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TIFF: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) was a child of divorce, something that caused her very religious mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) great anguish. She’s kept out of the church that her mother, stepfather and siblings attend but Tammy Faye is inspired by the religious fervor she witnesses from window and is determined to be a part of it. Years later, she meets  Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a fellow student at her Christian college. The two see eye-to-eye on religious matters, including the idea God’s blessings come in several forms including wealth and business opportunities. They preach the gospel first with a puppet show they take on the road and next on television with The Jim and Tammy  Show on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) network CBN.

Seizing every new opportunity and making several of their own, the religious duo became television icons. They started their own network, PTL, and hosted their own hit show. It made them rich but soon their tight bond began to sour. Jim was terrible with money and resented Tammy Faye’s star power. Tammy Faye faced many demons including her own husband, loneliness, a fractured relationship with her mother, an addiction to benzos and opposition from one of the biggest leaders in the Christian world, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). As things unravel, Tammy Faye would need to find the strength to be true to herself.

Based on the 2001 documentary by the same name and directed by Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stunning biopic that hits all the right marks, including an exceptional performance by Jessica Chastain. She got Tammy Faye’s energy, her Minnesota accent and all of her mannerisms all down to a T. The prosthetics and make-up are only mildly distracting and really you can’t help but see Tammy Faye through Jessica Chastain. The film doesn’t try to demonize Jim or Tammy Faye Bakker. They are both presented as flawed personalities, Jim more so than Tammy Faye, who had good intentions but went very badly astray. Tammy Faye is a well-rounded character. We see all aspects of her personality including her great capacity for love and her sympathy for the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, something that went against the evangelical mindset at the time. Tammy Faye epitomizes what we think Christianity should be and pitted against Jerry Falwell we see what it generally has become. With that said, at no point does it criticize Christian religion. Rather it criticizes individuals and their actions.

And let me for a moment talk about how well this movie uses disruptive sound. There are several moments in the film where the sound of a phone ringing cuts into a rather emotional scene. There is also Tammy Faye singing against a very silent backdrop and a tension filled scene is disrupted by a baby crying. It’s quite effective. The film also uses ’70s style fonts and mimics grainy television footage which adds to the nostalgic appeal.

At the TIFF Tribute Awards, Jessica Chastain, who also served on the film as producer, talked about the biopic as her passion project. She’s been working on it for 10 years and wanted to make sure that her portrayal of Tammy Faye really showed the love and compassion she had instead of just depicting her as a grifter. 

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a vague notion as a child of who Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were. I definitely remember the scandal that landed Jim Bakker in jail. Years later I watched the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life and that’s what gave me my first real introduction into who Tammy Faye Bakker was as a person. That show was like a Real World type format but with celebrities. For the second season, they purposely put Tammy Faye in the home with porn star Ron Jeremy in hopes that it would stir up drama. Other cast members included Erik Estrada and Vanilla Ice. I was really impressed with how Tammy Faye handled herself. They put her in situations where she would have to apologize or defend herself and she was ALWAYS true to herself. She showed a genuine love for others that really struck a chord with me and that I never forgot. Years later watching this biopic about her that same Tammy Faye came through.

I highly recommend this film. It’s one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I am fiercely protective about Mister Rogers. So when I heard that there was a new biopic about him I was skeptical. When I heard Tom Hanks was portraying Mister Rogers in the film I was skeptical. When I arrived for the TIFF screening at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, ticket in hand, I was still skeptical. In fact I was skeptical for the first half of the movie. Why was everyone laughing? Don’t laugh What if audiences don’t fully understand or appreciate who Mister Rogers truly was? It hit me half way through the film that to really know Mister Rogers, we need to know the affect he had on others. And that is exactly what this film delivered.

Directed by Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes an unconventional route to tell the story of an extraordinary man. It’s loosely based on Tom Junod’s Esquire article from the late 1990s.

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an angry and bitter man. Like Junod, he writes for Esquire and is known for his particularly callous approach to writing profiles. No one wants to be interviewed by him except for Mister Rogers who takes a particular interest in Lloyd and sees an opportunity to help him. Lloyd has a difficult relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who abandoned the family when Lloyd’s mother was dying. Lloyd is unable to forgive and the two have a volatile relationship. When assigned to write a 400 word piece on Rogers, Lloyd gets more than he bargained for. As he enters Mister Rogers world he struggles to comprehend what makes Rogers tick. The two continue to meet under the guise of the article, which Lloyd eventually writes a much longer profile which becomes the cover piece for the magazine. But it’s through this project that Lloyd learns to reconcile with his dad, to let go of the anger and to find some happiness within himself.

Mister Rogers gets a supporting role in his own biopic and that’s just the way he would have wanted it. Heller and the team of writers craft a unique structure which is part dark comedy and built within the confines of a faux episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. We get (what I believe is) a recreation of the set, the famous intro (cardigan, shoes, song and all) and the closing theme song. There’s the photo board, a picture picture sequence (all about how magazines are made), a visit from Mr. McFeely, a trip to the neighborhood of Make-Believe complete with King Friday and Daniel the Tiger and interstitials show the neighborhood set miniatures and when Lloyd is traveling those sequences are told in similar miniatures. There are dream sequences including a nightmare one that happens on the set. We see the production team, Rogers’ trusted assistant Bill (Enrico Colantoni), Rogers’ wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) spends time with Lloyd.

My favorite scene in the film is when Rogers and Lloyd meet at a restaurant and Rogers asks him for one minute of silence and to imagine the people he loves most surrounding him. The real Mister Rogers did this often and believed in the power of silence. We get that one whole minute of silence and as the camera pans we see cameos from Joanne Rogers herself and several other people from his life. I would give anything to watch that one scene again right now.

Courtesy of TIFF

I worry about viewers who didn’t grow up with or appreciate Mister Rogers. I grew up in the ’80s and Rogers was a sort of father figure to me. My own father lacked Rogers’ gentle demeanor, kindness, and understanding nature. I sought that through Rogers. He had a profound affect on how I view myself (to like myself just the way I am), to not be afraid to deal with my emotions and to be kind to others. 

One scene worried me in particular. As Lloyd is grilling Rogers about his “burden” and how he deals with it, Rogers takes out Daniel the Tiger. Lloyd is obviously frustrated that Rogers is not answering his question. But those who KNOW a thing or two about Rogers knows that Daniel the Tiger WAS his way of dealing with that burden. If you don’t know anything about Rogers, doing a bit of research ahead of time will be essential.  A viewing of Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  before watching Heller’s film is all you’ll really need.

Courtesy of TIFF

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a touching tribute and will be a major contribution in keeping the memory of Mister Rogers, and his particular brand of kindness, alive. I started getting emotional from the very first scene and cried throughout. This film really got to me even if it took me more than an hour to appreciate what it was trying to do.

Tom Hanks delivers a solid performance as Mister Rogers and I wouldn’t be surprised if some award nominations come his way. He nails the nuances, the gestures, the slower pace of moving, Rogers’ somewhat awkward body language and even the voice is simply spot on. Chris Cooper’s performance as Jerry shouldn’t be overlooked either. 

Watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood but don’t forget to bring tissues.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as a gala presentation.

Bohemian Rhapsody

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“Fortune favors the bold.”

Bohemian Rhapsody was the first song I ever tried to memorize. As a deeply misunderstood and lonely preteen, there was something about this six minute rock opera and other songs by Queen that spoke to my soul. What I didn’t know then was that Freddie Mercury was a champion for misfits like me. He had a self-assured persona, always holding his head up high and never apologizing for being himself. We won’t know the extent of his inner world but his outward confidence gave us license to be ourselves. If you’re a true misfit, you know the pain of being misunderstood and the intense loneliness that comes with being different from everybody else. But when you find another misfit who gets you… it makes all the difference in the world (source).

Freddie Mercury’s story needed to be told.

Bohemian Rhapsody stars Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. We follow Freddie’s journey from his humble beginnings as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport to his meteoric rise as the lead singer of Queen culminating with their historic performance at Live Aid in 1985. Along with Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazello), these four totally different personalities, each with their own brand of talent, come together to shake up the world of rock ‘n roll. On the road to success they must work with a team of record executives who either don’t believe in them, Ray Foster (Mike Myers), who see an opportunity to manipulate, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), or who stick with them, John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and Jim Beach (Tom Hollander). However the film’s focus remains solely on the biggest star, Freddie Mercury and how he navigates his music career, his relationships with his disapproving father, his supportive mother and sister, his first true love Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), coming to terms, or not, with his sexuality and his eventual AIDS diagnosis.

Many have criticized Bohemian Rhapsody for softening some harsh truths about Freddie Mercury. Because this is a biopic and not a documentary, some changes were made for entertainment value. However because the story deals with a real life figures, filmmakers risk painting these characters in a harsher-than-necessary light in order to serve the movie’s plot. For example, Paul Prenter, based off the real life manager of Queen/Freddie Mercury, is the clear villain in the movie but his involvement with Mercury was conflated for the story’s benefit. Prenter died of AIDS related complications in 1991, the same year and circumstances that led to Mercury’s death, and can’t defend himself. Biopics have always bent the truth to some extent but should the filmmakers continue to do so? This is an evergreen debate that will always plague biopics.

If we can’t have the absolute truth, what will audiences get out of Bohemian Rhapsody? As close to the essence of Freddie Mercury without having Mercury himself in the picture. And that’s what Rami Malek’s outstanding performance gives us. Malek painstakingly acquired every single mannerism and made it his own. He got every move and every look spot on. Where Malek shines is in the musical performances and he channels Mercury’s unique and flamboyant on stage persona. Malek even perfects Mercury’s voice as it got more gravely as the AIDS began to take a toll on his body.

The film struggles to gain ground but it hits its stride about half way through. There were too many scenes at the beginning that were just plain cheesy or pretentious. The second half had a lot more depth, diving into Mercury’s inner world and struggles and I felt more connected to the story then. I loved the little touches especially the Queen inspired rendition of the 20th Century Fox theme. Peppered through the movie were some humorous moments and some pop culture references. The most notable one is Mike Myers, whose Bohemian Rhapsody scene from Wayne’s World re-introduced the song to a whole new generation, makes the following remark, much to the delight of anyone who will get the reference:

We need a song teenagers can bang their heads to in a car. Bohemian Rhapsody is not that song.

Malek’s prosthetic teeth took some getting used to. They went for realism (Mercury had an overbite and four extra incisors) but it seemed more artificial. I was worried that there was too much to put me off until the film sent me on an emotional roller coaster I was not expecting. I spent the last 30 minutes of the film just sobbing. I was quite moved by Mercury’s story and was angered by how AIDS took him from us too soon. As a self-declared misfit, I found some truths about myself that I wasn’t quite ready to process.

Bohemian Rhapsody has its problems but Malek delivers an engaging performance that channels the true essence of Freddie Mercury. This one is sure to please fans. Rock on.

 

First Man

First Man

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We’ll never fully realize the level of courage and sacrifice required from the astronauts of those early NASA space missions. They put everything on the line, leaving behind their families and laying down their lives in the name of science and for love of country. It often came at a great cost. And if they were successful and lucky enough to survive their missions, they came back to earth as national heroes, their immortality secured.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Space exploration movies like The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) offer a glimpse into this world. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the latest in a line of space age dramas and it celebrates one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, the moon landing, through the story of one man, astronaut Neil Armstrong.

First Man follows the story of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the death of his young daughter, to his extensive training and his two biggest missions: Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The story is equally split between Armstrong’s time at NASA and his work with his fellow astronauts and engineers and his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two sons. The film is just as much a space exploration story as it is  a character study of a complicated man who suffered a tragic loss and struggles to connect with his family. Much time is given to Janet whom, one might be able to argue, is just as courageous as her husband. She has to deal with the stress of not only her husband’s dangerous missions but also his emotional unavailability. In addition she has to keep up her strength to raise her two boys while also being strong for the other astronaut’s wives who inevitably suffer great tragedies of their own.

Ryan Gosling does a marvelous job as the subdued and introspective Neil Armstrong. However I think Claire Foy has the breakout performance as his long-suffering wife Janet. She brings an intensity that not only matches beautifully with Gosling’s performance but also stands on its own. Technically the female parts are far outnumbered by the male but Foy’s performance claims so much of our attention that it feels more like its equally divided than one sided. I wouldn’t be surprised if come award season Foy will be recognized for her performance. Another counterbalance to Armstrong’s character is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. Buzz is the outspoken, opinionated and charismatic astronaut, the complete opposite of Neil. I love their scenes together. Jason Clarke, who plays the doomed astronaut Ed White, is very well suited for his character and for mid-20th century parts. He just has that look that works. I was happy to see one of my personal faves Ethan Embry in a small role as space engineer and astronaut Pete Conrad.

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First Man must be seen on the big screen for the full impact. I watched it at my local IMAX theater after having missed an opportunity to see this at TIFF. The technical advancements in filmmaking contribute to powerful and awe inspiring depictions of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions. I love how the film lingers on the moon landing, providing the original audio for those first crucial and historic moments but we also spend time in Armstrong’s personal bubble as he takes in his surroundings and taps into some of the emotion he’s been trying to suppress. The Gemini 8 scene was my favorite. It felt so realistic, almost as if I was in the space shuttle with the astronauts. We get a sense of how much power is needed and how many things have to go exactly right to thrust these astronauts into space.

 

 

 

First Man is a technical marvel in filmmaking that puts the audience in the spacecraft and on the moon for a thrilling experience.  It’s also a reserved yet poignant character study of a man on the brink of a great achievement who is struggling with his own demons. It deals with an important subject seriously but never becomes cheesy or pretentious. A must see.

TIFF Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

by Raquel Stecher

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
dir. Marielle Heller
starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone

Review:

Based on the real life story of author turned forger Lee Israel, director Marielle Heller’s film dives into the literary world of 1990s NYC, a golden era in publishing and literary artifacts. The story follows the once celebrated biographer (Melissa McCarthy) as she finds herself in dire straits. Her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) isn’t returning her phone calls because no one wants another biography about Fannie Brice. She’s behind on her rent, her cat is sick and flies feed off the squalor in her down trodden apartment. When Israel happens across a letter written by Dorothy Parker tucked away in a book, she sells it and discovers that she can make quite a bit of money off of selling these letters but she needs to get her hands on more. So she uses her writing talents and her newfound penchant for deceit to forge letters from celebrated figures including Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Edna Ferber, Louise Brooks and others. She reunites with an old drinking buddy Jack (Richard E. Grant) who joins her adventures. As things spiral out of control, Lee proves to be ruthless and unapologetic criminal.

Melissa McCarthy embodies the persona of Lee Israel seamlessly. And Richard E. Grant threatens to steal the movie with his brilliant performance as the shifty sidekick Jack. They play off each other beautifully. When I was originally selecting my slate of TIFF films for coverage, I was looking for LGBT films and didn’t realize that this would be one of them. The movie explores Israel’s romantic relationships with women including a budding romance with the used book dealer Anna (Dolly Wells) she’s selling forged letters to. The film dives even deeper into Jack’s sexuality as a homeless gay man living in New York City during the 1990s.

I was expecting some humor in this film but it truly is a straightforward drama and not a comedy or even a dramedy. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a captivating film about two unforgivable tricksters who will forge their way into your heart whether you like it or not.

Fox Searchlight Pictures will release Can You Ever Forgive Me? in theaters on October 19th.

I attended a special press and industry screening of Can You Ever Forgive Me? at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

 

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