One of the big smashes out of Cannes has been “Carol,” in which Cate Blanchett romances Rooney Mara. Its director, Todd Haynes, has long been a critics’ darling, but in 1998 he had a bit of a stumble, when he cashed in on the successes “Poison” and “Safe” to do up the lavish glam fantasia “Velvet Goldmine.” The film detailed the rise and fall of a David Bowie-esque star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Bowie himself was displeased with the script’s claims — including relations with an American rock behemoth, played by Ewan McGregor, who’s a mix of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed — and forbade using his name and his music, though the title stuck with a pretty great Bowie b-side. (Haynes fared better with Bob Dylan, who allowed “I’m Not There” to happen.) Critics and audiences seemed nonplussed at its not-too-deep subversion of the rock movie template, or at least that it was, for more repressive 1998, super-duper-mega-ultra-gay.
That quality makes it feel more at-home in 2015, though it’s clear that “Velvet Goldmine” wants to push buttons — to unearth an era when being flamboyantly pansexual, in attitude and effect, briefly took over a chunk of the mainstream. The structure homages to “Citizen Kane,” with a former glam-hed-turned-journo (Christian Bale) investigating whatever happened to Meyers’ Brian Slade, turned reclusive after a faked assassination. (Unlike Bowie himself, Haynes’ film sees Bowie’s many incarnations — including ’80s “sell out” Bowie — as separate people entirely.)
But “Velvet Godmine” is not out to investigate a person — Slade remains an enigma, or at least a man trapped as a pop star cliche — as much as revive a scene and an era. This is an imagined phantasmagoria of glam, a thing of myth. The film thinks big enough to begin with a spaceship visiting the boy Oscar Wilde, who passes on his magical spirit through the ages. The bacchanalia that ensues follows the usual plummet into depravity and decay, but it also frontloads the music and performance more than most music films. And it gets what it feels like (presumably) to be in the middle of mythic excess and what it feels like (definitely) to be a fan. A scene of the young Bale caressing a new record sensually — carefully opening the bag it came in, gently pulling the vinyl from the sleeve — nails an excitement that, outside of record hounds, just isn’t felt with today’s insta-access music.
The American distributor for this cryptic French art film reworked the title to get that “Boyhood” money, but the two films have next to nothing in common. Not that its original title — “Girl Gang” — is more helpful. The latest deeply empathetic look at youth (or girlhood) from Celine Sciamma (“Tomboy”) follows a nice black teen as she falls in with some ne’erdo-wells. But this is only her first, and not the most dangerous, of a handful of reinventions through the movie. “Girlhood” can be too mysterious about its intentions, but what it definitely captures is the period during one’s teen years when personality is constantly in flux — when one destroys one’s younger self as experiences mount and transform you. There’s all that and a killer Rihanna sing-a-long.
Remember John Woo? The Chinese action maven has a two-part movie currently making the rounds back home — the Zhang Ziyi-starring “The Crossing” — but hasn’t touched Hollywood since 2003’s woebegone “Paycheck,” and the epic “Red Cliff” aside has rarely made much of note since his 1980s, early 1990s heyday. “The Killer,” from 1989, isn’t his towering achievement — that would be 1992’s “Hard-Boiled” — but it’ll do, which is to put it lightly. Woo is as much an adrenaline junkie and gorehound as he is a melodramtist, and “The Killer” offers some of his soapiest material, with a bromance brewing between Chow Yun-Fat’s guilt-stricken assassin and Danny Lee’s straight-arrow cop. But sappy as it can get, you can always be assured there will be blood.
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