Our senior movie critic, Ken Eisner, looks at five flicks this week, and Keira Knightley beats out Lady Gaga.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
Starring Jeff Bridges. Rated 14A
WHAT DO YOU get when you take a chunk of the Coen Brothers, a hint of David Lynch surrealism, a wonderfully retro R&B soundtrack, and a whole lotta Quentin Tarantino? A dog’s breakfast that is supremely enjoyable for the first hour at least. Unfortunately, Bad Times at the El Royale is 141 minutes long, and almost all the drag—not to mention the body count—is in the last half-hour.
There’s nothing but fun at the start, when a priest (Jeff Bridges), a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), and a backup singer (Cynthia Erivo) show up at the nearly deserted El Royale hotel. The line between Nevada and California runs right through the lobby of this gilded palace (actually built and filmed in B.C.), which had its heyday 10 years earlier, as seen in a nifty preamble with Nick Offerman as a guy with a suitcase full of cash and a motel-based plan to stash it.
Now it’s 1969, though, and Nixon is in office, suggesting that Vietnam, high-level corruption, and counterculture weirdness will all be on the menu. The three new arrivals, shepherded by a lone, Barton Fink–ish desk clerk (Battle of the Sexes’ Lewis Pullman), are all other, or at least more, than what they seem. Hamm’s salesman is more interested in hotel spy devices than in pushing Hoovers, and indeed the place is a creepy voyeur’s delight. Father Flynn is plagued by memory loss (a subplot that itself comes and goes rather randomly) that might be connected to that loot. And cast standout Erivo’s Darlene Sweet is looking to trade her BG career for solo stardom—and man, can she sing!
Another bravura sequence shows Darlene at a gloriously raucous, late’50s recording session. But this is followed by a tediously long-winded sequence in which a pompadoured producer lectures her menacingly about the show-biz pitfalls of working with, you know, men like him.
In the early going, laggardly scenes and illogical plot points don’t matter much, because writer-director Drew Goddard (best known for the more down-market Cabin in the Woods) keeps throwing fast twists and new characters at you. These include a shotgun-wielding “hippie chick” (Dakota Johnson) and her unwilling cohort (Cailee Spaeny), and the film gets increasingly bogged down in their back story. There’s even a Manson-like cult leader played by Chris Hemsworth and his abs. I’ve probably said too much already, but it could help to know that you won’t be crazy if you want to check out of El Royale just a little early.
by Ken Eisner
ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH A documentary by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky. In English and multiple languages, with English subtitles. Rated PG
A NEW UNITED Nations report gives humans about a dozen years to put the brakes on this whole killing-theplanet thing. That’s probably optimistic, given the public’s general disinterest in crises that don’t involve sex or money, and our alleged leadership’s determination to keep climate change off the front pages. (Kids, ask your grandparents what “front pages” are, or were.)
Of course, climate change really is about sex and money, just not in a tabloid-entertainment sense; basically, the planet’s rapid submergence in a big vat of boiling something is an extension of everything else we’re calling “rape culture” these days. That is, a whole lot of (mostly) men with power and resources consider all life forms on earth to be theirs for the taking, and same goes for any goodies to be plundered from beneath the surface, as well.
In their latest take on where we’re at now, Jennifer Baichwal, Ed Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier speed up the pace as they travel the world to examine scars now big enough to be seen from space, if barely noticed by the evening news. (Kids, once again…) Like Vancouver’s Nettie Wild, these globe-trotting Canadians—with their backgrounds in filmmaking, large-scale photography, and cinematography—are not so agenda-driven that they can’t see the raw majesty of these impacts. Whether it’s the relatively organic mining of marble in Italy, the carving of ancient mammoth tusks in China, or the massive excavation of potash in remote parts of Russia, the marks left by people and their gargantuan machines can be objectively beautiful.
The long-term effects are not, however, as underlined by occasional title cards and in Alicia Vikander’s somewhat superfluous narration. The actual cost of poaching, polluting, and ripping shit out of the earth and then remediating the damage should make the continued destruction prohibitively expensive. But hey, taxpayers cover a lot of those costs, and there are dollars to be made in a hurry before the rising seas wipe away shorelines and spit out poison instead of sushi. Named after what future humans (or perhaps head-shaking aliens) will call this era, Anthropocene is easy to watch. But in the end it’s a kind of pornography—hot stuff, in which we all get fucked.
by Ken Eisner
Starring Keira Knightley. Rated PG
WITH ITS A-LIST cast and sumptuous belle-époque settings, you might expect this U.K. take on the origins of French writer Colette to be a handsome snore. But you’d be wrong.
Things start in 1893, with Knightley as Sidonie-gabrielle Colette, a provincial 20-year-old with good breeding and no money. Her journey from skeptical fascination at the Parisian literary demimonde to eventual mastery of it is the core of the story and it gives Knightley one of her most rewarding roles to date.
Perhaps even more striking, especially for people used to seeing him as squishy-willed Americans in shows like The Affair and The Wire, is Dominic West’s in-depth portrayal of her peacock of a husband, Henry Gauth- ier-villars, known to everyone by his frankly phallic pen name, Willy. He’s a cheating, lying bully who consis- tently spends more than he makes from his crowd-pleasing tales of urbane debauchery, mostly written by a stable of scribes he barely pays. Willy sees something in his new wife’s recollections of country life, though, and teases out the innate talent in someone who initially expresses no interest in writing.
When Gaby, as she’s initially known, comes up with a surprise hit with tales of an alter ego called Claudine—published with Willy’s byline, of course—demand goes through the roof. And the stage is set for an eventual showdown over who gets credit for what. He’s a foil for her sexual selfdiscovery as well, at first encouraging her interest in a red-haired patron of the arts (Eleanor Tomlinson) and then caddishly competing for the same woman’s attention.
Later in the game, she finds a supportive ally in a cross-dressing aristocrat, ironically called Missy (Juliet, Naked’s Denise Gough), who pushes her to perform in the scandalous music-hall burlesques that will eventually become the basis of worldwide success under her own name, with her own distinctive fashion profile, which actually included branded merch.
The nearly two-hour tale only hints at what’s to come. Director Wash Westmoreland and principal screenwriter Richard Glatzer have previously collaborated on projects as different as the Alzheimer’s tale Still Alice and the gentle Mexican-american Quinceañera. Here, they dig into the strange turns of fate and creative (and other) urges that contribute to developing a unique voice on the world stage. Crucially, this witty Colette never fails to entertain in its own right. by Ken Eisner
A STAR IS BORN Starring Lady Gaga. Rated 14A AMERICAN WOMEN won the right to vote in 1920. Twelve years
later, American men were already killing themselves over that. That’s one way to look at What Price Hollywood?, the precode George Cukor movie that set the template for four iterations of what became known as A Star Is Born.
In the original, based on a story by Adela Rogers St. Johns—also a major news reporter who deserves her own biopic—the starlet’s ambition is as overpowering as her male mentor’s alcoholic self-doubt. All subsequent versions, starting with the 1937 Star directed and written by William Wellman, with input from Dorothy Parker and others, centre on a naive ingénue carried along by luck and increasingly ambivalent, eventually nasty patronage. The iconic 1954 take, again directed by Cukor, had Judy Garland and James Mason; the ’76 trainwreck (adapted by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne) paired Barbra Streisand with Kris Kristofferson.
In each case, the rising stars are morbidly concerned with their looks, and that continues with Lady Gaga, very convincing as one-named Ally (her forebears were all called Esther), facing off against writer-director Bradley Cooper, as an established country-rocker called Jackson Maine. He’s a drunk—not nasty, at least—who takes the unknown singer-songwriter under his leather-fringed wing. This update is less anguished, has better songs, and, even at 135 minutes, is actually shorter than the last two. After Jackson discovers Ally singing
“La Vie en Rose” in a drag bar, she soon delivers her own song to thousands of his adoring fans. Much of the music was written by Cooper, Gaga, and Lukas Nelson (son of Willie), who also leads Jackson’s band in the live stuff, and everyone appears to be singing and playing live. (Cooper knocks out some impressive solos on a battered Gibson ES-335.) There’s a snake in the garden, however, as an English talent manager (Rafi Gavron) soon offers Ally a shot at instant stardom. But what price Spotify?
The problem with rise-and-fall tales is that the rise part is always unique and the falls are all the same. The buildup is electrifying, but plot construction is unusually slapdash in the second half. In all the Stars, men are facing their waning days while the women get going. But there’s nothing here to explain why Jackson’s solid career would suddenly slide with his marriage to the hot new thing. Certainly, his own team would want a piece of that action, but instead of business manoeuvring, we get back story about Jackson’s rivalry with his tour-manager brother, played expertly by Sam Elliott, who is, ahem, 30 years older than Cooper.
Meanwhile, Ally has no mother, no female friends, and not much say in her new career. (Andrew Dice Clay is good, if repetitive, as her workingclass dad.) As her rootsy sound transforms into pop artifice, the movie seems to disapprove of that Gaga-like direction but doesn’t bother to explore the metacontradictions. There are fleeting subplots as things wind down, and Cooper, channelling Kristofferson’s wounded sensitivity (and voice), works hard to make his character’s selfishness look generous. But the story ultimately reaches back to 1932, with the powerful white guy somehow incapable of surviving the advent of anyone else’s clout. As our Maine man sings (via Jason Isbell’s music) right at the start, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” by Ken Eisner
ALL ABOUT NINA Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Rating unavailable
IF YOU WANT
to talk about stars being born, consider Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance as the title character in All About Nina. As a standup comic tentatively facing her worst fears, the young Fargo veteran has to be funny, vulnerable, and also tough as nails, on-stage and off-. She does all that and more, almost wiping out the perception that the movie doesn’t entirely deserve her performance.
Winstead was pretty good as a soggy drunk in the otherwise wobbly Smashed, and she likes her spirits here, too. Intriguingly, she’s more likely to drink, and throw up, right after being on-stage than before. One could say that her standup act, glimpsed in a few New York City comedy dives, is itself a kind of prolonged purge, mostly about her real-life aversion to relationships, her preference for purely carnal hookups, and the many ways men get even that shit wrong.
Nina’s only attempt at continuity these days seems to come at the violent hands of a married cop—one who looks more like a TV detective, thanks to the casting of Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford in this throwaway role. Her origin story is hinted at when she has a short visit with her mother (remember Camryn Manheim from The Practice?). In any case, it’s a good break when she’s offered a shot at auditioning for Comedy Prime, a fictional, Snl–type show based in Los Angeles, with Beau Bridges appearing briefly as its Lorne Michaels–like producer.
So Nina heads west, and the movie starts to go south. All the witty dialogue and neurotic foibles seem to be building to some creative explosion and/or meltdown, but instead, first-time writer-director Eva Vives concentrates on fixing Nina up with the right guy. Winstead has sufficient chemistry with rapper Common, who likewise played a solicitous helpmate in HBO’S The Tale, and here is a wealthy contractor who just might be able to ground our flighty gal. But is that really what the story needed?
Even dodgier is the place Nina lands in L.A., in the ritzy Silver Lake pad of a wealthy New Age writer played by Mexican Kate del Castillo. She’s a reiki-practising lesbian who dances to a sitcom beat. It’s hard to say why the Madrid-born Vives thought a movie about a comedian needed comic relief, or why so much diversity needed to be rolled into one character. Still, Winstead suffers fools well and, in the end, is left standing tall. by Ken Eisner
You’ll encounter Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, and Dakota Johnson at the El Royale, plus a Mansonesque Chris Hemsworth—but we’ve already said too much!
Keira Knightley gets her best role in years as a convention-busting French author in Colette.
Taking a break from Fargo, Mary Elizabeth Winstead impresses as a bibulous standup comedian dealing with neurotic foibles, disappointing hook-ups, and a script that goes south in All About Nina.