Tag Archives: Biopic

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CAPONE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Josh Trank

FEATURING: Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Kyle MacLachlan,

PLOT: Released to his Florida home on humanitarian grounds, Al Capone spends the last year of his life rapidly deteriorating in body and mind, while trying to remember where he hid ten million dollars.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Capone alternates between being uncomfortably realistic and markedly dreamy, with the former often seamlessly segueing into the latter. By the time we see Al Capone, clad in diaper and dressing gown, chomping on a carrot and madly firing a gold-plate Thompson submachine gun at his staff, it’s hard to guess what’s actually happening.

COMMENTS: Capone plays like an anti-biopic: there’s no glamorization, and virtually no sympathy elicited for its protagonist. As a star vehicle for Tom Hardy, it also veers off the beaten path. Hardy’s performance is a strange hybrid of tin-pan-alley grandiosity and bloodshot malevolence. Capone‘s reception by the common viewer has been unsurprisingly frigid—it holds a damning 4.7 rating on IMDb. But for those who want a haunting, sickly, and uncomfortable dissection of the mental deterioration of history’s most notorious gangster, Capone is as priceless as the treasure that eludes the titular character.

Al Capone’s sentence for tax evasion is cut short to allow him to spend his final days in his sprawling mansion surrounded by a sprawling swamp. His homestead’s grounds are infested with crocodiles of the literal variety; its hallways are infested with metaphorical ones. Al Capone sounds like a dying horse, croaking out random threats and random pleas. He is prone to incontinence—so much so that his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan, both slippery and terrified) supplies Capone’s long-suffering wife (Linda Cardellini, emanating frustration) with diapers for her husband. When not staring at his lake, while puffing endless cigars and listening to his radio, Capone endures encounters with friends both past and present. On a fishing trip with an old criminal associate, he casually lets slip that he has hidden ten million bucks, but he can’t remember where.

As in Bronson, Tom Hardy makes this movie, delivering an unnerving performance of a former kingpin suffering from syphilitic dementia and the effects of two strokes. The film begins with a wild-eyed Capone in night attire, wandering a dimly lit hallway while holding a fire poker, pursuing someone. He finds his target—a little girl—and makes a play at attacking her. She screams, then laughs, then runs, and soon Capone is chasing a bevy of little ones through his mansion, out to his rain-drenched yard, and ending up the playful victim of a pile-on. This is, alas, the high point for the frail gangster. Waking dreams and hallucinations occur with increasing frequency as his mind and body shut down.

Capone’s mental fragility contrasts with the precise formality of the rest of the movie. Each scene is impeccably orchestrated around Hardy’s characterization, the surrounding cast providing the struts on which Capone’s quiet madness is displayed. The dream sequences often manage to be unpredictable—the final blow-out only showing its hand at the scene’s watery collapse—while at other times there’s obvious pathos. The recurring symbol of gold—in the form of a balloon held by a boy, the metal trim of a shotgun Capone uses to shoot a crocodile that stole his fish, or the gaudy submachine gun used on his rampage—acts as a clue to the viewer, but also as a metaphor for what Capone has lost. His youth and power are gone forever; what’s left is a tragic cartoon ever veering between rage and collapse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an odd little film, at times weirdly engaging but often so bizarrely muddled that you might identify a little too closely with its perpetually unglued protagonist.”–Stephanie Zacharek, Time (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: YUMEJI (1991)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Tomoko Mariya, , Masumi Miyazaki, Reona Hirota

PLOT: A bohemian poet and painter travels to Kanagawa to wait for his ailing girlfriend, only to fall for an alluring widow while he’s there.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Seijun Suzuki, a defiantly unconventional filmmaker with a career’s worth of bizarre films already under his belt, threw himself into Yumeji like he was making his magnum opus of weirdness. There’s blood painted on to the screen, life coming alive as art, and opaque references to slaughterhouses and blood—the last of which would seem to have little to do with the film’s subject. For an artfully bizarre take on an era filled with strange contradictions and perversions, who better than Seijun Suzuki to take you there?

COMMENTS: Takehisa Yumeji was a real-life painter, whose individualist lifestyle and era-defining paintings made him an icon of Japan’s Taisho era (1914-26). The name Yumeji contains the Japanese word for “dream,” so it’s fitting that Yumeji begins with a dream sequence in tribute to its namesake. But if you were expecting Seijun Suzuki to make a conventional biopic, think again. Suzuki used the names of some of the real women in Yumeji’s life, including Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki) and Oyo (Reona Hirota), who seem to have been portrayed in keeping with their real-life counterparts. Apart from these details, Suzuki paid more attention to Yumeji’s artistic side, imagining his romantic escapades and artistic concepts manifested as life.

As in Kagero-za, Suzuki centers the film on an adulterous love triangle, with a mysteriously powerful husband constantly plotting the protagonist’s murder, even though he never gets around to actually carrying it out. However, not one to repeat himself, Suzuki upped the ante here by adding a second adulterous love triangle, wherein the cuckolded husband is said to have killed his rival by throwing him down the drainage pipe at the local slaughterhouse. The killer then hides out in the mountains, evading a relentless police search and creeping around with a scythe in a none too subtle evocation of the Grim Reaper. 

Always one to dabble in surrealism, Suzuki gave in to his urges completely in Yumeji, throwing in enough hallucinatory imagery to eclipse any other film in his storied career. Paintings appear on wooden posts when tapped, a woman is cooked in a huge soup kettle by a group of singing women, and a blond madman proposes a duel while standing next to a hedge made of bloody animal carcasses, later emerging from a lake covered in blood himself. Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) also suffers from a clash of personalities which eventually lead to an identity crisis reminiscent of The Blood of a Poet: he is confronted by multiple versions of himself, all of whom accuse him of being a fraud. His morbid paranoia, his womanizing lust, his poetic thought process—all come together to inform the mood of the film and create something which feels much more like a waking dream than a biographical story.

The two previous films in Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy (Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za) each have their fair share of beautiful imagery, but Yumeji is overflowing with countless compositions that are framed to mimic Japanese paintings of the past. At numerous points throughout, paint is even overlaid onto the frame, including a notable scene in which a bright yellow boat nearly capsizes in a torrent of cow’s blood that is dabbed in red blobs along the bottom of the frame. Yumeji is also more erotically-charged than its predecessors, with an earthy sense of sexuality and framings that look like they could have been pin-ups from1920s Tokyo, together with levels of nudity and lewd behavior that contradict the popular image of historical films as stuffy and mannered visions of the past.

It’s fitting that as Seijun Suzuki’s career progressed, his work became more artistically-focused and surreal. His early films, with their painterly attention to color and visual design, bear the marks of an unconventional artist who just happened to be tasked with making B-movies about thugs and prostitutes. In the Taisho Trilogy, Suzuki finally had free reign to make movies that eschewed storytelling and audience expectations in favor of surreal imagery, irreverent reflections on Japanese culture and history, and fractured narratives that often featured elements of the supernatural. Curiously, Yumeji is the least supernatural of the three films, yet the weirdest overall. Like the pornographic kimono that features in its nightmarish finale, it’s a period piece that represents the culture of its era while also adding surrealism, eroticism and mystery into its historical framework. Thanks to Arrow Films, these three little known films by one of the great Japanese surrealist masters are now ripe to be rediscovered in all of their bizarre, experimental glory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the film was completed, the gonzo filmmaker had so thoroughly dispensed with narrative sanity and even basic filmic grammar that whether or not the subtitles are on becomes irrelevant.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: BUNUEL IN THE LABYRINTH OF THE TURTLES (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Salvador Simó Busom

FEATURING: Voices of Jorge Usón, Fernando Ramos

PLOT: Animated film chronicling the making of Luis Buñuel’s third movie, the Surrealist documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (“Land Without Bread”) (1933), about a poverty-stricken region of Spain.

Still from Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018)

COMMENTS: It’s surprising that there are (to my knowledge) no biopics devoted exclusively to the explosive artist . He makes a brief appearance in ’s Midnight in Paris (2011) and plays third wheel to and Federico García Lorca in the regrettable Little Ashes (2008), but Labyrinth of the Turtles is the only movie to make the father of cinematic Surrealism the central character. That fact would make this film notable even if it wasn’t good; fortunately, it’s as entertaining as it is informative.

Labyrinth of the Turtles is based on a graphic novel, and the animation is stiff and delivered at a low frame rate. Given that this is an adult film about ideas rather than a kid’s cartoon about chase scenes, this isn’t a problem. Actual scenes from Land Without Bread are cleverly embedded within the animation. The choice to film in hand-drawn animation allows for inclusion of some dream sequences that would be expensive to render in live-action: elephants with stilt legs stomping through the streets of Paris, and Buñuel groping the Virgin Mary, who then shows him a vision of a giraffe with a cabinet in its torso.

It begins with Buñuel as persona non grata in the French filmmaking community, blackballed by bishops after the blasphemy of his second film, L’Age d’Or. He only raises enough money for his planned documentary when his friend Ramón Acín wins the lottery. Although an avant-garde writer and sculptor by vocation, it falls upon Ramón to be both the voice of financial reason and the comic foil, fretting about Buñuel’s extravagant purchase of an automobile and his erratic methods.

Labyrinth of the Turtles presumes that the viewer has a passing familiarity with its subject, and although novices should be able to follow along, it will be more rewarding to Buñuel enthusiasts. For example, Turtles references Buñuel’s habit (hee-hee) of dressing as a nun to shock the bourgeois. It also cites the director’s rocky rivalry with painter and former collaborator Dalí: the movie’s biggest set piece, the anxious nightmare where Luis sees Dalían pachyderms marching through the streets of Paris, suggests that his comrade’s greater recognition deeply rankled and motivated Buñuel. The movie doesn’t shy away from the director’s cruelty towards animals, either: he arranges for the killings of a rooster, a goat, and (most disturbingly) a donkey, as part of his obsession with the ever-present specter of death. He can also be tender towards the children of Las Hurdes, however, and seems to genuinely respect and suffer along with the poor of the region (going so far as to plan not to eat in front of them). All in all, The Labyrinth of Turtles is a significant, imaginative document of an important but neglected bit of cinema’s history, delivered in a paradoxical spirit its master would approve of.

This Spanish production was picked up by animation specialist GKids as a prestige picture and briefly released to theaters in 2019.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Simo] regularly returns to dreamscapes that Buñuel would admire, very rarely in a way that underlines the internal struggles of the filmmaker at the time but that highlight how his visions co-existed with his reality. At its best, ‘Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ is as caught between dream and reality as the film that Buñuel made in the mountains of Spain.”–Brian Tallerico, RoberEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LORDS OF CHAOS (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jonas Åkerlund

FEATURING: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Jon Øigarden, Valter Skarsgård

PLOT: The founder of True Norwegian Black Metal, Euronymous, narrates his rise and fall from beyond the grave in a tale of music, church burning, metal, and marketing.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lords of Chaos is a well-crafted biopic/docudrama about some very weird people. Graphic suicide and murder notwithstanding, this is an eminently mainstream, straightforward piece of high-quality cinema. Fans of True Norwegian Black Metal will want to upgrade this from a “recommended” to a “” rating.

COMMENTS: Norway: the land of Ski Queen cheese, smiling people in bright sweaters, and True Norwegian Black Metal. For the last of those three things, you can thank “Euronymous” (née Øystein Aarseth), founder of the band Mayhem and, if Lords of Chaos is to be believed, something of a marketing genius. Jonas Åkerlund, no stranger to the metal scene of the late ’80s, brings the dramatic tale of Euronymous’ journey from upper-middle-class rocker bad-boy to tragic murder victim to an English-speaking audience in this docudrama. With a sure touch and an unlikely sense of humor, Åkerlund spins a formidable yarn about some troubled lads spiraling out of control.

From his omnipotent afterlife perch, Øystein (Rory Culkin) narrates his early roots—appropriately subterranean in his parents’ basement. Graduating quickly from the status of inept musicians riding around in their parents Volvos, the metal group Mayhem enjoys a series of lucky breaks accompanied by implied Faustian bargains. They find a frontman, Death (an eerie Jack Kilmer), who rockets them to sub-fame before blasting his brains out. Death’s replacement is even darker: an impressionable, awkward young man named Christian (Emory Cohen), who changes his name to Varg after he buys into the whole death-cult-Satanist-nihilist shtick that Øystein has fabricated. Varg starts burning down churches, and the other band members’ moral fabric disintegrates as a horrible contest of one-upmanship rips them apart. As his vision of commercial glory begins to unravel, Øystein is forced to come to terms with the beast he’s created.

While many films directed by Music Video People obviously show their signature markings, Jonas Åkerlund stays his hand stylistically. His story is about the people behind the image, not a love letter to the presumed madness and evil of True Norwegian Black Metal. On the occasions that he does indulge in his fast-dreamy editing, the effect is that much more striking: Øystein’s recurring daydreams/nightmares of traveling through the woods, looking for his first friend and leading man are unsettling and touching. The music, most of it performed by the (non-Norwegian, non-metal) band Sigur Rós, alternately haunts and pummels. And the acting transforms these aspiring metal caricatures into realistic portraits of young outcasts.

Which brings me to Rory Culkin. Yes, he is from the same brood as the famous (to some of us older types) Macaulay Culkin, but in Lords of Chaos he seems to be channeling a young (carried in no small part by his eyes and his near-constant, “What the Hell is wrong with you people?” tone of voice). Culkin carries this picture. His joyful cynicism is underscored as his post-death montage wraps up, “No. Fuck. Stop this sentimental shit.” Though he may call himself “Euronymous”, Øystein remains Øystein: a cheeky, ambitious nerd with a flair for publicity. Lords of Chaos rubs elbows with the countless musical biopics that have streamed forth from the movie industry since time immemorial. It’s one of the few, though, to capture melodrama, mundanity, and hilarity so capably and with such strong disregard for nostalgia.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite Åkerlund’s refusal to lionize these immature kids, ‘Lords of Chaos’ is tremendous fun. Caveat: one must be able to handle severed pig heads, cat torture, and casual Nazism.” –Amy Nicholson, Variety

CAPSULE: CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

DIRECTED BY: George Clooney

FEATURING: , , George Clooney,  Julia Roberts

PLOT: Chuck Barris is a producer of game shows by day and a free-lance CIA agent by night; the successes and failures of his parallel careers are remarkably in-step with one another.

Still from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With as screen-writer and television’s slimiest visionary as the subject matter, we might have been on course for a nomination. However, director George Clooney grounds Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as conventional, hip Hollywood fare, embellished with some creative window dressing.

COMMENTS: An unlikeable protagonist, an unbelievable premise, and an odd fixation with montages add up to a dark and breezy viewing experience in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. In his directorial debut, Clooney artfully weaves a tale of Cold War intrigue, mental collapse, and really, really bad television programming. Screen-writer Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints coat Confessions, but while self-examination-through-self-debasement oozes throughout it is simultaneously an odd character study as well as a Hollywood thriller. Chuck Barris strikes us as a skeezy guy doing the CIA’s skeezy work.

Lustful from the age of eleven, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) crashes through his youth horny and bitter. Wanting nothing more than to score with women, he is adrift in life, failing at his job as a minor, minor television executive. His fortunes change when he encounters Jim Byrd (George Clooney), a CIA recruiter who wants to take Chuck on as a freelance agent. After his run in with this shady emissary, Chuck’s life in the Biz immediately turns around: his “Dating Game” pilot is picked up, and his career rockets to a grimy pinnacle of debased pop success. Taking his longtime lover and friend Penny (Drew Barrymore) for granted, he dallies with classically educated, icily erotic fellow contractor Patricia Wilson (Julia Roberts). Chuck’s TV ratings begin to slide at the same time his CIA career takes a dangerous, deadly turn.

Confessions‘ budget hovers just below the thirty-million-dollar mark, but considering the actors involved, Clooney makes that outlay look altogether frugal. To accommodate, he uses a lot of novel sets to  create an illusion of grandeur, some deal-making with his fellow heavy-hitters (Julia Roberts, for instance, agreed to work for a mere $250,000), and plenty of vintage television footage. Beyond that there are the montages. In fact, the whole thing feels like a montage of montages: a montage of Barris’ rise, a montage of Barris’ CIA training, a montage of Barris’ conquests, a montage of… you get the picture. With Confessions, the point where flashback montage and current montage meet is blurred by further montage.

Perhaps it’s appropriate. Chuck Barris is constantly running just to stay in place as Sam Rockwell’s sickly charm carries the character through all the depressing motions, showcasing someone that we cannot help but loathe while simultaneously rooting for. After the suicide of an assassin buddy, he refers to him as a “stagehand.” That description is strangely apt: Barris and his cohorts were the kinds of guys that constantly lurked around the periphery, making sure the show went on without others’ awareness. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind acts as a eulogy for these men and women. All those spooks and hitmen were at heart ordinary people trapped in the giant reality show of the Cold War. And though heavily laden with regret and contemptuousness, this darkly comic biopic shows the tenderness and humanity of history’s dirtbags.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole is less than the sum of its parts: the dueling Kaufman and Barris takes on self-flagellation don’t exactly mesh. This film, a shape-shifting apologia-biopic as weird as Adaptation, is too cold for its own good.” –Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times (contemporaneous)

AT ETERNITY’S GATE (2018)

Vincent Van Gogh may be the art world’s quintessential paradox. That he was a great, idiosyncratic painter is indisputable. Yet, he was also an incurable romantic, zealously religious (he once sought to become a minister), highly argumentative (according to most of his contemporaries), extremely prolific, he cut off his ear, and he committed suicide at the age of 37. Today, he’s a Hobby Lobby superstar.

The subject of numerous cinematic treatments, Van Gogh has been posthumously canonized by the bourgeois who never would have accepted him in his life. They bypass his personal flaws in favor of “Starry Night” and “Sunflower” coffee mugs. He’s more myth now than human. Neither his contemporary Paul Gauguin nor his successor Pablo Picasso have been afforded such whitewashing. Indeed, their character flaws are often still held against them, despite the fact that they are both superior artists to Van Gogh (taking nothing from the Dutchman).

Another cinematic Van Gogh biography comes with about as much anticipation as another retelling of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” Yet, Julian Schnabel has produced an aesthetically provocative Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate (2018). It’s about damned time.

One of the most frustrating things to witness in a gallery or museum is patrons zipping by paintings as if they’re Speedy Gonzales in a mall, spending a few seconds glancing at work that artists labored over for days, weeks, months or years. Schnabel, a painter himself, is having none of that, and paces his movie glacially. Although reactions to the film are predictable as hell, it’s almost refreshing to read audiences and critics harping about the film being so long and so pretentious. That would inspire a yawn, if it weren’t for the fact that Van Gogh is finally pissing people off once again. It’s about damned time.

Still from At Eternity's Gate (2018)Apart from the pacing, patrons complain about the impressionistic aesthetic of the film, and the fact that star today is almost twice the age of Van Gogh at the time of his death. Even a quick look at the artist’s self-portraits reveals the casting is astute: Van Gogh looked three times his age, ugly, ravaged, and cantankerous. As for the aesthetics: this isn’t a really a biopic at all, and indeed we do not need another. Instead, Schnabel has produced a gorgeous requiem.

Dafoe’s intensity is akin to pigment ground into celluloid with raw knuckles. On paper, reading Van Gogh waxing poetic about finding a “new light” would be unbearably pretentious, yet when we watch him painting the landscape before him, we see him practice what he preaches (and this artist was always a preacher). The result is a Van Gogh creation that reinterprets nature (Gauguin, who insisted that artists are to disregard and improve upon nature, would be proud).

Much of the dialogue is taken from Van Gogh’s letters. At times, the sentimentality of his language borders on the saccharine, but it takes a special artist to master sentimentally. did it (early on, before it throttled him). Van Gogh mastered it as well, but only because he backed it up with talent. Yes, he actually talked that way, and we have to remember that painting, once primarily commissioned by the Church, was seen in the 19th century as potentially obsolete with the advent of photography. However, painters of the period, like Van Gogh and Gauguin (played with humorous arrogance by ) set about to prove that death sentence premature. They—the artists- –would be the new priests, subverting common sense, and fought like hell to create a new language, since the Church’s clergy had become hopelessly complacent and status quo. Dafoe captures Van Gogh’s childlike innocence. He was desperate for unconditional love and, by God, that’s the preacher in him, making us recall the scripture passage that says one must be like a child in order to attain the Kingdom: AKA, Eternity’s Gate. We’re reminded that Dafoe previously played an equally provocative Christ. It’s no accident that these are his two best roles. Like a child, Van Gogh finds joy in repetition, and because he couldn’t find it in love, he finds it in paint.

Van Gogh tells his priest (the typically wonderful ): “Perhaps God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.” In this, he speaks the language of Mahler, who also realized he wouldn’t live to see his work accepted. Van Gogh’s heights are reached only through painting. Everything else is devastation. He takes Gauguin’s advice to escape the hierarchical community and head South. Gauguin joins him, but even that is disastrous. Gauguin was and remains a more innovative artist than Van Gogh, and while he rightly assesses his peer as being as much sculptor as painter, he doesn’t quite have the intuition to realize that their relationship is one of unrequited love. The chemistry between Dafoe and Isaac is bewitching.

At Eternity’s Gate focuses on the last years of Van Gogh’s brief life. Even then it’s fragmented, and by keeping it focused on “being Van Gogh,” (Schabel’s description) it becomes the most satisfying cinematic interpretation of the painter to date.

Initially, Schabel’s decision regarding the depiction of Van Gogh’s death is a curious one. He opts for a flimsy minority theory, although cause of death was almost certainly suicide. Yet, artistically and psychologically, it makes sense in the context of Schnabel’s Van Gogh. There’s an early scene in which the artist becomes almost violent in reaction to a teacher mocking his work. Van Gogh’s death, as presented here, throws out the notion of a “romantic suicide of a martyr for art,” and renders it even more visceral than the actual event. That’s apt; a bit like a requiem.

CAPSULE: SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Barbara Millicent Roberts, Ken Carson

PLOT: The dizzying rise and tragic fall of the honey-voiced pop star is dramatized in the context of the ailment that killed her, as embodied by inanimate plastic fashion dolls.

Still from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The use of dolls to perform a celebrity tell-all while simultaneously deconstructing the societal conditions that lead women into eating disorders is unusual in and of itself, without even getting into the strange collage of tones packed into 43 minutes. But the film’s legal unavailability and overall student amateurishness land it just shy of our list.

COMMENTS: Todd Haynes is earnest. It’s a quality that is remarkably out-of-step with our postmodern, irony-chasing, take-the-piss-out times. Who is this weirdo who insists on taking people at face value? In films like Far From Heaven, Carol, and even the recent Wonderstruck, he trusts in his characters to be open and honest even when they are being deceptive, a quality which is somehow more distancing to a modern audience than a detached remove.

Superstar demonstrates that he possessed this quality all along. In this, his M.F.A. dissertation film, Haynes takes on all the tropes of the celebrity biopic without a trace of irony. Like a soft-rock Esther Blodgett, innocent Karen is plucked from behind the drum kit to become the voice and face of The Carpenters, launching the sibling act into the pop music stratosphere. Just as quickly, the insecure girl falls prey to her own flawed self-image and heaps of abuse from her family, leading her to an equally meteoric crash.

At first glance, it seems like a parody of a Lifetime celebrity TV movie, but there’s Haynes’ earnestness again. Karen is a truly pitiable character, seen here as particularly ill-equipped for the pressures of stardom, despite her perpetual smile. Nearly everyone in her life is either carelessly or viciously cruel to her, and no one is more villainous than the version of Richard we meet here. Vindictive from the start (“I’ve found your singer,” Mom says, only to be met with Richard’s bitter rejoinder, “And lost me my drummer”), he browbeats his younger sister, bellowing at her about the damage she is doing to their career, harangues that are set to the impossibly rich harmonies of the siblings’ songs. So it’s hardly a surprise that he would set out to squash the film—successfully.

And then there’s the other story Haynes wants to tell: the tragically overlooked problem of anorexia itself. The movie gets pretty strange as Haynes starts to weave in a somewhat amateurish documentary about the disorder. The footage is ham-handed, with man-on-the-street interviews straight out of a 7th grade health film. But the facts themselves are horrifying, as we peel back the panoply of societal pressures Karen endured. It’s as if two very different movies were competing for the screen, and that’s even before Haynes goes in for an indictment of society at large, juxtaposing Carpenters songs against footage of Nixon, Vietnam, and even the Holocaust. It’s kind of pretentious, in that way that only young people who’ve just discovered a really impressive idea can be. But Haynes consistently gets away with it, thanks to his pure commitment.

On top of all that, let’s talk about the Barbie dolls. Like the lamest of puppets, these fashion dolls are propped up and posed to the accompanying soundtrack, standing perfectly still even as we’re supposed to imagine them belting out some of the biggest hits of the 70s, and damn if it doesn’t work. Barbie ends up being a perfect stand-in for Karen Carpenter: an impossible standard for beauty who is (literally) manipulated by everyone around her. Todd Haynes feels deeply for this put-upon, disfigured piece of plastic, and so do we.

Although Richard Carpenter’s legal action turned Superstar into a banned treasure (he cannily sidestepped any charges of over-defensiveness by going after the film’s liberal and unauthorized appropriation of the band’s songs, rather than its ruthless assassination of his character), the film has never completely gone away. Bootleg videos, occasional surprise museum screenings, and the electronic frontier have all kept the movie close enough for anyone who really wants to see it. A simple Google search should lead the curious to a lo-fi version of what is already a lo-fi production.

In the final scene, real hands take over for the doll extremities we have seen so far, and one fleeting image of the real Karen flickers in and out, like her life. We often talk about art as a way to get at a more substantial truth. Superstar manages to go one better, using extreme artifice to get at the heart of one very real, very broken human being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… daringly peculiar… The film’s tragedy works in tandem with its tastelessness for a nightmarish effect not too far removed from one of David Lynch’s explorations of concealed horror…” – David Pountain, Filmdoo

(This movie was nominated for review by Kelsey Osgood, and then unknowingly seconded by Lovecraft in Brooklyn. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.