A Star is Born (2018)


A song is born.

(2018) Musical (Warner BrothersBradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Alec Baldwin, Marlon Williams, Brandi Carlile, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Michael J. Harney, Rebecca Field, Derek Kevin Jones, William Belli, Dennis Tong, Joshua Wells, Greg Grunberg, Drena De Niro. Directed by Bradley Cooper

 

Talk about a tale as old as time: big rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) wanders into a bar to get a drink (that it is a drag queen bar is a concession to these woke times) and hears a lovely ingenue named Ally (Gaga) belt out a jaw-dropping version of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose.” Turns out that Ally also writes songs. Turns out the songs are really good.

Jackson likes one so much that he decides to perform one at his next concert. Just as icing on the cake, he drags a petrified Ally onstage to duet with him. And guess what? The song goes viral. Suddenly the songwriter-performer, who had just about given up on any shot at a career in the music business, has a career in the music business.

But what goes up must come down. As Ally’s star rises, alcoholism brings Jackson’s career to a standstill. A new manager turns Ally from a rock-oriented singer-songwriter into a pop diva complete with orange hair and a dance troupe. It is no accident – and in many ways, an acid comment on the state of music today – that as Ally grows more successful her music becomes less memorable, and in fact, becomes downright shitty.

This is the fourth version of this tale; it is also Cooper’s first foray into directing. He also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of a gaggle of producers. Word has it he also mopped the floors of the sound stages after shooting was done for the day.

The music here is pretty good, other than the robotic pop that Ally performs in the second half of the film. Cooper and Elliott (as Jackson’s manager and big brother) give outstanding performances, but it is Lady Gaga who will always be remembered for this movie. Already a huge pop diva, she shows that she is capable of being a movie star if she wants to be.

The movie runs a bit too long as we watch Jackson’s decline and Ally’s ascent; those scenes should have been a bit more streamlined. To be honest, I don’t think any version of the film is ever going to hold a candle to the Judy Garland-James Mason version back in 1954 – that’s a true classic. Still, there is a lot to be said for this movie, which was a major Oscar contender at last year’s Oscars (it did win one for Best Music Score). It remains a popular film – most people who saw it liked it or even loved it. I didn’t love it but I certainly did like it.

REASONS TO SEE: Lady Gaga is a true cinematic presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long, drags in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity, and some harrowing alcoholism depictions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper studied Elliott’s voice to come up with Jackson Maine’s voice – before Elliott had been cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Every other A Star is Born
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Venom

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

The Sonata


Candlelight can be romantic – or terrifying.

(2018) Horror (Screen Media) Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian, Matt Barber, Christopher Brand, James Kermack, Myster Jo, Aurélija Pronina, Andrejs Zikovs, Maija Cipste, Artürs Ghoss, Laine Ligere Stegrévica, Janis Libietis, Jurijs Krüze, Atis Afréds Brasmanis, Olga Svecova, Aleksandrs Mihailovs, Alina Vasiljeva. Directed by Andrew Desmond

Music has an almost mystical hold on our imaginations. We define ourselves by it, link it to memories both dark and lovely, use it to buoy our spirits or help us carry out repetitive or boring tasks. We arrange ourselves into tribes according to the kind of music we like. Music is essential to who we are.

Rose Fisher (Tingley) is a concert violinist who may have a brilliant career ahead of her. She has yet to achieve her full potential which has led to a rift between her and her manager Charles (Abkarian), who is a recovering alcoholic. When the news that Rose’s estranged father has died, she fields the news with the same frosty demeanor that you’d adopt if you were told that you’re short change for the bus.

Charles is surprised to discover that Rose’s pa is none other than Richard Marlowe (Hauer), once a composer who was poised to remake classical music with his brilliant compositions – until he essentially withdrew from public life to a run-down French chateau. His name had sunk into obscurity – those who even knew who he was had assumed he had been dead for years. However, Marlowe had been busy in the last years of his life, creating a violin sonata that apparently was written with Rose in mind and might be his most brilliant work yet.

He also left Rose the aforementioned chateau with the obligatory nosy housekeeper (Schaub-Abkarian) which Rose doesn’t really want; she is much more interested in selling the Gothic abomination. However, when she discovers the new sonata, she also discovers a mystery; the sonata is dotted with strange symbols and appears only half-completed. As Rose looks into the piece, she discovers to her dismay that the symbols are Satanic in origin and as she begins to have horrific nightmares and unexplained occurrences make her waking hours no picnic either, she realizes that dear old dad had a much more sinister purpose with his piece than just tormenting his daughter with it.

The chateau makes for an excellent supernatural horror film setting, with plenty of sinister cherubic statues, appropriately foggy woods, and dark corners for apparitions to leap out of. Desmond gives us a concept that has all sorts of fascinating connotations; using music as a conduit to other realms. It makes sense if you understand how a really great musician is transported when in the midst of playing, and transports us along with them. There is power in that, a kind of power that sadly goes largely unexplored here.

Tingley, best known for TV series Hemlock Grove and Once Upon a Time, isn’t given a whole lot to work with. Rose is at various turns arrogant, cold, obsessive and vulnerable. She’s not really a damsel in distress, but she’s not really a terribly strong woman either. When we first meet her, she is informed of her father’s death and has a reaction that is guaranteed to be the very opposite of endearing. To make matters worse, Tingley gives us a rather stiff performance, making me theorize that she was uncomfortable with the role. That’s just conjecture, of course.

This is one of the great Rutger Hauer’s final performances and it is a brief one; he mostly appears in brief snatches – pointing to the woods, glimpsed in mirrors and around corners, and has no dialogue other than during a vintage interview. It really is rather a waste because he has more presence than anyone else in the film. I wish the filmmakers had utilized him better.

A film about music needs a good score and fortunately this film has one. Composer Alexis Mangaud makes a suitably creepy tone but also makes the music lovely for the most part – some of it is atonal and dissonant but by the film’s end it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the music, even if you’re not a classical music aficionado.

The film suffers from some rookie mistakes; an over-reliance on jump scares, plot points that lead nowhere, and generally unlikable characters who have little depth to them. Still, there’s enough here to make this a fairly solid horror opus perfect for rainy nights, autumn afternoons as the sun is dying in the sky, or just to creep you out when you’re alone in the house. Sometimes, that’s all a movie really needs to be.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly fascinating idea.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tingley gives a fairly stiff performance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some unsettling adult themes, gruesome images, terror, profanity, and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Desmond’s feature film debut; it is also the second-to-last film from the late Rutger Hauer to see the light of day (there’s one more coming out later this year).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papillon (2018)

Destination Dewsbury


Would you pick these men up from the side of the road?

(2018) Comedy (Random) Matt Sheahan, David J. Keogh, Dan Shelton, Tom Gilling, Helen Rose-Hampton, Michael Kinsey, Kevin Dewsbury, Maurice Byrne, Denis Khoroshko, David McClelland, Leslie Davidoff, Michael Fawbert, Margot Richardson, Filip Mayer, Velton Lishke, Sharon Heywood, Sharon Spink, Val Punt, Lauren Woods, Graham Daw, Jane Hollington, Anna Dawson. Directed by Jack Spring

 

Some of my readers in their teens and twenties (assuming I have any) are going to have a hard time relating to this but the friends you are inseparable with in your youth tend to drift away as you get older. Very rare is the case where someone other than family is involved on a regular basis in your life from the time you’re in school to the time you’re middle aged. Still, the fact is that we bring our younger selves with us wherever we go and we tend to revert to them when in the company of friends from our youth. This is particularly true with men.

Peter (Sheahan) has watched his life collapse around him in a matter of a few days. His wife has essentially thrown him out, claiming he’s simply not man enough for her – and she has a point on that score. Peter, who is also our semi-reliable narrator, has a spine with the consistency of Jell-O. He is teaching school where he and his mates once attended and he is something of a joke.

That is, until Richard (Byrne) arrives in his classroom to tell him that his son is dying. Richard’s son Frankie (Kinsey) was something of a ringleader for the boys, by far the coolest of the lot and a good friend to them. Peter is shocked – he just spoke to Frankie a couple of months earlier until Richard gently reminds him that it was actually two years ago. In any case, Frankie won’t likely last the week and he wants to see his old friends again one final time.

Therefore, it is on Peter to get the band back together. He knows essentially where he can find them; Gaz (Shelton) has a young family with a daughter who is suspiciously dark-skinned (he and his wife are both white as a December snowbank) while Adam (Keogh) is a banker who is deep in debt to the Russian mob and has been rescued from suicide by Peter’s appearance. Adam is something of a human teakettle – always blowing up at any provocation real or imagined and who can’t complete a sentence without at least one F-bomb in it. He’s an aneurysm waiting to happen. Finally, there’s Smithy (Gilling), a portly man living with his mum who is reduced to speed dating but can’t escape his own awkward nature around women.

The crew decide to head up to Dewsbury, a town up north where Frankie has moved to. This being a comedy, you can bet that things won’t go anywhere near as planned – not even in the same country really, although British critics in their droll manor say that “mishaps ensue.” Those mishaps will include a dropped cell phone in a toilet overflowing with…well, you can fill in the blanks there. Also, a night at a swinger-oriented hotel which sends Peter screaming like a girl into the night. There are also Russian mobsters hunting down Adam with an eye for some spectacular violence, and a bus miscue that sends them careening off-course from the get-go. There is also a veritable cornucopia of bodily fluids and solids that are likely to send the four-year-old in you into helplessness. All that is missing is a sequence of fart jokes.

That kind of humor may not be your cup of tea unless you live with a bunch of toddlers, or essentially have no shame whatsoever. That isn’t the whole of the sort of humor you’ll find here but if you’re looking for wicked Oscar Wilde-type wit, you’re on the wrong bus. This is Benny Hill with an R rating and a penchant for toilet humor.

Initially I really found this unpalatable as the four friends are mainly stereotypes with little development and the humor is a little too low-brow for my taste but a funny thing happened on the way to a scathing review – the film got better. During the last half hour when the boys/men actually arrive in Dewsbury the movie abruptly shifts gears and we begin to see the people inside the stereotypes, particularly in the case of Adam who is devastated by his friend’s terminal condition. All the men seem to grow in some sort of way with the odd exception of Peter – the erstwhile protagonist and narrator – who seems the same essential sad sack he was when the opening credits unspooled. Still, the director and writers manage to explore the nature of male bonding as we age which is a worthy subject indeed.

There are a couple of fight scenes involving the mobsters that take place in dimly lit environments which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on, but other than that the movie is well-shot and makes good use of the locations in suburban England. The film ends on a sentimental albeit bizarre note but nevertheless it’s a good reminder that a good journey is all about reaching your destination – but it is made all the better in the company of friends.

REASONS TO SEE: Improves dramatically during the last third.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much toilet humor and the fight scenes are badly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spring was only 21 when he directed this, his first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon,  Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wild Rose

Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil)


Girls on patrol.

(2018) War Drama (Cohen Media Group) Golshifteh Farahani, Emmanuelle Bercot, Zübeyde Bulut, Sinama Allevi, Mari Semidovi, Roza Mirzolani, Zinaida Gasolani, Maia Shamoevi, Nia Mirianashvili, Evin Ahmad, Ahmet Zirek, Erol Afsin, Nuka Asatiani, Behi Djanati Atal, Adik Bakoni, Tornike Alievi, Hamid Mirzolin, Farook Fadhil Hussein, Massoud Seydo, Kakha Kupatadze, Nino Osmanovi. Directed by Eva Husson

 

The Middle East has been ripped by conflict for decades now; the incursions of ISIS into Iraq and Syria only the recent chapter in a blood-soaked narrative. In 2015, news stories related the plight of women in Kurdistan who had been captured by ISIS, raped and sold into slavery; some of these escaped their captors and enlisted in the armed forces to fight back against their oppressors.

French journalist Mathilde (Bercot) is grieving for her husband who died in Libya months previously. She is not satisfied with her assignments, feeling they are not really telling the story of the atrocities going on. She hooks up with a platoon of women who have all survived capture by ISIS. They are led by the driven Bahar (Farahani), a former lawyer whose home town of Corduene is about to be the focus of an offensive by Kurdish forces.

Bahar and Mathilde bond as the French woman grows to admire the sisters of the battalion. Bahar is aware that her son (Alievi) remains in captivity in Corduene and looks to liberate him but is frustrated by an overly cautious commander (Zirek) who prefers to wait for the right time, unconcerned that time may be ticking away on the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

Husson clearly is passionate about the plight of these women and at times that works against her; the dialogue (which she co-wrote) is often bombastic and ponderous, sounding like a Hemingway account of war if it had been ghost-written by Sidney Sheldon. The film could have used a lighter touch but rather hits the audience like a bludgeon, from the overwrought score to the flashbacks which are often confusing.

That aside, there’s plenty to like here. The cinematography is superb and the action sequences are satisfying. More importantly, Farahani proves herself to be an actress with serious potential. Her expressive face often communicates much more than the clunky dialogue does and Farahani displays an excess of screen presence. This might be looked back upon as the film in which Farahani shows star potential. Personally, I can’t wait to see her in more.

The story the film is trying to tell is an important one and a tragic one. It’s really hard to understand how any religion can justify the treatment of other human beings this way. I guess I’m just an ignorant infidel but certainly there are moments that will get any reasonably feeling audience member’s blood boiling. I wish that the story had been handled with a lot more finesse, however.

REASONS TO SEE: Farahani delivers a triumphant performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker comes on too strong with the portents of doom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and some disturbing images, a bit of profanity and off-screen rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Husson became interested in the film after reading accounts of captive women escaping and taking up arms against ISIS. Because she had forged some strong relationships with Kurdish actors she’d toured with previously, the story resonated with her particularly.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Private War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Biggest Little Farm

The Wind (2018)


Some books you CAN judge by their cover.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zuckerman, Dylan McTee, Miles Anderson, Martin C. Patterson. Directed by Emma Tammi

 

When we think of the early settlers of the West, we think of covered wagons, saloons, small towns with good hard-working people in them and undoubtedly all of the above were there. However, many pioneers were on their own, alone in an unforgiving land, relying on what they themselves could accomplish in order to survive.

Isaac (Zuckerman) and Lizzy Macklin (Gerard) are just such pioneers. They live alone on a deserted prairie with town more than a day’s ride away. The journey to town wasn’t without peril, so generally Isaac would go, whether to pick up supplies or to bring in what produce and animals he could sell. While Isaac is gone, Lizzy is alone; in fact, Lizzy is alone much of the day. She doesn’t seem to mind much, other than the whisper of the ever-present wind which some nights grows to a deafening howl.

Into their world comes Gideon (McTee) and Emma (Telles) Harper; they are “neighbors” if a walk of several hours can be called a neighborhood. They are young and perhaps a bit green; Emma’s skills as a cook are pretty weak and the more “worldly” Lizzy offers to teach her how to improve. In turn, Gideon has a lot to learn about working a farm and the generous Isaac is often at the Harper place helping Gideon get by.

Naturally Lizzy and Emma become friends, and when Emma becomes with child, Lizzy promises to help in every way she can. Emma though is growing frightened; how is she going to give birth and raise a child so far from civilization? And in the sound of the wind she begins to hear other things and she becomes absolutely convinced that there is something out there. Gideon is sure that Emma is imagining things and at first Lizzy is too. Then she begins to hear them.

After tragedy strikes the Harper family, Lizzy is more alone than ever but now she is sure that there is something out there too. Isaac is as skeptical as Gideon was but Lizzy is adamant. While Isaac is away returning Gideon to civilization, things come to a head with Lizzy and the dweller of the prairie but is it real? Or has Lizzy gone mad?

Tammi, heretofore a director of documentaries, acquits herself honorably on her first narrative feature. She manages to create a real sense that there’s something not quite right going on, that the environment is far from benevolent and that the people in it are highly vulnerable. She also does a great job of realistically portraying the pioneer life; the women work as hard if not harder than the men (I’d wager most women would agree with me that some things haven’t changed).There are no modern conveniences; laundry must be hand-washed and hung to dry in the wind; if she wanted bread with dinner, she had to make it and often meals consisted of whatever they had on hand which was often not much.

The heart and soul of this movie is Lizzy and Tammi cast Gerard wisely. The actress isn’t a household name – yet – but she carries the movie effortlessly, her haunted eyes and stretched face telling the story. The movie begins moments after the Harper tragedy occurs and we see Lizzy emerging, zombie-like. It’s a powerful moment and we have no explanation as to what happened. Gradually, through flashbacks, we learn what happened in the cabin until the audience catches up with the story, after which we resume with Lizzy’s own ordeal.

Although many are categorizing this as a horror film, I’d prefer to describe it as a psychological thriller with elements of horror. There’s enough gore and disturbing images to satisfy horror fans as well as some fairly interesting special effects that give us some insight as to what Lizzy is imagining (or experiencing – we’re never really sure). The budget on this probably wouldn’t cover the electrical tape budget on any of the Conjuring series movies but Tammi makes effective use of every penny.

On the technical side, the movie makes a wonderful use of sound, from the whistling, howling and whispering of the wind to the unearthly shrieks that emanate from the prairie, helping to create that atmosphere I referred to earlier. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief makes excellent use of light and shadow, keeping that feeling of something menacing in the darkness. There aren’t really any jump scares here so the horror comes honestly.

There are a couple of drawbacks. The editing is at times ragged and jarring. Also, some of the performances (other than Gerard) were a mite stiff at times. However, those are largely sins that don’t disrupt the overall enjoyment of the movie and it is enjoyable, not just for horror fans. The last 20 minutes of the movie incidentally will have you white-knuckled and trying not to jump out of your own skin. The “twist” isn’t a game-changer but it does fit nicely.

All in all, this is the kind of movie that should be celebrated by cinephiles and horror fans alike. Indie horror movies have been extremely strong of late and The Wind is right up there with some of the best of them, even if strictly speaking it’s not completely a horror movie. Still, this is a movie well worth your time and effort.

REASONS TO SEE: The last 20 minutes are gut-wrenching. Tammi elicits a real sense of unease, that something is off. The filmmakers use light and darkness effectively as well as sound effects and the soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a bit stiff in places and some of the editing is a bit abrupt.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images, gore, violence, partial nudity and sexuality,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on the 1928 silent film The Wind which starred Lillian Gish.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centennial Episode 11: The Winds of Death
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Storm Boy

Hurley


Hurley Haywood and husband Steve Hill revisit a place of happy memories.

(2019) Documentary (The Orchard) Hurley Haywood, Patrick Dempsey, Simon Gregg, Hope Haywood, JC France, Frank Stella, John Patton, Don Davis, Bill Warner, Sam Posey, Diane K. Hewitt, Don Leatherwood, Jim Busby, Richard Pendell, Steve Hill, Gerry Meara, Patrick Lons, Andy Chapman, Pattie Hughes Mayer, Susan Snodgrass. Directed by Derek Dodge

 

The world of sports car racing and endurance racing was back in the 70s and 80s a little more visible than it is today when NASCAR and Formula 1 dominate the auto racing world. Back in the day though Hollywood superstars like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen both were competent sports car racers. Today the studios would have apoplexy if big stars risked life and limb in sports car racing although some big names, like Patrick Dempsey, continue to race.T

In that world, Hurley Haywood looms as a legend. The only 5-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona race (these days sponsored by Rolex), he also won the Le Mans endurance race three times and the 12 Hours of Sebring twice. Along with partner Peter Gregg in the 70s, they were the most dominant team on the endurance racing circuit ever.

Haywood came from money and privilege; he traveled extensively as a boy and young man, and was matinee idol handsome. He fell in love with auto racing at a young age and started driving full size cars at the tender age of twelve. While still in college at Jacksonville University (he still calls Jacksonville home), he entered a sports car race and beat local professional Peter Gregg. Impressed with the young man’s skill, Gregg took him on as a partner and mentor and the two never looked back.

This documentary looks back on the life and career of Haywood and deals with issues beyond the race track. For one thing, Haywood is a gay man, a definite no-no in the 70s when the sport was a symbol of masculinity and beautiful models surrounded successful drivers to which Hurley was no exception. He kept his personal life separate from the track and was clearly uncomfortable discussing it in contemporary interviews. He didn’t come out until last year but doesn’t seem to have harmed his career to any appreciable extent; while he has retired from active driving, he continues to work in the sport as a mentor and coordinator for Dempsey-Wright racing, the team that the aforementioned Patrick Dempsey (who is a producer for the documentary) is part of.

Some of the more poignant moments come from Hurley’s longtime companion and husband Steve Hill, who talks about not being able to share in Hurley’s victories so as not to out him. He would watch through a chain link fence while his partner celebrated on Victory Lane. Gay men in that time learned to accept such treatment in order to keep from ruining the careers of their partners or having their own careers ruined. Although it isn’t discussed, homophobic drivers certainly could have purposely caused accidents that could maim or kill Haywood if they so chose; it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Another subject tackled here is mental illness and Gregg suffered from it. Nicknamed “Peter Perfect,” the driven and intensely competitive racer strove for perfection in every race he ran. Never able to maintain relationships for long due to his illness, he drove wives away with his womanizing and friends away with his often-cruel behavior. Eventually even Hurley, his closest friend, was forced to step away. Although the two men reconciled shortly before Gregg’s death, Gregg’s suicide hit Hurley hard. There had been whispers that Gregg and Hurley had a romantic relationship but Hurley shoots that rumor down, echoed by the friends and family of Gregg who assert that he was quite straight.

There is some compelling archival racing footage, although because of the nature of the races we don’t get a sense of the overall strategy of endurance racing. Much of the film is set at the Daytona International Speedway and we do get a sense of the allure for the place. Haywood’s reverence for Daytona is quite clear.

Early on Dodge gets a bit coy with the gay issue, even though at this point anyone who would want to see the movie is likely aware of Haywood’s sexuality. That coyness was unnecessary and a bit over-cute to be honest. My main problem with the movie is that Dodge in trying to tackle the prongs of mental health, homosexuality and sports car racing history ends up really portraying none of those topics with any kind of completeness and we’re left with an unsatisfied feeling after the film finishes. Part of that may be due to Haywood’s own tendency to play things close to the vest, something he did as a survival tactic as a young man. Today he remains somewhat private and rarely do we get to see how he feels about certain things.

Nonetheless Hurley Haywood is a fascinating subject and a charismatic individual who is kind and courtly. He is aware of his status as a racing legend and is proud of his accomplishments as he should be. He has no wish to be a gay icon; he merely wants to live his life with his husband in peace and one certainly can’t begrudge him that. Still, I wish the film would have been a bit more forthcoming or at least, dived a little deeper into the many fascinating aspects of Haywood’s life and career.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles some important subjects outside of the racing world.
REASONS TO AVOID: Dodge tries to do a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, a discussion of suicide and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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Abnormal Attractions