Colette


A woman in a man’s world determined to succeed on her own terms.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Sloan Thompson, Arabella Weir, Máté Haumann, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Virág Bárány, Dickie Beau, Kylie Watt, Janine Harouni, Jake Graf, Joe Geary, Rebecca Root, Julian Wadham, Eleanor Tomlinson, Polina Litvak, István Gyurity, Karen Gagnon, Alexandra Szucs. Directed by Wash Westmoreland

 

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went by her last name as a pen name (Knightley), was one of the most successful women in the history of French literature. She emerged from La Belle Epoque as a virtual rock star, and her stubborn refusal to live on any other terms but her own remain an inspiration to women – and men – even today.

Colette, a simple girl from the Burgundy countryside, ends up marrying Parisian roustabout Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who is better known to Parisian society as Willy. He is known for biting and acerbic theater reviews, essays and short stories but the problem is that he hasn’t written a word of any of that. He has an army of writers who supply hi with the material which he passes off as his own.

The most talented of these is his wife and her Claudine novels take Paris by storm. Relegated to a background role by her egotistical husband, at first she is content to write her novels but as Willy’s gambling debts and lavish lifestyle take a toll on their finances, he begins to resort to outrageous measures to force his wife to meet publishing deadlines, such as locking her in a room. His serial infidelity also begins to upset her; she responds by doing the same thing he does – sleep with other women. She also prefers to dress like a man, which was illegal in France at the time and was quite the scandal.

Eventually she manages to win her independence from Willy but it isn’t easy and it isn’t without pain. The real Colette was an admirable woman and this screen version can only scratch the surface of who she was, Knightley’s fine performance to the contrary. Her chemistry with West palpably sizzles, and the two make one of the best dysfunctional couples you’re likely to see on the screen for some time.

Westmoreland has a keen eye and fills the screen with sumptuous scenes of lush countrysides, lavish salons and decadent theaters. There is a lot of sex in the movie – ah, those lusty French! – which to be honest begin to get in the way of the story. It’s a bit on the long side and some of the decadence could surely have been cut out; we get the picture, after all.

This is a pretty decent biography, but it doesn’t do her justice at the end of the day. There are some fine biographies of her extant and you would do better to pick up one of those. It’s not really Westmoreland’s fault; a movie can only do so much justice to a life in just under two hours. Still, it is dazzling to look at and not just because of Knightley’s lustrous beauty.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, both exteriors and interiors.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really do justice to the subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film to be directed solely by Westmoreland, who until then had always co-directed with his partner Richard Glatzer, who died of Charcot’s disease in 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Star is Born (2018)

The House With a Clock In Its Walls


Welcome to the dark ages.

(2018) Young Adult Fantasy (UniversalJack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerken, Vanessa Anne Williams, Ricky Lynn Muse, Charles Green, DJ Watts, Aaron Beelner, Joshua Phillips, Christian Calloway, Caleb Lawrence, Dylan Gage Moore, Eli Roth, Alli Paige Beckham. Directed by Eli Roth

 

I don’t know why Hollywood has such a problem with adapting young adult fantasy franchises from their original book form. Other than the Harry Potter series, every attempt has led to movies that ranged from dreadful to dull and were more often than not, both. This first book in a series from author John Bellairs fares no differently.

Young Lewis (Vaccaro) has been orphaned. It’s 1955, so he has been sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black) in Michigan. Jonathan lives in a mansion that you just know is haunted – all it lacks is hitchhiking ghosts – that is stocked with odd magical creatures, like a chair that is too eager to please and a garden topiary shaped like a griffin that – I kid you not – craps mulch.

Then again, Lewis is a bit of an oddball himself so he fits right in. Along with their prim and proper neighbor Florence (Blanchett) who carries on a platonic friendship with Jonathan, they are investigating the mystery of a ticking clock in the walls of the house that could well signal an apocalyptic cataclysm enacted by the fully evil previous owner (MacLachlan) who is definitely dead but certainly not gone. Jonathan is a warlock and Florence a witch but are they powerful enough to stop the evil machinations of a much more powerful magician?

Eli Roth, who helped popularize torture porn with films like Hostel back in the 90s, might at first seem like an odd choice for this kind of movie until you realize that before he started his run of blood-soaked horror features he was directing animated shorts for children, so he isn’t without understanding of the kid mentality. That’s why it’s sad that the film falls victim to the same trap most of the other failed young adult franchise adaptations fell into – talking down to their audience. Kids are definitely not dumber versions of adults; they’re just less experienced. Sure, you can make ‘em laugh with vomiting jack o’lanterns as Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (who helmed the superior Supernatural series on the CW) do but that is disrespecting your audience. If you wonder why the Potter series succeeded where so many others failed, look at the way they developed their characters and respected their story as well as their target audience. Studios don’t seem inclined to do that these days, I’m afraid.

Blanchett is a ray of sunshine as Florence and she gets many of the best moments in the film. Black does his best, but he’s a much more effective performer when there’s a bit of an edge to his game. Vaccaro is likely a nice kid, but he’s playing a boy who is supposed to be grieving and the scenes in which he’s called upon to cry for them are just appalling. I don’t blame him; I blame the casting director who put him in a terrible position.

The effects are passable and the movie is loaded – perhaps overloaded – with them. It lacks character development, substituting quirks for characters, and humor that will appeal to parents as well as kids. Toilet humor is the refuge of the faithless, and it is clear that the filmmakers had no faith that their audience could handle humor that’s above the level of a three-year-old.

REASONS TO SEE: Cate Blanchett is absolutely terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Simplistic plot and passable effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some scary content, fantasy violence, rude humor and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Roth not to receive an R rating in the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Sling TV,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Goosebumps
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Collette

Life Itself (2018)


Ah, to be young, in love and expecting a child!

(2018) Romance (AmazonOlivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Adrián Marrero, Kya Cruse, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, Jordana Rose, Caitlin Carmichael, Bryant Carroll, Carmela Lloret. Directed by Dan Fogelman

 

Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2014 Roger Ebert bio-documentary) has some mighty tall aspirations. It means to show us through all the pain and suffering through life, we can find solace in that love finds us because it is destined to. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely people who would take exception to that theory.

Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) are a young couple who met in college, fell in love, got married and are expecting a child. Or, at least, they were; we see most of that through flashbacks and we meet Will during a therapy session with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Bening) who is trying to guide Will through the ruins of his life after Abby leaves it. We meet their daughter Dylan (Cooke), a petulant young girl who fronts a punk band but is hiding great pain and not hiding it very well. We also meet Rodrigo (Monner), a young boy traumatized at a young age and brought up by a mother (Costa) who is afflicted with cancer and two fathers – his biological dad (Peris-Mencheta) and the wealthy landowner (Banderas) for whom his father works and who has been part of his life since the beginning. We also meet Elena (Izzo), the narrator who has connections with nearly all of these people in some way.

This is a movie that is riddled with sorrow; plenty of the folks I just introduced you to meet tragic ends, but there is also a lot of joy in the relationships with spouses, parents and caring friends. It feels like Fogelman has tried to cram way too much into the movie which helps to give it the feel that it’s going on too long. Some astute viewers will note that Fogelman has become well-known for the TV show This Is Us which this resembles in tone and construction which is probably why my wife likes this movie so much.

Most critics don’t, however, and I count myself among them. Like life itself, the movie has problems and triumphs in equal measure. There are some nice performances – Costa, Isaac, Wilde and Patinkin stand out, and Jackson in what amounts to a cameo at the very beginning of the movie might have caused problems by making viewers think this was going to be a different kind of movie than it actually was. Frankly, I thought that Fogelman should have stuck with the Sam Jackson movie; it’s a much better one than the one he actually made.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some form of catharsis throughout the movie for you to hold onto. There certainly is, but the tone shifts are so abrupt and violent that we are left feeling curiously off-balance, which is kind of what we watch movies to get away from. Life Itself is too much like life itself in many ways and I don’t think most of us love life itself enough to want to watch a movie about it.

REASONS TO SEE: Jackson is incandescent in his brief appearance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Excessively maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a bit of profanity, some sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fogelman listened extensively to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album in order to set the mood of the film which blends love and melancholy. In fact, the track “Love Sick” plays over the opening credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews: Metacritic: 21/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The House With the Clock In the Walls