Tag Archives: Biopic

CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

AKA Bathory: Countess of Blood

DIRECTED BY:  Juraj Jakubisk

FEATURING: , Karel Roden, Vincent Regan, Hans Matheson, Deana Horváthová,

PLOT:  Fictionalized chronicle of the life, loves, and political struggles of the infamous 17th century Hungarian countess.


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Clashing cross-genre elements and facts interposed with fiction and fantasy create an oddball portrait of an already bizarre historical figure and her horrific crimes. If not tedious, the end effect is certainly weird.

COMMENTS: Bathory is a dreamy, odd mix of historical fact, fiction, speculation, and whimsy surrounding the life of notorious sexual serial murderess, Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed (1560 – 1614).

At 141 minutes running time, this cut of the film is condensed from a three part TV miniseries. It’s a Slovakian film produced in the Czech Republic about Hungarian history, with British actors, and the mixed production values, uneven tone and ambiguous, confusing story make for an unusual, entertaining, but disjointed viewing experience. The sets and costumes are colorful and imaginative, yet in places smack of a television budget.

Relying heavily on speculation and fancy, Bathory‘s plot combines elements of mystery, thriller, historical drama, and Renaissance steampunk adventure. Part of the movie focuses on the Countess’s personal life, her youth, her marriage to a Hapsburg dynasty heir, and fictionalized romance with painter Merisi Caravaggio (who in real life, never traveled to Northern Hungary.) The story also surveys the politics of Bathory’s dynasty, the Hapsburg empire, their battles with the Turks, and the interplay of power posturings between Bathory and her Hapsburg in-laws. This comprehensive coverage is fine for a TV miniseries, but becomes tedious and complicated in a feature-length movie, especially given the film’s sojourn into fiction.

While some of the political and historical plot points in the film are accurate, others are not, and the remainder of the picture features a murky, often conflicted depiction of Countess Bathory which attempts alternate explanations for the gruesome legends about her. This aspect of the movie is deliberately ambiguous.

Bodies of mutilated teenage girls indeed pile up, girls are found captive in the dungeons of Csejte Castle, and Bathory is seen murdering a couple of servants. Conversely, it is indicated that conspirators drugged the Countess with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and her Gypsy mystic soothsayer, a secret Hapsburg confederate, had Elizabeth so brainwashed with suspicious medicinal potions and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that Bathory had no clear conception of reality. In other words, the filmmakers seem to be saying of her dreadful transgressions, “it wasn’t her fault.”

Bathory’s infamous bath of blood (drawn from her victims) turns out to be an innocent aquatic suspension of scarlet herbs. Or was the herb bath just a decoy to fool spies? The film hedges as if the producers are too timid to take a firm stance, yet they raise the question of whether long established historical facts are in actuality nothing more than trumped-up charges.

The Hapsburgs are depicted as doing their best to blame a string of mutilation killings on Bathory for political reasons, while fostering exaggerated Continue reading CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

CAPSULE: GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE (2010)

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Joann Sfar

FEATURING: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Anna Mouglalis,

PLOT: Recounts the life of French singer Serge Gainsbourg, from his formative days as a young Jewish boy in occupied France through his relationships with Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin—and also his relationship with his spindly, scary puppet alter-ego.

Still from Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A brave biopic that’s true to Serge Gainsbourg’s rebel spirit, but in terms of weirdness, it only goes about halfway.

COMMENTS: Growing up as a precocious Jewish boy in Nazi occupied France, young Lucien Ginsburg (later to reinvent himself as Serge Gainsbourg) amuses himself by drawing a flipbook fable.  A pianist (like the boy’s father) is constantly rejected because of his “ugly mug.”  The despised musician perversely embraces his detractors’ insults and wills his head to swell larger and larger until it finally bursts and the suavely deformed “Professor Flipus” emerges.  The Flipus character (also referred to as “my mug”) shows up later in life as Gainsbourg’s artistic daemon, a spirit materialized as a puppet with glowing eyes and grotesque, oversized features (the sharp-nosed homunculus looks like a debonair version of the Brainiac).  Flipus’ parents would seem to be Gainsbourg’s Jewish identity—his puppet ancestor is a six-legged, moon-faced anti-Semitic propaganda poster who comes down off a wall to dance with Lucien in the alleyways of Paris—and his insecurity about his own “ugly mug.”  Flipus spurs the budding composer to switch from painting to songwriting by “accidentally” burning up Lucien’s canvases, prods him to seduce various glamorous actresses, and grows jealous and vengeful at the appearance of a healthier muse.  Surreal moments are scattered randomly throughout the movie (an inexplicable cat butler, four costumed men who trade breakfast for a song, and visual puns referencing Serge’s albums “Melody Nelson” and ” Tête de Chou”), but it’s Flipus who provides most of Gainsbourg‘s underlying weird texture, and lifts the proceedings above the ordinary.  As an introduction for those uninitiated in Gainsbourg’s discography and biography, the movie isn’t wholly successful.  If you don’t already know who Boris Vian, Django Reinhardt and France Gall are, you may become confused when they suddenly show up or are referenced.  Gainsbourg’s scandalous music, which begins as witty, ribald chanson and develops through the 1960s into lounge-rock psychedelia, is sampled in fast-moving snippets that make it hard to see the lines of development.  The movie also suffers from the usual drawback of biographical movies: real life produces great characters, but not necessarily great stories (which is why fiction supplanted biography, after all).  Life stories tend to turn into a series of vignettes; fortunately for us, Gainsbourg’s vignettes involve him bedding Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin.  A trio of actresses—Anna Mouglalis, Laetitia Casta, and Lucy Gordon—simmer as Gainsbourg’s succession of sexy muses.  Gordon’s role is most important, but slinky Casta leaves the biggest impression as a spot-on Bardot, first seen walking a dog in thigh-high black leather boots and a leopardskin miniskirt, and later memorably dancing with a sheer bedsheet tantalizingly wrapped around her voluptuous frame.  Constantly shrouded in his own personal nicotine cloud (since the MPAA has started handing out “R” ratings for tobacco use, the chain-smoking Gainsbourg should probably earn a XXX rating), Eric Elmosnino holds his own against his eye-candy co-stars, conveying awkwardness and suavity at the same time.  Unfortunately, historical accuracy requires him to metamorphose from a charming rake into a drunken lout, so our sympathies for the protagonist sag at the end: not the take-home note you really want in a “heroic” portrait.  Still, given the limitations imposed by real life, Gainsbourg is as a successfully hallucinatory hagiography that will please fans, and make newcomers at least curious to sample Serge’s suave discography.

Director Joann Sfar adapted this, his first film, from his own graphic novel.  To his dismay, producers insisted that early versions of the trailer contain no shots of Professor Flipus (though variations have been released since that do show the creation, without hinting at his prominence).  One source reports that Serge’s daughter, weird favorite Charlotte Gainsbourg, was at one time considered for the role of her father.  On a sad note, model/actress Lucy Gordon, who played a convincing Jane Birkin, committed suicide in 2009 before the film’s release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s a bold splash of the surreal in this inspired portrait of a man whose life really is too big for one film.”–Annette Basile, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

The life of Elvis Presley is “the” perfect American grand guignol tale that has never really been captured on film. John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) has finally been released in its full three hour European theatrical version. Some consider it to still be the best film on the subject of Elvis.

Elvis Presley was undoubtedly a phenomenon. He was as poor white trash as poor white trash can get. He grew up in a predominantly black Pentecostal church. Many African-Americans have accused him of stealing their music. Actually, it’s all he knew, and he treated it with reverence. Accusations of racism are certainly factual, but only from an off-color perspective. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis had an intense self-loathing for his own blackness.

Elvis, the dirt poor mama’s boy, filled his flights of fancy with whipped cream dreams of being a movie star more than anything else; but it was his voice, his extrovert sexual chemistry, and being in the right place at the right time, coupled with his insatiable, singular drive, and securing shrewd management, that catapulted him into the status of an American icon.

Still from Elvis (1979)One element that is sorely missing from all of the films and documentaries on him was Elvis’ early sense of perfection in the recording studios. He often demanded up to forty takes on one song.

Elvis was one of the first and certainly the biggest artist whose career was built on eclecticism. The Elvis Presley persona was birthed from what he knew and what he wanted to be in his Walter Mitty-like romantic fantasies. Elvis was part Mahalia Jackson (his gospel recordings are second only to hers), part Dean Martin, part James Dean, part Marlon Brando, and part Rudolph Valentino. Later, both Sammy Davis and Liberace would be added to the mix.

As archaic as the myth and screen presence of silent screen Valentino seems now, its Continue reading ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)

This post was originally lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010, but a draft copy has been discovered and recreated. We’re happy to reprint this column while Alfred Eaker continues his sabbatical (he’s been assisting on someone else’s film project, among other activities). The latest news on Alfred is that he broke his wrist in a “scaffolding accident” while working on a mural, which may delay his return to column-writing.

This articles was also posted in a slightly different from at Raging Bull Reviews

Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters is one of the most beautiful, elegiac films of the last fifteen years. It is a fictionalized, speculative film about the last days of the great golden-age Hollywood director, James Whale, who is best remembered for directing several Universal horror classics, such as The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  When Gods and Monsters was released it received very good reviews, but several critics, obviously uncomfortable with the film’s depiction of Whale’s open homosexuality, managed to slip in comments regarding the director’s “hedonism.”  One wonders  whether, if the film’s subject had been the hetero charm of a Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn, would those same critics have written a praising pat on the back for the celluloid studs?  Regardless, Gods and Monsters, while simplistic, is brave in its depiction of Whale’s sexual preference; yet the film also strangely holds back from damning Hollywood’s blatant hypocrisy regarding Whale’s fall from grace.

, Brendan Fraser, and especially Lynn Redgrave give superlative performances.  Fraser’s Clay Boone is Whale’s Frankenstein/Adonis of a gardener.  Boone is slow on the uptake when it comes to realizing that his retired celebrity employer (McKellen) is more than just an odd artist.  When Hannah, Whale’s maid (Redgrave), lets the cat out of the bag, Boone’s initial reaction is one of subdued violence.  However, Boone soon finds himself missing Whale’s anecdotes and returns to his employer’s studio, securing a promise from Whale to “go easy on the fag stuff.”

Still from Gods and Monsters (1998)Whale gives a “scout’s honor” but, of course, slips when reminiscing about a male lover in the great war.  Boone utters the lines that every gay man or woman has heard from a homophobe, “You must think the whole world is gay.  I’ve got news for you, it’s not.”  Boone is a failed Marine, and directionless in life.  Whale’s career accomplishments, along with his service as an officer in the war, attract the young man.  The Whale that Boone Continue reading GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)

KEN RUSSELL’S MAHLER (1974)

This is Ken Russell‘s most personal film, and he admirably does Gustav Mahler proud by refusing to treat the composer with phony reverence. Mahler is no plaster saint here. Instead, he is a neurotic, obsessive Jewish composer, a hen-pecked husband and an artist whose drive stems from the flesh.

Unknown to him at the time, actor Robert Powell’s role as the composer was his audition to play one Jesus of Nazareth for Franco Zeffirelli three years later. Powell’s Mahler is not the Mahler of a Mahler cult. Mahler’s composing is clearly an immense struggle, as are his relationships with his wife, family, colleagues and admirers.

Russell pays Mahler homage in not succumbing to the type of pedestrian biopic cultists tend to favor. That type of bio treatment can be seen in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), the kind of well-intentioned but hopelessly unimaginative film one expects from a “fan.” Julie Taymor‘s Across the Universe (2007) takes the opposite approach in her stubborn insistence that the Beatles are not sacred and, thus, aptly produced a film as experimental as were the Beatles themselves (she did Stravinsky and Shakespeare the same honors with Oedipus Rex in 1993 and Titus in 1999).

Still from Mahler (1974)Ever the renegade spirit, Russell, like Taymor, digs into his highly personal interpretation of the artist’s core. Mahler (1974) opens to the first movement of the existential Third Symphony (conducted by Bernard Haitink) juxtaposed against the composer’s hut on a lake bursting into Promethean flames. Mahler’s mummified wife, Alma (the resplendent Georgina Hale) emerges from a cocoon on the beach and crawls on jagged rocks, struggling to free herself of her bindings. Atop a rock is a bust of her husband, which she embraces and kisses. This dream imagery is explained by a terminally ill Mahler to Alma, who is not amused, and misinterprets the dream as symbolic of a marital power struggle. Mahler himself fatalistically interprets it as signifying her birth, made possible by his inevitable, impending death. The entire film takes place on Mahler’s final train ride and is interwoven with dreams and flashbacks, piling one existential layer upon another.

Mahler is returning home to Vienna after a disastrous season in at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The conductor was ousted for his unorthodox ways by a Big Apple accustomed to the literalism of a Toscanini. Mahler, however, is not about to publicly go into the reasons for his return home, especially with a meddlesome reporter who takes the composer’s answers strictly at face value. “Why is everyone so literal these days?” Mahler retorts, dismissing the hack interviewer.

Instead of focusing on documentary points, Russell probes the visions and a past idiosyncratically filtered through Mahlerian hues which are, in turn, filtered through Russell’s equally eccentric interpretations.

Mahler espoused big ideas and when asked his religion, he answers defiantly, “composer.” Indeed, Russell (himself a convert) probes Mahler’s sell-out conversion to Catholicism; clearly, this was strictly a career move on the composer’s part in a blatantly anti-Semitic society. Russell does not shy away from criticism in this sequence (filmed with silent film aesthetics). The cross of Christ and the star of David are placed with the Nazi swastika in an enshrined cave. Mahler bows before money, and Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis, dressed as an S & M Nazi she-devil) rewards his rejection of Judaism with a roasted (non-kosher) pig, which Mahler bites into with wild abandon. Predictably, Mahler proves to be as agitated a Christian as he was the agitated Jew.

No suffragist, Mahler is as demanding on his wife as he is on orchestra, insisting that she forgo her own aspirations as a composer and slave in silent servitude to his art, himself, and their children (in that order). This is a hard thing for Alma to forgive; but she also feels her husband’s composition of “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”) is an unforgivable case of tempting fate that leads to the death of their beloved daughter. Alma is consistently tormented by the image of herself as shadow of the genius Gustav. She is left at the bottom of the stairwell as fans adore her returning husband, emphasized by a funeral march movement straight out of Poe. Alma rewards Gustav for all this with an impassioned affair (one of many). It is a feverishly ill, insecure, humiliated and desperate Mahler here who is trying to win back his wife. Powell and Hale are superb in their roles. Hale is delightfully fickle, icy, frustrated, wayward, and conveys every fiber of a woman loved by artisans. Powell looks the image of terminal sickness, especially in a symbolic vignette with the reaper facing him in the form of a female African passenger (in voodoo dress) who likens his music to a dance with death. In one sequence Mahler is depicted as a (Stan Laurel-like) clown. Russell spares no one in the funeral nightmare, fittingly choreographed to what many consider Mahler’s most surreal work: the Seventh Symphony.

Russell’s film mirrors much in the Seventh. It is a five movement work which begins with an allegro that is part kitsch Viennese waltz, part grotesque military march, energetic and, finally, bittersweet. This opening is followed by the first night music: a child-like walk through the night, replete with cowbells, a giddy dance, and ending with silence. The third movement is the phantasmagoric scherzo; essentially, another night movement that is, by turns, amusing and frightening. Yet another night movement follows the scherzo, this one amorous. The Rondo finale is a psychedelic pageant which many critics feel dissipates into complete banality; it can be a fitful assertion of life, or a dance-til-your-death frenzy.

Naturally, Russell utilizes the scherzo for Mahler’s overheated funeral, brought on by the composer’s heart attack, but the structure of the Seventh could be seen as a blueprint for Russell’s film. Alma mockingly spreads her legs before her dead husband’s coffin and follows that with a nude, coarse grinding striptease with Teutonic beefcakes. Her beau, Max (Richard Morant), represents all of her lovers, and he is decked from head to toe as a stormtrooper. Gustav has been buried alive, but this is of no concern to Alma, who is lusted after and sensuously pawed over only now, after she has emerged from her husband’s domineering shadow. Mahler is cremated in an oven, but his eyes remain untouched to witness her having the time of her life after his demise, climaxing with Alma having sex with a gramophone. High art, low camp, sex and death. How better to serve up Gustav Mahler? Mahler’s epic works can be tantalizing, self-absorbed, seemingly disparate mixes of banality and nobility, the profound and the asinine, the intimate and the boisterous, sincere seeking drenched with equally sincere cynicism, and, finally, insatiable curiosity permeated with a whiff of pathos, or, often, deadly bathos.

Composer Arnold Schoenberg hailed the Seventh as the death of romanticism, but he was only half correct. Mahler was still the romantic, and Russell is equally vivid in that depiction as well. Mahler truly loves his wife above all, and he casts a slight smile when he silently looks away from the train (as he often and tellingly does) to observe a couple deep in love at the terminal.

Despite our knowledge of Mahler’s imminent fate; his tumultuous relationship with his wife and his obsession with her many infidelities; his fear of his own mortality; his hallucinatory, self-indulgent expressions; his pathos-laden memories of the past; his insincere conversion; his child-like questioning of existential themes; and his fevered, zealous drive, it is the composer’s buoyant embrace of life that encapsulates Russell’s wonderfully symbolic, baroque vision of an undeniably great and influential artist.

This article was originally published in a slightly different form at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.

ED WOOD (1994), TIM BURTON’S GLORIOUS SWANSONG.

In 1980 , two years after Ed Wood‘s alcohol related death at 54, film critic Michael Medved and his brother published “The Golden Turkey Awards” and gave Wood the award of being “The Worst Director of All Time” and naming his film Plan 9 From Outer Space “The Worst Film of All Time.”  The forever constipated Mr. Medved must had the biggest bowel movement of his life when he discovered that he and his brother unintentionally put the wheels in motion for the cult celebrity status of Wood who, to Medved, was little more than an object of derision.

Quite simply, Ed Wood was an outsider artist, whose medium was film.  He managed to create two highly personalized “masterpieces” of naive surrealism; Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) with “star” Bela Lugosi, who was clearly at the end of his tether.

In between these two films Wood made Bride of the Monster (1955) , also starring Lugosi (the only one of the three Wood films in which Lugosi actually ‘starred’), but that film was more of a concession to the genre and lacked the pronounced Woodian weirdness found in either Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Fourteen years after Wood’s cult status rocketed out of the pages of Medved’s book, Tim Burton produced his valentine to Eddie.  Clearly, Ed Wood was as personal a film for Burton as Glen and Plan 9 had been for Wood.  Burton faced immense difficulty in mounting the project and was given what, for him, was a small budget.  Artistically, the endeavor paid off and even did so financially, in time, although it took Touchstone years to realize the film’s cult potential for the DVD market.
Still from Ed Wood (1994)
In 1994 Tim Burton was the perfect artist to bring Ed’s story to the screen.  Burton, recognizing a fellow auteur and genuine oddball, treated Wood, not with derision, but with the respect he deserved.  Before Ed Wood, Burton, although trained at Disney, was still an outsider with Hollywood backing, which makes him (in that regard) a kindred spirit to Stanley Kubrick.  Burton’s first big budget feature effort Continue reading ED WOOD (1994), TIM BURTON’S GLORIOUS SWANSONG.

53. BRONSON (2008)

Must See

“I always wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie, and I wanted to combine great theatrical tradition and British pop cinema of the 60s, which was very psychedelic, and at the same time, to make a movie about a man who creates his own mythology. It had to be surreal in order to pay off.”–Director Refn on Bronson

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: Narrated from a theater inside his own mind by Michael Peterson (later to rechristen himself Charles Bronson, his “fighting name” ), the movie is an aggressively stylized account of the true story of Britain’s most notorious prisoner, who spent 30 years of his 34 year sentence in solitary confinement for his violent behavior.  Peterson knocks over a post office with a sawed-off shotgun and receives a seven year penitentiary sentence; inside, he finds he has a natural affinity for institutional life as he nurtures a burgeoning passion for taking hostages and picking fights with prison guards.  Shuffled from prison to prison, and serving a brief stint in a hospital for the criminally insane, Peterson is furloughed, becomes a bare-knuckle boxer and adopts the name Bronson, and lasts a few months in the outside world before finding himself reincarcerated, at home once more.

Still from Bronson (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie stays true to the spirit of the real life Michael Peterson/Charlie Bronson, while omitting many facts and inventing others. The real Charlie Bronson has won several awards in prison-sponsored contests for his artwork and poetry and has published several books, including a fitness guide and an autobiography titled “Loonyology.” In one of his hostage-taking escapades, he demanded an inflatable doll, a helicopter and a cup of tea as ransom.
  • Before incarceration Michael Peterson actually worked as a circus strongman, which may be where he developed his distinctive trademark handlebar mustache and shaved pate.
  • Danish director Refn was previously best known for the gritty, documentary style Pusher trilogy, a look at the criminal drug dealing subculture in Copenhagen.
  • Some of the paintings appearing in the film and in the animated sequences are actual drawings by the real life Bronson. Examples of Bronson’s artwork can be found here.
  • Actor Tom Hardy put on about 40 pounds of muscle for the role. Previously best known as “Handsome Bob” in Guy Ricthie’s RocknRolla, Hardy is poised to become a breakout star, slated to replace Mel Gibson in the new “Mad Max” series.
  • Cinematographer Larry Smith began his career with Stanley Kubrick, working as an electrician on Barry Lyndon and a gaffer on The Shining before graduating to  assistant cameraman for Eyes Wide Shut.
  • At the film’s London premiere, a tape recording of Bronson’s voice was played, stating, “I’m proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, then I live on. As long as my mother enjoys the film, I’m happy… I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either, because every punch I’ve ever flung in my life I’ve taken 21 back.” This incident caused the Prison Officers’ Association to complain, because it is illegal to record a prisoner in a British prison without authorization. The Association also accused the film of “glorifying violence.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bronson turning himself and his art teacher into living paintings in the very strange finale.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hyperstylized to the point of surreality, Bronson is biopic as mythology, an appropriate tack when dealing with a self-deluded, self-promoting subject. The portrait that emerges is not so much of a fascinating but essentially unknowable real-life sociopath as it is a portrait of Bronson’s pseudo-artistic attempt to create a public image as an antihero, with notes of humanizing sympathy but also with plenty of knowing irony added to deglamorize its subject.


Original trailer for Bronson

COMMENTS: Tom Hardy’s performance in Bronson undercuts my theory of acting. I Continue reading 53. BRONSON (2008)