Tick, tick…BOOM (4*)
Being the Ricardos (4*)
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (3.5*)
King Richard (3*)
Biography films are supposed to tell us something about peoples lives – their strengths and their weaknesses and everything in between. They should give us an understanding of that persons true character and help us decide exactly what our emotional reaction is to them. We can’t fully absorb everything there is to know about a person – that’s even difficult in a full length book, much less a two hour movie. But it should hit the highlights of why that person is on this earth and the contribution they make to those around them.
All seven of this year’s biographical movies meet that goal, although some are more successful than others. In some cases, you may not come away with a positive feeling toward the subject, but that’s OK too – the requirement is that it provoke a reaction, not necessarily a positive one.
King Richard is one of those movies where I had an almost visceral negative reaction. Richard Williams was the father of the incredible tennis duo Serena and Venus. Although I think the movie attempts to paint Richard (played by Will Smith who won the Oscar for this role) as a loving but very disciplined father who relentlessly trained his two daughters to become huge stars in the tennis world – a task made more difficult by their race. What comes across to me, though, is his absolute need for control over every aspect of his daughters lives. The movie also completely ignores the fact that he had multiple other children, none of whom received the same lavish attention nor were subjects of a supposed 85-page master plan to turn them into tennis greats. The movie had some good parts, and Will Smith did a good job acting (even if he couldn’t control himself at the Oscar ceremony). Still, I thought a better movie would have been to focus on Serena and Venus themselves and understand how they were able to achieve their successes in spite of such a controlling father.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye tells the story of Tammy Faye Bakker, the female part of the Jim and Tammy Praise the Lord television evangelism show. It traces their rise and their fall, with her husband ending up in prison for fraudulent practices. Jessica Chastain won the Oscar for her role as Tammy, and the award is well deserved. But the problem with this movie lies in the script and direction – there are just too many loose ends. The movie tries to answer the question of just who is Tammy Faye, but I’m not sure I know at the end – the movie loses its threads.
Belfast is this year’s black and white movie (there’s always one in the Oscar lineup). It is a good movie about “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland and one family’s attempt to live through them. I enjoyed the movie and thought it did a lot to show the strengths of family life (although I thought CODA was even better at that). As a biography, though, it is a bit of a stretch. Supposedly this describes the early childhood of Kenneth Branagh. Who’s he, you ask? Well, he’s an accomplished Irish actor and director. I suppose it works that way, but even if you know the work of Mr. Branagh, you have to question why you need to know his childhood history. Finally, a family biography really needs to treat everyone in the family to give a full understanding, but, curiously, this movie tells us next to nothing about Will, the elder brother. Did Branagh not like his brother? To me, it is unrealistic that he plays such a minor, unexplained, role.
The remaining three movies were much better. Spencer, of course, is yet another telling of how awful Diana Spencer’s life was. I don’t know that we learned a whole lot of additional information about Diana, but that doesn’t reduce the value of this film. It takes an exaggerated approach to her psychological state over three difficult days at Christmas time with the Royal family. Although I wasn’t there, it is difficult to understand her as in this fragile a state, and, actually, near psychotic episode. But as a movie, this is tremendously done. And the surprising performance from Kristin Stewart is nothing short of remarkable – in fact, I think she should have taken the Oscar. Pay particular attention to her language, both verbal and body, at the pool table as she confronts the overwhelming power that Charles yields over her. An outstanding performance.
Being the Ricardos is, well, about Ricky and Lucy, or more properly Desi and Lucille. The focus is on Lucille Ball, played well by Nicole Kidman. Much has been written about how disappointing her performance was, though, but I didn’t think it was all that bad considering how difficult the role is to begin with. I can’t imagine anyone being able to display the facial and physical humor that we all know and love so well in Lucille Ball. Until someone else comes along to fill those shoes, I think Ms. Kidman did a good-enough job. There are flaws with the film, but overall it was an enjoyable trip to my childhood television days.
Tick, tick, …Boom might be the best of this year’s biographies, judged by how well they portray the subject. In this case, the subject was Jonathon Larson a playwright who died just as his masterpiece, Rent, was ready to open. There are a lot of interesting threads in this movie, although it isn’t always real easy to follow. (Read my review for more on that subject). But it does give us a very sympathetic look at a very creative person.
FLEE is unlike any other of this year’s films. In the first place it is animated, and there is a reason for that. In the second place it is a documentary, based on a true story of a young man who flees first from Afghanistan and then from Russia. Finally, it was Denmark’s submission for International Feature. And, in a first, it was nominated in all three of those categories. It is a powerful film telling an absorbing story of someone you have never heard of. Still it counts as one of the best of this year’s movies.
That’s it for this year’s Biography movies – if you want to learn about people, there are lots of good options.