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This film is the emotional powerhouse of the year. It is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who made last year's emotional powerhouse, "Dallas Buyers Club." Here he's working from a script by Nick Hornby based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." It is a story of redemption, admirably free of moralizing. Reese Witherspoon plays Ms. Strayed, a young woman who, in 1995, set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, that gargantuan schlep which begins on the edge of the Mojave Desert near the Mexico border and stretches all the way up to Canada, up and down and up some more, through California, Oregon and Washington, over spectacular yet punishing terrain.

Cheryl was so low she was busted. Her mother, Bobbi, the "love of her life," had died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45 a few years before, right when things were looking up: mother and daughter had even been enrolled in university together. She howled with rage and spiraled off the rails towards self-destruction. She cheated on her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), "a good man," and fell in with men who took heroin, which numbed her pain. Her marriage fell apart.

Under the weight of all of her baggage, literally, she hoists "Monster" and begins trudging up the trail, alone and rechristened with the new surname she chose in the wake of her divorce: Strayed. She had to, as she puts it, "walk herself back to being the woman her mother thought she was." Much of the time she is hungry, dirty and exhausted from the heat and the cold and the terrain. The movie opens with an excruciating scene where Strayed loses a toenail atop a mountain. As a solo woman, she also must live in semi-serious fear of being "raped and dismembered" at any moment.

The film flows like a stream of consciousness, a mix of memory, dream and reverie. Cheryl's voiceover is droll and often profane. Hers is an internal journey as much as an external one, and the film is masterful at expressing her inner consciousness. The sound design, directed by Ai-Ling Lee, puts us inside this woman's head. We're out there in the desert with her, in a tent at night, where every rustle could either be a man-eating wolf or a bunny. Cheryl is a storyteller.  She kept a journal, and Vallée skillfully recreates on film the memoirist's voice, the way memory is a mix of "truth" and a greater, emotional truth. The cinematographer, Yves Bélanger uses beautiful natural light throughout. Bélanger knows how to light memory, if that makes sense.

As she walks her mind's eye is desultory. Sometimes she gets stuck in a moment: she is haunted by the time she and her brother (Keene McRae) had to put down her mother's beloved horse. But happy memories stick, too: her mother dancing free-spiritedly, the way her hand accidentally struck a mirror on the wall. Songs flit through her consciousness. There is Bruce Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest," just a suggestion of it: we hear the E Street Band's music more than Bruce's vocal. At one point she finds herself walking through a snow covered expanse. Suddenly skiers whip past, startlingly close. Has she lost her way? At last she spots a small sign on a tree: she is still on the trail, still heading in the right direction.

Bobbi is played by a radiant Laura Dern, so full of the life force you feel the outrage when she is torn away. This a woman who has made the choice to be happy in the face of the realities of life. Maybe one can't really appreciate what that means until you have reached Bobbi's age yourself, as Strayed herself now has. As Karolyn and I now have (roughly speaking). We see Strayed as a callow youth, when she is sometimes condescending to her mother about, say, her taste in books, or critical of her life choices, like marrying Strayed's dad, an abusive alcoholic. Dern bears these remarks with a mother's loving indulgence and patience that absorbs slights and wounds, until she finally replies: you know, I don't regret marrying an "abusive alcoholic," because he gave me you.    

Certain moments are suffused with the surprising magic of life. She meets a young boy on the trail, walking in the woods with his guardian.  In only a few glances and words, we understand that this boy is very ill.  He sings "Red River Valley" for Cheryl, and the moment is filled with mortality and beauty. At crucial moments, Cheryl is joined by a fox which may or may not really be there. The fox appears for the last time when she reaches the Bridge of the Gods after hiking about 1,110 miles over three months. These moments do not play as a "device," but as a reflection, or expression, of mortality. This fox is old and tired and always somewhere just up ahead...and, like Cheryl, stray.

Reese Witherspoon's performance shows this project meant a tremendous amount to her.  We have read about how she read Strayed's memoir over one weekend and was so moved she moved immediately to make the film. We've read, too, of how she was tired of being "America's sweetheart," had sat through one too many studio meetings where execs said, we can't show Reese having sex or taking drugs. This is an actress ready to take a risk, and it is a deeply felt performance.

"Wild" is about acceptance and surrender, love and hope. I kept thinking of that line from Robert Bresson that meant so much to Martin Scorsese: "God is not a torturer. He only wants us to be merciful with ourselves."

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)



As a lapsed drummer myself, I watched "Whiplash," the new picture written and directed by Damien Chazelle, with keen interest. To call this movie "dramatic" is like calling Katrina a spring shower. This picture is a hurricane. It tells the story of a young man (a boy, really) and his monstrous mentor. This boy is Andrew (Miles Teller), whom we first observe at the end of a dark hallway practicing his drum set in a practice room at an elite music conservatory, Shaffer Academy. He aspires to be a great jazz drummer like his hero, Buddy Rich.

The mentor is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), one of those charismatic, temperamental, exacting teachers with whom every ambitious student dreams of studying. Dressed in black, he materializes from the darkness, his great bald pate aglow, in a pleasing chiaroscuro composition by cinematographer Sharone Meir. Andrew solos for him. He leaves without comment. On one level, the movie will be a boxing match between Andrew and Fletcher.

As Andrew, Miles Teller gives this performance everything he's got: he sure appears to be playing, or rather smashing, those drums himself, practicing hour and hour, playing until the sweat, and the blood, spatter off the drums. Andrew is driven, focused, obsessed. There is much more of the agony than the joy of making music here. He wants to be remembered. He wants to fly like Bird.

A great teacher can inspire you to do things you never knew you could, but if cruder hands are doing the limit-pushing, the pupil can break. It's a dangerous line to walk. Like a sadist, Fletcher zeroes in on a kid's weakest flaw. To an overweight sax player who is averting his eyes, he shouts: don't look down, there's no Happy Meal down there! He doesn't just cross the line: he rages all over it.

The challenge Fletcher places before the kids is to play a piece called "Whiplash," with its breakneck chord changes and zigzag time shifts. He'll berate them: Not my tempo! Not my tempo!! The irony is that Fletcher misses the point of music, which has relatively little to do with playing in perfect tempo or tuning, and everything to do with how it makes you feel. Miraculously, his kids still manage to swing even though he's got them so wound up.

My baby Karolyn, a teacher herself, could not approve of Fletcher's pedagogical methods: punching the kids and throwing things at them does not earn her seal of approval. Yet we had to laugh, he's so wildly inappropriate. Fletcher says all the brutally honest things I imagine a teacher dreams of saying to recalcitrant students but never actually would.

The way Fletcher treats Andrew becomes the way he treats others. His dad (Paul Reiser), whom he loves, who is a writer and tries to give his son some perspective ("it's just life"), perhaps seems weak compared to Fletcher, seems to have settled when he could have published more.  Andrew even alienates his sweet girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) when he senses she doesn't have enough focus and ambition.  Besides, she'd only distract him. 

J.K. Simmons gives a furious, scary performance as Fletcher. His students fear him, and so do we. We steel ourselves when he walks into the room. What's scary is that friendly smile. It's warm, insinuating: as Karolyn said, you could get lost in the folds of his wrinkles. The smile disarms you. He holds himself with an iron core in his ripped body, but at the same time he's relaxed, stylish: a groovy drill sergeant. He'll yell homophobic insults, but he leans into Andrew the way a bounder might corner a lady he likes at a party. 


We keep thinking Fletcher's cruelty will be revealed as a form of tough love, that he's really doing it all in the best interests of his students. But no. You can debate whether he really loves music: we see the tender way he plays piano at a club date late in the film. But there is no doubt that he does not have the students' interests at heart. In fact, he would rather crush talent than nurture it. That's if he can even recognize talent when he sees it, which is doubtful: after all, it's right there in front of him in Andrew, and he just wants to destroy him.

Anyone who loves jazz will be be thrilled by the performance sequences. These are sustained feats of music and montage, bravura, furious filmmaking, a true sensory experience. Chazelle's moving camera and Tom Cross's virtuoso editing put us on that stool with Miles, riding a roller coaster wave of tom-toms, bass drum, and swirling cymbals. The latent drummer in me emerged: I found myself air-drumming along. The filmmaking puts you in that zone, in that bubble, under that spotlight up on stage where it's just you and those drums, and there's one shot.  And you're giving it everything you've got.  And you're becoming everything you ever dreamed.  Not because of Fletcher, but in spite of him.  The question the film leave us with: does it amount to the same thing?

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?"
“I did.”
 “And what did you want?”
 “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

These words, titled "Late Fragment," are by Raymond Carver, and they are emblazoned on his tombstone.  They also form the epigraph to "Birdman," a new dark comedy directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has made pictures like "Biutiful," "21 Grams,", "Babel," and "Amores Perros."  Iñárritu's pictures are about people standing at a precipice: we meet them at those moments when they must decide whether they are going to live or whether they are going to die.  They are also about the life-force that finally courses through us all. 

Michael Keaton plays a man named Riggan who, much like himself, was once a big Hollywood star, having starred in comic-book movies some 25 years ago: "Birdman" in this film, Batman in real life.  He seems to be on the verge of losing his mind: he's starting to believe he really does have superpowers, that he can fling objects with his mind, that, hell, he can probably even fly.  When we meet him he is suspended in midair in his dressing room, meditating, and as the camera begins to float we are suspended, too.  We will stay in that state of suspension throughout the film, as the movie sounds its themes of self-destruction versus creativity, selling out versus integrity, and the human desire to feel yourself beloved on this earth.   

That dark voice of self-doubt whispers in every ear, but when Riggans hears it the voice of his demon comes in the form of Birdman: a low, husky, intense rasp.  Birdman nags him: we could triumph again, if you would only cave and accept the offer to make "Birdman 4."  After all, 60 is the new 30.  Anyway, what are you--what are we--doing in this little theater, mounting a stage version of Raymond Carver's classic short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?  And you think you can direct it and act the lead as well?  You've bitten off more than you can chew.  Besides, nobody wants all these words.  They want action! 

And then, in Riggan's imagination (and on the screen), New York City erupts around him in a CGI maelstrom.  A monster roars in triumph or rage from atop a skyscraper, smashing up the city as helicopters swarm.  The SWAT team comes crashing in, leaping atop cars, firing round after round.  This must be a job for...Birdman!  But this is meaningless special effects, bloodless action, and Riggan burns to create something with meaning, something honest and true.  Something that bleeds

"Birdman" hopes to be a deep, dark truthful mirror held up to Hollywood.  And who can doubt that Hollywood executives do think of us in precisely Birdman's contemptuous terms?  Here, though, the picture sets up something of a straw man.  Complicating its critique is that in the years since the Keaton/Burton "Batman" pictures, Christopher Nolan's serious, ambitious "Dark Knight" films have come along to show that one needn't choose between blockbuster and artistry, that a Batman movie can be as much an engagement with reality as an escape from it.  Still, the basic critique stands.  There can be no doubt that the blockbuster-based film industry increasingly pitches everything at the level of a particularly cretinous fanboy.  

(Not to slag cretinous fanboys, entirely.  I often find they're the best-informed people around.)

"Birdman" creates the illusion that it is composed almost entirely of one single, sustained, headlong tracking shot.  There is a street musician, a drummer, who seems to have taken up a residency under Riggan's dressing room, beating out a permanent drum solo, and as the camera gathers momentum and begins gliding through the labyrinth of the theater, his jazzy crashing reverberates around inside Riggan's head, and ours. 


Sometimes we see Riggan rolling around fist-fighting with Mike (Edward Norton), a cocky, hotshot actor who they bring in to replace an excruciatingly bad actor who got beaned by a falling spotlight.  (An accident? or as Riggan, the play's frustrated director, believes, the telekinetic fulfillment of his own wishful thinking?)  Mike is the doyen of the New York theater world.  As Riggan's manager (Zach Galifianakis) gushes, Mike's presence in the cast will send ticket sales through the roof.  Never mind that he's a pain in the ass. 

Though Mike is pretentious, he's so damn good he gets away with it.  He's brutally honest on stage, in fact he's so real and true that he'll bust up a preview right in front of the audience if he feels it's not ringing true, mocking everything from the set to the star.  Riggan wants to fire him, but, as Mike taunts him, who else are you gonna get?  Ryan Gosling?  Ed Norton is quite funny in the role: it's fun to watch actors playing actors, sending up their own craft, their real-life anxieties, struggles, hopes, fears. 

In fact Mike's so good that he can even insult New York's most feared theater critic, the New York Times's Natalie (Lindsay Duncan) to her face, when they run into her at the bar next door to the theater where she composes her reviews.  You can even see the faint traces of a smile play about her face during their interaction.  "Aren't you ever afraid I'll give you a bad review?," she asks, and he comes back, "I'm sure you would...if I ever gave you a bad performance."  And it's true, and there's some level of mutual respect between them for mutual honesty. 

Mike's dangerous because he genuinely doesn't care what other people think of him.  Vain, he stands naked in front a mirror in the dressing room, admiring himself, unselfconsciously preening as other people avert their eyes.  (Well, Emma Stone, playing Riggan's daughter Sam, sneaks a glance.)    

Naomi Watts plays Leslie, Mike's co-star in the Carver play and erstwhile girlfriend.  Right before the curtain goes up, while they're under the covers onstage, Mike finds himself ardent for love, and he tells her they should really do it, right there on stage.  As you might expect, this does not go over well.  


The kicker is, offstage Mike's impotent, in just about every sense.  He can't have a real relationship with a woman.  However, he is able to strike one up with Sam, who's fresh out of rehab, cynical, sullen.  At first she finds him really obnoxious, but soon they have assignations on the roof, where she sits on the ledge, peering over for adrenaline rush: a substitute for drugs.  They play truth or dare: let's find out what we honestly believe. 

Like Mike, Leslie is contemptuous of Riggan and everything he stands for (Hollywood).  She tells him she intends to tear his play apart in print, sight unseen, to destroy it.  Riggan has fallen off the wagon, and now he is drunk, and he tears her notes away.  "You just label everything," he exclaims, glancing them over.  It's lazy writing, he says, and it cost you nothing, whereas putting on this play cost me everything.  

Along with madness, the impulse to self-destruction is the undercurrent of the film, the impulse to have this whole business of life, the painful struggle to create, over.  So when Mike snips at Riggan that he'd better chuck the obviously phony gun that Riggan's character wields in the play's final scene before turning it on himself, and get something better, more real, the suggestion sparks an idea in Riggan.  After all, what they want, these awful critics, what they really want is blood.  The want you to put it all on the line, to risk everything, maybe to die in life just like you die in your die for your art.  Then we'll get good reviews!  We watch with a mounting sense of dread.

At one point Riggan reads Sam, who's been working as his assistant, the riot act when he detects a whiff of grass about her.  It's the last straw.  The camera gazes as if to say "jeepers!" at Emma Stone's huge peepers, flashing in anger.  She explodes, and finally tells her dad about himself: you're not trending or tweeting or viral.  You don't even have a Facebook page, for God's sake!  In fact, you don't exist.  It's not that people love you, or even that they hate you.  It's something even scarier: it's that they aren't thinking of you at all.  And as she watches this scary truth come home and settle in around his features, she instantly regrets saying it.  Here the movie is showing us something true about this fetishization of absolute honesty: maybe brutal truth is not in fact always a good thing, per se.  Sometimes in life it is better, perhaps, to suspend disbelief.   

And yet, Riggan still has his celebrity.  That means he is still beloved by ordinary people, tourists, the kind of people who don't read the "Arts and Leisure" section of the New York Times.  They are always excited to get his autograph, even when he accidentally locks himself out of the theater and must make a mad dash through Times Square in his underwear.  Out come the camera phones, and the result is that Riggan finally "goes viral."  Finally matters.       

We haven't seen Michael Keaton in a little while.  Some of us might not have seen him since Tarantino cast him in "Jackie Brown" in the late 90s.  It's good to see that familiar face, which for viewers of a certain age evokes not just the Burton "Batman" films, but "Mr. Mom" and "Beetlejuice" and the decade of the 1980s.  He's still got that mischievous twinkle in his eye, that particularly American sense of fun.  Keaton really does put himself on the line in this performance, which is somehow captured in the quiet, poignant moment when he pulls off his prosthetic hairline, which is receding enough, to reveal the true, and even more retreating, one beneath.

The camera alights on Andrea Riseborough as Riggan's girlfriend.  There is a surprising scene of female bonding between her and Naomi Watts, where their bonding over Riggan's clumsy, cluelessly male attempts to praise them (while never actually saying what they truly want to hear), leads to some startled necking.  Maybe this shows the sort of thng that can happen in the moment when people are under pressure.  In any event, the viewer welcomes this development.

We linger in the dressing room as Riggan's ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, visits.  Ryan is one of my favorite contemporary actresses, and it is always a pleasure to see her work.  Their scenes are uncommonly tender, and wise and grownup, and free of enmity.  The pain between them is in the past.  What lingers is acceptance, and forgiveness, and indeed a form of love. 


Formally, there is an interesting tension in this movie between the theatricality of some scenes on the one hand, and the purely cinematic device of the floating camera eye.  The unity of that single tracking shot gives us a sense of the spatial unity of the theater, its dressing rooms and suites.  This is a world where being on the cover of the "Arts and Leisure" section really is the most important thing in the world.  (In real life, they really did put Keaton on the cover a few weeks back.)

We fall through the world, that headlong camera seems to say.  Or, like Riggan when he dares take that risk, we may find that we really can fly.  Soar.  I won't give away the fantastical ending, except to say that it is a lovely affirmation of the life-force.

I'd been thinking about this picture, letting it steep, and I fell to flipping through the pages of the NYT magazine.  I came upon an essay by Lewis Lapham, written to accompany a photo essay about creative people in their 80s and beyond, who are still creating.  Artists, scientists and the like.  Why do they still do it? Lapham's essay asks.  Why still struggle to put new things into the world?

At age 79 in his own life as a writer, Lapham says, he has begun to understand: "Failure is its own reward.  It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what's at stake isn't a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self."

And that, I believe, is what this picture is about. 

[The poster used to illustrate the top of this essay was created by Ryan Gajda.  Have a look at his original work here.]

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)



The Skeleton Twins

The big news about "The Skeleton Twins" is that director/co-writer Craig Johnson has guided two comic actors, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, into giving fine dramatic performances.  They play self-destructive siblings, and while the film will strike a deep, true chord in anyone who has a brother or sister, I think you've also got to be a certain age to really relate.  The theme is disappointment about where you ended up in life.  Actually the pronounced theme is even darker: suicide, to which their father succumbed.  (We never see his face: when they remember him, he is always wearing a Halloween mask, a skull.)  


The jaundiced view of family is well-trodden ground for a story, perhaps, but it must be retold for every generation, and this time it is from the point of view of, broadly speaking, my generation.  Wiig is my age, give or take a couple of years (well, take, to be fair to her).  Let's just say early 40s.  Hader is younger, but not so young that he, too, was not forged by that cataclysmic crucible: an 80s childhood. 

Hader plays Milo, a gay man who moved to LA with dreams of becoming an actor.  As the film begins he lies back in a bathtub, distraught.  Red plumes blossom in the water, swirling up from the bottom of the frame.  Wiig plays Milo's sister Maggie, who gets the call about Milo's suicide attempt just as she herself is about to swallow a lethal dose of pills.  Flying to LA to be by his bedside, she offers to put him up for a while.  As the siblings pull back into their hometown of Nyack, New York and the valley spreads out below them, Maggie watches Milo as he gazes out the car window, surprised to find himself alive, silently regarding the beauty of fall. 


Maggie is unhappily married to Lance (a perfectly cast Luke Wilson).  He is the wrong man for her.  He is sweet, kind, good-natured, other words, exactly the wrong man for her.  She's dishonest to him and, frankly, nasty, sleeping with her scuba instructor, allowing Lance to believe, excitedly, that they are trying to have kids when she is in fact secretly taking birth control. 

Milo and Maggie, co-conspirators as children, have become strangers, haven't spoken in 10 years.  I will not give away the reason for this, but I will say that the film is wise in its handling of the hushed-up baggage these adult siblings carry, the unhealed rift caused by a teenage crisis when one sibling perceived the other to be headed for disaster with a bad influence from whom they thought the other needed to be saved, but which the other did not understand to be a crisis, is in fact still bitter about having been "saved," about the intrusion into a matter which the other may have only dimly understood.  (I would only add that the film takes a risk by suggesting that a certain type of taboo relationship, while it may be inherently exploitative, is not always perceived as injurious by the victim.)  

Milo has an odd encounter with an older man, Rich (Ty Burrell in a nicely wistful performance), his former English teacher, whom we first see working at a bookstore.  Rich's face registers a mixture of horror and anger upon seeing Milo, whose own nervousness reads as some mixture of shame and crush.  Rich soon cautiously warms up.  They go out to dinner.  The subject turns to "Moby Dick," and we can see that Rich must have at one time been quite a good teacher.  In a non-pedantic way, he tries to excite his former student, who can't engage with the book, talking about how funny and just flat-out "weird" the writing is.  

The title of the movie refers to the matching skeleton tattoos on the siblings' shoulders, and the film has a motif of masks and Halloween, an undercurrent of Day of the Dead iconography, which feels right for a film about two people who are in a sense back from the dead, hovering between this world and the next, not sure which they prefer.  The movie has a lyrical treatment of memory, of playing in the dressing-up box as children, of a doll sinking to the bottom of a pool, rescued and brought back to the surface by Milo.

Johnson tells much of "The Skeleton Twins" in two-shots and closeups, which Ingmar Bergman felt constitute the special marvel of film.  "They give you the eyes, the skin, the mouth, and that's fascinating," he said.  "The human face is the most fascinating subject possible for the camera."  In the wrinkles in Kristen Wiig's face we see written the passage of time and life's disappointments.  To further illustrate Bergman's point, check out that already celebrated scene in which Milo and Maggie airband to Starship's hair-raising if emblematic 80s jam "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now."  In just one brief scene, Maggie and Milo's faces tell us everything we need to know about their bond, as much as a novel.  

A movie likes this all comes down to glances and words.  And so the question becomes, do they ring true?  Hader gives a remarkably pitch-perfect, empathetic portrayal of a gay man.  Milo always comes off as a three-dimensional human being and not a cliche, even when he's acting out cliches.  As Maggie, Wiig performs with a lot of heart and gives us an angry, empty, flat, pinched woman.    

As this movie sees it, kids are a nightmare, and parents let you down.  (In the scene where their self-absorbed mother (Joanna Gleason) drops by, she is a portrait in denial, encumbered by New Age flummery.)   In fact, according to this movie, all interpersonal relationships are really just an exercise in dissembling.  Except for one: the one you have with your brother or sister.  With them, you get real.  This is conveyed in an extended scene that takes place after-hours in the dentist’s office where Maggie works as a hygienist, where they get silly on nitrous oxide and then confide in each other.  The scene finds the sweet spot for brother/sister movies: the way we laugh so as not to cry.  In such moments both my laughter and my tears were real.  You may put "The Skeleton Twins" on the shelf next to "The Savages" and "You Can Count On Me," films about how we siblings take turns pulling each other up from the bottom of the pool.          

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)



Get On Up

While "Get On Up" leaves no biopic cliche to rest in the stables, it is still exhilarating, a colorful, kinetic whirlwind.  It is by the team who gave us "The Help": Tate Taylor directs, Stephen Goldblatt wields the camera. Their imagery feels heightened, comic.  While the film has something of the feel of a Broadway show, where mythmaking cheerfully trumps fact, no stage show could leap around in time like this.  Barely orienting us, the year appears in the bottom left of the frame, keyed to one of Brown's many sobriquets: "Soul Brother No. 1," "the Godfather of Soul," "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business," etc., etc.  A framing device plays like a parody: Brown walks a lone, dark hall as voices from his life murmur.  

Flash to 1988 when Brown, high on PCP and wielding a shotgun, terrorizes a conference.  Flash to the backwoods of pre-war Jim Crow Georgia, to a dirt-poor boy in a clapboard cabin.  His mama (Viola Davis) and his daddy (Lennie Davis) fight like wildcats, then she leaps into his arms.  (Brown would repeat this perverse dynamic with the women in his life.)  Lynched black bodies dangle from the trees, and the boy can stand on tiptoes and wrest off a dead man's shoes.  Mama takes off, and daddy thrashes him, mercilessly, routinely.  The young boy's response to the brutality rained down on him is almost unimaginable: it is a megawatt smile, sometimes directed right at us, blooming across his face.  

When war breaks out he goes to live with his aunt (Octavia Spencer).  She's a madam at a whorehouse, tough, but she treats him tenderly.  He'd duck down to the Pentecostal church, quaking with gospel music, where people shake off the devil in flowing white robes.  Tate's camera shakes the devil off, too.  In the flamboyant preacher Brown must have glimpsed his future stage show.  The movie is good at showing how Brown's feverish music sprung from African-American life.  Flash to a plantation lawn party where young, blindfolded black boys box for the amusement of white guests.  Punch-drunk on the mat, Brown imagines the ringside Dixieland band jump to their feet and start funkin' it up.  

For "stealing a man's suit" he gets 5-13 years in prison, and he meets Bobby Byrd in a scuffle during a performance by Byrd's jailhouse gospel quartet, which Brown would transform into the Famous Flames.  As Byrd, Nelsan Ellas has kind eyes.  He emanates good-humored, gentle warmth, conveyed in those basso interjections of "Get on up!" he supplied on "Sex Machine."  Brown's great blind spot was to mistake this man for a second banana, when he was really his only true, loyal friend.  

The movie's script, by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, contains lines that are great in their utter preposterousness.  ("Don't tell me when, where, or for how long I can be funky," the unflappable Brown tells an authority in Vietnam, only moments after his plane, strafed by enemy fire, touches down in flames).  Their script has Brown spell things out, putatively for other characters' benefit but really more for ours, including his revolutionary musical strategy.  ("Every instrument is a drum.")  

He was headstrong, mercurial, the boss.  He called other men "Mr." and he expected to be addressed similarly.  A hustler, a Bible fundamentalist.  Control was everything to him.  A bully: the movie doesn't gloss over Brown's domestic violence.  We hear the crack, and his wife (Jill Scott) falls crashing into the frame.  He deferred only to record industry men, where a relationship of mutual exploitation was expected, like his manager, Ben Bart (Dan Akroyd).  The relationship with Bart became something deeper.  A white man and a black man, they helped each other negotiate the tumult of the 60s.  By the terminal days of that decade, Brown had enough respect from the community to quell rage from the stage, shown in an expertly handled scene where the air vibrates with the barely suppressed violence of the times.  

Canny, smart.  So proud is Brown of how he took every aspect of show-business by the horns that he'll break the fourth wall to tell us about it.  The movie dramatizes his uneasy mix of black power and capitalism.  Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.  

Of course he was a legendary showman, a template for everyone from Springsteen to Jagger (who co-produced the movie), and it is in the performances that the movie comes alive.  The groove fills your pants with ants and you need to dance, even if it's just right there in your seat.  This is a testament to Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.  Few actors, save perhaps Robert Downey as Charlie Chaplin, have been called upon to portray a more physical icon.  Boseman hits the slides, splits, the "no man alive can make me leave this stage" business with the cape.  (My attempt later to have a go at that split at home proved unwise.  It made me give it up to Boseman all the more.)  

We see bits from the dynamite "live at the Apollo" show in 1962 and the galvanic T.A.M.I show of 1964.  We're in Brown's head as he lip-synchs "I Got You (I Feel Good)" on the set of "Ski Party," a 1965 Avalon-Funicello picture, in comical red sweaters, when he looks around, realizes, I'm on a honky hoedown!, and we explode into the song as performed in the 70s: jumped-up, feverish, as raw and black as it wants to be.  

In the movie's most moving scene Viola Davis shows up at her son's dressing room in what must be her best clothes, but her eyes show her years on the streets, and she gulps the champagne a bit too greedily.  Davis conveys a mother's pride and love, twisted--but not entirely snuffed--by raw poverty, need, addiction.  Davis finds the dignity in a life intersecting with a history of shame.  Boseman conveys the heartbreak of the boy, stilll playing with his mother in the woods, under the grown man's cemented idea of life as an exercise in mutual exploitation.  Surrounded by cardboard cutouts, these people are flesh and blood.  

Brown's famous megawatt smile was a mask, perhaps, and a sword, yes, but it was something else as well: he really did feel good.  I must report that while it skates along the surface, this celebratory, frenzied movie does the main job: it makes you feel the funk.  Makes you feel good, in fact.  I can think of no recent movie that made me more aware that I have a body.

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)