Playing Catch-Up With Four Biopics From 2017: All Eyez On Me, Maudie, A Quiet Passion, and Victoria and Abdul


Continuing with my efforts to get caught up on the major films that I saw in 2017, here are my reviews of four biopics!  Two of them are very good.  One of them is so-so.  And the other one … well, let’s just get to it…

All Eyez on Me (dir by Benny Boon)

All Eyez On Me is a movie that I think a lot of people had high hopes for.  It was a biopic about Tupac Shakur, who died over 20 years ago but remains one of the most influential artists of all time.  Starring Demetrius Shipp, Jr. (who, if nothing else, bore a strong physical resemblance to Tupac), All Eyez on Me followed Shakur from his youth as the son of activist Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), through his early stardom, his political awakening, his time in prison, his eventual association with Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), and his still unsolved murder in Las Vegas.  Along the way all of the expected people pop up.  Kat Graham plays Jada Pinkett and tells Tupac that he’s wasting his talent.  Someone who looks nothing like Dr. Dre is introduced as being Dr. Dre.  Another actor wanders through a scene and says his name is Snoop Dogg.  The film last 2 hours and 20 minutes, with some scenes feeling oddly rushed while other drag on interminably.

The main reason why All Eyez On Me fails is that, unlike Straight Outta Compton, All Eyez on Me never figures out how translate Tupac’s legacy into cinematic form.  For instance, when I watched Straight Outta Compton, I probably knew less about NWA than I knew about Tupac Shakur when I watched All Eyez On Me.  But then there was that scene where NWA performed “Fuck That Police” while surrounded by the police and, at that moment, I understood why NWA deserved their own movie.  There’s no comparable scene in All Eyez On Me, which gets so bogged down in going through the usual biopic motions that it never really comes to grips with why Tupac is such an iconic figure.  Combine that with some less than stellar performances and some amazingly awkward dialogue and the end result is a film that is massively disappointing.

Maudie (dir by Aisling Walsh)

Maudie tells the story of Maud Lewis, a Canadian woman who found fame as a painter despite suffering from crippling arthritis.  Working and living in a one-room house with her husband, a fisherman named Everett (Ethan Hawke), Maud Lewis’s paintings of flowers and birds eventually became so popular that one was even purchased by then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

Maudie is a very special movie, largely because of the incredibly moving performance of Sally Hawkins in the role of Maud.  As played by Hawkins, Maud may occasionally be meek but she never surrenders her dream to create something beautiful out the often harsh circumstances of her life.  Hawkins not only captures Maud’s physical struggles but she also captures (and makes compelling) the inner strength of this remarkable artist.  Ethan Hawke also gives a remarkable performance as the gruff Everett.  When you Everett first appears, you hate him.  But, as the film progresses, Hawke starts to show hints of a sensitive soul that’d hiding underneath all of his gruffnes.  In the end, Everett is as saved by Maud’s art as is Maud.

Directed by Aisling Walsh, this is a low-key but all together remarkable and touching film.  If Sally Hawkins wasn’t already certain to get an Oscar nomination for Shape of the Water, she would definitely deserve one for Maudie.

A Quiet Passion (dir by Terrence Davies)

You would be totally justified in assuming that this film, a biopic of poet Emily Dickinson, would have absolutely nothing in common with The Last Jedi.  However, believe it or not, they actually do have something very much in common.  They are both films that, on Rotten Tomatoes, scored high with critics and not so high with audiences.  When last I checked, it had a 93% critical score and a 51% audience score.

Well, you know what?  Who cares?  The idea that you can judge a film’s worth based on an arbitrary number is pure evil, anyway.

Personally, I’m not surprised to hear that audiences struggled with A Quiet Passion.  It’s a very challenging film, one that is more concerned with mood than with traditional narrative.  The film is much like Dickinson herself: dark, uncompromising, sharply funny, and, on the surface, unconcerned with what people might think.  Much as how Dickinson retreated into her Amherst home, the film retreats into Dickinson’s head.  It’s not always the most pleasant place to hide out but, at the same time, it’s so alive with creativity and filled with such a sharp wit that it’s tempting never to leave.

In the role of Emily, Cynthia Nixon gave one of the best performance of the year, bringing Emily to uncompromising life.  Neither the film not Nixon ever make the mistake of sentimentalizing Dickinson.  Her pain is just as real as her genius.  Ultimately, though, both Nixon’s performance and A Quiet Passion stands as a tribute to Emily’s own quiet passion.

Much like Emily Dickinson’s poetry, A Quiet Passion will be appreciated with time.

Victoria & Abdul (dir by Stephen Frears)

If there’s ever been a film that deserves to be known as “generic Oscar bait,” it’s Victoria & Abdul.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad movie or anything like that.  Instead, it’s a very respectable film about Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian Muslim.  While the rest of the royal court is scandalized by Victoria’s close relationship with the foreigner, Karim teaches the Queen about the Koran and encourages her to enjoy life.  The royal court is played by the usual collection of distinguished actors who always appear in movies like this: Simon Callow, Tom Pigott-Smith, and Michael Gambon.  Victoria’s heir is played by Eddie Izzard, which should tell you all you need to know about how the future Edward VII is portrayed.

As I said, it’s not a bad movie as much as it’s just not a very interesting one.  You know that Abdul and Victoria are going to become close.  You know that the Royal Court is going to be a bunch of snobs.  You know that Victoria is going to get a chance to express anti-colonial sentiments that she must surely never actually possessed.  Indeed, whenever the film tries to make any sort of larger statement, all of the characters suddenly start talking as if they’re from 2017 as opposed to the late 1800s.

This is the second time that Judi Dench has played Victoria.  Previously, she played the Queen in a film called Mrs. Brown, which was about Victoria’s friendship with a Scottish servant.  Apparently, Victoria got along well with servants.

 

 

A Movie A Day #206: Conflict of Interest (1993, directed by Gary Davis)


Conflict of Interest is a by-the-numbers direct-to-video movie about a tough cop named Mickey who is obsessed with taking down a drug dealer and club owner named Gideon.  Mickey is a widower.  Years ago, his wife was gunned down in front of him and his son.  His son is now a teenager with a motorcycle and a mullet.  Gideon hires Mickey’s son to work at one of his clubs and then frames him for murder.  Even though his superiors order him to back off, Mickey is determined to clear his son’s name.

Why should you watch Conflict of Interest?  How about this:

That’s Judd Nelson, going heavy on the sideburns and eyeliner in the role of Gideon.  I am not sure if this movie was filmed before or after the famous “puffy shirt” episode of Seinfeld.

Judd chews up and spits out every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Matching Judd step-for-step is Alyssa Milano, who plays Eve.  She falls in love with Mickey’s son, even though she is already a member of Gideon’s harem.

Mickey is played by Christopher McDonald, who gets a rare lead role in Conflict of Interest.  McDonald may not be a household name but he is one of the great Hey, It’s That Guy actors.  Usually, he plays smarmy businessmen and game show hosts.  He’s a surprisingly good action hero in Conflict of Interest, though his mustache cannot begin to compete with Judd’s sideburns.

About as dumb as dumb can be, Conflict of Interest is enjoyably ridiculous.  Conflict of Interest may have been made in 1993 but it is an 80s film all the way through, the type of movie where almost every chase ends with someone’s car exploding.  Even Gideon’s nightclubs are “heavy metal clubs,” which are populated by people who would not have been out of place in Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

And then there’s the Judd power stare:

As we saw in Shattered If Your Kid’s On Drugs, the Judd power stare has the Burt Reynolds seal of approval:

Quickie Review: Phantoms (dir. by Joe Chappelle)


If there was ever an actor in the last twenty years who has suffered ridicule regarding his body of work it would be Ben Affleck. Nevermind the fact that he has actually done very good work as an actor. People tend to view his acting work through some very bad film projects which the online film bloggers (and trolls) have lambasted year after year. One such film which has gained a cult following for all the reasons is the 1998 horror film Phantoms which was adapted from the Dean Koontz horror novel of the same name. This was a film which came out of nowhere and which no one really saw when it first hit the theaters. There’s a reason for this and the main reason for this being that the film was really awful though not without some entertaining bits.

Phantoms starred Ben Affleck in a role that really seemed more suited for an older actor. His Sheriff Hammond in the novel was much older and fit the backstory told in both novel and film that never truly fit Affleck’s youthful appearance and mannerism. He’s joined in this Joe Chappelle production by classically-trained veteran actor Peter O’Toole (who must’ve really needed the money to sign up for this film) in the role of Dr. Exposition dump aka Timothy Flyte who ends up explaining to the surviving cast of characters the very danger facing them in the abandoned town of Snowfield. Rounding out the cast is  Liev Schrieber as the creepy Deputy Stu Wargle who becomes a sort of plot device as the film moves forward. To add to this mix are Joanna Going and Rose McGowan as sisters who first discover that their town has just gone through a terrible event.

The novel this film was based on was pure scifi-horror pulp which stressed one’s suspension of disbelief, but was quite entertaining from beginning to end. Dean Koontz is like the generic fast-food version of Stephen King. This film adaptation borrows heavily from films such as Carpenter’s The Thing and the remake of The Blob. This wouldn’t have been a bad thing since the film’s story does bring into it an interesting concept of an ancient enemy which might or might not have been responsible for unexplained mass disappearances of people and animals throughout history going back to prehistoric times.

What Phantoms ends up doing which ruins the film as a whole was to rush through the narrative it was adapting it. The film pretty much goings through a checklist of all the major scenes in the novel, takes those scenes and truncates them to fit uncomfortably into a 90+ minute film. Some of these scenes could’ve been extended a few more minutes to add to a sense of grandiose to a film that needed it despite it’s B-movie foundation. One such scenes would be the arrival of a special Army unit designed to combat unexplained events, but the film treats this sequence from their arrival right up to their untimely demise in less than 15 minutes. I think in the hands of a much more capable filmmaker these scenes would’ve made the film much more entertaining.

Phantoms was a horror film that could’ve become a 90’s cult-classic if it had been given the proper time and effort from it’s producers, but seeing that it was the Weinsteins of Miramax and Dimension Films this final product was probably the best Joe Chappelle could’ve come up with. Weinsteins during the 1990’s were more concerned of pushing their Oscar-baiting film productions than actually giving time and effort to all their films. If there was any reason to see Phantoms it would be to see just why it kept being mentioned in Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Other than that there’s really no reason to see it unless there’s nothing else on.