Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

By Roger Ebert

For virtually every kind of human activity, there’s a subculture somewhere that fetishizes it and regards its doings as more precious than it really is. My things are movies and jalopies; other people are into tattoos or vintage furniture or what have you.

If you’re ever tempted to scoff at somebody else’s little obsessions, remember that they might find yours laughable, too.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a smart and sensitive comedy that’s as black as pitch. Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a formerly successful writer who’s hit the skids in 1991 at age 51. Unemployed and unable to pay her rent, she takes an old letter Katharine Hepburn penned to her -- she wrote a magazine profile of the actress in the 1960s -- down to a rare bookstore and sells it for some quick cash.

Lee soon realizes she has stumbled into the toniest of hobbyist communities: people who collect personal letters from celebrities. While researching a biography of stage comedienne Fanny Brice, she comes across a couple of routine letters, which she pilfers. The kindly owner of a tiny bookshop, Anna (Dolly Wells), offers $75 for one, saying it would be more if it weren’t so dull. You can practically see the light bulb popping up over Lee’s head.

She shunts the other Fanny letter into her typewriter and adds a hilarious P.S. in the actress’ voice; this time she gets $350. She’s off to the races.

Lee is, to use the nice word, a pill. McCarthy, known for her exuberant characters and winsome get-ups, seems to be practically drained of shape and color. All of Lee’s clothes look like bags, and her brown hair hangs like a carpet that has rarely seen a brush, or shampoo. She swears a lot, drinks even more, and yelling seems to be her default volume.

Her agent (a delicious Jane Curtain) explains that it would probably be best if Lee found some other line of work. She thinks she has. Soon Lee is cranking out ersatz letters from Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. She sets up an entire operation, buying vintage typewriters for each celebrity she’s impersonating.

Lee does her research and becomes very good at mimicking the literary stars’ voices. Top dealers are clamoring for more. Rather than being wracked with guilt, Lee realizes she’s doing the best writing of her life.

Her drinking buddy and eventual partner is Jack Hock -- was there ever a more fitting name? -- a British scallywag played with great glee by Richard E. Grant. An aging queen who never wants the party to end, he’s basically spent his whole life grifting in one way or another. When questions about some of Lee’s letters force her to stop selling them herself, she finds that Jack gets even higher prices through his twinkly schmoozing.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is based on Israel’s own memoir, adapted for the screen by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, directed by Marielle Heller. It works on a lot of levels, but is best as a character study of a thoroughly unlikable person.

McCarthy and the filmmakers don’t attempt to smooth down Lee’s rough ages. Here is a woman who was all rough edges. She’s been pushed around and beat down all her life, and her reaction is to push back and punch back. We may not like Lee -- hardly anyone does -- but we find ourselves growing an odd sort of regard for her.

When she’s finally caught -- no spoilers here; there wouldn’t be a book or movie without that -- Lee says that it’s probably been the happiest time of her life. People were paying good money for her words, even if they thought somebody else, somebody more noteworthy, was doing the writing.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could admire a wonderful piece of creativity without worrying whose name was attached to it?

**P.S. If you need me to tell you that Roger didn't really write this, then my pun has been for naught.**

Review: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Freddie Mercury was a beautiful, beautiful man. He had the voice of an angry angel and the strut of a smirking devil. The songs he created with his band, Queen, have already entered the hall of ages. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an exuberant celebration of the man and the music.

But not just Mercury himself.

One of the things I appreciated about the film, directed by Bryan Singer from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, is that’s not a simple biopic of the lead singer. The other three members of the band -- lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) -- are fully represented as living, breathing people and not just “the other guys.” They regard Mercury as a brother and equal, and aren’t shy about calling out his self-centered behavior.

Rami Malek embodies the soul of Mercury, capturing his ineluctable showmanship onstage and retiring nature off it. For the songs, the filmmakers combined Malek’s vocals with those of Mercury and Marc Martel, a professional sound-alike. It’s an effective innovation, sounding like Mercury’s own voice while authentic enough to not seem like just canned playback.

The story follows Mercury for about 15 years, from a kid of Persian ethnicity who moved from Tanzania to the U.K. as a teenager, to the height of his fame and ego. It’s a mesmerizing, bravura performance by Malek, one that I hope is remembered during the awards season.

We witness Queen evolve from a college pub band into something more, selling their touring van to pay for studio time to cut an album. Born to conservative parents and with a protruding overbite caused by extra teeth, Mercury hungers to break out of his assigned role.

He wanted to play for the weirdos in the back of the room, because he was one.

Fame and fortune soon followed, but Mercury was kept grounded for many years by the companionship of Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his onetime fiancé and for whom he wrote “Love of My Life.” Eventually he came out to her as bisexual, which ended their romance but not their friendship.

Queen deliberately blurred gender lines in their act, slapping each other’s bums and dressing in drag for a music video. At a time when being openly gay could literally be fatal, they toyed with our proscribed notions of attraction and thereby made breaking them seem less dangerous.

The movie contains many of the hallmarks of the rock movie -- shady producers, spats between the band, a sycophantic personal manager (a slimy Allen Leech) who worms his way into the star’s life and sows the seeds of dissension.

But the film never feels rote or predictable. We celebrate the live recreation of Queen performances -- if you don’t inadvertently start stamping your feet during “We Will Rock You,” you can’t be helped -- and marvel at the collaborative creativity that went into making them.

We don’t just feel like we’re observing Queen, but have been invited inside the bubble.

(Note: Singer was fired with two weeks left in production and replaced by Dexter Fletcher; however, the Director’s Guild awarded him sole credit.)

There are two mirrored shots near the beginning and end that encapsulate the film. They chronicle the moment when Queen was about to take the stage for the massive Live Aid concert in 1985, which was their big reunion after a split of several years. Both follow Mercury as he strides from his trailer through the backstage area and then prepares to leap out of the curtains to a live crowd in the hundreds of thousands, and a television audience of over a billion.

In the first, the camera follows Mercury alone from behind. We appreciate his singular flamboyant personality and eagerness to bask in the wave of adulation. In the second, the rest of the band follows him as together they take the stage as a group. In the first, he is Freddie, a virtuoso; in the second he is part of Queen, a legend.

That’s the lesson of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Even those blessed with superstar talent need others to reach their ultimate potential. Freddie Mercury found his onstage by joining his abilities with others, and offstage by looking to people who cared about him as a person rather than just as a rock god. I can’t wait to watch this movie again, and again.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Let me tell you about my friend, Matt

If you ever read a column by Matt Tully, you probably already felt like you knew him.

He was one of those few gifted writers who never let words come between him and his readers. Instead, he used his column in The Indianapolis Star to tear down barriers -- between rich and poor, black and white, Republicans and Democrats, people who enjoyed great neighborhoods with excellent schools and those who felt trapped in their community. He was a kind man, but also one with strong opinions who wasn't afraid to express them forcefully... but never hatefully.

But as I said, if you were Matt's reader you already knew all this.

Instead I'd like to tell you about my friend, Matt, the guy I knew. If you're reading this you probably have already heard that he died yesterday at age 49 after a two-year battle with stomach cancer. An entire city mourns.

In the old Star newsroom, Matt was a jovial presence who loved to talk baseball, especially his beloved Cubs. He grew up in The Region, as those of us in Indiana call the northwestern part of our state, which in many ways belongs more to Chicago than Hoosierdom.

Matt was pretty much the first friend I made after moving to Indiana in 2005. I came here not knowing a soul, and he opened up his heart and offered friendship. Whenever he could tell I was feeling overtaxed, toiling away in the features department on the entertainment section, he would grab me by the arm and walk me over to Starbucks or somewhere else to de-stress for a few minutes. He and his wife, Val, went on a few double-dates with my then-girlfriend, Jean, and I, and invited us to their home.

We were both young, ambitious guys in our mid-30s who knew we were going places.

At the end of 2008, our paths diverged. I was let go by the Star, along with dozens of others in a seemingly never-ending stream of cost-cutting. Meanwhile, he had essentially become the face of the Star, its most recognizable talent, especially after sports maestro Bob Kravitz left a few years later. He was on his way up; I was on my way down. I spent two years freelancing and living off unemployment benefits before I found another job.

It's common for coworkers to lose touch, especially after a scenario like this. Survivor's guilt, along with the need to carry on with the important mission of journalism, tends to make it seem to those who stay that a curtain has closed on those who left.

Not Matt. He made it a point to stay in touch, getting together for occasional coffees or lunches. I texted him feedback about his latest column -- nearly always positive -- and we occasionally jawed about politics. Matt was center-left, I am center-right, I'm a Marco Rubio fan and he was dismissive of his abilities. But we never argued, and he always strove to respect a differing opinion.

When I announced to the world that I had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, Matt shared the story wider than I ever could. He asked me often about how I was doing, and offered to help out in any way he could.

We both became parents around the same time. Matt kept me updated during he and Val's struggle to have their own child, and then the arduous process of adopting one. They came close several times, only to have the adoption fall through. I could tell he was depressed and starting to give up hope of ever being a father. Then, in very short order, they found themselves parents to a beautiful baby boy.

Our sons, Joel and Reid, are just a few months apart in age. Some of my most cherished memories are of watching them play together. I still remember Joel chirping away in the back of the car after the first of many play dates together, "I think I just found a new friend!"

I moved from Broad Ripple to Carmel a few years ago, and often joshed with Matt that he would eventually follow. He laughed and demurred; they loved their neighborhood in Meridian-Kessler. Then, a couple years back, Matt and his family went north like so many Indy families do. We exchanged Carmel jokes while not-so-secretly loving life here.

I didn't see much of Matt over the last year of his illness. We kept in touch mainly through text messages. I returned his offers of help, saying we'd be happy to take Reid for a day to give him and Val some rest. But I think in his last months what he really wanted most was to be with his family, and I was happy to give him that space.

In his last column this summer, Matt promised his readers that he'd be back. It turns out he won't be returning to the pages of the Star, other than for his obituary. But in many ways, he kept his word: because he never really left. Matt Tully is the beating heart of the Star, and I think will remain so for many years to come.

But those sorts of words are best left for the official eulogy. Today, I just miss my dear friend.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Video review: "Juliet, Naked"

Just for the record: nobody doffs their clothes in “Juliet, Naked.” The title refers to an acoustic early version of a seminal album by Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a fictional indie rocker who stopped performing 20 years ago in this lovely adaptation of the Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”) novel.

A tape of the record finds its way to the doorstep of Annie Platt (Rose Bryne), a woman living in a quaint seaside British village. Her longtime boyfriend, Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), runs a website lavishly  devoted to the lost rock god. Annie had written some snarky comments on the site taking Tucker’s work down a peg or two, and the man himself writes her to agree, along with the tape.

A correspondence soon kicks up, and before long Tucker has come to Annie and Duncan’s town on some family business. As her moribund relationship crashes, a potential new one blooms.

The film, directed by Jesse Peretz from a screenplay by Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins and Evgenia Peretz, is less about the nature of faded celebrity than the quirky ways human connections happen, and expire. Annie and Duncan are seemingly content at the start of the story, but as events transpire the cracks in their relationship becoming yawning chasms.

Likewise, Tucker comes across at first blush as a lovable loser, a guy sponging off his ex-wife and content to never play in front of an audience again. But we see that his quirks are actually character flaws, such as being an erstwhile father to his far-flung children, though the proximity to Annie compels him to start working on these issues again.

Sweet and sad, “Juliet, Naked” is a tale of possibilities -- to do more and be more than we were yesterday.

Bonus features are alas rather scant. It consists of just a single documentary short, “Making Juliet, Naked.”



Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Review: "Beautiful Boy"

“Beautiful Boy” delivers everything I expected, and nothing I didn’t.

It’s a well-acted, well-intentioned drama about drug addiction and the horrid toll it takes on a family. The film is based on a true story, and interestingly the father and son each wrote memoirs about their journey that formed the basis of the screenplay by Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen, with the latter also directing.

This should be the sort of film that milks you for tears, yet I found it oddly emotionally remote. I observed the characters rather than getting caught up in their plight. Instead of pitying them or identifying with them, I regarded them as mere constructs in a tale that felt like it was navigating a predetermined path.

In many ways, the worst thing a movie can do is fail to surprise you.

Steve Carell plays David Sheff, and Timothée Chalamet is his teenage son, Nic. They have a strong, tender bond that’s survived divorce (Amy Ryan is the brittle ex-wife/mother) and remarriage to Karen (Maura Tierney). Their special thing is when parting to simply say “everything” to each other -- as in, I love you more than everything.

Like too many kids his age, Nic dabbles with pot and booze. David brushes it off; he did the same thing at that age. (And still dabbles, he admits.) But when he tries crystal meth, it’s like Nic’s whole soul is sucked into a hole. A quizzical, creative boy who loves to write and draw, part of the problem is that he feels more alive and vibrant when he’s on drugs.

In one pivotal scene, David goes through his son’s notebooks while he’s off on one of his multiple-day benders, and finds an entry where he says that his life felt like black-and-white until he tried meth, and then it became Technicolor.

David is a journalist who enjoys his secure, well-ordered life. Carell shows us how he deeply cares for and loves his son, but also how Nic’s addiction throws a wrench into the life he’s carefully rebuilt with Karen, which includes two adorable blonde moppets. Every conversation he has with his ex-wife about Nic’s welfare immediately turns into a shouting match, more about stirring up old resentments than protecting their kid.

(The movie has a decided “House Hunter” problem common in films today: the Sheffs live on an idyllic tree-lined estate on the outskirts of San Francisco, despite the fact he is a freelance writer and all Karen seems to do is paint pictures.)

The story goes through a predictable cycle of critical drug use, rehab and relapse, with Nic showing up in progressively worse and worse shape. Chalamet transforms from skinny to scrawny, his cheeks sunken and his ribs showing through T-shirts draped over his shriveled body.

I appreciated some of these sequences. In one, David waits in a favorite restaurant to be reunited with Nic, and wistfully recalls their conversations and good times there when his son was just a tyke. Then the devastated man-child shows up, twitchy and resentful, going through the motions of rekindling the relationship until he can demand money. The contrast is jarring.

But in the end, “Beautiful Boy” has a rote, TV-movie-of-the-week feel to it. Nothing ever happens that we didn’t anticipate. The film checks all the right boxes, but fails to absorb our hearts.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Flynn" (1993)

Errol Flynn was one of Hollywood's most colorful personalities, a man whose off-camera life was at least as vivid as the one we saw dancing across the screen, usually with the dashing, mustachioed actor waving a rapier or a pistol.

His autobiography, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways," published shortly after his death, was a smash hit that has never been out of print in nearly 60 years. He and ghostwriter Earl Conrad put together the book over the course of a few months in Jamaica, during which it was rare that one or the other wasn't off somewhere drunk and/or chasing women.

It's a great read, especially the parts detailing Flynn's international adventures in the South Pacific before discovering acting, although at least half of what's written is probably baldfaced lies. If true, by his early 20s he had already had more adventures than Indiana Jones.

I suspect that Flynn, best known for his rapscallion swashbucklers, was simply playing up his faded Hollywood image rather than relating personal history.

Shortly after reading the book I became aware of the movie "Flynn," starring Guy Pearce as Flynn from about ages 17 to 23 and focusing on his pre-acting days. There have been any number of screen portrayals of Flynn, generally centering on his latter debauched days, including portrayals by Kevin Kline in "The Last of Robin Hood" and Peter O'Toole as a barely disguised spoof of Flynn in "My Favorite Year."

But this was a portrait of the actor, drawn from his own words, about his formative years stumbling about the globe. (There was a forgettable 1985 TV movie sharing the title of the autobiography.)

I knew I had to see it, but "Flynn" is not an easy film to track down on video. A friend finally loaned me his DVD copy, which seems to be the version of the movie that played on Australian TV.

(Broadcast standards being different just about everywhere else than the U.S., my first impression was admiration that they managed to squeeze in two bare-breasted sex scenes within the first five minutes.)

I'm still smiling at the friend's response to my question if the movie was any good. "By no means," he messaged. I can't disagree, though it's not nearly the rolling catastrophe most people regard it as. Pearce himself has called it the worst film he ever made, and professed not to know what its final title is.

The progeny of the movie is nearly as contorted as Flynn's rambling words about his young life. It was shot in 1989 with Brian Kavanagh directing from a script by Frank Howson and Alister Webb. It was shown at the 1990 Cannes festival and bought by distribution company with the proviso that some scenes be reshot. Howson stepped in his director, several key actors were replaced with others, and they ended up reshooting about half the footage.

It played against at Cannes in 1993, this time under the title "My Forgotten Man," perhaps to fool the festival programmers into the playing the same movie a second time. It was set to get a theatrical release, but was pulled seven days before it hit screens over a copyright dispute. It was eventually released on video around 1996, and has been sold to various international markets, usually under the title "Flynn."

Pearce, who was in his early 20s when they initially shot the movie, bears little resemblance to Flynn other than an astonishing handsomeness. We can see how women, and not a few men, were dazzled by him. His attempt to grown the signature Flynn pencil mustache goes a short way in furthering the likeness.

Though not a strict adaptation of the autobiography, it follows the generally accepted biographical lines. Son of a famous biologist, kicked out of a fancy predatory school for sleeping with the laundress, he knocked around as a mercantile clerk before being fired for stealing. Flynn has a stint of homelessness before falling in with Penelope (Rebecca Rig), daughter of a rich businessman.

Eschewing the opportunity to wed into money and obtain a lucrative job from his father-in-law, Flynn departs for New Guinea to pursue the tales of massive gold finds. There he becomes embroiled in a running escapade of drinking, panning rivers for nuggets, being robbed and being the robber, bedding a native chieftain's daughter, battling malaria and being accused and convicted of murder.

John Savage plays Joe Stromberg, an American photographer who takes some early footage of Flynn parading through the jungle that gets sent off to Hollywood. Though we never hear anything more about it. Flynn actually gets his big break by doing a little do-si-do with another, getting him drunk and taking his place on a production of "Mutiny on the Bounty."

Steven Berkoff is a memorable presence as the conniving, bespectacled German Klaus Reicher, who befriends Flynn while grifting from him freely. They save each other's necks and then double-cross one another, repeatedly. He is purported to be a spy, but claims he's a wanted man on the run from the police.

The production values on "Flynn" aren't that bad, though the movie looks like it was edited with a Cuisinart. Scenes go on and on, such as men racing through the jungle, and then other parts will abruptly jump to somewhere else. In one confusing bit, Flynn shoots one of the natives trying to kill him, runs to the edge of a river, stand there looking at the water, and then suddenly wakes up in a hospital, recovering from malaria and with a murder charge hover over his head.

Even though it's not a very good movie, I'm glad I finally caught up with "Flynn." Pearce is a breezy, assured presence playing a man who knows for certain he's destined for greatness, but has no idea how to get there.

It was often said that Errol Flynn was a man who got by on confidence, looks and a little bit of talent. But people often forget that the first two make up a great deal of the latter in showbiz.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Video review: "Sorry to Bother You"

I wouldn’t be shocked if you missed “Sorry to Bother You” in theaters. It’s a tiny picture, although it made a decent media splash at the time of its release. Its star, Lakeith Stanfield, is one of the best young actors working in film today, so it had already been on my radar.

It’s hard to describe this film from first-time director Boots Riley -- it’s science fiction, cautionary tale, social satire, racial parable and raucous comedy all rolled into one.

In a dystopian not-so-distant future, Cassius Green (Stanfield) lands a job as a telemarketer for a huge multinational corporation. He’s not very good at it until a fellow black employee (Danny Glover) clues him to use his “white voice” when on the phone. Cassius does -- with the voice dubbed in by David Cross -- and immediately realizes incredible success.

Before long he finds himself the right-hand man of CEO/villain Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), moving into a posh downtown condo and driving some cool wheels. His girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), worries about him selling out to the man.

Things get stranger with the revelation of some crazy half-human, half-horse creatures that the company is secretly developing as cheap labor. But I’ll leave that as a surprise.

By turns hilarious, angry, prescient and irritating, “Sorry to Bother You” is one of the most unique cinematic experiences you’ll have this year. I can’t guarantee you’ll love it, but there’s nothing else like it to compare.

Video extras are pretty expansive. They include a feature length commentary track by Riley, who also hosts a “Beautiful Clutter” featurette. There’s a gallery of photos from production, and two making-of documentary shorts: “The Art of the White Voice” and “The Cast of Sorry to Bother You.”



Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: "Halloween"

“Halloween” is a decently energetic horror flickershow. But it doesn’t pass the basic litmus test of, “Does this movie need to exist?”

As you know, this film reunites Jamie Lee Curtis, in her most seminal role as Laurie Strode, with Michael Myers, with white-masked, silent killer who tried unsuccessfully to off her in the original movie of the same title from 40 years ago. It’s essentially a reunion.

But then, they already held this party in 1998 for “Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later.” She managed to whack off Michael’s head with an axe in that one, Lizzie Borden-style. Undeterred, he reappeared a few years later for “Halloween: Resurrection,” and returned the favor by killing Laurie.

And this doesn’t even take into account the Rob Zombie reboot and its own sequel a few years back, or the various Laurie-less sequels of the 1980s and ‘90s. “Halloween III” didn’t even bother with featuring Michael or Laurie, making television the villain, or something.

The point is, it’s impossible to take this franchise seriously any longer. It’s been rebooted and remade and retconned to hell and back again. There is no sense of consequences because anybody who dies can just be brought back for the next iteration by the next round of filmmakers. Rinse and repeat.

This 40th anniversary reunion is part homage to the original and part new story jag. It requires us to ignore all the previous Halloween movies since the second one. It even asks us to forget that Laurie and Michael are supposed to be brother and sister -- a key piece of the franchise’s iconography for five decades.

In this telling, Michael Myers has been rotting in a mental institution for the past 40 years, never speaking a word to anyone. Meanwhile, Laurie seems to have done little in the years between other than arming herself and preparing for the eventual day he would come after her again.

There’s another creepy, vaguely European doctor trying to puzzle his way into Michael’s brain, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer). Laurie takes on look at him and cuts to the chase: “You’re the new Loomis,” she says, referring to Donald Pleasance’s psychiatrist, whose obsession turned from curing Michael to ending him. I think Pleasance has actually been in more Halloween movies than Curtis.

Judy Greer plays Laurie’s estranged adult daughter, who was raised under the threat of Michael’s return, and has her own teen daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). She goes off to a Halloween party with her friends, and soon finds herself stalked by her grandmother’s not-brother.

Will Patton turns up as Frank Hawkins, a veteran cop in the fictional town of Haddonfield, who reputedly was the first one on the scene for the 1978 murders. He putters around here and there, discovering the bodies Michael leaves in his wake, killing time until his own inevitable offing.

Nowhere in the movie is it ever mentioned that Michael would have to be close to 70 years old now. You’d think at some point even maniacal serial killers would segue from slicing horny teenagers to Metamucil and a nice day in the park.

Directed by David Gordon Green, who comes from a comedy background and co-wrote the screenplay with funnyman Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, “Halloween” contains a smattering of funny moments, such as two police officers comparing their lunches while sitting in their patrol car waiting to be stabbed.

How very different the horror genre has gotten in the last 40 years. I don’t think the original “Halloween” would’ve become anything like the iconic film it is with this sort of verbal diarrhea and passing attempts at levity.

John Carpenter knew that when you’re trying to scare people, concentrate on the scaring.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: "Free Solo"

“I just need it to end.”
        --Alex Honnold

The basic problem with the movie is that it wouldn’t exist if he had died.

“Free Solo” is a documentary from National Geographic about Alex Honnold, the first person to climb the El Capitan mountain in Yosemite National Park without ropes or other equipment. In the cloistered world of mountain climbing, this was considered a watershed achievement on the order of summiting Mt. Everest.

To the indifferent observer, it seems very much like a self-centered man risking his life for no good reason at all.

The very best documentary films do more than just show you things. They take you away from your own life and perspective, forcing you to discover people who are very different from you in how they think and what they do. By the end, you find yourself, if not embracing the difference, at least understanding and accepting it.

“Free Solo” is not that kind of movie. I went into it believing that mountain climbing is an utterly useless endeavor undertaken by thrill-seeking people who don’t have much else going on in their lives to recommend. I finished it thinking exactly the same thing.

Perhaps that’s my failing, but I think it’s the movie’s.

Honnold isn’t a particular likable, or even compelling, subject for a feature-length film. A rangy man-child in his 30s with large eyes and monkey-like feet and hands, he lives in a van and tools around from mountain to mountain, practicing for his historic ascent. He eats his meals out of the same frying pan he cooked in, using the spatula as an outsized spoon. His only acquaintances are other climbers with whom he trades notes.

At some point during filmmaking he acquires a girlfriend, a vibrant woman named Sanni McCandless with the patience of Job, who follows him around for a time. He suffers a pair of injuries while doing some light climbing with her, and blames her for setting back his plans.

“I will always choose climbing over a lady,” he tells the camera. I have no doubts. He’s become fairly rich and famous, appearing on the cover of numerous magazines, but has eschewed purchasing a home. It’s the same emotionally: Honnold is a renter, not a buyer.

There’s a lot of beautiful photographer in “Free Solo,” as directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and their crew of danger-defying cameramen (they’re all men) climb the mountain to capture Honnold’s attempt. But as I say, there really isn’t much suspense involved. The crew frets constantly about having Honnold fall to his death while they’re shooting him, but we know this won’t happen.

It’s the biggest false tease imaginable: “Watch this movie to see if he dies!” (Stage whisper: he’s fine.)

Honnold and his ilk like to portray themselves as the inheritors of the mantle of Sir Edmund Hillary and Magellan: fearless folks pushing the limits of their humanity in order to be the the first.

There’s a big difference between exploration and recreation, though. One is undertaken to expand mankind’s knowledge, and the other to enhance a person’s reputation.

Alex Honnold climbing El Cap without any ropes -- spoiler alert! -- successfully adds nothing of value to the universe. “Free Solo” chronicles a meaningless march up a mountain, without managing to illuminate why he, or anyone, would do so.

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.