movies

Top 5: Country biopics I’d like to see

I do like a good biopic. From Walk the Line to Ray, it’s pretty easy to get wrapped into a fictionalized, more drama-filled version of the life of an artists that I love and respect. For that reason, it’s fun to play the game “Make that biopic!,” in which I create my dream-team line-up of biopics I’d totally watch. And it just so happens that all of them happen to be country music super-stars. Bonus: I cast them!

1. Hank Williams

Hank Williams I was a rambling, gambling man. He pretty much defined the country singer-songwriter: rough life, sad songs. He was addicted to pain killers and alcohol, was a devout, torn Christian, and was dead by the age of 29. Christian Bale has the intensity to do old Hank proud.

Hank Williams, courtesy Mxdwn

Christian Bale, courtesy Judy Halone

2. Waylon Jennings

Waylon Jennings is another country music star deserving of a cinematic coverage. His life story is almost too bizarre to be believed. He grew up in Texas, became friends with Buddy Holly, almost ending up on the the plane that crashed and ended Holly’s life. Instead Waylon become a country music sensation, singing about hard luck times that he lived and breathed. Bonus: you’d get to have someone play Willie Nelson, one of Jennings’ close musical partners and a fellow Outlaw. Jason Lee, who did hicks right in My Name is Earl, would play a mean Waylon.

Waylon Jennings, via Yahoofs

 

Jason Lee via Film School Rejects

 

3. Dolly Parton

Another fine rags-to-riches country story. Ms. Parton grew up in Appalachia, one of many children. She made it as a songwriter in Nashville, co-starring on the Porter Wagoner Show, and managed to make herself an independent millionaire by keeping the rights to all her songs. I’d love to see the sunny, optimistic star played by the similarly happy (if not endowed) Kate Hudson

Dolly Parton, courtesy whicdn.com

Dolly Parton, courtesy whicdn.com

Kate Hudson, via Celebtv

Kate Hudson, via Celebtv

4. George Jones and 5. Tammy Wynette

What a pair. Depending what you read, he drove the lawn mower to town to buy liquor when she hid the kids. He sang “White Lightning,” she sang “Stand by Your Man.” Their marriage was six years of hell and heartbreak, with two of country’s saddest singers. Call me crazy, but I can see Jim Carrey as the tyrannical George, and Laura Dern as the sweet but sorrowful Tammy.

George Jones & Tammy Wynette

George Jones & Tammy Wynette

Jim Carrey

Laura Dern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want more?

I’ve written about it before, but Nathan Rabin has the most amazing series (that is turning into a book!) at the AV Club. He takes the anti-country music fan’s tour through these artists’ work. I’d suggest reading them all: Hank, Waylon, Dolly and George & Tammy.

Also, I made a Youtube playlist for your enjoyment!

Playlist

 

I’m Not There

I'm Not There (via revoballad.blogspot.com)

Why make a movie about Bob Dylan, let alone six Bob Dylans? He’s a living legend who has shaken off every label that the public and his fans have put on him: voice of a generation, prophet, rock star, elder music statesman.

Perhaps Todd Haynes’ 2007 film, I’m Not There, is the only way to reconcile all the Dylans. Six actors portray the musician: Christian Bale as the folksy protest singer; Ben Winshaw as the tortured poet; Heath Ledger as the high flying rock star; Richard Gere as a hero of mythic, rootsy Americana; Marcus Carl Franklin as the itinerant singer-songwriter; and Cate Blanchett as the angry, gifted songwriter dealing with fame.

The whole film is a dreamy, music-soaked affair, drawn together by Dylan’s songs. Each story has a different arc that illuminates a facet of Dylan’s life or his myth. Some stories fall flatter than others – I could never completely tell what Richard Gere’s character was doing.

But some Dylan doppelgängers work beautifully. Cate Blanchett plays one of the most interesting characters of her whole career, as the twitchy and uncomfortable Dylan. She channels some of the scenes from Pennebaker’s 1967 Don’t Look Back. I’m not quite certain that Haynes meant to highlight any sort of femininity on the part of the character, but rather show how he felt like someone else acting in his own body.

Heath Ledger also shines as the debauched 1970s version. He and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are in the middle of getting a divorce, because he’s angry and detached from his family. It’s the story of the perils of fame against self and family, and the fact it’s played by Ledger gives the whole affair an even more tragic lens.

I would only recommend the film to Dylan fans, as it’s more fun to recognize the allusions. Perhaps film buff would enjoy it too, as it stands alone as a quirky and innovative film telling of the many lives of a man who refused to be there.

Want more?

Cate Blanchett talking about her role:

Labyrinth

Labyrinth, courtesy Wikipedia

As if birthdays themselves don’t make you feel old, Labyrinth is 25 years old this week. I believe it has gone down in history for introducing young kids to David Bowie’s music (and his incredibly tight pants).

Labyrinth is one of those delightful mid-80s movies that combines live action actors with Muppets. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit: I love muppets. Not just of the Miss Piggy variety, but all flavors coming from Jim Henson’s creature factory. And boy, does the movie come through with the muppets.

Storywise, David Bowie plays the King of the Goblins, who captures Jennifer Connolly’s baby brother when she, a put-upon teenager, wishes him to be spirited away. She then must travel to Goblin land to rescue her brother, teaming with Muppets great, small, and gross, in the process learning some about friendship and growing up (aw!).

Watching it as an adult, you realize that Connolly, at sixteen, looks like a Renaissance beauty, and Bowie, in his natural predatory state, circles her like a hungry fox.  Is it slightly creepy? Yes. Can this be overlooked? Oddly, also yes.

Also as an adult you wonder: why did David Bowie decide to dress up like an elf attending a disco in a kids’ movie? Where was his career? Did he consider this an extension of Ziggy? These are not important questions; what is important is that it happened. And it may be his finest role on film.

Because what really blows the movie out of the water is the music, composed and performed by DB of course. I would be eternally pleased if every jukebox had a copy of “Magic Dance.” The rest of the songs aren’t too shabby either.

It’s one of those childhood movies that sticks with you. And yet it’s probably best not to watch it again until you’re showing another youngster, so as not to burst that happy bubble. Happy 25, Labyrinth!

Want more?
You MUST watch “Magic Dance:”

And the Flight of the Conchords’ take on Labyrinth-era Bowie is pretty hilarious:

Bridesmaids

ATTACK OF THE FUNNY LADIES

Thoughts on Bridesmaids.
Every few years, a movie comes out that puts the media in a lather. These are not controversial films, nor do they break fundamental rules of cinema or elevate the genre to new heights. Nope, we’re talking lady comedies.
You may have heard or noticed the flurry with the movie Bridesmaids, but it’s nothing new. It happened  when Christopher Hitchens wrote his now-infamous “Women aren’t funny” in 2007 (which everyone keeps referencing, but I’m sure he’s not really thinking about it). It happened with Baby Mama. Apparently “Are women funny?” makes great copy.

If we’re not funny, then you men out there are wasting a lot of time fake laughing (amiright ladies?!). In all seriousness, some women are funny, just like some men. The real question is, and it’s asked by movie industry executives: 1). are women’s comedies made in the same mold as men’s? And 2). will women pay money to go out and see them?

Well, the answer to question one is – kind of. Bridesmaids neatly captures the little moments that make up female friendships between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph). It’s about fake working out, then treating yourself to brunch, or coming over to drink white wine and read gossip magazines together (both things I have done).

What the title, and previews, might not show is that Bridesmaids is not really a buddy comedy, or an ensemble show a la The Hangover. There’s a brief moment en route to a bachelorette party in Vegas when the supporting cast (including Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper and Melissa McCarthy) shines, but then the film changes focus back to Wiig’s life.  Which is falling apart.

Wiig is less manic than her SNL characters might suggest. Annie is happy for her friend, but can’t be entirely pleased at the loss of her only support system. I feel like the signs of her hitting bottom could be remixed in a trailer and make a completely different, far more depressing movie.

Modern weddings are not just an opportunity for two people in love to show it to their family and friends; it’s also a VERY BIG moment for friends and family. For women, there can be a host of high-profile activities. Showers, bachelorette parties, gifts, what have you. So as Annie is falling apart, Helen (played oh-so-mean-girly by Rose Byrne ), Lillian’s fiance’s boss’ wife, takes the reins for the preparation. There’s one scene, at the engagement party, when the two try to outdo themselves? Classic.

So there’s another part. I’ve read it’s producer Judd Apatow’s influence, and it’s basically a scene when the ladies get extreme food poisoning while trying on dresses. All you need to know – I closed my eyes and ears. Did the (full) theater erupt in laughter? Yes. Did I just get queasy typing the word “erupt”? Yes again.

I just don’t think this comedy needed the gross-out element. There was enough comedy! In fact, I feel like there is going to be a fuller movie with the  deleted scenes on DVD, as some of the plot points felt a little abandoned. But then again, we don’t see these films for the stories, do we? We see them to giggle at women who earn it, take after devastatingly awkward take.

To summarize, I will end with the wise words of Kosmundo, who had this to say about the film:

so yes, it was funny. but at the end of the day, the lady heart is really why i liked it. for the brunch scene and the couch pep talk and the wilson phillips dance moves – if i have to sit through ladies crapping themselves in pretty dresses, to get real/funny/honest representations of what friendship looks like for me, i’ll take it.

Want more?

NY Mag has a great roundup of all the Bridesmaids coverage.

And if you’ve seen it? You’ll probably want to watch this:

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

How do you feel about historical nature movies in 3D? Most people (including me) would probably be, “Meh, I prefer to watch James Cameron’s elaborate, expensive and rather froofy version of nature again.” Wrong answer. I foresee a great demand for 3D cinematic versions of real-life wonders. Soon we will be like the rotund people in Wall-E, rolling ourselves to see GRAND CANYON VI: WHEN CONDORS ATTACK.

Chauvet Caves courtesy Wikimedia

Until then, we’ve got treasures like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s brief but beautiful look into the Caves de Chauvet, caverns in the South of France discovered in 1994 with some of the earliest examples of prehistoric art.

I had never heard of the caves, but who doesn’t love a prehistoric mystery? Even though, as the droves of French researchers (seriously, these caves must sustain fifty grants alone) prove, archaeology is not done by dashing men with fedoras and whips; it’s done by poring over maps and data.

Especially when, due to the fragile nature of the caves’ ecosystem, the French government has restricted researchers’ access to one month of the year, and entirely banned the public. Herzog and his team got very special permission to film there for less than one month.

And once you see the footage, you’ll be thankful they did. One thing I appreciate as an American used t0 History Channel, sensationalist documentaries is that Cave of Forgotten Dreams didn’t rely on testimonies of experts and drag out the great reveal. Instead, we get to appreciate the amazing pictures, in their oscillating glory, early on. (Nice to know that artists 20,000 years ago are much, much better at rendering horses than I am).

The footage alone would make for a splendid, if slightly stilted, documentary – like the type that plays in museums in the background displays. But Werner adds his apparently infamous Herzogian take on human’s early artistic efforts. He asks one of the professor types about early man’s musical efforts, attempting to stretch the art of the caves to a giant allegory for WHY WE ARE HERE.

But it’s his touch that makes the film quirkier than a standard documentary. Herzog ends the film with some albino alligators, a move that has gotten some talking, but makes the whole experience stick in your mind. At the very least, the images of the caves will haunt you.

Want more?

Read the 2008 New Yorker article by Judith Thurman that piqued Herzog’s interest. Werner Herzog was interviewed by GQ recently, and the Paris Review. Learn more about the Chauvet Cave on Wikipedia, or check out the French government’s site.

The Fighter

The Fighter poster, via Wikimedia

What’s the deal with ‘based on a true story” movies anyway? Is it any less remarkable that someone came up with a notion of a plot that warms the heart, blows the mind, tickles the funny bone? Most “true stories” are sanitized for audiences anyway. Why the desire to coat it as “real”?

I wonder this because “The Fighter” seemed at first like unlikely choice for a sports movie. “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlburg’s) rise to fame is not epic; he defended his WBU Light Welterweight championship for only one year.

It’s really the second story, about Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) where the plot gets its forward motion. Dicky used to be a real boxer, once beating Sugar Ray Leonard. After his win, he’s drifted, training Mickey some, but mostly delving into crack addiction. An HBO crew is filming him, purportedly film his comeback, but actually for a film about addiction. Dicky is in prison when he watches this. He has let his own career go and he’ll let his brother’s go as well.

Mickey has depended on the tutelage of his brother and mom Alice (Melissa Leo) as his manager to direct his less-than-stellar career. And he’s not very dynamic, so it’s hard to say where he would have ended up as a boxer had he not met the scrappy bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), who challenges him to stand up to his overbearing family. But the family does not take kindly to letting him go. There’s a frankly awesome scene when Charlene takes on Mickey’s seven Boston-style Greek chorus sisters.

Because Mickey is not really “The Fighter” of the title; his skill in the ring is to be able to withstand the tough punches. No, it’s his brother, Bale at his manic and twitchy best, who has the verve to push Mickey to be a better boxer than he is. Both Bale and Leo got Supporting Oscars for their roles, and they seem to feed off each others’ energies. No wonder Dicky is Alice’s favorite kid: they both have the same drive and will to make life happen.

The film rests heavily on the great performances by Adams, Bale and Leo, but director David O. Russell can’t seem to decide if he wanted a straight-up “Rocky” style movie or something more quirky. What he gets then is an uneven mash-up. Still, a fine entry into the uplifting sports film genre.

Want more?
Maybe you’ll giggle at this take up of Boston-set movies, appropriately called Boston Movie (via FunnyorDie.com).

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Title credits

“I’m not living with you! We occupy the same cage, that’s all!” Maggie the Cat (Elizabeth Taylor) snarls at her detached husband Brick (Paul Newman). Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, written as a play by Tennessee Williams, was made into a film in 1958. Some plays do not easily translate from stage to screen, the film’s claustrophobia (almost all the action takes place in one house) enhances how the characters have trapped themselves.

Brick drinks himself into a stupor as Maggie sashays around trying to trick him into loving her again. Brick’s father, Big Daddy, is dying but doesn’t know it, and his other son Gooper and his brood of annoying children have dedicated themselves to giving Big Daddy a birthday celebration (and remind him to update his will). A storm on the night of the big party forces the family to face their demons, which are themselves.

Taylor especially is a spitfire of action here. She’s utterly ruthless as a woman who married for love and money, had one snatched away from her but will be damned if she loses the other. Newman reminded me so much of Marlon Brando in this role, brooding lion-like until all of a sudden he snapped. The homosexual subtext got scrubbed from Williams’ play for the movie, but there are still hints of it. The ending smacks of studio interference, and twists the brow of a modern viewer, but it’s a film filled with strong acting fit to burst out the screen.

Might be worth seeing alone for Elizabeth Taylor in corseted slips. You too will be tempted to act the grande, wronged Southern dame for the evening.

Want more?

Find your slip at Twolia’s Etsy shop.

Somewhere

Someone could easily accuse me of having a slight prejudice against Sofia Coppola and I’d have a hard time coming up with a counter-argument. I enjoyed Lost in Translation, but found Marie Antoinette to be a lavish Vogue photospread with an admittedly excellent soundtrack. Her movies always feature waifish, lost young women navigating a world that bemuses them.

In Somewhere, the young woman is Cleo (played by the younger Fanning, Elle), daughter to the remarkably successful yet otherwise unremarkable actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Marco lives at the Chateau Marmont, that decadent LA hotel off Sunset that has seen its share of Hollywood debauchery. He whiles away his day having sex with very willing women, drinking Coronas, and generally hanging.

What can you do when your life of repetitive pleasure has made you so numb you can’t even enjoy a private pole dance by leggy blonde twins? Nothing, but oh, look, here’s your eleven-year-old daughter you’ve paid marginal attention to her whole life. Her mom’s having her own crisis and you have to take care of her for a few days before camp, so you head to Italy on a studio’s budget, eat gelato in bed, play Guitar Hero, and learn about deferred pleasure for the first time in your life (specifically, turning a naked girl in a sailor hat out of your bed).

Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford, no doubt had similar experiences trailing after a famous father and got to witness some major celebrity pitfalls. And what is her conclusion – “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us! Lonely, Confused & Searching”? It doesn’t help that Dorff, at least as Marco, coasts by on amiability and fading good looks. There’s no intensity in his desire to be an actor; he fell in it, and the life treats him well. There is a great acting moment by Fanning the younger at breakfast in Italy, with her father and her father’s morning after. She gazes critically at both the woman and her father and coolly assesses but does not judge. The whole movie can’t help but lighting up while Cleo is around because she’s the most dynamic part of it.

I’m not doing the film justice entirely. There are some very sweet moments between Marco and Cleo, and some beautiful shots poolside and in Italy. But the stretches in between them are few and far between. It was the cinematic expression of apathy, and I confess I couldn’t see the point.

More? Somewhere trailer

The King’s Speech

Why did I put of seeing The King’s Speech? It takes place in my favorite time period (interbellum WWI & WWII in Great Britain), has one of my favorite actors (Mr. Darcy, natch), and from all the commercials seems like just the sort of stuffy, Oscar-baiting historical fare that I savor.

I finally caught it Monday, and I must say it was all all those things, but with an added sweetness that well explains its success this awards season. The King’s Speech is the fictional portrayal of Prince Albert (“Bertie” to his family), the stammering Duke of York who becomes King George VI right before World War II when his brother abdicates the throne in order to be with his love, the twice-divorced American Mrs. Wallis Simpson. In order to be able to make speeches to his people without faltering, Bertie gets unorthodox speech therapy from Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor, played by the successful Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, after some gentle nudging from his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).

Colin Firth deserves all the accolades he has been receiving for his portrayal of Bertie. Accents are hard enough, but a speech impediment, in differing severity, is very difficult indeed. Firth sounds like an angry bullfrog when he talks, and a gurgling baby when he doesn’t. He’s angry, fearful of the position, but wants to do right by his duty, which, as a King in 20th century England, is to speak into the wireless to his people. And that is one thing that he cannot do. As his father tells him, “Gone are the days when we used to be able to just sit nobly on a horse.” A King in 1936 cannot levy taxes, make a law, or declare war. But he can speak.

I admit to being fascinated by the trappings and rules of royalty. The scene where Edward VIII abdicates his crown – it’s just a signature on a piece of paper. But because of that signature (and that awful woman Mrs. Simpson, gah), it is Bertie’s face that would be put on coins, and not his brothers. And did you know the proper way to greet the Queen? “Your majesty first, and then ma’am like ham, not like parm,” pertly informs the Queen. Helena Bonham Carter’s early career included many Merchant Ivory period dramas, such as the lovely Room With a View, and it is immensely gratifying to see her playing witty rather than spooky. (Historical fun fact! While doing research for my undergraduate thesis on women smoking in Britain, I came across the Bonham Carter name several times in the society pages. If she seems born to play aristocrats in period pieces, well, she is!).

Historically, the movie is also fascinating. The BBC control room shows labels for all of the UK holdings – Canada, Australia, Nigeria. It must have been so astounding to think of how significant it was for people worldwide to be able to actually hear their monarch. (In this way, this movie is not so different from The Social Network: both are about learning how to communicate in a brave new way.) And the final scenes of people rushing to bomb shelters in London was a nasty reminder of what was yet to come.

The King’s Speech, if I may borrow a term from 2009, is at its heart a fine bromance. Bertie and Lionel learn to trust and respect each other. You can tell that Bertie was not a man born to be a king, but knows it is what he must do, and he does it nobly. There’s a fantastic scene of Lionel looking behind the royal family, waving to crowds from the Buckingham Palace balcony, and there’s a shiver of envy from the failed actor side, the side of the man who got rejected in an audition for Richard III on account of not being regal enough. As the king’s speech therapist, though, Lionel knows better. He has seen firsthand that kings are made, not born.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain I decided to watch because I came across the soundtrack and fell in love. The film takes place in the Civil War-era South, and as a country fan, I was immediately drawn to the stark traditional arrangements. The music in the movie was produced by T. Bone Burnett and features, among others, Jack White (who also co-starred!). It’s easy to see the bridge between the Anglo-Saxon ballads transported from England to our modern country songs today.

The movie itself is incredibly beautiful. Filmed in the mountains of Romania (where my dad is from!), director Anthony Minghella’s shots sweep over mountainous snowy vistas and lush valleys. Even knowing it was filmed elsewhere, you get the sense of how open to possibility America still was, how there really wasn’t a lay of the land to speak of (yet).

Jude Law plays Inman, a Southern man who falls in love with Ada, a preacher’s daughter (played by Nicole Kidman). I’d like to deem him Sad Hipster Jude, as he has a musician’s scraggly beard and mourning, soulful eyes (still a good look for him, though! Jude – bring back the beard!). After fighting for and deserting the Confederates, he must find his way back to Cold Mountain and his love. There’s one epic battle scene in particular that is so bloody, such a pointless loss of life on both sides, that we got to Googling and learned 30% of white Southern men perished during the Civil War. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that line from The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”: “You take what you need and you leave the rest / But they should never have taken the very best.”

Inman’s quest does bring to mind The Odyssey, which reminded me of another modern retelling of Homer with a great soundtrack – O Brother Where Art Thou. Cold Mountain does not have as much of a sense of humor as O Brother, and it certainly doesn’t have as much an interest in words. Inman and Ada’s courtship exists mainly in longing looks and one intense kiss, and the actors are forced to maintain stoic intensity that almost verges on constipation.

The supporting cast is quite strong, though. You’ll recognize Jack White, Natalie Portman, Cillian Murphy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Renee Zellweger in the most plucky role she’s held since Bridget Jones.

Cold Mountain will certainly strike you with its impressive, if glacial, beauty, but the heart of the film was in its music. Check out a video (below). It’s worthwhile viewing and even more essential listening.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAG7owjQkAc]