Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Dom Hemingway, The Unknown Known, Nymphomaniac, Alan Partridge, Breathe In, Under the Skin

Dom Hemingway 

The Unknown Known
Alan Partridge
Under the Skin

Breathe In

Capsules on the week in film:

Although Jude Law has done very well for himself in movies, he's not achieved the solo stardom some foresaw. His best and most successful work of late came in the superior Sherlock Holmes sequel "A Game of Shadows," where I felt for the first time in a long time a real connection with the audience. It's nice, then, to see him take on a big, meaty, messy lead, the vainglorious and superficially dislikable title character in "Dom Hemingway." Dom held his tongue for a dozen years in stir, and has no interest in doing so ever again. With his partner (the too-rarely-seen Richard E. Grant), he's come to collect from the crime boss he didn't rat out (Demian Bichir). Dom's all swagger and voluble rodomontade, but somehow Law finds the humanity in him that makes the material involving his estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke) tolerable, almost touching. Grant's a marvel of put-upon sycophancy, sentenced to a life of putting out Dom's fires, and even Bichir, with an elaborate moustache and young gold-digger girlfriend, holds his own. At 93 minutes, "Dom Hemingway" is like the Teacups at Disneyland: you might toss your cookies if it went on any longer, but it's a fun ride while it lasts.

In "The Unknown Known," the renowned documentarian Errol Morris again sits down with a former U.S. Secretary of Defense, but here Donald Rumsfeld proves immune to the soul-searching introspection engaged in by Robert McNamara in the heftier "The Fog of War." This conversation - while perhaps equally revealing of its subject - is more a semantic thrust-and-parry than a meaningful attempt to reconsider or reevaluate past choices. It's hard to blame Morris for Rumsfeld's reticence or imperviousness to Morris' occasional attempts at more rigorous intellectual engagement, but the result is a film most notable for its depiction of the mutual disdain between Rummy and Condi Rice. On a different day, I might award "The Unknown Known" only two stars. It's right on that line.

A rude awakening awaits anyone who comes to Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" for titillation. It's basically Dogma 95 meets the Kama Sutra, a loosely organized (by "chapters") excuse for a series of purposefully profane sexually themed set pieces involving Joe (Stacy Martin), who introduces herself with the line, "I discovered my cunt at age two." The stories are related by Joe as an adult (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to Seligman (Stellan SkarsgÄrd), the kindly, seemingly asexual man who finds Joe lying beaten in an alley, takes her in, patches her up and serves her tea. Some of the vignettes are very watchable, as one involving Uma Thurman as a wife and mother whose husband leaves her for Joe. (She shows up, kids in tow, and asks Joe, "May I show the children the whoring bed?") Some are very un-watchable, especially in Volume 2, which finds Joe at the office of a man (Jamie Bell) who calls her Fido, uses most of the six simple machines to tie her down, and lashes her as hard as he can 40 times. Von Trier proved with "The Idiots" that even his one-offs can be great; I loved it almost as much, in its way, as his masterpiece, "Melancholia." But here, you begin to wonder what's the point. If you're gonna make me watch Billy Elliot fill two black gloves with coins and slam his fists into Joe's face, there's gotta be more to it than I got from the nearly catatonic Martin. And the final scene involves an action by Seligman that's a complete betrayal of his character.

You can assess a comedy in two ways: by the absolute volume of laughs or by the hit-to-miss ratio. The Steve Coogan vehicle "Alan Partridge" rates two stars by the first metric, closer to one by the second. After a flirtation with respectability as the co-writer and co-star of "Philomena," Coogan's back to playing himself here. Alan Partridge is the longtime host of a mid-morning music and call-in radio show in Norfolk, perceived as a fossil by the obnoxious morning crew and by station management. He saves his hide with a presentation entitled "Just Sack Pat," in which he exhorts them to keep him and dump the late-shift mainstay (Colm Meaney) instead. Meaney takes the staff hostage in an armed siege and vows to communicate with the cops only through Alan, who he doesn't know betrayed him. It's all just setup for 90 minutes of extended riffing, and Coogan does score a handful of laughs, but the movie never feels authentic and a lot more bounces off the wall than sticks.

"Like Crazy" director Drake Doremus is back with another Felicity Jones romance heavy on atmosphere but light on follow-through. In "Breathe In," Jones plays Sophie, a British foreign exchange student and gifted pianist who arrives at the suburban New York home of Keith and Megan Reynolds (Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan) and their daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). Keith substitutes occasionally with a symphony orchestra in Manhattan, and auditions for a permanent chair, but Megan likes their life (for one thing, they own their home), and assumes he'd keep his job as a high school music teacher even if he got the city gig. He's frustrated in his career and chafes at the unfulfilled dreams of his younger self. His halting, furtive involvement with Sophie - as played by the pretty but fairly blank Jones - represents a last stab at the reclamation of that youthful promise. What's in it for her? Hard to say, except that Pearce is unreasonably sexy for his age here. Doremus has made a film that's lovely to look at, all blues and greens sheathed in the flattering cover of twilight, but the central relationship doesn't have enough meat on its bones, and the last half-hour is all plot: Lauren discovers them trysting by a lake, and gets into a car crash, while Megan finds the empty hangers on Keith's side of the closet. Once again, the ending lets Doremus down.

You'll get more out of Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" the less you know about it going in. Here's another picture that'll draw its share of dirty old men - beckoned by the promise of a nude Scarlett Johansson - but offers little in the way of pornographic catharsis or release. Johansson plays an alien - who happens to look exactly like her in a voluminous black wig - prowling the cities and hinterlands of Scotland for men to lure into her van, then to her home, and then to their most unusual doom. Glazer's film is visually stunning and never less than watchable. I'm sure some will find its deliberate opaqueness haunting; for me, the spell wore off fairly soon after the closing credits.

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