Rocketman (2019)

I should have known better than to venture out to the theater for the Elton John biopic Rocketman. I was at least smart enough to skip last year’s big-deal musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, even before I knew it had a notorious rapist attached as its official credited director. The uncredited director who was tasked to save that drowning production (when Bryan Singer was rightly booted from it), Dexter Fletcher, promised a little more cohesion & stage-musical fantasy in this follow-up, but everything else about Rocketman looked just as cheesy & false as Rhapsody. If I’m being totally honest, the only real reason I was curious about Rocketman was the news reports after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which slated it as the fist-ever major studio Hollywood production to feature onscreen gay sex. I had to see (and support) that decades-late “achievement” for myself, but it put a lot of unfair pressure on the film to, em, perform in that one specific way, setting me up for disappointment before frame one. Very few people are wholly successful in their first full-on gay sex encounter, so I’m not sure why I expected Hollywood to be any different.

Rocketman was only willing to give me wholesome showtunes gay when the material at hand clearly called for drunken, sweaty dive bar gay. The framing device of this post-Walk Hard biopic is an AA meeting where Elton John looks back on his life in sappy, musical flashbacks while gradually stripping off a gorgeous bejeweled-devil stage costume to reveal the vulnerable man underneath. His narration continually reassures the audience that his life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments. Taron Egerton does a decent-enough job embodying Elton John both onstage & off, except that his vocal performance is more Broadway musical than coke-addled rock ‘n roll. As I should have expected, the onscreen gay sex early reports promised is similarly neutered. The most intimate, extensive scene of two men bonin’ is accompanied by the least sensual Gospel soundtrack imaginable and quickly averts its eyes just when the room is steaming up. Later, an expressive, Old Hollywood musical staging of a pansexual orgy is intercut with childhood memories & returns to the AA frame story, zapping the moment of any potential titillation. Elton John reports in the picture that he “fucked everything that moved,” “abused every drug there is,” and “enjoyed every minute of it,” but it all amounts to the effect of a “Footage Not Found” title card, a classic case of telling-not-showing.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be found here. Bryce Dallas Howard is an unexpected hoot in a career-high role as John’s cruel alcoholic-housewife mother, essentially a half-speed Mommie Dearest drag routine sponsored by Quaaludes. There are also a few Baz Luhrmann-esque poetic breaks from reality among the musical numbers, the highlight being a moment of communal levitation at John’s first American concert. Even those moments are hindered by Fletcher making the safest choices possible, though. For instance, when John announces “For my next trick, I’m going to kill myself,” and overdoses at the bottom of a swimming pool, he’s greeted there by a childhood version of himself singing “Rocketman” – not the obvious, more daring choice of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” Other sordid, sweaty rock ‘n roll numbers like “Dirty Little Girl” & “Sweet Painted Lady” are missing in favor of safe Greatest Hits tracks, which are further softened with musical theatre, Bollywood dance homage, and – I swear to God this is true – second-wave ska. Elton John’s life story is honestly not all that interesting. He’s a blue-collar kid who worked hard to develop his talent, did a few too many drugs when he first got famous, and is now happily married with kids and a swelling bank account. When you remove the sweaty, hedonistic danger of the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll from that template there isn’t much left worth an audience’s time. I didn’t show up to celebrate a millionaire’s (albeit admirable) success in sobriety; I showed up for gay sex & fabulous costumes – of which only the latter satisfies.

-Brandon Ledet

Lords of Chaos (2019)

“Based on truth, lies, and what actually happened,” Lords of Chaos is a half-fictionalized profile of the infamous Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, joining the ranks of other aggressively subjective, post-modern biopics like GoodFellas; Love & Mercy; Elvis & Nixon; and I, Tonya. Directed by a former black metal musician (Swedish music video auteur Jonas Åkerlund, formerly of Bathory) and based on an eponymous book detailing the real-life events it depicts, Lords of Chaos should carry an air of authenticity to its true-crime recollection of Mayhem’s rise-to-power and spectacular downfall. Instead, it takes great liberties in its selective memory and revisionist history for the sake of making a larger point about the type of shithead metal nerds it’s lampooning, whether or not they resemble the real-life people whose names are attached. In particular, Lords of Chaos is a little too forgiving to Mayhem “mastermind” Euronymous, the POV protagonist played increasingly humanely by Rory Culkin. It’s also guilty of going light on the Nazi rhetoric vocalist Burzum infused into black metal’s core philosophy, a grotesquely fascist self-contradiction in a movement supposedly built by anti-establishment subversives. Personally speaking, though, historical accuracy has never been something that’s prevented me from enjoying a movie as long as it has something true or interesting to say, which is the idea at the heart of the subjective, post-modern biopic. In this case, that truth comes in the form of a darkly funny true-crime satire about how hardline shithead metal nerds are mostly just trust fund kids with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. It zaps all the supposed Cool out of the church-burnings, murders, and animal cruelty of black metal lore to expose them as the edgelord posturing that they were. And as lightly as it treads on Euronymous’s own faults and the seriousness of the movement’s Nazism that Burzum helped foster, it’s very clear in condemning them for escalating that edgelord behavior by preaching hateful rhetoric for the sake of “fun” & self-promotion.

The genius of making a film about Mayhem in the first place, of course, is that the band’s “break-up” story involves a spectacularly violent murder that made worldwide headlines. On its surface, the film is a tragic true-crime dramedy about a Norwegian teen’s ascent from the suburbs to self-made heavy metal legend. In that regard, Lords of Chaos reads as a toothless, formulaic, immorally misguided canonization of an over-glorified troll – which is how most pro critics have assessed its merits. For me, Mayhem’s story itself is only a convenient, sensational platform the film exploits to stage its true intent: broad, brutally unforgiving satire of gatekeeping edgelord teens in the black metal scene & beyond. There isn’t much difference between the “dark, evil” trolls of this film and the brand-building influencers of Instagram today, especially considering how many of the online contingent’s stories end at horrific meltdowns like Fyre Fest, Japanese suicide forests, racist-slur controversies, and criminal indictments for fraud. They spout hateful, destructive rhetoric for the press it gets them as shock value peddlers to boost record sales, then are horrified to discover that their most dedicated fans actually take their word as unholy gospel. Satanism, Nazism, and advocation for murder are less their personal philosophy than they are an opportunity for angsty teens to piss off their loving, supportive parents. The black metal musicians of Lords of Chaos aren’t selling a new pop music subgenre so much as they’re selling a lifestyle brand. Their quest to define the difference between “true metalheads” & “posers” becomes increasingly, darkly hilarious as they’re all literally posing for pictures & press. The only zealot who takes the philosophy seriously (Burzum) ends up being the trigger for their tragic downfall, so they’re effectively destroyed by their own edgelord posturing & verbal bullshit. Lords of Chaos does for the 1990s black metal edgelord what the Tim Heidecker picture The Comedy did for the 2010s Brooklyn hipster: costuming itself as a fan & a participant only to tear the entire enterprise down from the inside.

It’s impossible to tell whether the affectation is sincere or satirical, but one of the more amusing impulses Lords of Chaos pursues is in disguising itself as the kind of hyperviolent horror media its subjects would watch for entertainment. Their headbanging parties are shot with the fish-eye lenses & low-fi camcorder immediacy of 90s skateboarding videos & MTV footage. The pummeling blastbeats of their performances are illustrated with quick-edit montages that flash jump-scare horror imagery like a strobelit haunted house. In their spare time, the fascist trolls of Lords of Chaos watch gory splatter comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which the film itself matches in the intense practical gore of its own murder scenes. However, unlike in a Dead Alive, the real-life murders are not at all cartoonish or fun to watch. The camera uncomfortably lingers on the brutal displays, recounting each ugly stab & slice in grotesque misery. Similarly, the heavy metal party footage is comically undercut by the godawful sex, cheery suburban homelives, and image-conscious corpse paint posing that define these cruel nerds’ day-to-day, pathetic personae. Even the supposed badassery of their penchant for burning churches is soured by the churches in question being centuries-old structures of fine art majesty, not just provincial boxes with a steeple attached. Aesthetically speaking, Lords of Chaos matches the philosophical con-artistry of its subjects; it’s dressed up like “terror incarnate,” but just below that surface is something miserably, pathetically uncool. Whether that was the film’s intent is irrelevant at this point, but my personal reading of it as a satire leans to that bait & switch as being purposeful & weaponized.

As much as I appreciated Lords of Chaos as a post-truth biopic & an edgelord satire, I’m not at all shocked to see that most pro reviews of the film have been tepid at best. Spending two hours with these miserable, hateful shitheads is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, even though they are consistently the butt of a righteous joke. Whether or not Åkerlund could’ve been tougher on specific characters who were even worse shitheads in real life, I greatly enjoyed watching him give all gatekeeping black metal edgelords everywhere a collective noogie. It’s the exact fate these lowly nerds deserve.

-Brandon Ledet

White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017)

I’m gradually warming up to the idea that the biopic as a genre is being reinvigorated by recent formal experiments. Besides stray outliers like Ed Wood & Kinsey, I’ve never especially cared about the traditional biopic as a storytelling medium, but there have been a few recent releases that have shaken up my prejudice against the genre’s tendency for birth-to-death, Wikipedia-synopsis biography. Last year’s woefully overlooked Tom of Finland was a lyrical, playful experiment in time & tone. The oil painting-animated Loving Vincent adapted the genre to an entirely new visual medium. Straight Outta Compton was a glorious indulgence in highly stylized spectacle. Love & Mercy recalled the experimental casting of past biopic works like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. It’s unclear exactly where the recent French production Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge falls within this trend. Covering only the perilous five-year span between the infamous scientist’s two Nobel Prize wins, Marie Curie isn’t exactly the birth-to-death, Wikipedia-in-motion biopic cliché we’ve been trained to expect. However, it does feel line an adaptation of a singular subsection of the historical figure’s Wikipedia page: Scandals.

Opening the film with Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize in 1903 is a convenient way of introducing the audience to the bullet points of her legacy. It’s announced up front that she’s the first woman to ever earn the prize, thanks to her discovery of & experiments with radium in tandem with her lab partner/husband. The earliest crisis in the film is in the ways this sudden fame & attention distract from the couple’s radiation research, which is essentially aimed to cure cancer. Things get much more complicated from there when the husband dies in a freak carriage accident and his absence puts the research project in peril. For the first half of the film, Marie Curie struggles to establish her right to be included & respected in a male-dominated, stubborn scientific community that sees radium research as a fad & her deceased husband as the true genius in the family. The second half of the film is concerned with a different matter entirely: Curie’s evolving love life. After proving herself worthy among her colleagues, she finds her research at risk again because of a love affair she sparks with a married man, a scandal that’s gleefully eaten up by newspaper gossip columns. The movie is unsure which Marie Curie it’s more interested in, the scientific mind or the scandalous sexual being, and feels clearly bifurcated in that uncertainty.

There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as “my beaming radium queen,” his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her “a laboratory rat.” It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so. In a way, that exact unease is the film’s contribution to the evolution of the modern biopic. Its flowing transitions between scenes and occasional stylistic flourishes (like backwards rain) recall the art direction of a music video, but not enough to feel like any kind of unique breakthrough in form. The film is most remarkable in its willingness to avoid a traditional birth-to-death biopic narrative to instead focus on a steamy, scandalous romance that almost derailed its historical subject’s legacy.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional trashy period piece romance and I enjoyed the movie as such. I don’t know how helpful that indulgence is in reshaping the art of the biopic, though. It’s also questionable in its level of professional respect it affords one of history’s most notable female scientists. Maybe, in this case, a more traditional Wikipedia-in-motion biography where the affair were a mere footnote would have been the more tasteful, appropriate route, but the film is still enjoyable all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Tom of Finland (2017)

I can probably count on one hand the number of biopics that have struck me as phenomenal, formally impressive cinema. Stray examples like Ed Wood & Kinsey leap to mind as I attempt to recall biopics I’ve instantly fallen in love with, but for the most part the genre feels like an endless line of passable-but-unremarkable exercises in filmmaking tedium. Tom of Finland has joined the ranks of biopics that have transcended that mediocrity for me. Depicting the adult life of the Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation. The only disappointment I have with Tom of Finland is that most audiences don’t seem to be on its wavelength, dragging my enthusiasm down with bafflingly unenthused reviews.

Part of the reason Tom of Finland is so impressive in its transcendence of biopic tedium is that it entirely forgoes the birth-to-death trajectory of that genre’s traditional narrative structure. Glimpses of the artist as a successful older man, a reluctant young soldier, a closeted adman living with his sister, and a smitten middle age romantic who happens to generate pornography, mix in a cyclical, sublimely lit intersection of vignettes that play like sardonically funny paintings in motion. The domestic softness of Laaksonen’s home life mix with the transgressive, leather-clad brutes of masculine sexuality that define his pornographic artwork and invade his daydreams as horny, in-the-flesh hallucinations. War-related PTSD becomes inextricable from the erotic, as he fetishizes a handsome soldier he killed in battle as a young man. Orchestral sweeps find divine beauty in the danger of cruising men in public & producing illegal, sexually charged art. Tom of Finland jumps time & skims consequences, trusting its audience to follow along without being held by the hand. It’s a delicately sweet portrait of an artist that’s often interrupted by queer disco reveries & seas of hairy men posing in the leather getups that turned Laaksonen on so much that his depictions of them inspired an entire spectrum of sexual fetish. If arranged in a linear order or stripped of its playfully hallucinatory erotic fantasies, Tom of Finland could easily be the middling biopic its critical consensus reports it to be. Instead, it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike drift through the life of an artist with one of the mostly highly dedicated, specialized cult audiences imaginable.

I might understand the complaint that Tom of Finland isn’t brutish or sexy enough to fully convey the transgressive spirit of its subject’s work if it at all seemed like Laaksonen was as wildly over the top as his drawings. The tension between his mild-mannered demeanor and the over-sexed aggression of his art is one of the film’s more rewarding charms. He’s far from a sexless character, shamelessly flirting with men and discussing his work in blatantly honest terms like, “My cock is the boss. If I have a hard-on I know it’s good.” Like most people, though, Laaksonen is portrayed to be not nearly as wild as his sexual fantasies might suggest, which makes it all the more amusing when he’s delighted/dazed to see his work come to life in the “heavy leather” queer kink communities they inspired in New York City & San Francisco. The sudden deluge of this dedicated fandom hits the audience with the same jolt of surprise, its accompanying disco soundtrack feeling just as surreally out of place as the imagined sexual fantasies that intrude on the physical spaces of his daydreams. The contrast between this playfulness and the high art cinematography & production design make for one of the more exquisite biopic experiences I can ever remember having in my lifetime. Normally, I’d worry if the fact that I saw this at a New Orleans Film Fest screening made me more enthusiastic because of the excitement of the environment, but a faulty stop & start projection and a fussy late night audience was actually more of a distraction than an enhancement. Given the less than ideal screening where I watched this beautiful film, it’s a miracle I enjoyed at all, much less instantly fell in love. Now I just need to figure out exactly why so few people seem to be on the same wavelength.

-Brandon Ledet

Loving Vincent (2017)

It’s near impossible to discuss the animated biopic Loving Vincent without focusing on the stunning visual achievement of its form. In a painstakingly meticulous animation process, the film combines rotoscoping technology with hand-painted, Impressionist oil paintings to provide a real, tangible texture to its morbid exploration of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh. The movie wants you to pay special attention to that process, opening with a title card that reads “The film you are about to see has been hand-painted by over 100 artists.” Between those painters, the two credited directors, the rotoscoped cast of in-the-flesh actors, and the film’s crowdfunding backers, Loving Vincent is a massive collaboration that finds entirely new avenues of expression in its visual form. As impressive as that visual achievement can be, however, it’s a shame that the film’s narrative is so creatively restricted. If the exact same script were presented as a live action production, this by-the-books biopic of the final days of a troubled artist would be more befitting of a BBC miniseries than an arthouse film, which points to there not being much substance here beyond the surface of its visual form.

In 1891, one year after Van Gogh’s death, a family friend is tasked to deliver a fundamentally undeliverable, posthumous letter to the artist’s brother. This mission of honoring a dead man’s request evolves into a kind of historical revisionism murder investigation that calls into question whether Van Gogh actually killed himself or if he was shot by a second party. Our makeshift sleuth (actually just a dutiful son of a postman) goes on a Magic Schoolbus-style tour of the various sets & characters that filled the frames of Van Gogh’s most infamous works. Just as the animation style approximates the Impressionism of Van Gogh’s brush, a series of black & white flashbacks emerge from these interviews to provide fractured sketches of who he was as a person (not unlike the structure of Citizen Kane). In a typifying line, one interviewee asks, “You want to know so much about his death, but that do you know of his life?” in-between the sweeping orchestral flashbacks that eat up half the runtime. The film is a re-examination of Van Gogh’s life & art both in its story & its form, but ultimately doesn’t have much to say except that he was a deeply depressed man who made beautiful paintings, something we all already knew.

Like Russian Ark, Loving Vincent is a stunning visual achievement that will prove useful as a classroom tool that actually holds students’ attention. Unlike Russian Ark, it could have used more imagination & lyricism in its content to match the intensity of its form. There’s a mind-blowing animated work to be made out of this oil painting rotoscoping process now that the idea’s out there, but much like how The Jazz Singer was never going to be the all-time greatest example of the talkies, Loving Vincent isn’t representative of the extremes where that technique could be pushed. The texture of the canvas surfaces & malleability of reality (especially in the way movement leaves a barely-perceptible trail) are promising of a strong future for this aesthetic, but Loving Vincent is a little too muted as a biopic to experiment with its full possibilities. There are obvious limitations to this visual style: the bizarre intrusion of recognizable faces like Chris O’Dowd & Saoirse Ronan, the internet cheesiness of seeing a Starry Night dorm room poster come to life, the eye’s search for details in texture while essentially running through an art gallery at full speed, etc. Mostly, though, Loving Vincent is an admirably ambitious proof-of-concept visual project that opens the door to a new mode of artistic expression: a brand new, but paradoxically traditionalist tool in the animator’s arsenal. Its worth is entirely tied to the audacity of its form.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Mass (2015)

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threehalfstar

What the hell has Johnny Depp been doing for the last decade? It used to be that every new Depp performance was worth getting excited about, but the last time I can remember being impressed with him was as the notorious reprobate John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in 2004’s The Libertine. Everything since feels like a formless blur of pirates, Tontos, and CGI chameleons. No matter. Depp has returned to his past life as a solid, exciting actor in another formally middling biopic packed to the gills with great performances, Black Mass. With his receding hairline, hideous teeth, ever-present aviators & pinky rings, and eyes so grey-blue they almost make him look blind, Depp plays the infamous South Boston crimelord Whitey Bulger like a strange cross between Hunter S. Thompson & Nosferatu. It’s a measured, but menacing performance that proves Depp still has it in him to terrify & captivate, completely transforming beyond recognition & losing himself in his best role of the past decade.

The worst accusation that can be thrown at Black Mass is that it’s a little formally & narratively overfamiliar. The film doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the 70s-era organized crime drama format, calling to mind works from names like Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Martin Scorsese in nearly every scene. In fact, because of the thick Boston accents inherent to Whitey Bulger & The Winter Hill Gang it’s easy to pinpoint a specific point of reference in Scorsese’s oeuvre that Black Mass can be accused of being a little too reminiscent of: The Departed. Just know that if you’re looking forward to this film as a fan of that genre there’s not going to be long stretches of brutal violence & gunfire that usually accompany organized crime films. Black Mass has its moments of brutality, sure, limited mostly to bursts of fist to face sadism & quick bursts of assassination, but for the most part it’s a calm story of political intrigue. The movie is almost entirely focused on the real-life Bulger’s secretive “alliance” with the FBI that allowed the two agencies to work together to eradicate the Italian mafia from Boston, making room for Bulger to bloom from a small time crime boss into an all-powerful kingpin. Black Mass is concerned with the audio surveillance tapes, buried/forged paperwork, and back alley dealings with the federal government that allowed for Bulger’s rise to power much more than it is with his murderous deeds, which amount to exactly one onscreen shooting & two strangling on Depp’s bloody hands. Bulger is terrifying, but the threat he poses is more systemic than it is physical, making for a film that may have defied the more bloodthirsty expectations of its audience. I noticed quite a few viewers at our screening checking their cellphones in the second & third acts . . .

Any muted expectations I had for Black Mass based on its 70s-era crime drama familiarity (an aesthetic that somehow hilariously continues well into the 90s in the film’s timeline) were surpassed merely on the merit of its performances. Besides Depp’s horrifying, career-revitalizing turn as Whitey Bulger, there’s also great, unexpected screen presence from Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, and, my personal favorite, Julianne Nichlson (who was fantastic in both Boardwalk Empire & Masters of Sex and whom I only want the best things for). This is an actor’s movie. The 70s crime pastiche is merely a backdrop for the absurdly talented cast’s parade of heavy Boston accents & emotional turmoil. The screenplay offers very little in terms of surprise. Of course Bulger is the kind of gangster that is gentle & neighborly with old ladies, but will have a man killed for threatening to punch him in a bar. Of course, despite his official status as a “top echelon informant”, he’s prone to saying things like, “I don’t consider this ratting or informing. This is business.” Of course, because this is a gangster movie, the script is a long procession of a million “fuck”s, one with just a few homophobic & anti-Italian slurs thrown in there for good measure. I consistently got the feeling that we’ve all seen this play out countless times before, but I still enjoyed it a great deal. Just as a particularly corrupt FBI agent justifies his involvement with Bulger as “a little white lie to protect the bigger truth”, Black Mass is a little, unassuming movie worthwhile for how it supports such a massive list of excellent performances, Depp’s return to form, believe it or not, being just one drop in the bucket.

-Brandon Ledet

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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fourhalfstar

I was at first a little overwhelmed by the idea of a N.W.A biopic stretching out for a 147min runtime, but as I was watching Straight Outta Compton in the theater its length gradually began to make total sense. It’s an incredibly thorough biopic, digging not only into the cultural & political climate surrounding the group’s origins, but also the aftermath of their falling out & disbanding. Even at 2.5 hours, not everything was covered & large swaths of historical accuracy were tossed aside in favor of a tight narrative & an indulgence in a killer 90’s aural & temporal vibe. Straight Outta Compton is not a particularly great example of a historical document, but damn if it didn’t achieve an incredible Cinematic Aesthetic in every scene, somehow managing to squeeze out a great biopic with exactly zero deviations from the format (unlike more experimental films like Love & Mercy). The cinematography, provided by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, confidently supported the film’s surface pleasures (including an onslaught of still-great songs & pandering nostalgia) to the point where any & all faults were essentially irrelevant. When a sample wraps up the music video portion of the end credits by proclaiming “Damn, that shit was dope!” (the very same sample that concludes the song the film’s named after) it was difficult to disagree.

Because stories ultimately belong to those still around to tell them, the film’s narrative is undoubtedly bent towards the stories of Ice Cube & Dr. Dre, who are both credited as producers here. In a lot of ways they use the film as a sort of redemption piece, reshaping their personal history to include a reconciliation with departed group member Eazy-E, who lost his life to HIV-related health complications at a young age. The real-life tale as long as I’ve known it has been that the group never truly resolved their very public feuds (a deeply ugly mess of shoddy contracts, legal disputes, and diss tracks) while Eazy was still alive. The movie version cleans that mess up in an unbelievably tidy way perhaps more fit for the likes of a made-for-TV TLC biopic, but that tendency towards a clear A-B narrative feels entirely intentional. There’s a scene late in the film where Cube confronts Eazy for calling out his acting debut Boyz n the Hood for being “an afterschool special” & Eazy responds “I like afterschool specials.” The simple, clean redemption story Straight Outta Compton tells doesn’t feel at all far from that sentiment.

So according to this romanticized, cleaned-up folklore, Dre was the group’s seminal producer, Cube was responsible for its best writing, and Eazy held down the majority of the raw talent, street cred, and business acumen. Folks like MC Ren, DJ Yella, and The D.O.C. are not only sidelined, but sometimes they’re even downplayed as lesser talents to make the film’s holy gangsta rap trinity shine all the brighter. Yella, for instance, shoulders most of the blame for Dre’s involvement in the Prince-influenced, sexually ambiguous funk days of the Worldclass Wreckin’ Cru & other club gigs that required him to wear sequins & play mindless party records. Ren gets the real short end of the stick here, though, verbally thrown under the bus as an inferior lyricist that couldn’t hold down the crew after Ice Cube’s departure. As a fan of the group’s entire output (and Ren’s solo records for that matter), these claims sting a little, but just as the fudging of the Eazy redemption story makes for a clearer narrative, dissing Ren in the script does actually make sense story-wise (even if it’s a shame that he only raps a total of three verses in the entire film to make more room for Cube, Dre, and Eazy).

If the film didn’t capture the entirety of the group members individual nuances, it at least got the imagery down. Actors Corey Hawkins & O’Shea Jackson, Jr. look & sound incredibly similar to the roles they’re playing (Dre & Cube, respectively), with Jackson having the distinct advantage (and possible awkwardness) of portraying his own father. New Orleans native Jason Mitchell pulls the hat trick of not only looking & sounding like Eazy-E, but also outshining his fellow cast members as a damn good actor, bringing to life what turns out to be one of the group’s more interesting & complicated characters. R. Marcos Taylor & speaking of Love & Mercy, Paul Giamatti (playing infamous record industry tyrants Suge Knight & Jerry Heller) aren’t nearly as visually accurate in their roles as the film’s villains, but they do provide an all-too-believable menace to their scenes that allow them to get by more as archetypes than carbon copies. The only actor who looks jarringly out of place here is a brief appearance by an absurdly inaccurate Snoop Dogg, but that’s more than made up by the likeness of the rest of the cast, an appearance from a Tupac lookalike so accurate he could’ve been a hologram, and clips of the “Straight Outta Compton” music video shown at the end credits to remind you just how detailed the film’s attention to visual preciseness was.

Visual & historical accuracy aside, director F. Gary Gray should get a lot of credit here for creating a wildly entertaining biopic with exactly zero deviations from the genre’s format. This is a movie that somehow makes room to capture our current cultural 90s fetishization, ludicrously timely reflections on race-based police brutality that are sadly just as potent now as they were in the days of Rodney King, and an extended gag that calls back to the infamous “Bye, Felicia” line in Gray’s debut film (and original collaboration with Ice Cube) Friday. Instead of calling into question N.W.A’s more unsavory attributes, namely their misogyny & homophobia, Gray just lets them play themselves out. Misogyny is on display in hedonistic, music video style pool & hotel parties where women are treated like party favors (sometimes literally tossed around like objects) & homophobic rants are allowed to be voiced in Ice Cube’s infamous diss tracks & Eazy’s reaction to his HIV diagnosis. Straight Outta Compton makes no moral judgements about its subjects, but rather just more or less portrays them as they were.

There’s some glorification inherent to the biopic format here & a lot of ground was breezily glossed over (including contributions from names like Vanilla Ice, Bone Thugs, Above the Law, and J.J. Fad), but it’s unwise to nitpick too many of Gray’s decisions here, since the final product is so enjoyable & packed-to-the-gills as is. It’s not only successful as an aurally & visually beautiful slice of N.W.A fan service, but it’s also a great primer for younger folks who mostly know Ice Cube as an actor & Dre as Eminem’s buddy who peddles expensive headphones. Even as a longtime fan, I learned a thing or two along the way (most excitingly that Eazy-E once dined with President George H. W. Bush). Gray competently captures the social & political climates that gave birth to his infamous subject as well as the context of their dissolution’s aftermath (even if he intentionally fuzzes up the details in-between), but the story he tells in Straight Outta Compton is mostly remarkable in how fun & rewatchable it is without at all straying from its biopic format. He used an already well-established narrative structure as a bottle to capture the lighting that was what the made the group so special & their songs so endlessly listenable to this day. That’s no small feat & the final product ended up being one of my favorite trips to the theater all year.

-Brandon Ledet

The CrazySexyCool World of TLC Cinema

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I was recently presented with a question that I never expected to be asked: “Would you be interested in free tickets to see New Kids on the Block, TLC, and Nelly in concert?” As far as surprise concert tickets go, this event felt particularly odd because I couldn’t piece together exactly why these three acts would be touring together. They’re all coasting on nostalgia at this point, sure, but their heydays were all entrenched in separate decades. Having been an impressionable youth in the 90s, TLC was the most exciting act on the roster for me. If I were born a decade earlier it would’ve been NKOTB; a decade later & it would’ve been Nelly. While TLC didn’t put on the most spectacular show out of the three (that honor belongs to the surreally over-the-top NKOTB performance, another story for another day) they did touch on very emotional pleasure zones of my brain, unlocking a forgotten past of obsessively listening to the album CrazySexyCool for the majority of 1995 & beyond.

The strangest thing of all about TLC’s appearance on the concert bill and, naturally, their set itself was the absence of their deceased member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Far from a dutiful background singer, Left Eye was one of the group’s strongest voices, a hip-hop vocalist that dominated their earliest effort Ooooooohhh…On The TLC Tip and helped distinguish their later records from more one-dimensional R&B fare. Left Eye’s death raised some questions about how TLC would continue to tour in her wake. Would they replace Lopes with another rapper to mime her contributions, karaoke style? Would they just skip her verses entirely? The answer happened to be neither option. Instead of altering Left Eye’s contributions, the group simply played her verses through the sound system, with her words & image displayed on a screen above the stage. It was the most tasteful option possible, for sure, and one I’m glad that they ultimately pursued.

In the days before the concert, I decided to get myself psyched up by watching the few TLC movies available for the world. It turns out that all three pieces of TLC media I uncovered were produced by VH1. In tone, they ranged from lovingly sentimental to grotesquely exploitative, each one’s good will surviving on their treatment of Left Eye’s life & death. In their three TLC movies, VH1 alternates between abusive & loving, not sure how to reconcile its own feelings on the group. I had a similarly complicated relationship with the details of their legacy, both wanting to know the grisly details of Left Eye’s untimely demise and wishing that she’d just respectively be allowed to be remembered for  how she lived, as TLC’s surviving members T-Boz & Chilli allow her to be in concert.

CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (2013)
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The most recent entry of TLC Cinema also happens to be the best & most comprehensive. A made-for-TV (VH1’s still on TV, right?) biopic about the group, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story is about as trite & by-the-books as a TLC movie could possibly be. Assuming you have a tolerance for made-for-TV biopics, CrazySexyCool (much like the album of the same name does for their music) defines the heights of where TLC cinema can go as a genre. Posed as a rags-to-riches story that follows the three budding starlets from humble Atlanta beginnings to international stardom, the film relies on constant narration from actresses portraying all three group members, offering the story as not the Official Truth, but with the framing “Here’s what I remember . . .”

The movie is heavily concerned with establishing the respective personalities of each group member. For short-hand: Left Eye is crazy, Chilli is sexy, and T-Boz is cool. In the film, T-Boz is posed as the group’s most aggressive member, standing up to the men in her musical scene & fretting over being reduced to being in a “girl group.” Chilli is locked in an extended, tumultuous affair with a record producer. Left Eye is a free spirit who begins her career rapping on sidewalks for tips, muses about how when she was a little girl all she wanted to do was to “be in the jungle with animals and just be free,” and dreams about taking the group’s aesthetic into the futuristic territory they eventually sought on the album FainMail (as epitomized in the music video for “Scrubs”). Although the real-life Left Eye was not around to tell her third of the story, the film is smart to portray her as a real person instead of an angel. It doesn’t glaze over petty conflicts she had with the group or the more infamous instances of her romantic conflicts (including the one where she accidentally burned down a mansion).

Although CrazySexyCool hits every possible biopic cliché within reach, including the classic hearing-your-song-on-the-radio-for-first-time freakout, it still manages to find ways to feel cool in its own authentic way.  The 90s fashions on display here are pure gold, especially in an early scene set at an Atlanta roller rink. There’s also a thorough breakdown of how a pop group can sell millions of records and still be in debt, a sequence involving a veritable girl gang breaking into a record label’s office to take back what’s theirs, and an aggressive feminist bent in statements like “Safe sex: that’s our message, okay? We’re girls that stand up for ourselves.” It’s not all hunky-dory, though. A particularly regressive scene that depicts an abortion as The Worst Thing That’s Ever Happened was a nice reminder of why films like Obvious Child are still refreshing & necessary. Despite its strict adherence to genre & brief foray into pro-life politics, however, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story was a surprisingly enjoyable watch, a must-see for fans of the pop group. Its seamless inclusion of real-life music video & crowd footage, tasteful depiction of Left Eye’s death & aftermath, and overly sentimental statements like “Every single one of our songs came from the heart. The love we had & the loss we went through: those songs told our stories. For real,” all ended up winning me over, despite genre-specific reservations.

Behind The Music: “TLC” (1999)
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While the documentary series Behind The Music isn’t typically known for good taste, it’s still surprising that the same television network that produced such a loving portrait of TLC with the CrazySexyCool biopic was once so mean & exploitative about their career’s pitfalls. The Behind The Music episode hits a lot of the same Wikipedia bullet points as the biopic, as to be expected, but without any of the film’s tenderness. The 1999 special aired around the financial success of FanMail & looked back at the group’s bankruptcy, label disputes, and mansion burning as points of interest. A later, “remastered” version of the episode was released to update their story with Left Eye’s passing. The original 1999 airing is highly recommended, as it not only features more in-depth interviews with the group’s estranged manager Pebbles (who was publicly spanked in the biopic), but also just shamelessly rips into Left Eye’s mansion incident with phrases like “sickness, arson, and bankruptcy”, “TLC was almost reduced to ash when one of their own exploded in a fit of rage. The blaze turned up the heat on TLC’s red hot career,” and, I swear to God, “TLC burned up the charts and Lisa Lopes burned down the house.”

There’s some new information to be found in the Behind The Music episode that wasn’t covered in the biopic, like a second teddy bear fire that caused a lot less damage & some really cute baby photos, but for the most part CrazySexyCool makes the whole affair feel redundant. Left Eye’s math lesson about how a successful group can owe their record label money, an anecdote about how a rainbow inspired the rap verse in “Waterfalls”, and remembrances of eating “watermelon & popcorn for dinner” as a maker for childhood poverty were all later included in the biopic in much more satisfying ways. The most interesting thing here is just how trashy VH1 can get, despite their later affectionate portrait of the group (and their reality show Totally T-Boz).


The Last Days of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (2007)
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If Behind the Music was an experimental dip into trashy territory, The Last Days of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes just gives up and gobbles the trash with wanton abandon. Part of the VH1 rockDocs series, the exploitative documentary aims to finish a project Left Eye began while still alive by capping it off with grisly images of the scene of her death. As suggested in the CrazySexyCool biopic, Left Eye had a desire when she grew up to be “In the jungle, naked, with friends with animals.” In her Last Days documentary, she documents herself achieving this dream in the jungles of Honduras. Left Eye films herself during her final 26 days of life. She obsessively documents her final trip to Honduras, vowing “I’ll never shut my camera off. The camera will follow me into my dreams.” Because she was so interested in preserving that time of her life on film, it’s difficult to say whether or not VH1 was morally wrong for releasing the film onto the world. There’s an undeniably grotesque feeling to the whole production, though, which is not helped at all by the way the film was completed after her death.

It’s difficult even to say if Left Eye was in the right state of mind to even authorize the release of such footage. The camera acts as a form of therapy, if anything, and the whole affair feels like a private diary of someone losing grip of their mind.  Left Eye found her way to Honduras via Dr. Sebi, a natural healing guru who introduced her to numerology & homeopathic medicine. On this final trip she brought along a girl group she was managing called Egypt, intending to introduce them to Sebi’s spiritual way of life. As she opines, “You’re not just a physical being, okay? You are an entity with an energy source that is responsible for your physical well-being,” and “Day 15, 1 +5 = 6, 6 = love, 6= jealousy, 6 = sexual tyranny” it’s difficult to believe she was recording this trip out of sound mind. There’s just too many personal revelations, like her comparisons of her own mother to Mommie Dearest, her admission that she liked the strictness of rehab because it reminded her of her father, and the rehashing of her experiments with suicidal cutting for the movie to be read as anything but utterly tasteless, something that should’ve remained private.

Outside of some talent show footage of her rapping & dancing as a young teen, a mention of a group called 2nd Nature that she was in before TLC, and the assertion that she was the TLC member that called out the record label for their thievery, there isn’t much new here that feels like we should be privy to. A lot of The Last Days helps sketch out a detailed portrait of who Left Eye was as a person, especially in casual moments where she’s simply drawing or sowing while talking about her past, but it’s not necessarily our business as an audience to be exposed to that side of her. By the time the film is reveling in the actual footage of the car accident that ended her life & photographs of the resulting wreckage, the entire existence of the film feels wrong, spiritually bankrupt. It’s an interesting film, but not in a way that ever justifies its own exploitative existence. I left the film with some engaging questions about how Left Eye’s obsessive return to nature relates to the futuristic aesthetic she reached for with FanMail (as well as her solo album Supernova), but those were ideas that were also touched on in the biopic. And the biopic has the distinct advantage of not exploiting her death to appeal to viewers’ morbid curiosity.

By the time I saw TLC live they had smartly decided not to replace Left Eye or erase her presence. They weren’t always that considerate. A mere three years after their collaborator’s death, T-Boz & Chilli launched a reality show on the now-defunct UPN network called R U the Girl? in an effort to replace their missing member. It took time & wisdom to learn how to continue the group in her absence in a respectful, non-exploitative way. It turns out that this was a struggle that VH1 had to live through as well. By the time they produced the CrazySexyCool biopic, the network had released more or less the perfect TLC movie. Everything else that came before it was on highly questionable moral ground.

-Brandon Ledet

Small Sacrifices (1989)

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three star

In 80s cinema, Farrah Fawcett was best known for her performances as revenge-hungry victims in films such as The Burning Bed and Extremities. However, in the made-for-TV biopic, Small Sacrifices, Fawcett transforms from a victim to a straight-up killer by taking on the role of the infamous Diane Downs. In the early 80s, Downs made headlines after being accused of shooting her 3 children in the backseat of her car. A few years after the incident in 1988, true crime writer Anne Rule published Small Sacrifices, which (obviously) the movie was heavily based on. The film has definitely made its share of appearances on the Lifetime channel throughout the years, so it’s easy for it to blend in with all the other made-for-TV dramas. The only thing that really sets it apart from the rest is Fawcett’s phenomenal performance. She’s really good a playing a bad mom. As horrible as that may sound, I mean it in the best way possible.

With her fluffy blonde hair, cute Southern accent, and all-American smile, Fawcett perfected the innocent image of Downs. How could this sweet single mother of 3 kill her children? Well, she was disturbingly obsessed with a married man (and fellow postal worker) Lew Lewiston, and during one of their rendezvous, he mentioned to her that he was not interested in having children. Interestingly, Ryan O’Neal played the role of Lew, and at the time, he and Fawcett were in an iconic relationship. Lew ended his relationship with Downs to go back to his wife, but Downs wasn’t having it. She completely lost her mind and took her children on a late night car ride, and while Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” was blaring in the background, she shot them all. Of course, she created an elaborate story about being attacked by a stranger that was hanging out on the deserted road, but she really sucked at keeping her story straight. Little by little, she transformed from being a grieving mother to a terrifying psychopath. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to portray someone so mentally unstable, but Fawcett nailed it. She was so good that I had a difficult time separating her from her character, and that’s not something I come across very often.

Lifetime junkies, true crime lovers, and everyone in between, Small Sacrifices is an absolute must-see. The movie is about 3 hours long, so be prepared to spend a good bit of time with this one.

-Britnee Lombas