Tag Archives: Biopic

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.

, , 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)