Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: "The Sisters Brothers"

You might be tempted at first to think "The Sisters Brothers" is a Western comedy. It stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as a pair of gunslinger siblings operating out of the Pacific Northwest circa 1851. One's a drunk, the other's a wet rag, and the trailer makes it look like they get into all sorts of hijinks while frequently tussling verbally and occasionally physically.

But this is a serious-as-salt production from French director Jacques Audiard, who has made some excellent pictures including "Rust and Bone" and the little-seen but marvelous "Dheepan." He adapted the screenplay along with Thomas Bidegain from Patrick deWitt's novel of the same name.

It's part anti-Western, part existentialist rumination on manhood, along with a decent amount of shoot-em-up thrown in. The movie feels like a bunch of eclectic pieces that work well together, for awhile.

Charlie Sisters (Phoenix) is the hard-bitten one of the pair, a born killer who has no thoughts beyond earning his next bounty and spending it on drink and whores. Eli (Reilly) is the older, wiser one. He's not soft; he doesn't hesitate to put a bullet in a man's head when he's down. But he does these things because it is Charlie's way, and so it must be his as well.

He is his brother's keeper, which he regards as both duty and prison.

They work for a man called the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, only glimpsed) who sends them off on various assassination missions. They all involve revenge for stealing something from the Commodore. Eli ponders aloud why the Commodore is robbed so frequently. Charlie doesn't really care.

Their latest job involves Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has come up with a formula that he thinks will make it easier to pan gold from the water in California. Jake Gyllenhall plays John Morris, a detective assigned to locate Warm and track him until the Sisters Brothers can arrive.

Morris is a curious figure. He doesn't seem prone to violence, has the refined manners of a rich man's son and mostly watches his quarry from a distance while writing his thoughts into a journal he's keeping. Unlike the Sisters, we get the sense manhunting is simply a phase he's passing through on the way to other adventures.

I won't give the plot away, other than the first two-thirds of the story involves following these two men in their parallel journeys, one pair tracking the other on their way down the coast to San Francisco.

Phoenix has been giving one terrific, offbeat performance after another lately, but here he plays a more or less straight character, a prototypical Western anti-hero. He's very deliberate about not thinking too hard about anything. Eli, on the other hand, is a cauldron of swirling thoughts and regrets. He carries a red shawl from a lady friend like a totem, a reminder of their fading youth and foul choices.

It's probably one of Reilly's best performances. Unfortunately, the movie loses steam during its last half-hour or so. The story reaches a natural end point, and then it keeps wandering away on the prairie, like a cowpoke with nowhere to go and in no hurry to get there.

Video review: "Ant-Man and the Wasp"

Some think the introduction of wholesale comedy into the superhero genre was a poor match with the generally dark tone of these films. But I welcome movies like “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” which aims for funny first, exciting second and perilous a far distant third.

After the shock-and-awe of “Avengers: Infinity War” and other flicks, we needed a dose of funny as antidote.

You may recall that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) was a charming but loveable loser of a thief who suddenly found himself a super-hero after stumbling across the suit built by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). It allows him to shrink down to insect size, though gaining strength in the process, as well as command the bugs that bear his name.

His brief stint with the Avengers landed him on the wrong side of the law, and as the sequel opens he’s spent two years under house arrest. He’s determined to go the straight and narrow path for the sake of his daughter. But that all comes tumbling down when Hank and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), come calling to recruit his help.

Hank and Hope are searching for their long-lost wife and mother, respectively, who was cast into the quantum zone 30 years ago while committing some derring-do. Essentially, she got shrunk down so small that she’s stuck in another dimension -- and they want Scott to go after her.

Hope has her own suit, which also boasts wings and several other add-ons, and goes by the moniker of the Wasp. Soon they’re a duo.

Spoiling the mix is the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a young woman with the ability to phase in and out of solidity. Her aims clash with Hank’s crew, and she’s also being helped by an old science rival of his, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne).

Walter Goggins shows up as a villainous technology dealer whose role is to turn up whenever the plot slows down to kick off some more thrown-downs.

Rudd is his usual twinkly self. There’s something about the innate amiableness of the actor that just makes you want to smile. God help us he never wants to go down the “I’m a serious artist” path and start cranking out doom-and-gloom Oscar bait movies.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is just what it looks like: a purely entertaining film that won’t ever bring you down.

Bonus features are decent. There are gag reels and outtakes, deleted scenes with commentary by director Peyton Reed, who also offers an introduction. Plus there are four making-of featurettes: “Back in the Ant Suit: Scott Lang,” “A Suit of Her Own: The Wasp,” “Subatomic Super Heroes: Hank & Janet” and “Quantum Perspective: The VFX and Production Design of ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp.’”


Extras: B

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Review: "First Man"

Neil Armstrong is the most famous person that nobody really knows.

He occupies a pivotal place in human history, an explorer who was the first person to step onto another celestial body other than the Earth. And yet while his name is known to virtually everyone, the man himself remains an utter enigma.

We quote his most famous words -- “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” -- yet I doubt anyone on the street could tell you where life took Armstrong after leading the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and that fateful step.

(For the record, he resigned from NASA shortly afterward, taught at a regional college, raised his family, did a little endorsement work and lived on a farm. He even stopped signing autographs when he learned there was a lucrative black market for them.)

“First Man” is the new film from actor Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle fresh off their shared success on “La La Land.” It’s a decided left turn from a flight-of-fancy musical, a deep-dive space drama that tries to get inside the head of a man who many people were unable to get close to. The screenplay by Josh Singer is based on a book by historian James R. Hansen.

It’s a surprising movie in a lot of ways. The most obvious is how it portrays the long struggle to get to the point where Armstrong could take that first step onto the moon, starting with his days as a civilian test pilot in 1961. To put it bluntly, he’s portrayed as a bit of a screw-up, a better engineer than stick-man, constantly in danger of being grounded.

He surprises everyone by being accepted into the Gemini astronaut program -- they pronounce it “GEM-i-knee,” not “gem-ah-NIGH,” by the way -- and showing a steady, calm approach to the work. It took seven years from the time President John Kennedy called for going to the moon until it actually happened, and along the way there was a mountain of setbacks, resistance, failure and deaths.

Chazelle goes through some of the usual space program preamble we’re used to from “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13” -- spinning test machines, cocky scientist types in short-sleeve dress shirts and buzzcuts, macho competitiveness between the astronauts leavened with mutual respect, etc. But it’s really a movie about Armstrong, who he was and how others related to him.

His wife, Janet (Claire Foy), is often as much in the dark about her husband’s interior state as everyone else. Like a stubborn turtle, Armstrong just plods along with his work, relentlessly focused on his goals, occasionally pulling into his shell when others prod too much. She loves him enough to grant him his space, but also knows when to intervene.

A pivotal event little known about is the death of their daughter, Karen, at a very young age after a long illness. It happened right before he applied for the space program, and in a startling admission during his job interview, he answers that it could have a psychological impact on him.

Chazelle shoots the space scenes as if he’s going for the opposite of big, showy, rah-rah moments. He’ll focus his camera on the condensation running off the rocket booster or the bolts surrounding the space capsule window. “First Man” demonstrates how the first generation of space flight was not accomplished in sleek “Star Trek” ships, but clanky contraptions that often looked like they’d been hammered together in somebody’s garage.

“First Man” may not be for everyone. It’s a slow-moving and contemplative picture, one more concerned with the space between Neil Armstrong’s ears than the dark matter that lay between him and the moon.

But for those who favor films that portray real people realistically, this one shoots for the stars.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Review: "The Old Man & the Gun"

There’s a moment in “The Old Man & the Gun” where Robert Redford appears suddenly in a doorway backlit by a sunrise, and I swear it could have been from the 1970s. The ol’ California blond still has that ineluctable twinkle that just makes you grin.

His character, Forrest Tucker, is known for his smile. He’s a well-aged bank robber who’s always charming and polite to those he steals from. He barely even bothers with a disguise, just donning a fake mustache. He even wears the same blue suit and brown fedora hat when he’s tooling around on his non-robbing days.

Granted, those aren’t a lot: this is a man born to steal.

This film, written and directed by David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”), is based on the true-life story of Tucker, a man who spent most of his life in prison for his various crimes. The movie looks at the period in the early 1980s when he and a couple of confederates (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) knocked over banks all over the country, becoming a media sensation as “The Over the Hill Gang.”

He also robs banks solo when he’s not part of the gang. His M.O. is simple as can be: show the bank teller or manager the gun, order them to fill a briefcase with money, tip your hat and walk out the door, calm as can be. Robberies often occurred without anyone else in the bank even knowing it was happening.

That’s what happens to John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a Dallas police detective who was starting a bank account for his son when Forrest robs the place. He’s miffed that it happened right under his nose. The case becomes a personal obsession for him. He hunts up clues from other law enforcement agencies, and is the first one to put together that all the robberies are related.

If you think this is another tense cinematic cat-and-mouse game where the criminal taunts the cop on his tail, you’d be only half right. The movie isn’t really about the hunt, but both men’s need for the hunt.

John has just turned 40 and is contemplating giving up police work because he’s tired of never fixing anything. The deep stack of cash in Forrest’s floorboard cache proclaims that he doesn’t really need the money. What they both need is a purpose, and for a time that’s squaring off with each other.

The film actually spends relatively little time with the usual procedural stuff: hunting up clues, a near miss, taunts traded through the appropriate communication vehicle of the day. When Forrest sees a TV news segment featuring John chasing him, he inscribes a $100 bill to him at their next heist.

Forrest is wooing Jewel (a glowing Sissy Spacek), a lonely farmer/widow he happens across after one of his jobs. He tells her he’s a traveling salesman, but then he tells her he’s actually a bank robber, and finally he says he was just pulling her leg.

That’s how it is with Forrest Tucker: you may not get the truth, but you will always get the authentic man.

There’s been some talk that Redford has declared “The Old Man & the Gun” his final film, though he’s pulled back from that since. If it turns out to be true, it would be a fitting coda to one of the finest careers Hollywood’s ever seen. It won’t stand among his most memorable films -- of which there are too many to name -- but it left this critic smiling wide.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963)

Take away the then-groundbreaking special effects courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, and "Jason and the Argonauts" is a pretty darn hammy, silly fantasy film. Actually, it's pretty silly and hammy even with them, as the stop-motion creature creations haven't aged particularly well.

They've become certifiably iconic -- which is another way of saying that even though everyone agrees they represent a watershed moment in cinema, the effects look pretty antediluvian today.

Produced outside the traditional studio system, it's a cornucopia of stiff acting, nonsensical plotting and mythological bits 'n' pieces. A "B" picture by progeny but with a healthy budget of $3 million, it nonetheless got some "A" bookings in theaters at the time. Harryhausen considered it his finest work, and frequent musical score collaborator Bernard Hermann delivered a rousing, brass-heavy fanfare.

The most famous scene is the fight at the end between Jason, a couple of his men and a dozen or so skeleton warriors. It remains a rousing sequence, with the human actors blended pretty believably against the stop-motion undead. Fifty-five years after first delighting audiences, the skeletons gave my boys, ages 4 and 7, quite a thrill.

But the precursor to the fight is an utter credulity-twister. It actually wraps up the strengths and weaknesses of the film rather well: great eye candy spoiled by nigh-incompetent storytelling.

The setup: Jason and his crew have just stolen the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes of Colchis (Jack Gwillim), killing the hydra that was guarding it, and are fleeing back to their ship. Joining them is Medea (Nancy Kovack), the king's high priestess, who betrayed him because Jason was all hunky and stuff.

Aeëtes harvested the teeth of the hydra, and after catching up with Jason's group proceeds to spread the teeth around in an elaborate ritual that must take three or four minutes for the skeletons to spawn. Jason sends Medea and most of his crew on to the ship, while he and two of his men just... stand there, waiting for the spell to be completed.

"Hecate, Queen of Darkness, revenge yourself against the Thessalians. Deliver to me the children of the hydra's teeth, the children of the night!" the king thunders.

And... he goes on.

"Rise up, you dead, slain of the hydra. Rise from your graves and avenge us. Those who steal the Golden Fleece must die!"

Still, Jason stands there, mouth agape.

I don't know about you, but if I've just ripped off an angry monarch of his most coveted treasure and he starts a foul incantation, saying he's going to summon some unkillable warriors, I'm not going to just wait for him to finish. It's skedaddlin' time.

If you think it's unmanly for a cinematic hero to run from a fight: that's exactly what he does anyway. After his fellows have been slain, Jason simply jumps off the cliff and swims to his ship, the Argo, begging the question of why they couldn't have done that right away and saved some living flesh.

(By the way, if you look closely the emblems on the shields of the skeletons are representations of previous Harryhausen creations.)

Jason is played by Todd Armstrong, who's a rather thin figure, both metaphorically and literally, for a legendary warrior out of Greek mythology. His most persistent expression is one of puzzlement/astonishment, eyebrows knitted as he reacts to Harryhausen's latest invention. He stubbornly keeps his spindly arms and chest covered even as the Argonauts toil shirtless for most of the movie. Even his voice is not his own: Armstrong's entire vocal performance was reportedly dubbed over by Tim Turner. This Jason is the pencil-necked counterpoint to Steve Reeves' Hercules of the same era.

Speaking of: the ultra-strong hero is part of Jason's team, played by Nigel Green -- a decidedly thick-waisted, back-slapping iteration of Hercules. He abandons the voyage about halfway there, overcome with grief over the disappearance of Hylas (John Cairney), the intellectual member of the crew, while battling the gigantic statue of Talos on the Isle of Bronze.

The two had awakened the titan by stealing from his treasure. Jason defeats Talos by removing the nail from his heel, causing the magical ichor that sustains him to leak out. Hylas was smushed by the falling behemoth, though Hercules doesn't know that.

If your Greek mythology is a little rusty, Jason was the son of the deposed king of Thessaly, who is foretold by Zeus to avenge himself upon his father's usurper, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer). In order to restore glory to the kingdom and claim his rightful place, Jason is tasked with retrieving the Golden Fleece, the magical hide and skull of a golden ram, from the ends of the earth.

He holds a series of games, a progenitor of the Olympics, to select the finest heroes to man the princely ship that Argus (Laurence Naismith), the wise old shipbuilder, constructs for the trip. In addition to the aforementioned crew is Acastus (Gary Raymond), conniving son of Pelias, sent along to undermine the mission. Despite using his real name, nobody seems to recognize the offspring of Jason's hated enemy.

The weakest of the Harryhausen spectacles is the battle with the harpies, who plague the oracle Phineas (Patrick Troughton), blinded by the gods for his arrogance. (He was once the king of his land, though this is not stated in the movie.) The harpies are crude-looking and nonthreatening, appearing as if they were sculpted out of Play-Doh.

Jason gets occasional help from Hera (Honor Blackman), queen of the Greek gods, who has declared Jason her champion in a battle of wits with Zeus (Niall MacGinnis), her honored but often opposed husband.  Her latest protest against Zeus, aside from his wide-ranging and morphologically diverse philandering, was that her temple was profaned when Jason's family was killed.

Hera drops hints about his quest, bestow gifts, etc. Other gods make occasional appearances, including Hermes (Michael Gwynn), who doubles as an impressively coiffed earthly priest, and Triton (William Gudgeon), who holds open the Clashing Rocks so the Argo can pass through.

This is one of those movies where the gods are depicted as white-robed sentinels parading about a cloudy Olympus realm, pushing men and monsters around like pieces on a mystical chess board. It was quite a common storytelling device through the 1950s and '60s, straight up through "Clash of the Titans" in 1981.

Nowadays, though, gods are the flawed doers in movies rather than just the beneficent (or not) observers/manipulators.

Directed by journeyman filmmaker Don Chaffey, who bounced around between TV and film for 40 years, from a script by Beverly Cross and Jan Read, "Jason and the Argonauts" exists now mostly as a fine piece of nostalgia. Viewed clearly, it's a poorly-made collection of fantastical tropes. Through rose-colored glasses, though, it's a vibrant, colorful masterpiece of cheese.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Video review: "Skyscraper"

I’ve frequently complained about Dwayne Johnson’s choices of role. After doing some interesting work during the early part of his movie career, he downshifted into musclebound lunkhead action roles, the sort of braggadocios alpha male type I’ve come to loathe onscreen -- basically, Schwarzenegger II.

Then he turns around and actually tackles a more complex part, playing a disabled ex-military guy with PTSD and a lot of self-doubt. And the movie bombs, at least at the domestic box office.

This is why no one should take career advice from movie critics.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, an Army/FBI team leader who switched to designing security systems after an op went bad, leaving him with a prosthetic leg and a lot of regret. His buddy Ben (Pablo Schreiber) hooks him up to do the security work on The Pearl, a next-gen building in Hong Kong that will be the tallest in the world.

While they’re doing the final run-through some very “Die Hard”-esque international bad guys show up and start blasting the place apart with bullets and explosions. Will has brought along his family (Neve Campbell, McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) for the trip, so of course they’re caught up in the peril.

The movie itself is a pretty straight-forward action/thriller, with plenty of fight scenes and CGI action. It’s nice to see Johnson -- or anyone, for that matter -- playing a hero who’s not automatically the most physically capable person in a room. And he even refrains from the usual quips, eye rolls and bicep-flexing that has become his M.O.

It’s not a great movie, and you kind of have to tuck your sense of logic aside at points. But “Skyscraper” is a genuinely entertaining FLICK with Dwayne Johnson showing a little ambition as an actor.

Bonus features are decent, cemented by a feature-length commentary track by director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also worked with Johnson on “Central Intelligence.” Pity the actor didn’t join the director for this track. Thurber also provides commentary on a number of deleted or extended scenes.

There are also six making-of documentary shorts that focus on different aspects of production. The most interesting is a talk with Jeff Glasbrenner, the real-life amputee and motivational speaker who inspired the character of Will.



Thursday, October 4, 2018

Review: "Venom"

"Venom" is pretty goofy and kind of a garbage movie. But it's the sort of thing that's fitfully entertaining, enough so that you tend to forgive the goofiness and garbageness.

Tom Hardy graduates from playing a Batman villain to a Marvel one, although in this telling he falls more into the anti-hero groove. You may remember from "Spider-Man 3" -- unless you've purged the entire thing from memory, which isn't a bad idea -- that Eddie Brock was a rival to Peter Parker's at the Daily Bugle who eventually become infected with the same alien symbiote that lent him his cool new black suit and darker powers.

This presumably takes place in some alternate timeline, where Eddie never became Venom but instead was chased out of the New York media scene for veiled indiscretions. He landed in San Francisco and has done well for himself, operating as a mobile investigative reporter for a local network doing "The Eddie Brock Report." He's got a cool townhouse, a nifty motorcycle and even niftier fiancee (Michelle Williams).

Things come a-tumblin' down when he goes after an Elon Musk-like tech billionaire whose space program brought back the alien creatures, which resemble twitching balls of tarry goo, and is experimenting with bonding them to mammal hosts, soon upgraded to human guinea pigs.

Eddie loses his job, his home, his girl and his reputation. Oddly, although his clothes and hair get scragglier, he never seems to run short on cash, generously handing a $20 bill to a homeless woman. And he's able to keep his bike and park it in a dingy alley without ever having to worry about it being stolen.

The villain is played by Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, and I thought it was cool that we're at a place culturally and cinematically where we're comfortable with a brown bad guy. Though for some reason the movie grants him the overpoweringly WASP-y name of Carlton Drake.

One of the alien symbiotes attaches itself to Eddie, turning him into a monstrous figure that resembles Spider-Man dipped in boiling pitch, with a nasty sexualized tongue constantly wagging. He gains superhuman strength and agility, and the symbiote can create spikes or other shapes with its tentacle-like appendages.

Hilariously, the creature also speaks to him, using the same rough, growly Batman voice that has become de rigueur for darker comics characters. It can control Eddie's body and actions, though he remains conscious the entire time, even when Venom wants to (and does) chomp on people.

At one point Venom looks at a gang of mercenaries they have just defeated, and suggests he bite off their heads and arrange the pieces, just for the aesthetic pleasure of it. "Pile of bodies, pile of heads!" it demands.

There are some decent action scenes, though the CGI often becomes bewildering and hard to follow. Hardy plays Eddie as another one of his mush-mouth twerp characters, more Ratso Rizzo than Peter Parker.

"Venom" starts out a little scary and eventually turns into a weird buddy cop comedy, except one of them's a voracious alien creature and neither one of them is a cop.

Review: "A Star Is Born"

What’s it like to become famous? “A Star Is Born” provides as close an approximation as us peasants are ever apt to experience.

It’s a story of being a nobody and feeling all alone and ignored, and then suddenly there are people all around you constantly telling you what you should do and strangers acting as if they know you.

Lady Gaga, arguably the most famous singer in the world -- if it’s not her, then it’s Beyonce, who was originally in talks for this role -- plays a regular girl, Ally, who goes from crooning in a dive drag bar to the biggest stage in the world.

As with the three previous film versions of this story, the young star is helped along through their romance with an older big star, who eventually sees theirs become eclipsed and grows resentful. I’ve only ever seen the 1937 original and not the musical versions starring Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand from the 1950s and ‘70s, respectively.

Here Gaga’s co-star is Bradley Cooper, who also jumps into the director’s chair for the first time, as well as co-writing the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters. I’m sure it will be Gaga who gets most of the attention, in a big showy performance that meshes well with her massive star persona. She wrote or co-wrote many of the songs in the movie, and at least a handful are showstoppers.

But it’s Cooper who grabbed my heart in a stricken performance as Jackson Maine, a boozy rocker/cowboy who everybody sees as the golden boy but really feels like a star-crossed loser in his heart. It’s as fine and sensitive performance as he’s ever given, and should be remembered during the awards season.

Cooper also proves to be a more than passable singer, belting out hard-edged rock tunes with a country tinge, as well playing the guitar (or miming doing so) quite believably.

He drops his voice into the basement, chewing his dialogue in a rich, deep burr that immediately made me think of Sam Elliott, which makes sense since he plays Jackson’s much older half-brother.

They used to sing together, but Bobby has now become the tour manager-slash-troubleshooter. Resentments abound -- about the music, the sweaty state fairs where they play, the hearing loss that secretly plagues Jackson. (I identified with him, trying to play it cool while having to ask people to repeat themselves.)

When Jackson stops off in a bar for a drink after one of his shows, he’s ensorcelled by Ally, belting out a saucy version of “La Vie En Rose” while handing out flowers. They spend a magical night drinking, talking, flirting and singing. Next thing she knows Ally has been flown in by jet for his next concert, invited on stage and made to sing one of her songs -- which no one’s heard before -- to a crowd of thousands.

The story is pretty languid and magical the first half, as her star blooms. The second half of the movie flies by very quickly as Ally goes from featured singer in Jackson’s band to a pop sensation all on her own, assisted by Rez (Rafi Gabron), a brilliant but mercenary manager.

This is the rare movie that, even at 135 minutes, could have stood to be a little longer.

The electricity between Gaga and Cooper is undeniable. It’s also fascinating to watch their relationship morph. In the beginning he’s clearly in charge, enjoying granting her a moment in the sun. Later, as his boozing outstrips his talent, Ally becomes the caretaker.

In one memorable scene, they cuddle on a balcony overlooking a massive billboard of her face just before her first album hits. He whispers in her ear to stay true to herself as an artist, not to lose herself in the hype the way he did.

It’s easy to look at all the drinking, drugs and partying and wonder why so many famous people throw their talents away. “A Star Is Born” invites inside the rarest of bubbles and helps us grasp the intense pressure that comes with having to perform. The biggest names often hide the most vulnerable souls.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Review: "Colette"

At first blush “Colette” sounds like a retread of the recent wonderful film “The Wife” starring Glenn Close as the wife of a Nobel-winning author who (spoiler alert) actually wrote all of his books.

But in fact “Colette” is more or less the original tale of a long-suffering woman creating great art under her husband’s name, and is based on the historical early life of arguably France’s most celebrated female writer.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) was a simple country girl who married a famous Parisian author some years her senior, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), known by his pen name, Willy.

It may seem shocking to us that writing could be published under another person’s name, but as the film makes clear, it was common practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (And, as I can personally attest, it still is.)

Willy was a publisher himself who kept a stable of writers working feverishly to crank out stuff under the Willy brand -- generally salacious romances for high-society types. When their finances grow slim and he cannot afford to pay his ghost writers, Willy suggests that Gabrielle dash something off.

Her novel, “Claudine at School,” becomes an overnight sensation, detailing the lascivious thoughts and practices of a 15-year-old schoolgirl from provincial Burgundy. More books followed, chronicling the character’s rise to the Parisian salons and increasingly volatile romances. Willy and Colette become the toast of Paris, until the inevitable resentment over his assuming authorship of the books comes to loggerheads.

West is blowsy and self-pitying as the libertine Willy, suit vests barely able to contain an ample belly, a gray squiggle of goatee dancing off the end of his chin. He’s like a well-meaning but incorrigible walrus who always promises not to steal all the fish, but gives in to his appetites every time.

For him, this means basking in the attention of the French literary world, as well as the attendant feminine attention for a purveyor of socially acceptable smut.

At first decimated by his cheating, Gabrielle soon finds herself indulging her own romantic interests with other women -- with Willy’s blessing and urging. An early affair with a wealthy American socialite (Eleanor Tomlinson) becomes a public sensation, as both Gabrielle and Willy trade turns under her sheets. This provides more fodder for the next novel, of course.

This is where the movie is at its best, exploring how a provincial girl morphs into a worldly woman testing the boundaries of social constraint. Knightley -- who seems not to have aged a line since breaking out 15 years ago -- lets us feel Gabrielle’s surging passions and how they translated into art.

She and Willy enjoy a love/hate relationship, not exactly abusive but certainly controlling. He actually locks her in a room and forces her to write. As time goes on, she casts off more of his yoke, particularly via her long-term relationship with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), a renowned noblewoman who dressed in suits and essentially lived as a man.

It’s almost as if Gabrielle dreamed up a parallel universe of affairs and scandal at Willy’s suggestion, and then they were determined to live out this shared fantasy.

The latter third of “Colette” loses a lot of narrative steam, eventually devolving into what seems like a series of naughty vignettes with little connective tissue between them. New lovers come and go like a theatrical parade.

Gabrielle’s marriage to Willy essentially dissolved over the course of some years, the rights to the Claudine books were sold off and she lived at a near-poverty level, subsisting as a stage actress. Her greatest works -- under her own byline -- came later, including “Gigi,” which had its own cinematic adaptation.

Director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”), who wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, struggles (as many filmmakers do) with folding the messy, chaotic ends of a real life into a 1¾-hour movie. The result is an engaging biopic that loses steam.

By the way, I promise you I wrote this review myself, and did not force my wife to do it. Although who knows? Maybe she could’ve done a better job.