The Arts

Rules Don’t Apply may be a one man show

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Hollywood Babble

The primary audience for Rules Don’t Apply may very well be the man who made it: Warren Beatty.
The film represents the culmination of Beatty’s four-decade fascination with Howard Hughes and marks Beatty’s return to acting, having not appeared in a film since the lamentable Town & Country (2001), and directing, having not helmed a film since the fascinating misfire Bulworth (1998). At this point in time, however, are audiences particularly interested in Beatty – or even Howard Hughes, previously the subject of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), a project which Beatty circled for years?
This awkward film, posited as a romance/comedy/drama – and succeeding at none – would indicate not, particularly given its paltry box-office takings to date. And Beatty, who has never been one to extensively promote his films – even those which he produced, directed and scripted (like this one) – isn’t helping his own cause.
Set in 1958, the film principally dramatizes the budding relationship between Frank Forbes (Aiden Ehrenreich), one of Hughes’ dutiful drivers, and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), the latest wide-eyed show-biz hopeful to join Hughes’ stable of starlets at RKO. (Hughes actually sold the studio in 1955, but an opening legend indicates that historical accuracy is of little concern.)
Hughes is a shadowy figure initially, much talked-about and only fleetingly glimpsed, yet like Beatty his presence is felt throughout. Once Hughes – and Beatty – make their appearance, the story’s focus and balance tilts in his direction.
Particularly during the film’s first half, scenes end so abruptly as to almost negate their individual or collective impact, and despite points of interest throughout, the story never builds to a specific climax.
Beatty has surrounded himself with a stellar supporting cast – real-life wife Annette Bening (as Marla’s mother), Matthew Broderick (quite good), Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Paul Sorvino, Oliver Platt, Haley Bennett, Taissa Farmiga, UNCSA graduate Paul Schneider, and real-life husband-and-wife Ed Harris and Amy Madigan – but many of them are relegated to mere cameo status.
Ehrenreich and Collins are affable enough in colorless roles, but Beatty has given himself the best lines, the best scenes, and the showiest role. Having won a Best Director Oscar for Reds (1981) and the Irving Thalberg Award in 1999, he’s never won Best Actor. To say this is his bid for one would be an understatement. To say that Rules Don’t Apply reeks of a vanity project would likewise be an understatement. And, unfortunately, to say the film doesn’t work is also an understatement.

Visit to a Small Planet

***

Director Denis Villeneuve brings his trademark exploration of morality to Arrival, a thoughtful science-fiction drama adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life by screenwriter Eric Heisserer.
Although the story depicts an alien visitation to Earth, credibility is maintained throughout – and anchored by Amy Adams’ first-rate performance as Louise Banks, a linguistics expert tapped to decipher the aliens’ language. As 12 alien crafts have descended to various points around the globe, the worldwide population wonders if their intent is cohabitation, communication, or conquest.
Ably assisted by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise begins the arduous, and potentially perilous, task of establishing contact with the aliens (referred to as “Heptapods”), who aren’t clearly seen until the film is well underway, thereby upping the suspense quotient.
Adams’ character is the only one to fully emerge, although Renner offers solid support. There’s a marvelous scene when they first enter the alien craft. She she’s visibly terrified while he’s almost giddy with anticipation. Forest Whitaker plays the quintessentially hard-nosed (but not unsympathetic) colonel overseeing the operation, and Michael Stuhlbarg the quintessentially hard-nosed (but not sympathetic) CIA agent on the project.
More akin to Close Encounters (1977) than Independence Day (1996), and refreshingly more interested in raising ideas and questions than providing a big-bang special-effects blow-out (although the effects are excellent). Arrival doesn’t always answer the questions it raises, and occasionally veers into melodrama, but its esoteric approach to a familiar storyline and intriguing chronological structure are certainly worthy of praise.

A Profile in Courage

***

Whatever one wants to say about Mel Gibson’s personal life or opinions, the man knows his way around a camera, as witness his Oscar-winning direction of the Oscar-winning Best Picture Braveheart (1995) and his acclaimed Apocalypto (2006). He has a definite knack for capturing scale and scope, as well as executing superlative action sequences.
That proficiency is on display in Hacksaw Ridge, a fact-based World War II drama focusing on Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a country boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains who became a combat hero without ever picking up a weapon. But as the film, scripted by Andrew Knight and Robert Shenkkan, indicates, Doss was a hero even before that – when he stood up for his religious convictions and indicated he would not take the life of another.
The first hour of the film depicts Doss’ life at home, with a doting mother (Rachel Griffiths) and a father (Hugo Weaving) whose anger, abusiveness and alcoholism stem directly from his traumatic memories of serving in World War I.
In boot camp, Doss plainly makes his intentions clear that he wants to serve in the US Army Medical Corps and considers himself a “conscientious cooperator” rather than a conscientious objector. This stand earns him the enmity of many of his fellow soldiers and a possible court-martial, yet he stands firm in his resolve. He’s determined to serve his country, and equally determined not to kill for it.
Having overcome one hurdle (avoiding court-martial), Doss is truly put to the test in the battle of Okinawa in May 1945, in a brutal clash with entrenched Japanese forces. (There is some attempt to indicate the nobility of the Japanese, but for the most part they are nameless, faceless foes to be slaughtered.)
Although Garfield occasionally overdoes the “Aw, shucks” attitude, he’s likable and sympathetic throughout. Teresa Palmer is the proverbial “girl he left behind,” a pretty nurse who stands by her man throughout, and Sam Worthington plays Doss’ understandably skeptical captain. There’s particularly good work from Luke Bracey, as the resident barracks bully whose initial loathing of Doss does a quick about-face in the heat of battle, and Vince Vaughn as a bellicose drill sergeant underneath whose bluster beats a human heart.
Filmed entirely in Australia – which doubles convincingly for West Virginia and Okinawa – Hacksaw Ridge is a respectful and sincere tribute to heroism and sacrifice, but in no way is it a glorification of war. The brutality, viciousness and sheer suddenness of combat are depicted in totally convincing fashion, on par with the D-Day dramatization in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1999). It is here where Gibson’s expertise comes to the fore in ferocious fashion, with major assists from cinematographer Simon Duggan and editor John Gilbert.
Gibson can’t resist bring an emphasis (or even an over-emphasis) of religious symbolism to the proceedings, although it’s equally true that the circumstances of Doss’ life and military service do invite such emphasis.

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2016, Mark Burger

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