Biopic

REVIEW: Hamilton

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 160 minutes
Director: Thomas Kail

Hamilton is particularly challenging to review as a film since it wasn’t made as a traditional movie, instead being a filmed stage production. If I had to nit pick one thing, it would be that because this ultimately is a staged performance, the cinematography was not the same as it would be an actual movie. They had to make up for the fact that we’ve lost the ability to see the entire stage at once like we would if we were actually attending the Broadway performance. So, in some cases where they could’ve used a more cinematically pleasing shot, they cut to different angles so we could see a different perspective (I’m specifically thinking of the “rewind scene” from “Satisfied”). This is not inherently bad, since if we were a part of the actual audience, our attention would be focused on different things at different times. However, it doesn’t quite translate over to a film as well. But overall, the cinematography is the best we could’ve hoped for from a musical of this caliber.

Another thing that limited Hamilton was its choice of provider–Disney+. Lin-Manuel Miranda clarified on his Twitter account that in order for Hamilton to keep a PG-13 rating, its three “F-bombs” would have to be censored. While it is understandable (Lin wanted audiences of all ages to be able to enjoy the historically based musical) I personally felt like they should’ve left it uncensored and left Hamitlon unrated. It’s a filmed stage production after all, it shouldn’t be subject to the same weird standards that the MPAA places on normal movies. However, I respect Lin’s and Disney’s choice on the matter.

I have been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for five years now, and I was ready to see the context in which the musical existed and I was blown away by all the performances. The advantage of filming the live production has given us the ability to see all the subtle emotions playing on the actors’ faces. Seeing the fear, anger, disgust, heartbreak, and tenderness made the musical all the more emotionally engaging. Seeing Daveed Diggs bounce around the stage as Lafayette/Jefferson left me grinning from ear to ear. I was particularly surprised by Leslie Odom Jr.’s subtle performance. For nearly the whole musical he kept this fake smile on his face (reflecting Burr’s “talk less, smile more” philosophy), but near the end of the final act it dropped to reveal the buried rage within. Truly a powerful performance.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and others member of the Hamilton cast perform on stage | Walt Disney Studios.

I was also stunned by how good everyone sounded. I’ve listened to the Original Cast Recording so much I’ve lost count, and I expected it to be the gold standard for the performances. However, I think the live singing was even better! My jaw actually dropped during “One Last Time” and “Satisfied” from the immense power of the vocals. Every solo was like this, so beautiful and powerful and emotional. I was also really surprised by the way Lin handled being the weakest link vocally. (Mind you, he actually held his own in his duet with Leslie in “Dear Theodosia”) Even though he’s not the best vocalist/singer, he portrays his singing with such earnesty and emotion that it overshadows his weaknesses. Honestly, all the cast were absolutely fantastic. Everyone was so good! 

RELATED:

Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of Hamilton

Hamilton the movie is everything I wanted from the filmed stage production and more. As getting Hamilton tickets is a struggle, along with the pandemic affecting theaters across the country, this is the closest thing to actually seeing the live show as many people are going to get. Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a masterpiece, and I am so glad he’s sharing it with us.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: True History of the Kelly Gang

IFC Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Justin Kurzel

When a film titled True History begins by telling you that nothing you’re about to see is true, you brace yourself for what comes next. Ned Kelly, the infamous bushranger and Australian legend, apparently said that a man should write his own history and thus the True History of the Kelly Gang was born.

Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name, True History is faithful in the intent to explore Ned Kelly’s life and the personal and political motivations that inspired his defiance to British colonialism. The approach of both projects is what separates myth from reality. Director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) bathes this film in ugliness, and cinematographer Ari Wegner juxtaposes what transpires on screen with beautiful color and dream-like landscapes that can only be provided by the Australian wilderness. Combine those visuals with an almost UK punk aesthetic and you get a movie that’s as divisive as its subject matter. Think Guy Ritchie by way of The Revenant.

There were many moments I failed to understand the significance of what I was seeing. I don’t know Australian history, though a few minutes on Wikipedia and Google will get anyone up to speed on “facts.” As I watched True History I couldn’t help but think that there is a cultural significance to the project that I could possibly never appreciate; the most notable example I can think of is Black Panther. As universally accepted as that film has been, there is a cultural level to it that many of its admirers cannot know. I get the impression that True History is much of the same. I have no doubt it hits on different levels depending on Australian politics and ancestry. There’s plenty I can say about the face value of the film. The acting is great and it’s a technically superb and creative movie. I also know there is a deeper context.

George McKay appears in a scene of True History of the Kelly Gang | IFC Films

I haven’t decided if the film is worth the extracurricular activity needed to fully appreciate it. Perhaps reading the novel or an Internet history lesson will be enough for you; if so, do it before you watch. True History is an ugly film that goes out of its way to bring you the harshness of life in the bush. It explores violence and masculinity in a way that might make some uncomfortable. Though I now have a better understanding of what the project explores, I have no desire to watch it again. I realize that both the novel and the film are a deconstruction of Ned Kelly’s legend. I also realize that there are pieces to the puzzle that I may never be able to fill in on my own.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Capone

Vertical Entertainment
Rated: R
Run Time: 104 minutes
Director: Josh Trank

First off, I haven’t been more uncertain as to what the actual title for a movie is since the Tom Cruise-alien combat-version of Groundhog Day. Once and for all, is it Fonzo or Capone?! Feel free to weigh in. 

In any case, the common usage of the first or last name of the lead character in a title seems to be an attempt (however feeble) to reel people into a juicy biopic. Between that and the expectation of an intricate and spectacular performance from Tom Hardy, I have to say, it caught my attention. 

Whether you love Tom Hardy or think he’s overrated, I think you’d have to admit that he inhibits a uniquely infectious brand that makes any movie or T.V. show he’s associated with 10 times more anticipated by general audiences. But here’s my opinion: I think he’s talented. I’m a huge Hardy fan; from watching Bronson as a teen discovering independent films, to his blood pumping action sequences in Warrior, The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road, and his truly Oscar-worthy performances in The Revenant and Locke. I think for many cinephiles, Tom Hardy’s name and face slapped onto a biopic is enough to bring in open hearts and minds to what would likely be a great film with a great lead performance. 

Enter Josh Trank: Director, Writer and Editor.

Aside from nailing a solid lead actor (I guess they’re actually close friends), I really was excited to give Trank a chance with this film. We were all ready to give him the benefit of the doubt that he really wasn’t to blame for the critical and financial atomic bomb that was Fantastic Four; maybe it really was just studio interference. Unfortunately, he just might not be a talented director, and he certainly shouldn’t be editing or writing. A big problem is that from the top, he chose a period in a “true story” that really just didn’t have a lot to work with. 

Tom Hardy as Al Capone in Capone | Vertical Entertainment

Now there’s plenty of movies that can and have been made with someone as infamous as Al Capone playing or inspiring some sort of role; whether that’s as a main character, a co-star (as in The Untouchables), or even just referenced to (as in Scarface, Road to Perdition, even the likes of The Godfather).

Trank chose to base a near two-hour movie around Capone’s life—post the gangs, guns, and criminal glory. Even past the fall from said glory and his imprisonment due to tax evasion. The film takes place just after he’s released from prison, is mentally and physically deteriorating from disease, and is living out the rest of his life on a quiet, private manor in Florida.   

From there, it has all of the depressing elements of a central figure delving into dementia, along with all of the incontinence you’d ever need in a movie without any meaningful point to be cemented, though attempts were made. 

To Trank’s credit, I understand what kind of perspective he was trying to give the audience of this villainous, all-powerful mob boss we’ve come to know through pop culture. 

I think Trank was trying to help us empathize with the vulnerable, unbearably mortal side of a once ruthless giant. We watch the post-golden era of a king that’s lost his throne, and witness his slow and steady erosion. There’s an element of him regretting his innocence lost, as well as violent and irresponsible decisions he has made in the name of good business (all shown in flashbacks or hallucinations, or maybe both). Old Capone is trying to hold a grasp of authority and relevance, but age and sickness have left him without any devices. And no, I don’t mean to poke at this being a metaphor for Trank’s career, but there are some unfortunate parallels. 

There’s also a potentially interesting subplot of the feds trying to get whatever they can out of Capone’s last days. But every one of these potentially lifesaving elements aren’t explored in-depth enough to make the film have any sort of an impact. And the crazy thing is that none of those underwhelming elements are grounded in facts (not even the incontinence). If you’re going to puff up a true story with your own plot points, make them good—make them engage the audience. The film isn’t concerned with developing those areas, but instead is more concerned with having you watch Tom Hardy be versatile. 

Tom Hardy as Al Capone in Capone | Vertical Entertainment

To be fair, Hardy does great with what he’s been given. The best part of this movie is his performance, whether wholly accurate to the historical figure or not. But there’s a moment where you get a glimpse of what he looked like as Capone in his hay day and that is the movie I really want. Tom Hardy is too much in his prime to be taking roles that have to make so much out of an old, decrepit, terminally-ill vegetable. He needs to be swinging a bat and making spontaneous, intimidating monologues like De Niro in The Untouchables. I’m not saying we need a literal remake, but it’s been enough time since  an actual Al Capone movie featuring him as we think we’ve come to know him. And with the likes of Tom Hardy in the lead role? I’m convinced that something great, if not entertaining, could have been done here. 

Instead we got some semblance of a fading personality for the first 30 minutes. Then you get a beating corpse for an hour. Of course, there’s a respect for Hardy’s commitment to the unique role, but Daniel Day Lewis couldn’t have saved this movie.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea to take a derivative from your common gangster movie formula, and show this kind of unsung final chapter to a life of crime. But again there wasn’t enough to work with, and you’re left staring at a man who’s staring at nothing for the length of the movie. If they wanted to keep with the unique change in tone, they could’ve started with Capone going to prison, then we could get the actual fall and the aftermath. The content of the 100 minutes of screen time could’ve been reduced to a 10 or 20 minute epilogue in a more holistic approach, and it would’ve been far more impactful because you’d lose the fluff!

Bear with me while I spurt out my imaginings of a better film that would accomplish the same thing: There’s 11 years of him in prison that hasn’t been (recently) put to screen. You could explore the celebrity welcome he got at the Atlanta and Alcatraz prisons and his subsequent manner of living. You could show him still trying to run his failing business from behind bars, and the disarrayed reactions to prohibition ending and his purpose becoming null. Leading right up to the ending Capone offers, you can see how his demeanor went from that of a titan to a debilitated wreck. All in all, I’d be more than interested in seeing that flick with Tom Hardy.

Alas, I need to accept that just wasn’t the movie we got. Where credit is due: the original score was interesting enough, and the backdrop and much of the cinematography was well done. 

Lastly, I’ll just mention one thing about the editing. In every conversation, it feels like the camera has attention issues constantly cutting back and forth from close ups of one character to another. I think he’s trying to show subtle details in the acting (that aren’t actually there) as one speaks and one listens. Honestly, if you want to catch the dramatics in the dialogue, just use a wider angle with both characters in the shot. And let your actors act. That’s pretty “backseat” of me to say, but we don’t claim to be anything else!

Let us know if you have outlying questions or if you agree or disagree with this review in the comments below!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Bad Education

HBO
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 108 minutes
Director: Cory Finley

 I am at a point in my life where if I see Hugh Jackman attached to any film then that alone gives me immediate incentive to watch that movie.  He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest and diverse actors around today, so seeing him in a new movie was exciting. Luckily, I have HBO, so once I actually remembered that Bad Education was out, I quickly fired it up.

 One thing this movie has going for it is its spectacular use of writing to increase tension and give us insights into the characters. For the first twenty minutes or so, I was worried that I would find this show dull and uninteresting. But the tension kept rising and rising, and the characters kept getting more compelling until, by the end, I was on the edge of my seat! (Well…bean bag).

 I’ve seen many reviews calling this film the best performance of Hugh Jackman’s career. While the performance was excellent, I don’t think the role was dynamic enough to label it as his best. For that honor, I’ll steer you towards his performance as Tomás/Thomas/Tommy in The Fountain or as Wolverine in Logan. However, what this performance did give us was a truly three-dimensional look at what could have easily been a flat character. It’s a testament to how fantastic the writing is in this film. Jackman’s character could very easily come off as sleazy, callous, and selfish. Instead, we are confronted with a man who truly believes that spending the school’s money in order to give the appearance of financial affluence is the right thing, and would ultimately be beneficial for the progress of the school and the students as well. Allison Janney also gives a great performance in this film as well— although her character comes off less rounded than Jackman’s.

I will always champion well-written movies, and the writing for this film is its greatest strength. It elevates a story and characters that with a lesser script would be reduced for a very slow and dull story. Instead, it makes for a very compelling drama with empathetic characters. If you have HBO, or know someone who will lend you their password, give this movie a chance!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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