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.

 

 

Shattered Politics #85: In the Loop (dir by Armando Iannucci)


In_the_Loop_poster

First released in 2009, In The Loop is one of the most brilliant political satires ever made.

The film opens in London, as a slightly ridiculous man named Toby (Chris Addison) starts his first day as the special assistant to the Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander).  And what a day to start!  Both the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister are eager to invade the Middle East and, during an interview the previous night, Simon accidentally announced that war was “unforseeable.”  This has led to people accidentally assuming that Simon is anti-war (Simon really doesn’t seem to have an opinion one way or the other) but it also means that the Prime Minister’s compulsively profane assistant, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), is now running around the office and threatening people.

(I doubt that there’s any way that I can do justice to Capaldi’s performance here.  You simply have to see him.  He is a force of nature, a tornado of nonstop profanity and aggression.)

Not every government official in the U.S. is enthusiastic about going to war.  Both Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her former lover, Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) are opposed to the war.  Karen’s assistant, Liza (Anna Chlumsky), has even written a paper that explains why a war in the Middle East could not be won.  Karen hopes to use Simon as a spokesman to keep the British out of the war and, therefore, America as well.

(Toby, meanwhile, just wants to have sex with Liza.)

However, there are a few factors that complicate things.  First off, Malcolm is determined to make sure that the Prime Minister gets what he wants and if that means bullying and scaring everyone into supporting an unwinnable war, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.  Secondly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State For Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) is eager enough to start a war that he’s actually started a secret committee to find a way to get into the war.  (The committee, of course, has been called the Committee For Future Planning.)  Third, and perhaps most importantly, Simon is an idiot.

Along with being both a satire of American-British relations (my favorite moment comes when a random American tourist tells Malcolm to stop cursing in public) and the lead-up to the Iraq War, In The Loop is also a devastating look at how government works.  In the Loop makes a good case that, for all the titles and the committee and the talk about doing what’s right, most government policy is the result of a combination of stupidity and needless aggression.  As played by Capaldi, Malcolm has no ideology or core beliefs.  He simply makes sure that the Prime Minister gets what he wants.

And if that means going to war, then Malcolm will do whatever it takes to push Britain into war.

Director Armando Iannucci is probably best known for creating two political comedies, the Thick of It and Veep.  And while I’ve never seen The Thick Of It, I absolutely love Veep.  From what I’ve read, all three projects share the same fictional universe.  (Capaldi’s Malcolm was the main character on The Thick Of It.)

Though, actually, I think it’s debatable just how fictional that universe is.  Ultimately, In The Loop is probably one of the most plausible satires that I’ve ever seen.