Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Relapse and Repeat: Carell and Chalamet bolster inherently redundant addiction story in "Beautiful Boy"

Beautiful Boy (2018)
112 min., rated R.

Cinematic depictions of addiction are a dime a dozen and can be a difficult high-wire act to pull off, considering such a disease is so internal and why one relapses several times before recovery is not based on cold logic. There are so many hugs in “Beautiful Boy” that one might expect it to be the pat, maudlin Lifetime Movie treatment of addiction, but thankfully, it is more unsparing and unsentimental than that. Based on memoirs “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines,” respectively, written by David Sheff and son Nic Sheff, the film never sugarcoats either experience of addiction of either the parent or the addicted child. Tasked with the responsibility to tell a story about real people who exist, Belgian writer-director Felix Van Groeningen (2013’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown”) and co-writer Luke Davies (2016’s “Lion”) rely on the two impassioned performances by Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet—great casting, by the way, as a father and son—and some fine writing to guide the film.

Freelance journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell) has built a life in Marin County, California, with his second wife, artist Karen (Maura Tierney), and their two children. His 18-year-old son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), from his first marriage with ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan), was once full of promise and bound for college, but he’s addicted to crystal meth, heroin, and opioids. Once David checks his son into rehab, Nic gets clean for 184 days. Nic assures David and Karen that he will extend his time in San Francisco in a halfway house, putting college on hold while he works. Unfortunately, not long after, David receives a call that Nic has disappeared and finds him in an alley. The cycle continues, as Nic sobers up and then finds himself tempted by prescription drugs, meets up with David, only to lie to his father that he’s not back to using and ask for money. David wants to help his son by researching addiction for himself, but as relapse is a part of recovery, Nic will have to make the change for himself.

By nature, a film about addiction can be a long, redundant process full of fallibility, and that repetitiveness seems to be inherent and necessary to capture the hard truths. Similar in form to Groeningen’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” “Beautiful Boy” employs a sprawling, non-linear storytelling structure, weaving in time through memories of better times between David and Nic (played by Kue Lawrence, as 4 and 6-year-old Nic, and Jack Dylan Grazer, as 12-year-old Nic). The choice of framing the story out of order (and sometimes with flashbacks within flashbacks) and conveying both points of view is certainly ambitious, but it’s more often frustrating and distracting, at times distancing one’s emotional connection with this aching portrait of a family in crisis. This is where the authentic performances pick up the slack of the storytelling. 

Continuing to prove he is not just a flash-in-the-pan star but a magnetic, endlessly watchable and instinctive actor in tune with his craft, Timothée Chalamet (2017’s “Call Me By Your Name”) is strong again here, putting in vulnerable, raw-to-the-bone work as Nic Sheff, a smart, charming young man who had so much going for him but keeps digging himself deeper into a downward spiral just when he’s doing so well. He captures the twitchiness, the desperation, and the charisma to get what he wants as an addict. No longer surprising to find in dramatic roles, Steve Carell is vividly anguished and affecting as David, who loves his son so much that in an effort to understand Nic’s addiction even experiments once with cocaine and then eventually feels defeated, realizing that he can’t fix his son. “I love you more than everything,” David tells Nic at a young age, and thereon, “everything” becomes their shared word, even when David grows to no longer recognize the boy sitting across from him at their favorite diner. The film is beautifully acted without exception, even if the two mother figures in the film are standard and only get to be supportive. As Karen, Maura Tierney brings more depth to her part than what was probably written on the page, and she gets to be a bit more of an active participant when Nic and his newly addicted girlfriend (Kaitlyn Dever) break into David and Karen’s house. Amy Ryan, mostly relegated to phone calls, does everything she can to sell the heartbreak of Vicki, Nic’s absentee mother and David’s ex-wife who has her own life in Los Angeles, in the same way the character can only do so much to help Nic.

Inevitably, a cyclical story about addiction can only really go one of two ways: the addict either gets clean by the end, or the addict does not. Wrenchingly tough to take, as it should be, but not unremittingly morose, “Beautiful Boy” has the integrity to not conclude with quick fixes or even much catharsis, just a tinge of hope, and even if the film doesn’t locate any fresh insights, it is deftly performed and heartbreaking nonetheless. Carell and Chalamet both have what it takes to deeply move the viewer, but the film should be more devastating than it is. 


Friday, October 19, 2018

The Night They Reunited: "Halloween" a worthy, respectful love note to 1978 classic and a generational trauma drama rolled into one

Halloween (2018)
106 min., rated R.

1978’s seminal “Halloween” defined the slasher subgenre with director John Carpenter’s less-is-more style of low-budget filmmaking, and 40 years later, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of that enduring, influential lightning-in-a-bottle. In a bold swing of the knife, 2018’s “Halloween” preserves its namesake but divorces itself from all of the sequels following the 1978 original—in the context of one timeline, 1981’s rock-solid “Halloween II" no longer exists, and therefore, not even 1998’s slick, supremely satisfying Laurie Strode-Michael Myers reunion “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” and definitely not 2002’s cheap, disposable “Halloween: Resurrection”—making it a direct companion piece. In keeping a franchise alive and for the chance to make Michael Myers a menacing, relentless, and frightening embodiment of pure evil again, writer-director David Gordon Green (2017’s “Stronger”) and co-writers Danny McBride (2011’s “Your Highness”) & Jeff Fradley have taken the smartest and most logical retcon approach by resetting the mythology and making one remember what made Carpenter’s “Halloween” so special to begin with. Not only that, it justifiably negates Laurie Strode's infuriating send-off in the opening of "Halloween: Resurrection," washes out the bad taste that Rob Zombie’s ugly, psychologically useless and numbingly in-your-face 2007 re-imagining left, and gives audiences the sequel they are entitled to after all these years and all the silly Cult of Thorn nonsense in between. Having Jamie Lee Curtis and composer John Carpenter (both of them executive producers) back are just the cherries on top for a return to form.

Continuing the legacy of ultimate final girl Laurie Strode and The Shape without ever feeling like a cynical studio decision or slavish mimicry purely based on nostalgia, the new “Halloween” is an event for the horror genre that stylistically blazes its own trail and yet honors the clean simplicity of its classic forefather with plenty of loving, often subtle homages. With the slate wiped clean, this film sees Michael Myers’ 1978 murders as a random act of violence by a force of nature who was born a bad seed, discarding the “Halloween II” hook that Laurie was Michael’s adopted baby sister and acknowledging that fact by savvily referencing their bloodline as a myth. The narrative opens with two British podcast journalists, Aaron (Jefferson Hall) and Dana (Rhian Rees), arriving at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to face Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle), coaxing the human monster with his mask, and re-examine his case right before he’s transferred to another facility. Meanwhile, the babysitter murders that rocked the idyllic town of Haddonfield, Illinois, 40 years ago have left survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) shell-shocked and paranoid but prepared and consumed by confronting Michael again and killing him once and for all. She never left her hometown and has protected herself in a secluded fortress in the woods with a security gate, a surveillance system, and a hidden room under the floor with a cache of guns, which she has fired for practice in her backyard shooting range. Laurie’s trauma and obsession have estranged her from adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer), son-in-law Ray (Toby Huss), and teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who live in Haddonfield. On Halloween night, Laurie’s prayers are, of course, answered: Michael Myers has escaped a bus crash and preys on the suburban neighborhood of Haddonfield. While the town’s police deputy, Officer Hawkins (Will Patton), and Michael’s doctor, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), are in pursuit of The Shape, Laurie is ready, but she will have to keep her family safe, too.

Classy, muscular, and thrillingly creepy, “Halloween” is a much-needed 40th-anniversary gift of horror and catharsis for those who hold John Carpenter’s masterpiece dear to their heart. As the intensely mounted prologue smashes into Carpenter’s immortal score that does not lose its chill, the orange-on-black opening credits sequence with a decayed jack-o’-lantern reanimating itself is perfection, affectionately recalling the original film and representing a cinematic resurrection. Combining new compositions with an updated version of his iconic synth theme, Carpenter collaborates with son Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies on a piece of music that is stupendously effective and seamlessly placed, generating reliable goosebumps every time. When Michael first emerges among trick-or-treaters in the Haddonfield suburbs, an ensuing stalk-and-slash set-piece is fluidly and efficiently carried out in a bravura almost-single tracking shot, wisely deciding when to show the vicious violence and when to merely suggest it off-screen and glide past the aftermath. Director David Gordon Green masterminds several moments of nerve-jangling tension like this and creates some real humdingers, including a brutal attack in a gas station restroom; a choice sequence involving a babysitter closing her charge’s closet door that just doesn’t want to shut; some cleverly suspenseful business with Michael and a backyard motion-sensor light; and a harrowing, tensely sustained confrontation in Laurie’s compound that uses callbacks but reverses the action beats to crowd-pleasing effect. Rather than end on the question of whether or not Michael is actually dead, the film concludes with a poignant, cathartic image of hope that rings powerfully true in this day and age of strong women refusing to remain silent about their predatory victimizers, Laurie now able to take back her power after decades of suffering through her trauma and not being believed, this time with granddaughter Allyson now holding the knife. Not only does 2018’s “Halloween” play as a love note to the past and a sensationally crafted slasher film that goes for the jugular, it is a sensitively observed familial drama about PTSD and inextricable transgenerational trauma. 

Coming full circle with the role that gave her much-deserved notice as an unforgettable horror-movie heroine made up of innocence and strength, Jamie Lee Curtis is tremendous as Laurie Strode, commanding the screen and completing the character’s arc with a raw-nerve power. Anything but a passive victim, Curtis’ Laurie is a resilient, self-reliant survivor and doomsday prepper who has been ready for the return of Michael Myers as if frozen in time, and yet she's not above being understandably fragile and wounded. Curtis is the anchor here, as much as she was as a resourceful yet vulnerable 17-year-old forty years to the day, selling every choice Laurie makes that is consistent to this tortured yet resolved shadow of her former self, a self-proclaimed "twice-divorced basket case." Making the most in every supporting role she takes, the undervalued Judy Greer is wonderfully cast as Laurie’s daughter Karen, who resents her mother for turning her into a survivalist at such a young age before social services took her away. Wearing a Christmas sweater on Halloween (a very sly character detail that says it all), Karen refuses to live in fear like her mother or believe the world to be a scary, unsafe place for her and her family. Together, Curtis and Greer economically develop a lived-in history of love and long-suffering pain that is genuinely felt in the climactic moments where they hunker down, and Greer herself gets a badass moment in luring Michael. 

Newcomer Andi Matichak makes an instant impression as Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson, who is every bit as sweet, relatable, and intelligent as her estranged grandmother was back in the day and forges a similar path, like a passing of the torch. And, it wouldn’t quite be “Halloween” without teenage babysitters being stalked by the unstoppable boogeyman: Virginia Gardner (2016’s “Goat”), likable as Allyson’s friend Vicky, gets to share a lively interplay with her smart-ass charge, Julian (Jibrail Nantambu, very funny), before and after carefully washing and drying a kitchen knife, a knowingly portentous touch leading up to her big moment. Also, Miles Robbins (2018's "Blockers") and Drew Scheid make individual marks, imbuing their minor respective roles with just enough personality as Vicky's pumpkin-exploding stoner boyfriend Dave and Allyson's torch-carrying friend Oscar, before Michael gets to them; that Dave has just gotten a fresh "10-31-18" tattoo, marking the last day of his life, is a tragically ironic detail.

At this point, writer-director David Gordon Green can make any kind of film, from lyrical indies to raunchy stoner comedies, and one can feel his dream come true with the care and creative energy on screen. Green and co-writers Danny McBride & Jeff Fradley have clear adoration for “Halloween,” and fellow dyed-in-the-wool fans will notice every welcome tribute to the original and reverence for a few of the now non-canon sequels, from certain narrative beats to production design and lines of dialogue, that never come across forced. Since 1978, this is the first “Halloween” with the most stunning technical credits, cinematographer Michael Simmonds (2016’s “Nerve”) executing director Green’s sharp eye for shot compositions (the chessboard-like pattern of the Smith’s Grove detention area is immediately striking) and evoking an autumnal mood. Though it seems like nitpicking, the film could have afforded additional scenes with Laurie, Karen, and Allyson for the excision of a few offbeat, Danny McBride-influenced exchanges between the cops guarding Laurie’s gated home who chat about a Banh Mi sandwich. One creative decision that doesn’t completely work, too, is the addition of “the new Loomis.” On one hand, Dr. Sartain is the inevitable progression of Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis, given the years of studying a remorseless killer who won’t speak a word, but the intriguing use of this character becomes more of a plot device. Still leaving one on a fully satisfied high and ready to experience multiple viewings, 2018’s “Halloween” is the worthy, respectful sequel fans finally deserve.

Grade: A - 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Skeletons in the Hotel: "Bad Times at the El Royale" a savvily constructed, thrillingly mysterious genre exercise that fires on all cylinders

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
141 min., rated R.

The brainchild of writer-director Drew Goddard (2012’s post-modern horror game-changer “The Cabin in the Woods”), “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a deconstruction of film noir tropes and a savvily constructed character mosaic with a wounded humanity. Not unlike his feature debut where a bevy of slasher-movie characters in a cabin in the woods were intentionally archetypes and part of a bigger endgame, Goddard’s seven disparate strangers are all familiar types with more than they let on and become part of a grander scheme involving greed and voyeuristic surveillance. “Bad Times at the El Royale” has Agatha Christie and Quentin Tarantino vibes, along with basic similarities to 1995's "Four Rooms" and 2003’s “Identity,” but even being only his second film, it’s all Goddard’s own creation, brought to stylish life with every department firing on all cylinders, from a star-studded ensemble that’s terrific across the board, to beautifully orchestrated cinematography, pitch-perfect musical choices out of a jukebox, and production design that offers vibrant color, detail and texture. One is recommended to just let this tantalizing neo-noir take them along for the ride.

The El Royale is Lake Tahoe’s best-kept secret, a once-famed hotel resort straddling the California-Nevada border. It’s 1969, ten years after a bag of cash is hidden underneath the floor in one of the rooms, and motor-mouthed vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), priest Father David Flynn (Jeff Bridges), and struggling lounge singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) all check into the vacant bi-state establishment for a room. Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) is the hotel concierge stuck with managing the El Royale. Just before the three guests go to their rooms, the mysterious, no-nonsense Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) zooms into the parking lot, looking for a vacancy. After everyone’s secret is laid out through a corridor of two-way mirrors in every room and a sixth party, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), is revealed to be with one of the other guests, a seventh stranger is about to descend upon the El Royale and force things to head even more south.

Set against the late-‘60s backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Richard Nixon presidency, along with a TV news bulletin reporting a cult-like double homicide, “Bad Times at the El Royale” doesn’t waste a second setting up a locked-room mystery of sorts with precision. In a thickening puzzle-box narrative, the film corkscrews through each character’s perspective and individual anecdotes with chapter headings (all are named after a room number and a maintenance closet), snapping into focus who each of them really are and what they want. From the nearly silent prologue with a stranger (Nick Offerman) going to great lengths to hide the McGuffin-y bag of money in one of the hotel rooms, director Drew Goddard sets an example for the expert visual storytelling that continues for the film’s entire 141 minutes. His deliberate, slow-burn pacing is essential in putting an intoxicating spell on the viewer and making the viewing experience of seeing how and when the pieces will click into place that much more engrossing.

With such a large ensemble assembled, it becomes a treat to watch all of these faultlessly cast actors get a chance to shine with the shape-shifting duality their roles call for. Accomplished Broadway star Cynthia Erivo (2016 Tony Award winner for “The Color Purple” and one Oscar away from an EGOT) makes her sensational film debut here as the cautious and strong-willed Darlene Sweet, affirming herself as a magnetic, versatile talent of whom audiences are bound to see more. Darlene is undeniably the heart and moral center, particularly when given a scathing, stand-up-and-cheer primal scream of a monologue to deliver with a firm tenderness, and Erivo gets to use her voice of an angel to perform The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine” that serves organic purpose to the story. As the suspicious Father David Flynn with a failing memory, Jeff Bridges shifts between sympathetic and duplicitous, and his one-on-one scenes with Erivo are some of the film’s most poignant. Under the façade of a salesman who won’t shut up, Jon Hamm brings comedic bravado and makes his moments count. Coming in hot as an enigma with a chip on her shoulder and a body in her trunk, Dakota Johnson (2018’s “Fifty Shades Freed”) lands deadpan laughs and then sheds some vulnerable layers once her motives become more clear as Emily Summerspring. Lewis Pullman (2018’s “The Strangers: Prey at Night”) is another standout as Miles, a troubled soul in need of a confession and still reeling from a past riddled with guilt. Like a proverbial party crasher, Chris Hemsworth makes his wildcard turn as hippie cult leader Billy Lee alternately dangerous, seductively charismatic, and hilariously offbeat, and while his role is comparatively small, he makes quite the impression and not only because he gets to gyrate to Deep Purple’s “Hush” with his open shirt exposing his abs.

The pleasurable thrill of watching “Bad Times at the El Royale” is not knowing where the story is headed with all of these richly layered characters who are never what they seem, but to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is about the journey, not the destination. Rather than being played as a thriller with so many rug-pulling tricks up its sleeve that makes one scrutinize everything that came before, it reveals itself to be a collision of these strangers’ lives in a state of flux. By the end, the payoff might not amount to a big revelation, but once Billy Lee gets thrown into the mix like a match hovering over gasoline, the final confrontation is chilling, with an unbearably tense deadly game of Russian roulette, and then explosively violent. Above all, the characters left standing get the ending they deserve. Without being a reboot, a sequel, or based on a pre-existing property but taking superficially familiar ingredients to concoct an original whole, “Bad Times at the El Royale” crackles and pops as an audaciously sprawling genre exercise, a revolving door of juggled tones and a looking-glass world that keeps changing and surprising. Darkly funny, delectably unpredictable, and ultimately humane, the film is actually a very good time at the El Royale.

Grade: B +

Halloweentown: "Goosebumps 2" more of the same but does the trick

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)
90 min., rated PG.

A kid-targeted meta riff on author R.L. Stine’s 400-million-selling series of books, 2015’s “Goosebumps” was a pleasant surprise—a fun adventure that found the spooky and whimsical essence of the books and a wee bit of edge with the presence of killer lawn gnomes. Jack Black brought a wacky lightness to the role of R.L. Stine, but it was the charm and surprising emotional weight of the younger characters that made it a worthwhile alternative to the really scary stuff. Getting one into the Halloween spirit is the sequel, “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” arriving with a different creative team and a different cast entirely (and Black showing up just in the nick of time in what could be considered more of an extended cameo than an active participant in the story proper). Still none too concerned with generating actual goosebumps, the film admirably tries to be a little creepier than its predecessor, and while it has maybe half the heart, “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” is still an undemanding, briskly paced diversion.

In the New York town of Wardenclyffe, single mom Kathy Quinn (Wendi McLendon-Covey) asks her Columbia University-bound daughter, Sarah (Madison Iseman), who’s suffering from a case of writer’s block for her college essay, to babysit middle-school aged brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris). When Sam ropes Sonny into starting a junk-removal business for no cash, they end up finding treasure in a boarded-house that happens to be R.L. Stine’s former abode. A trunk in a hidden door behind the fireplace holds a locked manuscript  of R.L. Stine’s first story, “Haunted Halloween,” and a ventriloquist's dummy Slappy (now voiced by Mick Wingert), who's reanimated as soon as one of them reads an incantation. Once the two friends realize the sentient doll can not only walk, talk, and teleport but also prank their bully and finish their algebra homework, Slappy has a sinister endgame that involves making his own "family" and bringing a menagerie of every Halloween decoration in Wardenclyffe to life with the help of the town’s Tesla Tower. It is up to Sarah, Sonny, and Sam to stop him.

With all the makings of an annual spooktacular, featuring everything Halloween coming to life, “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” almost gets there. It isn’t without appeal and imaginative touches, but even with a hurried pace that doesn’t wear out its welcome, the monster mayhem and antics aren’t all that memorable. A headless horseman, a trio of witches with glowing green orbs for faces, fire-breathing and seed-shooting jack-o’-lanterns, and an arachnid the size of a house made of balloons make appearances, but a bit with a candy bowl of maniacal gummy bears that grow to life-size is the only true highlight. Slappy, who was the ringleader of the monsters in the first “Goosebumps,” plays a pivotal role here again in the hell-raising shenanigans, and his nightmarish menace is surprisingly closer than comfort to Chucky, like injuring someone on a ladder and turning another into a ventriloquist's dummy. Director Ari Sandel (2015’s “The DUFF”) and screenwriter Rob Lieber (2018’s “Peter Rabbit”) don’t quite replicate the same amount of charm as the first film and dial up the comedic elements too much for there to be much tension. What they come up with to unleash every monster into the real world again is a less interesting variation on the events of the first “Goosebumps” with a rather easy wrap-up.

Director Ari Sandel does get the festive atmosphere of Halloween right and makes sure to include a sneaky visual reference to “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” with the trio dressing up as a green witch, a pumpkin and a skeleton, and the clever iconography of Pennywise's red balloon floating above a sewer grate that R.L. Stine admits to thinking up first. Madison Iseman (2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”), Jeremy Ray Taylor (2017’s “It”), and Caleel Harris (Hulu’s “Castle Rock”) are all engaging and create a likable chemistry with each other, but it’s perpetual scene-stealer Wendi McLendon-Covey (TV’s “The Goldbergs”) who wrings the most chuckles out of her role as Sarah and Sonny’s single working mom Kathy. Ken Jeong (2018's "Crazy Rich Asians") is also amusing as the Quinns’ enthusiastic neighbor Mr. Chu, who lives to make the most elaborate lawn decorations for every holiday. Jack Black’s R.L. Stine might be relegated to the film’s second half, as if he walked on set after finishing “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” but it’s nice to see a film that has its young protagonists saving the day. Since audiences have been spoiled with so many superior family-friendly horror-adventure tales in recent years, “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” is of a slighter stature, but it is still more treat than trick, working as frightfully palatable slumber-party fare after the kids come home from trick-or-treating.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Born This Way: Oft-told story gets intimate, fresh, soulful revision in “A Star Is Born”

A Star Is Born (2018)
135 min., rated R.

Following the 1939 original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1976 remake with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, 2018’s “A Story Is Born” is the fourth (or fifth, if 1932’s “What Price Hollywood?” counts) incarnation of a well-worn standard as old as Hollywood, this time with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Rather than live in the shadows of its predecessors, this is an impassioned, intimate, and unusually fresh romantic drama made modern but remaining timeless about the cycle of show business and fame in which one-half of the couple’s rise is the other’s fall. Two stars end up being born in “A Star Is Born”—Lady Gaga in her first starring role and Bradley Cooper as a first-time director—and they’re both dynamite.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a country rock star on the edge of decline on account of his alcoholism, pill popping, and tinnitus in his ear. One night after a show, he needs another drink and staggers into a drag bar to hear a server perform Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” in French. Her name is Ally (Lady Gaga), and Jackson sees such untapped talent in Ally that he asks her out for a drink afterwards and they spend the rest of the night together just talking in a parking lot. Ally makes such an impression on Jackson as a performer, a songwriter, and a person that he invites her backstage on his next show, and once he calls her onstage to sing her song, “Shallow,” with him, Ally catches everyone’s attention. Even as the music industry attempts to change Ally’s image into a pop tart, she refuses to sell out her individuality, but as Jackson’s lifestyle spirals and hits rock-bottom, his career starts to flag.

Honest, bittersweet, and alive, “A Star Is Born” tackles addiction with hard-hitting truth and no easy recovery but also digs into matters of the heart and the sacrifice a couple in the limelight must face when their careers are taking opposite trajectories. Written by Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters (2014’s “The Best of Me”) and Eric Roth (2011’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), the film beautifully takes its time on Jackson and Ally’s burgeoning relationship, allowing the viewer to listen to and care about them. Though the film is about Ally making it as a star, the crux and the beating heart of the film hinges on Jackson and Ally’s relationship; even though Ally is talented in her own right, one doesn’t exist without the other. Director Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (2017’s “mother!”) capture the thrilling electricity of the concert scenes and the intimacy between the characters throughout, a mixture of both no more evident than in the first time Ally shows hesitation in taking to the stage with Jackson and showcasing her powerhouse voice with “Shallow.”

With his voice a few octaves lower, Bradley Cooper is still his charismatic self but completely transforms himself as Jackson Maine. Shaded and moving, this might be his career-best performance, diving into the rootsy musician struggling with a self-destructive disease and finding an aching gravitas. Along with his deep vocal inflection, Cooper more than holds his own as a singer. Already a star in the music industry, Lady Gaga (as she is credited) deserves to be a blazing star for her revelatory on-screen work here and to be credited as a preeminent talent who can decidedly do it all. After “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy gave her a chance to vamp it up in that show’s fifth season “Hotel” and earn herself a Golden Globe, Gaga is a captivating presence and lives in the role of Ally with a raw, soul-baring authenticity and a natural intuitiveness. Neither codependent nor a meek ingenue—in fact, she punches a cop who stops Jackson for an inappropriate photo op—Ally is made dynamic and relatable by having personal insecurities based on her appearance, particularly her nose, and Gaga’s transformation of Ally takes no effort to buy into, considering the real-life performer’s natural stage abilities. Together, Cooper and Gaga are such generous scene partners, giving as much as they take and creating an electric, unfakable chemistry as their relationship blossoms. The supporting parts are lovely and textured, including the likes of Sam Elliott, who’s excellent and heartbreaking as Jackson’s older half-brother and long-suffering tour manager Bobby; Andrew Dice Clay, as Ally’s doting limo-driver father; Anthony Ramos, as Ally’s close friend Ramon; and Dave Chappelle, in one scene, as Jackson’s supportive old friend.

“It’s the same story, told over and over — forever,” says Bobby Maine in a late scene to Ally. He’s talking about his brother’s music, but Bobby might as well be speaking about “A Star Is Born” being another retelling. It works as a reminder that the success of any story, no matter how many times it has been told, is in how it is told, and perhaps the reason this story endures for so many generations is because it resonates. Making his mark as an assured debuting filmmaker, Bradley Cooper retells this story as a labor of love rather than a safe, beat-for-beat rehash. He finds a very delicate balance in tracking Jackson’s fall as Ally ascends to stardom in moments, including one at the Grammy Awards, that could play as melodramatic histrionics but otherwise ring true with a pathetic sadness. As the film is beholden to the other films’ inevitable path, how the story gets to that point feels devastatingly earned rather than stale or manipulative, ending on a lyrical note as Ally belts out “I’ll Never Love Again.” Destined to get audiences swooning and sobbing, a soulful iteration of an oft-told story has been born.

Grade: A - 

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Killer Next Door: "Knuckleball" a lean, mean cat-and-mouse thriller

Knuckleball (2018)
89 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

2017’s blackly comic Christmastime horror film “Better Watch Out” may have beat it to the punch, but “Knuckleball” is a snow-bound Canadian thriller that will also draw comparisons to “Home Alone,” if that family comedy’s hijinks were stained with blood, of course. Director Michael Peterson, who wrote the script with Kevin Cockle, economically sets the stage before letting its young Kevin McCallister surrogate defend himself from his attacker. Spare and unadorned, “Knuckleball” is an admirably stripped-down thriller that escalates with a sense of portent and overturns expectations by not exactly going where one predicts.

When his parents, Mary (Kathleen Munroe) and Paul (Chenier Hundal), have to attend a cousin’s funeral, video game-obsessed 12-year-old boy Henry (Luca Villacis) gets dropped off to stay with his codgy grandfather Jacob (Michael Ironside) in his Canadian countryside farmhouse. Mary is estranged with her father, and being back home instantly brings back bad memories of finding her mother hanging herself in the barn. After his parents leave, Henry is put right to work, fetching wood and shoveling manure, and then introduced to Dixon (Munro Chambers), a twentysomething who lives alone in a house on the other side of the woods and sometimes helps Jacob around the farm. The next morning, Henry goes to wake up his grandfather, but Jacob is stone-cold dead. He tries calling his parents, and once leaving a voicemail, his phone dies and he forgot to pack a charger. Running to get help from Dixon, Henry is quick to discover that something is quite off about his grandfather’s helper.

Though the gruff Michael Ironside would seem to be the resident baddie here, he’s isn’t on screen long enough, and yet his presence literally and figuratively lingers over the proceedings. The baton gets passed to Munroe Chambers (2015’s “Turbo Kid”), who is suitably skeezy and menacing as witless predator Dixon, but “Knuckleball” rests on the slight shoulders of Luca Villacis (TV’s “Channel Zero”) as Henry. When the pre-teen is first introduced, he could have come across as a brat, constantly lost in his video games, but Villacis’ Henry is easy to root for, playing him as a credibly smart and resourceful boy, who has boobytrap-setting know-how and also happens to be a good shot when it comes to throwing baseballs. When the film gets going, it doesn’t let up or lose its focus on the thrilling, small-scale cat-and-mouse game between Henry and Dixon. As if writer-director Michael Peterson and co-writer Kevin Cockle were afraid of painting themselves into a corner, the film does attempt to dig a little deeper than it should by needlessly throwing one final curveball involving skeletons in the family’s closet that poke too many questions to satisfy. Until then, “Knuckleball” is lean and mean.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Perfect Host: "Venom" flawed but fun when embracing its wicked, offbeat side

Venom (2018)
98 min., rated PG-13.

As the startup of Sony’s new shared universe, “Venom” is a horror-tinged Marvel-associated origin story that stands apart from the recent surge of superhero movies. For one, its titular anti-hero, based on David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane's comic-book character, is a parasitic alien beast with teeth sharp enough to cleanly bite off a human head and a slithery tongue that would make Gene Simmons jealous. And two, it has such a wicked sense of humor and offbeat sensibilities that one wishes it leaned into that dark, anarchic side even more. Hamstrung by introductions and having no Spider-Man in sight, director Ruben Fleischer (2013’s “Gangster Squad”) and screenwriters Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner and Kelly Marcel cook up enough wacky energy in their central Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic between host Eddie Brock and the unapologetic Venom.

Having relocated from New York City to San Francisco, motorcycle-riding reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) lives a happy life with district attorney fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). As Anne’s firm represents bio-tech facility Life Foundation, Eddie uncovers confidential legal documents from her work email that involves CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who has used his space rocket to retrieve space material and recruited homeless people for his scientific experiments. When he interviews Drake for a new piece, he turns it into a gotcha piece, calling out Drake for his ethics. This gets both Eddie and Anne fired from their respective jobs, and Anne ends their relationship for him breaching her trust. Six months later, Eddie finds himself living in a shabby apartment and still looking for work, until the whistleblowing Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), one of Drake’s employees with a conscience, needs Eddie’s help to expose her boss for merging alien symbiotes with humans. Once she sneaks Eddie into the lab, he is infected with the alien matter, leaving him hopped-up and starving. Slowly but surely, Eddie discovers he is the perfect host for Venom.

“Venom” does start off with a creepy-crawly bang, as Drake’s spacecraft full of specimens crashes in Malaysia and one gooey, malevolent organism escapes and takes on three different hosts before arriving in San Francisco. Thereafter, the first act of the film feels rushed and perfunctory. The relationship between Eddie and Anne isn’t exactly a hard-hitter, and if it was intended to be the heart and soul of the film, not enough time is delegated to their happier times before they’re broken up. Where the viewer finds Eddie in six months’ time begins to get more engaging, as he is a broken man trying to figure out his next move as the repercussion for being dogged and selfish. A magnetic actor who only makes fascinating choices in his on-screen work playing flawed characters, Tom Hardy (2017's "Dunkirk") is fully committed to the duality of the role as Eddie Brock and the voice of the devilishly growling Venom. Luckily, the film is at its most lively and fun when Eddie discovers Venom is pulling the strings and battles with his inner voice; he’s instructed to eat (“Hungry!”), to the point that Eddie climbs into a lobster tank at a posh restaurant to chow down, and later controlled to slide down the Transamerica Pyramid, Eddie’s fear of heights be damned.

The rest of the performances are more of a mixed bag, and yet in most cases, it might be from every supporting role being truncated and left on the cutting-room floor. Trying her best with a thanklessly lightweight role, Michelle Williams (2018's "I Feel Pretty") doesn’t get all that much to do as Anne, until the third act when she gets to "try on" the dominatrix-like symbiote suit and then pushes a button. Riz Ahmed (2016's "Rogue One") is rather bland and tentative as Carlton Drake, playing him as a low-key twerp rather than a menacing antagonist. The very appealing Jenny Slate (2018's "Hotel Artemis"), as lab coat-wearing Dr. Dora Skirth, is unexpected casting in the best of ways, though she is underserved by dishing out most of the exposition. At least Reid Scott (HBO’s “Veep”) gets to be likable as Anne’s new beau Dr. Dan Lewis, who is refreshingly not written as a jerk or someone Eddie needs to be worried about.

“Venom” is an odd organism of a film that seems ready to take the plunge with an impishly demented vision and only sometimes embraces its premise involving a sentient alien creature with a diet consisting of tater tots and human organs. Director Ruben Fleischer takes things close enough to the edge as he can within the PG-13 parameters and thrillingly executes a motorcycle chase through the hills of San Francisco. On a lesser note, the film’s showdown between Eddie and Drake as their gnarled symbiote alter-egos is over so quickly it hardly registers as a climax and practically looks animated when devolving into generic, soulless fireworks. Though severely flawed, “Venom” has an off-kilter, free-wheeling vibe that distinguishes itself just enough from the pack and promises an exciting direction for the central symbiotic relationship to take from here.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

This Is America: "The Hate U Give" resonates as powerful, uncomfortable, empathetic conversation starter

The Hate U Give (2018)
132 min., rated PG-13.

Based on Angie Thomas’ best-selling 2017 YA novel, “The Hate U Give” is a vital, empathetic drama about the black experience in today’s America. Very of the moment, it is a valuable message movie about racial injustice and growing up to realize how broken the system can be. Director George Tillman Jr. (2015’s “The Longest Ride”) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose”) must have been indebted to Angie Thomas’s novel, having so many characters to cover, but they give enough breathing room to the material without forgetting to tell an emotional coming-of-age story with its galvanizing social commentary. Instructional without ever coming off heavy-handed or too didactic like a medicinal Public Service Announcement that’s good for you, “The Hate U Give” is filmic activism with topical subject matter that never loses sight of the human beings involved and their points of view.

16-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) finds herself playing two versions of herself, as she lives in the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Garden Heights and attends affluent, predominantly white private school Williamson Prep with younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) and older half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson). At school, she calls herself “Star 2.0,” putting on a pleasant disposition and lessening her use of slang. One evening at a party in Garden Heights, Starr reconnects with childhood friend Khalil (a charismatic Algee Smith), who sells drugs for local gang The King Lords to support his cancer-stricken grandmother. When a fight breaks out, Khalil and Starr leave the scene in his car. They have an intimate moment that doesn’t go too far after Starr confesses to having a boyfriend, but that will be the last time she will see Khalil alive; shortly thereafter, a white police office pulls them over and ends up shooting Khalil who exits the car and pulls out a hairbrush, which the officer mistakes for a gun. From there on, the senseless shooting not only deeply affects Starr on a personal level, as she is asked to testify in front of a grand jury by social activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae) as the one credible witness, but forces her disparate worlds to collide. Will Starr remain silent or speak out?

“The Hate U Give” is stirring and at its most piercing when following Starr having to do a bit of code-switching at her school; her friends act sympathetic toward the death of the boy in Starr’s neighborhood, until they start protesting Khalil’s death just to get out of school early. Starr’s well-meaning boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa) doesn’t always know what to say or articulate good intentions very well, like telling Starr that he doesn’t see color, but he listens. There’s also a rift between Starr and one of her friends, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), who tries justifying what happened and sympathizes with the cop. The poised Amandla Stenberg (2018’s “The Darkest Minds”) is exceptional as Starr, a self-possessed teenager who has now lost two of her friends to violence, already knows the difference between right and wrong, and wants to use her voice for the late Khalil. With her fully authentic, down-to-earth presence and chameleonic ways in how she must portray Starr with two different sides, Stenberg is, indeed, a star. Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall are terrific as Starr’s fiercely protective parents Lisa and Maverick, who in the opening scene gives his kids “the talk,” in case any of them are ever to be pulled over, and instructs them to immediately draw their hands on the dashboard. Common, as Starr’s policeman Uncle Carlos, even gets to sketch his supporting role with a little more nuance and complexity when he sits down his niece for a thoughtful conversation about the difficulties of being a black police officer, even though she sees nothing black or white, literally and figuratively, about it.

“It’s impossible to be unarmed when it’s our blackness they fear!” is a line spoken like a rallying cry. Without any use for allegory, like what YA novel adaptations have done with their post-apocalyptic settings, “The Hate U Give” (which comes from a song by Tupac Shakur, Khalil’s favorite musical artist) confronts its issues earnestly and often unflinchingly with hard-hitting power and a hope for awareness and empathy. From a technical standpoint, there isn’t anything too extraordinary about the film, and while voice-over narration is used to flesh out Starr’s worlds, it feels more necessary than tacked-on. Director George Tillman Jr. and writer Audrey Wells might overplay their hand more than they needed to, particularly when a subplot involving drug lord King (an intense but one-note Anthony Mackie) converges with the present action in a rather contrived way. Overshadowing any of the film’s faults, though, is that “The Hate U Give” deeply resonates as a powerful, enraging, uncomfortable conversation starter that makes one want to be even more socially woke.

Grade: A -