staci_wilson (staci_wilson) wrote,

Battle of the Bio-Pics

I have seen some truly interesting, informative, and inspiring biopics lately. I love the variety of these – one is a full-on narrative, one is a mix of recollections and recreations, and the other two are straight up documentaries – but one is liner from birth to death, while the other covers just a year in the life.

Directed by: Jay Roach

The successful career of 1940s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo comes to a crushing end when he and other Hollywood figures are blacklisted for their political beliefs. This film tells the story of his fight against the U.S. government and studio bosses in a war over words and freedom, which entangled everyone in Hollywood from Hedda Hopper and John Wayne to Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I knew Bryan Cranston was an amazing actor from watching every episode of Breaking Bad ever made, but seeing him as Dalton Trumbo, he amazes anew. Fully embodying this real-life, larger-than-life character, he goes from top dog to underdog, to downright dirty dog, to top dog. Not only is the story engrossing – and true! – sometimes upsetting, and always informative, but it’s also funny (director Jay Roach is known for his blockbuster comedies). Helen Mirren as Hedda “The Hat” Hopper steals every scene she’s in, and comedian Louis CK turns in a surprisingly heartbreaking performance as one of the Hollywood 10, and Dalton’s best friend. This is a must-see movie, and I am certain there are Academy Awards in its furture.

Janis: Little Girl Blue
Directed By: Amy Berg

This moving and insightful film reveals Janis Joplin in her most genuine, and rawest, form. The narration is in Joplin's own words, from letters that she wrote over the years, as read by Southern-born musician and actor Chan Marshall (a/k/a Cat Power). The film depicts Joplin’s evolution into a star, encompassing soul-stirring concert sequences, studio footage, and interviews with music industry veterans, collaborators and close friends such as Clive Davis, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, Kris Kristofferson, founding Grateful Dead member Bob Weir, and Joplin's younger siblings, Laura and Michael Joplin.

While this documentary isn’t presented in an especially innovate way – visually or narratively – its subject’s bright, burning light shines through. I already knew a lot about Janis Joplin, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something – and, I was deeply moved by its inevitable end.

Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans
Directed By: Gabriel Clarke, Jon McKenna

The turbulent production of the Steve McQueen car-racing classic Le Mans serves as the subject of this documentary from filmmakers Gabriel Clarke and Jon McKenna. At the time Le Mans went into production McQueen was one of cinema's biggest stars. Given his choice of film projects thanks to a lucrative deal with Cinema Center Studios, McQueen quickly began work on the passion project he had been dreaming about for the past decade. But as production on Le Mans got underway, the driven star would be forced to contend not only with the sudden departure of the film's original director, John Sturgis, but his own failing marriage, the threat of bankruptcy, and the fear of learning that he had been targeted for death by one of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th Century as well.

I knew the basic highlights of Steve Queen’s careers – acting, and racecar driving – and his marriages, but not much about the blood, sweat, and tears (literally) that went into making his passion project, Le Mans. While I think it’s a worthwhile doc, it runs too long and paints a rather (unintended, I believe) poor portrait of McQueen as a chauvinist, a liar, a hothead, borderline narcissist, and unreasonable, paranoid drug and alcohol addict. I’d rather just think of him as “The King of Cool” and leave it at that.

Dreams of a Life
Directed By: Carol Anne Morley

Would anyone miss you? Nobody noticed when Joyce Vincent died in her bedsit above a shopping mall in North London in 2003. Her body wasn't discovered for three years, surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, and with the TV still on. Newspaper reports offered few details of her life -- not even a photograph. Interweaving interviews with imagined scenes from Joyce's life is not only a portrait of Joyce but a portrait on London in the eighties -- the city, music and race. It is a film about urban lives, contemporary life, and how, like Joyce, we are all different things to different people. It is about how little we may ever know each other, but nevertheless, how much we can love.

This biopic is a few years old, but I’ve been meaning to see it. Since I either missed it on Netflix or it never made it to the queue, I ponied up the $2.99 to rent it on Amazon Prime. I am really glad I waited until after seeing it, to read the user reviews. I was amazed at how many people disliked the imagined scenes from Joyce’s life (portrayed by actress Zawe Ashton), which I thought breathed fresh air into the melancholy, mysterious story. (Plus, this device is commonly used in true crime TV – I love all those shows on Discovery ID.) Another complaint was that the doc is skewed to provoke a certain emotional result – Michael Moore does that all the time. I’m not sure if all the facts were presented (some argue that Joyce’s sisters did try to find her… but the fact remains, no one tried hard enough or she wouldn’t have been rotting to skeletal remains for three years in her flat), but to some degree I agree with the adage “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” – Morley has a filmmaker’s point of view, not a documentarian’s.

Now I’m eager to check out more of director Morley’s work. Not only is Dreams of a Life an imaginative, multilayered post-mortem examination, it also paints a portrait of London in the 80s—the city, the club and music scene, racial tension, and the working class. I like how she juxtaposes urban life with inner life, and how the two don’t always intersect. 
Tags: 2015, biopics, documentaries, dreams of a life, janis little girl blue, le mans, reviews, steve mcqueen, trumbo

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