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 #55: The Remains of the Day (dir by James Ivory)


Remains_of_the_day

The 1993 Best Picture nominee The Remains of the Day is a love story.  Actually, it’s a series of love stories.  Every character in the film is in love with something or someone.  It’s just that, with one exception, they’re all so extremely British that it’s sometimes hard to tell.

The one exception is an American congressman named Trent Lewis (Christopher Reeve).  As the film opens in the 1950s, he’s just purchased Darlington Hall, which is one of those country manors that hold so much history and romance for those of us who regularly watch Downton Abbey.  Lewis is excited to have a British manor of his very own.  It even comes with its very own butler, a Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins).

As we see in flashback, Stevens previously worked at Darlington Hall when it was owned by Lord Darlington (James Fox).  In the 1930s, Lord Darlington may have loved Britain but he was also dangerously naive about the rise of Nazi Germany.  Actually, to say that he was naive might be letting Lord Darlington off too easily.  When we first meet Lord Darlington, he seems like a well-meaning but hopelessly out-of-touch aristocrat.  He has so little understanding of the real world that he even asks Stevens to have the sex talk with his godson (played, somewhat inevitably, by Hugh Grant), who happens to be close to 30 years old at the time and, one would presume, far beyond the age when the talk is really necessary. When we first see Lord Darlington, who is hosting a conference on how to best deal with the rise of the Nazis, arguing that Britain should ignore the rise of Hitler, it’s easy to assume that he’s just as clueless about Germany as he is about his godson.  But then, eventually, Lord Darlington orders Stevens to fire two Jewish maids and you’re forced to reconsider everything that you previously believed about him.

And then there’s Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson), who worked as a housekeeper for Lord Darlington.  She loves the repressed Mr. Stevens but continually finds herself frustrated by Stevens’s professional detachment.  Unlike Stevens, Ms. Kenton doesn’t hold back on her opinions but, when she finally has a chance to stand up for her beliefs and defy the status quo at Darlington Hall, she backs down.

And then there’s Mr. Stevens.  Mr. Stevens may be one of the most emotionally repressed characters in the history of the movies but the entire film revolves around trying to figure out what or who Stevens loves.  It’s a little too easy to assume that he’s in love with Ms. Kenton, even though that will be the natural instinct of most viewers.  While he obviously feels affection towards her, he can never bring himself to truly express it.  (That said, getting a letter from her appears to be the only thing that can actually inspire him to leave the safety of Darlington Hall and venture into the outside world.)  While it seems, at times, that he might love Lord Darlington, Stevens himself prefers to say that he respected Lord Darlington and, after the war, Stevens seems to have no trouble staying on at Darlington Hall even after its bought by Congressman Lewis.  Much like the ghosts in The Shining, Stevens has always been the butler and always will be.

Ultimately, Mr. Stevens loves his job.  He loves being a butler. He’s a man so dedicated to his job that he even continues to work even while his father is dying in the next room.   He loves making sure that everything’s perfect at Darlington Hall and he never bothers with worrying about how imperfect the world outside Darlington Hall may be.    In that way, Stevens is a stand-in for all of the European leaders who willfully chose to ignore what was happening in Germany in the days leading up to World War II.  And, much like those European leaders, he finds himself forced to work for an American in the aftermath.

As a film, The Remains of the Day can be frustrating but in a good way.  Mr. Stevens is such a repressed and detached character that, much like Ms. Kenton, we’re always tempted to give up on him.  Fortunately, Anthony Hopkins is one of those actors who can suggest so much with just a pause in his dialogue or a quick glance to the side.  You look at his sad eyes and suddenly, you know everything that Mr. Stevens cannot bring himself to say.  Emma Thompson has a somewhat easier role because Ms. Kenton at least gets to say what she’s thinking but she still bring a lot of depth to the role and has a lot of chemistry with Hopkins.  And finally, you’ve got James Fox who is so comically befuddled that it’s all the more shocking to consider all of the pain that he — intentionally or not — is partially responsible for.

The Remains of the Day is a great film for all of us Downton Abbey-loving history nerds.