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Bad Time at the El Royale

13 Oct

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’: You can check in, then suspect no one in this noir gets out alive

 

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a knuckleball-noir, a den of thieves stuffed with double agendas. The star of the film, besides the ripped abs of Chris Hemsworth or sexy boot-wearing waif Cailee Spaeny, is the remote resort of the title, once a grand casino straddling California and Nevada (there’s a red line down the middle of the lobby, and you can drink only on the California side). It’s seen better days, but lost its gambling license. Needless to say, few people check in; by the time the movie is over, even fewer check out.

The time is the Nixon-tainted ’70s, so cellphones are not a thing, but wiretapping and one-way mirrors are. An amiable reverend (Jeff Bridges) and a backup soul singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in first. Then there’s Jon Hamm, right out of “Mad Men” as a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Dakota Johnson, who zips in Tarantino-hip in a mod model muscle car with a bound bundle in the trunk. Not everyone’s whom they pretend to be, and the skittish hotel manager (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill, excellent in a role that seems designed for the late Anton Yelchin) bears the weight of past horrors in the hotel and has demanding owners to answer to. The inn has a few secrets as well.

As the sands shift and the mother of all storms descends, the tension rises. What’s buried under the hotel? Who is the mysterious being fled by Johnson’s Emily Summerspring and her sister Ruth (Spaeny)? Plus there’s the gruesome murder of a couple nearby that we hear about over and over on TV, with the killer still on the loose. Deep Purple and some lesser-known Motown kick up the scene – something that’s needed, because at almost two and a half hours “El Royale” is nearly an hour too long (but stylish nonetheless). And though directed by Drew Goddard, whose debut, “Cabin in the Woods” (2012) was a breath of fresh air to the horror genre, the film overplays moments. The plot, which in premise bears much in common with James Mangold’s 2003 Nevada hotel thriller “Identity,” loses its enigmatic edge a little over halfway in, and many of the more likable souls perish far too soon. But fear not, everyone gets a flashback, and certain scenes get replayed from multiple POVs. They’re neat devices, but not every character comes out feeling fully sketched. 

Hemsworth, who played beautifully against his Thor persona in “Cabin in the Woods,” isn’t given much to do here as a Cali-sun god and cult leader – Jim Morrison infused with the cocky cold-bloodedness of Charles Manson. It’s a big, hammy bone, and it gets well gnawed. The camp mostly works, while Bridges and Johnson hold the fort, Spaeny and Pullman add flourishes of manic quirk and Erivo adds soul, social context and glorious chops. The Watergate fiasco and a MacGuffin that could be tied to JFK loom at the corners, but they’re mostly distractions; the film is best when characters sit and banter over whisky, even if their hands are tied and a gun is to their head.

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A Star is Born

6 Oct

‘A Star Is Born’: Palpable and often painful, this remake makes an old story new again

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After re-seeing the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born” with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand – a film that barely worked – I walked into this one thinking, “How could this possibly be any better?” I mean, Kristofferson and Streisand were musicians by trade, and Bradley Cooper, while being a likable thespian with a pleasing mug, was going to croon a tune, strum guitar and direct for the first time too? I feared a vanity project or worse, but prejudgment is best saved for Big Macs, presidential tweets and bottom-shelf tequila, not art.

Lack of chemistry pulled the Kristofferson-Streisand project down to near camp. Nothing clicked between the two charismatic leads – not on stage, not at the piano, not in the studio and not in the bedroom. Who would ever buy a prog-rock, Iggy Pop kind of growler get jazzed up about a Broadway-tunes crooning chanteuse, or vice versa? Here, Cooper coupling with pop diva Lady Gaga nails it by coming at it straight from the heart as Jackson Maine, a country superstar in the mold of Keith Urban who can play a mean guitar. He also loves the bottle – perhaps more than his music – which is what leads him to a late-night watering hole after a podunk show. It’s there at a drag revue that Gaga’s Ally, adorned with Divine-etched eyebrows, belts out “La Vie en Rose” with such poise, power and control that Edith Piaf might just give up the mic. Jackson takes notice, they go to another bar, he drinks enough to make a small village comatose and she punches out an angry fan to defend his honor. One’s clearly on the way up, the other’s wallowing in self-loathing, and the two get each other completely.

Like any good romance, the night doesn’t end between the sheets, but in a parking lot with her hand strapped to a bag of frozen peas. And yes, they do sing at each other a bit – just a tiny, perfect bit. The next day Jackson’s on a plane and onto the next city and show, but he sends for Ally, who reluctantly hops a Learjet and even more reluctantly lets him drag her out on stage to sing that little parking lot ditty – a neat country crossover. From the 1932, ’37, ’54 and ’76 versions of the success-cum-tragedy melodrama, based originally on an article by Adela Rogers St. Johns and later retooled by Dorothy Parker (the first three entries were about Hollywood aspirations, not the music biz) you know how the story goes, yet Cooper, also holding a co-writer credit, floats the prospect of redemption and a different resolution.  Continue reading

he Old Man & the Gun

5 Oct

‘The Old Man & the Gun’: Redford’s final bow is a charmer, like his gentleman bank robber

 

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It’s been almost 50 years since Robert Redford rode into cinematic history with Paul Newman as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In that 1969 film, guns were drawn but seldom used, and never to take out a bank clerk or guard during a heist. Clearly these were thieves raised well and with a civilized degree of humanity … sparking the question: Could the prospect of being robbed at gunpoint be any more enjoyable? The answer, as David Lowery’s “The Old Man & the Gun” has it, is an emphatic yes. In the based-on-a-true-crime film, an 82-year-old Redford (promising his last thespian turn) plays Forrest Tucker, an avuncular gent who robs banks wearing a professorial herringbone tweed jacket and a grandfatherly fedora pulled down tight to shield his mug. He’s quite the charmer when flashing the unloaded pistol of the title, complimenting nerve-wracked tellers on their attire and bestowing friendly insights. You almost expect him to leave a tip.

We first catch up with Tucker and his AARP posse (Danny Glover and Tom Waits, both great) as they pull off a caper. All goes smoothly, except at the time there’s a police officer named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) in line with his daughter, and he takes the crime personally. The aptly zealous Hunt, digging around on police blotters, realizes that Tucker and his “Over the Hill Gang” have been operating under the radar for sometime, strategically hitting locales across state lines to keep investigators off their trail. Continue reading

The Sisters Brothers

5 Oct

‘The Sisters Brothers’: Hunting the chemist who can find gold – the West is rotten with it

 

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If the title feels like a tongue-twisting joke, it is, but the film’s anything but. Reminiscent of Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” (1962), “The Sisters Brothers” bites feverishly into the grim lawless landscape of the American Northwest during the mid 1800s mining boom. It’s quite a violent film, but also one with great emotional depth – a rare accomplishment that makes it the best American western to hit the screen since “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” reimagined the notorious outlaw’s demise back in 2007. Everything about the film unfurls in smoky, dark wisps. It bears the same kind of foreboding heaviness that crowded the Coen brothers’ 2010 recasting of “True Grit.”

To land in such fine company, “The Sisters Brothers” rides out of the stable something of an anti-western, everything that John Ford and John Wayne were not – square-jawed and morally black and white. Peckinpah and Sergio Leone would certainly be pleased. For starters, the siblings of the title, Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) are murderous souls whom we invariably come to care for just like Peckinpah’s richly drawn ruffians in “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and the film, shot largely in Span and Romania (close enough logistically to think spaghetti?) happens to be directed by the French auteur, Jacques Audiard (“Rust and Bone”). How’s that for nontraditional? Continue reading

Bisbee ’17

23 Sep

‘Bisbee ’17’: Company called up the cattle cars, a deadly ‘deportation’ for its striking workers

 

For his riveting documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012), Joshua Oppenheimer tackled the grim matter of a 1960s Indonesian massacre by providing cameras to the heads of the militias and hit squads doing the killing, so each could make a film reenvisioning their involvement. In “Bisbee ’17” Robert Greene captures something similar in a mining town just miles from the Mexican border and down the road from the O.K. Corral. Just as America was entering the First World War and metal production was key – namely copper, the motherlode of Bisbee – a miner strike drew the ire of townsfolk, who armed themselves, rounded up the 1,300 agitators and activists, put them in cattle cars and sent them off to the New Mexico desert, dumping them with steep odds of survival.

That inhumane act has become  known as the Bisbee Deportation. Many of the “deported” workers in 1917 were foreigners, what we today would label as “undocumented.” The town back then was pretty much set up and run by the Phillip Dodge Corp., which brought in the sheriff from Tombstone to spearhead the roundup. The mining camp now is a ghost town; what remains is a strip mall epicenter and 5,000 residents, with a complexion representative of the white industrialist settlers and the native and brown people who toiled under their demands. The town was divided back then on the Brisbee Deportation and remains so, and that’s where Green strikes his vein: For the centennial, the town stages a reenactment, which Green films in perfectly choreographed sequences, interspersing interviews with descendants, including those of a brother who rounded up his own sibling and the first Latino woman to win local election. Yes, Brisbee then and now proves to be something of a microcosm.

Beyond the rote talking heads, the film’s something of a dreamy cinematic wonder, be it the stunning shots of scarred and gutted land framed by Jarred Alterman’s lens, the mood-sparking score by Keegan DeWitt or the pain-streaked folk songs sung by the re-enactors.

Madeline’s Madeline

23 Sep

‘Madeline’s Madeline’: Brattle selects stunner showing surreal, fraught battle for girl’s mind

 

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Programing matters, and The Brattle Theatre, the plucky “film school” of Harvard Square, has scored some arthouse coups in the past few years. Take “Linda, Linda, Linda” in 2005, “Margaret” in 2011 or even “Upstream Color” and “Snowpiercer” in 2013 – and now “Madeline’s Madeline.” None of those films played an area franchise theater; they were astutely picked out and exhibited by the Brattle programing staff. And they all were hailed by local critics, some even called the best films of their respective years.

In light of the #MeToo moment and in context with the Brattle’s revived “Focus On Cinema Made By, For And About Women” and the Boston Women’s Film Festival kicking off at month’s end, the timing of “Madeline’s Madeline“ couldn’t be more apt. It’s directed by a woman (Josephine Decker, capturing lightning in a bottle) and revolves around three strong female characters. It’s experimental in its treatment of dialogue and hypnotically gauzy imagery, emulating the perspective of an actor in an improv acting collaborative – or perhaps someone who’s suffering from mental illness. It also has a lot to say subtly on race.

The challenge is to stay with it, letting the initial “Persona”-esque disorientation wear away to near “Beasts of the Southern Wild” surreality. There’s also a splash of “Mother!” wildness in there, but it’s fresh and new; my comparisons may be spot on and are irrelevant just the same.

What to know? Madeline (amazing newcomer Helena Howard), a biracial teen, lives with her white mom (quirky actress/writer/director Miranda July, amazingly taking on the straight role here). Dad is nowhere in sight. Both likely have some degree of mental illness, and there’s early signs of abuse (the who, how and why of which are shocking). Given all the unhappiness, Madeline basically lives for her after-school theater troupe, led by a freckled matriarch by the name of Evangeline (Molly Parker, super effective in helping drive the film). Her big idea for the culminating workshop piece is taking pieces of Madeline’s dysfunctional and toxic relationship with her mom and her illness and putting it on stage as a form of therapy, complete with pig masks and a re-created psych ward experience. A battle for control of Madeline’s soul looms between July’s Regina and Evangeline, but Madeline’s far beyond them in the game.

As the film comes more into focus, it be rawer and deeper. Madeline hosts a porn-torture watch party in the basement and later sips wine at Evangeline’s house and has a charged conversation with her husband, and you wonder at each turn where it’s going to go and when the bottom’s going to drop out. It’s an immersion into an addled point of view, and riveting. You can’t look away – every frame adds layer, and there’s so much going on internally that Decker gets out in brilliant visuals, perfectly underscored with moody aural accompaniment.

If you want something new and different yet affecting, well, here it is. Decker will be on tap for the 7 p.m. Saturday screening. The Brattle’s run of “Madeline’s Madeline” has been held over – originally intended to end its run Thursday, it will now show through Sept. 24.

White Boy Rick

23 Sep

‘White Boy Rick’: Life of overachieving teen can’t sustain its high in crack-dealing 1980s

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There’s a whole lot of bristle and edge to “White Boy Rick,” the true-life chronicle of Rick Wershe, a plucky street criminal who made front page news as a drug dealer and gun runner in crack-addicted Detroit. Sure, there were lots of other kingpins working the street during the desperate ’80s, but Rick was barely 16 and – as the film has it – the only white kid trying to cut in. Rick was also an on-and-off again informant for the FBI, a move that ultimately proves less favorable than it did for local white guy Whitey Bulger.

If you were hoping “White Boy Rick” might be a Horatio Alger story propelled with shotgun shells like “Scarface,” it’s not. It’s more a tale of desperation, poor choices and swimming against the current and, on a social level, an American tragedy, and there’s a lot you want to like: the topographical audacity, trademark disco funk music, gritty street lingo and a wickedly impressive cast. But somehow “White Boy Rick” doesn’t know how to deliver, or maybe it’s just that hard to make a true-life criminal be sympathetic or compelling onscreen. Remember how highly anticipated “Black Mass” was, and how it fell short? Rick doesn’t kill anyone here – not directly, anyway, though he does unload a gunny sack of AK-47s to a posse of trigger-happy gangbangers and later distributes heroin and crack. So there’s that.

What “White Boy Rick” needs is a fix of character development and motivation. We have little idea why Rick grabs that satchel of guns from his dad initially and saunters into a kingpin’s operation, inconspicuous as an elephant at a yoga retreat. It’s a perfectly orchestrated and tense scene, but without a framework it wanes quickly thereafter – as does much of the film, as it achieves crescendo after crescendo only to return to flatness. It’s no fault of new face Richie Merritt, who’s convincing enough as the titular man-boy full of resolve and the capacity to pull the trigger, but a high reluctance to shoot first and think later. Strangely or perhaps poetically, Rick flows seamlessly from white to black. If you could imagine Gary Oldman’s dreaded and grilled gangster in “True Romance” shot in the rump with a tranquilizer, you’d have the right approximation: far less cartoonish, but with the right amount of cred. Continue reading