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Posts tagged ‘Biopic’

My Left Foot (1989)

downloadDirected by Jim Sheridan

I realized today that writing a post and getting it ready does absolutely no good if you don’t actually schedule it. Sorry for the delay. I promise I’m not always this flakey.

My family went to the movies one night when I was six, and I saw a poster for a movie called My Left Foot. I thought the title was weird, so I asked my mom what the movie was about. She said it was about a painter who used his left foot to paint, because that was the only part of his body that he could move. That explanation sounded so fake to me that I assumed she was lying; the movie must be about some grown-up thing she didn’t want to tell me about. When I saw My Left Foot for the first time 25 years later, I found out that not only was my mom telling me the truth about that bizarre plot, but that the movie was a true story. It blew my mind.

So what’s the story? When Christy Brown is born into a large Irish family in 1932, his parents find out that baby Christy has cerebral palsy. People assume that his parents will put him into a home, but his father refuses to do so. He grows up surrounded by his loving family, most of whom assume that he’s not really bright. Through much practice and perseverance, Christy learns to write the alphabet holding a piece of chalk with his left foot. From then on, Christy blooms into a brilliant painter and writer.

The Good: Daniel Day-Lewis is a brilliant actor. I would go so far as to say that he might be the most talented actor of his generation. I’ve seen him star in several movies without realizing it was him because he submerges himself so deeply into his roles. It’s no different in My Left Foot. Day-Lewis becomes Christy Brown. It’s almost frightening how well he does.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. Brenda Fricker was recognized with an Academy Award for her portrayal of Christy’s supportive, loving mother who refuses to give up on her son. Ray McAnally plays Christy’s father with equal gusto. He may not believe that his son is actually smart, but the love and pride that shines out of his eyes is beautiful to see. While Hugh O’Conor may not be quite as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, he does a fantastic job in his incredibly difficult role of young Christy Brown, showing the audience the struggles of a young boy who just wants the people around him to understand what is going on in his head. Christy’s speech and physical therapist, Dr. Eileen Cole, who is intelligent and sympathetic, is played by Fiona Shaw. Shaw just slips into the role, becoming immersed in Cole’s personality.

Sometimes biopics fall into the trap of making the subject too perfect, almost saintly. The screenwriters of My Left Foot avoided making this mistake. While his achievements were incredible and inspiring, Christy Brown was sometimes still a jerk, and the filmmakers are not afraid to show this side of him. In the movie, he throws fits when he doesn’t get his way. He makes a horrible scene in a restaurant when he finds out that the woman he loves is engaged to someone else. He pesters a woman to go on a date with him even though she keeps telling him no. He has his good side, too, but the writers showed him as a whole person who has ups and downs and good and bad all mixed together. That makes for a wonderful screenplay.

The Bad: I didn’t get much of a sense of passage of time. Sheila, Christy’s older sister, is the only character whose clothes changed with time. I realize that this is a poor family in a place where fashion doesn’t change much, but there could have been other clues. Headlines in the papers? People talking about World War II in the pub? His brothers getting called up, maybe? It’s not a huge deal, but it left me feeling a little bit rudderless.

The Ugly: My Left Foot has nothing bad enough that it can be called ugly.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Daniel Day-Lewis); best actress in a supporting role (Brenda Fricker).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

 

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Born_On_The_4th_Of_JulyDirected by Oliver Stone

Happy Independence Day! I thought that there could be no better day to review Born on the Fourth of July than actually on July 4. I remember when this movie came out. I was pretty sure it was about someone whose birthday was July 4, and I thought there could be no better thing. Fireworks on your birthday! How fun is that?* What I didn’t know was that even though Ron Kovic was actually born on the Fourth of July, the movie is not about someone’s amazing birthdays year after year.

So what’s the story? All-American kid Ron Kovic decides that it’s his duty to join the Marines and fight in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. He is injured and sent back home to a VA hospital, where he learns that he will never walk again. As he slowly becomes disillusioned by the way the government treats the veterans, he realizes that it’s possible to love America without blindly following the leaders. Ron begins to make his anger known, eventually becoming an anti-war activist.

The Good: I’ve never thought of Tom Cruise as a serious actor. He does action movies, and he does a good job in action movies, but I would not have guessed that Cruise could pull off a role like Ron Kovic. He does a really good job of being a man with a message, not just a man with a pretty face. The rest of the cast is also good, but the true standout is Willem Dafoe. He plays Charlie, another Vietnam vet who is also paralyzed. He’s not in the movie for very long; I’d say ten minutes at the most. But what he does in those minutes is amazing. His scene with Cruise is the best in the movie, the moment that made me connect with Ron more than at any other time. Although he was not nominated for best supporting actor, Dafoe’s performance is Oscar-worthy.

I was struck by the cinematography. When I hear the word “cinematography,” I often think of sweeping panoramic views. Born on the Fourth of July does have those, but Robert Richardson, the cinematographer, also uses extreme close-ups: the character’s faces fill the whole screen. This helps to highlight the inner struggles that the characters are feeling, as their world shrinks to nothing but what’s going on inside their heads. The editors worked with these shots, interchanging the shots of the characters as they argued to show that the characters were so wrapped up in themselves or their point of view that they couldn’t see anything else.

John William’s score is beautiful. Much of the orchestration uses a solo trumpet, which is reminiscent of soldiers fighting in wars, but which also represents Ron Kovic’s lonely fight, first against his own disillusionment, and then against the United States Government.

The Bad: The soundtrack is not great. Pop songs of the era are sprinkled throughout the movie. While some of the songs used fit naturally into the movie’s action, other songs seem to be placed completely randomly. There were way too many songs used, and “American Pie” was used twice. It almost felt like someone decided that they were going to put every single one of their favorite songs from the 1970s into the movie. It was so distracting.

I will get this out of the way before I criticize the storytelling of Born on the Fourth of July: Yes, I understand that this movie is based on a true story/an autobiography, and as such, had less leeway with how the story goes. However, what really bothers me about this movie was that they tried to show Kovic’s entire life. It starts with his idyllic childhood, showing him playing war and baseball with his friends, watching television with his family, and having his first kiss. Then it jumps to his high school days, with wrestling and the prom. Then Ron is on his second tour of duty for about 15 minutes, and then in the hospital, etc. Biopics do not usually try to show an entire life. There might be a flashback to childhood, or people may discuss their past with each other, but cramming in an entire life doesn’t really work. I suppose it’s the way it is because the real Ron Kovic wrote the screenplay with Oliver Stone; he probably felt like every bit of his life was important. But because Stone and Kovic tried to shove everything in, I had a harder time connecting to this movie. The characters were there and gone in a flash. I know that people can have an impact on you in just a few minutes in real life, but it didn’t allow for any relationships to come off as meaningful. Even Kyra Sedgwick’s character, Donna, who it seems is supposed to be Ron’s girlfriend, barely interacts with him. I had a hard time feeling Ron’s trauma from the war because only one quick incident from the war was shown. I feel like Stone and Kovic should have picked more impactful moments and perhaps taken a bit of liberty with the storyline to give it more focus. The meandering way that Kovic wanders through his story works well for books, but it’s not nearly as effective in movies. I usually like it when an author does the screenplay based on his work, but I think that’s not as good an idea for an autobiography.

I hate to compare movies; it’s just not fair. However, since The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Born on the Fourth of July are all stories about the Vietnam War and how it affected the people caught up in it, my subconscious comparison is more understandable. Both The Deer Hunter and Coming Home worked better as movies because they didn’t try to tell the backstories of every relationship. The backstories of the relationships come out more naturally in those movies because we see what their relationships are now. In The Deer Hunter, we don’t have to be told that Michael’s group of friends have been friends forever; it’s obvious in the way they interact with each other. We don’t have to be told that the whole town is devastated by the loss of their sons; it’s evident in the reactions of the people in the town to the tragedies of war. Born on the Fourth of July doesn’t get this quite right.

The Ugly: Again, I understand that it’s a true story, but it was incredibly selfish of Kovic to go tell Wilson’s family that Kovic himself had accidentally killed Wilson. It was self-indulgent, and while it may have been cathartic for him, it just added to the pain that the Wilson family was feeling. That scene left a bad taste in my mouth.

Oscars Won: Best director; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Tom Cruise); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best cinematography; best sound; best music, original score.

*I could have a holiday celebrated with fireworks on my birthday, too, but I live in the wrong country.

 

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The_Life_of_Emile_Zola_posterDirected by William Dieterle

Alfred Dreyfus=Dreyfus Affair=Emile Zola=J’acusse. Alfred Dreyfus was Jewish and this whole story has nothing to do with Richard Dreyfuss. This is what I remember from the European history class that I took in high school. I could not have told you what the Dreyfus Affair was about, just that it had happened. I knew Zola was an author who championed the lower and middle classes, but even though I’m a librarian and librarians are supposed to have read every book ever, I have never read anything by him. That is everything I knew about Emile Zola before I watched this movie. Yes, I realize it’s a biopic and therefore full of half-truths or stuff made up to make it more interesting, but I will never forget the intricacies of the Dreyfus Affair or the booming character of Emile Zola.

So what’s the story? The young writer Emile Zola has a penchant for getting into trouble.He writes about prostitutes, oppressed coal miners, and the ineptness of the French army. He loses jobs and gets called into the office of the Censor of Paris more than once on account of his controversial books, but he refuses to stop exposing the uncomfortable truths of French society. However, Zola eventually stops writing. His wealth insulates him from the poverty around him. The story stops following Zola at this point, and switches to the story of Alfred Dreyfus. The higher-ups of the French army discover that someone has been passing secret military information to the Germans. They decide to pin the blame on Alfred Dreyfus, mostly because he’s Jewish. Dreyfus proclaims his innocence, but he is convicted and exiled anyway. Evidence is later found that Dreyfus is not the traitor, but the army doesn’t want to admit their mistake and tries to cover up what they have found. At this point, Anatole French, one of Zola’s writer friends, urges Zola to remember his commitment to social justice and intercede on Dreyfus’s account. Zola is reluctant, but eventually writes what would become his most famous and influential piece: J’accuse.

The Good: Emile Zola was quite the character. It would have been easy to overplay him, to ham it up and turn him into a caricature of the man. Paul Muni, however, plays him with more subtlety. His optimism, his despair, his desire to stand up for the underdog, his self-satisfaction in later life, are all brought out brilliantly by Muni. Muni’s delivery of Zola’s last speech in court was so amazing that it brought me to tears. It’s a truly great example of acting.

Paul Muni is not the only great actor in this film. Joseph Schildkraut plays Alfred Dreyfus to perfection, bewildered as to why his beloved France would do this to him, despairing as he realizes that nothing he can do will convince the army that he’s innocent, joyful when he’s released and reinstated into the army. Gale Sondergaard is Dreyfus’s stalwart wife, determined to do everything in her power to reveal the truth and exonerate her husband. Zola’s defense attorney, played by Donald Crisp (not Claude Rains, even though he looks like Claude Rains here), doesn’t have a large role in the movie, but Crisp does such a good job expressing his exasperation with the court that blocks him at every turn. The brave Colonel Georges Piquart, the only officer to stand up for the truth, was very well portrayed by Henry O’Neill. I love a well-cast movie.

The screenplay was very good. The writers managed to be inspiring without crossing the line into cheesiness, there was enough humor to balance out the drama, and I loved the foreshadowing of the (paraphrased) line that if you get too fat, you can’t see past your own stomach. I assume some of Zola’s words were his own, especially his dramatic last speech, but it’s all woven seamlessly together.

The clothing and makeup were well done. The clothing styles changed as the years passed, giving a hint to how much time had gone by. The makeup captured the real-life people excellently. The movie Dreyfus matches photographs of the real Dreyfus so well it’s almost uncanny. The makeup done to age the actors was also good.  I don’t know what happened in the years between 1937 and 1956 when Giant was made, but makeup artists in the 1930s were wonderful at using makeup to make actors look decades older.

The Bad: The actual words that were spoken were good, but the screenplay was rather disjointed. The story started with Zola’s life, and then completely cut Zola out while it explored the Dreyfus affair. Zola came back eventually, but it just felt odd to change perspectives like that.

It was very hard to tell the many mustachioed army officers apart. I know the mustaches were the fashion of the time, and since they were officers, it makes sense that they were in uniform, but I was never exactly sure who was who. Dreyfus wore glasses and Colonel Piquart had a longer face, which helped, but other than that, I could not tell you which officer was which. It got very confusing.

The Ugly: Although there were some slight problems with The Life of Emile Zola, there was nothing so bad that it fell into the ugly category.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Joseph Schildkraut); best writing, screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor (Paul Muni); best director; best writing, original story; best art direction; best sound, recording; best assistant director; best music, score.

Mind-boggling Fact: The Dreyfus Affair wasn’t completely resolved until 1906, only 31 years before The Life of Emile Zola was made; Alfred Dreyfus himself died in 1935. That means that the Dreyfus Affair was as close in time to the filmmakers as 1986 is to us. 1986 is not that long ago. Crazy, right?