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Elvis (2022)

Elvis the movie is exactly what I would have hoped for from a Baz Luhrmann film, which is an experience that no one else can provide, a messy, chaotic, crazy, sometimes tin-eared yet audacious and immersive kaleidoscope of sight and sound that feels like a theme park ride. As with all Luhrmann films, the first 20 minutes is a rush of tones, characters, and near constant frenetic movement; it’s so much to process before the movie eventually settles down, at least marginally, or the viewer becomes better acclimated to the madcap storytelling style of this mad Aussie. I feel completely certain that people will call Elvis brilliant, and people will deem Elvis to be ridiculous and campy, and I would say it defiantly manages to be all of these identities at once. It is ridiculous, it is campy, it is emotional and sincere, it is, at points, even brilliant, and in a way, this shambolic style perfectly symbolizes Elvis himself, a performer that seems to be anything that the viewer projects onto him, a trailblazer who suffered for his art before becoming an irreplaceable industry and edifice of pop-culture obsession unto himself.

We chart the rise of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) from a young crooner in the 1950s to the best-selling solo artist in recording history. Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) discovers Presley, granted after he’s been a chart-topping local hit in the South, and sees a grand opportunity. With Elvis, there is no limit to where they both can go, and so Parker becomes Elvis’ manager for over twenty years for better and worse, engineering Elvis’ tour of duty in the military to take him away from negative headlines, only for him to meet and marry Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), to locking him into a Vegas headlining gig to erase the mystery man’s heavy debts to the mob. Under Luhrmann’s guidance, you’ll experience it all and then some in the frenzied 160 minutes.

Elvis was many things for many people. He was a smooth crooner, he was an electric live performer, he was the benefactor of being a white vessel for music that was built upon the less heralded work of black performers, he was a victim, he was selfish, he was devoted to his fans and the stage, he was… America. In 2022, I would have asked if contemporary culture even cared about Elvis anymore, a man who died over 40 years ago, and whether we even have a lens to appreciate the man. Was he simply coasting off the hard work of other black performers? Did he groom his eventual bride considering her age upon their meeting? Was Elvis too old fashioned to even be anything other than a musical touchstone that other artists have surpassed? Is he just a joke? Luhrmann does a fine job of re-contextualizing Elvis, what made him unique for his era, and what made him still captivating to watch to this day. Even the archival footage the closes the movie is a reminder of the unmitigated power the man put into his singing.

It wouldn’t be a Luhrmann movie without a narrator, and this time we get the story’s main antagonist as our prism to view Elvis, marking him chiefly as victim. Tom Parker is a cartoon of a character especially as portrayed by Hanks. I love me some Tom Hanks, the man is an American treasure, and I appreciate that the man is definitely going for broke, but I don’t know at all what he was going for with this performance (the makeup does him no favors also). Hanks is fascinating because he is playing a villainous character that is constantly trying to re-frame their villainy, telling his side of the story but being careful, though not that careful, to always have an answer for an accusation. It feels like Hanks has stepped off the wacky Moulin Rouge! stage and everyone else in the movie is playing things completely straight. The entire acting troupe is all playing under one direction, and then there’s Hanks in his fat suit, who is breaking through the fourth wall, compulsively narrating our story, and acting like a loquacious Loony Tunes figure any second away from his own song and dance. His repeated use of the term “snow job” and “snowman,” which he dubbed himself as a showman, is overused to the point of being a verbal crutch, reminiscent of how often Jay Gatsby had to say some variation of “ole sport” in the 2013 movie or else he might irrevocably burst into glitter (or so I assume). It’s such a bizarre performance of wild choices that I can subjectively say it might be Hanks’ worst and yet it also feels like Hanks is giving Luhrmann exactly what he wants. It’s such a bold move to essentially cede your famous biopic to the most ridiculous character to tell from their ridiculous perspective. Imagine I, Tonya being told from Paul Walter Hauser’s character or House of Gucci being told from Jared Leto’s character, and that’s what we have here. I almost kind of love it, and in doing so, we see from the manipulator how he worked his magic to keep financial control over Elvis. Even Elvis’ later years are provided with a perspective that re-frames the man as a victim of a moneymaking machine that wouldn’t stop until it had drained every last drop of blood from this hard-working man.

I think this is smart because, on the surface, Elvis might not be the most complicated person to devote two hours to unpacking his character dimensions. He liked to sing, as it touched something deep inside him, and he wanted to be true to himself, but this framework isn’t any different from any number of famous musician biopics we’ve become more than accustomed to. He dealt with drug addiction and erratic behavior but, again, even this is musical biopic basics. Even his doomed relationship with Priscilla is familiar stuff, as she could rarely compete with the demands and the allure of the stage. I think Luhrmann and his co-writers wisely saw that the best storytelling avenue with Elvis is through the lesser-known Colonel, a bizarre and calculating figure cackling in the shadows. There are significant questions over who this proud huckster really is and what he did to bully and cajole Elvis into his favor. There’s inherent conflict there as well as an angle that I would argue most are unfamiliar with. I didn’t know much about the history of Elvis the man but I knew even less about this would-be Colonel.

The most Luhrmann of sequences is Elvis’ breakthrough live performance where it feels like every woman in attendance is catching a fever of combustible hormonal fury. The way the man shook his hips, moved his body, his gyrations that so many adults felt were dangerously subversive, were part and parcel of the younger Elvis. He really was a born performer, and even says he can’t sing if he isn’t allowed to move how he feels he must with the music. During this crazy sequence, Luhrmann’s camera is trained on the emotional response of the audience experiencing a sensation that cannot be contained, bubbling to the surface into tears, shrieks, and convulsions, and it moves through the crowd like waves. It’s such an enthusiastic experience that plays right into the stylistic and tonal wheelhouse of Luhrmann. It’s also an unsubtle reminder, not that much is subtle in a Luhrmann movie, that part of the man’s appeal was his raw sexual magnetism.

In a modern era, the condemnation of Elvis as a corrupting influence on the youth feels comically quaint, until you remember that all of this was also filtered through a very racist paranoia. Elvis was deemed a danger because he was an accessible introduction to music and culture that was associated with black people. The accusations of Elvis corrupting the youth are all tinged with racial implications about his source of inspiration, never mind that Elvis was also influenced by a religious revivalism. The movie doesn’t say that Elvis was a sham, only succeeding off the work of other esteemed yet unfairly unheralded black artists. With the many onscreen performances, he is clearly talented, and offers his own versions of others’ songs, but he’s also deferential to the people he grew up with and the music he clearly loves and wants to be a part of to the detriment of whatever Tom Parker and his handlers believe is commercially viable. B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) even remarks about Elvis’ own privilege when he thinks about bucking politicians demanding that he perform safe songs without his signature dancing (“They’ll arrest me for just crossing the street. You are a famous white boy who makes them too much money.”).

I’ve purposely delayed from discussing the best reason to go see all 160 ungainly minutes, and that is Butler’s glorious performance. The young man simply dissolves into the role and makes you forget you’re watching an actor. The way he captures the cadence, the drawl, the presence of Elvis, and not just his jerky movements, is phenomenal, and then you remember that it’s Butler doing all his own singing as well, and the spell is near complete. He is Elvis. It’s a performance guaranteed to win as many plaudits as awards season has to offer. Through Butler’s performance, a younger generation can understand what all the hubbub was about. The man brings the character to life but he especially brings Elvis the performer to startling life. Even if you hate Luhrmann’s other movies, and he is definitely divisive, and even if you couldn’t care less about Elvis in the year 2022, this movie is well worth watching for the sheer brilliance of Butler alone.

In some ways, Elvis the movie feels like a perfect assignment for director Baz Luhrmann. His unconventional stylistic approach livens up an otherwise conventional rise-and-fall tale, broadening the appeal of Elvis for an audience that might have otherwise shrugged at a movie chronicling the man’s exploits. The subject matter is also the squarest for Luhrmann, which makes it also the safest movie of his career, which is truly saying something considering some of the imaginative highs of this movie. There will be just as many people put off by the excessive, in-your-face style of the movie as drawn in by that Luhrmann razzle dazzle. Watching Elvis feels like you’re watching two movies simultaneously atop one another. Luhrmann can be exhausting even at his best but he’s also one of the few filmmakers that makes watching a movie such a textual experience, where sight and sound are layered in such meaningful and granular details to better immerse the viewer. The way even the sound designs ebbs and flows, braids musical notes and themes and older selections of influential resources as it all composes a wonderful soundscape. Few put this kind of thought into every nanosecond that Luhrmann does, himself a natural showman who cannot help himself. While plenty will wish for restraint, I say, much as others asked for restraint from Elvis’ gyrations, to let Baz be Baz, and he lets Elvis be Elvis to the giddy entertainment of the audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

House of Gucci (2021)/ The Last Duel (2021)

The octogenarian filmmaker Ridley Scott has been a prolific and influential director for decades, but rarely has his high-powered work ethic been as obvious as within a 30-day window. Scott directed two movies, both aimed at adults and potential awards consideration, and both co-starring Adam Driver in a supporting role, and both as subtle as the outlandish fashions of the 1980s. Scott is not a subtle filmmaker by trade. He favors rousing excess and bold characters making bold decisions. This is not the first time Scott has managed to release two movies in a single calendar year (2017: Alien Covenant and All the Money in the World; 2001: Black Hawk Down and Hannibal) but for both movies to be released within a month, and share thematic similarities, is worth noting. The films also share many of the same artists (editor, composer, director of photography) as House of Gucci was filmed a mere four months after wrapping The Last Duel, which was delayed because of the pandemic. Both movies are based on true stories but go in different directions for artistic impact. House of Gucci veers into tragi-comic camp to its entertainment benefit, and The Last Duel spares subtlety for blunt political points.

The Gucci family has enjoyed nearly a century as fashion royalty. They’re known for their classic look, the care that’s put into their leather, and the long-standing resistance to change. Enter Patrizia (Lady Gaga), an ambitious young woman who doesn’t want to work for her father’s truck-driving company forever. She sets her sights on Maurizio (Driver), the mild-mannered son of Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and nephew to Aldo (Al Pacino), the co-heads of the Gucci empire. Their whirlwind romance leads to marriage and Patrizia insisting that her beloved take more control of the family business and make his mark as a Gucci.

The real reason you should go to the theaters for all 150 minutes of gargantuan Gucci drama is because of the monumentally captivating performance by Gaga. I will suffer no fools on this subject: Gaga is flat-out wonderful. As the kids on the social media say, she clearly understood the assignment. Gaga is knowingly broad and hamming it up but she is having the time of her life. I was impressed with her acting in 2018’s A Star is Born and how natural she was onscreen. Now she’s playing a distinctly drawn character and she dissolves into the role, smirking it up and purring with every line. You won’t exactly trust this woman, who is proven to be conniving and ambitious but also effective at manipulating others and earning her position of prominence, but you’ll love watching her onscreen whether alone or dancing circles around her cohorts. Gaga understands completely that this sordid tale plays better intentionally dipping into camp, making bold and outrageous what otherwise could have been underplayed. It’s an outrageous story with outrageous wealth and privilege, and it deserves to be told in an outrageous manner. That doesn’t mean dismiss the drama as minimal, but it recognizes the tone that will best bring out the entertainment value of the soapy plot elements. No one needs this kind of story played miserably strait-laced and absent any light; nobody needs another astoundingly awful The Counselor (sorry, Ridley). Take the sex scene between Gaga and Driver. It is so loud, so obnoxious, so over-the-top, and it stays at that level for a thrust-heavy protracted period, that the movie, and Gaga especially, is inviting you to laugh along. Gaga is the one who fully understands the edict or more-more-more the most and demonstrates it with her charmingly over-the-top performance. She is fully deserving of Academy recognition and to be memorialized as a thousand memes and GIFs.

House of Gucci feels very much like a Ryan Murphy show condensed to a feature-length over-extended special. For those unfamiliar with Murphy’s genre-bending TV work on FX (American Horror Story, American Crime Story) and now Netflix (Ratchet, Hollywood), the provocateur never met a juicy twist or outlandish plot element he didn’t love to use, abuse, and inundate the viewer. He’s like a creative prankster freely celebrating the ridiculousness of the prime-time soaps of old while also providing ironic counterpoints to them. It can be a riveting experience when it all works together and an unmitigated yet often fascinating hot mess when it doesn’t. Subtlety also rarely factors into a Murphy show. He also loves opening up the fabulous lives of the fabulously wealthy, including the heralded Versace family, and the fabulous lives of Hollywood stars in tremendous acrimony, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, for our envious guilty pleasure consumption. The House of Gucci feels comfortably pitched in that Ryan Murphy sweet spot, especially if you’re a fan of the populist high-gloss escapism of Murphy’s campy forays.

Because of this tragi-comic tone, House of Gucci keeps things rolling with eye-rolling excess and consistent laughter. It’s essentially watching Patrizia climb the ladder of power within the Gucci family, eliminating her enemies and neutralizing her opposition. She’s so strong-willed, ruthless, and successful, that it’s fun to watch this outsider, who was seen as a gold-digging harlot by some within the cloistered family, systematically tear apart the tut-tutting elites. It’s structured in many ways like a gangster movie with its rise-and-fall narrative and, in its final half hour, it becomes a full-fledged crime story, one whose outcome I had no idea about. If you’re unfamiliar with the Gucci family story and scheming, like me, the movie will play even better with its level of surprise and colorful characters. This is Scott’s most light-footed work since 2015’s The Martian.

Another shocking surprise is how enjoyable Jared Leto (The Little Things) is as clownish cousin, Paolo Gucci. The actor is buried under pounds of prosthetic makeup and is performing on the same tonal wavelength as Gaga; these two know best what kind of movie they’re starring in. Leto is so deliciously, amazingly over-the-top that all of his Method affectations are part of the appeal rather than being a distraction. This character is a riotous naïve hack, a Gucci with the worst ideas in fashion but the inability to recognize his creative shortcomings. He would be set up for tragedy in a different kind of movie, like a Falstaff if you want to go all Shakespearean, but in this version of this story, he’s a buffoon with no self-awareness. Every time he appears onscreen, it’s deserving of a live studio audience applauding like a TV sitcom character that has stumbled into a prestige drama by mistake. This performance is so hugely Italian is practically exhaling mozzarella cheese. He could be the missing Mario triplet. Watching Leto and Pacino go back and forth is like watching a competition over who can chew the most scenery with the most overblown Italian accent, and I gave in and loved every second of it.

The overall length of House of Gucci starts to grate and the indulgence of the lavish lifestyles of the famous family gets repetitive. We don’t need five montages of wealth and luxury when one will do. Once Patrizia and Maurizio rise to control Gucci, the movie seems to coast, so much so that the eventual divide between the two seems arbitrary and undeveloped. When the movie transitioned to this point, I was left wondering what had exactly been their relationship breaking point. Maybe that’s the point and the absence is meant to convey how Maurizio has changed, given into the fast cars and fancy suits of a lifestyle he previously seemed indifferent to. The movie feels long and overly extended for a feature. The content could have worked as one of those glossy Ryan Murphy miniseries, but as a movie it could have used some judicious accounting.

House of Gucci is going to be the most entertaining for people seeking a less realistic, brooding, and contemplative drama about power and corruption and more seeking a delightfully baffling and campy mess of a movie. Lady Gaga and Jared Leto are playing their respective roles to the hilt, and it’s a hoot to watch them have as much fun with such broadly comic characters. Perhaps the tragi-comic tone will feel in poor taste for some (designer Tom Ford, a player in the Gucci resurgence in the 1990s, has said so), but I found House of Gucci to be a ridiculous movie that knew where it should go big and where it should go small, and it favored big early and often.

In contrast, The Last Duel is based upon a true story of the last time France used judicial trial by combat. It’s the 1300s, and Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a soldier for King Charles VI and looking to repay his mounting debts. He enters a marriage with Marguerite (Jodie Comer) for her dowry and promised land. However, Sir Jean finds his former squire and friend Jacques Le Gris (Driver) the recipient of the land, having been gifted it as thanks from the local lord, the carousing Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck). Sir Jean is outraged by the offense. Then the bombshell hits: Marguerite accuses Le Gris of raping her. Le Gris denies it to his core. Sir Jean challenges his former friend to a trial by combat whereupon only one man will walk away alive.

The Last Duel could have also just as easily been titled, Sucks to Be a Woman: The 14th Century Edition. It’s a blunt assessment of systemic misogyny and the cruelty that was so casual that Church officials were blaming women for tempting men into raping them. This is an upsetting movie by design, and it’s filled with head-shaking arguments like a “real rape” cannot cause a pregnancy (“That’s science,” the court prosecutor says, in a nod to a future Todd Akin), that pregnancy is facilitated if the woman experiences an orgasm, so ipso facto how could the accused rape be in fact a rape if the lady is pregnant because that means she must have enjoyed herself. It hurts me to even type this diseased thinking, and I don’t consider it a spoiler to list some of the absurd arguments that will be unleashed in the name of institutional sexism. You could just as likely come up with your own ridiculous arguments playing a game of sexist Mad Libs and it will likely be featured at some point throughout The Last Duel. This is not a condemnation of the movie but a realization that its main journey is going to be a bleak grind, one that consistently makes you sigh deeply and feel uncomfortable for all the countless millions of women.

I fully believe that there are important lessons to be had in empathy and shattering ignorance when it comes to uncovering history as it is and not history as it is written. For some, the events of The Last Duel will hardly be eye-opening, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot engender greater consideration and thought to not just the historical context of the Medieval period but on the classic tales of chivalry and masculinity that have been passed down verbatim through centuries. The division of character perspectives is almost like uncovering the historical perspective through layers of obfuscation and legend. We see the movie three times, each from the point of view of another. We start with Sir Jean who views his life as abused loyalty, a dutiful soldier who fights for God and country and is constantly attacked by scheming upstarts. This beginning perspective is the most basic one, lacking dimension and keeping to a rigid right/wrong dichotomy. This is the kind of boilerplate that goes into legends. The second perspective, and seemingly longest, presents the villain’s perspective but where he clearly views himself as a dutiful soldier whose loyalty is also abused. He becomes obsessed with Marguerite and dreams of her and is convinced that her evinced kindness is really flirtation. He completely views the rape as a consensual outing. This perspective is more reflective than the first and insightful insofar as it’s meant to convey how men of this society can fool themselves into thinking their abuse is requested and obliged. This perspective is meant to convey the, for lack of a better word, common thinking and confirmation bias of centuries of entrenched systemic misogyny.

Despite its grim subject matter, The Last Duel is assuredly a feminist film and does not condone or dismiss the actions of its sexual predators. In trying to showcase differing perspectives, the movie is not asking us to question whether the rape was real or not, it’s asking us to understand, not excuse, the perspective of the perpetrator to better understand, not excuse, the landscape that produced so many more perpetrators. It’s historical context that some will argue is exploitative. Do we need to have the brutality shoved in our faces to better understand the plight of women? The screenplay is written by Damon and Affleck, their first collaboration since 1997’s Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, and they made the decision to have Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to write the feminine perspective from their story.

The third and final perspective is the one more aligned with the truth, and it’s here that we can begin to compare the points of difference between the prior two male perspectives. Early on, Marguerite’s marriage is de-romanticized. She is expected to bear a son at all costs. As time passes without a child, her husband begins to have his doubts about her worth. He didn’t have this problem with his first wife, he adds, to let her know where the problem is coming from. Yet Marguerite is also a natural problem-solver and manager, and when left alone to tend to her husband’s estate, she enacts policies that are clear improvements. Again, it’s another symbolic example of how many capable and intelligent women were intimidated into being primarily child-bearing mares. When she tells her husband she has been raped, Sir Jean takes it as an offense against him first and foremost. He also undresses and insists that Le Gris will not be the last man to “know [his] wife.”  When Sir Jean boldly challenges Le Gris to a trial by combat, he fails to mention to his wife that if he were to lose, and thus found unfavorable in God’s eyes, then she will be burned alive as punishment for a false accusation. She asked for the justice of the courts, but that wasn’t good enough for her husband’s pride (to be fair, the courts were also stacked with bias to the liege lord). If the first perspective is the one most likely to be recorded, and the second most likely to be held by the men of this time, then it’s the final perspective that is reality, and one that has been ignored.

This all leads up to a climactic duel that had me rooting for both men to kill each other, unless that forfeited the life of Marguerite somehow through its arcane rules. I felt genuine tension because I was dreading the bloody outcome. I was suspecting the worst, with Le Gris to persevere and the movie to basically say, “Well, that’s what it was like, folks.” It’s a brutal sequence. The extended confrontation is thrilling exactly because the movie has done its work to establish genuine emotional stakes. I feared for the life of Marguerite, trapped in this ridiculous system of narcissistic men hitting each other for God’s favor rather than trusting the voice of the victim. It’s absurd in the same vein as drowning a woman to prove whether she was a witch is absurd. I won’t spoil the ending results, but I think it pays off the grind of the preceding two hours while staying true to the characters and their perspectives until the bitter end.

The Last Duel is not exactly a subtle film, but when the political message is intended to be blunt and alarming, is it better to use the dross of artistic subterfuge or be blunt? The characters are more archetypes than multidimensional figures, and even the extra time with them produces more of the same but at least offers a reflection of their respective reality distortion fields. The symbols are rather obvious throughout, like Marguerite breeding horses (look, that mare is like you!) and the cultural lessons are not exactly revolutionary. But when people need to be shaken, to dramatically rethink their cozy relationship with historical assumptions, then I say you bring a rhetorical sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. One can almost hear a certain political figure of recent prominence flatly echoing, “But he strongly denies it,” as proof of innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise (“locker room talk” and the like). But this story of toxic masculinity and systemic victimization doesn’t deserve to be told subtle and with brave faces in the wake of quiet indignities. It’s trying to re-contextualize heroes and villains of chivalric legend without losing sight on the human viewpoint. Whether viewers think they need a 150-minute lesson in how awful it was to be a woman is going to be a personal decision, and the reason I think many adults stayed away (sorry Ridley, it’s not we Millennials that this movie was marketed toward). This could have been trimmed down, especially with all the overworked palace intrigue in the middle. It’s an uncomfortable movie by nature, but one with relevant power and empathy and grueling suspense. The Last Duel is an uncompromising movie that asks the audience to think most of the unseen perspective too often overlooked.

House of Gucci is meant for titillation and diversion. The Last Duel is meant for conversations and denied catharsis. Even when the movie ends, you’re left with the underlined impression that this one woman’s plight is the same as so many others who will never know the spotlight. Both movies take clear aim at distinctly different tones and achieve their aims through their devotion and execution. Scott is a brilliantly visual tactician who simultaneously makes the outdoors look their driest and wettest. I cannot say either movie is elevated to another level it would have been unable to achieve thanks to Scott’s able direction, but he feels more committed and invested in both stories, and in particular the performances, than in his most recent output. I’m happy that Hollywood is still making mature moves for grown-ups, even if The Last Duel looks like a costly box-office dud. Both of these Scott ventures are worth watching. It all depends on your desired mood. Do you want to lounge in luxury and laugh it up, or do you want to feel miserable but more educated? Either way, these movies will mostly deliver what they promise for your 150 minutes of attention.

Nate’s Grades:

House of Gucci: B

The Last Duel: B+

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

Deeply compassionate but perhaps a little too minuscule, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is the biographical movie about Christian broadcasting pioneer Tammy Faye and her rise and fall along with her bad husband, televangelist Jim Bakker. This is based upon the 2000 documentary by the same name, which is well worth watching the real Tammy Faye provide reflective insights into her unique life. For the live-action film, Tammy is played by Jessica Chastain, who apparently held onto the film rights of Tammy Faye for over a decade, meaning this has been a dream project for the Oscar-nominee. Chastain is fantastic and nails the chirpy voice, ebullient personality, and general naivete of a woman who was a true believer and loved all people so thoroughly that her empathy could be used against her, like when Jim (Andrew Garfield) chastises her for saying gay people are deserving of love, not condemnation, in front of none other than Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). The movie clearly presents Tammy Faye as a genuine soul, though part of this appeal is mitigated by the broadly comic tone of the movie. Under the direction of Michael Showalter, a man more known for farcical satires, The Eyes of Tammy Faye veers into stretches of camp bewilderment, where the movie is inviting you to laugh at its eccentricities. It never fully stabilizes, and the movie feels like it wants to humanize this woman but then also laugh at her. To be fair, Tammy Faye is such a broadly theatrical character who undergoes dramatic physical changes as she ages, her heavy makeup becoming like warpaint. The film’s makeup is likely going to be an Oscar-front runner as it completely transforms Chastain into the chipmunk-cheeked Faye over the course of four decades. The best parts of the movie for me were the strife between her and her husband, an insufferable man too high on his own ego and jealous of his wife’s success. When Jim Bakker confesses to his own infamous affair with his secretary and hasty cover-up, he tries to pin the blame on his wife, saying he must have done it to try and prove something to her. Tammy Faye is a unique woman who lived the gospel she preached when it came to unconditional love. She embraced those with AIDS in the 1980s (recreated in a moving interview), she saw her position as one to remind people of God’s kindness rather than his judgement, and her lifelong interest in puppets and children’s ministry shows her priority in making worship inclusive. The Eyes of Tammy Faye won’t tell you much more about Tammy Faye under the surface but then again maybe there wasn’t. She even says she’s an open book, what you see is what you get. The world would be a better place with more Tammy Fayes leading the way and fewer Jerry Falwells.

Nate’s Grade: B

King Richard (2021)

King Richard confounds me and also doesn’t. I can understand what the point was and shrug my shoulders at its choice of narrative perspective. It’s a hagiography that settles on audience foreknowledge to alleviate any tension, or sustained interest, and at its core is a contradiction of a man deserving scrutiny but served up for celebration. As my pal Michael Galusick put it, “I can’t believe there’s a movie about the rise to greatness for the Williams sisters [Venus and Serena], and it’s centered around their dad.” King Richard is an awards-season hopeful, produced by the Williams sisters, and a questionable biopic with a questionable perspective aimed at telling the hidden story behind the meteoric success of two of the greatest tennis stars of all time.

In the late 1980s, Richard Williams (Will Smith) is working all night as a security guard and spending his mornings to train his two pre-teen daughters, Venus and Serena, in tennis. Richard is convinced they will be superstars, that he and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis, Lovecraft Country) will be rich and move from their Compton, California neighborhood. Richard gets beaten by local gangs, studies tennis magazines and instructors, and tries to get his girls formal training from professionals while holding them back to his demands. He has a plan, he repeatedly tells others, for their success, and nothing will dissuade him from it.

Firstly, we finally get a movie about the Williams sisters and their dominant rise through the world of tennis, and the movie is almost entirely centered upon their demanding father and his vigilant bordering on abusive training regimen? Richard is meant to be a contradiction and had the movie explored his contradictions in full this could have been an illuminating character study and warts-and-all biopic. However, it’s a movie that fully relies on every viewer’s implicit understanding of the great success of the Williams sisters, so the entire movie serves as a two-hour-plus “I told you so” to Richard’s doubters. Silly neighbor, questioning whether forcing his daughters to perform for hours in the pouring rain constitutes child endangerment. Silly wife, questioning why Richard has insisted his family move into the neighborhood of Compton to better raise his children through adversity and still complain about the dangers that Compton presents and that his daughters must rise above to leave and make something of themselves. Silly tennis coaches, questioning Richard, a man who has no tennis background himself, for demanding his sideline coaching be prioritized over the professionals. Silly “tennis parents,” the kinds that Richard says should be shot, even though he behaves the same way. Silly Williams children, feeling that their demands will be heard and acknowledged as far as their own personal paths and that the other Williams sisters will earn a similar level of attention and affection. Silly sports agents, for being skeptical about this man who says he had a 70-page “plan” for athletic success before his kids were even born and preaching that his unorthodox methods, including paying neighborhood kids to harass and intimidate his girls while they played, would be proven correct. Because, I suppose, it all worked out because Venus and Serena had tremendous success and were inspirations to millions of young African American kids who could finally see themselves in a sport that was privileged and exclusive for generations. He was right, so all of his unorthodox, crazy, dubious methods must have worked, so intuits the movie. It’s less because Venus and Serena have talent and skills and more that their dad worked really really hard and suffered.

With the involvement of the Williams sisters, King Richard only ever goes so far when it comes to critical analysis of its title character. He is certainly presented as a dedicated, hard-working dreamer, but his eccentricities and self-aggrandizing get sanitized as “tough father” when that toughness can cross over into obsession and abuse. It’s like watching 2014’s Whiplash but turned into a feel-good inspirational tale for the ages. At least Whiplash explored the harm of obsession and the pessimistic belief system that whatever it takes to a achieve greatness is excusable. With King Richard, the movie is not at all critical of this ethos. Oh sure, there are points where Brandy Williams speaks up with measured irritation at her husband making rash decisions, excluding the involvement and contributions of others to see his great plan through, and these moments are easily the best in the movie. Finally, someone is pressing this man on his methods and making him confront himself and his flaws. But then Brandy blends back into the background until another half hour goes by and the movie needs to tap her services again. This is the same woman, by the way, who in real life Richard hid her birth control pills in order to back her into a pregnancy and begin his master plan. That’s real. That happened. Same with intentionally keeping his children in Compton so they would learn adversity (tragic side note: one of his older daughters, Yetunde, died in 2003 near a gang house in Compton). And also the fact that Richard walked out on his previous family before Brandy, leaving behind five children all under the age of eight. When he speaks in the movie about always being there for his girls, unlike his father who ran out on him, it rings hollow with the full unflattering context.

The movie seems to adopt Richard’s belief that if he didn’t push so hard for so long, while also withholding them from the tennis juniors circuit, denying them matches for three years, then perhaps they too would have burnt out and gone down a similar path as young superstar Jennifer Capriati. Except Venus’ first breakout success is because of her own insistence and Richard finally, at long last, acquiescing to the choices being made by his own daughters. Who knows, maybe she would have had success even earlier and not burnt out? It’s just as plausible considering that Richard’s regimen included forcing the girls to earn all As in high school on top of rigorous training. I think this detail is meant to make Richard seem like he values their education on par with their sports performances, but it reads to me as another high-pressure burden he’s beset upon his beleaguered daughters to meet his personal definition of success.

Again, if the movie portrayed this man in a more honest approach, questioning his methods and bringing light to his inherent contradictions, holding people to standards he was unable to hold to himself, taking credit solely for the success of the hard-working women in his family, then the movie would have been an intriguing and revelatory character drama. It would have justified shifting the perspective from Serena and Venus to Richard. But the script by Zach Baylin is too uninterested about those interesting details and contradictions. It knows Serena and Venus succeed so it all becomes a long journey of people doubting him only to be proven wrong. The movie feels more than enough like it reaches its emotional climax, father acceding to daughter as she approaches the big stage, and then there is twenty more minutes of tennis action. Why do we need a drawn-out tennis match at this point? The montage of real-life footage of tennis championships achieves the same emotional effect. If the decision was to finally dwell in the excellence and tenacity of Venus as an athlete cutting loose, then why does director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, Monsters and Men) keep favoring other people’s perspectives during the climactic debut match? We keep cutting back to Richard watching, or those in the crowd, or a squat TV screen monitor. I understand the nature of editing coverage, but if this is celebrating Venus’ moment and handing over the baton to her, then why not give her our full focus rather than repeated check-ins on Richard basking in the ascendant triumph of his hard work?

Anyway, if you can take King Richard on its own terms, maybe it will prove fitfully entertaining and inspirational as it follows its formula to the bitter end. It’s received widespread critical praise especially for Smith’s humbled performance. I think Smith is perfectly good, but I also think his inherent charisma, and a generation of audience good will, project onto the character to more excuse Richard’s questionable actions. It would be like watching Tom Hanks portray Jeffry Dahmer; you might not condone all his actions but, come one, that’s American treasure Tom Hanks eating human flesh there. As a sports movie or a father/daughter movie, certain fans of those features might plug into the emotional beats of a feel-good universe and ignore the problematic parts. Maybe we’ll get a story of Venus or Serena from their own perspective, one that sees their father in less flattering terms. In the meantime, King Richard is a feel-good biopic that made me feel bad the more facts I uncovered, and its hero worship of a, at best, complicated man without adequate hesitation made me feel like this was a gift from the Williams sisters for their dear old dad’s ego and legacy.

Nate’s Grade: C

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

The good news is that Andra Day is a surefire star. In her debut performance, the singer makes a bold impression as Billie Holiday, with her raspy voice, sterling stage presence, and powerful singing. Day was nominated for an Academy Award, just as Dianna Ross was for her own film debut, also playing Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. The highlight of this movie is a tight close-up of Day singing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching protest song, written by a Jewish schoolteacher, a song that incensed the U.S. government and essentially began the woe-begotten War on Drugs with a racist task force targeting Holiday as their first victim to make an example of. The moment is filled with rising emotions and barely held restraint and the sheer power of Day’s performance communicates the danger and anger of this politically-charged song that earned such controversy. However, the rest of the movie is a bit of an unholy mess, as director Lee Daniels (Precious) takes his signature campy, over-the-top style and cannot say no to any creative decision in his mind. I don’t know what’s harder to grasp, the clashing tones or timelines, as the movie literally and figuratively jumps all over the place, at one instant having Holiday on top of the world, and another being beaten by a parade of one-dimensional and nearly indistinguishable abusive men, to waltzing through heroin hallucinations, and cuddling close with an FBI informant (Trevante Rhodes) who is definitely a fictional character. Like the recent Judas and the Black Messiah, we divest time from the star to the men who betray her, but none of these louts and schemers are worth that precious time. It becomes an uncomfortable misery montage as we watch Holiday get abused, shoot up, cry, get harassed by the police, and repeat endlessly for 130 minutes. I don’t know if maybe Daniels was trying to make me feel like I was on drugs while watching but the antic, unfocused, and careening narrative and energy levels certainly made me feel dizzy and nauseated. An then there are ridiculous moments where I just wanted to laugh, like the backroom of racist government agents saying lines like, “This jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday woman has to be stopped.” This is based on a chapter of a book about the early War on Drugs, not Holiday’s biography, and it feels very much like her own identity and significance is being strung along just to be a martyr for the evils of government persecution. The movie paints her chiefly as a victim and then seems to glorify in victimizing her, and it all feels so garish and ghoulish and misguided. Billie Holiday deserves an amazing movie but she’ll just have to settle for an amazing performance in an otherwise melodramatic mess of a movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

Capone (2020)

In 2012, after the found footage superhero movie Chronicle became a surprise smash, director Josh Trank was at the top of Hollywood’s hot new director list. Within three years, he was a pariah. The production behind 2015’s Fantastic Four was so troubled and fraught with reshoots, creative clashes, and secret edits that Trank was labeled as a malcontent who couldn’t be trusted with the big tentpoles. He was unceremoniously dumped by Star Wars and seemed to become the latest casualty of an industry that eats its own promising wunderkinds. I’d highly advise people read a very illuminating in-depth article from Polygon on Trank’s troubles and triumphs, including his insights on where Fantastic Four went awry. Trank spent years honing his next script, an Al Capone biopic of his late years, and waiting for star Tom Hardy to be available. Some critics have called Trank’s comeback movie a self-indulgent, surreal, campy mess, and indeed while I was watching I had visions of Mommie Dearest. However, that wasn’t a bad thing, at least for me. I cannot call Capone an unqualified success but I appreciated the bizarre lengths Trank goes to make a biopic that mocks and tears away the mystique of its macho idol.

Capone (Hardy), or “Fonze” as he’s referred to primarily, has been released from his prison sentence for tax evasion and living the rest of his days on his Florida estate. He’s suffering dementia from the effects of neurosyphilis, a condition he contracted as a teenager. His wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), tries her best to keep him from harming himself or others. The F.B.I. is still listening, still watching, and newspaper reporters are still hiding along the bushes. Capone struggles to keep his mind from being completely lost but will lose, dying at age 47.

First off, I think Trank’s initial creative approach is a genius way to explore a biographical film, running through the major points of a subject’s life in a hallucinatory, non-linear fashion that mixes fantasy and reality. From that standpoint alone, Capone is never boring because it can quite literally go anywhere as Capone retreats further and further into his fraying mind. That’s such a visually stimulating way of telling a story while also presenting a chaotic impression of a character’s perception, locking us into an empathetic experience with an unreliable guidepost. I think that alone makes Capone worthwhile, as does Hardy’s go-for-broke performance (more on that later). It’s a weird fever dream of a movie, constantly shifting between past and present, fantasy and reality, and I think this perspective adds much to the film’s appeal and ambition. One second the man is sitting down with FBI agents and the next he’s wandering a ballroom to go onstage with Louis Armstrong for a New Year’s Eve duet. It gets pretty crazy and that’s good.

I was wondering if Trank would glorify his title subject. I only had to wait for the first twenty minutes where Al Capone literally craps himself twice for my answer. This is not Capone at the height of his fearsome power where he ruled the Chicago ganglands; this is a decrepit, doddering middle-aged man, equally helpless and reckless, unable or unwilling to even control his bowels. He is rotten from the inside out, a vile human being whose own filth is leaking out to smother him. Gangster cinema has often glamorized the mafia and criminals as unorthodox folk heroes, like in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the more recent Public Enemies in 2009. So, with all of that said, I enjoyed that Trank took a legendary figure of the criminal underworld and totally undercut his machismo power. He strips away the romantic notions of the man’s life. This isn’t the man on the pulpy radio dramas, this is a guy who craps the bed. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman got plenty of acclaim for spending its final half-hour showing where a lifetime of crime leads its elderly protagonist, a sad, lonely life without any lasting personal benefit. Trank takes that much-heralded final half-hour and turns it into an entire 100-minute movie. I wish more movies would do this to deserving subjects.

The biggest draw of the film is Hardy (Venom, The Revenant) who never met a film role he couldn’t grumble, mumble, growl, or unleash a funny voice for. To say he is committed does not to do the man justice. He is not only chewing scenery; he is rapidly inhaling it. He is playing to the cheap seats with this role, bloodshot eyes bulging out of his head with thousand-yard stares of confusion and paranoia. He’s barely intelligible at times, and that’s before he has a stroke that further impairs his ability to communicate. He can also be hard to recognize under layers of pock-faced makeup. The acting-with-a-capital-A style is so enthralling but perhaps not for the exact intended reasons. It’s fascinating to watch a highly respected, Academy Award-nominated actor just indulge every over-the-top impulse and tic, where each small decision feels like generating the question, “Really, you went with that choice?” The batty performance brought to mind Faye Dunaway’s breathtaking performance in 1981’s so-bad-it’s-good Mommie Dearest as Joan Crawford (she thought she was going to in awards for that performance!). It’s a level of camp with no earthly reservation, and it’s rare to see from such a famous actor, and I was spellbound. If you enjoyed Mommie Dearest for its unintentional camp hilarity, then Capone might be just for you.

While at turns confounding and fascinating, Capone falls short when it comes to examining the inner life of its title character. I assumed with the conceit of losing touch with reality that Capone would be experiencing some reckoning over his past misdeeds, and this happens to a very mild, opaque degree. There are some supporting characters that turn out to be, surprise, ghosts that Capone had killed in his past. But they stop there, failing to provide an opportunity for Capone to feel remorse and they don’t even push him on being guilty. You would think a man with a sizeable list of dead people he’s responsible for would be haunted by more ghosts from the past, forcing him to reconcile his idea of himself with his tortured deeds. Capone is also seeing images of a young boy that is meant to represent his poor youthful upbringing, but he doesn’t interact with this past representation other than look uncomfortable in his presence. The movie desperately needed more introspection with this man examining his sins and legacy and validations. A bad man coming to terms with the end and what it means has great dramatic potential. A bad man who bumbles around his luxurious home, sees some ghosts, and continues bumbling has less so. That’s where Trank’s screenplay really falters because it doesn’t push harder. Capone is too caught up in upending the image of Al Capone rather than digging deeper into the man himself and his inherent end-of-life drama.

The supporting characters also do little to offer alternative sides to better know Capone. His long-suffering wife is nicely played by Cardellini (Green Book), brought to tears watching her strong man waste away, calling her an angel one minute and forgetting her face the next, but we don’t learn more about the central figure through her. He started poor. Got power. Now he’s incompetent (and incontinent). That’s it. There’s room for more here than a man physically and mentally falling apart. What about the other people in his life? What about plans for succession from those who spent their lives in his service? There’s even a storyline of a lovechild trying to get in contact with him and the movie miraculously does nothing with this abandoned son to add further dimension and insight.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t laughing throughout Capone, though I think Trank is intending some degree of mockery with his biopic that plumbs the depths of the strange and grotesque. There’s a guy who gets stabbed in the neck maybe 50 literal times. There’s Capone shooting alligators, convinced they’re conspiring to munch on his testicles. There’s Capone applauding and singing along to The Wizard of Oz and arguing for the sake of the Cowardly Lion. There’s an ongoing subplot about different supporting characters trying to somehow sift the location of Capone’s hidden millions from his broken mind like a treasure hunt. There’s an entire sequence where Capone, with carrot-as-cigar in mouth, marches around firing a golden tommy gun while his saggy adult diaper droops around his waistline. In short, there’s more than enough material here to enjoy on a strictly ridiculous, pulpy, heightened to the point of breaking campy variety. Hardy is fully unrestrained, for better and worse, but he’s always watchable, as I would say of the film itself. Even if it feels ultimately superficial and underdeveloped, Trank’s Capone is a mess of bad taste about a bad man going through some bad times and it just might be the good kind of bad.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Honey Boy (2019)

Honey Boy may be one of the most fascinating movies before you even watch a single second. It’s begging for an intensely ambitious psychological analysis as Shia LaBeouf lays bare his soul in an act of art as therapeutic device. He wrote the screenplay of a very autobiographical tale of a young child actor (nick-named “Honey Boy” by his father) hitting new levels of fame and his abrasive, abusive, and very controlling father, an alcoholic entertainer that relishes his son’s growing success and also resents his accomplishments. That alone would have made Honey Boy an interesting film experience, but LaBeouf goes the extra mile, as he does, and he literally plays the father character, putting him in the position of bringing to life the hurtful authority figure and thinking from his skewed perspective. It makes every moment LaBeouf is onscreen deeply fascinating and deserving of a deep dive to unpack the layers of personal meaning for the man. LaBeouf is also startling and terrific as the self-destructive and self-determined father, a man who finds slights in the slightest but can also be very encouraging of his son’s dreams. Seriously, every moment he is onscreen is suffused with layers of artistic meaning for what it represents in the story, its relationship to LaBeouf the person, and what LaBeouf the son is discovering while playing his father. It becomes a cathartic exercise that also could prove to be literal empathy. The problem with Honey Boy is that it feels more like that dramatic exercise than an actual story; the secondary storyline with the adult protagonist, played by Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), hardly provides much significance. He’s going through rehab and dealing with his unresolved feelings and addictions, but it’s more a framing device than a story itself or a worthwhile contrast to provide helpful details. The movie would just have been fine without it. However, there isn’t really a development of a plot as there is a general repetition of the relationship, namely the complicated and fractious father/son relationship. We spend a lot of time at this motel. We spend a lot of time with father speaking to son. I think a clear majority of the lines are spoken by LaBeouf. It’s always fascinating, with the exception of a misfire of a young romance that seems to float by more on yearning, but after a while I started to notice it felt like we were getting more of the same. We weren’t generating new insights into the characters and how they might change. Is this movie an act of forgiving his father or understanding him? I don’t know, but I’d happily debate Honey Boy with a pal over a beer for the next hour. It’s an inherently intriguing movie loaded with subtext that has its own subtext, a touch of the surreal from documentary filmmaker Alma Har’el, and powerful acting from LaBeouf. It can also feel like more of the same after the first hour. It’s a movie you need to see but it’s ultimately more LaBeouf opening up his intensive therapy role-play than it is a fully-formed movie. James Franco must watch this movie and weep.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Irishman (2019)

In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.

We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).

There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.

Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.

Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.

The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.

There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.

There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Judy (2019)

The real reason to watch Judy is the triumphant, blazing return of Renee Zellweger as the talent we’ve known her to be as an actress. She’s faded from the spotlight over the last decade, gotten a controversial face lift, and spent over a year prepping to play the role of the legendary Judy Garland during a 1969 British tour, what would prove to be the last months of her life. Zellweger disappears into the character, astonishingly recreating the mannerisms, posture, and vocal cadences of the famous Old Hollywood Wizard of Oz star. She’s tremendous and while clearly troubled and weathered, the film takes a remarkably sympathetic approach to its subject. Garland’s present-day alcoholism, pill popping, and narcissism can trace their roots to her young days as a teenage studio star where the powers that be, namely studio honcho Louis B. Mayer, would bully her, harass her, and molest her. The exploitation mechanisms of Old Hollywood made me wish that Judy was a more unconventional biopic, blending the past and present into a daring, metaphorical journey over the rainbow of a woman in the spotlight her entire life. Instead, we’re watching Garland stumble onto the stage, struggle to sleep and perform, and live a sad existence where she can be reminded, just every so often, the impact she can have, like a sweet impromptu home visit with a gay couple that is a miracle of tiny kindnesses. There’s not much plot here as the film, too, stumbles and shambles to its finale, with very little attention given to the supporting characters. Her whirlwind romance with a younger man (Finn Wittrock) fails to ignite much insight, and he’s named Mickey, so I was confusing him as an adult Mickey Rooney, who appears onscreen in flashbacks and was Judy’s first love (she asked if they were dating and Rooney said he would have to check with Mayer — every woman’s dream). Watching the movie made me feel like there was a stronger version of this story begging to be told. Regardless, Judy is a well made if conventional biopic with a real razzle-dazzle performance from Zellweger, who stunned me with her final singing number and the longing, remorseful, melancholy emotions she was able to dredge. Judy will be best remembered for her performance alone and that’s perfectly right.

Nate’s Grade: B

Rocketman (2019)

It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?

Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.

I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.

The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.

The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?

There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.

The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.

The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.

With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?

Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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