CVIndependent

Sat01192019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

The title of this film, Juliet, Naked, is a nod to The Beatles’ release of Let It Be … Naked, a stripped-down version of that album. In this movie, Juliet, Naked is a demo version of an album recorded by a fictional indie-rock star, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).

I can’t think of a more appropriate role for Hawke at this point in his career. Over the last couple of decades, he’s grown into one of the best actors on the planet. He had promise in the first act of his career, but he was a little annoying, self-important and boring … like the younger version of Tucker Crowe. But he’s older now, and so is his character in this movie, a reclusive star who retreated into obscurity after a bad breakup. That part isn’t autobiographical—Hawke has been pretty active throughout—but there are fun parallels between Hawke and Tucker Crowe.

Rose Byrne plays Annie, the girlfriend of mega-Crowe fan Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). When a demo of Crowe’s album winds up in their home, it receives opposing reviews from the two on the Internet—with Annie’s being far more critical. Crowe responds to her review, and the two strike up a kinship that’s far more plausible than it seems on paper.

The three stars are great, especially Hawke. One of the funniest things about the movie is Byrne trying to obscure her pregnancy during filming—a lot of travel bags obscure her baby bump). It’s like that season of Seinfeld when Julia Louis-Dreyfus was pregnant.

The movie is adapted from a novel by Nick Hornby, which is no surprise—because it is insightful, witty and entertaining.

Juliet, Naked is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on Nov. 13.

Jonah Hill makes his feature-directing debut using his own script with Mid90s, the best movie ever made about skater culture—and a powerful film about familial dysfunction and the need for friendship.

Sunny Suljic (The House With a Clock in Its Walls) gives a breakout performance as Stevie, a kid living in a single-parent household with a head-case older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). Stevie suffers massive beatings at the hands of Ian, and causes himself further pain with self-inflicted strangulation, skin burns and pressing on the bruises Ian created. In short … the kid has some major issues.

In search of some kind of identity, Stevie grabs himself a skateboard and starts hanging around some older kids at the skate shop. They include skaters nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and a younger kid simply named Ruben (Gio Galicia), because he hasn’t earned his nickname yet.

Stevie practices at night trying to do flips. He isn’t a natural, but he’s persistent. After a strange anecdote in a conversation circle, he earns the nickname Sunburn, and it sticks. He eventually becomes part of the group, and finds a less-crazy big-brother figure in Ray (Na-kel Smith), the group’s best skater, and an employee at the skate shop. Their kinship becomes the heart of the movie, especially when Ray becomes his sole stable influence as others in the group introduce Stevie to drinking, drugs and sex.

As Stevie’s social life takes off, his home life withers, including increasing violence from Ian and communication problems with mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston of Alien: Covenant). Hill shows some beat-downs that are particularly brutal; you get a true sense that Ian is one strike away from killing his little brother. After suspecting her kid is taking drugs and drinking, Dabney marches Stevie into the skate shop and scolds the group … something the skaters take surprisingly well.

Hill does an expert job of showing how important skating and these new friends are to Stevie in his development. The director doesn’t shy away from the bad influences—influences present in just about every high-schooler’s life. Suljic proves to be the perfect pick for Stevie; he’s a solid young actor (he was also the best thing about Clock in Its Walls). He’s a short guy, but when he bests Ruben in a street fight, you believe he can take the bigger kid. He brings a lot of passion to the role.

Hedges, so damned good in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Manchester By the Sea (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), delivers the film’s best performance as the nightmare older brother. He’s a psycho, but he has a vulnerable side that’s fighting to break out behind his pained eyes. He makes a major mark in his few, strong scenes.

It’s abundantly clear that Hill possesses solid directorial chops. A scene in which Stevie goes into his brother’s room despite death threats is both foreboding and awe-inspiring (Ian keeps a mighty clean, ultra-organized room), and this is where Hill starts effectively using an excellent, moody score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. As solid as Hill’s directorial choices are, this movie wouldn’t be what it is without its score. It’s basically a character in the film.

Mid90s employs a gritty, documentary look, and while it shows some skating stunts, the actual skateboarding scenes don’t overwhelm the movie. They act more as vital flavoring. The crux of the story here is the bond between Stevie and his posse, and the strained relationships at home.

Hill, like his buddy Bradley Cooper with A Star Is Born, has given himself a solid start in the directorial world. I’m eagerly anticipating what he chooses to do next behind the camera.

Mid90s is playing at theaters across the valley.

Forty years after she first “dropped the knife,” Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) tangles, yet again, with the unstoppable killer Michael Myers—and this time, she’s got an arsenal and a panic room.

The original Halloween was an art film. John Carpenter put together a perfect little horror movie with an auteur’s eye, full of beautifully mapped shots, an expert use of lighting, that unforgettable score and that photogenic, painted-up William Shatner mask. It set the high-water mark for slasher films—a mark that has never been surpassed.

The new Halloween comes to us courtesy of writer-director David Gordon Green and writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley. Green is no slouch, responsible for a few highly regarded indies (George Washington, All the Real Girls) and classic comedies (Pineapple Express, banner episodes of TV’s Eastbound and Down). When it was first announced he and McBride would be working on a new Halloween, the initial, “What? Huh?” was quickly followed by “Say … this could work!” Thankfully, it works quite well.

This is the 11th film in the franchise, and the 10th to feature Myers. (Halloween III: Season of the Witch jettisoned the character.) It’s easily the second-best Halloween movie after the Carpenter original, mostly because it takes many of its cues from the 1978 offering. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the maestro himself, Carpenter, returned to rework his iconic theme and provide the film’s eerily effective score.

Forget all those chapters that have unspooled in the four decades since the original. Green even disregards the hospital-based Halloween II, which Carpenter wrote with writing partner Debra Hill. According to the new Halloween, Michael got apprehended shortly after Donald Pleasance’s Loomis emptied his revolver into him, and he’s been percolating in an insane asylum ever since.

A prologue scene features a couple of podcasters gaining access to Michael in his asylum’s courtyard, where they show him his original killing mask. This proves to be a rather bad idea, with Michael busting out of a prison transfer and returning to Haddonfield, where a reclusive, bitter and ready-to-rumble Laurie still resides. Michael promptly resumes his murderous spree, totally messing up candy day for everybody all over again.

A Halloween movie won’t work if the mask looks wonky. Green and his crew came with a good look this time out: The mask, now four decades old, has rotted out a bit, but maintains its contours and fine hair. It even has a puncture wound on the side from when ’78 Laurie put a sewing needle in Michael’s neck.

Green raises the gore quotient from the original, with some nasty head-stomping and brain splatters. It’s not easy to scare audiences who have seen it all before, but I assure you: Green and company will make you squirm and jump. The film’s best scene, a restroom slaughter, is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien, when an exquisitely crying, cowering Veronica Cartwright was cornered, eventually meeting a merciless doom. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s proof Green knows his way around a slasher movie.

Curtis is clearly having a blast. Her hairstyle is identical to the style from her ’80s heyday, but her weapons of choice have most definitely been upgraded. Judy Greer plays her skeptical daughter, with Andi Matichak present as the third Strode generation.

Danny McBride’s writing is evident in key scenes where humor sweetens the mood and creates endearing characters—so we can feel extra-bad about them when they get dispatched. A scene in which a young boy explains to his father that weekend camping trips are fine, but dancing is his focus now, has McBride all over it. Huge credit to both Green and McBride for keeping the comic moments genuine and far from campy.

I, for one, would be totally OK if this is the last Halloween movie. It finishes on a satisfying note with a perfect final shot. However, after taking in nearly $80 million domestically on its opening weekend, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Michael Myers.

Halloween is playing at theaters across the valley.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix join forces as title-characters The Sisters Brothers, guns for hire who are contracted to find a prospector (Riz Ahmed) with a scientific trick for finding gold in rivers.

Reilly plays Eli, the nicer of the two brothers, who is starting to consider life after riding and killing. Phoenix plays Charlie, perfectly content to be a bounty hunter of sorts, as long as the mission includes hookers and lots of booze. Another man (Jake Gyllenhaal) intercepts the prospector with the intent of turning him over to the brothers, but he has a change of heart—and the hunt takes on a new dimension.

Reilly and Phoenix are great together, creating a palpable fraternal bond. This is a dark period Western speckled with some funny moments, but don’t be tricked by the commercials for the film: It’s a mostly dark affair, acted well by all involved.

Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) has made a moving, absorbing, appropriately nasty Western that gives the impression that everybody onscreen smells really bad. Phoenix, having a banner year, turns out to be perfectly cast as a gunslinger, something I wouldn’t have believed going in. He and Reilly give this film a ton of soul, and it doesn’t hurt having the likes of Gyllenhaal and Ahmed in their supporting roles. They are all equally good.

The Sisters Brothers is playing at theaters across the valley.

I binge watched the 10-episode, 10-hour series The Haunting of Hill House in a day on Netflix—and I wanted more.

So, yeah, it’s good.

Based, very loosely, on the Shirley Jackson novel, it tells the story of a family living in a creepy house while the parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas) renovate it for the purpose of flipping it for profit. Things begin to go badly in a haunting kind of way, and events occur that have ramifications throughout the years.

The show covers two time periods, one in which Thomas (who is beyond excellent) plays the young dad, and Timothy Hutton (also excellent) plays him two decades later. The cast is stellar across the board, with the likes of Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Elizabeth Reaser playing the adult versions of the siblings, and Paxton Singleton, Lulu Wilson and Violet McGraw playing them as children.

There are lots of ghosts in the show, and some of them are truly terrifying, including a tall, levitating ghost that guides himself by tapping a cane on the floor. The show is as much a family drama as a horror show, pulling off both genres efficiently.

The Haunting of Hill House is now streaming on Netflix.

The Kindergarten Teacher stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as, well, a kindergarten teacher who discovers one of her students (Parker Sevak) is quite the poet. She covets the boy’s talent to a point that becomes … well, unhealthy.

The movie, a remake of a French film, gives the talented Gyllenhaal yet another terrific showcase; her teacher is a most complicated character who is guilty of numerous crimes … yet you can’t help but feel for her. Tired of her life, she becomes obsessed with the boy, utilizes his poetry in a bad way, and gets herself in a whole world of trouble. Gyllenhaal pulls off a marvel of a performance, making a despicable person undeniably sympathetic.

This is yet another great offering from Netflix; The Kindergarten Teacher is a theater-caliber movie getting released on the streaming platform with only a limited theatrical release. This is the sort of movie that used to only play art houses; now you can watch it at home the week it’s released.

The Kindergarten Teacher is now streaming on Netflix.

Space-exploration movies based upon real events, not surprisingly, have usually made “the mission” the thrust of the plot.

First Man goes a different route. It dares to focus on a man rather than a mission—Neil Armstrong, the man at the center of the Apollo 11 mission, and what made him tick. It shows the familial struggles the man dealt with leading up to the mission and, most strikingly, his viewpoint as a bunch of white-clad workers packed him into sardine-can-like compartments and blasted him off into space. It’s an amazingly intimate movie, considering the subject matter.

Director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) doesn’t ignore the details of NASA’s buildup to Armstrong’s arrival on the lunar surface. In fact, the film is one of the most scientifically intriguing films I’ve seen regarding what astronauts go through, and the mechanics of a space launch. However, it also manages to be a moving, often haunting study of the sacrifice and pain Armstrong went through to beat the Russians to the punch.

Before this film, I did not know that Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling, in top form) lost his young daughter to cancer in 1962, seven years before his legendary flight. Appropriately, that event is as central of an occurrence as the moon landing in this movie. This film is about Armstrong’s sacrifices and hardships, as well as the enormous psychological and physiological tortures he went through in that decade leading up to Apollo 11. In turn, it’s a testament to every man and woman who risked their lives in the name of the space race.

Claire Foy is the epitome of patience as Janet Armstrong, who must tend to her mischievous son as the sound from a NASA intercom drifts through her house—a sound letting her know her husband is surviving his latest mission.

Chazelle brilliantly stages the launches from Armstrong’s point of view. The camera violently shakes, with the view from a small window being the only thing we see—as if we are watching from inside Armstrong’s helmet.

The final moon landing has Armstrong immersed in total silence as he watches Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) hop away from the lunar module. The film cost about $60 million to make; that’s like an indie budget nowadays. It’s to Chazelle and his crew’s credit that it looks like it cost at least twice as much.

You might find yourself justifiably bummed out for much of First Man’s running time. Besides the death of his daughter, Armstrong lost some good friends at NASA, including Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who all died horrific deaths during an Apollo 1 test. There was also Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), who died in a test-flight crash preparing for Gemini 9.

Armstrong was well-known for his quiet and stoic demeanor. Gosling, working with a script by Josh Singer, shows us a calm, quiet and focused man who kept looking forward, no matter what forces tried to drag him back. The film depicts a trio of near-death experiences, including the film’s opening sequence involving a test flight in space that almost took Armstrong out. No matter how many times he had to crash or eject, Armstrong endured with almost-impossible strength and reserve—which Gosling depicts perfectly.

First Man forgoes much of the obvious patriotism and international competition that marked the space race in favor of simply showing what a dude had to endure to get lunar dust on his boots. Going to the moon was a messed-up, crazily dangerous endurance test—and this movie succeeds in making that abundantly clear.

First Man is playing at theaters across the valley.

Writer-director Drew Goddard, who hadn’t directed a film since The Cabin in the Woods in 2012, assembles an all-star cast for a nutty film—that’s sometimes a little too cute for its own good.

The star of this movie is the El Royale, a fictional hotel based on Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva hotel, once owned by Frank Sinatra. Bad Times at the El Royale features fine art direction, from its aged lobby straddling two states, to its creepy tunnels behind the rooms set up for criminal voyeurs.

Jeff Bridges plays a mysterious priest who checks into the resort along with a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) and a hippie (Dakota Johnson). After the messed-up manager (Lewis Pullman) checks them in, each visitor has his or her own story in his or her own room.

Goddard shows flourishes of brilliance, mixing thrills, mystery, humor and lots of blood into the intertwined plots, giving the film a Tarantino-like feel. (I know that’s a cliché these days, but it’s true.) The film is set in 1969 and pays homage to the time through its soundtrack, set design and subplot involving a Manson-like cult leader (Chris Hemsworth).

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, the film is a bit much; a half-hour could easily be excised. However, the stuff that works makes Bad Times at the El Royale a worthwhile movie.

Bad Times at the El Royale is playing at theaters across the valley.

It’s movie magic at its most beautiful when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga share the screen in A Star Is Born. It’s a rousing remake of the old rise-to-fame story, and it’s easily the best movie with that title ever made. It is the fourth—yet this film feels amazingly original.

Cooper makes his directorial debut and stars as Jackson Maine, a Southern rocker barely getting through his gigs thanks to too much alcohol, too many pills and a nasty case of tinnitus. The film opens with Cooper live on stage belting out “Black Eyes,” a song that shows this movie means business on the musical front: Yes, that’s him singing and playing a pretty mean guitar. He brings a legitimate musical soul to the role.

And he’d damned well better, because his counterpart is played by none other than Lady Gaga in her fierce feature-lead debut. As Ally, a waitress who sings occasionally at the local drag bar, Gaga exceeds expectations so much that it seems impossible. She’s so good that it hurts, especially in the film’s heavy dramatic moments, of which there are many.

After his opening concert performance (filmed at Coachella in 2017), Jackson heads to Ally’s drag bar and, through an alcohol haze, witnesses her stirring version of “La Vie En Rose.” He’s instantly convinced he’s witnessing a diamond in the rough and implores her to join him on the road. She makes an impromptu appearance onstage with him performing “Shallow,” a song they wrote in a grocery-store parking lot together. She’s an instant smash, and the journey to fame and fortune has begun for Ally.

As this oft-told story goes, when one star rises, the other falls, and Cooper (who co-wrote the screenplay) stays faithful to that theme. While past incarnations have been a bit shmaltzy (Barbra Streisand’s 1970s take was pretty goofy), this take is gritty, intelligent, heartfelt and at times emotionally overwhelming. Gaga cries a bit in this movie, and you probably will, too.

Speaking of the Streisand version, Cooper’s film makes many obvious nods to it, including Jackson’s Kris Kristofferson look, an examination of Gaga’s big beautiful nose (just like Streisand’s) and even a moment including fake eyebrows. (There are prominent eyebrow-centric scenes in all of the versions.) Cooper acknowledges the prior films without stealing from them; fans of each version will appreciate what they see here.

Gaga reportedly campaigned for the music to be performed live, and this is a huge blessing, because nobody sings live like Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. What she does with “Shallow” and the film’s closing number, “I’ll Never Love Again,” is the stuff of movie legend. While this sort of musical magic is more or less expected from Gaga, to have Cooper successfully trading musical punches with one of the best singers on the planet is some sort of musical miracle.

Ally’s rise-to-fame story becomes a little predictable when her pop career takes off, but not enough to hurt the movie or diminish the film’s instant-classic status. The songs, many of them crafted by Gaga and Cooper together, are the real deal.

It was a lot of fun following this film’s production and reading about what inspired Cooper to make the movie and cast Gaga. It’s rare that a film lives up to the hype like this one has. Gaga is now a front-runner for an acting Oscar; Cooper finds himself in the running for directing; and “Shallow” seems predestined for a win as Best Original Song.

See this one knowing that the goosebumps will rise; the smiles will stretch your face muscles; and the tears will flow. A Star is Born is one of the year’s best movies, and Cooper and Gaga are one of the all-time-great screen pairings.

A Star Is Born is playing at theaters across the valley.

Venom is a sometimes-entertaining mess—but it’s still a mess.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: You shouldn’t have a Venom movie without Spider-Man somehow playing into the villain’s backstory. Venom looks like Spider-Man in the comic, because the symbiote fused with Peter Parker first, resulting in the “Spider-Man on steroids” look. However, this film has no Spidey, and no Spidey means the monster needs a different origin. Now Venom comes about because of a space alien that passes through an evil scientist’s lab—a space alien that looks a little like Spider-Man.

Tom Hardy labors hard at playing Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who is infected by the symbiote and starts biting off people’s heads, PG-13-style. Brock winds up with Venom’s voice in his head and an ability to make Venom sort of a good/bad guy. It’s all kind of stupid; the film plays things mostly for laughs and squanders a chance for a real horror show.

Some of the action and effects are pretty good, and Hardy gives it his all, but the film feels like a botch job from the start. Michelle Williams gets what might be the worst role of her career as Brock’s girlfriend, and Riz Ahmed plays the stereotypical villain.

There are hints of something cool here, but they are buried under a pile of muck.

Venom is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.