Category Archives: Biopic

#300 Downfall

(2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel)
Der Untergang

“The war is lost… But if you think that I’ll leave Berlin for that, you are sadly mistaken. I’d prefer to put a bullet in my head.”

Hitler parodies were everywhere on YouTube at one point. These were usually videos where Hitler would be ranting away in German while some wacky person added subtitles that suggested he was ranting about something mundane or anachronistic, such as getting his Xbox Live account banned. Well, did you know where that clip came from? It came from Der Untergang, aka Downfall, a movie about, well, Hitler’s downfall at the end of World War II.

It’s April 1945, in Berlin. Hitler (Bruno Ganz) is celebrating his birthday when suddenly loud blasts begin to rock the city. Demanding answers, Hitler discovers that the Soviets have breached German lines and are just outside the city. Determined to face off against the Soviets rather than surrender, we witness Hitler descend into madness as he deludes himself into thinking he can survive the onslaught and still win the war.

Now, there are naturally some reservations about this movie. The idea of humanising Hitler and setting a movie based on his perspective of the decisive Battle Of Berlin is one that not a lot of people particularly like the idea of. There are plenty that say that presenting Hitler as human is an insult to all who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and all those who fought to take him down.

However, Hitler was a real person, not some fairy tale monster made up to scare Jewish children, and a portrayal of him as human is a better lesson for humanity than acting like nobody else is capable of what he did. So here it is, a human portrayal of Hitler, showing him as a flawed human being with twisted thoughts and a complete lack of compassion and empathy. It’s a portrayal of humanity at its darkest, and we need that.

And Bruno Ganz nailed it. His performance is excellent throughout. Hitler is presented as this twitchy, uncomfortable little man with not an ounce of empathy in him. He is quick to anger, makes irrational decisions and deludes himself of his own greatness. He’s not particularly nice, and even in moments where he begins to appear rational and sensible, he’ll start to spout off some nonsense about how proud he is to have eradicated so many Jews. Essentially, he’s portrayed as someone you don’t really want to spend much time with.

The problem is, Hitler’s portrayal is pretty much the only good thing about the movie. The rest of it is a plodding mess that makes me question exactly what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a movie that shows a flawed human version of Hitler in the midst of scenes of concerned looking Germans not saying anything to each other, or at the very least debating whether or not they should leave Berlin, over and over.

The problem is, the many generals and staff under Hitler’s command (and I mean MANY), are not even remotely fleshed out in the way Hitler himself is. As such, everyone tends to bleed together as a single autonomous unit called “the people who aren’t Hitler”. Sure, you can tell them apart physically – there’s the fat one, the creepy-looking one, the stern one, the doe-eyed secretary and the other secretary (I think she was a secretary), but good luck remembering any of their names. Oh, and there’s Eva Braun, but she’s just kind of there because she was Hitler’s wife, but she’s got just as much personality as the rest of them.

The problem is, so much screen time is dedicated to these personality-free extras that the movie feels utterly pointless much of the time. And for a movie about Hitler’s downfall, it’s odd that Hitler kills himself (not a spoiler!) 40 minutes before the movie ends, leaving us with over half an hour of faceless characters running around trying not to get shot…and often getting shot. Repeatedly.

Downfall would be a great movie if it stuck to its guns and retained some level of focus. As it is, its determination to get every tiny little detail, however insignificant, into it 150-minute running time is tiresome and dull. Stick with a story about Hitler and we’ll be in a better place. And to highlight my displeasure with the movie, I’m going to make a Hitler Rants video. Bye!

Starring Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ulrich Matthes, Corinna Harfouch, Juliane Köhler & Thomas Kretschmann
Written by Joachim Fest & Bernd Eichinger
Produced by Bernd Eichinger
Music by Stephan Zacharias
Cinematography by Rainer Klausmann
Edited by Hans Funck

Favourite Scene: The famous Hitler rant is probably the best part of the movie for many reasons. Even if you don’t find it a good scene on its own merits, at least it’s easy to turn off subtitles and imagine a comedy reason for Hitler’s rants.
Scene That Bugged Me: Why does the movie just keep going after Hitler’s death? Why won’t it end?!

Watch it if: You really need to complete your collection of movies giving an account of World War II
Avoid it if: You came here for Hitler’s suicide and expect it to be over by then


#291 The Right Stuff

(1983, Phillip Kaufman)

“There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Russia and America were in a race to explore beyond the boundaries of our atmosphere and into outer space. It was a time of great experimentation and wonder, but the efforts to explore space required men with a willingness to put their lives on the line for the advancement of humanity. The Right Stuff is the story of these men, the pioneering astronauts of the Mercury program.

So there isn’t much of a plot to The Right Stuff then. It’s basically a series of events leading up to the completion of the Mercury program and little more. We start in the days of high-speed flight experimentation, when daring pilots pushed to break the sound barrier and go faster than anyone has ever gone before. This then leads into the development of NASA and the recruitment of the seven astronauts who would go on to explore Earth’s orbit.

As someone who is interested in the exploration of space, I was looking forward to this movie. I was curious to see the full story, and waited with anticipation to see how it was handled.

Imagine my disappointment when the movie spends forever getting to the development of NASA, and instead hangs around a bunch of high-speed test pilots who seemingly have no connection to the space program aside from their efforts aiding in the development of rockets. The problem is, it turns these guys into characters, especially Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, and spends a lot of time saying that he was the best pilot EVAH and tries to make us feel sorry for the fact he never got to be an astronaut.

But this ends up feeling like padding. In a three-hour movie. So you can imagine how well that went down with me.

When we do get to the astronauts, The Right Stuff is determined to focus on the personalities and relationships of the astronauts above the technical details of the Mercury program. This is fine, especially as good characters make for better stories than a bunch of technical figures. However, Phillip Kaufman didn’t do a great job of developing these men as real characters. They were all painted as All-American Heroes™, all square jaws and no personalities. Worst of all, he failed to adequately demonstrate that these men had “the right stuff” that made them volunteer for the program. You know, the whole point of the title of the movie.

There are also numerous scenes involving the astronauts’ wives, designed to flesh out these men even more, but these scenes more often than not just got in the way of everything. What’s more, Annie Glenn’s stutter was never explained, leaving us to wonder why she struggled to speak properly; I only understood this because I looked it up online. If you have to do background research on a movie, the movie has failed to communicate properly. Essentially, The Right Stuff spends a lot of time on things that drag the movie and less time on things that actually matter to communicating the events accurately.

It’s not a complete failure, however. Some of the interaction between the astronauts has some genuine comedy, and the portrayal of NASA during this time as a confused organisation that was basically throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick was wonderfully unexpected. No one involved seems to know exactly what they’re doing, and this was nice because I honestly expected them to paint NASA as heroic and intelligent and the beacon of human advancement, but instead we get a bumbling band of scientists who aren’t even sure if their tests on the astronauts are actually helpful.

Also, when the movie does manage to focus on the thing we came to see – the space program – it does a phenomenal job. The space race is portrayed as both tense and slightly silly, and these two conflicting sides end up sticking together quite nicely, with the pompous politics between the US and Russia sitting surprisingly well against the exciting space launches. I was on the edge of my seat before Alan Shepherd went up, despite knowing that he succeeded and came back safely.

Overall, The Right Stuff was interesting to an extent, but part of this may have stemmed from my own personal interest in the space program. When it stuck to its guns and focused on the important events, it did its job very well, but the amount of padding and dragged-out sections bring the entire experience down a little.

Starring Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Barbara Hershey, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Jane Dornacker, Harry Shearer, Jeff Goldblum & Kim Stanley
Written by Tom Wolfe (book) and Philip Kaufman
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel
Edited by Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart & Tom Rolf

Favourite Scene: Alan Shepherd goes into space. Took a while to get there, but at least it paid off.
Scene That Bugged Me: Oh boo hoo poor Chuck Yaeger never got to be an astronaut. Let’s pad out the ending of this three-hour movie with more scenes featuring him.

Watch it if: You’re the Space Core from Portal 2
Avoid it if: You want a dry account of the history of the space program

#277 Passion Of The Christ

(2004, Mel Gibson)

“Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do”

So, by accident I find myself reviewing two Mel Gibson movies within the same month. This was not planned, and came about by a review shift bringing Apocalypto closer to Easter, when I’d already planned on reviewing this, The Passion Of The Christ.

Yes, it’s Easter, and just like my first ever Easter of doing this project saw me reviewing the utterly blasphemous Life Of Brian, this time I’m turning my attention to the serious story, where Mel Gibson took a passage from the Bible which apparently blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus and presented it as absolute truth. But he’s not an anti-Semite! Let’s make that clear! Honestly!

Anyway, before I turn Mel Gibson into some kind of pantomime villain around these parts, whether Passion of the Christ has a go at the Jews or not doesn’t matter to me, I’m here to see if it’s any good.

The Passion of The Christ is about Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel), some guy from Israel who claimed to be the Son Of God and supposedly did some miracles or something. The movie details his last days, where he was beaten to within an inch of his life and then stuck on a cross to die by the Romans. Lovely stuff. Although, really, you should know this stuff already. It’s Easter, after all!

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#262 JFK

(1991, Oliver Stone)
“Telling the truth can be a scary thing sometimes”

Let’s talk conspiracy theories. Did you know we’re all secretly ruled by lizard men who staged 9/11 using holograms and faked the moon landing so that Buzz Aldrin could have a toy named after him 30 years later? Don’t you know that we’re all the pawns of an ongoing war between the Templars and the Assassins and that Obama has a gun that shoots tornadoes because…profit? God, sheeple, open your eyes!

No, not really, unless you believe some of the crackpots in certain corners of the Internet. But while many of those conspiracy theories are pretty nutty, one conspiracy continues to fascinate and baffle many, 50 years on – the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President Of The United States.

JFK is a movie that presents the conspiracy as being true. Following Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a district attorney who is suspicious of the official story that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) killed JFK (John F. Kennedy, archive footage) and sets out to discover what really happened. In the process, he uncovers a conspiracy involving the CIA and the mob and various other organisations who wanted Kennedy dead, putting him in the line of fire and putting strain on Garrison’s marriage.

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#247 Raging Bull

(1980, Martin Scorsese)

“I knocked him down. I don’t know what else I gotta do”

It’s still very much the Christmas season, and today is Boxing Day, so let’s celebrate with an appropriate movie – a movie about boxing, of course!

Raging Bull is a biopic of former middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, also known as the Raging Bull due to his relentless fighting style and explosive personality. The movie starts Robert De Niro as LaMotta as he gains his middleweight championship belt and becomes a star, but his jealousy and his appetite threaten to destroy his relationships and career.

As always with many Scorsese/De Niro collaborations, the first thing that was obvious to me with Raging Bull was De Niro’s absolutely fantastic performance. While performances in the likes of Casino and Taxi Driver were very noticeably the famous De Niro we all know and love, he takes it even further here and manages to completely become LaMotta.

What’s more, he does it twice in the same movie, portraying both the aggressive boxing champion at the top of his game and the bloated failure of his later years. He manages to be convincing as both, even going as far as gaining a lot of weight for the later scenes and looking barely recognisable. It’s definitely adds to the evidence that De Niro had an awful lot of talent back in the day.

Other performances were excellent. Cathy Moriarty as Vikki, LaMotta’s long-suffering wife, was a suitable mixture of fragile and brash, while Joe Pesci surprised me by playing a character that was actually rational. As an actor I’m used to seeing as angry gangster types with short fuses, it was bizarre to see him acting as the voice of reason here. Great, but bizarre.

It’s just a shame, then, that the movie is nowhere near as interesting as other Scorsese movies I’ve reviewed. While Taxi Driver was a fascinating insight into the mind of an angry young man, Raging Bull fails to recreate that level of fascination. Bickle just felt like a better constructed character, which is especially bizarre since Travis Bickle was a fictional construct while Jake LaMotta is very real.

The first thing that struck me as odd was where the movie started. Normally in biopics, we get an insight into what led them into the career that made them famous, or some degree of knowledge into their background, but Raging Bull just drops us in right in the middle. When we come in, LaMotta is already a boxer and heading his way up the ranks to become a champion.

It feels a little awkward to start us off here since we don’t get any real introduction into who LaMotta is, and we don’t really get any sense of progression from this. What’s more, because it starts here, the movie then seems to struggle with what to do with the rest of its running time.

What happens next is the movie becomes rather slow and ponderous, and ultimately fairly repetitive. In between fights, we get scenes of LaMotta at home with his wife or out and about with his brother, and these scenes all kind of blend together since the same thing typically happens. Someone says something, LaMotta misunderstands, LaMotta gets angry, there’s a heated argument, cue the next fight, repeat.

Nowhere is this more notable than in his relationship with Vikki. As the years go by, LaMotta gets increasingly jealous and believes his wife is cheating on him, leading almost every interaction between them to be little more than a shouting match about this supposed infidelity, and it gets very old very fast. Perhaps I’m just tired of movies featuring bullish husbands treating women like crap, but every time it happened again, I was rolling my eyes.

What’s more, there were plenty of other issues surrounding their relationship. The age difference at the start was somewhat uncomfortable, especially with a very awkward sex scene during the early stages. They also got married alarmingly quickly, especially considering LaMotta was already married, and not much was made of this particular problem, and it would have potentially added more drama if they’d dealt with it.

What’s more, it feels like there’s a real lack of focus on his actual boxing career. Fights are used to link scenes together, not as the central plot. It feels a bit weird to me that a movie about boxing focuses so little on actual boxing.

Overall, Raging Bull was certainly a well-constructed and well-acted movie that nonetheless often fell a little flat. Interesting if you’re curious about the career of Jake LaMotta, but otherwise not one of Scorsese’s best in my opinion.

Starring Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty & Joe Pesci
Written by Jake LaMotta (autobiography) and Paul Schrader & Mardik Martin
Produced by Robert Chartoff & Irvin Winkler
Cinematography by Michael Chapman
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker

Favourite Scene: Joe Pesci calling out Jake for being an absolute moron was pretty nice.
Scene That Bugged Me: If I wanted to watch a movie where someone recites the speech from On The Waterfront, I’d watch On The Waterfront. Invent your own closing monologue, Scorsese!

Watch it if: You like New Yorkers yelling at each other for two hours
Avoid it if: You want to watch a lot of boxing

#193 The Queen

(2006, Stephen Frears)

“Nowadays people want glamour and tears, the grand performance. I’ve never been good at that”

For the British, one of the most infamous events of the nineties was the death of Princess Diana. Diana was a popular figure, winning the hearts of many of the British public, resulting in a huge outpouring of emotion following her death. This is a movie about that time, told from the perspective of the titular royal figurehead, Queen Elizabeth, known as Lizzie to her friends or simply The Queen.

It’s 1997, and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has just been appointed prime minister, and the nation is celebrating, although Queen Liz (Helen Mirren) is sceptical of him. Then tragedy strikes when news comes in from France that Diana Spencer, ex-wife to Prince Charles, has been killed in a car crash. In line with tradition, the royals head up to their residence in Balmoral, Scotland for a period of private mourning, refusing to acknowledge Diana as an official royal and therefore feeling no need to make a statement on her death or hold a state funeral.

However, the princess’ popularity with the British public is putting Elizabeth under pressure to go against this, and demand for a public statement and a state funeral is high. Blair is using this to his advantage, attempting to maintain his public position as a popular PM (haha, nope, can’t take that sentence seriously…), which isn’t helping the royal position. It’s now up to Liz to try and decide whether to bow to public pressure or stick to royal protocol.

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#173 Dear Diary

Caro diario
(1994, Nanni Moretti)

Not that long ago, I reviewed a movie called Sans Soleil, a pretentious documentary film about…something that ultimately boiled down to being really about director Chris Marker’s summer holiday in Japan. I thought it was a rare exception in filmmaking until my film list threw up Nanni Moretti’s Dear Diary, another film where a European director walked around with a camera talking about his own life.

You can imagine my sheer joy, I’m sure.

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#162 The Diving Bell & The Butterfly

Le scaphandre et le papillon
(2007, Julian Schnabel)

“Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralysed: my imagination and my memory”

In 1995, the editor of Elle magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, suffered a severe stroke and fell into a coma. After 20 days, he finally awoke, but while his mind was intact, his body was not. Entirely paralysed save for his left eye, he was a victim of “locked-in” syndrome, where a patient essentially becomes trapped inside a useless body. Not letting this get to him, he managed to “dictate” an entire memoir entirely through the help of a speech therapist, a series of blinks and a frequency-ordered French alphabet.

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#139 La Vie En Rose

(2007, Olivier Dahan)

“I can’t? Then what’s the point of being Edith Piaf?”

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#109 Rabbit-Proof Fence

(2002, Phillip Noyce)

“If only they would understand what we are trying to do for them”

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