such great leaders who helped make America the country it is today, and in the process, they were turned into mythological characters to where we forgot they were human beings like the rest of us. Juxtaposing this with the politics of America back when Ronald Reagan was President, it looked like we could do nothing but complain about the state of the world. It made me wonder what we did as Americans which made us seem so ungrateful for what our forefathers brought about.

This is why I’m thankful for movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” which helps to humanize those historical figures we learned about in class. In this case, the historical figure is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. The film focuses on the last four months of his Presidency when the Civil War was raging on and was insistent on getting the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, passed in the House of Representatives. It presents this President, one of the greatest America has ever known, as a flesh and blood human being endowed with strengths and flaws which will make you admire him more than ever before.

Much of the accomplishment in making President Lincoln so vividly human here is the result of another unsurprisingly brilliant performance from the great Daniel Day Lewis. Known for his intense method acting and laser sharp focus in preparing for each role he does, he brings his own touches to a man so defined by his historical deeds, and he succeeds in making this character his own during the movie’s two and a half hour running time.

“Lincoln” also shows how the world of politics has always been a cutthroat place to be in. The Republican and Democratic parties were much different than from what they are today, but during the 1800’s getting certain amendments passed involved a lot of tricks which were not always highly regarded. Even Lincoln wasn’t above hiring three politicians, played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader, to lobby members of the House to vote in favor of passing the Thirteenth Amendment. But what made this President’s actions especially courageous was how he wasn’t just thinking about solving the country’s problems but of the effects this particular amendment would have on generations to come.

“Lincoln” also delves into the President’s personal life which had been fractured by the loss of a child and was also unsteady due to the fiery personality of his wife Mary, played by Sally Field. Watching Field here reminds us of what a remarkable actress she remains after all these years. Field is such a live wire as she struggles to make her husband see the consequences of the actions he is about to take. The actress had signed on to play this role years ago, back when Liam Neeson was set to play Lincoln, and she had to fight to keep it. It’s a good thing Spielberg kept her around because she has always been a tremendous acting talent, and she enthralls us in every scene she appears in.

Like many of Spielberg’s best films, there isn’t a single weak performance to be found in “Lincoln” which boasts quite the cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had a heck of a year in 2012 with “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Looper” and “Premium Rush,” is excellent as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, who considers quitting school to join the army and fight for his country. David Strathairn is a wonderfully strong presence as Secretary of State William Seward, the great Hal Holbrook is unforgettable as the influential politician Francis Preston Blair, Gloria Reuben is very moving in her performance as former slave Elizabeth Keckley, and Jackie Earle Haley has some strong moments as the Confederate States Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.

But the one great performance which needs to be singled out in “Lincoln,” other than the ones given by Lewis or Field, is Tommy Lee Jones’ who portrays the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. Jones is a powerhouse throughout as he empowers this fervent abolitionist with a passion as undeniable as it is undying, and seeing him reduce other congressional members to jelly is a thrill to witness. Jones is tremendous as we see him fight for what he feels is right regardless of how he goes about achieving it.

Spielberg employs his usual band of collaborators here like producer Kathleen Kennedy, director of photography Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams to create a movie which captures the importance of Lincoln’s place in history while also making it intimate in a way we don’t expect it to be. He also benefits from having the great playwright Tony Kushner on board as the movie’s screenwriter. Kushner’s knowledge of history has never been in doubt ever since we witnessed his magnum opus of “Angels in America,” and word is he spent six years working on the script for “Lincoln.” His efforts do show as he gives us a riveting portrait of a divided nation on the verge of making a major change, and even back then America was resistant and deeply frightened to making certain changes regardless of whether or not it would benefit from them.

Granted, Lincoln’s life would probably be better explored in a miniseries as there is so much to explore, and this movie can explore only so much of it. Regardless, “Lincoln” is an invigorating portrait of a great American President who fought for the benefit of his country’s future. The sacrifices he made tragically cut his life short, but his legacy will never ever die as Spielberg’s film rightly proves.

* * * * out of * * * *

Race

race-movie-poster

2015 was a year where the biopic genre had a major resurgence with movies like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Love & Mercy.” Most biopics in recent years have been strictly by-the-numbers affairs which give us historical footnotes without going into much depth about the people they are about, but those two movies brought their subjects to life in a most wonderfully vivid way. “Race,” the biopic about gold medalist Jesse Owens which should have made years ago, will not rank among the best of the genre and starts off as a by-the-numbers affair, but it does get better as it goes along as we watch this iconic African American athlete get ready for the Olympics.

Instead of looking at Owens’ whole life, “Race” focuses on the years he went to college and began training with Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) who molds his running talent into something even better. Despite the adversity he and other African Americans face on the university campus, Owens soon becomes a star athlete and gets selected to compete in the Olympic Games. But these are the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin which was under the grip of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. On top of dealing with racism in America, Owens also has to deal with a dictator who will not be quick to celebrate any victory he could possibly achieve.

“Race” gets off to a rocky start as it gives us snapshots of Owens’ life without much in the way of introspection. We briefly see the troubled relationship between him and his father in a wordless scene, but it’s never clear why these two aren’t getting along. To its credit, it doesn’t gloss over Owens’ affair which almost destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend and daughter, and it makes for some strong scenes as he desperately tries to win her back.

The movie, however, does get better when we watch Owens finding success, and there is a subplot involving Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) who battle over whether or not America should even participate in these Olympic Games. We also get to see Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose life could easily inspire a fascinating biopic on its own. Indeed, the politics behind these games help to make “Race” more riveting as it makes us see just how high the stakes were for everyone involved. Had it just focused on Owens, it would have been anti-climactic as we know how successful he would be at those Olympic Games.

“Race” was directed by Stephen Hopkins whose resume is all over the map as he has gone from making “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” and “Predator 2” to helming episodes of “24” and the acclaimed HBO movie “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” He does give the movie an amazing scene in which Owens enters the Berlin Stadium, and he puts us right into the man’s shoes as he works to tune out all the other voices yelling at him. Some biopics keep you at arm’s length away from their main subject, but this one makes you feel what it’s like to be Owens as Hopkins surrounds him with his camera to where we quickly come to understand what it’s like to be Owens at this moment. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, and he manages to not let this affect him as he makes his way to the starting line.

Playing Owens is Stephan James who played civil rights activist John Lewis in “Selma,” and he has been given the daunting task of humanizing such an iconic human being. But he succeeds as he gives us an Owens full of strengths and flaws like anyone else, and he never succumbs to portraying this gold medalist as some sort of superhuman. Had James done that, this movie could have easily fallen apart.

But the performance in “Race” I was most impressed with was Jason Sudeikis’ as Coach Larry Snyder. Sudeikis is best known for his time on “Saturday Night Live,” but the fact that he pulls off a first-rate dramatic performance here did not surprise me. Any actor or actress who can do comedy can certainly do drama as making people cry is a lot easier than making people laugh, but Sudeikis ends up giving this movie its most complex character. Snyder comes across as a hard ass when it comes to coaching his runners, but we come to see what fuels his commitment to them and of the things he was unable to accomplish as a runner himself. Sudeikis also has a great scene where he shows Owens and his team how successfully one can shout out opposing voices yelling at him in the background. He sells this scene for all it’s worth, and it makes me look forward to whatever this former “SNL” star decides to take on next.

“Race” is not going to go down as one of the best biopics ever made, but it is a compelling one all the same. While it does fall victim to reducing its subject’s life down to mere footnotes at the movie’s start, it does improve as we learn more about Owens and of the obstacles placed in his path when he decides to participate in the Olympic Games. In many ways, we should be thankful any biopic about Jesse Owens finally made it to the big screen as this movie should have been made years ago. Could it have been a better movie? Sure, but this one will do for now.

* * * out of * * * *

 

I Saw The Light

I Saw the Light movie poster

Watching “I Saw the Light” reminded me of when I saw Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Both movies have a great cast, a lead actor who perfectly embodies an iconic singer, and scenes which vividly bring to life the classic songs of the artists. At the same time, both movies keep their main subjects, in this case country singer Hank Williams, at arm’s length to where we come out feeling like we never really got to know them. Considering the talent involved, this particular music biopic proves to be a major disappointment.

Writer and director Marc Abraham, whose previous film was “Flash of Genius,” eschews Hank’s childhood and goes straight to when he married Audrey Sheppard, a divorcee and single mother. They look like the perfect couple, and this is especially the case when you consider the palpable chemistry between stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. But like many biopics, we know everything is heading downhill for these two, and Hank’s life got cut short by alcoholism and a painful medical condition. He was only 29 years old when he died, but he looked much, much older.

The movie gets off to a wonderful start as we see Williams singing one of his most famous songs in a sequence which is beautifully lit by the brilliant cinematographer Dante Spinotti. We are instantly hooked as the country icon’s lyrics capture our attention right away, and it makes us look like we’re in for quite the biopic. Unfortunately, this proves to be its high point as nothing else ever measures up.

One of the big problems with “I Saw the Light” is it is so sloppily edited to where it’s hard to tell what part of Hank’s life we are looking at. It goes from one section of his life to another before we can ever fully digest what is going on. This makes the movie very confusing, and it keeps us from getting to know Hank and the other people in his life more intimately. I felt like I never really understood what fueled his music, and he became the kind of person who is not at all fun to hang out with.

Also, the movie feels undercooked to where Abraham has his cast of actors underplay every single scene they appear in. Nothing ever comes to life in the way it should, and everything in “I Saw the Light” eventually becomes an exercise in tedium. It’s bad enough we never get deeper into Hank’s psyche, but to see this story portrayed in such a passionless way makes this whole project come across as an unforgivably missed opportunity.

“I Saw the Light” does, however, have Hiddleston as Hank Williams, and his performance is in some respects amazing. We all know him for playing Loki in the “Thor” and “The Avengers” movies, and at first he seems like an odd choice to play the man who made “Lovesick Blues” such an unforgettable song. But he succeeds not only in mastering Hank’s accent, but in getting the audience to feel the songs as much as he does when he sings them. That’s right, Hiddleston does his own singing here, and this makes his work here all the more admirable.

I was also impressed with Olsen’s performance as she makes Audrey perhaps the only human being who could possibly deal with Hank’s alcoholism and womanizing. Watching her here makes one realize what a powerful actress she can be, and she brings this movie to life in a way others are unable to.

As for the supporting characters, they are given short shrift and serve little purpose other than to further Hank and Audrey’s exploits. Cherry Jones, a tremendous actress, is wasted here as Hank’s mother Lillie as she has almost nothing to do other than sneer at any woman who grabs her son’s immediate affection. Bradley Whitford makes a bit of an impact as Fred Rose, the man who helped Hank rise to stardom, but Fred’s contributions to Hank’s career are made to feel smaller than they were. Maddie Hasson fares better as Billie Jean, the young woman who eventually becomes Hank’s second wife, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of her here.

For what it’s worth, “I Saw the Light” did give me a good appreciation of Hank Williams’ songs. I have never been much of a country music fan, but the movie made me see why his music struck such a strong chord in so many people. Hank understood the pain of love in a way others didn’t want to experience firsthand, and it was not hard to connect with the feelings he so deeply expressed through music.

Still, the movie never digs deep enough into his life, and what results is a inescapably frustrating cinematic experience. This could have been one of the best biopics of recent years, but the filmmakers treat their main subject with kids’ gloves to where he feels like a complete stranger from start to finish. Coming out of “I Saw the Light,” I wanted to read more about Hank Williams on Wikipedia among other places on the internet as there’s got to be much more information on him there than what we got here.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* ½ out of * * * *