‘The Glorias’ Shows Off Some Good and Some Bad Habits of Biopic Filmmaking

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Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Gloria Steinem, and Director Julie Taymor behind the scenes of “The Glorias” (CREDIT: Dan McFadden/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Timothy Hutton, Janelle Monáe, Bella Abzug, Lorraine Toussaint, Enid Graham, Kimberly Guerrero, Monica Sanchez, Margo Moorer

Director: Julie Taymor

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Language and a Nude Image

Release Date: September 30, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

I’m of the mind that biopics – that most staid of movie genres – ought to be a little bit wacky. Or A LOT wacky. And the Julia Taymor-directed The Glorias is undoubtedly wacky. Or maybe, it’s exactly as it should be, and it’s everything else that’s askew. The subject is Gloria Steinem, one of the most famous activists in American history, so I’m sure she can appreciate an approach that breaks the mold. Taymor ditches a strictly chronological approach by having all four of the actors playing Gloria frequently interact with each other. Ryan Kiera Armstrong (young Gloria), Lulu Wilson (teen Gloria), Alicia Vikander (young adult Gloria), and Julianne Moore (older adult Gloria) are all presented as passengers on a ride heading to the promise of Steinem’s life’s work. It’s a journey that’s still ongoing as conversations between the past and present remain passionate and relevant.

Taymor fills The Glorias with occasional flights of fantastical whimsy that reminded me a fair bit of Rocketman, the most exuberant biopic in recent memory. These include a sexist interview that turns into an encounter with all four Glorias as witches, and a moment of frustration leading to Gloria running along a series of seemingly endless M.C. Escher-style roads. These moments are fascinating on their own, but they’re a bit too scattered throughout to really pack as powerful a punch as they possibly could.

The Glorias also has plenty of much more prosaic moments, and that mix of straightforward and roundabout results in a running time that clocks in thickly at nearly two and a half hours. Some of the episodes in the 1970s section, like the founding of Ms. Magazine, were also recently covered more excitingly in the FX on Hulu miniseries Mrs. America. Taymor has bitten off plenty (which is what happens when you try to cover the entire arc of someone who’s lived for nearly 90 years), and she chews as much of it as she can. When she manages to really dig in, it’s a fine fiesta to behold. You just have to deal with the messier edges if you want to find the fun.

The Glorias is Recommended If You Like: Filmmaking that’s plenty ambitious but also a little messy

Grade: 3 out of 5 Marches

‘Antebellum’ is Truly Confounding

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Antebellum (CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

Starring: Janelle Monáe, Jack Huston, Jena Malone, Eric Lange, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Lily Cowles

Directors: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for Tortuous Torture

Release Date: September 18, 2020 (On Demand)

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about certain movies in depth without completely spoiling them, and Antebellum is one of those movies. So just so we’re on the same page right at the top, I’m going to get pretty in depth. But I don’t feel like I’m giving away spoilers, because the main twist of Antebellum (or what could be construed as the twist) feels more like the premise. If the writer/director duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are trying to surprise us, they don’t do a very good job of it. But the way they tip their hand so early, I don’t think they’re trying to play coy. But if that’s indeed the case and they want things to be loud and clear, it raises some questions about why they chose to reveal their information the way that they do.

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Antebellum, I assumed that Janelle Monáe was playing a 21st century woman who finds herself enslaved after becoming inexplicably transported to a pre-Civil War plantation. I didn’t know else to interpret it! The only question was, how did she get there? Was it time travel? An alternate dimension? An illusion? A series of dreams that feel all too real? Whatever the explanation, I thought it made for a potent setup. But alas, Bush and Renz aren’t really interested in reckoning with the terror of this situation. Instead, they just present it as is.

Antebellum opens on the plantation, and it takes about 40 minutes before we see Veronica Henley (Monáe) in her element in the present day with her husband and daughter, doing her thing as a successful author and scholar of vaguely elucidated intersectionality. That’s quite a long time for a prologue that tells us all we need to know in five minutes. There are people on the plantation being held against their will, and we don’t need to see them getting tortured, because we’ve already seen it in plenty of other onscreen slavery narratives. Let’s just get around to finding out how they ended up there and how they’re going to attempt to escape.

And now I’m just to get into all the nitty-gritty, so even bigger SPOILER ALERT if you want it, but this piece of information felt like the only possible explanation as soon as I started watching: Veronica and all the other enslaved people are kidnapping victims, and the plantation is a reenactment of an Antebellum South plantation, complete with slave masters and all kinds of abuse. Somehow the people behind this criminal enterprise have been able to pull it off without ever arousing suspicion from the authorities or the general public. Or maybe suspicions have been aroused! It’s hard to tell, because we never get a significant sense of the context in which this place has been erected. I can buy that there’s still enough racism in the world for there to be an interest in a place this awful, but I can’t buy that it’s practically invisible unless it exists in a fantastical world. Bush and Renz have a kernel of an effective idea here, and they’ve got a bunch of game actors ready to deliver, but they need to pay attention to all those pesky details.

Antebellum is Recommended If You Like: Trying to make sense of the inexplicable

Grade: 2 out of 5 Plantations

Best Musical Artists of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

One more list! One more list!

My Best of the 2010s list-making journey has finally come to a close! (Or has it? … For now, it has at least. The future will come as it may, and it may just surprise you, and me.) All this week, I’ve been posting my rankings of a few categories that I was inspired to put together after submitting them to a Best of the 2010s polls that I’m participating in with some of my fellow cultural aficionados. To wrap it all up, I guide you along to the realm of music and lyrics, as I present the Best Musical Artists of the 2010s.

My criteria was similar to that of my choices for Best Film Directors. I considered a combination of how much I enjoyed their musical output as well as how much – and how well – they influenced the industry at large.

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‘Harriet’ is at Its Best When Emphasizing How Good Harriet Tubman Was at Her Job

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CREDIT: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Zackary Momoh

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Bevy of Insults and a Few Scenes of Brutal Violence

Release Date: November 1, 2019

As I began to watch Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, the thought “Shouldn’t I be watching this in school?” passed through my mind. That is by no means an insult, but rather, it is an illustration of how my own experience (and the experience of many American schoolchildren) has primed me to feel towards a movie like this one. Tubman is an important figure in American history, so a film about her is a useful tool for history teachers to keep their students’ attention. In that sense, Harriet does not need to be a masterpiece (though bonus points if it is), it just needs to be historically accurate, or at least true to the spirit of its subject. On that count, I recommend Harriet to any teacher whose curriculum covers the era of abolition.

For everyone else who is not watching this movie in a classroom setting, you might still be excited because it has taken more than a hundred years for Tubman’s story to finally get the full-blown feature film treatment (though Ruby Dee and Cicely Tyson played her in earlier TV versions). Although, that excitement might be tempered by the difficulty of having to endure yet another movie viscerally showing the brutal treatment of the enslaved (as well as free black Americans). But I think the best way to appreciate Harriet is as a story of a person who does her job very well, i.e., the sort of character that Tom Hanks often plays. Cynthia Erivo proves that a woman and a person of color is just as capable of this role (not that any proof was necessary, given the historical record).

Tubman escapes to freedom on her own, safely travelling about a hundred miles by foot despite her illiteracy and the relentlessness of her slave master. She then goes on to help secure the freedom of hundreds of more slaves while pretty much matter-of-factly never losing any of her cargo, stunning her fellow conductors on the Underground Railroad with her success rate. But as the steady, burrowingly intense eyes on Erivo’s face tell you, this is just what she does. Slavery had to end at some point, and Harriet Tubman was as up for the job as she needed to be.

Harriet is Recommended If You Like: Glory, Sully, Bridge of Spies

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rescue Missions

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Welcome to Marwen’ is an Odd True-Life Story Made Odder by Fitting Into Feel-Good Movie Clichés

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CREDIT: Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger, Neil Jackson

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Bloody Doll-Based Violence, Neo-Nazi Assault Flashbacks, and a Few Unexpected Sexual References

Release Date: December 21, 2018

Welcome to Marwen is a low-key film whose gentleness belies its supreme oddity. At least it comes by its unusual nature honestly. It’s based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, about the artist Mark Hogancamp, who was beaten nearly to death after he told a group of men that he was a cross-dresser. Then as a kind of therapy, he constructed a miniature Belgian World War II-era village and populated it with dolls representing himself and the people in his life. I haven’t seen Marwencol, so I cannot attest to any historical veracity or lack thereof, but given the premise, Welcome to Marwen was always going to be as tricky to make sense of as it turned out to be. Steve Carell, for his part, plays Hogancamp like the sort of meek, PTSD-afflicted, obsessive, highly impressive individual that corresponds with his story. But then there are ways in which Welcome to Marwen attempts to mold Hogancamp’s world into a traditional cinematic structure, and the movie itself feels like it is rebelling.

The biggest miscalculation is probably the romance storyline, which consists of a series of major miscommunications on the part of everyone involved. The doll version of Mark is typically accompanied by his female companions, and the scenarios he playacts quite clearly reveal the feelings he has for them. Figuring prominently is Mark’s new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann), which is pronounced just like “Nicole,” but spelled without the “e” for some inexplicable reason. She’s quite forward in her friendliness, which Mark interprets as romantic interest, which he appears to be correct about, until it is unmistakably clear that he is in fact very incorrect, rendering the audience confused by the ways in which Mark’s perspective is favored over everyone else’s.

While Welcome to Marwen has a few clear missteps, I am not sure how this story could have overall been presented much differently. One answer is that it should not have been made at all, leaving the documentary to stand on its own. But I reject that, on the basis of believing that all cinematic ventures, no matter how ill-advised, can theoretically turn out successful. However, while I am fascinated by this elaborate fantasy world created to deal with trauma and the way that director Robert Zemeckis presents it, I wouldn’t point to Marwen as the best example of this maxim.

Welcome to Marwen is Recommended If You Like: Extensive shoe collections, Romantic miscommunications, Playing with dolls and action figures at any age

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Glamonistas

This Is a Movie Review: Hidden Figures

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hidden-figures-janelle-monae-taraji-p-henson-octavia-spencer

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst

Director: Theodore Melfi

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG for the Everyday Realities of Racism

Release Date: December 25, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures tells the true stories of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were essential employees to NASA during the Space Race. Let me reiterate: this is a TRUE story, but somehow these ladies are not an iconic part of the fabric of American history. Surely, there is institutional sexism and racism at play here, but less insidiously, there is also the fact that most workers at NASA who remained on the ground are not household names. But also, come on! – Katherine Johnson was John Glenn’s trusty confidant, relying on her for accurate calculations during his time in the stars.

As Hidden Figures kicks off, we know we are in good hands. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe (Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively) are stuck on the side of the road due to a broken-down car while on their way to work. I think I speak for most of humanity when I say I would happily watch these ladies just hang out and do anything. The white Virginia traffic cop who pulls up to inspect their situation apparently feels the same way. This scene looks like it is about to play out like a typical example of civil rights-era Southern racism, but instead the officer is impressed that these ladies know their science and offers them an escort service.

This is how much of the film plays out. The racism and sexism these “hidden figures” experience are institutional and not personal except insofar as any instance of discrimination is personal. Everyone in this story wants to see America succeed above the clouds, and these women meet resistance only when their efforts get in the way of standard practice. For Henson, that means a hilarious/heartbreaking routine of racing 20 minutes each way across the NASA campus to the nearest colored restroom. Indignities like these are eventually beaten into submission, and the crowd-pleasing meter is constantly at its highest level.

I would be remiss not to mention the wholesome and sweet love story between Katherine, a single mother widower, and her second husband Jim. I don’t know if the real-life Johnsons are as gorgeous as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali, but I am convinced that they must have been. Otherwise, Henson and Ali are miracle workers.

Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that you take your mother to see because you know she is going to love it. It is also the type of movie whose relatively unambitious filmmaking techniques you might criticize, or at least excuse. But in the case of a story as inspiring as this one, that feels unnecessarily petty. Hidden Figures does not gussy itself up, because it will be inspiring even without all the frills. Besides, putting on such airs would be anathema to its humble origins.

Hidden Figures is Recommended If You LikeApollo 13A League of Their OwnThe Help

Grade: 3.75 out 5 Hammers to Racism

 

This Is a Movie Review: Moonlight

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moonlight-movie-water

What sticks with me from Moonlight? Mostly, it is the small, intimate moments: Juan (Mahershala Ali) holding Little (Alex Hibbert) in the water – an image that has already become iconic. Teresa (Janelle Monáe) setting the table and doing all the talking for her and Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Black (Trevante Rhodes) admitting to Kevin (André Holland) that he’s the only man who’s ever touched him. And I can’t go this whole review without singling out Naomie Harris (miles away from Moneypenny) for giving her all as Chiron’s mom Paula. Moonlight deserves plenty of credit for allowing black and gay voices to be heard, but more than that, the storytelling is right on as well.

I give Moonlight 18 Gold Grills out of 20 Evasive Facial Expressions.