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Schultz reviews: “Lizzie,” “A Star is Born” and "Venom"

Schultz reviews: “Lizzie,” “A Star is Born” and "Venom"

By Carl Schultz

schultzcarlschultz@aol.com

“Lizzie” Distributed by Saban Films and Roadside Attractions, 105 Minutes, Rated R, Released Sept. 14:

As almost every former schoolboy of a certain age knows,

Lizzie Borden took an ax,

And gave her mother forty whacks.

And when she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

And it likely speaks volumes about the effectiveness of popular verse that when the ax begins to swing at about the halfway point of the new motion picture “Lizzie,” the viewer’s mind almost automatically begins to count the number of strokes the title character administers to her stepmother and, a few minutes later, her father.

But it also speaks well of the movie’s fidelity to the facts of the case that the number of whacks dispensed by the younger Borden in the picture ultimately tops off in the teens, as in the actual 1892 murders — 18 and 11 respectively, instead of the low forties suggested by the famous Mother Goose rhyme.

The events surrounding the real-life murders of Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby –– first wife Sarah, Lizzie’s biological mother, died when Lizzie was three –– have been the subject of two previous film productions: “The Legend of Lizzie Borden,” a 1975 television movie featuring actress Elizabeth Montgomery in her post-”Bewitched” years as Borden, and a 2014 Lifetime television network production entitled “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax” starring actress Christina Ricci as the young Lizzie.

Directed by Craig William Macneill from a screenplay by Bryce Kass, the new picture “Lizzie” is mostly accurate to historical detail ... at least in the beginning. Lizzie Borden is depicted as equal parts feminist pioneer and social outcast. Unmarried at the age of 32, Lizzie and her older sister Emma live in the home of their father and stepmother. A successful and prosperous furniture and textiles magnate, Andrew Borden rules his home with an iron will.

As a result of the domineering Andrew, the Bordens’ modest Fall River, Massachusetts, home is austere and airless enough to seemingly stifle life itself, although Lizzie in plain defiance of her repressive father is shown to occasionally attend theater and social functions unescorted –– scandalous in 1892. Lizzie additionally suffers from epilepsy and is subject to occasional seizures, a medical condition often misunderstood in less-enlightened times.

Into this emotional powder keg steps Bridget Sullivan, an Irish immigrant about Lizzie’s age. Penniless and desperate for work, Bridget arrives at the Borden house to begin employment as a live-in maid ... a position which also occasionally requires the young woman to provide involuntary clandestine sexual favors for her lascivious employer. Still, Lizzie finds in Bridget a kindred spirit, confidante and friend.

At this point in the narrative, the picture begins to transition into a speculative drama, plainly inspired by mystery author Ed McBain’s 1984 novel “Lizzie.” A chance encounter between Lizzie and Bridget blossoms into romance and intimacy. And when Lizzie overhears in a conversation between her father and his business manager that Andrew intends to disinherit his rebellious daughter and possibly commit her to an asylum, the repressed Lizzie and the abused Bridget conspire to kill their tormentor before the modifications to his will can be completed.

“Lizzie” benefits strongly from the empathic performances of the three actors occupying the picture’s central roles. One of our most fearless actresses, Chloe Sevigny displays a remarkably nuanced combination of vulnerability, shrewdness and resolve in the title role. Hope and despair seem to inhabit her otherwise dispassionate eyes in equal measure in a characterization that’s effective enough to be at times painful to watch. This is a Lizzie Borden for the #MeToo generation.

Kristen Stewart belies her sullen and often controversial persona to appear persuasively delicate and wounded as Bridget. Tabloid notoriety aside, Stewart is actually a fine actress, although in “Lizzie” her Irish lilt makes her dialogue sometimes difficult to decipher. And veteran actor Jamey Sheridan, familiar to viewers from his role on television’s “Homeland,” plays against type as the monstrous Andrew, and his performance is that much more effective as a result.

Ultimately “Lizzie” becomes a viable biographical picture, a fascinating character drama, and as a result of its release date an unusually respectable entry into the annual Halloween sweepstakes. This is a picture, after all, in which the focal point of the drama is a double ax murder, a difficult activity to portray with taste and restraint. And while it’s not unnecessarily graphic, the brutality of the scene is still potent enough to compete with exploitation films’ big boys like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.”

But viewed exclusively from its perspective as a horror picture, most of the impact of the film is generated by the domineering Andrew Borden rather than his violent and supremely messy death. The aura of fear and repressive dread Andrew creates and trails in his wake, and the growing sense of desperation and slow death of the soul reflected in the eyes of his youngest daughter, are as difficult to witness than the manner in which he’s eventually dispatched.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January and released on Sept. 14 to only four theaters in major cities across the United States, “Lizzie” has now expanded its release to a whopping 246 venues, but doesn’t seem to be generating enough income at the box office to merit a wider distribution pattern. In other words, look for an early release on DVD and Blu-ray.

Critically, the picture is faring better, earning an approval rating of 65 percent from Rotten Tomatoes and 60 percent from Metacritic –– not exactly great, but still better than such more highly-budgeted recent films as “The Nun,” “Hell Fest” and “The Predator.”

“Lizzie” is rated R for violence and grisly images, sensuality and nudity and implied rape.

 

“A Star is Born” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 135 Minutes, Rated R, Released Oct. 5:

After four months of relentless marketing, “A Star is Born” has finally arrived in some 3,686 movie theaters across North America.  

The first trailer hit movie screens across the United States on June 6, a news event covered on the front page of the entertainment newspaper The Hollywood Reporter. And the big surprise is that the picture not only stands up well to the previous versions of the picture, but is also actually a pretty good movie, a moving little love story wrapped up in the bells and whistles and other adornments and diversions of a major Hollywood event.

In case you haven’t seen any of the previous incarnations of the story, in “A Star is Born” a young entertainer experiences a meteoric rise in popularity while being mentored by an older and more experienced show business personality experiencing a just-as-meteoric decline, partly as a result of alcoholism. That the two entertainers are simultaneously conducting a romance complicates their show business dilemma.

Originally filmed in 1937 by director William A. Wellman and starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, “A Star is Born” has been remade twice before: In 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and in an enormously popular but massively overblown 1976 incarnation starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.  

Historically, the picture’s roots go all the way back to George Cukor’s “What Price Hollywood?” in 1932, adapted from a story by Adela Rogers St. John and Louis Stevens, and based loosely on the real-life experiences of silent film actress Colleen Moore and her alcoholic husband, producer John McCormick.

Directed by Hollywood superstar Bradley Cooper from a screenplay credited to Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper himself, the new “A Star is Born” contains “based on” credits for Wellman and Robert Carson, who wrote the story for the 1937 version, Broadway legend Moss Hart, author of the 1954 picture, and Frank Pierson, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, the writers of the Barbra Streisand version in 1976.

And that’s a problem, because if the new version of “A Star is Born” has one single, glaring fault, it’s cohesion. From the perspective of time, the writers had the ability to cherry-pick the best elements of all previous editions of the story. As a result, the new “A Star is Born” despite likable performances and strident, competent direction frequently seems to be a cut-and-paste job –– a little of this version and a little of that one.  

Worse, the picture in its fullness seems to have left out a couple of pieces, leaving the cinematic puzzle incomplete. There are continuity issues, and the characters sometimes make choices, which don’t make a lot of sense in the overall context of the narrative.

The 1976 version of the movie ran 140 minutes and the 1954 edition clocked in at around three hours, so at a relatively compact 135 minutes you can’t really fault the new “A Star is Born” for being overlong, although it is. If the picture seems more than a little bloated, it’s probably because it tries to embrace too many themes, characters and subplots –– a romance picture, a rumination on the nature of show business, a musical, a lament on the disadvantages of celebrity, a celebration of family and a concert film.

“A Star is Born” is a good movie, but not a great one. The picture contains a terrific, surprisingly accessible breakout dramatic performance from Lady Gaga as the young singer on the periphery of show business success and stardom. As a director, Bradley Cooper wisely takes a step back and allows Gaga an opportunity to shine. Cooper also contributes a customarily superb characterization as the veteran rock star who mentors Gaga, although the actor’s naturally sunny disposition and nice-guy persona inevitably shine through no matter how jaded and degraded his character becomes.  

But plaudits and platitudes aside, the observation stands: Trapped somewhere inside the two-hour-plus “A Star is Born” opus is a classic 95-minute love story, crying to get out.

“A Star is Born” is rated R for adult themes, language concerns, scenes of drinking and drug abuse and brief nudity.

 

“Venom” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing/Columbia Pictures, 112 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Oct. 5:

Tom Hardy is a terrific actor and possibly even a great one.  

Usually found in character roles in ensemble-driven dramas like 2012’s “Lawless” and 2015’s “The Revenant,” the reason Hardy’s not a Hollywood superstar might be that he lives quietly and is all but unrecognizable from role to role.  Even when Hardy appears in big budget international blockbusters he nearly disappears into a character, even sometimes playing the role with his face covered by a mask or other appliance, as he did in 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” and 2017’s “Dunkirk.”

That might change with Hardy’s appearance in “Venom.” A standalone entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe related to Sony/Columbia’s lucrative “Spider-Man” franchise, “Venom” arrives in 4,250 theaters across North America with enough of a built-in fan base of loyal Marvel supporters to all but assure its eventual status as a mega-hit.

Written by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel, in “Venom” an alien organism unexpectedly found by the crew of a deep space probe vessel is transported to Earth, where it escapes and begins to infect people and turn them into ferocious alien-human hybrids of varying degrees of hysterical homicidal mania.  

Only when a strain inhabits disgraced, down-on-his-luck television reporter Eddie Brock does the combination achieve perfect symbiosis and create a half-human, half-alien creature called Venom. Can Eddie in his uneasy but increasingly amiable partnership with his alien half save the world from the less-benevolent otherworldly guests?

Despite unimaginative, by-the-book direction by Ruben Fleischer, “Venom” becomes a dryly mordant and infinitely yucky variation on a Jekyll-and-Hyde theme, with the British-born Tom Hardy employing a persuasive “Noo Yawk” accent and displaying a uniquely all-American Wallace Beery-like charm in his role as Eddie Brock.  

Hardy is supported in “Venom” by the wonderful Michelle Williams, in a more comedic performance than usual as Brock’s former future fiancee. But despite the thoroughly likable performances from the two stars, it’s all pretty ordinary in comparison with other Marvel epics ... especially considering its $100 million price tag.

The alien organism in the picture resembles an animated DNA strain, not unlike the tar monster you see on television ads warning kids about the dangers of smokeless tobacco –– a likeness which adds to the picture’s ick factor. And when infected, Hardy as Venom is reminiscent of Edgar from “Men in Black” combined with the Beast from Disney’s animated “Beauty and the Beast.”

Stick around after the picture’s over –– a mid-credit sequence teases a “Venom” sequel featuring the Marvel character Carnage. And there’s an unusually lengthy preview of December’s animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” at the very end.

“Venom” is rated PG-13 for violence, mayhem and adult situations.

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