Yes, it’s that time of year again when the studios drop the big prestige pictures, and this round of Oscar-bait biopics are for sure the most prestigious this season. As these three films, each big ass, lavish productions with big ass names behind, and in front of the camera, are going to be in theaters or available streaming over the holidays, I thought I’d give ‘em the ole Film Babble Blog appraisal, so here goes:

MAESTRO (Dir. Bradley Cooper, 2023)

Bradley Cooper’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2018 directorial debut, A STAR IS BORN, garnered criticism when early buzz revealed that the actor (also the film’s co-writer, and producer) wore a large prosthetic nose to enhance his resemblance to his subject Leonard Bernstein, but upon being incredibly charmed by Cooper’s lush, loving tribute to the iconic composer/conductor, it is not a critique that holds much weight.

For the nose just fades convincingly into the face of Coopers Bernstein, or Lenny to his friends, fronting a lived-in, layered, and authentic-feeling performance that is sure to get plenty of accolade action in the weeks, months, and years to come. Coopers portrait has a predictable structure – the narrative is initially told in black and white flashbacks (the film switches to color as it moves into the modern era) structured as remembrances in interviews by the elder Bernstein shown in crisp color – but it transcends this convention with its fluid style, and poetic, tuneful tone.

In a portrayal that rivals Cooper’s, Carey Mulligan beautifully plays Bernstein’s wife of 26 years, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein. Their relationship is the crux of the story as we see that despite his homosexuality (i.e. affairs with men), Felicia loved Lenny, and put up with his infidelities, though we witness that taking its toll.

For the uninitiated, Cooper and Josh Singer’s screenplay serves up Leonard Bernstein 101, from his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943 to scoring such Broadway classics as On the Town, and West Side Story or classic motion pictures like ON THE WATERFRONT to his legendary conducting of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at Ely Cathedral in 1973, among other career highlights sharply shot by cinematographer, Matther Libatique (PI, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM).

With superb supporting work by Sarah Silverman, Matt Bomer, and Maya Hawke, MAESTRO is Cooper’s moving love letter to Bernstein, and the evolving emotional languages of the times he lived in, and helped shape musically. It’s one to stream on up when it hits Netflix tomorrow (December 20).

FERRARI (Dir. Michael Mann, 2023)

Michael Mann makes sleek, streamlined, manly movies about powerful, conflicted men and his latest fancy flick about Italian car racing entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari is no exception. A coiffed, gray haired Adam Driver plays the motor mogul in a measured, stoic manner, which is offset by the tirades by his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), who, in an early scene shoots at him with a gun his mother scoffs at him for giving her.

“Your mother missed on purpose,” Enzo says as he visits the tomb of his dead son, Dino. “One day, she won’t, and I’ll be in here with you.” Such sets the tone as the movie veers from the love triangle between Enzo, Laura, and his secret mistress (a possibly miscast, but still affecting Shailene Woodley) and his race track excursions in 1957, when the tragedy of the Mille Miglia occured killing nine spectators – a profoundly disturbing shot as Mann, via Director of Photography, Eric Messerschmidt, stunningly captures.

Driver and Mann’s approach may be cold, and overly slick, but FERRARI is a purposeful portrait with a lot of gusto and glorious oomph. It doesn’t reach the heights of previous Mann movies like HEAT or COLLATERAL, but it is far and above his last works, PUBLIC ENEMIES and BLACK HAT for certain. It’s well worth getting out of the house for when it opens Christmas Day.

NAPOLEON (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2023)

Since its release at the end of last month, Ridley Scott
s long awaited historical epic about the infamous French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, has gotten mixed reviews, and underperformed at the box office – bad news for a movie that cost 137 million.

But does the film deserve that unimpressive reception? Well, yes and no, but mostly yes, as it suffers from horrible dialogue (“You think you’re so great just because you have boats!” is an actual line), uninspired performances (actually Joaquin Phoenix does his best with a questionably written role, but no one else in the cast offers much energy) has lengthy sequences that drag, and overall left me with an empty feeling.

This is largely because Scott’s treatment, scripted by David Scarpa (a screenwriter whose previous work including THE LAST CASTLE, and the 2008 remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is less than stellar), is all about how pathetic its subject is, despite having conquered most of Europe in the 19th century.

Napoleon calls his wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) a slut because while he’s off at war, she’s taking lovers, which inspires ridicule in the press, and much of the narrative concerns their rocky relationship. This material is strained, and dull, with the more successful scenes being the battles. Scott, with the aid of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, takes us convincingly into such major skirmishes as the Battle of Austerlitz, which, taking place on a frozen lake, visually pops more than anything else in the movie.

More than once, I was reminded of a moment in Woody Allen’s LOVE AND DEATH, a parody of War and Peace that also features Napolean, where Allens character observes that the battle he’s in looks different to the generals up on the hill, and the film cuts to a flock of sheep instead of soldiers being driven forward.

So, yeah, NAPOLEAN is a very mixed bag that proves that the Joaquin Phoenix movie to see in 2023 is Ari Aster’s BEAU IS AFRAID.

So, two out of three ain’t bad when it comes to this season’s Oscar-bait biopics.

More later…

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