Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

An ongoing survey of the Criterion Forum membership to create lists of the best films of each decade and genre.
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knives
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#76 Post by knives » Tue Feb 13, 2018 11:19 am

That seems particularly poorly researched. For example the point about shortened timelines is undermined by the tweet they include in the article which highlights a Lincoln film (biopic may be pushing things admittedly) that goes over a much shorter and less epic span of time than the recent film.

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bottled spider
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#77 Post by bottled spider » Tue Feb 13, 2018 1:28 pm

You're quibbling over facts and missing the poetry.
By that measure, the current tidal wave of biopics threatens to spill over into a tsunami.

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knives
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#78 Post by knives » Tue Feb 13, 2018 5:44 pm

Gorky III: My Universities
his is a much more traditional film than the previous two entries. What I mean by that is as with the disappearance of childhood comes a shift from episodic tales with acute morals to a linear tale about how life in Russia is singularly awful. The source of propaganda and how the overall picture fits a Stalinist view is also much more clearly defined. There's even a scene in the beginning where a group of homeless prols rescue the cargo of a sinking vessel as heroic Russian chants support the visuals. Likewise I think the simplification of the narrative is caused by an external need to have only those deemed in the wrong classes as primarily villainous (though most everyone including Gorky does something morally questionable and cruel at some point in the story). The film primarily focuses on a master baker who Gorky works for that killed his previous boss for his current position (Donskoy does not leave much ambiguity when it comes to the class system) and the accompanying disillusionment. Both despite and because of these restrictions the film, for me at least, works out better than the second film though it is still a pale shadow of the first.

Ludwig-Requiem for a Virgin King
A lot of people probably focus on the aesthetic of this and to be fair it is not within the norm, but around this time from de Oliviera to Rohmer many aspects of Syberberg's style can be seen even if it never fully broke into the mainstream. What is much more compelling here is how Syberberg tells his story which is grown out of certain emotional and thematic realities rather than the linear telling of events. What is especially for me on that is that the film because of that rather than despite of is an extremely effective story with all of the pleasures of a traditional plus some others. It helps how the film eases into its strangest elements. It starts off with a three witches of Macbeth parody of mistresses past cursing the young Ludwig, but for the hour after that it bounces around different scenes of his kingship dealing with such clear things as his love for Wagner, threats to his crown, and all other manner of drama that was encountered across the king's life. The story doesn't build to some ultimate theft, but an ultimate idea on the failure of Germany to be unified. Ludwig is utterly disgusted by Barvaria and seems intent on destroying it even though it seems to destroy him (Harry Baer in a great performance doesn't revel in the horrible teeth until the scene of the unification which opens the second half of the film). The film carries a dread connecting this era to Nazism in a very direct way while at the same time being delightfully well humoured. That really highlights the main idea of the film for me, the absurdity of the German capability for wrong doing. Even an innocent idiot like Ludwig makes for a dramatic incubator for evil. The film begins to get more linear after that act as it forces itself into a tailspin where Ludwig implodes due to his success at this unwanted pregnancy. Almost in compensation the delivery method becomes more experimental from this point. That works though as Ludwig becomes incredibly unhinged and a narrow, obsessive, and lonely technique is exactly what is needed to present that emotional reality.

Dangal
At its heart this is a pretty broad Disney sports movie with the flavors of Bollywood (all of the singing is internal monologue for instance). At its heart its a pretty simple film about family respect and love. Even though by my understanding this does have some important political weight in India even its feminist bonafides are of a straightforward goodness. Within that simpleness though it is really good and just fun. So, maybe not a great film, but an effective modeling into the zeitgeist. It's also nice that there isn't any sort of villainous character. The people they fight are all treated respectfully as other athletes who put in the same effort. Likewise while there are a few annoying bureaucratic figures they are left behind quickly. Only the rivalry between the coach and Khan gets nasty. It's an odd moment that feels made up given that though it does have some animosity it is otherwise treated as work and a natural part of the business with no character charge on either figure. Still, it remains a small part of the film. This friendliness is another element to add to the film's overall pleasantness.

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Lost Highway
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#79 Post by Lost Highway » Wed Feb 14, 2018 4:21 am

I rewatched Love Me or Leave Me last night. I hadn’t seen it since some awful pan&scan job on TV in the 90s, so watching it on Blu-ray in CinemaScope was an improvement. That said, Charles Vidor doesn’t do much with the format, with characters mostly bunched together in the middle of the frame and much of the film taking place in cramped interiors.

It’s a curious mix of musical and gangster movie, bringing together Doris Day and James Cagney in what can be assumed to be a heavily sanitized version of Ruth Etting’s toxic relationship with “Moe the gimp”. Having read up on their relationship, the final confrontation between them in particular was considerably more dramatic than what takes place in the movie. On a plus side, Day is far more than a victim and quite calculating in her relationship with her thug husband, till it spirals out of control. Etting actually regarded her as too tough. Day is pretty good though, anticipating her unhappy wife in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

The film’s greatest pleasure is Doris Day singing her way through half of the American Songbook. This is a musical biopic where the vocal talents of the movie star playing a real life singer outshine the talents of the artist it commemorates. The Blu-ray includes a couple of short films starring Etting for comparison.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#80 Post by Rayon Vert » Sun Feb 18, 2018 3:51 pm

Rembrandt (Korda 1936). It’s intriguing that Korda and London Films should have gone for such an non-sexy project: trading humorous monarchs for a serious-minded painter’s unglamorous life. It’s not entirely successful, because there are still a few less welcome moments with hysterics, and Laughton being Laughton, half of the time it’s not easy seeing the character rather than the actor. But some kind of artistic intent is worked towards and nevertheless partially achieved, especially in the second, more intimate half, and the film has a lot of charm that is derived from its sets – whether the interiors of the Dutch homes, or the country and cityscapes.


Fear Strikes Out (Mulligan 1957). In Psycho Anthony Perkins has mother issues, here he’s got father ones. In his Postwar Hollywood tome, Drew Casper mentions this film as an example of the 50s’ psychological/social problem take on biopics, where the focus is more on the “private drama” behind the scenes, and in a subgenre (that includes films like The Miracle Worker and I’ll Cry Tomorrow that I wrote up in this thread a bit earlier), where the protagonists’ issues are the results of “victimization by parents”. Perkins plays Rex Sox player Jimmy Pearsall, whose mental illness (bipolar disorder, but not spelled out here) is spurred on by his overbearing and hypercritical dad. It’s perhaps not surprising but still sad to see such still-contemporary and ubiquitous social issues spelled out in a film this old.

As for the film itself, though, it’s really only a very average melodrama. Perkins’ characterization is the thing that stands out, displaying some of his innate oddness that I’m sure helped get him noticed by Hitchcock (he also ends up in an institution here), especially given that this was a Paramount product.


The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Curtiz 1939). Davis and Flynn, with the former playing the Queen towards the end of her reign. The film scores some points very late with the final, torturous narrative developments in this tale of competition between love and power, and ends with two memorable shots, but it’s a bit too late. It’s not a completely bad film but really not an engaging one either. It’s hard not to laugh when you first see Davis in her get-up, and any power the film might have potentially had seems to be hurt rather than helped by the candied Technicolor. But perhaps the biggest problem is Flynn, who gives some really bad line readings and acts without any nuance as if he’s appearing in one of his adventure films.


Molière (Mnouchkine 1978). It shows that a lot of work and love went into this production. The film is quite good in its last couple of hours, at the point where we follow Molière as part of a poor-as-dirt traveling acting troupe in France, then as he establishes his reputation and his company in Louis XIV’s court, among all the politics and complexities of the society. The actors are extremely good and the film at this point develops a lot of charm. But I found the first half a very contrasting and disappointing slog to get through. We see Molière at different ages through his childhood and youth, mostly as an observer, in scenes that are atmosphere-heavy and meant to conjure up aspects of this society, but that for my money are much too long and dialogue-poor, without a requisite narrative thrust. It’s like we enter into a different movie in the second “époque” section. So a mixed result, but worthwhile if you are a fan of representations of this century, with Louis, Mazarin, Descartes all appearing.


Yankee Doodle Dandy (Curtiz 1942). A conventional musical career bio in the style of The Great Ziegfeld or The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle but top-notch in all departments: script (for the most part), acting, tunes and numbers. And then you have the human dynamo raising this material to another level. If there’s a weakness, it’s the lack of a personal story other than Cohan’s succession of shows in the second half, but then the identification of his life story with his country’s patriotic narrative, and the contemporary historical context, is fitting.


Bound for Glory (Ashby 1976). This doesn’t really come off. Carradine does an interesting take on the character, and his performance of the songs is good enough, but the film doesn’t really move you, despite the potentially inspiring themes at stake of authenticity and concern for the collectivity. Once Guthrie gets a radio program the film loses whatever it had going and it also ends sort of petering out. The portions having to do with hoboing to California and the fruit picking camps are the best parts and possess some charm, even if a lot of this is basically a retread of The Grapes of Wrath. The film is supposed to have great photography by Heskell Wexler, but because of the quite bad, dated master used by Twilight Time it’s not really possible to appreciate any of that.

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domino harvey
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#81 Post by domino harvey » Mon Feb 19, 2018 12:53 pm

Considering I originally saw Bound for Glory on MGM's non-anamorphic DVD, brother, it could all look so much worse. Sorry you didn't get much out of it, though-- I love the freewheeling nature of it, and how Guthrie is often shown to be unreasonably stubborn in his actions. And I'll go a few rungs below you on Fear Strikes Out, which I think is perfectly awful, though it is inexplicably loved by Cahiers!

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knives
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#82 Post by knives » Mon Feb 19, 2018 1:06 pm

I like both for the reasons each of their defenders posits though neither are making my list.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#83 Post by John Shade » Mon Feb 19, 2018 1:32 pm

I was trying to organize my viewings around certain themes (writers? artists?) but then realized even that is too immense; so I'm just embracing the chaos; trying to rewatch favorites and finally see some others that are new to me.

Vincent and Theo: About a month ago I had started reading the rather massive biography of Van Gogh by Naifeh and Smith from a few years back (part of a project of mine of trying to make use of things in the house that hadn't been used). I've only made it about 300 pages--not sure if I'll finish--mostly because of the vicious cycle in Vincent's life of seeking family acceptance, then receiving rejection, followed by some extreme reaction and project (homeless vagabond tortured preacher working for the coal mining families being one particularly brutal episode). And while I usually don't like Altman's movies, which is why I've never seen this, I was able to stomach the extremity (mostly). Tim Roth's performance is worth watching (*seperately here I will vent on the need for British accents to represent any foreign characters). I also like the Altman touch in the opening scene with the auction, even if it seems too easy an Altman touch. Yes, this can be somewhat grueling and depressing at times--like the bio--and a little long. Still, I might wait to see the Pialat version; I've also never seen Lust for Life.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: I'll have to disagree with Rayon Vert here. I saw this in 2007 and really liked it; still holds for me now. I see your point about the potentially gimmicky nature of how it was filmed, but I get immersed in the story to kind of forget about it; the fragmentary nature of how this is presented, whether it's moments with his father (a short scene but memorable one from Max von Sydow), the mistresses, family; all of this centered with an emphasis on human imagination and memory. The fantastical scenes are good too, especially the origins of the hospital.
Thinking on it now I probably saw parts of Schnabel's Basquiat about a year or two ago and that left very little impression on me, aside from hoping Daniel Stern's character from Hannah and her Sisters would walk in.

Serpico: Hadn't seen it in fifteen plus years, since my initial delving into movies. I ended up fast-forwarding through quite a lot, for whatever reason. Pacino's performance is strong, but this time around it was just too '70s for me. Funny that Bound for Glory was mentioned because it's usually Ashby's shaggy '70s style that I like (If only Shampoo was a biopic). Sorry I have nothing insightful to really offer here: I guess it's the Max Fischer version from now on.

Walk the Line...Walk Hard: I had never seen the first, but I had seen the latter a few times. Ok, I know that we aren't counting parodies and I won't vote for Walk Hard or Zelig, but I do like both of them. I had to list both of these together because I couldn't really watch the Phoenix version without thinking of "Wrong kid died" or other such phrases. Walk Hard is your typical '00s comedy: it has a lot of jokes that fall really flat, plays mostly like skits and sketches, but some of the songs and moments land well. Eddie Vedder introducing Dewey to the Hall of Fame is still a favorite; John C. Reilly as an old man adjusting his glasses to watch the rap version of "Walk Hard"; and the whole skit on '60s protest songs.

Up next I'm going to rewatch Andrei Rublev, Lawrence of Arabia, The New World, and the Spielberg biopics, among others.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#84 Post by Rayon Vert » Mon Feb 19, 2018 10:05 pm

John Shade wrote:Up next I'm going to rewatch (...) Lawrence of Arabia
I'll use this occasion to make good on the urge I've had for a while now to share my write-up of the film, taken from my viewing archives, because the last time I watched it I was definitely disappointed, which contrasts with how it seems so universally admired.

Lawrence of Arabia. Spielberg often mentions David Lean as a huge influence and seeing this film again the similarity in style is quite striking here. Which isn’t necessarily for the better. The very beautiful and impressive photography, music and edits in the first several sequences in the desert, and the tremendous scope of the settings, also features some slightly cutesy elements, which nevertheless, thankfully, don’t take center stage. As the film progresses, however, we find ourselves in a project that despite the iconic strength of its images is at once overly serious with itself and occasionally a bit cartoonish. Lean’s effort to show Lawrence as a fractured, tormented man in the end doesn’t really resolve what progressively becomes something of a mess as the film wears on, treading an uncomfortable middle ground between “strained seriousness” and commercial cinema (a criticism which can be applied also to many of Spielberg’s more dramatic films), and also less attractive both aesthetically and ethically.


My thoughts also on another usually beloved contender:

Amadeus. Like Ragtime before it, a visually lush and extremely successful production where we don’t get the sense of much of a personal sensibility in terms of an auteur's work. What Formanesque elements there are include a tone that mixes comedy (predominating over much of the picture until the end) and drama, and an anarchic character (think Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo, Williams in Hair, or even Rollins Jr. in Ragtime) bucking authority with the type of music and opera subject he wants to compose. While there are undeniably some likeable facets about the film, including of course the music (though one would have liked to have a wider range of Mozart’s works covered, because it heavily favors the operas, and, of course, the Requiem), and some scenes are very good like the one where Salieri helps the dying, bed-ridden Mozart put to paper the Requiem as he’s composing it, the narrative is only mildly interesting, with the whole dramatic thrust of the piece – Salieri’s envy and eventual destruction of Mozart – treated cartoonishly. There isn’t room for much subtlety in this film, in the story or the performances. Furthermore and most damagingly, Mozart’s character is turned into a veritable caricature, with a buffoonish quality that’s overdone. Moreover, one often cringes at his and his wife’s thick American accents, his often 1980s rock star hairdo, and the way she calls him “Wolfie”.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#85 Post by Rayon Vert » Mon Feb 19, 2018 10:25 pm

domino harvey wrote:Sorry you didn't get much out of it, though-- I love the freewheeling nature of it, and how Guthrie is often shown to be unreasonably stubborn in his actions.
I expressed my reservations about it, but it's still a film I'll keep.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#86 Post by hearthesilence » Wed Feb 21, 2018 4:22 pm

The Puppetmaster
A narrative film with documentary inserts, this is definitely going in my top 5. Based on the memoirs of Li Tian-lu, Taiwan’s most celebrated puppeteer, this story covers the years from Li’s birth in 1909 to the end of Japan’s fifty-year occupation of Taiwan in 1945. Unfortunately the OOP DVD is pan-and-scan, but for about a year, the only known English-subtitled 35mm print traveled around the U.S. and thank God I was able to catch one such screening because the compositions alone are glorious. It's painful to peruse any screencaps taken from the DVD because you can see how much is lopped off. This is especially true of the vista long shots, which seem to be meticulously filled from one side to the next, and any of the performance sequences (the Chinese opera, all of the puppet performances) which are so carefully framed in relation to audience perspective. For example, the Chinese opera scene is made up of two long takes - seeing the first in a theater is incredibly evocative of seeing an actual stage production in front of you, right where the film screen is located. The opera in the film and the film you're watching in real life are now perfectly fused together, and you have the sensation of being in the actual audience for the opera. Much of this feeling is lost in the pan-and-scan version. Eventually this first shot cuts to the second shot, which is filmed in the same direction, but the camera is backed up so that you're now observing the audience and what's going on behind their back. There are political implications with this second shot that will become clear when you watch the film, one that's all the more cutting (pun not intended) in the way it uses these two particular shots back-to-back.

October
It's been a while since I've seen this, but a decent transfer is on YouTube and I believe Kerensky and Lenin are pretty much the two lead figures in this film, so it might be eligible for that reason. I will be revisiting this soon, but if memory serves, in terms of Eisenstein's theories and technical abilities in montage, this is second only to Potemkin.

Napoleon
A bit overrated, but what works is incredible. At the very least a technical marvel. It's too bad later installments never came into fruition, because it would have been a far more complicated epic that confronted Napoleon's ultimate corruption - those elements are already hinted at here.

An Angel at My Table
Saw this projected at a Campion retrospective at Lincoln Center. One of my favorites from her, and while the compositions are simpler than her other films (I think Campion even had doubts about a theatrical release because she composed it for TV circa 1990), it didn't feel anything but cinematic when I saw it. This may be her most warmly empathetic film.

Ivan the Terrible
Stunned to find new HD transfers of both on Mosfilm's YouTube page. Again, the first part is expert propaganda, but the second part is a highly personal work. Both are masterpieces but for very different reasons.

Regrettable omissions - all were very tempting, but they fell just short of eligibility:
A Brighter Summer Day
Melvin and Howard
Dead Ringers
Naked Lunch
Jacques Tourneur's Wichita
Badlands
James Whale's The Great Garrick
Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#87 Post by knives » Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:49 pm

The Youth of Peter the Great
This has a lot of the stiff talkiness of Lev Tolstoy (the only other Gerasimov film I've seen) that makes it resemble a television production. Still, it comes across as a far better film because the palace intrigue (playing as a light and government friendly variant of Ivan the Terrible) is more easily made cinematic than Tolstoy's inner musings. The production design and lighting is also a lot of fun with sumptuous reds and shifts from black, white, and copper lighting which plays the mood of the film more effectively than the actual story does.

The Lost Angel
I'm glad to have accidentally stumbled onto this film by East German director Ralf Kirsten as it really is very good and how it got to be released is just as fascinating. Made to honor the 100th birthday of sculpture Ernst Barlach the film itself proved too radical for the censors who held onto it for five years, cutting twenty minutes of footage, and making a whole new soundtrack to give a more in line with policy dialogue to the film. It is very unfortunate that this occurred because otherwise we might have a masterpiece on the level, and variety of, Diamonds of the Night or Sokurov's Stone. The film is a little incoherent as a result and the new soundtrack is particularly bad with a new voice over that sounds exactly like what it is: a bureaucrats idea of what poetic language sounds like. This gives the tremendous urge to watch the film as a silent which is where it works best, but the voice over does add some coherence to the film and it seems dishonest to separate the useful exposition from some of the less successful polemics. This is a mangled phantom that is interesting for how from its first suggestion (let's face it, Barlach was never a topic that would toe the line) was never going to succeed.

Shadowlands
It's pleasant enough, but offers nothing beyond that. Since it is dealt with the same hand as Gandhi it has the unfortunate feeling of bloat due to the story not being able to sustain such heaviness. When Attenborough treats it as a Noel Coward sort of thing it works out very well with a closeted Lewis engaging his homeostasis through the hetero national and religious Winger. I can also see how this must have had a major impact on a lot of lesser films such as Finding Neverland which don't understand the basic charms this film has (those films are Hopkins and Winger being likable beyond all reason). Honestly Debra Winger is so good in this (as in all her work) that it seems all the more ridiculous that nowadays it seems like she couldn't get hired as an extra. The film itself would be improved greatly by cutting out the scenes with the student though. On a personal level I'd rather they have kept the other son in its place though that is a minor point.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#88 Post by zedz » Thu Feb 22, 2018 4:48 pm

For some reason, this latest batch of posts made me remember Dennis Potter's Casanova mini-series from 1971, which will be a strong contender for my list. For a largely studio-shot TV drama of the early seventies it's very impressive, with an audacious structure. Casanova is stuck in his Venetian prison cell, and his biography is filled in with flashbacks and flashforwards. It's one of the best uses of the latter device I've seen, with the form of the narrative getting stretched further and further with each passing episode, and it makes the final episode particularly unusual and trippy.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#89 Post by Rayon Vert » Thu Feb 22, 2018 9:09 pm

knives wrote:Shadowlands
It's pleasant enough, but offers nothing beyond that. Since it is dealt with the same hand as Gandhi it has the unfortunate feeling of bloat due to the story not being able to sustain such heaviness. When Attenborough treats it as a Noel Coward sort of thing it works out very well with a closeted Lewis engaging his homeostasis through the hetero national and religious Winger. I can also see how this must have had a major impact on a lot of lesser films such as Finding Neverland which don't understand the basic charms this film has (those films are Hopkins and Winger being likable beyond all reason). Honestly Debra Winger is so good in this (as in all her work) that it seems all the more ridiculous that nowadays it seems like she couldn't get hired as an extra. The film itself would be improved greatly by cutting out the scenes with the student though. On a personal level I'd rather they have kept the other son in its place though that is a minor point.
I found the film extremely good and moving when it first came out, but on a recent rewatch it came out rather ordinary. (I remember it coming out in roughly the same season as Schindler's List and Remains of the Day, and as I was going through a rough patch all 3 weepies made an impact.) This is a bit like Remains of the Day meets Terms of Endearment, as Anthony Hopkins reprises a very similar role of an emotionally repressed older Brit. The wisdom about grieving and the ending still rings very true but it’s the rest of the film that’s fairly flat. Contrary to you, and a lot of the reviews she got at time, I thought Winger here was really sub-par, and that the chemistry between the leads was lacking.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#90 Post by domino harvey » Thu Feb 22, 2018 9:22 pm

For some reason I always confuse Shadowlands with Carrington. There were just a lot of these kind of movies floating around in the early to mid 90s!

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#91 Post by knives » Thu Feb 22, 2018 9:24 pm

Agree to disagree. Though I heavily agree on the ending which I am not afraid to admit had me misty eyed slightly. What the film does well is indeed really excellent and the film should be better remembered than it is.

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domino harvey
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#92 Post by domino harvey » Sun Feb 25, 2018 1:17 pm

the Helen Morgan Story (Michael Curtiz 1957)
Ann Blyth stars as the famous Chicago singer of the Jazz Age, who rises from obscurity with the help of Paul Newman’s gangster and eventually develops a debilitating alcohol problem. Blyth can be a gifted actress when cast as the coquette or brat, but her sanctimonious act here is tiresome and she is woefully in over her head for the third act souse stuff. Between her and Newman’s fresh-faced, green perf, lots of second-hand embarrassment abounds here. (R1 Warners DVD)

John Paul Jones (John Farrow 1959)
It’s fitting that this should be this first film I watched specifically for this project, as it’s every bit the embodiment of what makes biopics so loathed as a genre. Robert Stack is the titular Revolutionary War figure, perhaps best (and only?) known for saying “I have not yet begun to fight,” but we’ll be treated to many uninteresting detours on either side of that utterance, including several failed romances (the dude liked unavailable women) and a trip to France to befriend Benjamin Franklin, here played by Charles Coburn. I know, that sounds like perfect casting, but alas Coburn is too old here (other than his cameo in Pepe, this would be his last role before his death) and seems to be merely reciting his lines without any of the usual Coburn charm. Also Coburn most definitely was outfitted with a woman’s wig. The whole affair is two plus hours of uninteresting, artless hokum. To the surprise of no one, the march to find a good Revolutionary War film soldiers on unabated. (R1 Warner Archives MOD)

the Polka King (Maya Forbes 2018)

Jack Black stars as Jan Lewan, a Polish polka musician who scammed his fans out of millions in a well-intentioned (at least according to this film) Ponzi scheme. The real story is bizarre, so much so that the movie didn’t need to be a broad comedy to work. Luckily the film compensates for this by being completely unfunny. Everything is played broadly by overacting hams, especially an unwatchable Jacki Weaver as Black’s mother-in-law, and there’s no reason why it had to be so. (Netflix Original)

Samson and Delilah (Cecil B DeMille 1949)
A huge popular hit, this Biblical pic is drolly entertaining, yet lacks the grandeur one comes to expect from DeMille. Victor Mature is well-cast as the strongman, and George Sanders is only too adept at playing coolly detached rulers. Less successful is Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah, a role for which she is too old and which she plays too young. The big finale here feels small and shoddy, but it like the rest of the film has a scrappy charm of its own regardless. Not one of DeMille’s greatest successes, but I’ve sat through far worse from him! (R1/A Paramount)

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#93 Post by Rayon Vert » Sun Feb 25, 2018 3:05 pm

Juarez (Dieterle 1939). This was a bit more sophisticated than the previous Dieterle biopics, with a script co-written by John Huston. The film is about the power play in the 1860s between the president of the Mexican republic (Muni), who is ousted by the arrival of a Napoleon III puppet monarch, Maximilian I (Brian Aherne). Those politics are compounded by internal domestic power struggles. It’s not a great film but it has a certain depth to it and enough elements to keep it interesting*, with inspiring meditations on the nature of democracy, with the shadow of Lincoln’s contemporary accomplishments inspiring Juarez. It has also quite a few good actors in the secondary roles, including Bette Davis as the monarch’s wife who has a couple of strong scenes towards the end, Claude Rains, and John Garfield as Porfirio Diaz. And there’s Donald Crisp who seems to be in almost everyone of these golden age Hollywood biopics I’m going through!

(*One of these is when Maximilian has gun-owning Mexicans executed, and I noticed in that sequence a shot that was obviously deliberately meant to evoke Goya’s famous Third of May 1808 painting – complete with the placement of the lantern as the source of illumination.)
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The King’s Speech (Hooper 2010). My emerging cinephilia in the last ten years has had me devoted exclusively to older cinema and not staying on top of current movies, which explains why I’ve missed obvious contenders like this one. I thought this was a cute film, good for what it is, without much to fault but at the same time not in any way exceptional. The relationship between the monarch-to-be and his speech/psycho-therapist is the most interesting and fun thing. When we reach the climactic moment, however, the film does deliver the goods and the requisite emotion, which no doubt explains in part its popularity. A nice evocation of 30s Britain and patriotic pre-war feeling as well.


L’Enfant sauvage (Truffaut 1970). (revisit) I no longer feel a lot for this film though I still admire its conception and artistry. This story was perfect Enlightenment fodder and Truffaut treats it very objectively and nonjudgmentally, and it happens to fit a pedagogical streak he has in him and his films. There are obvious parallels between this film and Les Quatre cents coups, another story of a young teen boy (Victor is about 12) at the mercy of his surroundings and forming his identity. I like the simple and gentle tone, its stunningly beautiful black-and-white photography by Almendros, and the tender musical themes. Truffaut generally tends to have memorable scores and tunes.

Watching it this time, I did find myself thinking this was probably an autistic child, and possibly his illness caused his parents to abandon him. I’m reading online that apparently that’s what some experts now think.

When I was a kid, I owned this French satirical comic (aimed more at adults) that had a section poking fun at the film. Even if you don’t read French, you’ll probably get most of the jokes, and I still find funny Gotlib’s take on the moment when Dr. Itard administers the young Victor a deliberately unjust treatment to see what his reaction will be!


Dallas Buyers Club (Vallée 2013). I liked this quite a bit. Really a strong, memorable film: a very good story, a screenplay without a single bum note, and wonderfully acted. Not much more to say!


Edvard Munch (Watkins 1974). A remarkable piece of art. This is wildly creative and ambitious, extremely montage-heavy, with a mixture of fiction and documentary, constant flashbacks, characters “interviewed”, or again characters in scenes framed looking at the spectator as in the artist’s paintings, a narrator connecting the events on the screen with elements in the wider historical context, but for all that it’s never disorienting. There are some stunningly beautiful moments, especially early on, that because of the setting and period brought to my mind Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Meanwhile the socio-psycho-sexual emancipation philosophy depicted among the Bohemian group to which Munch belongs clearly echoes the counter-cultural movement of the 1960-70s that is the historical context of the film’s production. There was obviously enormous care in choosing (non-)actors and settings that connect with the artist’s paintings, and creating a work that seeks to place the artist’s life in the most complete and widest possible “ecosystem” there is (including even allusions, usually somber, to future historical world events that find their roots in this period).

Very personally, in the end, I don’t know if such a “docudrama” approach can have quite the same impact on me as a (perfectly-realized) more fully narrative fictional film. I did find that once we get to the 1890s the films starts centering more on the artist’s creation of his oeuvre and to a degree tends to leave behind what was strongest about the earlier sections, where we are immersed in the author’s different contexts – familial, amorous, artistic, the wider society (although all of that is continuing to resonate with the constant flashbacks) -, but on the other hand this later part of the film truly gives us an incredible in-depth insight into the work of the artist in a way you don’t get with the other biopics about painters.


Marie Antoinette (Van Dyke 1938). I was prepared for fluff but instead was surprised by a terrific film. This is a grandiose MGM production but it’s very smartly written and directed throughout. The film follows Marie Antoinette in four distinct beats: the innocent teen princess enamored of marrying a royal stranger, the Dauphin’s wife as court trollop, the suffering lover, the noble martyr queen. Shearer is truly impressive here - I’ve never seen the actress play like this; she gives every moment her all and adds an emotional depth. Tyrone Power as her lover/admirer/steadfast friend is merely passable, but the other roles are truly well played – notably Robert Morley as Louix XVI, Schildkraut as the villainous duc d’Orléans, and John Barrymore as Louis XV in the first part of the film. The flight to Varennes scene is thrilling, and the costumes throughout, especially the dresses, a visual knockout. You expect MGM films directed by craftsmen like Van Dyke to be merely competent and a little plodding, but there was nothing inferior here. Definitely a lot stronger than the WB Dieterle bios.


All the President’s Men (Pakula 1976). I don’t know why I never got around to seeing this before. What a fantastic film. It’s just completely absorbing, smart, terrifically acted, suspenseful and inspiring. All of the scenes interviewing potential sources were especially good. It’s clear something like JFK was influenced by this film, with the similar excitement of an investigation into a hidden conspiracy slowly revealing to the protagonists that it reaches beyond what they could imagine. Loved the tone and style of the whole thing. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

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knives
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#94 Post by knives » Fri Mar 02, 2018 2:41 pm

Beethoven-Days in a Life
This is easily one of the best and certainly most formally interesting of the East German films I've seen. The Lost Angel had a lot of potential squandered by the censors, but miraculously this film managed to survive. I suspect that is because it so carefully presents itself as traditional entertainment while slowly building in a rather effective political concept. It also becomes very obvious very quickly why coded historical films had an easier time of it. Though beyond the historical chutzpah the film's narrative construct is really its most valuable tool. The film doesn't tell any one particular story instead presenting out of order various, mostly mundane, scenes that build the character of Beethoven focusing on some themes and ideas present in his life. Part of this we are introduced and reintroduced to characters who we have come to be familiar with through their presence even if their exact relationship to Beethoven was unknown. The reverse also comes true where we receive the exit of characters only for them to be back in various scenes. The episodic storytelling also allows the film to not really need to produce big moments allowing for such things (especially as relates to Beethoven's nephew) that in an ordinary telling would be played up to come across as just another moment. The film also blocks off certain elements of characterization in order to help build the themes. For example Beethoven's secretary is treated as a very ordinary person throughout most of the film, but towards the end we see how got hired which changes the purpose of his character in subsequent scenes allowing for some explicit political talk (some of which I assume must have gotten this into hot water).

Florence Foster Jenkins
It shouldn't be a surprise by now, but Frears really made an excellent film here that is not the gawking geek show the ads made it out to be. It doesn't pepper over things to live entirely in her psychology either though ala Ed Wood. The film instead occupies Grant's mind which is more than aware that she's not talented, but in her delusion (suggested to be caused at least in part by syphilis) is something of a good person through a certain complexity of good will. There's a rather interesting running theme culminating in the Carnegie scene of this delusion being a good, old fashioned class imperialism which the film does have quite a bit of discomfort with (mostly represented by the Post writer), but it also connects that to certain ideas of platonic love that makes for a more compelling story and theme. There's this genuine complexity of affection between Grant and Streep (I know its a joke she gets nominated for being alive, but this was a performance that really deserved recognition and is unquestionably one of her best) is exactly the right one and just effects well. That's not to say this is a great film and to be honest the last twenty minutes are largely redundant. Still, it's an inspired and interesting one worth more than the Streep dismissals its gotten.

Kinsey
It's hilarious that Kinsey gets more Irish as he gets older. Neeson gives a lovely performance full of sensitivity and intelligence, but he is simply incapable of playing American which is fine. Really the full characterization of Kinsey is where the film holds its greatest power as it is more than willing to show him in a negative light even as it upholds its ideals. While I'd be curious to see the film take up the question of society as an emotional safety net more already the film is surprisingly lecture heavy for such a mainstream effort so to ask for more seems to be ignoring the bird in the hand. Still, my understanding is the film cleaned up Kinsey a bit in a way that reduced that confrontation particularly as relates to self masochism and the pedophile character.

The film is also thankfully very funny. Even Tim Curry's villainous professor is given the opportunity to be rather humourous which really helps to elevate the film into something really good. This balancing of tones is fabulous and makes it all the more frustrating that his recent Beauty and the Beast was such a mess.

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Rayon Vert
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#95 Post by Rayon Vert » Sun Mar 04, 2018 1:58 pm

American Splendor (Pulcini & Springer Berman 2003). This is on a few online lists of best biopics. It’s original to some degree because of the use of cartoons and the real Harvey Pekar along with Giamatti’s portrayal, and it has a similar charm to other films by and/or about down-and-out nerdy cartoonists that collect old blues and jazz records (e.g. Crumb, Ghost World). But while it was fun and on the verge of moving in parts, I thought this was mildly likeable at best.


Ivan the Terrible Part I (Eisenstein 1945). I didn’t expect something so slow and operatic. This really had the feel of a silent film at times. There’s a visual appeal but otherwise this isn’t really my bag.


Gentleman Jim (Walsh 1942). Erroll Flynn is trailblazing heavyweight boxer Jim Corbett in late 19th century San Francisco. This is a lighthearted, frequently comic film, heavy on Irish characterizations. The story material isn’t that strong; however it’s attractively directed and acted throughout.


A Man for All Seasons (Zinnemann 1966). I had pretty high expectations going into it after learning about it through this forum (I think), as a result of which I was initially a little underwhelmed. Part of that was feeling more sympathetic towards the realpolitik perspective of More’s adversaries given the cause at play – removed from the historical context it seemed such a small matter. But Scofield’s performance won me over, especially later in the film, in conjunction with the stunning way in which the courtroom scene is designed and directed. A work of high caliber, that looks very good in addition to the strength of the performances.


The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
(Robson 1958). By then Rossellini was showing signs of strain and starting to retool some of his tropes. So Bergman is on her way to another country to help people for God, then winds up stuck on hilly terrain despairing of the brutality of the natives… until salvation is found at the top of a mountain. :wink:

Seriously, once I got past the heavily Swedish-accented Liverpudlian protagonist, I was in for a long and not particularly stunning but oftentimes pleasant enough epic. The filmmakers do a good job of dressing up Wales as China.


Viva Zapata! (Kazan 1952). A strong film. Steinbeck’s screenplay is smart and sincere, obviously personal, the film’s scenes are both framed and photographed with finesse, and Brando, Peters and Quinn are all very commanding in their acting.


Downfall (Hirschbiegel 2004). (revisit) I didn’t remember this well but it came back to me as I was watching it. Not a contender for me because it’s hard to be personally invested in the film, given most of the characters you’re sharing your time with. But it is a gruesomely fascinating historical reconstruction and excellently made, not just about the final days but the fall of Berlin as a whole.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#96 Post by zedz » Mon Mar 05, 2018 6:11 pm

Bright Star - Dug this out the other night in response to a series of free-association prompts from my wife (which it fit beautifully). It's a lovely and well-considered film, which plays with a whole raft of biopic cliches but distances itself from them by its uncommon focus on women's social roles and - even more uncommon - women's work, and on unforgiving 19th century economics. Nevertheless, a lot of it is wildly romantic, and this resonates more strongly because of the film's realist constraints. Campion also deserves credit (this and The Piano are, I believe, her only solo screenplays) for avoiding characterising any of the narrative's various obstructing characters as villains. Abbie Cornish is terrific and gets to explore a wide range of behaviours without being Oscar-showy.

Definitely an unusual, top-tier literary biopic. It might not make my list, but it's well worth seeking out.

Oh, and while I was looking for a film, I was reminded that Varda's gorgeous Jacquot de Nantes is eligible for this project.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#97 Post by John Shade » Wed Mar 07, 2018 8:56 pm

zedz, out of curiosity what are these free association prompts?

I found the Bright Star DVD at the bottom of my car trunk a few weeks ago and also saw it as a sign to revisit for this project. I remember liking the movie, Cornish, the portrayal of a poet's "work", the La Belle Dame scene, but I also remember an English professor of mine disliking it for making Keats look effeminate (he was a boxer and fighter...and doctor?).

Some recent rewatches...Lawrence of Arabia: Each viewing since seeing it as a 15 year old has gone down a little bit. Some of the same reasons Rayon mentions above. I still love the major performances. For the next viewing I'll wait for a big screen.

42: Really well made and perhaps somehow overshadowed or underrated biopic of Jackie Robinson. Excellent performance by Chadwick Boseman, and while this may sound glib I think this would be a good movie for a 6th or 7th grade social studies class.

Amistad: Probably too long for that same social studies class. This film has its moments, but I prefer Amazing Grace and might sneak in a viewing of it for this project. Similar approaches though, and some might find these too sentimental when dealing with a topic like slavery.

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zedz
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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#98 Post by zedz » Wed Mar 07, 2018 10:44 pm

John Shade wrote:zedz, out of curiosity what are these free association prompts?
19th century. Great frocks. Melodramatic but not campy.

Oh, and a biopic, but that was my contribution.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#99 Post by hearthesilence » Thu Mar 08, 2018 12:12 pm

This didn't make my list, but Bird is one of Eastwood's better films and some would say it's one of his very best. It's not as inspired as my favorite Eastwood films, and its biggest technical innovation is a bit problematic for aesthetic reasons (stripping Parker's solos out of their original recordings and re-recording a new band around them). But for a film that doesn't feel like a radical departure from musical biopic conventions, it's quite good, not to mention moving and poignant. There are a few other things that may bother Parker fans who are knowledgable about him - for example, Parker was never dismissive of other genres of popular music, including rhythm & blues, and the infamous "tossed cymbal" story is blown up to ridiculous proportions - but for the most part it feels right.

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Re: Biopics List Discussion + Suggestions (Genre Project)

#100 Post by Lost Highway » Fri Mar 09, 2018 9:27 am

Last night I watched David Gordon Green's Stronger, the 2017 biopic of Jeff Bauman who survived the Boston marathon bombing but who ended up losing both legs. A few years ago the Oscars would have been all over this, a triumph over adversity story with a movie star playing a disabled person, but despite good reviews the film just sank. As this type of film goes, it's actually pretty good, largely dealing with PTSD, it goes to some pretty dark places, with any sort of triumphalism held firmly in check.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives a good but slightly too studied performance, closely based on the mannerisms and personality of Bauman, a man ill suited to the role of a hero which the media and his family tries to impose on him and which hinders rather than enables his recovery. Much of the film serves as a corrective of the popular story of coming out stronger at the other end of catastrophe. Bauman long appears to be in danger if getting crushed by the expectations of him living up to a cliche which is supposed to make everybody around him feel better about the whole thing.

The real stand out of the film is Tatiana Maslany as Erin Hurley, Bauman's on again off again girlfriend who finds herself in the role of carer when his blue collar family proves too dysfunctional to do the job. Erin does her best under the circumstances but realises that at some point she just has to step back. Her presence ends up being taken for granted while getting little back in return, not from the traumatised and immature Jeff nor from his alcoholic mother. Maslany is simply fantastic as a woman to kind to let go but increasingly up against the odds when Bauman goes back to being unreliable and self-sabotaging, traits which made her dump him just before the bombing.

The film is a love story but it becomes clear that the problems which already where inherent in the relationship don't evaporate when the stakes get higher. The film goes out on a hopeful note, but soon after the film got released real life provided a more downbeat coda. While the film itself may be the type of Oscar bait the Academy now shuns, Maslany was robbed. I've never seen Orphan Black but I can see why everyone was raving about her. Miranda Richardson plays Bauman's overbearing mother. She's an actress I always have incredibly mannered and way too actorly, but she's actually quite good here.

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