DESTROYER. Few, I think, would fault Nicole Kidman for taking a break once in a while, resting on her laurels, even, after working at breakneck speed for 35 years, usually appearing in at least two movies a year. Instead, she continues to work and challenge herself, increasingly taking on roles that challenge the audience's expectations of her. In the last year, for example, she appeared as the concerned, devout mother of a conflicted son, in Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased, as an aquatic warrior queen and concerned mother in Aquaman, and as, well, a concerned mother — but also Los Angeles police detective with a guilty conscience and a tendency to eschew self-care — in director Karyn Kusama's hard-edged and harder-to-parse Destroyer.
Kusama broke out with Girlfight (2000) and went on to make Æon Flux (2005) and Jennifer's Body (2009) before I finally caught up with her with The Invitation (2015), an indie written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also scripted Destroyer. That last one, a creeping psychological thriller about an ill-fated dinner invite, should have garnered more attention. Sure-footed, atmospheric and unrushed, it turned the restrictions of a small-budget into attributes and opportunities for creative problem-solving, transcending the scale of its production. Remembering it, I was excited to see what Kusama and her writers would do with the story of a robbery gone bad (and an A-list star stretching out). I have my answer now but I'm not sure what to make of it.
Destroyer moves forward and back in time — alternately by days and decades — with relative alacrity, but also with such frequency that it's difficult to feel grounded. In a bleached-out, desolate, modern day greater Los Angeles, Erin Bell (Kidman) investigates a shooting death in which she seems uncomfortably invested. She takes on the case outside the department, with the fullness of her diminished capacity, ignoring her partner and the requirements of her job. Meanwhile, she's trying unsuccessfully to reign in her rebellious 16-year-old daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) and drink herself not quite to death.
We learn, in all the time-shifting that Bell went undercover as a rookie with a partner (Sebastian Stan) inside a robbery crew operating out in the wastes of the desert. They may or may not have gotten in too deep, and things may or may not have gone terribly wrong. Well, they did; no need for subterfuge on that score. Bell has carried the burden of guilt for almost two decades and the murder case that opens the movie might represent her deliverance.
Kidman's performance is formidable. And Kusama presents Southern California from an original perspective, suffusing it with negative space and a sun that doesn't warm. But original, full-blooded and alive as Erin Bell is, the constantly shifting narrative precludes real connection to the characters, or to the events in which they are embroiled. Stan cuts through a bit with his kindness and pathos, but the sadistic leader of the gang Silas (Toby Kebbell) feels unformed, cinematically adolescent, as if the character wandered out of The Lost Boys and only just found his way back.
Destroyer may be intended to be tougher and more brutal than it actually is; don't get me wrong, it's likely to be too much for many. I hate to damn it with faint praise — there's much to value in technique and storytelling — but it feels sprawling when it should be drum-tight. That lack of focus, when focus seems to be the intended theme, works against the intensity of the narrative and the lead performance. R. 121M. BROADWAY.
VELVET BUZZSAW. Dan Gilroy is deep in it: born of Southern California writers, married to Rene Russo, brother to another prominent writer and director (Tony Gilroy). He's been writing screenplays since the early '90s but it's only been in the last five years that he has had — or sought? — the opportunity to direct. In that time he has made Nightcrawler (2014) and Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017), both of which I admire and continue to espouse. And now this: a pulpy, glossy, lurid horror-satire of the self-importance of the art world. I think I'll have to see it again to really make up my mind but I recommend unequivocally.
The ostensible center of the narrative is haughty, fey critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) who travels among the gallery-ensconced elite of the L.A. scene. He lives with his boyfriend but is carrying on with an associate named Josephina (Zawe Ashton) who, by happenstance, makes the most important modern art discovery in decades. This perks the interest of her boss Rhodora Haze (Russo) — Gilroy has a thing for names, if you hadn't noticed — and, literally and figuratively, sets the art world on fire.
Velvet Buzzsaw sends up criticism, self-importance and the commodification of creativity in equal measure, with a balanced seasoning of apocalyptic chaos. It may not be as focused as Gilroy's previous two features but it's over-the-top fun, another unique version of contemporary Southern California and boasts an astounding supporting cast.
— John J. Bennett
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
CASABLANCA (1942). Here's looking at you, kid. PG. 102M. BROADWAY.
COLD PURSUIT. Liam Neeson stars as a vigilante hunting down gangsters while we cringe. R. 118M. BROADWAY.
THE LEGO MOVIE: THE SECOND ONE. More blocky animated action starring the voices of Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks. PG. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
OSCAR SHORTS: LIVE ANIMATION, ANIMATED, DOCUMENTARY. Three separate showings to catch you up on the 2019 nominees and give you an edge on your Oscar pool. PG. MINOR.
THE PRODIGY. Parents of a gifted boy grow frightened of his behavior. (Spoiler: Totally evil.) R. 92M. MILL CREEK.
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Director Peter Jackson's World War I documentary. R. 99M. BROADWAY.
WHAT MEN WANT. If this mind-reading comedy reboot makes a single penny, Taraji P. Henson should go back and remake every Mel Gibson movie ever. R. 117M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
AQUAMAN. James Wan directs the butched-up ocean superhero's (Jason Momoa) solo feature with Amber Heard and an army of CG sea creatures. PG13. 143M. BROADWAY.
A DOG'S WAY HOME. Live action drama in which a lost dog (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) searches for her owner cross country. Starring Ashley Judd. PG. 96M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
GLASS. Director M. Night Shyamalan brings characters from Split (James McAvoy) and Unbreakable (Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis) together to complete the dark superhero set. PG13. 129M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MINOR.
GREEN BOOK. The cringe-worthy story of a racist white man driving a black concert pianist around the South in the '60s buoyed by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali's immersive performances. PG13. 130M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. Boy meets sword, pulls it from stone, must save world from wicked witch. Starring Tom Taylor, Rebecca Ferguson. PG. 120M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The original super nanny (Emily Blunt) takes on the children of her former charges. With Lin-Manuel Miranda and a freakishly spry Dick Van Dyke. PG. 130M. MILL CREEK.
MISS BALA. Gina Rodriguez stars as a young woman dragged into the war between drug traffickers and law enforcement at the Mexican border. PG13. 104M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. Inter-dimensional spider heroes team up in an animated adventure. Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson and Hailee Steinfeld. PG. 117M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
A STAR IS BORN. Bradley Cooper›s directorial debut casts him and Lady Gaga (who amazes) as leads in a surprisingly real examination of love, art, celebrity, addiction, sacrifice and depression. R. 136M. BROADWAY.
THE UPSIDE. An inexperienced parolee (Kevin Hart) becomes an assistant to a wealthy man with quadriplegia (Bryan Cranston). With Nicole Kidman. PG13. 125M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE WORLDS OF URSULA K. LEGUIN. Documentary about the iconic fantasy writer. NR. 68M. MINIPLEX.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill