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Emily Blunt

“MARY POPPINS RETURNS” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Dec. 19)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

First, the most obvious question: Is “Mary Poppins Returns” as good as the 1965 original?

Answer: No.  But  it comes close.

Disney’s original “Poppins” is one of — if not the — greatest family films of all time. Everything about it works, from the performances to the writing, the execution, and especially the Sherman Brothers’ astounding score of instantly hummable songs.

So when director Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Into the Woods,” “Nine”) took on this sequel, he had a lot to live up to.

Mostly he succeeds. There are a few flat sequences and the new Music Hall-steeped score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, while perfectly serviceable and occasionally inspired (the moving “The Place Where Lost Things Go, for example), is never as catchy as the original.

But Emily Blunt makes for a slyly entertaining Mary, “Hamilton” star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda makes a solid film debut, and several of the musical numbers  are showstoppers.  A delectable sense of childlike wonder prevails.

The plot cooked up by David Magee, John DeLuca and Marshall draws heavily from P.L. Travers’ nine “Poppins” books, and in many instances offers a sort of variation on high points from the ’65 film.

The setting has been advanced from pre World War I London to the Depression era.  Michael and Jane Banks, the kids from the original, are now adults (played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer).  Michael, the widowed father of three, still works at the bank where his father was employed; Jane, taking a cue from her suffragette mother, is a labor organizer.

Michael, who is hopeless with money, is about to lose the family home to foreclosure by his own employer (represented by two-faced exec  Colin Firth).  The family’s only hope is to find a small fortune in bank shares purchased decades earlier — but the papers have all gone missing.

Into this tense situation who should appear but Mary Poppins (Blunt), who in her own no-nonsense way organizes and entertains  the incredibly adorable kids (Pixie Davies,  Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson) with a series of fantastic adventures.

Our narrator through all this is a lamplighter, Jack (Miranda), who serves precisely the same function as did Dick Van Dyke’s chimneysweep Bert in the original. Introduced with the song “Lovely London Sky,” Jack is featured in “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”  featuring a host of dancing lamplighters that mirrors the “Step in Time ” extravaganza from 1965.

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Yalitza Aparicio

“ROMA” My rating: B+ (Opening Dec. 14 at the Tivoli and Screenland Armour; also available on Netflix)

135 minutes | MPAA rating” R

A personal memoir set against a moment of national trauma, “Roma” is the most overtly artistic of Alfonso Cuaron’s films.

Unlike the bulk of his resume (“A Little Princess,” “Children of Men,” “Gravity” and a “Harry Potter” installment), it has nothing to do with science fiction, fantasy or the future.

Instead it is like a perfectly composed snapshot of a time gone by. (It’s even been filmed in eye-pleasing widescreen black and white).

The central figure of “Roma” (that’s the upper middle class neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuaron grew up) is Cleo (first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio), a maid in the household of Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a physician, and his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira).

If’s obvious from Cleo’s broad features and dark skin and hair that she is not only of Indian descent, but is a late comer to the big city. She speaks Spanish but in conversation with her fellow workers she still employs her native tongue; she seems out of place in busy urban settings.

Cleo is quiet, efficient and unassertive. Still, she’s a loving companion to Antonio and Sofia’s four young children (one of whom, we assume, is based on Alfonso Cuaron).  Cleo long ago drifted across the line that separates employee from family member.

So when Antonio leaves town — ostensibly for a medical seminar — and never returns, Cleo’s place as a caregiver and low-keyed moral center of the household becomes even more important. Sofia’s parenting responsibilities are neglected in favor of a massive jilted-wife meltdown, the biggest victim of which is the family sedan. The car is slowly  being demolished one fender at at time. (These are among the few overtly comic moments in the movie, and smack of something that actually happened.)

Even as the family attempts to come to term with Antonio’s absence, Cleo faces her own crisis.  She finds herself pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a friend of a cousin who seduced the apparently virginal maid and whose idea of post-coital cuddling is a naked bedroom demonstration of martial arts moves.

Cleo even follows Fermin to a training camp in the sticks where he and hundreds of other young men are engaging in martial exercises; confronted with his impending fatherhood Fermin threatens Cleo and beats a hasty retreat.

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Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz

“THE FAVOURITE”  My rating: B (Opens  Dec. 14 at the Tivoli , Town Center and Glenwood Arts)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Deliciously nasty and morally ambiguous, “The Favourite” is a female-centric slice of history featuring three superb actresses duking it out on screen.

In addition, it may be remembered as Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ most accessible film. Which is not to say that it’s breezy moviegoing.

As was so obvious with his most recent English-language features — “The Lobster” and “The Killing of the Sacred Deer” — Lanthimos marches to his own weird drummer. The difference this time around is that instead of working from his own script he’s tackling a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and their reasonably conventional approach grounds this yarn in more or less familiar territory.

This feast of power-playing shenanigans is set in the 18th-century court of England’s Queen Anne, a monarch equal parts sadness and silliness.  As played by the great Olivia Colman (for my money this year’s best supporting actress), this ruler is fat, frumpy and flighty.

Small wonder that her childhood friend and now closest confidant, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), treats the monarch as a sort of overgrown baby with big appetites and a short attention span. Because of their long friendship Sarah can tell Her Highness the brutal truth — for example, that her new cosmetic do-over makes the Queen look like a large badger.  (Sarah actually seems to take pleasure in dissing her hapless royal gal pal.)

In return Anne showers gifts (like castles) on her companion and makes sure that Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) spends most of his time away  fighting those nasty Frenchies.

Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s penniless country cousin come to court in the hopes of employment.  She’s put to work in the kitchen, but little by little insinuates herself into the Queen’s household…among other things she whips up an herbal poultice to treat Her Majesty’s gouty feet.

What ensues is a sort of powdered-wig “All About Eve,” with the young interloper cannily inserting herself between the old friends. Abigail  discovers that Anne and Sarah are lovers and decides to use that information for her own advancement. Scheming, backbiting and even a bit of poison are employed.

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Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh

“AT ETERNITY’S GATE” My rating: A-

110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-12

Epically poetic yet aching personal, “At Eternity’s Gate” may be the best film ever about Vincent  Van Gogh.

For that matter, it is among the best movies ever made about a visual artist. Undoubtedly much of the insight and emotion radiating off the screen can be traced back to writer/director Julian Schnabel who was, of course, a famed painter long  before he began  making films.

Visually lush and aurally haunting, “At Eternity’s Gate” follows Vincent through the last year or so of his life.

It is told in fragmented fashion, with scenes built around a series of dialogues between Vincent (Willem Dafoe in the best performance of his career) and others: his supportive brother Theo (Rupert Friend), his combative fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), a fellow patient in a mental institution (Niels Arestrup), a disapproving priest (Mads Mikkelsen), a sympathetic physician (Mathieu Amalric).

And when he’s not talking, this Vincent is painting, creating before our eyes the colorful masterpieces that would not be appreciated until long after his death at age 37. A good chunk of “At Eternity’s Gate” is devoted to following Vincent on his nature walks, easel and canvasses strapped to his back, head shaded with a floppy straw hat.

This is a transcendental Vincent, a man who stands in the sunshine with his arms outstretched, smiling ecstatically at the light that bathes him.

Our first encounter with this Vincent, though, occurs in darkness. We can only hear his voice. He’s talking about loneliness, about how he feels set apart from the rest of humanity: “I just want to be one of them…I’d like them to give me some tobacco, a glass of wine, or even ask: ‘How are you?’…from time to time I’d make a sketch of one of them as a gift.”

The key to Dafoe’s inspiring, heartbreaking performance is the way in which Vincent’s almost religious love affair with the world’s beauty is undercut by his sad “otherness.”  Most people don’t like him. They make fun of him. His eccentricities, poverty and neediness bring out the worst in his fellow man. (An art dealer of my acquaintance once explained that “Everybody wants a Van Gogh in their dining room; nobody wants Van Gogh in their  dining room.”)

Thus he’s an apologetic mystic, aware that he rubs others the wrong way, but unable to escape the almost epileptic thrall into which he is forever being plunged by the beauty of the world around him.

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Maria Callas

“MARIA BY CALLAS” My rating:

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Maria Callas seemed bigger than life in just about everything she pursued.

Her voice was legendary. As was her romance with millionaire Aristotle Onasis. She was a fashion icon. And she came to embody the very idea of “diva,” gaining a reputation for temperamental behavior after she was fired by The New York Metropolitan Opera.

During her lifetime it seemed that just about everyone had an opinion about Callas. Now, decades after her death from heart attack at age 53 in 1977, first-time filmmaker Tom Volf lets her speak for herself.

The idea behind “Maria by Callas” is to let the great singer tell her own story, employing dozens of filmed interviews, tape recordings, and excerpts from her memoir (read by K.C. native and current opera star Joyce DiDonato).

Clearly, Volf is a big-time Callas fan (“fan,” of course, being a shortened version of “fanatic”) and he seems to have scoured the planet for photos and footage of his idol.  This is an exhaustive presentation.

In fact, Volf seems not so much to have shaped all this material as to have taken a bath in it.

Some may take exception with his decision to devote at least one quarter of the two-hour documentary to musical numbers, either footage of Callas performancing on stage or sound recordings played against archival photos and footage.

On the other hand, to understand Callas you’ve got to hear her. So there.

Arranged chronologically, “Maria by Callas” follows its subject from her New York childhood to her late adolescence in Greece, her emergence as a European singing sensation and her rapid recognition on this side of the Atlantic.

Her life was beset by scandal both professionally and personally.

In 1958 she dropped out of a performance in Rome after the first act. She was vilified as a temperamental diva; Callas claims the drafty old theater gave her a devastating case of bronchitis.

Later she was cut from the Met; she claims it was about not wanting to participate in lazily-assembled retread productions of old standards. (Nearly a decade later she returned to the Met in triumph.)

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Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

“GREEN BOOK”  My rating: B 

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Most of us will go into “Green Book” knowing — thanks to the ads — what the film is about. We can predict with some certainty what notes it’s going to hit, what emotional buttons it’ll be pushing.

None of this detracts from the movie’s immense pleasures.

The latest from director Peter Farrelly (yes, of the raunch-humor Farrelly Brothers) is a fact-based buddy film that dabbles in race and ethnicity, the universal appeal of music, and the glory of Detroit engineering at a time when bigger was definitely better.

It’s 1962 in NYC where Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is bouncing drunks at the Copacabana nightclub. He’s Brooklyn Italian down to his toenails…which he can barely see thanks to his pasta-packed middle-aged spread.

Looking for a temporary gig while the club is undergoing a facelift, Tony signs up for a job driving a musician on  a tour of the Deep South.  And not just any musician.

Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a Phd. pianist who studied music in the Soviet Union, writes and performs classical scores (although on this tour he’s offering a popular jazz sound) and also has doctorates in psychology and liturgical arts. (The real-life Shirley also was fluent in six languages.)

Oh, yeah. He’s black, too.

But the money is good and Tony swallows his ethnic prejudices. He kisses the Missus (Linda Cardelli) goodbye and gets behind the wheel of a big aquamarine land shark for an eight-week tour leading up to Christmas.  Continue Reading »

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs

“THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS”  My rating: B (Now available on Netflix)

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At one point In the Coen Brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” several condemned miscreants stand on the scaffold awaiting the long drop.  One man sobs inconsolably; the guy to  his right tries to be sympathetic: “Your first time?”

Now playing on Netflix, “Ballad…” might be considered a toss off…but it’s a hugely enjoyable toss off.

The brothers — Joel and Ethan — have given us six short films set in the Wild West.  They are filled with loquacious characters, memorable faces, off-the-charts beautiful scenery.

In tone they range from comedy (usually of a very dark variety) to O. Henry-ish irony. There are a few moments of sweetness…not that they last. And there are a couple of terrific action sequences.

Zoe Kazan

Of course, the Coens aren’t exactly new to the genre, having given us a brilliant version of “True Grit,” not to mention the sobering modern Western “No Country for Old Men.”  Here they seem to be reveling in the opportunity to pay  homage to traditional Western tropes while playfully thumbing their noses at same.

A broad comic tone is set with the opening segment, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which features Tim Blake Nelson as a geeky parody of singing movie cowboys.  Buster wears an all-white suit, strums his guitar while riding (“he was mean in days of yore/now they’re mopping up the floor”), and cheerfully blows away anyone who gets in his way, employing a variety of trick shots. Of course, there’s always someone faster on the draw.

“Near Algodones” finds James Franco playing an outlaw with the world’s worst luck. A banker (Stephen Root) doesn’t take kindly to being robbed and fights back wearing armor made of kitchen pots and pans. The outlaw survives one lynching (it’s interrupted by an Indian attack) but he can’t rely on that sort of happy coincidence the next time he’s got a rope around his neck. The whole thing looks as if it were lifted from a Sergio Leone film.

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Viola Davis

“WIDOWS” My rating: B

129 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Widows” is a sprawling crime drama that wants to be something more…and almost gets there.

The latest from Brit director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave,” “Shame”) is a heist film with a twist: The perps are all women forced to engage in a crime in order to survive.

In the opening moments we see a group of career criminals — their leader, Harry Rawlings, is portrayed by Liam Neeson — saying goodbye to their families and going off to “work.”  That night all of them die in a fiery crash after stealing millions from a local Chicago crime lord.

They leave behind grieving women who aren’t sure how to get on with their lives.  Harry’s widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), still has the couple’s posh apartment and at least a small reservoir of cash. But her love for Harry was so intense and complete that she’s a mere shell of her former self.

Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) has supported her two kids with a dress shop — though her no-good hubby was always dipping into the till and, in fact, hasn’t paid the rent for months. Trophy wife Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is pretty much cast adrift; her often-violent spouse (Jon Bernthal) has left behind nothing but bruises.

Worse is still to come.  Veronica is paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) whose millions, stolen by Harry’s crew, went up in flames. He now informs Veronica that she must make good on that debt…or else.  She has no choice but to recruit the other widows whose lives are also in danger; using as their guide a notebook in which Harry meticulously planned future crimes, the three women prepare and execute another multi-million-dollar heist.

This would be enough plot for most films. But the screenplay by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) is only getting started. What they envision with “Widows” is a multi-character examination of modern American urban life…and it isn’t pretty.

This is a world in which everybody is a crook, including — no, especially — politicians.

Despite his criminal enterprises, Jamal Manning is running for city alderman (hey, it’s Chicago). His opponent is the Kennedy-esqe Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose closet-racist father (Robert Duvall) has up to now kept the seat in the family despite redistricting that has left the voter pool almost 100 percent black. No matter who wins, the residents are going to get screwed.

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Lucas Hedges

“BOY ERASED”My rating: B 

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In real life, forgiveness is a virtue.

In cinema, it’s a handicap.

That may be why Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” based on Gerrard Conley’s memoir of undergoing gay conversion therapy as a teen, seems simultaneously important and a bit underwhelming.

The film (and, presumably, Conley’s book) doesn’t go looking for villainy in religious-backed efforts to pray the gay away. The movie is astonishingly open minded and open hearted.  The folk who operate conversion camps are given the benefit of the doubt; they appear sincere in their beliefs and seem to have the best interests of their young clients at heart.

They’re  misguided, sure. But not evil.

That sort of evenhandedness, while morally sound, is narratively problematic. Great drama needs great conflict, and “Boy Erased” soft-pedals issues of prejudice and persecution that might kick the film into dramatic high gear.

What we’re left with is a well-acted, insightful drama that is more mournful than pissed off.

Egerton’s picture (he wrote and directed) begins with college freshman Jared Eamons (a terrific Lucas Hedges) arriving at a big city conversion camp with his mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman, with the poofy blonde ‘do and vaguely out-there fashion sense of a tasteful Tammy Faye Bakker).

While his mom retreats to the hotel where the two will be sharing a suite for the next two weeks, Jared gets a walkthrough of the joint.  His wallet, cell phone and personal effects are placed in a box and locked away (it’s a bit like reporting to prison).  His journal, in which he scribbles notes for possible short stories, is confiscated (it will be returned to him with certain pages missing). He’s told that all outside reading materials, music, radio and TV are banned.

The man in charge, Victor (director Edgerton), approaches the young men and women in his custody with the sort of enthusiasm and concern exhibited by a good athletic coach. He’s totally upbeat about the possibility of these kids bringing themselves back to God.

Because it’s really not their fault, you see.  Not that they were born gay.  No, that’s a myth.  Rather, at some point in their developmental years these individuals had their psyches warped by someone — usually a family member —  who triggered their gayness.

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Melissa McCarthy

“CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?” My rating: 
106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Can a criminal act be a form of art?

Well, yes — at least according to “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Writer/director Marielle Heller’s sophomore feature (after the hair-raising “Diary of a Teenage Girl”) is based on the real case of Lee Israel, a minor author of literary and show-biz biographies who back in the early ’90s revived her flagging financial fortunes by forging and selling nearly 400 letters from famous literary types like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker.

Starring Melissa McCarthy (in serious mode) as the curmudgeonly Israel and Richard E. Grant as her lowlife friend and co-conspirator, “Can You Ever…” walks a fine line between bathos and black humor. Along the way it gets you rooting for the “bad” guys.

When we first meet McCarthy’s Lee she’s trying to get her long-time agent (Jane Curtin) to cough up advance money for a bio of vaudeville legend Fanny Brice. That isn’t going to happen. As the agent calmly points out, there’s no interest in a Fanny Brice book and, anyway, Lee’s snarling personality pretty much alienates everyone she comes into contact with.

Indeed, Lee has just lost a temp gig for drinking on the job and loudly cursing her co-workers. Her sole friend is her cat, who needs medicine she cannot afford. Lee’s not above stealing another woman’s coat at a literary cocktail party.

She’s slugging them back at her local bar when she makes the acquaintance of Jack Hock (Grant), an aging British queen who passes himself off as a jaded sophisticate (he’s jaded, but hardly sophisticated) while living hand-to-mouth on NYC’s mean streets.

Jack’s catty, go-for-broke outlook meshes nicely with Lee’s misanthropy…they’re just what the other needs. For a while they’re mere drinking buddies.

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Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury

“BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY”  My rating: B

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Remi Malek is a most unconventional star.  His biggest break to date has been as the lead of cable’s “Mr. Robot,” where he plays an emotionally-challenged computer genius, a role that perfectly meshes his acting chops with his unusual physiognomy.

He’s a weird-looking dude.

Nevertheless, in Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” Malek becomes a bona fide movie star, sinking so completely into the role of flamboyant Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury that he immediately joins the frontrunners for the year’s best actor Oscar, turning a rather humdrum musical biopic into something scintillating.

Ramen is charismatic, sexy, funny and ultimately heartbreaking as Mercury, whose baroque (or is it rococo?) sensibilities made Queen one of the most unlikely rock bands of the 1970s and ’80s.

Like the new “A Star is Born,” another film that cannily mines the backstage world of pop/rock, “…Rhapsody” follows a predictable arc, being the story of a rock star’s rise to fame and descent into ego, arrogance and, eventually, death (Mercury died of AIDS in 1991).

But that familiar  — almost cliched — tale provides a solid platform for Malek’s performance —  in addition to offering a musical soundtrack that’ll have you humming days and weeks later.

Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan’s screenplay begins with Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) hustling baggage at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Wherever he goes, the shy Farrokh is a fish out of water.  His fellow workers dismiss him as a “Paki” (Pakistani); his Farsi parents, who fled religious persecution in their native Zanzibar, don’t know what to make of his dramatically long hair and disco fashion sense.

Moreover, the kid has an amazing set of choppers…reportedly Farrokh had four extra incisors (Malek wears a lip-stretching set of fake teeth).

Early on Farrokh takes up with a struggling rock band —  guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), baby-faced drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) — and amazes with his songwriting, theatrical presence and balls-to-the-walls vocals (reportedly a combination of Malek’s voice and that of Mercury impersonator Marc Matel).

Oh, yeah. He also changes his name to Freddy Mercury, a break with his heritage that alienates his traditionalist parents.

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Alex Hannold

“FREE SOLO” My rating: B (Opens Oct. 26 at the Tivoli)

100 minutes | MPAA rating:PG-13

The faint of heart had best pass on “Free Solo,” a mountaineering documentary with so many close calls that the audience spends a good chunk of the running time with their hearts in their throats.

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s film follows young Alex Honnold, who eschews pitons and ropes and the usual paraphernalia of mountain climbing in favor of his hands and feet.  As a free soloist, he clambers up impossible cliffs with nothing but his own strength and a sort of sixth sense about what cracks and indentations can accommodate his fingers and toes to support his weight.

“Free Solo” follows Honnold over two years as he prepares to be the first to freestyle climb Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, viewed by mountaineers as “the most impressive wall on earth.” We also learn that the most famous of Honnold’s fellow free soloists have fallen to their deaths…it’s a high-mortality calling.

There’s a good deal of information here about how Honnold approaches this killer challenge.  He has climbed El Capitan dozens of times using ropes  and safety equipment, trying to decide what route he’ll take once he’s on his own.  Frequently he loses his grip and falls. The lines that save him won’t be there on the day of the big climb.

Over time he maps out in his head every nook and cranny of the 2,000-foot tall mountain face, and choreographs his every move, planning what each hand and foot will be doing in a sort of life-or-death choreography.

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Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga

“A STAR IS BORN”  My rating: B

135 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) has been a major star for almost a decade now, but even if you’d never heard of her, “A Star Is Born” would confirm that there is indeed a new comet in the heavens.

She’s really, really good.

This is the third remake of the original show-biz love story (after the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the ’54 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the ’76 vehicle for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). Though many of the details have been refreshed for this Bradley Cooper-directed effort, it’s still the story of a rising young performer’s romance with an older, established star who cannot handle it when her career eclipses his.

So don’t expect much new in the plot department.

But watching Gaga sink her teeth into her first major acting opportunity is thrilling. The woman who in her stage shows often relies on visual overkill here delivers a sensitive and carefully modulated performance that will likely result in an Oscar nomination. And what makes it even more remarkable is that hers is the less showy performance.  Her co-star, Cooper, gets the big chewy scenes (You want attention? Play a drunk.) yet Gaga is all you want to look at.

Plus, the screenplay by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper perfectly nails its milieu of arena rock concerts, tour busses and messy hotel rooms. The plot may be familiar, but the setting has a life of its own.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a bearded, gravel-voiced star whose music ranges from folkie efforts to guitar-shredding Southern rock (something along the lines of Lynyrd Skynyrd/Marshall Tucker). He’s also a heavy drinker who gets itchy if he’s too long without a bottle in his hand.

Which is how Jackson ends up in a gay bar (they’ve got alcohol, right?) watching a drag show in which a waitress named Ally (Gaga) steals the spotlight with a spot-on Edith Piaf imitation. He’s impressed enough to go backstage to make her acquaintance.

It’s the start of a big-time romance.  Ally is flattered by the attention, but doesn’t think she’s pretty enough to be hobnobbing with a big star. (Interesting that Gaga, who in her earliest incarnations hid behind elaborate costumes, wigs and makeup, here goes through much of the film with almost no makeup at all).

She’s a songwriter and Jackson urges her to develop that talent.  In fact, after whisking her off to one of his stadium gigs in a far-flung city, he more or less drags her onstage to perform one of her compositions as a duet.  The audience goes ape (so will folks watching the movie) and before long the Ally show is in full swing with a fancy-pants manager/producer, an appearance on “SNL” and a Grammy nomination for best new artist.

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Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce

“THE WIFE” My rating: 

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

By the time “The Wife” delivers its big reveal, it should come as no surprise.  The film has been telegraphing its intentions all along; only the most inattentive viewer will be taken aback.

Happily, plot is one of the least important elements in Bjorn Runge’s film (adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s novel). What we’ve got here are some terrific acting and a portrait of a marriage in which both partners have struck a deal with the devil to ensure their continued success.

We first meet novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife Joan (Glenn Close) in the dead of night. Joe can’t sleep, knowing he’s a finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Joan finally submits to septuagenarian sex to calm him down.

When in the early a.m. the phone call from Stockholm comes, the two celebrate by jumping up and down on their marriage bed like a couple of preschoolers.

But there are signs that not all is well in the Castleman household.  Joe, we learn, is an inveterate philanderer.  And while their pregnant daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) seems well-adjusted, their son David (Max Irons) is a slow-boiling cauldron of resentment and hurt, not the least because he is an aspiring writer and desperately wants the approval of his famous father…approval which Joe won’t give.

The scene quickly shifts to Stockholm and the swirl of Nobel Week.  Joe attempts to take all the attention in stride, while Joan looks on. In fact, all this hubbub  — and Joe’s obvious infatuation with the pretty young photographer (Morgane Polanski) assigned to record his visit for posterity — is rubbing Joan the wrong way.

Her mood isn’t improved by Nathanial (Christian Slater, in one of his best performances), a sort of literary leech who wants to write Joe’s authorized biography.  Equal parts charm and smarm, Nathanial spends an afternoon drinking with Joan and suggesting that perhaps she’s the one who should be getting the Nobel. Continue Reading »

Ron Perlman

“ASHER” My rating: C+ (Opens Dec. 7 at the AMC Town Center)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Asher” is a by-the-numbers aging hit man movie somewhat enlivened by its weirdly charismatic star — Ron Perlman — and by  being a crime drama in which virtually all the characters are Jewish.

White-haired Asher (Perlman) kills people.  He’s got it down to routine.  He stands in the hallway outside his victim’s door, lights up a cigarette and opens an umbrella. When the smoke alarm goes off and the overhead sprinklers start spraying, he waits until the alarmed target throws open the door to see what’s up and then…BLAM!!!

Or, more accurately, ZIIIIP!!!, since Asher uses a silencer.

Jay Zaretsky’s screenplay is unclear about just who Asher works for.

He gets his assignments at a Brooklyn tailor shop where the yarmulke-wearing owner passes out info and cash in plain manilla envelopes. The big boss is Avi (Richard Dreyfuss), who runs a whole crew of assassins, but whether they’re all in the employ of the Israeli government or some organized crime enterprise is left fuzzy.

Anyway, Asher is beginning to feel his age. The plum assignments are now going to the killers Asher taught.

Even more troubling, some of Asher’s colleagues — and their families — are being mysteriously slaughtered.

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Jakob Cedergren

“THE GUILTY” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating

“Guilty” is a gimmick movie, but at least it’s an effective gimmick.

Denmark’s nominee for this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film is a real-time drama that unfolds in 90 uninterrupted minutes and has, essentially, a cast of one.

Jakob Cedergren plays Asger Holm, a tough Copenhagen cop who, while awaiting a hearing on some unspecified major infraction, has been handed a set of headphones at the department’s emergency services office.

Early on we realize his heart’s not in it.  To a frantic man who calls seeking an ambulance because he may have overdosed on illegal drugs, Asger responds: “It’s your own fault, isn’t it?”

He also humiliates a fellow who reports he’s been mugged by a woman who stole his laptop; Asger recognizes the call is originating from the city’s red light district.

His boring night picks up in intensity with a call from a frantic woman who reports she’s been kidnapped by her ex-husband. She has told her captor that she is calling their young daughter, but in fact has dialed the police.

Asher quickly sizes up the situation and alerts other cops to intercept the vehicle in which the woman is being held prisoner.

He also spends phone time with the couple’s daughter, traumatized after witnessing her parents’ brawling. Asher dispatches an officer to visit the home; he reports back a grisly scene.

It’s pretty clear to Asger that the estranged husband/father went ballistic and did something awful.  At least it’s clear until a big plot reveal turns the table on the officer and the audience.

Writer/director Gustave  Moller confines the action pretty much to Asger’s desk; there’s relatively little interaction with the other cops in the room. And of course we never see any of the people Asger is talking to…we only hear their voices.

In a cleverly perverse way, this seemingly limiting approach pays off. We’re forced to use our imaginations to picture the scenes as they are reported to Asger, who over the course of 90 minutes goes from  smug arrogance to genuine emotional investment.

One actor in  a confined space doesn’t sound particularly dramatic, but “The Guilty” makes it work.

| Robert W. Butler