Ted K


Ted Kaczynski mulls over his alter ego.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Super LTD/Neon) Sharlto Copley, Drew Powell, Christian Calloway, Tahmus Rounds, Kate Scott, David Ward, Lois Keister, Teresa Garland, Nicole Welch, Andrew Senn, Megan Folsom, Brandon Seaman, Vincent James Carnevale, Ian Primus, Ben Fundis, Bobby Tisdale, Joe Felece, Amber Rose Mason, Travis Bruyer, Robert Braine, Nancy Rothman. Directed by Tony Stone

We are aware of those folks who for whatever reason choose to withdraw from society. We envision them, in their lonely cabins in the wilderness, shouting at the universe, their rage echoing harmlessly off the walls of their place of exile, taking no effect on the universe or those living in it. There are those, occasionally, who venture from their lairs and do real damage.

We are informed in a pre-credits crawl that Ted Kaczynski (Copley) was a math prodigy who got his PhD in mathematics at age 16 and was well on his way to a brilliant career as a college professor when after a year he withdrew from his university and went to live on the land near Lincoln, Montana, in an isolated cabin he built with his brother Dave.

Ted’s natural reverie is interrupted by the noise and damage of snowmobilers. Ted waits until they are away from their luxury cabin, when he breaks in and takes at their things with an axe. One gets the sense that Ted is a powderkeg of rage just waiting to explode, but he turns out to be more of a slow-burner, one whose frustration and anger percolate and simmer, releasing from time to time in acts of violence – constructing homemade bombs that would kill three and injure 22, some horribly. His acts of domestic terrorism, aimed at random targets he felt were advancing technology which he thought would destroy the human race, or defiling nature, would earn him the name he is better known as – the Unabomber.

If you’re looking into insight about what makes Ted click, you won’t find it here. Although the film uses Kaczynski’s own words (from over 25,000 pages of writing found in his cabin after his arrest) for the voiceover narration. Kaczynski’s writing style can be dubbed radical academic. A brilliant, literate man, he was nonetheless a pompous writer.

Stone, who previously directed the lyrical documentary Peter and the Farm, utilizes cinematographer Nathan Corbin’s talents extensively, creating beautiful and often bucolic images of life in rural Rocky Mountain Montana. He also utilizes the electronic noodling of Blanck Mass to often create a disturbing, discordant background. Stone doesn’t use the narrative tropes of your average biopic, but rather intersperses surreal dream images in an effort to give audiences a taste of the madness that Kaczynski was experiencing, including manufacturing a fantasy woman figure (Mason) to illustrate Ted’s simultaneous longing for companionship and misogyny.

We are not meant to understand what turned a brilliant mathematics professor into a remorseless, heartless bomber and Stone wisely doesn’t try. We get the broad strokes that Kaczynski left behind in his manifesto, but no sense of how the transformation actually occurred. We are left, then, to wonder at how someone so rational could change so radically that any logical thought he had – and it’s clear Stone believes that he had some – were suborned by acts of chaos. We never feel sympathy towards Ted Kaczynski, but we get the sense that Stone is saying that just because the Unabomber was insane doesn’t necessarily mean he was wrong.

REASONS TO SEE: Copley is mesmerizing. Wonderful cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: If you’re looking for answers as to what made Kaczynski tick, you won’t find any.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, plenty of profanity and some sexual situations including brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A good deal of the production was filmed where Ted Kaczynski’s cabin actually once stood (it has since been torn down).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Hour Photo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A Banquet

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain


Artist Louis Wain paints what he sees.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Phoebe Nicholls, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Taika Waititi, Crystal Clarke, Daniel Rigby, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Dorothy Atkinson, Nick Cave, Olivia Colman (voice), Jamie Demetriou, Sophia Di Martino. Directed by Will Sharpe

 

The line between madness and genius is a thin one indeed. It is often difficult to realize that the line has been crossed once we have moved to the wrong side of it.

Louis Wain (Cumberbatch) was a talented illustrator who worked in London in the late 19th century. In 1881, his sister Caroline (Riseborough) hired a nanny for her four younger sisters. Emily Richardson (Foy) came into the household and soon Louis was enchanted. The sole breadwinner for his family including his mother (Nicholls) and five sisters, he had never had a thought for marriage before, and this particular one was scandalous, seeing as Miss Richardson was about a decade older than he, and from a different class strata.

Nevertheless, the two were married, and although their happiness would be short-lived, she did give him a gift that would have repercussions long beyond her years; a stray cat named Peter, soaking wet in the yard of their cottage. As Wain struggled with his grief, he found himself becoming fascinated with cats as a subject for his work – anthropomorphic cats who frolicked on two legs, smoked cigars, served tea, and smiled with big eyes. The drawings and cards of Wain became unbelievably popular, and it is no exaggeration to say that his work helped change the minds of Victorian England as to the place of cats in their household; once thought useful only for catching vermin, they began to be considered as companions and pets, a position they occupy (but don’t necessarily enjoy) to this day.

In the meantime, Louis’ sanity was beginning to slip away. His obsession with electricity and its power began to color his thinking. He began to hallucinate, sometimes horrifically. Ass Louis, a somewhat naïve businessman, had never copyrighted his images, they were copied left and right, leaving Louis nearly destitute. He was committed to an asylum, although once the appalling conditions of his commitment became known, no less a personage than H.G. Wells (Cave) would lead a plea for funds to be raised so that he might live out the remainder of his years in nicer surroundings, which happily turned out to be the case (he would die on July 4, 1939).

Although Wain has largely been forgotten over the years, his images presaged the obsession with cats and their behavior which have helped make the Internet the gigantic waste of time that it is today (I write this unironically, knowing that you, my dear reader, are taking this in on the net). Still, his story is a fascinating one and his impact fairly important. In his time, he influenced cartoons, animation and even cinema. Some of his later images were almost psychedelic in nature, and pop art certainly owes him a debt.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain with an earnestness that would befit Hugh Grant, albeit with less stammering. The cast is impressive, in particular Foy, who gives Emily a certain radiance and who pairs well with Cumberbatch, and Colman, whose narration is at times hysterically funny.

Sharpe and cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson use a bright and colorful palette to frame their story, which is fairly unusual for movies set in Victorian England, which is often portrayed as grimy and grey. Sharpe also ratchets up the poignancy, particularly in the second half. I found myself well-affected by the film, although I would have liked to have seen a coda at the end and perhaps speeded up the pace a bit in the first half. This is definitely a film for cat lovers, as well as for fans of Cumberbatch, who is at his best here. I would daresay that also those who are interested in learning more about artists who have been shoved off to the side as time has gone by should profit well by watching this.

REASONS TO SEE: Highly recommended for Cumberbatch fans and cat lovers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a little while to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic material, as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Colman and Foy have appeared as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Munich: The Edge of War

The Laureate


Robert Graves has more than Claudius on his mind.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Gravitas) Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover, Patricia Hodge, Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt, Indica Watson, Edwin Thomas, Meriel Hinsching, Edward Bennett, Paulette P. Williams, Orlando James, Jamie Newall, Dee Pearce, Daniel Drummond, Ruth Keeling. Directed by William Nunez

 

Robert Graves was one of the greatest writers in England during the Twentieth century. He was renowned for writing classic historical novels (most notably, I, Claudius) but also for being a noted translator of ancient texts and a lauded poet as well.

But in the latter part of the Jazz age, in 1928, Graves (Hughes) was a man suffering from severe PTSD that was a leftover from the First World War (he was wounded so gravely at the Battle of the Somme that he was listed as dead, although he obviously clearly astonished the expectations of the field surgeons and survived). Suffering from writer’s block, he is cheered on by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Haddock), a progressive woman for her time. He is also adored by his daughter Catherine (Watson) who is still young enough to worship her parents.

But when Graves reads the poetry of American Laura Riding (Agron), he feels a kinship between them. Nancy suggests that they invite the American to their rural cottage World’s End to live with them, and Laura accepts.

At first, things seem to be going well. Laura awakens the muse in Graves. Catherine adores her and Nancy embraces her as a sister. But soon, things take a turn for the sexual. Owing to Roberts’ condition, the sex life between the couple has been on hold an Laura at first seems happy to see to Nancy’s needs. But then she sees to Robert, and soon they are not just a couple, but a trinity. And when Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fee) is added to the mix, jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, leading to tragedy…and scandal.

The films is a fictional take on an actual historical incident, and while there are some liberties taken with the facts (although Graves is depicted as suffering from writer’s block, it was nonetheless one of his most fertile periods as a poet) the main parts of the story are pretty much as seen here.

Like many British films, the style is very mannered, so much so that I was reminded of the Merchant-Ivory films of the Nineties – fortunately, in a good way. It helps that the three main leads – Haddock, Hughes and Agron – are extremely capable and turn in thrilling performances here. That’s a good thing because they do get the lion’s share of the screen time, although Fee when he turns up about two thirds of the way into the film, is also mesmerizing.

Part of the problem is that other than Graves, most of the character here are given little depth. The depiction of his PTSD can be a little bit over-the-top but considering the horror he lived through it is quite understandable. Riding is depicted as being severely narcissistic and manipulative, which seems to be a bit one-sided, as contemporary accounts of her also paint her as delightfully humorous and self-deprecating. In fact, humor is sorely lacking in the film overall; anyone who has ever read Graves will tell you that the man has a singular wit and an affection for the absurd.

It is somewhat ironic that the movie, in portraying a pair of women who were for their day quite progressive, doesn’t deign to give them much character development. I would have liked to have gotten to know Nicholson better; she seems to have had the patience of a saint here, and she most certainly had artistic ambitions of her own, many of which came to fruition after she divorced Graves.

In that sense the film might be deemed disappointing and I suspect lovers of Graves will probably be the ones most caught in disappointment, but it definitely has strong points that far outweigh the weak. The complex relationships between the three (and later, four) participants are interesting, and the production values are actually quite solid for a film that had a relatively small budget. And Agron gives a tremendous performance here, one that cinema buffs won’t want to miss. All in all, a very strong film to start out the new year.

REASONS TO SEE: A portrait of a deeply wounded soul preyed upon by a deeply narcissistic woman. Strong performances from the three leads. Recalls the Merchant-Ivory films of the 90s in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characterizations are paid scant attention to, particularly in the case of the women.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, adult themes and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although only one child is shown here, Graves and Nicholson actually had four children during the period the movie covers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
What Do We See When We Look Up At the Sky?

Being the Ricardos


We all love Lucy.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox, John Rubenstein, Clark Gregg, Nelson Franklin, Jeff Holman, Jonah Platt, Christopher Denham, Brian Howe, Ron Perkins, Baize Buzan, Matt Cook, Josh Bednarsky, Dana Lyn Baron, Dan Sachoff, Max Silvestri, Renee Pezzotta. Directed by Aaron Sorkin

 

They don’t get much more iconic than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the real-life husband and wife team that headed up I Love Lucy, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most popular sitcom of all time. At its height, the show could claim 60 million viewers each and every week – when the country’s total population was 160 million, meaning than one out of every two and a half Americans were watching it. Water usage went down when I Love Lucy was on, because people wouldn’t use the bathroom while the show was airing. The show was by every standard a phenomenon.

This new film by Aaron Sorkin charts one week during the show’s second season. The episode Fred and Ethel Fight is the one that was getting made that week and things start with the Monday table read, but the show is in an uproar and for good reason. Over the weekend, a pair of events have happened; syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell has accused Ball (Kidman) of being a card-carrying member of the Communist party, a serious career-killiing no-no in the era of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. A magazine article also shows Arnaz (Bardem), the Cuban émigré, out cavorting with someone who was definitely not Lucy.

With Lucy’s reputation at stake, and her marriage in trouble, it is the show that seems to be what keeps her going. A notorious perfectionist, Lucy endlessly tinkers with the script, much to the annoyance of director Donald Glass (Denham) and the amusement of co-stars William Frawley (Simmons) who played Fred Mertz, and Vivian Vance (Arianda), who played his wife Ethel. Lucy agonizes endlessly over little physical bits of business, from her arranging flowers for the dinner table, to Desi walking up behind her and covering her eyes with a playful “Guess who?”

The film is meant to be a backstage glimpse of a power couple that have never really gotten their due as innovators, savvy business people and forward-thinking producers (Ball and Arnaz were early champions of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, both which ironically continue to be cash cow franchises for Paramount Studios, which owns the assets of Desliu (the production company that Desi and Lucy founded) today).

The movie follows a time-jumping path that can be confusing at times; there are semi-documentary interviews with the older versions of show runner Jess Oppenheimer (the younger version played by Hale), played by Rubenstein, producer Bob Carroll (Lacy) played by Cox and writer Madelyn Pugh (Shawkat) played by Lavin as an older woman.

We also see flashbacks to earlier points in the careers of both Arnaz and Ball, including their first meeting and eventual romance. The flashbacks do give a little context, but they tend to slow the film down somewhat and are at the end of the day, somewhat unnecessary. Still, Sorkin imbues the film with snappy dialogue (his trademark) and if he isn’t interested in giving us a real appreciation of the human beings that were Lucy and Desi, he does give us a real appreciation of their gifts as performers and behind-the-screen producers.

During this same week, Ball discovered she was pregnant which threw all sorts of consternation into the show; at the time, it was forbidden to even mention the word “pregnant” on the air – viewers of the show may recall the couple’s onscreen bedroom contained separate beds – and Lucy’s stubborn insistence that the pregnancy be written into the show, which despite overwhelming resistance from their sponsor (tobacco company Philip Morris) and the network, was eventually done, leading to some of the most memorable episodes in television history.

Kidman doesn’t particularly resemble Ball facially, but she captures her mannerisms and speech cadence nicely; Bardem is nothing like Arnaz but like Kidman does a good job of capturing the essence of the character. Simmons is memorable as Frawley, and Shawkat and Lacy have a playful relationship, while Shawkat and Kidman have a terrific scene as they discuss the difficulties in being a woman in the entertainment industry; they have improved some since then but not by much.

Kidman has already won the Golden Globe for her performance here and is virtually a shoo-in to be nominated for the Oscar when nominations for the 94th annual Academy Awards are announced on February 8th, 2022. The film is currently playing on Amazon Prime (link below) and may still be in some theaters near you, although to be honest this is a movie in my opinion best seen at home on TV, just like the sitcom was. You can also enjoy the episode that is depicted in the film is available on Hulu and Amazon (for Paramount Plus subscribers) and can be watched on the links therein.

REASONS TO SEE: Kidman captures Ball’s speech and mannerisms nicely. Another terrific screenplay by Sorkin (surprise!).
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags some in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual content, adult themes, period smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Linda Lavin plays the older Madelyn Pugh, who executive produced the TV sitcom Alice that starred Lavin – and in which Desi Arnaz appeared in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stan and Ollie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Diane

Benedetta


Nobody can say that Benedetta ain’t getting nun.

(2021) Biographical Drama (IFC) Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphné Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Cheveliotte, Hervé Pierre, Clotilde Courau, David Clavel, Guillaine Londez, Gaëlle Jeantet, Justine Bachelet, Lauriane Riquet, Elena Plonka, Héloise Bresc, Jonathan Couzinié, Vinciane Millereau, Erwan Ribard, Sophie Breyer. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

Some movies test your intellect. Others test your emotional tolerance. Some test your endurance. Others test your beliefs. Some test your credulity, while some test your patience. The latest from celebrated Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for Soldier of Orange, Robocop, Total Recall and infamously, Showgirls, tests your permissiveness.

Benedetta Carlini (Efira) is a young woman, the daughter of a well-to-do Italian merchant (Clavel) in the city of Pescia in 17th century Tuscany. She is being delivered to the Theatine convent under the supervision of the Abbess Felicita (Rampling). Benedetta is a devout young woman who has visions of being a Bride of Christ – not just in the sense of being a nun, but an actual bride of actual Jesus, in every sense of the term.

She is given a new novice to mentor, Sister Bartolomea (Patakia), a peasant girl who is fleeing an abusive father who has taken to using her as a substitute wife following the death of her mother. Bartolomea is an earthy, uninhibited sort that Benedetta is immediately drawn to. As Benedetta begins showing signs of stigmata and her visions grow more vivid, the skeptical abbess is sure that her charge is trying to game the system for her own gain, while the local papal nuncio (Lambert) is using the girl’s growing notoriety for his own purposes. In the meantime, Benedetta is discovering her own sexuality and Bartolomea is only too happy to help her explore it.

There is a lot of sexual activity – a lot – even for a French film. A French film…about an Italian nun…directed by a Dutchman. Ah, the European Union! S’anyway, Verhoeven has a reputation for not being overly awed by boundaries, and has had no problem with extreme violence, kinky sex or disturbing imagery in any of his films and he delivers all three here. In some ways, it’s nearly as entertaining to read the reviews of the film. It’s amazing how prudish some critics are; you can feel the pearls being clutched in a death grip as some decry the amount of lesbian sex scenes in the movie. Keep in mind that the movie is based upon Judith C. Brown’s biography of Carlini Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.

The real Carlini was at one time one of the most powerful women in her order; later she was excoriated for her sexuality and her affair with Bartolomea, while other priests and male clergy routinely had mistresses despite their vow of chastity. The men were rarely persecuted for it but Benedetta certainly was, but refused to meekly accept the injustice. She was a feminist long before feminism was a thing.

But Verhoeven seems to be toning down that aspect of her story. Those who appreciate the proverbial “girl-on-girl action” will find plenty to keep them sated. However, some reviewers compare this film to porn – apparently they don’t get out on the Internet much. Highly sexual this may be, but porn this is not.

Efira has been coming on as a powerful actress over the last few years, and this performance does nothing to stem her momentum. She seems destined to become a huge star in Europe (she’s actually Belgian, not French) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood started reaching out to her agent sooner rather than later. She captures not only the devoutness of the character, but the harder edges as well – we are left to wonder if the stigmata is a divine manifestation, or the work of Benedetta’s own ambition – and she makes the character enigmatic enough to be interest, but real enough to be relatable.

Verhoeven does a marvelous job of setting the period, from the clothes to the sets to the historical accuracy – a plague was raging through Italy at the time this was going on, and Verhoeven doesn’t mind showing the horrors of that plague. As a bit of a counterpart, former Art of Noise keyboardist Anne Dudley – who has become a much-sought-after film composer – gives us a beautiful, haunting score.

Basically, if you’re offended by onscreen depictions of sex – particularly between two women – this is definitely not the movie for you. But don’t for a moment think that just because Verhoeven is generous with the nookie doesn’t mean that is all there is to the film. There is also commentary on religion, ennui and attitudes towards women in general and female sexuality in particular. This isn’t Verhoeven’s best work but it is up there, which considering the breadth of his career is really saying something.

REASONS TO SEE: Really captures the period. The score is gorgeous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prudish or sensitive might end up offended.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of nudity and sex, as well as some violence, profanity, disturbing images and material that might offend the devout.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the second French-language film for Verhoeven after Elle (2016).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philomena
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe

King Richard


Will Smith is usually the leader of the pack.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Noah Bean, Craig Tate, Josiah Cross, Vaughn Hebron, Jimmy Walker Jr., Kevin Dunn, Brad Greenquist, Christopher Wallinger, Chase Del Rey, Connie Ventress. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Champions are not born; they’re made. All the ability in the world will not avail you a championship unless you are willing to put in the work to earn it. Often, the ones who are making sure that the work is being put in is the parents, tirelessly believing in their prodigy even after trudging through practice…in the rain.

Richard Williams (Smith) had an improbable goal for his daughters Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) – to mold them into champion tennis players. Now, understand that in Compton, that was not the means to sports stardom that is generally chosen. There were no tennis clubs, no manicured courts. Just the indifferently maintained courts in the public park, where gang bangers often hung out.

Richard had written out a 78-page plan detailing how he was going to help his daughters turn into Grand Slam winners. Not everyone believed in the plan; a concerned neighbor (Ringor) questions whether it is healthy to force the girls to practice in the rain.

But they persevere and eventually Richard gets Venus hooked up with renowned tennis coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), the man who taught John McEnroe (Wallinger) and Pete Sampras (Del Rey). Paul gets Venus onto the junior tournament circuit, where her extraordinary success gets her national notice, but Richard isn’t satisfied. For one thing, Cohen wants Venus to utilize a closed stance, which is contrary to what Richard has taught her. He is constantly yelling at her to keep her stance open. “That’s where her power comes from,” he explains.

In the meantime, Richard’s wife Oracene (Ellis) is teaching the disappointed Serena, using videotapes of Venus’ lessons to augment practice (Cohen was unwilling to coach both girls for free, but he was willing to take one, so the older of the two, Venus, was selected). The disagreements on how to prepare Venus for turning pro lead Richard to switch to a different coach, Rick Macci (Bernthal) which necessitates the family moving to Florida so that both girls can benefit from being a part of Macci’s academy. Richard still exerts a great deal of control over the direction of his daughter’s career trajectory, but has become something of a huckster, promoting his daughters shamelessly. However, it begins to become an issue that his girls are getting no say in how their career is to progress, and as Oracene points out to her husband during a heated argument, that’s the way to push his daughters away forever.

These sorts of sports movies tend to be a bit of an anti-climax because we know how they’re going to end.We know that Richard’s plans come to fruition and that Venus and Serena become legends of the court, each achieving incredible success (with the younger Serena eclipsing her older sister in terms of accomplishment). It’s fascinating to watch it all happen, however.

Part of what makes it that way is an extraordinary performance by Smith, who has made a career out of playing affable, charming guys. While Richard has plenty of charm, “affable” isn’t a word I’d use to describe him; he’s temperamental, something of a blowhard, and dictatorial. But there’s something about the man that is wounded; you see it in his body language when he drives the VW minibus, he carts his girls to and from practice in; all hunched over, eyes darting from one way to the next, certain that something is coming to knock him down again and trying to prepare for the blow that is inevitably coming, and come they do, sometimes literally. While we end up liking Richard largely because it’s Will Smith playing him. If someone with more of an edge played him, like Mahershala Ali, we might be less disposed to forgive Richard his eccentricities and flaws.

Ellis has a tall task in standing up to a performance like that, but she actually holds her own, particularly in the second half of the movie when it’s clear that Oracene is not 100% behind her husband’s plan and method. The argument I mentioned above is a highlight of the movie and Ellis’ finest hour.

The tennis scenes…well, I’m not enough of an expert in the sport to determine how realistic the sports action is. To my eye it seemed decent enough, although I’m not enough of a follower to ascertain whether Sidney and Singleton are getting the Williams sisters’ mannerisms down right. To my untrained eye, they look pretty believable to me.

With the Williams sisters acting as executive producers, it’s a foregone conclusion that there aren’t going to be any dark corners explored in the film, particularly Richard’s serial infidelity, his treatment of his kids from his first marriage (they don’t appear onscreen in the film), and his penchant for self-promotion, which is only obliquely addressed. It’s not really a “warts and all” depiction of the family patriarch; more like a glossy photoshopped version, but it’s fascinating nevertheless and worth seeing just to see Will Smith at his very best.

REASONS TO SEE: Will Smith could be in awards conversation for his work here. Humanizes a pair of tennis legends.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references, a bit of profanity, a sexual reference and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. He remarried eight years later, but the couple has since also divorced.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until December 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borg vs. McEnroe
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Beta Test

Be Still


Tea for two.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Ceroma) Piercey Dalton, Daniel Arnold, James McDougall, Amber Taylor, Meredith Hama-Brown, Sophie Merasty, Anja Savcic, Cameron Grierson, Brendan Taylor, Dakota Guppy, Ariel Ladret. Directed by Elizabeth Lazebnik

 

Back in the days where photography was a novelty, just taking a picture was pretty much a big deal. Eventually, adventurous souls discovered that images could be manipulated and a capturing of image became art. So had paintings progressed from imagery to impression, so did photography.

Hannah Maynard (Dalton) was a bit of an oddity; living in the 1880s in Victoria, British Columbia, she operated a photography studio with her husband and was much in demand as a portraitist. Her husband Richard (Arnold) was known for landscapes and natural photography, but Hannah was a wizard in the studio. She took hundreds, thousands of photos of newborn babies in British Columbia. As she took the daguerreotype, she would murmur “be still” to her subjects, because the old photographic plates required several moments for the image to be imprinted.

But of late Hannah wasn’t acting like herself. She was prickly and sometimes downright rude. She threw herself into her work, spending hours upon hours in the laboratory, coming out with her clothes stinking of chemicals. She couldn’t treat anyone with decency; not client, not her husband, not even her adorable little daughter Lillie (Taylor), who often pestered her. Her husband was beginning to fear for her sanity, consulting Dr. Fell (McDougall) who prescribed all sorts of strong pharmaceuticals.

But Hannah was becoming obsessed with multiple exposures, something that cinema’s Georges Melies would eventually become famous for. She had pictures of herself, sitting in three different places serving her other selves tea. Herself, in an impish portrait, was about to pour milk over her own head.

But as she and Richard were drawing further apart, it was clear that something was terribly amiss, something that was messing with her mind. Would it succeed in tearing her sanity into shreds, or would she find the strength to resist?

What’s going on may not become readily apparent, particularly if you don’t know the story of the real Hannah Maynard. I didn’t, and that’s not surprising; she has mostly been lost to history, despite the compelling and groundbreaking nature of her images. Had she been a man, it is likely everyone would know the name, but because she was a member of the fairer sex, for some reason that means her accomplishments have to be discounted. It’s something of a travesty and also something the film doesn’t deal with except in an oblique way.

Dalton bears a striking physical resemblance to Maynard, albeit minus the Victorian penchant for stern, unforgiving countenances. She has a difficult role to tackle; the Hannah Maynard portrayed here is snippy, and often argumentative. But she is a troubled soul, and Dalton gets that across beautifully.

The big problem here is that Lazebnik, who has made a number of short films including a previous one on Maynard, in her feature debut tends to overuse visual and audio effects. There is a constant industrial buzz that sometimes becomes overbearing, and the optical effects soon become tiresome. I understand the rationale in trying to portray the world as Maynard saw it, but Lazebnik should have trusted the story to do that and less on the camera tricks. It’s not that she shouldn’t have used them, it’s just that she overused them to the point where it became too noticeable. A little more nuance would have been more effective.

Nevertheless, she does a great service in presenting the story of a woman whose name should be better-known, but isn’t. Maynard’s actual photographs are shown during the closing credits, and they were very much ahead of her time. When you think of those big special effects-laden Marvel movies that we all seem to love so much, we should give a silent thank you to Maynard, whose innovation made movies like that possible.

The movie is making it’s world theatrical premiere Wednesday at the Vancouver International Film Festival, although it is currently available online at the Festival website in Canada through October 11. It is likely to make the rounds at various film festivals in the winter and spring; keep an eye out for it at your local festival.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story with a fine performance by Piercey Dalton.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overuses the optical, lighting and audio effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:T he film is based on a stage play by Janet Munsil.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VIFF online site (Canada only – through October 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Old Henry

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)


Not having a blessed day.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi, Kimberly Hester Huffstetier, Randy Havens, Mark Wystrach, Joe Ando-Hirsch, Gabriel Olds, Coley Campany, Chandler Head, Michelle Brown Houston, Jay Huguley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hailey Nicole Ralston. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

From time to time, a movie comes along in which a strong performance elevates it to another level. Those are good moments for a film critic. However, even more rarely, a movie comes along in which a strong performance is delivered but fails to elevate the movie beyond mediocrity. As a critic, that’s the kind of disappointment we can live without.

Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain) grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. As a young child (Head) she was forbidden from going to church because she was a child from her mom’s (Jones) first marriage, which had ended in divorce. But her devoutness is never in question, especially after she takes her first communion wine.

Years later, while at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets the charismatic young Jim Bakker (Garfield) who has big dreams. Eventually she brings him home and introduces himas her new husband to her incredulous mom. He has a dream of being a travelling preacher, saving enough to establish a church of his own. But his own spending excesses get the better of him – he had bought a convertible well out of his price range, and when he fell behind on payments, awoke one morning in a hotel room to find that his car had been repossessed.

But he is rescued when it turns out that one of the people who had seen him preach (and Tammy Faye perform with puppets) thought he’d be a natural on Pat Robertson’s (Olds) Christian Broadcast Network. Jim and Tammy Faye were naturals for TV and so they were. Jim came up with a Christian-themed Tonight show called the 700 Club and eventually it became popular enough for Jim to found a network of his own, PTL (for Praise the Lord). Tammy Faye was thrilled because she could assist in her own way, singing gospel songs and using the puppets to preach.

Their rise was meteoric. Jim made some savvy business decisions, getting a satellite to broadcast his PTL Network programming whichc extended the reach of his ministry, but he also did some inexplicably dumb things – trying to build a Christian theme park, fo example, or worse yet taking pledge money for his ministry and using it for his own private funding. The relationship between Jim and Tammy Faye eventually soured; and their marriage disintegrated about the same time as Jim’s empire did, leaving them to wonder how it could have all gone so bad so fast.

Chastain is getting some early Oscar buzz for her performance as Tammy Faye and it is well-deserved. She truly inhabits the role and while the outrageous make-up and prosthetics (giving her the prominent cheeks that Tammy Faye possessed) is a bit of a distraction, well, that IS what the woman looked like, so it can’t exactly be ignored. Chastain reminds us that under all the late night talk show jokes (some of which were entirely cruel) there was a real human being under the false eyelashes and the layered-on-with-a-brick-trowel make-up, one who actually was kind and compassionate, something uncommon among televangelists who at the time were beginning to make political forays by attacking gays, progressives and feminists with an almost hysterical distrust which persists among evangelicals to this day.

Garfield also does a strong job as Jim Bakker, although let’s face it he’s completely overshadowed by his co-star. Bakker is a little bit more aloof in a lot of ways, but then again, the movie isn’t titled The Eyes of Jim Bakker. We get a sense of his growing frustration, the stress levels as his house of cards began to tumble around him, partially masterminded by a conniving Jerry Falwell (D’Onofrio) who does not come off kindly here.

In fact, I think the most disappointing thing is that I felt kind of flat watching the movie; here we have an incredible performance by an actress which should be inspiring and enjoyable, but the movie left me almost empty inside. Perhaps because living in the South as I do, I see where this televangelist thing led, and it wasn’t to a place that I’m personally comfortable with. Many of the people who loved Tammy Faye, or more to the point, her husband, are the people who support Donald Trump, and refuse to get vaccinated now. Sort of hard not to take that one personally.

It’s a good idea for a movie and it could have done with a little more insight into the principles. Even with the strong performances, what we wind up with are largely very much what you’d expect them to have been. I think the larger picture of where televangelism has led this country specifically is a point that needed to be made. So while this is entertaining, it isn’t as deep as it makes itself out to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, particularly from Chastain and Garfield.
REASONS TO AVOID: Left me feeling a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and scenes of drug abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chastain performs her own vocals on Tammy Faye’s songs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fall From Grace
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Confetti (2021)

Joe Bell


Some roads are harder than others.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinese, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Igby Rigney, Coral Chambers, Scout Smith, David H. Stevens, Blake Barlow, Charles Halford, Jayne Luke, Juan Antonio, Kenadee Clark, Ash Santos, Cassie Beck, Christina Thurmond, Raquel Horton, Jason Cozmo, Christina Torriente. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Humans tend to fear the different, and that is particularly true of white straight males, or at least, so it seems sometimes. In a conservative town like La Grange, Oregon, a town that prides itself on “American values,” bullying young gay teens seems to have been accepted as adhering to those values.

Joe Bell (Wahlberg) is embarking on a quest; he is walking from La Grange to New York City to put a spotlight on bullying. His son Jadin (Miller) was viciously bullied after coming out, with people leaving messages on his social media profile urging him to off himself. Nevertheless, Jadin became the only male on the cheerleading squad and seemed to be almost defiantly queer, but all was not well. His dad supported him only superficially, so long as his son didn’t embarrass him. Possessed of a hair-trigger temper, Joe often grew enraged over petty things, and at every opportunity he had to show support for his son, he turned away.

But when Jadin takes his own life, Joe is driven by grief (and perhaps guilt) to make his quest, talking up his message to whoever will listen, or at least that’s what he sets out to do. The brutal truth is that Joe isn’t much of a public speaker and when ordering food in a diner, he overhears some other men making ugly homophobic remarks. Instead of confronting them, he hands them a card and leaves, which Jadin rightfully chides him for. You see, even though Jadin is gone, his spirit is walking alongside Joe every step of the way, alternately cheering him on and questioning his methods and motives.

There are no heroes in this movie except for maybe Jadin, and often Jadin is made out to be a stereotype, a martyr of teen bullying. Joe is self-centered, truly a product of a conservative rural town in which men are in charge, women are there for support and those who don’t fit in are to be humiliated, shunned and driven away. Joe acts the way he does because he doesn’t know any better, and in that sense he is a tragic figure; tragic because he doesn’t see that his lack of support, his refusal to stand beside his son instead of sweeping him under the carpet as much as possible has left Jadin feeling alone and with nowhere to turn, which we see in a powerful scene that announces that Miller is a talent to be reckoned with.

As far as Wahlberg goes, this is not a movie that relies on his natural charisma and easy-going charm. Joe is rough around the edges and often says or does the wrong thing. He alienates his long-suffering wife Lola (Britton) and his other son Joseph (Jenkins) at a time when both are hurting, but Joe only sees his own grief. There’s a scene early on where he is addressing a noisy high school assembly about bullying and it’s almost painful to watch as Joe literally fumbles his way through, saying nothing of any depth and concludes with a lame “Any questions?” when he has given them nothing to analyze. It’s brilliant in the sense that you wouldn’t expect a blue collar dad from rural Oregon to suddenly turn into a brilliant orator. Grief isn’t always enough.

The writing, from the Oscar winning duo of Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry who previously collaborated on the far superior Brokeback Mountain, is solid throughout, although to be honest it’s kind of hard to make something interesting of a movie that’s essentially about a guy walking down the side of the road. At times, the movie seems a bit maudlin, and it does feel like a movie that was meant for woke audiences rather than those who really need to see it  I must say, however, that it was nice to see Gary Sinese on the big screen, although his role shows up late in the film as a sympathetic sheriff.

This is another movie whose heart is in the right place but could have used a bit of sprucing up to make it truly marvelous, but we’ll have to make do with memorable performances by Wahlberg and Miller which isn’t really a bad thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Heartfelt messaging. Wahlberg is solid in unfamiliar territory, and Miller is a breakout star.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preaches to the choir somewhat and maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including offensive slurs and disturbing thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Jadin is depicted to have died immediately in his suicide attempt, in reality he was still alive when he was discovered and hung on for 15 more days before being taken off life support and passing away.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Till Death

Saint Judy


Don’t fence me in.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Blue Fox) Michelle Monaghan, Leem Lubany, Common, Alfred Molina, Alfre Woodard, Ben Schnetzer, Gabriel Bateman, Waleed Zuaiter, Mykelti Williamson, Peter Krause, Aimee Garcia, Kevin Chapman, Gil Birmingham, Roxie Hanish, Rob Brownstein, Fahim Fazli, Samira Izadi, Kim Strother, Allel Aimiche, Anne Betancourt, Peter Jason, Michael Hagiwara, Ceci Lugo. Directed by Sean Hanish

 

Judy Wood (Monaghan) is a lawyer who moved to Los Angeles so that her son (Bateman) can be close to his dad (Krause) from whom Wood is divorced. She gets into the immigration law firm of Ray Hernandez (Molina). She’s expected to churn out open-and-shut cases as quickly as possible, but she latches on to the plight of Asefa (Lubany), an Afghan activist who tried to set up a school for women, which the Taliban took exception to and subjected her to torture and rape. She fled to the United States to request asylum – only to discover that the law didn’t cover women in that situation because women aren’t a minority. Drugged by American prison officials, at the end of her rope, knowing that she will die if she is returned to Afghanistan, Judy is her last hope.

Released in the midst of the Trump presidency when immigration was a hot-button topic, the film boasts a top-knotch cast led by the criminally underrated Monaghan, who has a career full of terrific performances but never seems to get the credit due for her talents. This movie, which pretty much barely created a ripple during its release, is the perfect example. I think that at some point Marvel needs to cast her as a superheroine so that she can start getting the roles and recognition she deserves. Unfortunately, despite some strong supporting performances (particularly from Lubany, Common as a sympathetic prosecutor, Molina and Kruse), the script eschews human drama in favor of emotional outbursts, plot development in favor of pontificating. While nobody can argue with the importance of Wood’s work or the justness of her cause, the movie seems to have taken its title a bit too seriously, which is ironic since the name was given to Wood as a bit of an insult – too good to be true, never met a cause she didn’t stand up for and so on. The movie would have benefitted from less posturing and more insight.

REASONS TO SEE: Monaghan is appealing, leading a stellar cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: On the schmaltzy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and the description of a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dmitry Portnoy, who wrote the screenplay, was a former intern of Wood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Erin Brockovich
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Audible