LUCY IN THE SKY

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: C+
Cinematography: C
Editing: B+
Special Effects: B+

Indicating a movie was “inspired by true events” is always a tricky proposition. How can I not wonder how much of the story is based on truth, and how much is embellished? Especially when it culminates in a “what the fuck, you’ve got to be kidding” ending? You can bet I made a beeline for the nearest Internet browser as soon as the movie was over. Turns out, the events immediately leading up to the arrest of astronaut Lida Nowak, on whom “Lucy Cola” is based, were indeed quite similar to those depicted in Lucy in the Sky, albeit with fewer of the principal players present. I guess in the movies, if you have Jon Hamm on hand, you want to keep him onscreen as much as you can.

An attempted kidnapping isn’t even the first Wait—what? moment in the movie. The most egregious is when Lucy is stocking up for the trip, and she pops into a store where she picks up supplies like a knife, duct tape, rope, and a wig in what is apparently the “Psycho Kidnapper’s Supplies” aisle.

It’s too bad there are moments like this at all in this movie, as they are few at least until the very end. Before that, director Noah Hawley, whose previous work mostly consists of writing for television shows like Bones, Legion and Fargo (his previous directing experience limited to five episodes among those shows), is on to something. He has ideas worth exploring in Lucy in the Sky, with an astronaut emotionally unraveling as she can’t cope with returning to Earth after time in space blew her mind. He just doesn’t explore them with any clarity.

His peculiar visual choices don’t help. Never before have I seen a movie that is so fast and loose with aspect ratios, which change with such frequency it’s to the point of distraction. Until the kind of bonkers climax, I was fairly on board with the narrative flow, yet prevented from full immersion by the constantly changing height and width of the picture. And I do mean constant: black boxes would close in on both sides, or from the top and bottom, and then zoom right back out again in a single scene. In some instances, the image is roughly square. In a few cases, the picture narrows vertically to such an extent that it looks like someone got slaphappy with the “panorama” feature on their smartphone. It’s an interesting idea, I suppose, presumably intended to evoke Lucy’s emotional state. I could only find myself wondering about its necessity.

Often, though, what’s actually composed within these constantly changing frames is quite visually compelling, a kaleidoscope of visions and memories and waking dream sequences, in one case an apparent hallucination, and several lovely shots taken from so far over neighborhoods and streets they evoke the passing of satellites overhead.

Lucy in the Sky would be much worse if not for Natalie Portman as the title character. People love to drag her for her accent work, first in Jackie and now as a Texan here. Admittedly I do not have a nuanced ear for southern accents, but she sounded great to me. In fact, Portman is easily the best thing about this movie. Most of the others, including Jon Hamm, are merely serviceable. The only other possible exceptions are Dan Stevens as Lucy’s increasingly worried and exasperated husband (a kind of nice reversal of the usual gender roles in stories of this sort), and Pearl Amanda Dickson as Lucy’s visiting teenage niece, Blue Ivy.

These actors, and even the script, are engaging enough for the first three quarters of the run time to make all the moving picture shapes almost forgivable. But then Lucy in the Sky approaches its climax, and it goes off the rails in spectacular fashion. True, the life of the real astronaut by whom this was “inspired” did the same. But the movie would have been crazy enough had it stuck to what actually happened, rather than piling on extra fictional details—like the presence of a gun—that serve no real purpose other than eye-rolling melodrama.

And by the sound of things, Lisa Nowak was maybe just kind of nuts. Real-life astronauts have weighed on on the implausibility of this film’s very premise that several days in space might cause them to lose their grip on reality. In other words, Lucy in the Sky is a pure fantasy, and a potentially problematic one at that. At least it’s also an intermittently pretty one, I guess.

Somebody’s in over her head!

Somebody’s in over her head!

Overall: B-

MS. PURPLE

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: C
Editing: B

I could see why some critics enjoyed Ms. Purple, a very small-budget drama about a Korean American family in Los Angeles, with a particular focus on the grown daughter who works as a karaoke bar hostess in Koreatown. For the life of me, I could not find a way in, to connect with it in any real way.

The largely amateur sensibility of director and co-writer Justin Chon — probably best known as Eric from the Twilight series, but here directing a feature film for the third time — is a pretty significant barrier. But, I was most consistently distracted and irritated by Ante Cheng’s cinematography. Making pointlessly liberal use of slow-motion effects to convey, I guess, a sort of dreamlike state in a film that otherwise never means to be “dreamlike,” most scenes look as though they were shot by someone who saw great cinematography in other, far better films and took great pains to emulate it, without any visual cohesion.

I’ll grant that the story, largely mystifying at first, starts coming together in unexpectedly satisfying ways in the last act. It’s enough to make me feel like I did not completely waste my time. I still don’t feel like I would missed out on anything special had I not bothered to see this movie to begin with, but whatever.

At the very lest, the acting is . . . fine. Tiffany Chu plays Kasie, the central character, who struggles to make ends meet as she lives alone with her unconscious, bedridden father in obvious need of hospice. When the live-in caretaker can’t take it anymore and resigns, Kasie calls up her estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee) to ask for help. He actually shows up, although soon enough a relatively twisted family life reveals itself in flashbacks, and we see Carey screaming at his unconscious father’s face. We eventually learn that his and Kasie’s mother left them all when they were young children, although the story never reveals nearly enough about how or why.

Such is the case with much of this story, which follows Kasie around, largely at the karaoke bar where she works, with clients often indifferent to her relatively listless presence. When Ms. Purple begins, it’s with several minutes following her around such environments, with no straightforward dialogue. I began to when we’d start hearing people speak in audible and complete sentences. We eventually learn about a man in Kasie’s life who gives her large sums of money and, although her role in his life is never defined as such, treats her basically like a call girl.

I spent a lot of time watching Ms. Purple with my attention waxing and waning, but there is a scene near the end that certainly got my attention, in which Kasie is involved in a violent incident, coming to the defense of a client getting belligerent with another hostess. A bit of a melee occurs, but a ton of the other women working there come rushing in, to her defense. I’d be much more interested in a movie about the dynamics and interpersonal relationships among these women, a sort of Koreatown Karaoke version of Hustlers.

But, this is the one I got. There are some “aha moments” as certain childhood traumas inform this set of siblings’ current life circumstances, and a bit more life gets injected into the story. Indeed, the broader story arc is a lot better constructed than most of the actual dialogue, which is often rambling and aimless. It’s easier to appreciate the big picture than the details in this movie.

Waiting for the break.

Waiting for the break.

Overall: B-

CHAINED FOR LIFE

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-

Sometimes a movie is thematically ambitious in a way the production can’t keep up. Such appears to be the case with Chained for Life, a movie deemed so obscure that it plays exclusively today and tomorrow at the SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center, destined to be watched eventually on some streaming service by . . . almost no one. It’s true the showing I attended was the first of the day at 3 p.m., but still only five people in the audience seems a little sparse. This movie is far from perfect but it deserves better than that.

Then again, it could be argued it deserves better than an editing style that only serves to rob the narrative of any real clarity. Writer-director Aaron Schimberg is clearly influenced by Robert Altman, both with his multiple characters talking over each other and with camera movements that quickly zoom in on faces with a semi-rapidly veering style that feels like a reference to a bygone era of cinema. He also has something to say about beauty, and about how people with disabilities or deformities find their way into a culture’s ongoing narrative of beauty.

Chained for Life is a movie-within-a-movie, about the production of a movie called Marked for Life, in which disfigured people meet up with a doctor who can offer them miracle corrective surgeries. But, before any such surgery occurs, blind woman Mabel (Jess Weixler) falls in love with Rosenthal, who has neurofibromatosis, a condition which causes noncancerous tumors to grow along someone’s nerves. Rosenthal is played by Adam Pearson — previously seen in a small part in 2014’s Under the Skin — who actually has the same condition.

In fact, Weixler and Pearson are surrounded by a supporting cast playing characters who also have the same respective conditions they have in real life. Or at least, they do inside the movie-within-the-movie. It’s unclear how for real-real all the conditions are, such as the “hermaphrodite” who presents as two genders literally split down the middle, or the pair of young women who are conjoined twins. Some of them are unavoidably authentic, such as the super-tall man, or the little person, or the little person who is also a wheelchair user.

Watching Chained for Life, it feels like this ambiguity is the point, and I’m just not sure how effective that is. I left the movie having no idea what I was supposed to have gotten out of it, although it certainly has some compelling and provocative ideas. Schimberg deliberately blurs the lines between fact and fiction, though, regularly cutting from dialogue between cast and crew on the set of Marked for Life, directly to a scene of dialogue between the “othered” characters, only after several minutes revealing they are actually acting out a scene rather than having a real conversation outside the making of the movie. There’s even one sequence that is rather shocking and later reveals itself not to be either an on-set scene or a “real world” occurrence, but rather some kind of projected dark fantasy. At least, I think it was.

Chained for Life seems a little like a modern take on the 1932 film Freaks, with that famous scene of “circus freaks” chanting the phrase “One of us! One of us!” It’s definitely a point of reference for Schimberg, where he sort of flips that narrative, having that very phrase repeated by a couple of the so-called “normal” people.

I keep wondering how the disabled and/or disfigured actors felt about this movie, and their involvement with it. It’s easy to assume they we on board with however Schimberg’s script appeared to them, although of course they would not have any idea while filming how it would look edited and on camera (although, ironically, there is a scene in which all said characters gather in a small screening room to watch dailies). On the other hand, it’s also easy to imagine actors with all manner of disabilities, who get very few acting opportunities otherwise, simply being happy for the work. Does this movie make sense to them? Does it matter?

From scene to scene, I found Chained for Life compelling enough, until it jumped to another scene that deliberately avoided making clear whether we were supposed to take it at face value or as a performance of a scene on set. Even the acting skill among this ensemble cast is all over the place, and it’s hard to tell if a lot of them are just supposed to be playing bad actors, or if the acting just isn’t great on average in this movie. Nearly all of them range from wooden to noticeably performative, even when we’re watching crew members talk amongst themselves.

The critical consensus for this movie seems to be pretty positive, although I can’t help but wonder how much of that is informed by condescension. I was more bemused by it than anything.

Contemplating the film’s own question, “Is this exploitative”? First let’s try to make sense of the story.

Contemplating the film’s own question, “Is this exploitative”? First let’s try to make sense of the story.

Overall: B-

WHERE'D YOU GO, BURNADETTE

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

Every once in a while, it seems Richard Linklater gets inspired to take a step away from his indie cult movie roots and take a stab at Hollywood mediocrity. Sometimes his Hollywood offerings are actually pretty good, as in 2011’s Bernie or even 2017’s Last Flag Flying. Compared to the greatness of his earlier work, though, Where’d You Go, Burnadette has Linklater basically phoning it in. It’s only because his name is attached that the film does not get written off as basically forgettable.

It’s too bad, especially for fans of the runaway hit novel, by Maria Semple, on which it’s based. That goes double specifically for Seattleite fans of the novel, who appreciated Semple’s humor and satirical look at local culture in the Pacific Northwest, through the eyes of a transplant Los Angeles architect (here played, quite well, by Cate Blanchett) who rather dislikes the city. Only a little of that sentiment makes it through in the adaptation to motion picture, really confined to one ranting monologue by the title character.

Sometimes a sensibility just works in prose and doesn’t translate to the screen. And as always, a film should succeed on its own merits. Where’d You Go, Burnadette does’t exactly fail, it’s more like it coasts, gliding along with no real resonance.

That said, as a longtime Seattle resident, there are some frustratingly cliché things about the depiction of Seattle in this movie (which definitely were not part of the novel). As always, it rains way too much, and every time it’s raining, it’s raining too hard. Linklater and his two co-writers attempt to give themselves an out by having it mentioned that it’s “the wettest winter on record.” It’s still an inauthentic representation of Seattle weather, long an overused crutch in movies set in the Pacific Northwest.

On the upside, the performances elevate the material, at least a little bit. Cate Blanchett remains the consummate character actor, every bit as much as she is a movie star, slipping into true specificity as she channels Burnadette Fox. Billy Crudup is all exasperated bemusement as her husband, Elgie, deals with Burnadette’s erratic behaviors. Emma Nelson is lovely as their 15-year-old daughter, Bee. And Kristen Wiig is perfect as Burnadette’s snooty neighbor, at the end of her rope regarding the invasive blackberry bushes from Burnadette’s yard.

Lawrence Fishburne, Steve Zahn and Megan Mullally show up in much smaller parts as Burnadette’s past colleagues in the architecture profession, and although they all show up well for what they’re called on to do, it’s all brief enough that it kind of feels like wasted talent.

The story takes at least half the movie’s run time to get to this point, but Burnadette disappears out her bathroom window in the middle of an attempted intervention wrapped around her mental health. Before long, Elgie and Bee figure out she has left without them on what had been a planned family trip to Antarctica. How this trip got planned to begin with is a little oddly contrived, but whatever: Elgie and Bee go after her, spending a fair amount of time just behind her on other tourist vessels, and the action movies from Seattle to Antarctica. There was no filming at the bottom of the planet, but production did move to Greenland as the closest approximation, and if nothing else, it makes for some very pretty scenery to look at.

Beyond that, Where’d You Go, Burnadette doesn’t even try to be much of an actual mystery, and is more of a hang with these barely-odd characters, and it’s pleasant enough most of the time, when it’s not being ridiculously unrealistic, particularly regarding how Burnadette half-cons her way onto vessels in Antarctica that would be far more careful than this in the real world about unauthorized personnel. But, sure, I’m just nitpicking now. Still, there is a feeling of a great lot of unrealized potential here, a lack of electricity in the dialogue, a sense that there should be some kind excitement. No part of this story is exciting or electric; it is merely adequate at entertaining as long as the movie goes on. It’s fine but nothing special, when it clearly could have been something special.

She went to the Seattle Public Library, apparently. Mystery solved.

She went to the Seattle Public Library, apparently. Mystery solved.

Overall: B-

THE KITCHEN

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: C
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

I guess DC Comics should be given some credit here — The Kitchen is originally a graphic novel published by them, written by Ollie Masters and drawn by Ming Doyle. This film adaptation, written and directed by Andrea Berloff, thus qualifies as a cinematic offering by DC that’s a tad better than the abysmal “DC Cinematic Universe” of superhero films of recent years.

That said, “tad” is perhaps the operative word here, as The Kitchen gets to be a little on the nose with its “female empowerment” themes, rendering them trite at times, occasionally even hypocritical, as these women evolve into even more ruthless monsters than the mobster husbands they take over for when they are sent to prison in the late 1970s (also the setting of the graphic novel). Perloff has previous co-writing credits on such films as World Trade Center (2006) and Straight Outta Compton (2015), and if The Kitchen proves anything, it’s that Berloff is better off as a team player. There is plenty to like about The Kitchen, but unfortunately Berloff’s direction and her writing are easily its two weakest elements.

How close is this movie to the story in the graphic novel, I wonder? I don’t read comic books. I can only hope this graphic novel in its original form is better, and doesn’t stumble so much over its own feminist themes. This movie is trying to hard, and in the end lacks narrative clarity.

It’s not to a fatal degree, at least. This movie isn’t bad — certainly not nearly as bad as a sore of 35 out of 100 at MetaCritic would suggest, or a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes. The B- by audiences at CinemaScore seems much more reasonable, although by industry standards that’s a very low score. It’s as though this movie is a crushing disappointment. It’s not terrible! It just . . . isn’t great.

I’m really selling it, aren’t I? This is one of those movies that falls into the gray-area category of not feeling like a waste of my time, but not something I’m going to go out of my way to recommend to anyone else. If it has any selling point, it’s the actors — specifically, the women in it: Melissa McCarthy as the one housewife with a relatively decent husband; Tiffany Haddish as the black woman who never gained the trust of the Irish family she married into; Elisabeth Moss as the woman with a physically abusive husband; even Margo Martindale in the (as always) character part of a monster matriarch who is a no-nonsense bit. Among the many men with much smaller parts, the only standout is Domhnall Gleeson, who sheds his natural Irish accent in favor of a New York accent so convincing it takes a minute to realize it’s even him.

The film is also decently edited, and has several nice flourishes of cinematography as the camera moves through a Manhattan converted to look like it did in 1978, but I don’t know how many people besides me will care about that much. None of that really means anything without the strength of the performances, with three lead actors who have a workable onscreen chemistry. McCarthy, Haddish and Moss all have wide appeal, their only moderate crossover spreading out the appeal quite widely between the three of them. They have all been on better projects, but together here they lift the material so it doesn’t quite buckle completely under the weight of its own narrative contrivances.

I did get to a point where I struggled to understand whether I was supposed to be rooting for these women. The moral compromises they make are plain and obvious, and yet Andrea Berloff never really makes them part of her themes, of which The Kitchen is in short supply. It’s long on plot though, with a bit of a twist near the end that doesn’t quite make it all any better. All of that notwithstanding, the lead performances command attention, and reveal some of these actors, especially Tiffany Haddish, to be capable of better and richer things.

Three people who can stand the heat.

Three people who can stand the heat.

Overall: B-

KATHY GRIFFIN: A HELL OF A STORY

Directing: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

As a general rule with these reviews I write, as has been the case ever since I began posting them in late 2004, I would only write them for movies I have seen in a theatre in their original theatrical release. The documentary / comedy special Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is kind of a different beast, or at least a middle-ground one: I did indeed see this in a theatre, but only as a one-time-only Fathom Events screening. It doesn’t matter what I say about it, you won’t have any opportunity to go to a theatre to see for yourself.

In the end, it hardly matters. Presumably this standup movie will eventually be available some other way soon enough, if not streaming then available digitally somewhere for purchase. And the only relevant information there is for a reader right now is this: if you’re a Kathy Griffin fan, you’ll likely have a great time watching this. If not, you won’t be missing anything by skipping it. And that last part is not even directed at the deranged Trump supporters who have sent her countless death threats; their propensity to either ignore or hate-watch her goes without saying. I’m even talking about the neutral observer, who might even agree that she was given a raw deal. Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is straight up fan service, through and through.

The film features a long prologue that lasts maybe twenty minutes, itself much more of a short documentary about Kathy Griffin and her career immediately following her infamous 2017 photo holding up a fake, bloody Donald Trump head. It depicts Griffin’s world tour she took when she could not book any U.S. gigs, and frankly, this portion of the film is insanely contrived.

It pains me to have to say this. I count myself among Kathy Grffin’s longtime, loyal fans, and that’s what makes the beginning of this film all the more disappointing. This is a woman who has never made any bones about the hustle that has always been her career, and I still respect her for it; I don’t fault her for milking everything she can for all it’s worth. But there are moments here that just plain feel disingenuous. Does she really need to turn the camera on herself when she’s supposed to be emotionally at rock bottom? Does she not realize that when a move she makes is transparently in the service of a money-making venture, the “emotion” on display rather loses its impact?

Griffin occasionally has her boyfriend holding the camera, talking behind it. In one scene, she’s broken down crying, apparently on an airplane between cities, and he consoles her from behind the camera. It’s entirely possible what he says to her was not rehearsed — or at least the product of being directed — but, his delivery sure makes it sound like it was.

I did not realize as I watched this that most of it was just a film of one of Kathy Griffin’s standup theater gigs, basically a film version of yet another one of her record-breaking number of standup specials. Watching this extended documentary prologue, I expected most of the whole movie to be this, perhaps intercut with clips of her stage performance. I really began to worry about how good this movie was really going to be. The overall quality — the cinematography, the editing in particular — is really not of the caliber of a theatrically released film. It immediately became apparent why this was a one-time-only theatrical presentation. It would have been far more appropriate on cable, but of course Griffin mentions at every opportunity how she still has no bidders for TV standup specials anymore.

But! Much to my relief, the documentary portion ends, and A Hell of a Story moves into straightforward standup footage of a performance at a single, Santa Monica venue, and in Griffin’s own, spectacularly singular way, she does just that: tell a hell of a story. And she does it incredibly well.

The “standup special” portion of the film is a hard turn from the documentary stuff, where Griffin may be much more obviously rehearsed, but now in her element, she comes across as genuine. She’s also very funny, and she gets into all manner of detail about all the crazy shit that’s happened to her. It’s this part, which lasts much longer, which makes it required viewing for the loyal Kathy Griffin fan. She is a comic whose many signature traits include rambling, and yet she always manages to circle back to the point or the story at hand. Her complete set is a lot more structured than it might seem at first glance.

She even gets into a significant bit about hanging out in Sydney with Stevie Nicks — a star I have personally long idolized — and Chrissie Hynde. It’s one of the most delightful stories she tells, among many delightful stories included here. It does include bits about Stevie Nicks being among the few people to come to her defense, as a whole lot of this show does — and it’s well known how far more people Kathy Griffin thought were her friends either abandoned her or actually went out of their way to twist the knife.

Kathy Griffin is transparently a born performer, and it’s plain to see the stage is where she is meant to be. Hopefully it will continue to be for decades to come — even though she’s already 58 years old at the time of this recording. It’s genuinely a joy to watch her doing both what she loves and what she does best, which is making people laugh through observations of the ridiculousness of our world. When it comes to A Hell of a Story, though, what she clearly is not born to be is a documentarian. Or perhaps to be more fair, director Troy Miller isn’t. This film starts like a TV special lower-mid-level quality, with some things onscreen that are strangely suspect. Thankfully, getting through it is well worth the wait, because the complete standup show that follows, for anyone who has gone out of their way to watch it, is something that truly delivers everything you could want from it.

I say this with love, Kathy: stick to what you’re good at.

I say this with love, Kathy: stick to what you’re good at.

Overall: B-

HALSTON

Directing: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

It’s a curious exercise, watching a film that clearly expects sympathy for a rich man with ridiculously lavish spending habits.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure I even know who Roy Halston Frowick was before seeing this movie, which merely looked compelling to me when seeing the trailer. I could count on one hand the number of fashion designers I know by name. My fashion choices are limited to Christmas gifts from family, thrift stores, and bankrupt department store liquidation sales. Funny that one of those department stores currently rumored to be on the brink of bankruptcy, JCPenney, was once part of Halston’s first failed business venture, when he attempted to take his brand mainstream in the early eighties and it tarnished his brand with all other high-end fashion retailers.

In writer-director Frédérik Tcheng’s telling of the story of the Halston company being taken over after an acquisition by Esmark Inc., Tcheng brings in many people close to Halston to lament the plummeting amount of control over what had once been his own company. These include several models who once worked for him, a couple of his secretaries, his niece he hired to work for him, even his best friend Liza Minnelli. A couple of them mention an executive from International Playtex (also owned by Esmark) who was brought in to be a new managing director of Halston. One of the interview subjects literally refuses to say his name.

Well, you know what? The guy’s name was Carl Epstein, and based on his interviews for this movie as well as the choices he made regarding Halston Enterprises at the time, I am a fan. Halston’s close friends and family clearly, and okay understandably, resent Epstein for being so intricately involved in Halston’s ultimate downfall. But so far as I can tell, Halston’s personal downfall was really his own doing. This was a man who was not used to anyone saying no to him, and the in comes someone who says, hey wait a minute, you can’t spend a hundred grand just to fly your entire staff to an event abroad, or have your dinners flown on a private jet from New York City to Montauk. Not when you’re not actually in a position to afford these things, anyway, and you’re not even the one truly in control of the company besides.

These things are just common sense. I don’t feel bad about some insanely rich fashion designer, who doesn’t realize his tastes ultimately far exceed his income, being told he can’t keep blowing through cash at the same rate anymore. This movie seems to think I should, and I beg to differ.

Therein lies the underlying issue with Halston, which honestly could have worked harder to make me sympathize with this guy. I have no doubt it actually could have been done. Halston was a gay man born in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1930s who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 57, on the day of that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Surely that context informed how his personality developed, coming into riches and fame from humble beginnings and in the end having at least some level of struggle with substance abuse.

I want to know more about that. And Tcheng touches on it, with a brief interlude showing a fascinating old clip of paranoid propaganda about homosexuals and showing negative-film footage (to protect identities) of gay men on a beach, doing literally nothing more salacious than being a little swishy. Footage of Halston included in this film reveals him to have been refined and sophisticated, and also a little effeminate. What was it like growing up for him? What did his parents, his siblings think about him when he was a child? What were his personal relationships like and how do they fit into his getting HIV, and when was he even diagnosed? Halston can’t be bothered with any of these questions, even though they would make for a far more compelling film.

Instead, the arc of the story here is mostly focused on Halston’s rise and fall as a superstar businessman with a taste for excess both in ridiculous business expenses and in entertainment, hanging out with Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor at Studio 54. And plenty of this actually is fascinating, if less personal. It’s just that Tcheng leaves so much out it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in an obsessive (and apparently sometimes bullying) member of the one percent struggling with becoming less rich.

halston.jpg

Overall: B-

YESTERDAY

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: C
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

A movie whose premise hinges on the entire back catalog of The Beatles should really be more clever than this. What we have instead is something written by the writer of Love, Actually (Richard Curtis) and directed by the director of Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), to create a product of combined influences that is shockingly tepid for something featuring such historically vital material.

The strangest rub is, in nearly every aspect except the story, Yesterday has ample charms. It’s clearly made by competent people, very well shot, and the acting almost elevates the spoken material. Almost. Himesh Patel, as Jack Malik, evidently the only person in the world who remembers The Beates from an alternate reality apparently lost during a 14-second global blackout, gives a winning performance. He’s a talented singer and he plays The Beatles songs well. And the songs, the music — of course, those are always a blast to hear. The movie is really only particularly fun when Jack is playing Beatles songs.

That’s of no fault of Lily James, who is also lovely as Ellie, Jack’s longtime local manager and subject of unrequited love. It’s just that their backstory isn’t that interesting. Before the aforementioned blackout, Jack is a struggling musician who writes his own songs, and his songs are entirely forgettable. The result of being introduced to them as such characters is that, until Jack starts singing “Yesterday” and discovers no one has ever heard of it, their story is entirely forgettable too.

Honestly, even the use of Beatles songs is a hugely missed opportunity. There is so much contextualizing, and investigating of how the meaning of these songs of unparalleled influence might be changed by their never having existed until 2019. Instead, Yesterday keeps it’s focus on how they are widely regarded as the best songs ever written, and on that basis alone, even in 2019 it results in Jack becoming an overnight superstar. I have my doubts as to whether it would really play out that way, and particularly so quickly.

I don’t suppose that matters, for some. If the movie is fun then it’s fun, right? And surely, casual fans of The Beatles will find this movie fun, people who don’t think much about the history and import behind them. But I would consider myself a casual fan of the Beatles, but also a pretty hardcore fan of movies, and I prefer movies make some sort of sense. I don’t require and explanation for every little thing; this movie provides no information whatsoever as to how or why this global, 14-second blackout happens, and I’m fine with that. But I am also aware of the broader history of pop culture and the place The Beatles have in it, and therefore have a desire for an alternate universe in which it doesn’t exist to interrogate more than just how that music brings fame and fortune. That seems to be the only thing about The Beatles that this movie is interested in.

Sure, it has its cute moments. Ed Sheeran plays a significant supporting role as himself, the guy who discovers Jack’s “talent” and helps launch him into fame. Kate McKinnon is an easy satire of money-hungry Hollywood agents. Jack keeps discovering random other things this no longer existing in this alternate reality: Coca-Cola, cigarettes. And to be fair, for many viewers it will be easy to appreciate what this movie is, as opposed to what it should or could have been. I still wouldn’t tell even those people it needs to be seen in a theatre — you can enjoy it just as easily on your streaming service of choice in a couple of months. But I fall firmly in the camp that can only see this movie’s unrealized potential. In a better writer’s hands, it could have been something great, something actually worthy of the buzz it generated when the trailer first started appearing.

You might wonder why that buzz never lasted. Those of us who have seen the movie can easily see why. It’s because even though Yesterday is fine, no movie based on the hits of The Beatles should ever be just fine. They deserve better.

Otherwise wonderful Lily James and Hamish Patel cannot be saved by The Beatles in an alternate reality.

Otherwise wonderful Lily James and Hamish Patel cannot be saved by The Beatles in an alternate reality.

Overall: B-

DUMBO

Directing: B-
Acting: C+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Trafficking in nostalgia is one thing, but how many people are even still around to feel nostalgic about the original Disney animated feature Dumbo, which came out seventy-eight years ago? Certainly there are some; even I, as a 42-year-old, watched that 1941 movie many times as a child. But was it my favorite? And now, consider people half my age now — themselves adults — and, more importantly, kids a quarter my age. They have no context for this as a longstanding intellectual property, and plenty will see the 2019 live-action Dumbo as their introduction to the character. What reason do they have to care? Not a whole lot, honestly.

And then we get to Tim Burton, the greatest director of the eighties and nineties, whose output in the 2000s was spotty at best, and who hasn’t given us a film even close to great since Sweeney Todd in 2007. That’s twelve years ago, if any of you are counting. Since then, he has phoned it in and cashed in with pretty much every project, even Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) only hinting at the great works of his past.

One might think Tim Burton a perfect choice to direct the live-action remake of Dumbo, which, the few people still familiar with it probably remember, had some pretty dark elements to it. And to be fair, some of the nods to the original film here work very well, not least of which is the circus bubbles show that harkens back to the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence.

That said, a peculiar element of this iteration of Dumbo is how, more often than not, the countless nods to the original in its first half rather drag it down rather than lift it up; and it’s the second half, with original concepts that expand on the story, that actually won me over. I’m not sure it won me over enough to make me say anyone should rush out to see this movie in the theatre, but it did win me over.

The sad thing is, Dumbo succeeds in large part in spite of itself. Because it’s got a lot dragging it down, not least of which is a first quarter or so that struggles to be even interesting, let alone genuinely compelling. And I sure hope the two kids who star in this movie never see this review, because I don’t particularly want to hurt their feelings, but frankly, as actors, they suck. In fairness to the kids, the responsibility here ultimately lies on the director, who really wanted totally wooden and emotionless delivery from them, I guess?

There is also the script, the dialogue itself, to consider. Once was a time Tim Burton worked with script writers who gave his movies an eminently quotable, dark wit — and Dumbo, which could have soared on such strengths, has no such wit. It’s also nice to see familiar Burtonian faces: Michael Keaton an Danny DeVito are both working with Burton here for the fourth time; Eva Green for the third. Clearly there is deep affection among actors for Tim Burton as a director, and vice versa. It’s too bad not one of the perormances in Dumbo stands out in any way.

It’s Dumbo himself who is the standout here, an endlessly adorable and stunningly rendered CGI baby elephant who can fly thanks to his oversized ears. But when it comes to the special effects, there remains something oddly static about the rest of the effects shots in this movie, which it has in common with all Burton films to come out in the digital age. This is a man who truly excelled back in the days of practical effects, but when digital effects exploded, his skill level did not quite blossom in the same way.

And it kind of pains me to say these things, as I said for years Tim Burton was my favorite director. Is he still? He remains the best of the eighties and nineties, and even today, in spite of his recent frequency of missteps, I will literally see anything with his name attached. That’s about loyalty more than quality, sadly.

There’s just so much unrealized potential here. From the beginning of Dumbo, Danny Elfman’s characteristically wonderful score brings high hopes. We see the circus train on its way around the American South, and the front of the engine car is rendered with a grinning grill that gives it a design element reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas. That is where this potential begins and ends, as we spend about half an hour struggling to find one thing a character says interesting.

It must be reiterated, though: Dumbo himself lights up the screen, and even without any actual lines — unlike the animated feature, none of the animals talk — he proves to be by far the most adorable and expressive character. This even includes the usually very expressive Colin Farrell, as the injured WWI veteran father of the aforementioned children. Eventually there are sequences of Dumbo flying under the Big Top in circus performances, and these scenes are genuinely exciting. The problem is just how long it takes to get there.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

Overall: B-

WHAT MEN WANT

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Well, Mel Gibson is nowhere to be found in it, so What Men Want certainly has that going for it. Honestly, that being a point in its favor should not be underestimated.

Now, to be fair to everyone else who made that movie released in 2000, What Women Want was made far before anyone had any idea what a douche Mel Gibson would reveal himself to be. It was also slightly more realistic about how people think — although there should be an emphasis on slightly. In a male-dominated world, there’s arguably more to be learned by a man gaining the ability to learn what women are thinking, rather than the other way around.

In What Men Want, sports agent Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson, gleefully making the best of the role) is presented as a woman with her own lessons to learn about “connecting with men.” She’s self-involved and often selfish, although to this movie’s credit, she’s still presented as “likable.” That said, by and large, the men she comes across after bashing her head and then gaining the ability to hear everything they’re thinking, are themselves presented as innocent and pure of heart by default. In other words, this movie is pure utopian fantasy from every angle.

Sure, there’s a couple of men who are villainous. But these men exist only for that purpose: to be specific adversaries to Ali, as plot devices. If this script made any attempt to be at all realistic, probably half the men whose thoughts Ali heard thinking would be aggressively disgusting, somewhere on the spectrum of misogynistic to racist, and often both in equal measure. But then, that wouldn’t make for the fun, light-hearted movie director Adam Shankman (a white guy, incidentally) was going for here.

Now, some of these utopian elements are maybe not so bad — “be the change you want to see,” and all that. There is a couple of hints of real-world struggles we all know a woman like Ali Davis would face; in one scene, she challenges her boss to fire her, after he references “me too” and she suggests he’s only afraid to fire her because she’s a black woman. The fact that virtually none of her coworkers, <i>all</i> of them men in a male-dominated field, have any overtly bigoted thoughts about her, still places this story squarely in fantasy land.

I even have mixed feelings about Ali’s gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener — who is straight, though he’s fine in the part), who seems pointedly presented as a gay person who happens to be extremely knowledgeable about sports and is therefore qualified to be a sports agent. I like that the character is still relatively effeminate even within that otherwise “bro culture” context, although it does feel a little like the filmmakers are patting themselves on the back for how “progressive” they’re being. But as long as we’re talking about tokenism, I did like that among Ali’s core group of close friends, instead of there being one token black lady, there’s a token white lady (Wendi McLendon-Covey), although the running gag about her being a foul-mouthed Jesus freak is a little odd.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem in What Men Want: none of its supporting characters particularly ring true, with the possible exception of Ali’s dad (Richard Roundtree). Ali herself comes closest of everyone in the film, but she otherwise lives in a universe of two-dimensional characters. This movie gave me a fair number of semi-consistent chuckles, but that’s not exactly the ringing endorsement a “fun comedy” would want. Ultimately this is just another throw-away, moderate amusement that no one is going to remember by next week.

And it’s too bad, because it does have some winning performances, and certainly a great lading lady in Taraji P. Henson. It gets bogged down in its script-by-committee: aside from the three writers of the 2000 film receiving credit on this one, this updated script was itself written by another four people (two white guys, two women of color). And although the diversity is necessary and to be commended, it’s not enough on its own to make this movie particularly great.

It’s not exactly awful either, though — What Men Want is palatable for as long as it’s in front of you, in spite of its tendency toward over-the-top diversions. It does seem to represent a transitional time in Hollywood that reflects some turns in the right direction, broadly speaking. That just means there will be more near-misses that get an E for effort. (Or, I guess in this case, a B-.)

what men want.jpg

Overall: B-