Thursday, June 20, 2019

Toys are us -- or at least pretty human

Toy Story 4 balances real issues, fun and undisguised sentiment.
What’s an aging toy to do?

That question hovers over Toy Story 4, giving the movie a strange relevance that goes along with the comfort and amusement we associate with toys.

In this edition, Woody -- the familiar cowboy toy voiced by Tom Hanks -- faces a struggle between loyalty and personal fulfillment. Bo Peep (voice by Annie Pots) already has struck out on her own. She’s given up on the idea of belonging to a child. Long separated from the lamp they once called home, Bo and her sheep roam the country as free ... geez ... I almost said beings.

After a brief prologue, director Josh Cooley plunges into a story that takes some odd turns. Bonnie, Woody’s latest “owner,” has been ignoring the cowboy, but Woody continues in his loyalty, even sneaking into Bonnie’s backpack to help her deal with her terrifying first day at school.

During that fateful day, Bonnie makes a toy out of a spork and pipe cleaners. Named Forky and having been granted toy status by virtue of Bonnie’s affection, the newbie springs to life.

Initially, Forky has trouble giving up his previous identity as a disposable piece of trash. Left to his own devices, Forky instinctively leaps into the nearest wastebasket, forcing Woody to rescue him -- not because he cares that much about Forky but because he knows Bonnie will be distraught if she loses a toy she made.

When Bonnie’s family takes an RV trip, the story takes an even weirder turn. Woody and Forky wind up in an antique store where they’re terrorized by four ventriloquist dummies and their leader, a doll called Gaby Gaby (Christina Hendricks). An old-fashioned girl doll with eyelids that drop into a blink, Gabby wants to steal Woody’s voice box to enhance her desirability. If a kid can pull her string and hear Gaby talk — routine doll babble that has nothing to do with her "real" vocal skills — perhaps she’ll be able to fulfill her destiny and find her very own human.

And, no, I can’t believe I’m writing about the motivations of toys, but such is the life of movie critics and children.

The dummies give Toy Story 4 a weird horror-movie tilt — at least for a few minutes. I half wish Disney had gone all the way and really taken Toy Story 4 off the rails, but that, of course, would have been commercial suicide.

Instead, the Pixar team balances the sentimental, the slightly scary and the blatantly emotional in a package that marks a definite improvement of the last installment.

As with all sequels, this one has been accessorized with a few new features, notably two furry toys. Jordan Peele gives voice to Bunny and Keegan-Michael Key does voice work for Ducky. Even better, Keanu Reeves provides the voice for Duke Caboom, a failure-prone motorcycle-riding daredevil. It's one of Reeves’ best performances.

Old standby Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) tags along for the ride, taking a bit of back seat to the other characters. But even Buzz receives a showcase moment.

The always reliable Pixar animation can seem a bit creepy — plastic faces that never fully come to life. But what the heck, these are toys. Besides, humans have relatively little to do with this edition; they’re around to give the toys a sense of purpose.

If an adult friend (sans kids) asked me whether he or she should race out to see Toy Story 4, I’d probably shrug. If you must. But parents who see the movie with their kids won’t be bored and Disney always gives enough cartoonish bounce to its endeavors to keep youngsters happy — even if they’re not tuned into what some critics are calling an “existential” edition of Toy Story.

The end credits will help you decide whether Bo Peep and Woody have a future. This may not be as pressing a question as whether artificial intelligence will deprive you of employment or whether climate change will torment your progeny in ways you hardly can imagine, but for a couple of hours, Disney and its fine voice cast help you get caught up in it.

A footnote: I wonder whether kids will realize that they can make Forky at home and without jumping onto any merchandising bandwagon. This could start a massive new trend that cripples sales of movie-related toys: Kids actually making things themselves. What a concept.

Watching inhabitants of the publishing world

Non-Fiction examines life within a narrow yet revealing frame.
About a quarter of the way through director Olivier Assayas‘s Non-Fiction, my wife turned to me and whispered, "I can't stand these people." Her abhorrence seemed entirely justified.

Assayas's dive into the besieged world of book publishing -- complete with copious conversations about the digital onslaught that threatens the literary soul -- focuses on narcissistic intellectuals who have affairs as casually as the rest of us might have lunch and who seem to hide behind veils of self-assured posturing. Among this group, it's not easy to separate conviction from self-interest.

And yet...

There's an undeniable sense of life in Non-Fiction along with fine performances in a story that begins when the editor of a publishing house (Guillaume Canet) rejects the work of one of his authors (Vincent Macaigne).

Assayas then opens the world he wishes to explore, allowing his characters to become more stressed and more revealed.

Canet's Alain is married to an actress (Juliette Binoche) who has been working in a popular television crime series. Macaigne's Leonard's wife, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), has committed herself to politics, working for a left-leaning politician. She responds cruelly when Leonard sinks into depression.

She approaches life with staunch practicality that leaves little room for compassion toward those around her and also differentiates her from a crowd that's likely to spend hours talking about e-books, the impact of digital media, the way we perceive the world, and whether blogs are worthy of attention from literary-minded readers.

Leonard's so-called "auto-fiction" comes under fire. Does it exploit the lives of those with whom he associates, particularly the women with whom he's had affairs? And, yes, bed-hopping may have something to do with various decisions that are made. We begin to suspect pettiness lies beneath what sometimes are expressed as matters of principle.

I couldn't begin to tell you whether Assayas cares a fig about the way the digital world seems to be gobbling up everything, changing long-standing practices and assumptions. And I'm not entirely sure these verbally dexterous characters are doing anything more than engaging in a rarefied form of shop talk about the business they happen to inhabit.

Even-keeled Alain has an affair with a young woman (Christa Theret) who has been hired to help shove his company into the digital age and who seems to be a model for some new kind of human being. She’s a pillar of technical pragmatism.

Binoche's character worries that her TV work amounts to a betrayal of her artistry. Leonard doesn't seem entirely convinced of his talent, admitting that he can't write without pillaging his own life and the lives of those who happened to wander into it.

Only Hamzawi's Valeria seems to have her feet on the ground, but you wouldn't want to take her as a role model either.

So what's the takeaway from all this? I'd say the movie has something to do with exposing the narrowness of preoccupied lives. It's not the digital world that threatens Assayas's characters; it's their insistence on using their considerable intellectual skills to create the illusion that they might actually know what they're doing.

So, like my wife, you may not like these folks, but also like her, you’ll probably stay interested in this astutely cut slice of Parisian life.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 6/20/90 -- Walking on Water and The Fall of the American Empire

Walking on Water
In the documentary Walking on Water, the artist Christo oversees creation one of his signature works, a floating walkway constructed on Lake Iseo in the Lombardy region of Italy. Set in 2015, the movie follows Christo and his team through a massive undertaking that was taken apart only 16 days after its debut. In his first project since the death of his wife Jeanne-Claude in 2009, Christo navigates bureaucracies and deals with an array of technical and weather problems —- not to mention the frustrations of having the project nearly ruined by inadequate crowd control measures. Christo doesn't pretend that the work has great significance; his "Floating Piers" -- made from more than 200,000 polyethylene cubes -- seems an irresistibly playful creation, a kind of impromptu bridge that Christo covered with orange, water-repellant material. The movie is interesting as far it goes, providing views of Christo as an irritated creator tormented by organizational problems or as a grandfatherly figure talking to New York City school kids. Director Andrey Paounov's documentary falls short, though. We don’t get much by way of explanation about how all this was done, how materials were selected -- and in some cases -- even what materials were used. You may feel a little sorry for Vladimir Yavachev, Christo's nephew, the man assigned the unenviable task of trying to manage the project. Absent narration and interviews, Paounov leaves it us to make what we will of what we've seen. My take: Drudgery and physical labor can dominate the making of something that’s intended to be awe-provoking and fun. And, hanging out with the sometimes irascible Christo isn't always a picnic, either.


The Fall of the American Empire

Yes, that’s an awfully pretentious title for a caper movie about a delivery man (Alexandre Landry) who finds himself in possession of a stolen fortune and then must struggle to keep his windfall. Director Denys Arcand’s Montreal-based movie (in French with English subtitles) offers a medium-grade plot and a fine performance from Remy Girard as a savvy ex-convict who knows his way around the world of finance. Arcand, who also wrote the screenplay, sometimes forces his characters into on-the-nose speeches denouncing the flaws of a system in which money has become the sole measure of success. Add additional discussions about ethics and you’ve got the idea, a caper comedy that wants to say something about the moral bankruptcy of contemporary society. Well and good, but Arcand doesn’t seem to realize that a crisply told story (which this isn’t) would have done the job just as well as one that underlines its intentions. Audiences (myself included) have an insatiable appetite for caper movies, but while trying to justify itself as a social critique, The Fall of the American Empire too often fizzles. With Maripier Morin as a high-priced, sophisticated hooker who helps Landry's character overcome his naiveté.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

A broken heart in a changing city

Race and gentrification provide the background for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a sweet and mournful story of loss.
Sometimes, dreams are rooted in a place —- a city, for example. Maybe even a neighborhood.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco deals with many issues, principal among them: race, gentrification and the ruthless onslaught of commercial imperatives. The movie tells a story of lost dreams by focusing on what once was an all-American symbol of stability, a house.

We'd like to think that houses once were repositories of family histories that would be passed from generation to generation. Grandpa's house always would be grandpa's house, if only in our imaginations.

In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, an African-American family's triumph involved buying a house that became a brick-and-mortar symbol of upward mobility and arrival, as well as of persistence and of sustained hope. Even if we never had seen that house, we understood its power.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco also preoccupies itself with a house -- albeit in unexpected and revealing ways. A young man and his best friend occupy a house in a once-black neighborhood that's undergoing displacement prompted by gentrification. The young man believes that his grandfather built the house in the 1940s, following the style of the grand Victorian homes of 18th century San Francisco.

Even before occupying the house, Jimmie Fails -- played by Jimmie Fails (more about that in a minute) -- and his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) had been trying to spiff up the house. They've painted its trim and wondered how to salvage a garden that has gone to ruin.

The current white residents of the house aren’t happy to find the young men at work but express a reluctant tolerance about their efforts.

When those residents lose the house, the fierce winds of the real estate market gather force and we know that this project — a reclamation not only of a house but of a past —- will come to naught.

We bring a bit of real-world knowledge to the movie. When it comes to real estate, market forces can be impossible to resist. If necessary, the past will be bulldozed. We know that all too well.

Director Joe Talbot, a childhood friend of Fails, tells a story that we're tempted to see as at least autobiographical in spirit because Fails uses his real name.

The movie's events may not be literarily true but they have the ring of metaphoric truth concerning the fragmentation of family in an increasingly uprooted society.

Approaching almost everything with deadpan sincerity, Fails and Montgomery reminded me of a couple of characters from a Samuel Beckett play; they're made of flesh and blood but also, slightly abstracted.

A quasi-theatrical atmosphere is enhanced by a group of neighborhood street people that serves as a Greek chorus for the story. Fails and Montgomery interact with them —- neither entirely separated from them nor entirely part of the group, either.

Most of the movie involves the efforts of the two young men to establish a home in a property they don’t own —- at least not in the conventional sense. But as the story progresses, you may find yourself thinking about issues of ownership and territory. Could there be another meaning of ownership at work here?

Talbot populates the movie with San Francisco characters and eccentricities. Danny Glover appears as Montgomery's blind grandfather; Rob Morgan plays Jimmie's embittered father; and Tichina Arnold portrays his aunt. Though sometimes tenuous, these family connections aren't lost. Jimmie grew up in various squats and in group homes.

And, then, there's the naked man at a bus stop, but I leave that for you to discover.

Emile Mosseri's musical score perfectly fits a movie that’s poetic, mournful, scrappy and sweet.

Talbot has trouble bringing the movie to a close and some of his images don't qualify as perfect blends of the real and the metaphoric. But the feeling here is one of love: for a city, for a longed-for connection with the past, and for a sense of place. There's also the love of two friends for each other.

I want to say (and please don’t take this in a negative way) that Last Black Man made me feel as if I’d attended a memorial service that mixed both grief and a sense of release, of letting go.

Late in the movie, Jimmie listens to two young white women talk on a bus. He tells them that they have to right to hate the city unless they love it. The right to hatred must be earned. Hate upscale obliterations that have ravaged neighborhoods. Hate the stress and tensions of constant economic struggle. Hate the pollution that's choking the life out of what's left of nature.

But love the memory, even if it's romanticized, of what once was. And perhaps equally important, mourn the loss of what could have been.

The Shaft family adds another generation

The new version of Shaft can be funny and brash, but it's also scattered and its unashamed political incorrectness can be grating.

One of them is hopelessly old school. That means he’s homophobic and misogynistic. He has built a reputation on the streets with his fists, his guns and a take-no-prisoners attitude.

The other is a millennial, an MIT graduate who works in data analysis at the FBI. He’s brainy and culturally adept, comfortable with the social fluidity of a multicultural world.

The gimmick: Both are named Shaft. They're father and son.

John Shaft, you’ll recall is the iconic black detective who emerged in the 1970s as part of the Blaxploitation wave that kept turnstiles spinning. In director Tim Story's new version of Shaft, the youngest Shaft (Jessie Usher) hasn't seen his rogue father in years.

The twist: The son must turn to his street-wise dad for help in discovering who murdered his best friend, a Muslim veteran (Avan Jogia) who seemed to be getting his life together after going through a difficult time with drugs.

I’m not sure what Story had in mind with this new version of Shaft, which checks so many boxes you might call it with a multiple choice movie. It’s a buddy comedy (albeit between father and son), an action thriller with a plot that’s so disposable you don’t really need to follow it, a generational comedy in which a son continually taps the breaks on his father’s out-dated, politically incorrect views on women and gays, as well as a movie that features high-caliber weapons taking out what can seem like hordes of bad guys.

Samuel L. Jackson portrays Shaft, as he did in director John Singleton’s 2004 entry into the Shaft series. The role, of course, dates back to the 1971 original and a variety of sequels starring Richard Roundtree, who makes a movie-stealing appearance late in this edition.

To reiterate: Jackson's Shaft is the son of Roundtree's Shaft and the father of Usher's Shaft. Got it?

Here’s something to consider. Jackson is 70. Roundtree is 76. The movie tells us Jackson’s Shaft is 60. Even at that, the math doesn’t quite work. Oh well, looking for realism in this version of Shaft is about as useful as thinking you’re going to get through the movie without a substantial quotient of MF expletives. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have no business seeing the movie anyway.

Jackson has played variations of this character before; his performance not only reprises his previous work as Shaft but includes echoes of Jules, the hitman he played in Pulp Fiction.

All of this results in a hit-and-miss affair, a movie that's probably best seen with a large audience that’s willing to get raucous — roughly in the way the ‘70s movies were received.

Story tries to evoke ‘70s nostalgia with Shaft’s throwback attitudes, with a score that makes ample use of the Isaac Hayes' theme from the original and with an immersion in the mean streets of Harlem -- not to mention the suede dusters you see all three characters wearing in the movie's sequel-promising final shot.

Usher makes a fine foil for Jackson, slowly emerging as something less than the guy his father accuses him of being. Jokes about whether Usher's JJ can be called a "real" man embody the movie’s conflicted spirit. Yes, some of these jokes can be taken as insulting and even homophobic. I guess they're supposed to explain how an out-of-touch father tries to taunt a son who grew up with his mother and who's fluent in the language of the 21st century.

So can these two men find a single page on which both can thrive — and, oh yeah, solve the mystery at the movie’s core?

You already know the answer. Turns out that Shaft the Younger is skilled with guns and well-trained in a Brazilian form of martial arts and both men are capable of laying out their enemies without feeling an iota of compunction about taking human lives.

Women in Shaft basically serve the plot. Mom (Regina Hall) isn’t around for much of the movie; young shaft’s love interest (Alexandra Shipp) has a bit more to do. But when they do appear, these women have no trouble establishing their presence, claiming equal footing with the male characters.

Did I laugh at some of the comedy? Yes. Did I find the violence excessive and not stylish enough to turn into something that could be appreciated purely on cinematic terms, as we might in a John Wick movie? Yes to that, as well. Were the jokes about gays a bit repetitive? Yes, again. Did the movie get better when Roundtree finally makes his appearance? Another yes. Was there at least one piece of action that caught me by surprise. Well, there would have been had I not already seen it in the movie's trailer.

So where do I stand on Shaft?

The whole movie may be too preposterous to take offense; remember Story also directed two Ride Along movies. But know this as well, there’s no character here who’s likely to attain the iconic status of the original Shaft. That movie was tightly wedded to its time. This one is less of its time than it is a spawn of dozens of other movies. As I said at the outset, a box checker.

How much you enjoy it depends on how many of those boxes you're able to check.

Jim Jarmusch makes his zombie movie

Every now and again, I come across a movie that I watch without being able to form much of a connection. That certainly was the case with The Dead Don't Die, director Jim Jarmusch's belated entry into the world of zombie movies. Employing a cast led by Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny -- all of whom play small-town cops — Jarmusch deadpans his way through a dreary foray to a small town where the dead are popping up from their graves. There's little point making this kind of movie without taking aim at a decaying world. To that end, Steve Buscemi portrays a racist farmer who wears a "Keep America White Again" hat, a take on ... well ... you know. Strange things begin to happen in the tiny fictional town of Centerville and it doesn't take long for the dead to begin chewing on the living. Murray and Driver display little emotion as the movie progresses. Tilda Swinton adds to the weirdness quotient. She shows up as the town's mortician, a woman who also happens to wield a mean samurai sword. At one point, Jarmusch shatters convention. Driver's Ronnie justifies his gloomy outlook by telling Murray's character that he knows things will end badly because he’s read the script. Jim, he says, showed it to him. Oh, I forgot to mention that Tom Waits portrays a hermit who wanders through the woods outside of town and that Danny Glover appears as the owner of the town's hardware store. The idea of riffing on zombie movies, a deadened American culture, global warming, and small-town insularity isn't exactly new. Because The Dead Don't Die was selected as the opening offering of the Cannes Film Festival, I expected a more robust movie -- even if that movie kept faith with Jarmusch's low-key style. The Dead May Not Die, but this movie sometimes feels as if it's in need of life support. Oh well, maybe it’s me. I’ve admired some of Jarmusch’s movies and been unimpressed by others. For me, this one staggered its way onto the negative side of the ledger.

More from the Cinema Diary -- Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank
The photographer and documentary filmmaker Robert Frank, now 93, occasionally makes for good company in the documentary Leaving home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank. I say "occasionally" because Frank can be cranky and also brutally honest. He doesn't sugarcoat, describing old age as a catastrophe of bodily degeneration. He's not a guy to look to if you're seeking consolation. Frank's career blossomed when he published a book of photographs called The Americans. Frank had traveled across the U.S., getting to know his adopted country. (He was born in Zurich.) He had an eye for desolation. That may be why Frank's collection of 83 photographs wasn't well-received by those critics who found his images overly harsh. Drawn to scenes of disconnection and loneliness, Frank also allied himself with the Beat movement. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were friends. He lived in New York City, married had children (a son and daughter preceded him in death) and spent much of his life looking at the world through a lens. Fox makes good use of some of Frank's photos and clips from a variety of his documentaries, most of them personal and disinterested in anything that might be deemed "slick" or "formalistic." We also meet Frank's second wife, Jean Leaf, herself a painter and sculptor. The film captures Frank's artistry and also makes clear the pain of a life devoted to seeing clearly. Directed by Gerald Fox, Leaving Home first appeared in 2004 on The South Bank Show, a British TV program.

Intermittent amusement in ‘Late Night’

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson team in a comedy about women in the world of late-night network TV.

In the new comedy Late Night, Emma Thompson portrays Katherine Newbury, the only woman host of a long-running late-night show that airs on network TV. Icy of temperament and cruel to her staff, Katherine is supposed to be a stand-up comic with a cutting delivery. Jokes aside, she tends to prefer serious guests to refugees from reality TV.

Katherine presides over a stable of male writers whom she believes may be letting her down. Her once-popular show is on its way to becoming an afterthought. The station's new head (Amy Ryan) already has made arrangements to replace Katherine with a comic (Ike Barinholtz) who happily wallows in the sort of crude material Katherine abhors.

What to do? The screenplay by Mindy Kaling (of TV's The Office and The Mindy Project) brings fresh blood to the rescue. Kaling portrays Molly Patel, a woman who works in a chemical plant but secretly dreams of becoming a comedy writer.

As part of a desperate attempt to diversify her staff, Katherine insists on hiring a female. Molly fills the bill and, even better, qualifies as a low-expectation hire. Molly's male counterparts believe the inexperienced wannabe will vanish quickly.

Of course, Molly won't be so easily dispatched. Turns out she has fresh ideas and isn't afraid to talk about them at writers' meetings over which Katherine presides without calling any of the contributors by name. She assigns them numbers.

Two strains of assertion drive the story. Can the old dog (Katherine) learn a few new tricks and can the newbie (Molly) become a legitimate presence in helping to engineer the transformation?

Underlying both of these questions is another imperative, the one that says, it's best to be yourself and allow the chips to fall where they may.

Katherine, who's supposed to be too smart for an era of dumbed-down TV, also qualifies as too unpleasant to win many off-camera fans. Her devoted and nearly invisible husband (John Lithgow) remains a loyal supporter. Thompson's performance doesn’t skimp on scorn for Katherine’s supposed inferiors while also suggesting that she knows her fastball has lost some of its zing.

Both likable and amusing, Kaling gives a performance that helps soften Katherine's sharp edges.

Among the writers, Reid Scott (Veep), Max Casella (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and Hugh Dancy (of TV's Hannibal) make some impact. Dennis O'Hare portrays the show's besieged producer, a fellow with the unenviable job of soothing Katherine's ego and keeping the staff from withering under the glare of her imperious gaze.

All of this might have worked well enough save for a couple of problems -- not the least of which is that Thompson, a brilliant comic actress, never seems like someone who'd find her place on a stand-up stage. It's a crucial distinction: Comic acting and stand-up don't draw on the same skills.

Laughs are a matter of taste, I suppose. For me, Late Night provided intermittent amusement until it reaches its predictably affirming conclusion. So, another movie in which promise exceeds fulfillment? For me, yes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 6/12/19 -- Amerian Woman and Halston

American Woman

Grating in the early going, Sienna Miller's performance as an abrasive single mom and grandmother trying to scrape by in a small Pennsylvania town eventually finds its rhythm. American Woman provides Miller with an opportunity to play a woman who faces a cascading series of problems. When we meet Miller's Deb Callahan, she's having an affair with a married man (Kentucker Audley and trying to be a mother to her daughter (Sky Ferreira), a 17-year-old who already has a child of her own. Constantly at odds with her family (an older sister played by Christina Hendricks and a disapproving mother Amy Madigan), Deb faces a life-changing tragedy. Her daughter vanishes. Fearing the worst, Deb blames Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), the irresponsible teen father of her daughter's child. The movie then leaps ahead -- eventually by at least a decade -- to find Deb trying to take care of her grandson (her daughter remains missing) and living with an abusive lout (Pat Healy) she must get out of her life. Deb eventually takes up with a younger man (Aaron Paul) who seems really to love her and who makes a fine surrogate father for her now-teenaged grandson. Director Jake Scott gives the cast plenty to work with, as the movie moves toward its inevitable conclusion: Deb's emergence as an independent woman. Miller's roller-coaster performance hits strong notes. Hendricks does well as a loving but sensible sister who's married to a man (Will Sasso) who provides the one thing that Deb's life always seems to lack: continuity. Nicely rendered moments of reconciliation have an impact, but overall American Woman suffers from an overload of woe. Moreover, its title suggests ambitions that never are quite fulfilled.

Halston

Director Frédéric Tcheng's documentary follows the career of a fabled fashion designer whose work dominated nearly three decades: from hot pants to evening dresses sculpted from a single piece of fabric. Halston benefits from the arc of the designer's high-profile life. Born Roy Halston Frowick, Halston turned himself into a single-named icon who made a remarkable ascent. He began as a hat designer at prestigious Bergdorf Goodman and eventually created a brand of his own. Making use of interviews and footage from the glam world Halston inhabited, Tcheng brings us into Halston's orbit, which includes models and celebrities such as Liza Minnelli. Every story of a remarkable ascendance needs a steep decline. Halston has a doozy. Late in his career, the designer decided to enter the world of mass-marketing, partnering with J.C. Penny to open the doors of fashion to ordinary women. Feeling abandoned, Halston's high-end followers began to desert him. A variety of corporate maneuvers followed and Halston's empire eventually crumbled. When he died of AIDS in 1990, he was 57. In the whirl of success, drugs, and achievement that Tcheng shows us, Halston remains something of a mystery, a galvanizing figure who never fully emerges. But if you're a sucker for a rise-and-fall story or you're interested in fashion, Halston won't disappoint.