Thursday, October 25, 2018

A father struggles with his son's addiction

Beautiful Boy grapples with a big subject without achieving full success.
An addiction drama starring Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell, Beautiful Boy deals with a father who desperately tries to help his talented, once-promising 18-year-old son kick a meth habit.

Chalamet's performance and the painful relevance of the movie's subject carry it a long way, but Beautiful Boy falls short of the dramatic powerhouse that surely must have been intended.

Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen tells the story of David Sheff (Carell), a successful freelance journalist who finds it impossible to accept his son’s precipitous decline. Nic (Chalamet) has gone from being a model child with a glowing future to a drug-addicted loser who seems permanently to have lost his way. Somehow, Nic has stumbled into a death spiral of a life.

Shackled to flashbacks to healthier times, the movie grinds away at our sympathies by showing the halting (and vaguely monotonous) ways in which Nic's cycle of recovery and relapse unfolds.

Based on books by both the real father and son (David Sheff's Beautiful Boy and Nic Sheff's Tweak), the movie casts its heaviest gaze on Carell's character. David and his artsy second wife (Maura Tierney) have two additional children, but most of David's attention is absorbed by Nic's increasingly powerful addiction. No matter how hard Dad tries, he’s unable to push Nic's life back on track.

The movie asks an audience to become involved in the struggles of a family that seems to fit most known definitions of "privileged." I know a few freelance writers and they don't seem to be living as well as Carell's David, a journalist who has a wonderfully appealing house in Northern California.

Perhaps director Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) sees that as part of the point. Even the well-heeled of Marin County can't immunize their kids from the scourge of drugs. It's possible for parents to do all the right things and still be blindsided by tragedy.

A bearded, super-earnest Carell carries a major burden here. He must show David's desire for control, his journalistic inquisitiveness (at one point he even tries drugs himself) and a father's one-note persistence when it comes to his wayward son. Looking drearily somber, Carell isn't entirely up to the task.

Riding high on praise from his work in Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet continues to impress as a smart kid who knows how to rationalize his drug use. He says meth enables him to see a drab black-and-white world in color. Chalamet also hints at Nic's rebellion against being a creative, success-bound child and budding writer.

Nic's decline comes into sharpest focus when he and a girlfriend (Kaitlyn Dever) hit low points of homelessness and physical decay on the streets of San Francisco.

I suppose the movie deserves credit for not specifying exactly why Nic has become an addict. Instead of providing pat answers, Beautiful Boy asks us to share in the torments of its characters, but it can feel like a tutorial on the way drug addiction impacts families.

A screenplay credited to Luke Davies (Lion) and Van Groeningen hints that for Nic to abandon his drug habit, David must let go of a carefully constructed image of his son, an intriguing idea but one that probably doesn't come into sharp enough focus as the movie wends its way through an often-exhausting 111 minutes.

Skateboarding his way into acceptance

Actor Jonah Hill makes an interesting directorial debut with mid90s, a movie about a kid looking for a place in the world.
Although mid90s, the directorial debut of actor Jonah Hill, deals with Los Angeles' skateboard culture during the 1990s, the movie isn't a flashy accumulation of tricks, stunts and teenage daring. That's because there's something touching at the heart of Hill's directorial debut, the loneliness of a 13-year-old boy with a bully for a brother and a desire to be accepted by his peers.

Sunny Suljic portrays Stevie, a kid who finds that acceptance among a diverse group of skateboarders who offer Stevie escape from his surroundings, a single mom (Katherine Waterston) who had kids too early and an older brother (Lucas Hedges) who regularly beats him up.

Before I saw mid90s, I worried that Hill, who also wrote the screenplay, would be hitchhiking off skateboard culture, siphoning off its language and energy and calling it his own. But by using a convincing cast of actors and by excavating memories of a scene in which he once participated, Hill takes us on an authentic and entertaining foray into the lives of teenagers who essentially are growing up on their own.

Stevie falls in with a rough and ready bunch after being introduced to the group by Ruben (Gio Galacia), a kid who instructs Stevie never to thank him. Thanks are for "gays," says Ruben. Take that as part of the posturing that seems to come naturally to these young men. As one of the youngest in his crew, Ruben's needs to present a tough front. You can almost feel him straining to prove himself and he probably lures Stevie into the group so that someone else can play the goat role.

Suljic goes through much of the movie with a smile pasted on his face; it's a kid-in-the-candy-store look of a young man who's learning about a world that opens its doors to him as the boys school him the ways of skateboarding, although it left me wondering whether Suljic's performance could have benefited from some shading.

The skateboard crew is a scruffy bunch. Olan Prenatt portrays a curly-haired kid who saunters his way into a drinking problem. Na-kel Smith portrays Ray, a kid who aspires to go pro with his skateboarding career. It should give you a clue as to the movie's impolite tone that Prenatt's character is named "Fuckshit."

The skateboarder nicknamed "Fourth Grade" (Ryder McLaughlin) constantly takes videos of the group, a motif that results in a late-picture payoff.

Hill obtains mostly credible performances from his young cast. Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) seems to be on a different level than the rest, adding a bruised emotional life to his portrayal of Stevie's brutalizing older brother, Ian. Stevie, who sometimes sneaks into his brother's room, which he regards reverentially, may be too young to understand his brother's torments.

Hill seems most concerned with Stevie's ability to find a place among his peers while taking his lumps. At one point, Ray tells Stevie that he has an unrivaled capacity for absorbing "hits." Stevie brims with pride even though Ray has enough maturity to know that Stevie doesn't really have to beat himself up to prove his worth.

These kids thrive on taunting one another and they aren't exactly role models when it comes to the girls they encounter. But they're also capable of surprising displays of tenderness and humanity, shown in a respectful encounter with a homeless man and in a scene in which Ray consoles Stevie after he's humiliated in front of the group by his irate mother. She's furious that the boys have introduced Stevie to drinking and pot.

That scene ends with Ray urging Stevie back onto his skateboard and onto the street where they coast along. And that, it seems to me is what the movie's really about: the way -- at certain times in one's life -- there's nothing better than friends, hitting the streets and finding a groove that makes you feel a little more at home in a world that hurts more than you're ever willing to admit.

The last days of Oscar Wilde

Rubert Everett directs and stars in The Happy Prince, a movie that affords him an opportunity to play a towering figure in sad decline.
In The Happy Prince, Rupert Everett portrays playwright and international wit Oscar Wilde during his last sad days. Once a big-ticket celebrity and the toast of London’s theatrical scene, Wilde spent his final years as a fallen idol, having served two years at hard labor for homosexual activity.

The movie begins when Wilde resurfaces from prison, perhaps expecting to reclaim his place as a highly regarded literary figure. Wilde even proposes a reunion with his estranged wife (Emily Watson) and his two young sons, but a repaired marriage was not in the offing.

Instead, Wilde spends time with his friend Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), enjoying his restored freedom by drinking and engaging in sex. Even in decline, Wilde retained a sense of nobility, as well as an appreciation for the theatrically expressed gesture. He towers in his decay.

The point of all this becomes obvious, although it’s never stated. Everett tells us that Wilde’s rejection by society was needless, a pointless expression of hypocritical British morality that had been enshrined in law. Penniless in Paris, the exiled Wilde gradually begins to see that he has no future.

At one point, Wilde captures a bit of past glory by singing in a Parisian nightclub that hosts a somewhat shabby crowd. He again occupies center stage. It might be fair to say that, in his own life, he never gives up center stage, even if only to swoon into defeat.

Although Everett offers flashes of Wilde’s renowned wit, he mostly shows what it was like for Wilde to sink into the muck of a life fueled by unsupportable quantities of alcohol; we see the catastrophic waste of a man who no longer could employ his talents.

At one point, Wilde reunites with former lover Bowie Douglas (Colin Morgan), a reprise of the relationship that brought about Wilde’s imprisonment. It should surprise no one that this reunion doesn’t turn out well.

Both behind and in front of the camera, Everett acquits himself well, paying powerful tribute to a man ravaged by a society that should have been applauding him.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A teenager faces a crisis of conscience

The Hate U Give highlights racial problems without sacrificing the humanity of its characters.
The two photos above make a key point about the new movie The Hate U Give, an adaptation of a young adult novel by Angee Thomas. One photo shows actress Amandla Stenberg as a character who attends a tony private school, has a white boyfriend and white girlfriends. The other photo shows the same teenager in her neighborhood after a traffic stop results in the shooting of one of her friends by a cop.

The same teenager, different circumstances. That's part of what drives this involving look at a high school student battling with social and personal issues and the powerful ways in which those issues can intersect.

There's enough material in The Hate U Give to create a mini-series -- and it's possible that Thomas's novel would have been better served in such an extended format. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't see a movie that deals convincingly with many real issues, mostly without subordinating the humanity of its characters to the art of scoring political points.

Stenberg's Starr Carter has a strong family life. Her mother (Regina Hall) believes in education and tries to shield her kids from the worst temptations of the neighborhood where the family lives. Her dad (Russell Hornsby) instills Starr with pride in her blackness. As a man who served a prison term, he understands the code of the streets. He also owns the neighborhood grocery store and has committed himself to the Garden Heights section of a city the movie never names.

Starr has two brothers, an older half-brother (Lamar Johnson) and a younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright), characters who expand the movie's already strong sense of family.

The pivotal action occurs when Starr meets an old friend Kahlil (Algee Smith) at a neighborhood house party. Later that night, she becomes a witness to Kahlil's killing by a policeman, a traumatic event that reverberates throughout the rest of the movie.

A neighborhood drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) has an interest in keeping Starr from telling her story in court. Unable to find employment elsewhere, Kahlil worked for the drug dealer at a very low level.

Working from a screenplay by Audrey Wells, director George Tillman, Jr. has made a movie that speaks to the complexities of racial issues in America. Starr's white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) is well-meaning but not always attuned to Starr's existence as a black kid. And it's not all his fault, either. Starr has done a good job of keeping the two parts of her life separate.

Starr's best white girlfriend Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter) has appropriated black styles of speech, but her understanding of black life stays pretty much on the surface.

Starr herself sees the educational advantage of attending a private school. According to her own description, the public high school she would have attended is a place "you go to get drunk, high, pregnant or killed."

The movie also includes the presence of a black policeman (Common). Common's Carlos, who's also Starr's uncle, tries to make a reasonable case for why the white officer behaved as he did when he pulled Kahlil over.

Tillman obtains strong performances from a deeply committed cast led by Stenberg, who embodies the often contradictory poles of Starr's identity with intelligence, determination and appropriate amounts of consternation.

The Hate U Give maintains a terrific sense of what's at stake in every moment, even as it tries to corral every topical issue it can find. Perhaps that's the point. Young black people can't necessarily dodge any of these issues and The Hate U Give becomes a film that takes a powerful look at how one young woman tries to achieve her measure of success without abandoning her sense of self.

A Western that falls off its horse

Big Kill, a western featuring cliched dialogue and a cliched story, seems to be trying to celebrate genre but instead winds up feeling shamelessly old hat. Maybe I should say "old cowboy hat." Director Scott Martin, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story of Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders) a buttoned-up accountant from Philadelphia who travels west to join his brother (K.C. Clyde), a man who owns a saloon in the God-forsaken town of Big Kill. Depressingly true to genre form, the town has fallen under the control of a corrupt killer who calls himself The Preacher (Jason Patric). The Preacher is assisted in his vile pursuits by gunman Johnny Kane (a posturing Lou Diamond Phillips). Fortunately for Andrews, he's accompanied on his journey by two roguish gamblers (Martin and Clint Hummel) who we meet at the movie's outset. Will these lovable, hard-drinking westerners help Andrews face off against the town's bullies and restore civilized order? That's the movie's big and less-than-compelling question. It doesn't matter that Big Kill traffics in cliches; it does matter that the plot developments feel forced, as do some of the performances. All of this takes place in an old western town that looks as if it had been constructed according to theme park specifications. A badly over-stated score by Kays Al-Atrakchi tries to evoke memories of Westerns gone by but reaches for more than this mediocre horse opera can deliver.

A family deals with Alzheimer's

Hilary Swank leads a strong cast in the drama What They Had.
There's no faulting the acting in writer/director Elizabeth Chomko's What They Had, a story about the impact of Alzheimer's on a family already dealing with typical issues of generational conflict and parental approval.

Hilary Swank portrays Bridget, a woman who travels with her teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) from California to Chicago when her brother (Michael Shannon) asks for help.

Shannon's Nicky, who remained in Chicago, has cared for his mother (Blythe Danner) and father (Robert Forster) but he's reached the end of his rope. Danner's Ruth has wandered off in her nightgown on a cold Chicago night and the family is frantic about the harm that might befall her. The drama centers on what to do about Ruth, a once-competent woman who's increasingly removed from reality and who soon turns up unharmed.

Forster's Bert resists putting his wife in memory care, even if he can live a nearby assisted living facility that would allow him to visit at will. He refuses to let go of his marriage and insists that he's perfectly capable of taking care of Danner's Ruth by himself.

Shannon gets a much-needed opportunity to play a normal guy -- albeit one who's struggling with and frustrated by difficult problems. Shannon's Nicky owns a bar that's not doing as well as he'd hoped. He's constantly battling with his father. Dad berates Nicky for not finishing college and becoming a bartender. It means nothing to Dad that his son owns the bar.

Forster, in fine form, plays an ardent Catholic, a down-to-earth guy who believes in marriage as an "until-death-do-us-part" proposition? Bert isn't one for nuance, but he's never treated like an idiot. Forster keeps him real and helps us understand that Bert can't reconcile his memories of better days with the situation in which he now finds himself.

Swank's Bridget seems conflicted about nearly everything: her role as a mother, her daughter's refusal to enroll in college and her relationship with the husband (a briefly seen Josh Lucas) she left in LA.

It's hardly a surprise to say that the always impressive Shannon gives a strong performance, but he does. He captures Nicky’s genuine concern and snide humor, as well as his fury.

Danner plays a wife and mother convincingly addled by her medical condition, yet still showing traces of a woman who's able to laugh at herself.

Not every moment in What They Had rang true to me. Bridget's listless marriage, for example, receives too little attention to make it a convincing part of the story. But the movie never feels less than fully lived-in by a cast that couldn't be any better.

A dark comedy about our political divide

There probably couldn't be a more timely movie than The Oath, a dark comedy about the political divide that's splitting American families and turning former friends into enemies. Timely, yes. Successful, no. Ike Barinholtz stars and directs a comedy in which he plays Chris, a politically progressive news junkie who can't get away from the TV long enough to give us outraged brain a rest. Not a bad idea for the current moment and the movie includes a twist that's just plausible enough to give you the shivers. An unnamed president of the US has asked everyone in the country to take a loyalty oath. Swearing allegiance is voluntary, but it's also clear that not taking the oath will lead to ostracism, discomfort and perhaps worse. An ill-used Tiffany Haddish plays Chris's wife, another progressive, but not one who's not willing to turn every occasion (say, Thanksgiving) into a political battlefield. Jon Barinholtz (real-life brother of Ike) turns up as Chris's on-screen brother. He and his wife (Meredith Hagner) have signed the oath and don't consider it a big deal. Chris's sister (Carrie Brownstein) sides with those who refused to sign but might not be steadfast in her resolve. Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis portray Chris's parents. All of this makes for an insanely tense Thanksgiving and the movie might have worked had Barinholtz not pushed everything to an even further extreme when two "thought-police" cops (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) show up to harass the non-signers. Suddenly, we're in the middle of a hostage movie that plays like a ham-handed riff on Michael Haneke's Funny Games. As a character, Chris might have worked in small doses, but as the centerpiece of a movie, he becomes a pain in the butt, even if you happen to share some of his views. Last seen in Blockers, Barinholtz carries the comedy way over-the-top. In the end, he tries to undo the movie's malevolence with cop-out last-minute reveals. Barinholtz deserves credit for bravely leaping into already roiled political waters. Too bad his big gamble doesn't pay off.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The story of the moon landing

Director Damien Chazelle avoids cliches in First Man, a carefully calibrated look at an epic event.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of director Damien Chazelle’s First Man arrives in the form of a reminder: Great feats often begin with baby steps that stutter, shudder and sometimes go terribly wrong.

To establish the point early, Chazelle opens the story of NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) taking a bone-rattling ride on a 140,000-foot test of an aircraft that’s meant to approach the edge of the atmosphere. Armstrong, who later will become the first man to set foot on the moon, encounters a malfunction but pushes through.

The sequence serves as a powerful overture for a movie about the early days of space flight. By today's standards, men were riding in vehicles that look fragile, almost jury-rigged. They were putting their lives on the line to break barriers and extend humanity’s reach — and not everyone thought space exploration was a great idea. A costly US space program was pitted against pressing domestic needs and a rising chorus of protest against the Vietnam War.

Chazelle evokes the tumultuous political atmosphere of the ‘60s, but doesn’t dwell on it nor does he sound triumphant chords about space achievement. He doesn't glorify the NASA astronauts who risked and sometimes lost their lives in pursuit of the moon landing President John F. Kennedy had chosen as a national goal.

Moreover, the movie doesn’t have a standard-issue hero.

As played by Gosling, Armstrong comes across as an emotionally reticent man who seems only able to survive by pulling a curtain across the pain that stemmed from the death of a daughter from cancer. He sheds tears when he’s alone, but doesn’t talk about the loss with his wife (Claire Foy), his sons or his friends.

A stand-out scene finds Armstrong removing himself from a gathering after the funeral of a fellow astronaut. Alone in his backyard, he scans the skies through a hand-held telescope, pushing away a concerned colleague by telling him that he's not standing alone in the night because he's looking for a conversation.

With Armstrong training, traveling and immersing himself in his work, it falls to Foy’s Janet to hold down the homefront. She does, but Foy never turns Janet into the loyal wife of cliche. She supports her husband, but she’s also angry in the way of many wives of the '60s, women who were left to tend to chores while their husbands found adventure in the workplace.

Of course, there was one key difference between Armstrong and the legions of overworked office slugs: Armstrong risked not coming home from his workplace.

And that’s the Armstrong we meet here, a no-drama guy who regards what he does as “going to work," a job.

You may want to think of First Man as a "space procedural." Chazelle takes us through the various stages of development of a moon landing that began with the Gemini program and culminated with Apollo.

To make clear the dangers at hand, Chazelle includes the cockpit fire that took the lives of White, Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Roger Chafee (Cory Michael Smith), three astronauts who died in a fire during a “plugs out” test of the spacecraft.

Naturally, the moon landing becomes the movie's climax. Chazelle handles the moment Armstrong stepped onto the moon with exquisite balance. He doesn't italicize its awe or underplay it.

When the Eagle touches down on the moon, Chazelle allows the silvery expanse of the lunar surface to speak for itself, so much so that the movie goes silent. I confess to disappointment when — after some minutes of sobering silence — Justin Hurwitz’s score began to chime in.

Ryan's controlled performance makes us wonder whether the actor opened a tap and drained out three-quarters of his emotional life. That could be exactly what Chazelle had in mind. We come to understand that Armstrong performs with cool equanimity when he's able to keep a lid on anything that might break his concentration.

It may be fair to say that the movie — based on a book by James R. Hansen — finds its meaning in the choices that Chazelle doesn’t make. He takes a neutral path that mirrors Armstrong's personality. That’s not to say that the movie is without emotion or tension, but it’s not buoyed by an identifiable point of view, a limiting factor. That, an overly long running time and a slight whiff of sentimentality keep the movie from greatness.

Still, First Man struck me as a far more ambitious and worthier work than either Whiplash or La La Land, two of Chazelle's previous movies.

Chazelle has been criticized for not showing the moment when Armstrong planted an American flag on lunar soil. Please. I took the omission as a significant part of Chazelle’s approach. He wants us to see the Apollo mission fresh, to avoid the kind of signature images that have degenerated into cliche.

As if to emphasize work-a-day life in the space program, Chazelle also refuses to celebrate the hotshot pilot ethos that made The Right Stuff so engaging. Only Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin approaches his job with bravado and public expressions of ego. It’s not something that Chazelle dwells on.

At two hours and 15 minutes, the movie's tension and single-minded determination become a bit of a grind, so much so that the lunar landing generates more relief than excitement. I don't mean that as a criticism. When the Eagle lands, the movie relaxes.

I’m one of those people who believe the US benefits from a strong and adventurous space program. First Man reminds us that no such program can be risk-free and leaves us to ponder whether the rewards are worth the risks.

Decide for yourself, but wouldn't it be grand to see the world again focused in awe and appreciation at an accomplishment that really had the power to expand the way we see ourselves? I'm not holding my breath, but sometimes a little dreaming helps.

Robert Redford plays an aging thief

The Old Man & the Gun creaks along in predictable fashion, but Redford displays wary charm.
There's one compelling reason to see The Old Man & the Gun. The movie stars Robert Redford who says that his performance as real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker is his last. Now 82, Redford has told interviewers that he plans to devote his time to directing and environmental causes. He's also still the driving force behind The Sundance Film Festival.

When I say that Redford provides the only reason to see The Old Man & the Gun, it's because he creates a reliably agreeable portrait of a thief who devotes his life either to holding up banks or escaping from prison, a feat he accomplished 16 times.

Full of wary charm, Redford's portrayal of Tucker arrives sans all traces of malice or evil.

I don't know if that makes sense for the subject matter, but Redford's fans should be able to regard this performance as a pleasing valedictory to great career.

Director David Lowery (Ghost Story), who wrote the screenplay based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, builds Redford's character around a single, disarming trait: Tucker is ultra polite and friendly during his robberies. The people he holds up (bank managers and tellers) all seem to take away positive impressions of this grand larcenist.

The rest of the cast includes Danny Glover and Tom Waits as a couple of Tucker's accomplices.
Sissy Spacek
plays a widow who is charmed by Tucker, although she's not ready to abandon her life for him.

I suppose every robber needs a nemesis. In this case, the job goes to Casey Affleck, who appeared in Ghost Story. Affleck portrays Texas detective John Hunt, a man who made it his business to track Tucker.

Despite some nice scenes between Spacek and Redford, The Old Man & the Gun feels like a slightly creaky version of a movie we've seen before. And if this is Redford's last movie, I wish he had been chosen something a bit more challenging.

I feel guilty saying that because Redford certainly has earned the right to do whatever he wants; for me, he's been an exciting screen presence since I first saw him in movies such as Inside Daisy Glover (1964) and The Chase (1966).

I hope, at a minimum, that Redford doesn't give up on directing because a movie world without Robert Redford in it seems like a very bad idea.

A look at director Hal Ashby

Hal Ashby died in 1988 at the age of 59. Ashby directed both good and great movies and was part of the reason that movies became so exciting during the 1970s. If you loved any of the following movies (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home and Being There), you need to see Hal, a documentary about Ashby's life as a pot-smoking, adventurous perfectionist. (I know. "Adventurous perfectionist" sounds like a contradiction in terms but with a figure such as Ashby, the two words seem to fit. Director Amy Scott includes a touching interview with director Norman Jewison, who helped Ashby gain a foothold in Hollywood. The two became lifelong pals and Ashby won an Oscar for editing Jewison's In the Heat of the Night. Actor Ben Foster reads excerpts from letters Ashby wrote to Jewison. They are love letters between two men who probably never had a better friendship. You'll see clips from Ashby's films, interviews with some of the actors who appeared in them: Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, and Louis Gossett Jr., for example. Screenwriter Robert Towne, who wrote screenplays for The Last Detail and Shampoo, makes an appearance along with some appreciative young directors, notably Judd Apatow and Lisa Cholodenko. Hal can't help but remind those of us who lived through it of a particularly fertile period in American film. I won't bore you with nostalgia but I remember where I saw both The Last Detail and Shampoo, two movies that helped shape my taste and taught me something about what movies could be. Ashby's career didn't end a high note, but he was part of a wave that, when it broke, left nothing but movie love in its wake -- not always requited but irrevocable.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mass murder in Norway and its aftermath

22 July is director Paul Greengrass's latest movie about a catastrophic event.
With interruptions for several Bourne movies, director Paul Greengrass has become one of cinema's ablest chroniclers of catastrophe, creating a filmography that includes Bloody Sunday (2002), United 93 (2006), and Captain Phillips (2013), films that dealt with political upheaval, violence or outright terror.

This year brings us Greengrass's 22 July, an examination of the 2011 attack in which 77 Norwegians, most of them teenagers, were murdered by a white nationalist who claimed to be a soldier in the battle to save Europe from what he viewed as liberal elitist multiculturalism. The murderer resented the presence of Muslim immigrants in his country.

Eight of the victims were killed by an explosion outside a government building; 69 of them were murdered while attending a Labor Party youth camp on the island of Utoya, picked off as the killer freely roamed the campgrounds. No helicopter was available to drop police into the bloody fray.

Filming in English with a Scandinavian cast, Greengrass begins with the day of the mass murders. Soon-to-be murderer Anders Behring Breivik (chillingly played by Anders Danielsen Lie) disguises himself as a policeman to carry out his lethal rampage. After setting off an explosion in Oslo, Breivik proceeded to Utoya. He gained access to a ferry from the mainland by claiming he had been sent to secure the island for young people already alarmed by shocking news of the Oslo explosion.

Greengrass vividly presents Breivik's murders within roughly the first half hour of a film that runs for an overly long 143 minutes. 22 July then turns into a drama that deals mostly with the aftermath of the shootings, an intermittently effective catalog of the painful consequences that included Breivik's trial.

Greengrass recreates the chaotic atmosphere surrounding the shootings, but simplifies the story by concentrating on Breivik, the conflicted attorney who defended him (Jon Oigarden) and a young survivor (Jonas Strand Gravli), a horribly wounded 17-year-old whose grueling recovery is rendered with agonizing detail.

Arrogance allowed Breivik to cast himself as a hero; he imagined himself a vanguard figure in what he believed would be a war to restore white supremacy in Europe. After terrorizing the kids on Utoya, he surrendered to police without a fight.

Greengrass presents a mini portrait of a man so certain of himself that he has the gall to complain to the police that they're not tending to a cut he sustained during the shooting. A flying skull fragment from one of his victims injured a finger. The murderer needed a small bandage; his victims weren't so lucky.

Despite Lie's compelling performance, there isn't a whole lot to understand about Breivik or his deluded sense of superiority.

As a legal drama, 22 July hinges on Breivik's decision to scrap an insanity defense that would have replaced a prison sentence with confinement to a mental institution. Breivik insists on having his day in court so that he can control his own narrative. He wants a platform to present himself as a warrior of the far-right.

I confess to wondering exactly why this horrific story needed to be rehashed on screen. It is, of course, a cautionary tale about the toxicity of racist resentment and paranoia. I also speculated that Greengrass may have wanted us to remember this particular atrocity before it washes from our cultural memory bank, swept away by the stream of additional shootings that since have grabbed headlines.

Perhaps Greengrass would have come closer had he been able to pull a stronger statement from this fractured, combustible and often disturbing movie.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Bradley Cooper/ Lady Gaga join forces

A Star is Born dazzles before it dwindles.

Lady Gaga displays dazzling showbusiness versatility in A Star is Born, which co-stars Bradley Cooper, who also makes his directorial debut.

Cooper's take on a story that has been told on screen three times before features musical high points from Lady Gaga, who Cooper generously showcases. It's as if Cooper understands that the paying customers want to see Gaga soar or sink and he gives them plenty of room to decide in which direction she's headed.

Displaying talents that evoke images of everyone from Judy Garland to Janis Joplin to Barbra Streisand (of the last version) and maybe even a little Alice Cooper, Lady Gaga -- the erstwhile Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta -- holds the screen, even when her acting proves a bit shaky.

It's difficult to imagine that anyone could be unfamiliar with a narrative arc that's only slightly less shopworn than Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve. Cooper follows the outline of Streisand's 1976 version, kicking the tale into the world of rock and pop stardom. He's sinking. She's rising. Everyone knows the drill.

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a talented but fading country rocker with a massive alcohol problem. After a concert, Jackson polishes off a bottle in his chauffeured ride. But he's so badly in need of another drink that he stumbles into a drag bar where Lady Gaga's Ally is performing. The only female who's allowed on stage, she delivers a knock-out version of La Vie En Rose.

After her performance, Jackson and Ally spend a night hanging out and Ally confides that her singing career might be stalled because her nose is too big. He says he loves her nose. He recognizes that she has the potential to be a star, a view we readily share because ... well ... she's Lady Gaga.

Interested and smitten, the soft-spoken Jackson pulls Ally into his world, soon sending a private jet to pick her up for one of his concerts.

It doesn't take long for the transformative moment to arise. Jackson pulls Ally on stage. She's nervous, but she kills. And her talent begins to charge his batteries, too. After years of touring drudgery, Jackson seems to be having fun again.

Jackson and Ally work together -- until the point where an ambitious manager (Rafi Gavron) convinces Ally that she can rocket past her musical partner and love interest if she strikes out on her own.

Ally's ascendance parallels Jackson's decline, but when it comes to sinking into an alcoholic swamp, Jackson needs no help. He spirals downward during an overly long decline that reaches its low point when he embarrasses Ally at the Grammys, a scene that's bound to make an audience cringe at Jackson's pathetic degeneration.

To further underscore Jackson's march toward musical irrelevance, he also develops tinnitus, a condition that interferes with his singing and guitar playing.

A bearded, red-faced Cooper keeps his eyes downcast and drops his speaking voice to bass levels. Cooper plays Jackson's smoldering, nonchalant sexiness for all its worth, interrupting a display of cowboy charm with bouts of fall-down drunkenness. He's reasonably convincing doing his own singing.

There isn't much by way of a supporting cast in this Cooper/Gaga duet. Sam Elliott, a reliable symbol of country authenticity with a voice as deep and mellow as a summer afternoon, shows up as Jackson's brother Bobby, the guy who also manages the singer's road tours. The brothers eventually get crosswise and Elliott disappears.

Andrew Dice Clay portrays Ally's father, a failed crooner who wants Ally to achieve the stardom that eluded him.

Dave Chappelle shows up -- more or less out of nowhere -- offering a calming turn as one of Jackson's former buddies; he literally picks Jackson out of the gutter during one of his worst benders.

A Star is Born has a sustained imbalance that may result from its odd match of talents. Cooper is an actor; Lady Gaga is a phenomenon. He's in his actor's world. She's in her pop phenomenon world. It's possible to argue, I suppose, that the clash makes sense for a movie in which Ally's success is destined to eclipse Jackson's.

A Star is Born has entertaining moments to be sure, but there's no star born here. Lady Gaga is a star from the moment we first see her. Cooper's high immersion performance notwithstanding, Lady Gaga remains the movie's main attraction, even when she appears without any of her trademark makeup.

As a director, Cooper likes a funky, handheld camera. During the musical numbers, A Star is Born can feel like an energetic concert film -- albeit one that's interrupted by a story.

If you're up for a pop-cultural fairy tale, A Star is Born probably will get the job done. It struck me as more of a high-wire performance act than a look at two memorable characters. The perils of celebrity and alcoholism and an unlikely romance become supports for Cooper and Lady Gaga to "put it all out there," if you'll excuse some vernacular.

It strikes me that the movie also is about Cooper and Lady Gaga taking turns trying to charm the audience -- him with low-down, shaggy dereliction that screams out for salvage and her with a mixture of daring and talent that defies you not to pay attention.

It's all a bit overamped, an entertainment that's a little too in love with itself to bring down the curtain -- even as its two-hour and 15-minute length begins to wear. And dialogue about the need for authenticity in music didn't convince me that there wasn't a lot more show than substance in Cooper's collection of riffs, tiffs, and musical striving.

They want to have a baby

Director Tamara Jenkins returns to the screen with Private Life; Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn make the trip worthwhile.

In Private Life, Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play a married couple who have spent years trying to have a baby. As a couple in their 40s, they're facing a difficult reality; their lives are beginning to lose all traces of youthful promise.

Clever, smart and entertaining, Private Life provides the perfect vehicle for director Tamara Jenkins to return to the screen after more than a decade. Jenkins' The Savages (2007) featured Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as adult siblings trying to cope with a demented father.

In this outing, Jenkins turns her attention to a frustrated New York couple we get to know well, and who are so life-sized you feel as if they might live next door, providing you live in New York’s East Village.

After so much failure, it seems logical to wonder why Hahn's Rachel and Giamatti's Richard want to bring a child into their lives. The answer, as I’ve suggested, may lie in the fact that they're an attractive couple who seem to have reached their career limits.

The theater company Richard runs isn't going to make him rich or famous. Neither is the pickle company he operates to keep bread and butter on the table. Rachel's trips to Yaddo, a prestigious artists' colony, haven't pushed her to the top of the literary world. Richard and Rachel still live in a cramped apartment where the upstairs neighbor plays music that booms through the floorboards.

A child might mark Rachel and Richard's last way to leave something tangible behind but their lives have degenerated into a series of injections (administered by him), ovulation-cycle watching and visits to specialists. And, yes, Richard and Rachel also are in the process of trying to a adopt.

Striving for pregnancy has begun to look like penance for undisclosed sins or, at very least, a full-time job.

The movie's plot finally leads the couple to consider using Richard's sperm to fertilize a donor egg. Because Rachel would carry the baby, a donor might represent the closest the couple can get to biological reproduction.

Richard often turns to his brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) for money; Charlie's wife (Molly Shannon) is sick of hearing about Richard and Rachel's problems, another source of low-key tension.

Once an initially reluctant Rachel agrees to use a donor egg, it falls to Charlie and Rachel's daughter Sadie (Kayli Carter) to become the donor. Sadie has left college to move in with Richard and Rachel. An aspiring writer, Sadie thinks Richard and Rachel are "cool,'' a conclusion only a 25-year-old could draw about a couple that's suffering from the kind of life exhaustion that shows up just before the skin begins to wrinkle.

Jenkins writes with wit and Giamatti and Hahn create characters who are intelligent and credible.

You don't have to have had any experience with the difficulties of getting pregnant to enjoy a comedy that is saved from charges of urbane preciousnesses by Giamatti and Hahn. They're each blessed with the ability to create characters who are believably self-aware and who never push us so far away that we can't appreciate their full, rich and often annoying selves.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The story of a ground-breaking author

Keira Knightley plays the title character in Colette, a movie that's as much period piece as character study.

Colette, the French novelist, died in 1954 at the age of 81. The movie Colette focuses on roughly a quarter of Colette's fascinating life, notably the years she spent with her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, a man who published under the name Willy. Colette wrote the famous Claudine novels, but Willy took credit for them.

A bon vivant, literary entrepreneur and music critic, Willy hired others to author books to which he proudly put his name. His major talent seems to have been for promotion, which suggests that he may have been born a century too soon.

Colette, who was 14 years younger than Willy, eventually divorced him. She went on to have a distinguished literary career, as well as a personal life that included two additional marriages and various relationships with women.

Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) uses a portion of Colette's life to make a stylistically conventional movie about an unconventional woman.

As far as it goes, Colette proves enjoyable with Keira Knightley bringing a sense of fiber and substance to the role of Colette and Dominic West immersing himself in a convincing turn as man who relied on preening charm, profligate spending, and a charismatic personality.

Westmoreland doesn't shortchange Colette's adventurous sex life, presenting one episode in which Colette has an affair with an American woman who's visiting Paris (Eleanor Tomlinson). So, by the way, does Willy. Colette also establishes an on-going relationship with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), an aristocrat and gender rebel who shocked polite society by dressing like a man.

Colette and Willy tolerated each other's sexual digressions; according to the movie, Colette prized honesty more than she valued fidelity. Willy agrees, but he’s not quite up Colette’s demanding standard.

Part tale of feminist assertion and part portrait of turn-of-the-century Paris, Colette engages without generating sustained excitement for a title character whose sharp edges have been buffed into submission by what may be a little too much production value.

Colette likely will be appreciated more as carefully appointed, nicely acted period piece than a provocative look at a woman who didn't so much challenge norms as bypass them with blithe indifference.

Put another way, Colette presents its subject with honesty but never throws down the gauntlet of challenge that would have pushed audiences out of their comfort zones, something Colette deserved.