Monday, December 30, 2013

Lone Survivor, The Invisible Woman, The Selfish Giant

Lone Survivor

The Invisible Woman

The Selfish Giant

A trio of discommendations round out the year in film. Call it Bleaker, Bleak House, Bleakest.

Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor" stars Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch as Navy SEALs and Eric Bana as their commanding officer. All we know of their mission is that they're to kill a high-ranking Taliban leader named Shah, but I had a few questions: Why, exactly, do they pass up the opportunity to snipe him down when he's out in the open early in the film, considering that they're just as susceptible to ambush high up in the mountains, where they set up camp? How do all of their bullets know to kill the Taliban members they target, while the reverse-seeing-eye bullets aimed at them either miss entirely or inflict only (sometimes admittedly gruesome) surface damage? And worst of all, how exactly do they tumble down an exterior slope hundreds of feet high, their heads hitting the sharp edges of craggy rocks as they go, and are all four able to get up and keep going? Sorry, but one of them's gotta die.

Ralph Fiennes' "The Invisible Woman," starring himself as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan, the much younger woman with whom he conducts a clandestine affair, is one of those films in which, if you can make out the shadow of something or someone, it's one of the light scenes. (Pauline Kael famously wrote of the Charlie Parker biography "Bird" that it looked as though Clint Eastwood had neglected to pay his ConEd bill.) God forbid someone should light a candle; you'd squint from the glare. The most interesting material in the movie has to do with Dickens' conception of himself as a public figure - he was celebrated not only for his writings but his theatrical readings and general sociability - and his wife's acceptance of both his philandering and the truth that neither she nor Nelly would ever know to whom he finally belonged. But there's not much blood coursing through the veins of this romance; it pales, in that department, by contrast with last year's gem "The Deep Blue Sea." But then, Ms. Jones is no Rachel Weisz; at times in her diffident performance, I couldn't tell whether she was heartbroken or had simply forgotten to drop off her dry cleaning.

Writer-director Clio Barnard sets her new feature "The Selfish Giant" in the hardscrabble Bradford area of northern England, where best mates Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) get themselves excluded (expelled) from school and go to work for a local scrap dealer known as Kitten (Sean Gilder). They roam around town on a horse and cart, collecting scrap metal of various forms, including abandoned items and some they simply steal. Arbor's all about the brass, and nothing yields higher returns than the copper cable that national telecom is always laying down (and leaving around). This leads to what the press materials call "a tragic event, which transforms them all." Considering what happens to Swifty when they attempt to steal wire live with electricity, to say he is "transformed" borders on the Orwellian.

There's an undeniable verisimilitude to Barnard's film, and a certain found beauty in the pink and purple sunsets that peek through the grey skies of a wire-crossed field. And the performances by the three leads are very good. But, as always, subtitles would help; the horses are treated so badly (in the movie, of course) that I came close to walking out more than once; and the violence borders on sadism, as when Kitten tells three of his men to take the electric saw to one of Arbor's fingers. The plain truth is, I have many more friends who'd hate me for sending them to "The Selfish Giant" than friends who'd thank me.

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