Tag Archives: biopic

195 – Le Mans ’66

Cars, business, and a big chummy Brummie combine in 1960s California as Ford sets itself the mission of beating the all-conquering Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, in a film that has not one but two boring titles: Ford v Ferrari in the USA, and Le Mans ’66 in the UK. Mike had a good enough time to see it twice, even though it’s directed by James Mangold, for whom he has little love; José, incredibly, even welled up at the end.

Although one might expect clashes between the egos of our heroes, the Texan car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Brummie racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale), their relationship is really one of friendship, common goals, and coping with the management at Ford, for whom Le Mans is about business opportunity and making their way into the increasingly deep pockets of the American teenager. José finds Ken’s family life of particular emotional interest, the support he receives from his wife a pleasure and their arguments complex, though Mike isn’t as complimentary, seeing the film as overall too slick for its own good, failing to generate real tension in the problems it depicts. This goes for the racing, too, for which he reserves some criticism, opining that while the races are good fun and entertaining larks, they don’t convey the stresses or feeling of endurance as they should. But José, a man who cares not a jot for cars or racing, enjoyed the heck out of them, and perhaps that is an achievement all of its own.

The film offers some rather crude comic representations of Italians, the Ferrari pit crew running around like cartoons, which despite only really showing up twice do stick in the mind; and lightly poses the competition as a continuation of the Second World War, the Allies at Ford battling the Axis Power of Italy (at one point, Henry Ford II, played to a T by the great Tracy Letts, brags to Shelby about the role his factory played in building planes for the American war effort, telling him, “Go to war”). It’s an American film about the greatness of America at the height of America’s cultural standing in the world; as José describes it, their empire.

And plonked in the middle of this American myth-making is a sarcastic showoff from Sutton Coldfield, unable to keep his mouth shut except when he’s got some tea in there. Mike responded with unbridled joy to the attention to detail shown to Ken’s origins, not only in the broad, charming accent Bale employs, but also in the dialect he brings with him, talking of cheese cobs and using the phrase “round the Wrekin”, something most of Britain probably has no clue about, let alone America. Peaky Blinders may have given Birmingham a platform in modern pop culture, particularly amongst Americans, but Mike enjoys Ken here much more, ecstatic that a $100m movie that’s going down well with audiences features a Brummie as one of its heroes.

Le Mans ’66 is an honest to god charm offensive of a film, with entertaining action, performances that do the well-written screenplay justice, and even an emotional sting in the tail. Get yourself to the cinema for it. It’s bosting.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

184 – Judy

José reminisces about Judy Garland as a feature of his childhood, a constant presence on his family’s television, and as a person who took on different significance to him as he grew up. Whether he admits it or not, he’s been keen to see Judy since the trailers first appeared. Mike, predictably, neither knows much about her nor cares, although he has seen The Wizard of Oz about a thousand times.

The film’s greatest pleasure is Renée Zellweger’s performance, a pleasant surprise to José as he’s never liked her very much. We agree that the stage numbers leave something to be desired – the production seems to create a disconnect between Zellweger’s performance and singing, sounding artificial – but swoon at moments when it all comes together, particularly in the climactic rendition of Over the Rainbow. José suggests that this is when Zellweger most deviates from any of Garland’s true performances, and perhaps that relative freedom from imitation is what gives her the space to connect to the song here.

In general terms, the film is none too exciting, shot effectively but inexpressively and ticking off the normal plot points of a star-on-the-decline biopic, with money and family worries, substance abuse problems, temper tantrums and assorted other clichés making appearances, and authentic as it may be, there’s only so many times Judy can be late for a gig before the drama wears thin. Her relationship with her children is an emotional wrench, though, and the film builds to an effective ending, powered by that fantastic final number.

There’s a subplot about Judy’s encounter with a gay couple that recognises her importance to the gay community and contrasts her glitz and stardom with the inhumane oppression to which gay people were and are treated – homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK only two years prior to when the film is set. It’s a plot strand that could fall on its face through cheesiness or clumsiness, particularly considering the couple’s role in the final scene, but it arguably succeeds through periphrastic, sparing dialogue, and by tying everything back to Judy’s songs. Everything comes back to those, ultimately, and despite some lacklustre direction here and there, it all comes together when it absolutely needs to.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

152 – Rocketman

A musical biopic that understands its own music, that uses its songs not necessarily when they’re chronologically appropriate but when they fit emotionally and thematically, Rocketman beautifully and energetically tells the story of Elton John’s rise to and struggles with fame. Taron Egerton is notable for his work in the Kingsman films, but here he is given a true star role, imbuing his Elton with attitude, presence, and a bolshy walk. And, for the two of us in particular, it does us the great favour of giving us a new appreciation for the music, helping us realise that each of us has always taken both it and Elton’s cultural importance for granted.

The film is produced by Elton, functioning as a sort of autobiography, and although this justifiably raises questions of authenticity, honesty, filtering and bias, the film and man are so likeable, and the way in which it depicts his lowest points so open, the film completely sells its story and depiction of Elton’s character and those around him. (Though, as José describes, the coda in which we’re shown a modern, married, parental Elton, who is nothing like the one whose story we’ve just been told, does suggest that for all the authenticity we feel during the film, the message we’re left with is a somewhat disappointing, “anyway, that was a different Elton, I’m not him any more”.) Similarly, certain tropes common to gay stories, such as pining for a straight friend, being isolated emotionally, and being preyed upon by another, more confident, gay character – something for which we criticised Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – are here rendered convincing and understandable.

We fall in love with its style and storytelling strategy, the risks it takes in building slightly cheesy set-pieces, set-pieces that indeed reflect a certain amount of cheesiness present in Elton himself. The film impressively and confidently narrativises its music, flowing into songs, turning emotionally-charged conversations smoothly into musical numbers, liberal new arrangements allowing Elton’s entire family to share their loneliness in I Want Love and making Elton’s decision to enter therapy a moment of trumpet-worthy triumph in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. José doesn’t go for the climactic moment with Elton’s childhood self, but Mike is with it completely, tearing up – before Elton could heal, before he could love, before he could fight all his addictions and fears and pain, he first needed to learn to love himself!

Rocketman is simply wonderful. It deeply understands its own music and freely reworks it to give it new life, teaching us to love and appreciate it anew. It’s lively, funny, imaginative, bold and entirely engrossing. Don’t miss it.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

147 – At Eternity’s Gate

Despite a wonderful central performance from Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, one that earned him an Oscar nomination, and some beautiful imagery, At Eternity’s Gate leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It’s a film with a contemptible view of the rural folk it depicts, some overly distracting visual design (particularly an effect that renders the bottom third of the frame out of focus for long periods of the film), banal talk of personal philosophy, and ultimately, no interesting perspective to offer on van Gogh.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

129 – Vice

Adam McKay brings the confrontational, fourth-wall-breaking style he employed in The Big Short to a story of lust for power, hidden agendas, opportunism, and as near as makes no difference a coup d’état of the American government, engineered from inside the White House. Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney as he transforms from a brainless layabout into the de facto President of the United States, operating with scary, virtually boundless power to do whatever he wishes. It’s energetic, interesting, self-aware, and makes statements and accusations as bold as you’re likely to see in mainstream cinema. But it’s difficult to trust, says only what you’d like to hear, narrates where there are obvious opportunities to dramatise, and, fundamentally, fails to do what a biopic should: develop and convey an understanding of who its subject is and why. We weren’t impressed with much more than the makeup, unfortunately – though it is brilliant makeup.

We also have a browse through the Oscar nominations, why not.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

108 – Bohemian Rhapsody

The road to banal and disappointingly homophobic biopics of rock legends is, as they say, paved with good intentions. The Queen story/Freddie Mercury biopic has been in the works since 2010, with creative differences amongst the filmmakers made public and Brian May and Roger Taylor apparently exercising tight control over how the story would be told. What they apparently wanted was sanitised, bowdlerised, pasteurised, inoffensive to the delicate sensibilities of an audience that would rather not look too closely at the sexuality of a gay icon. Which sounds absurd, but considering the old man sat near us in the cinema who audibly said, “oh dear”, when Freddie was shown kissing a man… Jesus, they might have had a point.

José expresses his disappointment at seeing yet another gay story in which being gay leads to isolation and unhappiness. Freddie is lonely, surrounded by cats in a vast empty house, pining for a woman. His gay relationships are chaste and the one openly gay character, comfortable with who he is, is cast as a snake, a villain. Freddie’s sexual drive bursts out of his music; are we supposed to believe he experienced no joy in being gay? Brian May – the character – is depicted as a particularly annoying pest, clean, perfect, and forever commenting on Freddie’s lifestyle and behaviour as if to vet it; or perhaps as if to ensure the audience is comfortable. The more we think about it the more homophobic it is.

Our discussion of the film’s attitude to and portrayal of Freddie’s sexuality is central, but two other key aspects to his life also come under criticism – his music, and his death from AIDS. The latter is skated over almost entirely, sympathetically included right at the end to help you feel good about feeling bad for him. The music can’t be hurt, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear banger after banger, but as Mike says, you may as well go home, read the Queen Wikipedia page and put on the Greatest Hits. What drives the band, what drives Freddie, aren’t things the film appears to have even considered might be interesting questions. Things just… happen. In chronological order. Mainly.

Ultimately we ask ourselves who this film is for. We watch it at a distance, wondering why it is the way it is, not really involved in it until that final act in which Live Aid provides Freddie with the opportunity to make the entire world his own for twenty glorious minutes. And once we get there, everything else becomes insignificant for a while, because it all comes together, the music, the character, and the best parts of Rami Malek’s performance – his physicality and stage presence – and we get to watch Queen for a while. (Or at least a very good tribute act.)

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

103 – First Man

A weird failure, as Mike puts it, we struggle a little bit to get a read on First Man, Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong. Not content to adopt a mainstream tone, not willing to go full art movie, it gets lost in the middle somehow. Mike sees Armstrong as incongruously passive in his own story, his – and, for that matter, everyone else’s – drive for the Moon light, not believable, ultimately making the landing scene feel cheated, the film trying to convince you of the incredible achievement of the mission only at the last minute.

José finds aspects of the plot interesting, particularly the portrayal of marriage, but sees the use of the daughter as disjointed. Mike finds the film misunderstands Ryan Gosling’s style – his minimalism requires rich surroundings off which to reflect, and with so little here, Armstrong comes across blank. We appreciate the physicality of the space sequences, shot almost entirely with close ups on interiors, though the extension of the shaky cam to the rest of the film is irritating.

A confusing film that we find misguided, and a glance at its opening weekend box office doesn’t bode well. Claire Foy is very good though.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.