There’s a veritable blizzard of new movies descending into theaters this week, from a stellar adaptation of a supposedly unadaptable book to a masterful documentary about the conscience of an artist to a surprisingly moving gay love story. So without further ado…
Don Delillo’s novel White Noise was published in 1985, and ever since it has been deemed unfilmable. Frankly, I’m not sure why, as it’s one of the author’s most linear and cinematic narratives, far more amenable to the screen than, say, Cosmopolis, which David Cronenberg unsuccessfully tackled a few years back.
In any case, writer-director Noah Baumbach has managed to craft a darkly hilarious, oddly moving film version that’s (perhaps overly) faithful to Delillo’s dialogue and tone. It’s a fable, like so much of Delillo’s writing, about the cracks in contemporary civilization and the Sisyphean task of mortaring them up so we can keep on living.
The story concerns J.A.K. (a/k/a Jack) Gladney (Adam Driver), a middle-aged, potbellied professor of Hitler Studies at an Ohio liberal arts college, and his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), a font of optimism with, as one character says, “important hair,” who teaches life skills classes to senior citizens. They have one child of their own and three others from their various previous marriages, making for a pleasantly cacophonous home life full of overlapping conversations and myriad breakfast cereal brands. (The film is set in 1984, and the misinformation-filled discussions among the family members are a reminder of those blissfully ignorant, pre-Internet times.)
Like the novel, Baumbach’s film is tripartite. In the first section, Jack learns that Babette has been secretly taking a mysterious medication called Dylar. We also see him at work, in an affectionate sendup of academic life, helping out a colleague, Murray (Don Cheadle), by lending his Hitler-derived gravitas to Murray’s lecture on Elvis Presley’s relationship to his mother. (Sounds weird, I know, but it’s a hilarious scene.)
The middle section concerns what becomes known as the Airborne Toxic Event (it’s not just the name of an L.A.-based indie rock band!). A train derailment and explosion send an enormous black cloud into the air, eventually prompting the family’s evacuation to a Boy Scout camp. Baumbach stages this sequence as a deadpan take on over-the-top disaster movie cliches, but with the bewildered, befuddled Jack at its center. One of Delillo’s (and Baumbach’s) best jokes concerns Simuvac, an organization that’s using this real evacuation as a trial run for its usual business of simulating evacuations.
Once back home, Jack ultimately confronts Babette about the medication, leading to a finale set in a dilapidated roadside motel and then a bizarre hospital run by German nuns. By the time the end credits roll over a fantastic tableau of ritualized movement inside an A&P store and a punchy new song from LCD Soundsystem, domestic tranquility (or at least normalcy) has been restored.
For all its willingness to depict the Gladney family and Jack’s academic colleagues as hapless narcissists besotted by brightly lit grocery aisles and cinematic car crashes, White Noise has empathy for its ridiculous characters. Jack and Babette truly do love one another, and they’re all just trying to get through the day without being knocked horizontal by the ubiquitous reality that one day they’re all going to die.
Baumbach’s earlier movies often focused on strained family relationships (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), but since his personal and professional relationship with Gerwig, he seems to have softened a bit, the scathing moments in Marriage Story notwithstanding. It’s also notable that White Noise is the first time he’s writing and directing an adaptation of another work. (He did adapt Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox for Wes Anderson to direct.) The choice to replicate entire swaths of dialogue and incident from Delillo’s book was a smart one—it takes a few minutes to adapt to the heightened, hyper-verbal rhythms, but once you’re in, you’re in.
Driver, Gerwig, and Cheadle are all excellent, to the extent that each is, at times, almost unrecognizable. In fact, they’re almost too good, and I kept recasting their roles with less prestigious actors who might have more easily embodied the banal existential crises of their characters: Zach Braff as Jack, Chloe Sevigny as Babette, and Tim Meadows as Murray. In an alternate universe somewhere, perhaps… (Opens Friday, Dec. 9, at the Hollywood Theatre, Regal Fox Tower, and Bridgeport Cinemas in Portland, the Cornelius Cinemas, and the Independence Cinema. Premieres on Netflix Dec. 30.)
Speaking of medication with unfortunate side effects, Dylar’s got nothing on OxyContin, the opioid manufactured and sold by Perdue Pharma that’s been responsible for countless American deaths in recent decades. The role of Pharma’s owners, the Sackler family, in perpetrating this fatal fraud by concealing the addictive power of their cash cow has been exposed and explored in various venues, but rarely with the passion and perspective of Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.
That’s because this isn’t a standard journalistic exposé, but rather a portrait of acclaimed photographer Nan Goldin and her personal quest to bring the Sacklers’ crimes to light. Goldin gained renown in the 1970s and ’80s for her pictures chronicling Boston drag queens and the post-punk, gay, and lesbian subcultures of New York. Part of All the Beauty is a primer on Goldin’s extensive life and career, including her sister’s suicide at 15, her own experiences with sex work and abusive relationships, and her efforts to honestly capture the demimondes she inhabited.
Like so many others, Goldin became addicted to OxyContin. Once recovered, she mounted a campaign against the numerous galleries and museums that continued to accept money from the family and put the Sackler name on their facilities. As anyone familiar with the Koch brothers knows, this is a time-honored method of reputation laundering, but Goldin won’t have it. She founded the group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and continues to lead protests at place such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Louvre. The latter of those became the first major institution to remove the Sackler name from its walls.
Poitras, whose previous films (including Oscar winner Citizenfour) have explored the national security state and the War on Terror, has a magnetic subject in Goldin. Her unflinching sense of justice and unswerving honesty make the fusion between her art and her activism feel both inevitable and unstoppable. (Opens Friday, Dec. 9, at Cinema 21.)
Billy Eichner’s very funny gay romcom Bros crashed and burned at the box office not more than a couple of months ago, so I don’t hold out much commercial hope for Spoiler Alert. This make-you-laugh-make-you-cry love story, based on the memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies by Michael Ausiello, is exactly the sort of movie that Bros ridiculed, but it’s nonetheless a winner and a very nice coming-out party (pun intended) for TV sitcom star Jim Parsons.
Parsons, interminable since seemingly the dawn of time as Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, gets a chance to actually act as Ausiello, a TV journalist whose romance with handsome photographer Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge) is, we learn in the opening scene, doomed to end with Kit’s death from cancer.
Despite this cheat, or perhaps because of it, the movie rarely descends into pathos, even when Sally Field shows up as Kit’s mother. Some of the credit for that can go to Northwest gay icon Dan Savage, making his movie debut as co-screenwriter alongside David Marshall Grant. Some also goes to director Michael Showalter, who helmed the similarly themed The Big Sick and who knows when to let his actors carry the emotional load. The only real directorial prerogatives he takes come in the occasional flashbacks to Michael’s youth as a chubby nerd who found solace in television. (That explains his massive collection of Smurf figurines—or does it?)
Spoiler Alert isn’t as fresh or subversive as Bros or Fire Island, but it demonstrates that with appropriate restraint and grounded performances, familiar tropes can still satisfy. (Opens Friday, Dec. 9, at Living Room Theaters, Salem Cinema, and other area theaters.)
Are you ready for another movie about the magical power of movies? So soon after Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans, it might seem a bit much. Then again, these days even a Spielberg film fades in the public consciousness like a Polaroid picture in reverse. In any case, director Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is a bit more than a panegyric to the cinema, mostly thanks to a central performance from the consistently brilliant Olivia Colman.
She plays Hilary, a lonely and emotionally fragile snack bar manager at the Empire Theatre on Britain’s southern coast. It’s 1979 going on 1980, and while the theater has seen better times (two of its four screens have been shuttered), it retains some glory, lovingly tended to by Hilary and the rest of the staff (and spectacularly photographed by the great Roger Deakins). Colin Firth plays the manager, an utter heel who pressures Hilary into furtive, grubby sexual encounters in his office, while Toby Jones is perfectly cast as the predictably persnickety projectionist. (I imagine his character here as the twin brother to the skittish sound engineer he played in 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, which is set in 1970s Italy.)
It’s the newest hire who sets Empire of Light’s story into motion. Stephen (Michael Ward) is the new guy, and quite possibly the first Black employee the theater’s had. He and Hilary strike up a fast friendship, and then something more, despite their age difference. But Stephen, unlike the rest of the staff, isn’t aware of Hilary’s previous mental health struggles.
As the Empire prepares for the rare treat of a regional premiere (for Chariots of Fire), things come to a head in a fairly clichéd fashion, despite the undimmable humanism of Colman’s performance. The movie does have an excellent sense of which films to stick on the Empire’s marquee. As a racist demonstration descends into violence, Stir Crazy is showing. And Being There ends up serving as a nice capstone.
Empire of Light doesn’t have much to recommend it beyond Colman and Jones, but they do enough to make it worth seeing on a big screen, hopefully in a place with as much charm as the Empire. (Opens Friday, Dec. 9, at Living Room Theaters, Regal Fox Tower, and Bridgeport Cinemas.)
Almost guaranteed to fly under the radar in this busy holiday movie season, Memories of My Father deserves a better fate. Based on the acclaimed memoir (published in English as Oblivion) by Colombian novelist Héctor Abad Faciolince, it starts out in 1983 Italy, where Héctor receives a call asking him to return home to Medellín. His father has just been forced into retirement from his university teaching position for political reasons.
From there, Oscar-winning director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque) flashes back to Héctor’s childhood in the early 1970s, switching from black-and-white to color. His father, also named Héctor (Javier Cámara), is a doctor and professor who frequently finds himself in hot water both for his then-unconventional ideas about public health and for his leftist, irreligious leanings.
From the perspective of young Héctor, the film depicts the elder as an almost perfect papa, even though he sometimes has to leave the country for long stretches to avoid arrest or worse. Medellín in the ’70s and ’80s wasn’t a safe place for most people, but for an outspoken atheist and Marxist, it could be a nightmare. Overlong and somewhat rose-tinted, this is still a nice tribute to a man who didn’t see the point of living without working to help people, and who certainly did not fear death. Maybe he had a secret stash of Dylar. (Opens Friday, Dec. 9, at the Living Room Theaters.)