Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Born to be Blue, Valley of Love, I Saw the Light, Take Me to the River

Born to be Blue
Valley of Love

I Saw the Light
Take Me to the River

Capsules on a mediocre week at the movies:

Robert Budreau's Chet Baker movie "Born to be Blue" is the first of two consecutive jazz biopics (Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead" opens Friday) that explore a particular period of time in their subjects' careers rather than their complete encyclopedia entries. It's a smart choice, and one that more filmmakers should consider. Yet "Born to be Blue" is more standard than the impressionistic portrait of Baker that fashion photographer Bruce Weber left us with in 1989's Oscar-nominated documentary "Let's Get Lost." It was filmed cheaply in Canada - and looks it - with Sudbury, Ontario filling in unconvincingly for Harlem and Hollywood. Still, it gets better as it goes, with Ethan Hawke's haunted visage a fitting vessel for Baker's spiral of death and resurrection. Hawke's trumpet playing may be a bit effortful, but this is among the best portrayals of his career. Stephen McHattie makes a major impression in a single, quietly devastating scene as Baker's father, who knows just what to say to hurt Chet the most.

Guillaume Nicloux's slight, strange "Valley of Love" played at Cannes on the strength of leads Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu. They play Isabelle and Gérard, French film stars whose gay son, Michael, committed suicide six months ago. They hadn't played a major part in his life - or each other's - for some time, but Michael left them letters with detailed instructions to spend a week together in Death Valley, at the end of which he promises to return, albeit briefly. It's a sit around and talk movie, interrupted occasionally by Isabelle's frustration with her cell phone reception or a fight over Gérard's intent to leave a day early for an important medical appointment. Does Michael come back? Perhaps. Isabelle feels him grab her by the ankles while she's showering, though there's nobody else in her room. Gérard hears his voice while alone on a mountain hiking trail. It's always a pleasure to spend time in the company of these French legends - and Depardieu bares his gut without shame - but there's pas grand-chose in the way of payoff.

I have almost nothing to say about the Hank Williams biopic "I Saw the Light," except that I don't have any better sense of the man than I did walking in. This is a film cut straight off the pattern, and there's no reason on God's earth it needs to run over two hours.

Ryder (Logan Miller) is a gay Californian in his early teens. As "Take Me to the River" opens, his mother (Robin Weigert) and father (Richard Schiff) are driving him to a large family reunion in Nebraska and suggesting (but not demanding) that he keep his sexuality a secret. He reluctantly agrees, but can't help himself from wearing red short shorts that no corn-fed breeder would ever put on. The prepubescent girls, though, love his look, and his uncle Keith's (Josh Hamilton) youngest daughter Molly (Ursula Parker) is especially obvious about her crush. During a barbecue lunch, Ryder agrees to take Molly across the way to the barn, where they violate their promise not to climb on the bales and Ryder lets Molly climb on his shoulders - she calls it "chicken fighting." Moments later, Molly lets out a piercing squeal and runs back to the group. She is bleeding from the area of her private parts, and Keith warns Ryder and his parents menacingly to keep him away from Molly. What happened in the barn is the subject of "Take Me to the River," a film so stilted and overheated it plays like an SNL skit, with director Matt Sobel's camera closing up on the pursed-lipped Keith so tightly you half-expect to hear his thoughts in voice-over. Miller nicely captures a young adolescent's need to both shock and fit in, but Weigert's like fingernails on a blackboard, and who knows what chit Sobel cashed in to land Schiff. And talk about anticlimactic.

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