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Movie reviews: 'Maestro' is a stylish, passionate movie with enough depth to both warm and break your heart

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MAESTRO: 4 STARS

Depending on what generation you belong to, Leonard Bernstein is either a name from the distant past, a prodigiously talented musician who wrote the music for “West Side Story,” or the subject of a well-loved name drop in the 1987 R.E.M. song “It's The End of The World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

“Maestro,” a new film written, directed, produced and starring Bradley Cooper, aims to remind audiences of the complicated man who said, “music, it keeps me glued to life.”

The story of gender roles and genius begins in 1943 with Bernstein’s (Cooper) career-making debut as a conductor at Carnegie Hall, filling in for an ailing colleague with only an hour’s notice and no rehearsal. The day before he was a talented but struggling musician, living in a cramped apartment with boyfriend David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). The next day, a star is born. He is the toast of New York, lauded on the front page of the New York Times.

At a party he meets Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), a Chilean actress with dreams of starring on Broadway. It’s love at first sight and Cooper stages their first night together as a romantic fantasy, a ballet in a theatre that is both beautiful and surreal as it morphs from stage bound to involving Lenny and Felicia.

The couple marry, and have three children, Jamie (Maya Hawke), Alexander (Sam Nivola) and Nina (Alexa Swinton), as Felicia turns a blind eye to her husband’s extramarital relationships with men.

“One can be as free as one likes without guilt or confession,” she says to him. “Please, I know exactly who you are.”

She is his muse, a catalyst for his best work, who pushes him to perform with passion but his lack of discretion eventually takes its toll. The couple split, but when she is diagnosed with cancer, he returns to care for her in her final days.

“Maestro” is a tenderhearted tragedy, a movie about a complicated marriage and the push and pull between Leonard Bernstein's public and private lives. It is not a cradle-to-grave portrait of the title character. Instead, it’s an ambitious film that disregards most of the usual biopic conventions to delve into Bernstein’s sexuality, creative genius and his marriage to Felicia, brilliantly played by Mulligan.

Bernstein may be the focus, but the contradictions of his life are best viewed through the lens of his relationship with his wife. With a sexual appetite that rivalled his passion for music, Bernstein is a compelling character, and wonderfully played in a career best performance by Cooper.

Any trace of his “Hangover” persona disappears behind an inch of make-up but this isn’t a performance made from cosmetic prosthetics. Cooper digs deep to get into the nooks and crannies of Bernstein’s life, from his playfulness—“I’ve slept with both your parents,” he jokes when he bumps into Oppenheim, wife and baby in Central Park—to his musical passions, to his warmth and self-absorption.

The performance’s pinnacle comes with a vigorous recreation of Bernstein conducting Mahler's Second Symphony in London at the Ely Cathedral in 1976. The nearly six-minute sequence is a powerhouse of performance—Cooper reportedly spent six years learning Bernstein’s moves and conducts a live orchestra on screen—that captures the passion that fuels the character. It is the kind of work that wins awards.

As dynamic as Cooper is, it is Mulligan’s delicate work as Felicia that steals the show. She is a pillar of resilience and gracefulness, as composed as Bernstein is mercurial. Her final moments in the film (NO SPOILERS HERE) are quiet and reserved but devastating. It’s a radiant performance in an already impressive body of work.

When Cooper and Mulligan share the screen their effortless chemistry and the way they look at one another tells us as much about their lives and how they moved through the world as the script. Their dynamics and wonderful performances are invigorating in their portrayal of a creative life, marred and fuelled in equal measure by self-destructive behaviour and fervidness.

“Maestro” avoids most, but not all, of the usual biopic cliches.

It occasionally goes too heavy on expository dialogue to move the story along, is linear in its construction and a scene in which Felicia plunges into a pool, sitting on the bottom to escape trouble at home, is a film staple, but Mulligan, to her credit, makes it work. And while the film doesn’t shy away from Bernstein’s same sex liaisons, it is fairly chaste in the depiction of that aspect of his life.

Still, this is a stylish, passionate movie with just enough depth to both warm and break the heart.

MAY DECEMBER: 4 STARS

“May December,” a new melodrama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, and now streaming on Netflix, is a sorta-kinda retelling of the tabloid story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a Seattle school teacher sent to jail for having a sexual relationship with a sixth grade student.

In the film, Portman is Elizabeth Berry, a television actress best known for playing a veterinarian on a show called “Nora’s Ark,” who travels to Savannah, Georgia to do research for what she hopes will be a breakout role in a gritty true crime drama.

She will portray on Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), a 36-year-old woman who had a sexual affair with a seventh grader. Caught having relations with the middle schooler in the stock room of the pet store where they both worked, Gracie did jail time, gave birth to the couple’s twins while behind bars, and now, 24 years later, lives with the grown-up Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), who is approximately the same age as her eldest son from her first marriage.

Notebook in hand, Elizabeth is a fly on the wall, logging the action like a student at a lecture as she learns about what makes Gracie and Joe tick. But as the couple prepares to become empty nesters as the twins depart for college, Elizabeth’s presence stirs up old ghosts that cause Gracie and Joe to relive the more sensational and troubled aspects of their lives.

“She’s getting on my last nerve,” says Gracie. “She’s just everywhere I look.”

A mix of the dramatic and the mundane, “May December” is brought to life by the psychological interplay between Portman and Moore. For example, a make-up tutorial between Gracie and Elizabeth is a stunner. What could have been a TikTok style guide to applying lipstick and foundation becomes a tense transformation as Elizabeth comes one step closer to literally getting under Gracie’s skin. Elizabeth isn’t content with just taking notes, or wearing Gracie’s make-up, she wants to become Gracie.

It is method acting on a "Talented Mr. Ripley" level as the actress surrenders herself to the role. Portman is terrific, mimicking Moore in interesting, small ways, like adopting her lisp and during the make-up scene, physically resembling her in a truly uncanny way.

Moore has the showier role, playing a complicated woman who is confident in public, but prone to crying jags in private. Moore plays her with a combination of steeliness and vulnerability that can imbue a line like, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” when accompanied by a dramatic music sting, with a deeper meaning that displays the A-type personality that lies at the core of the character.

Both hand in Oscar caliber performances, the kind of above the title work that gets attention, but it is Melton, as a man essentially tethered to Gracie for his entire life, who is most emotionally affecting. Elizabeth’s visit has forced him, reluctantly, to reassess his life and choices, and Melton’s understated, melancholic performance catches his quest for understanding.

“This isn’t a story,” he says to Elizabeth. “It’s my life.”

“May December” is, I suppose, a satire of true crime and our fascination with tabloid criminality, of how the worst of human behavior can be exploited as entertainment, but mostly, it is a chance to watch a trio of great performances that draw us into this uneasy story.

SALTBURN: 3 ½ STARS

“Saltburn,” a dark comedy of manners starring “Priscilla’s” Jacob Elordi and Academy Award nominee Barry Keoghan and now playing in theatres, is a titillating "Talented Mr. Ripley" style tale of class, position and desire that is not afraid to get weird.

Keoghan is Oliver Quick, a shy “scholarship kid” at Oxford University who doesn’t quite fit in with his classmates. His jackets aren’t from Saville Row, he lacks their social graces and most notably, doesn’t come from oodles of cash.

When the handsome, gregarious and monied Felix Catton’s (Elordi) bicycle gets a flat tire on the way to a tutorial, Oliver comes to the rescue and the odd couple become fast friends. Ollie isn’t exactly embraced by Felix’s well-heeled inner circle, who find him coarse, but they become tight, hanging out at the pub when they aren’t studying.

At the end of the term, Felix asks if Oliver will go home for the summer.

“Honestly, home doesn’t mean the same thing for me as it does for you Felix,” Oliver says. “I don’t think I’ll ever go home again.“

His tale of woe, of growing up as the only child to a drunken father, moves Felix who invites him to spend the summer at Saltburn, his family’s palatial estate.

“Just be yourself,” Felix says. “They’ll love you. It’s relaxed. I promise.”

Except it’s not. It’s the kind of English country home that makes Downton Abbey look like a shack. Priceless art lines the walls, there are butlers and footmen, mandatory jackets at dinner and an oddball collection of aristocratic family members including Felix’s eccentric, self-absorbed father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), casually cruel mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and troubled sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), who tells the newcomer, “You’re just another one of his toys.”

He may be a novelty, out of his depth, but Oliver is drawn to shiny things, the lives of the rich and famous, and will do anything to stay in that privileged world.

“Saltburn” isn’t just a study of the haves and the have nots, it’s a tale of the haves and unchained aspiration. Obsessed with the good life, Oliver will do bad things to get a taste of it.

Keoghan takes risks as the chameleonic Oliver. Whether he is vulnerable, hapless, or a menacing manipulator, the “The Banshees of Inisherin” actor chooses interesting ways to manifest Oliver’s state of mind. There may not be much beneath the surface, other than danger and avarice, but Keoghan, whether he is dancing naked through the grand home or lapping up bath water, keeps the performance and the audience off kilter.

Elordi allows just enough of Felix’s heart of gold to shine through his charming veneer to make the filthy rich character feel a little less dirty and Grant is perfection as the repressed upper-class twit at the head of the family, but it is Pike who steals every scene she’s in. Blessed with the film’s best lines, Elspeth has an off-hand, casual way with a barb that cuts like a knife. When she hears about a friend who has taken her own life, she snorts, “She'd do anything for attention.” These lines are often asides, not central to the action, but Pike makes them memorable.

Unfortunately, director Emerald Fennell, who also wrote the script, doesn’t mine the class satire for answers. She’s content with the black comedy, Oliver’s coldhearted desire and little else. The result is an entertaining film, but a mixed bag. It’s diverting, filled with over-the-top moments and plot twists, but at the end it feels less than the sum of its parts.

SILENT NIGHT: 2 STARS

The title “Silent Night,” action icon John Woo’s first American film in twenty years, is a double entendre. On one hand it refers to the holiday season in which most of the action takes place, but it’s also a nod to the film’s construction. With no dialogue, it’s a quiet movie about a guy who makes a lot of noise.

The movie begins with a bang as Brian Godluck (Joel Kinnaman), dressed in a Rudolph Christmas sweater and sleigh bell necklace, attempts to outrun two cars filled with gun toting bad guys. The odds are not tilted in his favor, and soon he is in hospital with a bullet-sized hole in his throat. Alive but unable to speak through shredded vocal cords, he’s lucky to be alive but doesn’t seem too happy about it.

Returning home with wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) it’s revealed he is not the only victim. Turns out, on the previous Christmas Eve a stray bullet killed their young son Taylor in the front yard of their Texas home.

Haunted by the loss of his son, Brian hits the bottle, spending his days drunk and disengaged, waiting for the police to get on the case. At an appointment with detective Dennis Vassel (Scott Mescudi), Brian spots the wanted posters for the men responsible for murdering his son.

It triggers something in him; a fierce need for revenge. He becomes a one man army, builds up an arsenal, trains in self-defense, does surveillance on the baddies and writes “Kill Them All” on the calendar on Christmas Eve.

Those looking to “Silent Night” for the patented John Woo full-on assault action will be disappointed. After the pulse-racing opening sequence the movie becomes ninety percent set-up, leading to a generic shoot-out so dull it makes “My Dinner with Andre” seem exciting by comparison. A fight scene between Brian and a gang member is promising, but ultimately leads nowhere.

The gimmick, cutting all dialogue save for the odd police scanner buzz, radio news report or the self-defense videos Brian watches, works against the effectiveness of the storytelling. Woo’s poetic visuals are evident, although a tear that turns into a bullet feels a little heavy handed, but the lack of dialogue reduces the characters to one dimension.

Kinnaman vacillates between ennui and bloodthirsty, but not much in between. We don’t know anything about him and because he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t even get a cool, “what I do have are a very particular set of skills” speech.

But at least he has some range. The gang members are meat puppets, snarling bullet catchers with targets on their backs and nothing more. This is a basic good vs. evil bullet ballet, but some kind of character work might have gone a long way toward making us care about the people on screen and their stories.

“Silent Night” takes a long time to get where it is going, and once it gets there, isn’t worth the wait. 

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