The Arts

Rebecca Hall’s “Christine” is an unforgettable experience

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Christine: The final days

***½

Christine Chubbuck’s place in history was assured July 15, 1974 when she announced on the air of Sarasota’s Channel 40 WXLT-TV that viewers would see a first on live television – attempted suicide – at which point she shot herself in the head.

It is giving nothing away to reveal that director Antonio Campos’ biographical drama Christine does not have a happy ending, although in the long run Christine could prove beneficial in highlighting the issue of suicidal depression. If Rain Man (1988) could raise awareness of autism, Philadelphia (1993) of AIDS and Still Alice (2014) of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, then Christine is important in that it can enlighten.

And, due entirely to Rebecca Hall’s deeply felt, acutely sensitive portrayal of Chubbuck, Christine is an unforgettable, often harrowing, experience. The screenplay, the first by producer Craig Shilowich, avoids sensationalism and exploitation while also avoiding maudlin sentiment. It’s a tragic tale told with tact and taste, offering a glimpse not only into Chubbuck’s tormented soul but also TV news of the 1970s, when sensationalism began creeping into the mix. (Indeed, Chubbuck’s suicide was an inspiration for Paddy Chayefsky’s subsequent Network, released two years later.)

The lovelorn Chubbuck, at 29 still a virgin and nursing an unrequited crush on anchorman George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall), was an intelligent and tenacious reporter, sometimes at odds with her boss (Tracy Letts), yet still finding time to present puppet shows for hospitalized children and contending with a mother (J. Smith-Cameron) who is sympathetic but sometimes irresponsible. She had also been diagnosed with an ovarian cyst that could prevent her from having children.

Ultimately for Chubbuck, she had nothing left to give, no hope left. Even when those around her offered help, she was reluctant to let her guard down or to show vulnerability – and it ultimately destroyed her.

The scariest, and most ironic, part of the story is that once she decided to take her own life, she became more coherent and conciliatory. She had at last found a purpose. Knowing what is to come does not diminish the film’s tension or the overwhelming sympathy for its title character.

The original score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, initially seems too upbeat, almost inappropriately so, yet eventually it becomes a major ingredient of the story’s tragic irony, conveying the hollowness that festers within Chubbuck.

Even when the momentum is a little show or scenes play a bit long, Rebecca Hall completely compensates. This is a performance that may very well be remembered come awards time – and deservedly so. The supporting cast, which also includes Maria Dizzia, Timothy Simons, Kim Shaw and veteran John Cullum, does fine work – but Christine simply wouldn’t be what it is without Hall.

 Christine opens Friday

Home for the holidays

**

Come the holidays, each year brings with it another dysfunctional-family comedy, and this year’s example is Almost Christmas, the latest star-studded ensemble from writer/director David E. Talbert.

Set in Birmingham, Alabama, the story focuses on the annual family get-together of the Meyers clan, with patriarch Walter (Danny Glover) presiding over the return of daughters Kimberly Elise and Gabrielle Union (also an executive producer) and sons Romany Malco and Jessie Usher. This is the first year since Walter’s wife Grace (Rachel Kylian) died, and her memory looms large.

Like his previous film, Baggage Claim (2013), Talbert has assembled a friendly ensemble cast that adds considerable sparkle to the formulaic proceedings.

It’s especially nice to see Glover in a leading role, one that allows him to flex his comedic muscles (yes, he throws in his signature Lethal Weapon line). Nicole Ari Parker, JB Smoove, Omar Epps, John Michael Higgins, Keri Hilson, Gladys Knight, and the ever-brassy Mo’Nique – tearing into everything and everyone with abandon – are good company, and Talbert has coaxed appealing performances from youngsters Nadej Bailey, Alkoya Brunson and Marley Taylor, playing the obligatory wise-beyond-their-years children.

As ingratiating as the players are, Almost Christmas is contrived, corny and hokey. There’s a touch of Garry Marshall here, a bit of John Hughes there, and a smattering of Neil Simon among Talbert’s influences – but too often the film telegraphs its punches far in advance. The film is loaded with yuletide trimmings yet never strays from predictability and lacks any surprise. Rest assured that whatever family grudges and rifts that are revealed will inevitably be healed by the fade-out.

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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