Tag Archives: biopic

I, Tonya (2017)

I was skeptical about watching Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya mainly because I’m not overly fond of the mockmentary style, but after watching this marvelous, darkly comic  film, I realise that it couldn’t have been made any other way. In case readers don’t remember the scandal, Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband, of Olympian and US Champion Ice skater Tonya Harding was convicted of organizing an attack on another Olympian Nancy Kerrigan. After the 1994 Olympics concluded, Tonya Harding pled guilty to hindering the prosecution and was subsequently banned for life from the US Figure Skating Association.

The film begins with the statement that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly” as well as some archival footage. We see Tonya’s bleak childhood in Portland, Oregon, her acid-tongued mother, and the departure of her father. We also see Tonya’s waitress mother LaVona (Allison Janney) taking Tonya to the ice rink to meet coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Diane doesn’t accept pupils as young as Tonya, who according to her mother is a ‘soft 4,’ but LaVona doesn’t take no for an answer and tells her child to get out there and skate.

By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) is in her teens, she’s already a phenomenal talent, and it’s at the ice rink that she meets Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his plump friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Basically, it’s all downhill from there–with conflicting statements about Jeff and Tonya’s relationship and marriage which ended in divorce in 1993.

This is where the story gets weird and versions deviate when it comes to just who knew what. Anyone who watches this highly entertaining film will have their own opinion.

I’ve read criticisms of the brilliantly created and well-acted film with such statements that we are supposed to feel sorry for Tonya Harding, and of course, we all ask ourselves how much Tonya Harding knew. Underneath that big question, for this viewer, the film is about being poor and disadvantaged in America, but it’s also about talent and what we do with it. This is a particularly fraught situation when you are talking about athletic talent in a sport in which you peak in your early 20s.

I loved the scenes with Tonya skating to rock music. Personally, I think it was a shame she stopped that and conformed to the classical routines. This is from the film:

And here’s the real Tonya Harding skating with pure joy to 99 Luftballoons:

Leave a comment

Filed under American

Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov (2013)

There never was a Vasiliy Stalin.”

Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov is a riveting and ultimately compassionate look at the life of Stalin’s troubled son, Vasiliy. This 2013 12-episode biopic, made for Russian television, covers the years of Vasiliy’s childhood, his first marriage to Galina, WWII, his second marriage to the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, Stalin’s death and concludes in the 1960s. With each episode running approximately 55 minutes, this excellent, immersive biopic with a memorable musical score, takes its time detailing the life of Vasiliy, and even at a couple of points takes a few digressions and follows another story thread. At one point, for example, the plot follows Vasiliy’s sister, Svetlana’s romance with a journalist sent to Stalingrad. These digressions do not detract from the main storyline, but instead flesh out the complicated nuances of Soviet life under Stalin.

We see red-headed Vasiliy growing up in a remote home under the care of Sergei Efimov. Vasiliy is a bold, courageous boy who longs to fly, and so as a youth he trains as a pilot and rapidly rises in the Soviet Air Forces. Vasiliy presents many problems for his superiors who quake at the idea of disciplining this exuberant young man, but it’s through Vasiliy’s stellar military career that we see that while being the son of Stalin brings fast tracked rank (he made General in his 20s), Stalin is loathe to place Vasiliy in any danger as he would make a high-profile POW. In one scene, Stalin struggles with the German propaganda generated about POW Yakov, Stalin’s son from his first marriage.

Vasiliy StalinIt’s during the flight training and WWII  scenes that Vasiliy really seems to hit his peak. He’s a great leader of men, and this is defined through a couple of scenes involving fellow pilots. In one scene, a trainee steals Vasiliy’s watch, and while the other pilots want to see the thief punished, Vasiliy’s judgement shows compassion, generosity, and wisdom. In another scene, Vasiliy goes unpunished by his fearful commanders who are terrified to punish the son of Stalin, but Vasiliy insists on joining his peers in lock-up. In yet another WWII scene, we see a dear friend of Vasiliy’s make an enemy of the wrong man and after a petty incident, the friend (Alexey Vertkov) is arbitrarily carted off to the convict brigade where the convicts/pilots fly damaged planes. Vasiliy throws caution aside and challenges authority and yet this is an instance in which his name cannot save his friend. Through this episode we see the chilling randomness of Stalin’s punishments–even of those who make a major contribution to the war effort. Repeatedly, we see Stalin pick up his phone to relay orders to Beria, and Beria (sexual predator and Chief of NKVD) always seems to already have the intel on everyone in the entire country.

The WWII scenes include some fantastic dogfights, and there’s no doubt that Vasiliy Stalin was a Soviet hero, and yet at the same time we see his marriage falling apart and his drinking escalating which hint at the idea that Vasiliy may not fare well in peacetime. In fact as we follow Vasiliy into his 30s, he loses that youthful enthusiasm and instead seems weary and yet still keen to find an active role in post WWII Soviet society. Whoever did the make-up for the film did a great job of aging Vasiliy.

While the film depicts Vasiliy’s three major relationships with women: Galina, the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, and Kapitalina, an athlete, there are generous hints that Vasiliy was a womanizer. At one point his minders cannot find him, and when the question arises regarding whether or not he has a mistress, one minder answers that there are addresses of women all over Moscow. It’s through his relationships with women that Vasily is cruel and at his worst, while he is at his best in his relationships with men.

The film argues that Vasiliy was seen as a threat by both Beria (a very creepy performance) and Khrushchev (portrayed as an indecisive, insecure idiot), and the film explores Vasiliy’s years in prison and ends with him sent into exile. Vasiliy was ultimately his father’s son, and since Khrushchev was busy repudiating Stalin’s rule, his Cult of Personality and secret murders, it was probably inevitable that Vasiliy would be silenced.

Vasiliy and Svetlana were the product of Stalin’s second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva. While official sources state that Nadezhada died of peritonitis, she was reportedly found dead of a gunshot wound following a public fight with Stalin. The film shows a brief flashback moment seen through Vasiliy’s memory with the gun laying on the ground next to Nadezhda’s left hand, and we may draw our own conclusions regarding the controversy of Nadezhda’s death. There are a couple of other controversial moments in Vasiliy’s life: an aviation accident is mentioned briefly and then the plane disaster involving the USSR ice hockey team is presented in an entirely different manner than the Wikipedia version of events. Similarly the film hints that Stalin’s death may not have been from natural causes, but this comes only from a doubt expressed by Vasiliy, and again, we are left to speculate about the truth for ourselves.

Vasiliy is ultimately a tragic figure whose connection to Stalin was a double-edged sword. While being Stalin’s son gave untold privilege and status,Vasiliy paid dearly for the connection after his father’s death, and the film makes it quite clear that being the son of Stalin was a role that bore tremendous baggage. In his youth, Vasiliy just had to mention his famous surname in order to reverse consequences, and one of the film’s two great ironies is that in the last decade of his life, Vasiliy Stalin became, to all purposes, an unknown man of no importance. The second great irony underscored by the film is the way Vasiliy leaves his children to be brought up by minders–a repetition of his own tragic history.

Russian actor Gela Meskhi as Vasiliy hammers out a terrific, sensitive performance as a troubled man haunted by his own demons. While the rest of the country was able to move on with the new post Stalin paradigm, Vasiliy could not– as to deny his name and his relationship with his father was too big a price to pay. Highly recommended for fans of Russian cinema. And Russian film fans, keep your eyes open for Gela Meskhi; this is a talent to watch.

Directed by Sergei Shcherbin

Leave a comment

Filed under Russian

Dostoevsky (2010)

“I wanted to write about the world of moral chaos.”

Dostoevsky is a 2010 8 episode mini-series made for Russian television from director Vladimir Khotinenko, and if you’re into Russian film, Russian history or Dostoevsky, then this marvellous DVD is well worth the purchase. The film doesn’t begin with the start of Dostoevsky’s life, but rather it begins as he’s about to be executed for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. This incident was a pivotal event in Dostoevsky’s life–not only did it mark the beginning of his harsh exile in Siberia, but it also marked a turn in his moral outlook which consequently impacted his literary work. Veteran actor Yevgeny Mironov plays Dostoevsky, and I can’t think of another Russian actor who could tackle this fiercely nuanced role so effectively. Interestingly Mironov also played the title role in the 2003 television series version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Each of the episodes begins with Dostoevsky sitting for the famous portrait painted by Petrov, and then from this point, the action segues usually from memory. Here’s some highlights from each episode:

1) Dostoevsky’s mock execution (not quite accurately portrayed) and his exile &  imprisonment in Omsk, Siberia

2) Dostoevsky as a private and later a lieutenant in the Russian Army stationed in Semipalatinsk, Siberia and his love affair with Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva (played by the exquisite Chulpan Khamatova), the consumptive and miserably unhappy wife of an unemployed bureaucrat.

3) Dostoevsky in St Petersburg 1959: his troubled marriage to Maria, his continuing struggles with his literary career, his love for an actress.

4) Continuing disintegration of marriage to Maria , his passionate affair with Apollinaria Suslov (Polyina), closure of the literary magazine he ran with his brother Mikhail, 1863 trip to Wiesbaden, gambling at casino, public reading of Insulted and humiliated.

5) Dostoevsky, driven almost insane by his passion for Polyina,  follows her to Paris. Goes to Baden- Baden–the death of Dostoevsky’s brother, Mikhail–the death of Maria.

6) Heavily burdened by debt, Dostoevsky makes a bet with publisher that he’ll write a novel in one month. This novel is appropriately called The Gambler, and when Dostoevsky makes the bet to complete the novel in a month, he’s yet to write a line of it. Under immense pressure to meet the deadline (if he loses the publisher has all rights to anything  Dostoevsky produces for the next nine years), he seems destined to fail. With this all or nothing scenario, Dostoevsky employs the quiet, self-possessed Anna (Alla Yuganova) as a stenographer.

7) Marriage to Anna. Baden-Baden 1867. Meets and argues with Turgenev. Anna gives birth to first child

8) Dostoevsky’s family life and continued literary success.

The series depicts Dostoevsky as a complex man, an introvert who falls in love easily, and his love affairs seem to satisfy some facet of his personality. His compassion for Maria, for example, long  outlived any emotional attachment, his second marriage gave him some emotional stability, and his affairs drove him to the brink of insanity. Several scenes depict Dostoevsky in society, and these scenes serve to highlight Dostoevsky’s complexities through his conversations with other intellectuals who repeatedly attempt to pigeon-hole his intricate beliefs & his deep-rooted compassion.

The film doesn’t delve into the production of Dostoevsky’s great novels, and that’s a bit disappointing, and instead the plot focuses on Dostoevsky seen through the prism of his relationships, and his struggles with poverty (at one point for example, he and Anna have to pawn clothes in order to send a finished manuscript of The Idiot back to Russia), and there are also a few allusions to some of the deeper references to his life.  We see Anna doggedly working on a stamp collection, and while there’s no background to that hobby, it’s a reference to the discussion Dostoevsky once had with Anna about women. He claimed that women would approach stamp collecting with the thrill of buying a new expensive album, but that the excitement of stamp collecting would wear off shortly after making the expensive purchase. Anna, who later managed Dostoevsky’s life and career with intelligent, quiet and protective passion, bought a cheap album and proceeded to collect stamps for the rest of her life.  The film also hints of the manner in which she dealt with Dostoevsky’s ever-grasping stepson, Pavel. Watching the film and appreciating the monumental struggles this brilliant author suffered serves to create wonder–not only that a man of this intellectual calibre suffered for the want of a few roubles, but that he never gave up the quest to write the novels he left for the world. 

For this viewer, the film has some unforgettable scenes: Dostoevsky chuckling outside of the casino at Baden-Baden. His pockets are packed are full of his winnings and he chuckles like a child constantly patting his pockets. At another point, he’s trying to finish The Gambler within a month and he’s down to the wire and feeling ill. Anna settles him on the couch and he mutters something about being spoiled. She replies that a man cannot be spoiled by love, and we see the wheels churning in Dostoevsky’s mind as he absorbs that comment. The camera is behind Dostoevsky, so we catch a side view, and somehow the camera captures the thought process in Dostoevsky’s brain–simply by focusing on a close up of an eye and an eyebrow–as he reevaluates Anna.  Another incredible scene takes place between a smoothly depicted Turgenev and an impassioned Dostoevsky (involving the spiteful rumours from the former that the latter molested a child). There’s also a great moment between Dostoevsky and his stepson Pavel as he whines about being poor: “Pasha, this is stupid to be ashamed of poverty, You should be ashamed of stupidity.” Finally one of the film’s most explosive scenes in which Mironov is Dostoevsky takes place during a public reading of Pushkin’s The Prophet. Absolutely incredible.

There were a couple of points in the film that were not explained. At one point, for example, Anna, Dostoevsky’s new stenographer and future wife shows up to work one day and Dostoevsky’s eye is damaged. Has he been beaten up or was this a result of an injury sustained during a seizure? We don’t know. The film has a few subtitle problems but nothing you can’t work out for yourself.

There are two recurring motifs throughout the film: one depicts Dostoevsky throwing a dice during a childhood game, and this motif is placed to introduce the seismic shifts in Dostoevsky’s life–often incidents that take place on a whim or by chance, and the second motif is the continual placement of the roulette wheel juxtaposed with Dostoevsky’s hard labour in Siberia and his task to turn a giant wheel with bloodied hands. As the roulette wheel and the giant wheel to which Dostoevsky was chained, day after day, are structured similarly, the motif underscores Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling which enslaved him as surely as his sentence to Siberia.  Ultimately the film, loaded with splendid performances, will give you insights into Dostoevsky’s life and work, and that’s no small achievement. This really is a marvellous bio-pic. Grab it if you find it.

1 Comment

Filed under Russian

Henri of Navarre (2010)

First, thanks to www.allaboutwarmovies.wordpress.com for a blog post about the film Henri of Navarre (Henri IV), and secondly, thanks for holding a contest for a DVD giveaway. I won, received the film, and here I am writing a review of Henri of Navarre. This is a wonderful, engaging, and throughly entertaining biopic with just the right balance of history and intrigue, and for French or historical drama film buffs, Henri of Navarre comes highly recommended.

Since this is a biopic of Henri of Navarre, I don’t think I’m giving away too much to say that the film spans Henri’s entire life–from his birth to his death, the highlights, and with battle scenes included, no areas of that life appeared to be stinted. This is, by the way, a German film from director Jo Baier. The film runs to around 2 1/2 hours.

The film begins in 1561 with scenes of a battlefield replete with broken scattered bodies. Most of these very well constructed battle scenes are tinged with a silvery light as if its characters are already assigned to the annals of history. The film’s initial scenes include enough political overture that even those unfamiliar with the time will grasp the political situation. The French court is dominated by catholics with protestants in the minority. France is ruled by the notorious Catherine de Medici (Hannelore Hoger), the widow of Henry II, and there’s a thorn in her side–the small Huguenot dominated kingdom of Navarre which is ruled by the steely Jeanne (Marta Calvo). Jeanne’s son is Henri de Bourbon (Julien Boisselier) destined, of course, to merge both kingdoms through a marriage of bloody convenience.

Early scenes reveal Henri’s childhood under the tutelage of Admiral Coligny, and as Henri grows the religious wars continue. Catherine de Medici eventually sues for peace through an alliance between Henri of Navarre and her tempestuous daughter, Margot (Armelle Deutsch). For anyone who’s seen the film Queen Margot, you will know that Margot did not go willingly to the marriage bed.

Henri’s arrival in Paris in 1572 heralds the beginning of even more action as we see Henri the diplomatic statesman trying to stay alive long enough to escape. I’ve seen many depictions of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre–an event that left 30,000 Huguenots slaughtered in the streets of Paris, but this depiction surpasses all others. Scenes emphasize chaos mixed with religious fanaticism as catholics slaughter Huguenots and leave the streets piled with bodies and streaming with blood.

The Medicis are depicted as a despotic, maniacal lot–there’s the indomitable, bitter Catherine and her three sons–the weak and cowardly Charles IX (Ulrich Noethen), kinky Henry (Devid Striesow) , and Francis the Duke of Anjou (Adam Markiewicz). In contrast to the sadistic despotism and cruelty of the Medicis, Henri is seen as a rational, intelligent monarch ready to accept a pragmatic approach to religion (“Paris is worth a mass“), and although this won him no friends amongst the catholic fanatics, Henri appears an enlightened monarch next to the medievalism of the Medicis.

For fans of French history, the highly entertaining Henri of Navarre is a must-see spectacle. The costumes are sumptuous, the sets are spectacular, and the action riveting. What more do you want?

(Based on the book by Heinrich Mann)


Filed under German

The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938)

“You’ll have a hard life, but don’t surrender to anyone.”

The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (Detstvo Gorkogo) was released in 1938, Gorky (whose real name was Peshkov), the man on whose life (and books) the film is based died two years earlier. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is the first of a trilogy (the other two titles are My Apprenticeships, & My Universities) all directed by Mark Donskoi and adapted from Gorky’s autobiography. These three films are all from Russico, and apparently all three were available at one time with English subtitles, but so far I’ve only been able to find the other two films in Russian only. 

The film is set in the 19th century and begins with the arrival of Aleksei Peshkov (Aleksei Lyarsky) and his mother by boat to join his mother’s family. Although it’s not expressed, the idea is present that Aleksei and his mother Varvara Peshkova (Yelizaveta Alekseyeva) have returned to her family due to harsh necessity. It seems that Aleksei’s father was not popular with Varvara’s irascible contentious father, Vasili Kashrin (Mikhail Troyanovsky), but Aleksei’s father is now dead. Structurally, the film follows Aleksei’s early life concentrating on the people and incidents that influenced him.

Varvara and her son Aleksei return to a viper’s nest. The problems within the family are glaringly apparent, and most of the squabbles arise over the question of inheritance and how the family dye business will be divvied up among the three children. Aleksei’s two uncles engage in endless battles of recrimination, but they shelve their quarrels for the most part in the presence of their domineering father. The uncles, Mishka and Yashka (Aleksandr  Zhukov & Vasili Novikov) are unpleasant and stupid, and according to the grandfather, when they inherit they “will squander everything on drink.” Given the few scenes involving the uncles, there’s not much reason to argue with the grandfather’s assessment, and in some ways this pathological family situation is very stereotypical. The grandmother (Varvara Massalitinova) is viewed as indulgent, excusing her sons’ behaviour and pestering the grandfather to share the inheritance while he is still alive (reminds me of Zola’s The Earth), and of course, the grandfather reacts by arguing that his wife coddles the sons and has made them into loafers. Basically the family members are at each other’s throats for a battle over the limited resources.

The film shows Aleksei’s relationship with two of his grandfather’s workers: the nearly blind Gregori (K. Zubkov): a good man who’s worked for the grandfather for 37 years. Being in close contact with the dyes has caused Gregori to lose his sight, but there’s no sense of obligation felt by the grandfather towards the man who’s served him for almost four decades. Another huge influence on Aleksei is the Ivan the Gyspy (Daniil Sagal): an employee, a kind, vigorous young man whose zest for life is squashed by Aleksei’s revolting uncles. The grandfather regrets the Gyspy’s death as he would have been “priceless in 5 years.”

A major influence on Aleksei is his wonderful grandmother, an avid storyteller, a woman who loves her home and her family and suffers mistreatment & beatings from her husband. The grandmother is obviously the glue that holds the family together, but when adversity strikes, even she cannot fix the situation, and Aleksei lives with his grandparents, moving and sinking farther and farther into poverty.

Living with his grandparents, but left more to less to his own devices, Aleksei learns to scavenge to earn enough kopecks for food. As their fortunes decline, Aleksei’s grandfather, who is apparently not the most stable of men, vacillates between petty childish tantrums and vicious attacks on his family.

A lodger (S. Tikhonravov) becomes another tremendous shaping influence on Aleksei. Through the lodger, who’s a revolutionary, Aleksei learns that “a man with learning can be anything he likes.”

Various animals appear throughout the film, and clearly they have an important role in Gorky’s life. The film includes moments of whimsy in its depiction of Aleksei running wild in the streets and fields with a band of equally wretched boys (see the DVD cover). But underneath these sentimental touches, there’s the clear message that all these poor people have are their bodies and their ability to labour. There is no social structure to buoy up the blind, the elderly, or the infirm, and those who cannot work must beg for a living or starve. The grandfather recalls how he pulled barges for a living, but in the grandfather’s case, adversity makes him meaner and less likely to share a crust of bread with a passing beggar. The film does not touch on the upper classes but stays firmly with the peasants.

Gorky, a founder of Socialist Realism, is a problematic figure in the history of Russian literature. I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on Gorky’s politics–although it seems impossible to review the film and not mention Gorky’s position in both Tsarist Russia and Stalin’s Soviet Union. At first a supporter of the Revolution, Gorky became disillusioned, as many did, with the outrages of the Bolsheviks. Censored under the Tsar, Gorky found himself censored under the Bolsheviks too. Gorky lived abroad for some years but then returned to the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of Stalin. There are photos of Gorky and Stalin together, and I know I wouldn’t want my mug to go down in history next to Stalin’s.  Gorky was given a mansion and a dacha by Stalin, but by 1934 he was back under house arrest. I’ll admit that one of the reasons I didn’t watch the film earlier is because I connect Gorky with Stalinist propaganda. Gorky knew what was happening in the Soviet Union; he knew that writers, such as Gumilyov were being executed, so Gorky didn’t even have the excuse of ignorance when he returned and effectively endorsed the Stalinist regime. No matter what Gorky’s motives were in returning to Stalinist Russia, his legacy to Russian literature suffered as a result. Many Russian emigre writers suffered in exile and many poets and writers were slaughtered in Stalinist times. My sympathies are with them.

At the same time, to wipe out The Childhood of Maxim Gorky as pure propaganda seems nonsensical. This was Gorky’s childhood, and his childhood mirrored the lives of millions of Russians who depended on their health and their strength to eke out a living. The quantification of humans into the volume of labour they can produce is horrifying (makes me think of factory farming). Watching the film brings to the fore the tremendous waste of human potential under such a system. And of course that brings us back to the idea of revolution….

Leave a comment

Filed under Soviet

Mosley (1998)

“Pardon me for asking, but what do you know about the working class?”

I never thought I’d find myself watching a film about Oswald Mosley–let alone that I’d really, really enjoy it. I recently came across Mosley, a  four-part made-for-British television biopic based on the life of the man who was a member of parliament, formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF), and later was interned during WWII. The film is based on two books written by Mosley’s son, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale. Part One: Young Man in a Hurry covers the years 1918-1920, Part Two: Rules of the Game covers the years 1924-1927. Part Three Breaking the Mold covers the years 1929-1933, and Part Four: Beyond the Pale covers the years 1933-1940.

Mosley very effectively shows the rot within the British upper classes through its depiction of Mosley’s life and political ambitions.  The film begins on Armistice Day when young Lt Mosley is in London watching the celebrations. Mosley (Jonathan Cake in a terrific performance), fresh out of WWI is determined to make a difference and believes that another war should never be fought. As an aristocrat (Mosley was the eldest son of the 5th Baronet of Ancoats), he very quickly finds a spot in British politics. Invited to the best houses and the best parties, he’s introduced to Lloyd George (Windsor Davies) and makes the older, married American Maxine Elliott his mistress. Mosley becomes the youngest member of parliament–not a bad start to a career that ended in infamy.

Mosley makes a beeline for “Cimmie” Lady Cynthia Curzon (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of the wealthy and influential Curzon family, and he’s assisted in his courtship by Cynthia’s stepmother–yet another mistress. In real life both Cimmie’s older and younger sisters became Mosley’s mistresses too, and the film depicts Cimmie as rather naïve and severely out-of-touch with her husband’s true character. But these are all aspects of Mosley’s personal life, and he is established rather quickly as an unpleasant and rather cruel egoist with little or no thought of other people beyond his ability to use them to his advantage.

As for his political life, Mosley had many ideas for England which involved a great deal of change. He’s portrayed as a young “man in a hurry,” in direct opposition to the establishment. At first Mosley is a member of the Conservative Party and is the MP for Harrow. The film depicts his impassioned speeches, “crossing the floor,” and his outrage at the Conservative government’s so-called Irish policy. The film tracks Mosley’s switch to Labour and his supposed interest in socialism and the ‘working classes.’ The use of the word ‘supposed‘ is intentional as the film includes many scenes of Lady Cynthia and Sir Oswald delivering speeches to the working classes. She’s wearing her fur coat and they’re ferried around by chauffeurs. In one scene the couple actually squabble about who is going to get the nicer car when they toddle off to lecture the masses. But while Lady Cynthia seems genuine (if a naïve Champagne Socialist), Mosley is depicted as much more calculating, ready to use women silly enough to fall in love with him and to exploit the working classes silly enough to vote for this wanker. ALL politicians do this sort of thing, of course, but Mosley was much more naked about it.

Mosley is highly entertaining and if it fails, it fails to show what is going on in Mosley’s head at crucial moments. At one point, for example, Mosley has formed the BUF and while his underlings labour to create a financial policy, they seem to go into one direction (heavy leanings towards Communism) with no idea that Mosley is headed towards fascism. We see Mosley’s eyes glinting with delight when he glimpses Mussolini for the first time, and there’s a giant hint that Mosley has gone off the deep end when he shows up in Italy wearing a black shirt. The film depicts Mosley’s political switch occurring largely in his head with those in his inner circle oblivious and rather shocked.

While the film spends a good amount of time on Mosley’s affairs, and his first marriage, a relatively small amount of the film is spent on his affair with Diane Guinness (nee MITFORD) one of those oh-so-famous Mitford sisters who mucked about in the politics of the time.  The film shows Mitford’s (Emma Davies) influence quite well, and before we know it this notorious pair are off to Berlin to be married at the home of Goebbels with Hitler as one of the guests. 

The film also depicts the Battle of Cable Street and one of Mosley’s explosive BUF rallies. Amazing really that he wasn’t locked up until 1940, but that’s one of the bennies of being an aristocrat–you can get away with more shit.  Unfortunately, the film does not explore Mosley’s life after internment, and that’s a shame. Still this was a highly entertaining look at Mosley, and he doesn’t come off well at all. While the film emphasises his personal relationships, the point is made that Mosley was a chameleon–ready to wear whichever political skin got him the votes, and more importantly, THE POWER. There seems to be a traceable line, in Mosley’s case, from aristocrat, adulterer, autocrat and fascist–his way or as the old saying goes–or the highway. Fascism seems to be the natural state for Mosley to devolve to as it bypassed any notion of humanity & equality and simply made it easier for him to pass off his ideas without modification from anyone else.

From director Robert Knights.

Leave a comment

Filed under British, British television

Eight Miles High (2007)

 “This is fucked up. I only meant a metaphorical bomb.”

The interesting but ultimately unsatisfying and superficial biopic Eight Miles High (Das Wilden Life) from director Achim Bornhak covers just a portion of the life of German supermodel Uschi Obermaier–from the mid 60s until 1983. Culturally, these were probably the colorful years, but when the final credits rolled, I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of the story were missing….

eight-miles-highThe film begins when Uschi (Natalia Avelon) leaves home and her big-bosomed Bavarian mother behind and sets out for Berlin, landing in Berlin’s first commune–aptly named Kommune 1. In the ‘free love’ atmosphere, she begins sleeping with Rainer Langhans (Matthias Schweighofer), and the free love notion works well for Rainer until Uschi becomes a groupie and starts sleeping with Mick Jagger (Victor Noren) and Keith Richards (Alexander Scheer). Uschi’s relationship with two members of the Stones begins with a trip to England where she attends a party that could, uncannily belong to the Beggars Banquet album. The camera rightly concentrates on the impressions of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards–studiously avoiding close-ups and facial expressions.

The film depicts Uschi as the major reason for Kommune 1’s disintegration, and since she took ‘free love’ to a level, that apparently her lover Rainer could not tolerate, this might be accurate, and if it’s not true it’s certainly amusing. The residents of Kommune 1 are depicted as a bunch of brawling, immature, egomaniacal twits with Uschi as the only one who has her shit together.

The claim that Uschi was a “radical model” is shown is her ability to grab the cinematic opportunity–especially when she managed to get her photo on the cover of a magazine depicting her in between the police and protesters. Uschi continued to grab headlines worldwide and this continued after her explosive relationship with Hamburg nightclub owner Dieter Bockhorn (David Scheller)–a free spirit of an entirely different sort. Together he and Uschi traveled the world in pursuit of new adventures. These adventures are largely interpreted as Uschi going around naked (or marginally clothed), picking up animals, and daringly toting drugs across borders under the noses of the buffoons in charge.

Ultimately with lines like “what I needed was a man. The wilder the better” we are left with little understanding of what made Uschi tick. True she’s depicted as a woman who refused to allow any man to own her but this comes across in just a couple of scenes in mostly superficial ways. While the film was entertaining enough, this is a largely superficial treatment of Uschi’s life. I’d like to think that there was a lot more going on than just naked romps across the world. In German with subtitles.

Leave a comment

Filed under German

La Vie en Rose (2007)

 “I’m never far from Paris.”

This wrenching biopic of the life of French chanteuse Edith Piaf is 140 minutes long, and it covers Piaf’s awful childhood, her turbulent adolescence and her doomed love affair with love-of-her life boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins). Marion Cotillard plays the adult Edith Piaf, and she’s nothing less than amazing here as she ranges from a streetwise teenager who earns her living singing in the streets to a morphine-addicted chanteuse who struggles to make the next performance. Sylvie Testud stars as Piaf’s half-sister Momone, a girl who’s basically Piaf’s partner in crime until Piaf hits the big time, and then she is absorbed into Piaf’s large circle of caretakers, fans and hanger-ons.

As a child, Piaf was abandoned by her mother, left with her paternal grandmother, and raised in a brothel. In some ways, these are the halcyon years for the sickly child who is raised erratically amongst the prostitutes. Then Piaf’s father returns from WWI and retrieves his child, he rejoins the circus, and of course, little Edith is eventually expected to contribute to the family coffers, and this is where her gift–her marvelous voice–comes into the picture.

Teenaged Edith Piaf is singing on the streets of Paris for a living (and handing her money over to her brutish pimp lover) when she’s spotted by club owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu). While this was a lucky break for Piaf, as fate would have it, it was an unlucky break for Leplee. The film highlights moments in Piaf’s life, going back and forth in time, and this methodology works. Instead of seeing Piaf becoming Piaf (apart from a little stage coaching and a change of last name), instead we see Piaf being Piaf. She seems essentially the same–although her material circumstances do change.

Watching La Vie En Rose puts a whole new meaning to Piaf’s song : Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, for she led a life in which tragedy and triumph went hand in hand. One wonders what Piaf’s life would have been without the gift of that incredible voice. Here she’s portrayed as a not-particularly nice person, but as a woman who possesses an indomitable spirit and who knows what she wants. There’s a tantalizing gray area in the film concerning Piaf’s booze and morphine (up to 10 injections a day) addictions. At what point do her caretakers and manager become facilitators in order to secure the next performance? Directed by Olivier Dahan, in French with subtitles.

Leave a comment

Filed under France, Gerard Depardieu

A Man Like Eva (1984)

“We’re on the edge of a volcano.”

How does a director even begin to approach a project as impossible as making a film about the life of the fascinatingly complex German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder? Fassbinder was an extremely prolific New German Cinema director, and he completed his films at an almost alarming rate before his untimely death in 1982 at age 37. Fassbinder remains an enigma, and his personality cannot be easily dissected and transferred to the screen. He was an intensely brilliant man capable of the most wanton cruelty, and yet full of passionate beliefs. Fassbinder’s personal life was notoriously difficult. He was a tortured soul with rather extreme personal and political beliefs (he knew some members of the Baader-Meinhof group). Of all the things I’ve read about Fassbinder, I don’t think anyone ever claimed he was easy to understand, easy to know or easy to like–although he did inspire great personal loyalty and love from many who knew him.

Director Radu Gabrea attempts to tell the story of Fassbinder in the film A Man Like Eva by sensibly choosing to concentrate on a slice of Fassbinder’s life. In A Man Like Eva Fassbinder (Eva Mattes) is directing Camille. He coldly discards one lover, Ali, and attempts to secure another lover– actor, Walter (Werner Stocker). Walter shrugs off Fassbinder’s advances but seems interested in leading lady, Gudrun (Lisa Kreuzer). Fassbinder precipitously marries Gudrun but is consequently cuckolded by Walter.

One of the reasons Fassbinder was so prolific is that he surrounded himself with an entire crew of people who understood him. This is marvelously re-created in A Man Like Eva. Fassbinder holds court amongst his merry band like some sort of despot. He vacillates between cruelty and self-imposed isolation, and the film succeeds very well in creating Fassbinder’s character, intensity and death-obsessed world.

On the down side, actress Eva Mattes plays Fassbinder. And while she does an incredible job of imitatating Fassbinder’s mannerisms (and the fake beard helps), ultimately this casting does not work. It seems most preposterous during the masked ball scene when Fassbinder dances with Walter. Fassbinder was a bull of a man–domineering, vigourous and loud. When Eva Mattes portrays one of Fassbinder’s frequent tirades, she is shrill and shrewish. Her voice just doesn’t replace Fassbinder’s booming rants. Professional reviewers seemed to find the casting of a woman in a male role as some sort of coup, and while I can’t fault the performance–it’s extraordinary–the female voice cannot continue the deceit.

Also, the film is NOT strictly factual. I have a rather difficult time with the notion of altering facts about Fassbinder’s troubled, fascinating life. The truth is that there were suicides and stabbings etc. galore in real life, so it seems unnecessary to fabricate some aspects of the film’s plot, and it’s a shame that the plot is not closer to the truth. For Fassbinder’s biography, I recommend the book, Fassbinder: the Life and Work of a Provocative Genius by Christian Braad Thomsen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fassbinder, German

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

“Doctors write books about this sort of thing. It’s abnormal.”

As a Bettie Page fan, I was both eager and apprehensive to see the film The Notorious Bettie Page. My main concern was that the actress chosen to play Bettie Page wouldn’t be able to do the part justice. I was wrong on that score–Gretchen Mol makes a splendid Bettie Page. After watching the film, I studied some Bettie Page photos (on my wall) and concluded that Mol’s performance was close enough to be almost perfect. Unfortunately, however, Gretchen Mol’s glowing performance cannot salvage the script from mediocrity.

The film begins with scenes of Bettie’s troubled childhood–hinting at early childhood abuse, and briefly touches on her youthful marriage. Bettie wanted to be an actress, but like many girls, she sidestepped into modeling. In Bettie’s case, however, nude modeling proved to be her forte. She moved on to the remarkable Klaw siblings–Irving (Chris Bauer) and Paula (Lili Taylor) and their mail-order photography business. It was with the Klaws that Bettie made those famous bondage films. Bette’s career came to a crashing halt when the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency crushed Klaw’s lucrative mail-order business, and Klaw closed shop due to constant harassment.

The film’s treatment of the adult naughty photography business of the 50s is well done. For the most part the film is in black and white but switches to colour whenever Bettie escapes from New York and romps in Florida. The major problem with the film is its characterization of Bettie. Here she’s played as innocent and naive to the point of absurdity. The film shows her tripping in those high heels the first time Paula Klaw hands her a pair. To her, the pin-up photos are good clean fun and no big deal. At one point, dressed in trademark undies for a bondage shot, she even justifies her career by stating that Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden.

Now while I don’t buy that Bettie Page was innocent and naive, I also don’t happen to think that Bettie Page was wicked or depraved either. Bettie Page was a complex woman–someone who suffered childhood sexual abuse, had complicated relationships with men, and compartmentalized contrasting elements of her life. She never drank alcohol and even turned down Howard Hughes, and she also posed in some fairly wild bondage shots (they seem mild in comparison to today’s stuff, but for the times, they are wild). There’s one scene with Bettie crawling on her hands and knees, blindfolded, gagged and chained to a long pole which she straddles as she crawls across the floor. Innocent and naive? No. Complicated? Yes. Bettie is portrayed here as unaltered by both her past and her present, and by concentrating on what she did rather than who she was, the script manages to make the bondage goddess dull. Too bad the film didn’t examine her later life (read The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of Pinups by Richard Foster). Basically, for this fan, the film is an unsatisfying fluff piece. From director Mary Harron.

Leave a comment

Filed under uncategorized