Our se­nior movie critic, Ken Eis­ner, looks at five flicks this week, and Keira Knight­ley beats out Lady Gaga.

The Georgia Straight - - Contents -


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


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.

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