Monday, April 28, 2014

The German Doctor, Blue Ruin, The Other Woman, Locke, Next Goal Wins

The German Doctor
Blue Ruin

The Other Woman

Next Goal Wins

As the calendar turns from April to May, a plethora of good choices awaits moviegoers, including all five of this weekend's new releases:

In her gripping and keenly observed "The German Doctor," director Lucía Puenzo hypothesizes about Josef Mengele's interlude in Argentina before the notorious Nazi fled to Paraguay and later Brazil. She tells her story from the point of view of a twelve-year-old girl, Lilith (Florencia Bado), the smart and sensitive daughter of Enzo (Diego Peretti) and Eva (Natalia Oreiro), whose family has for generations owned a lakeside hotel they plan to reopen. Stopping at a supply store before setting out across the desert road toward the hotel, they meet a German expatriate who calls himself Dr. Helmut Gregor (Alex Brendemühl) and, because the road is "300 miles of nothing," asks whether he may follow them. They consent, and Lilith and the doctor share an extended eye contact that bespeaks mutual curiosity. 

The doctor initially stays at the home of a seldom-seen neighbor who hydroplanes in and out of town, but then asks to become the refurbished hotel's first guest, offering to prepay for six months in advance. He insinuates himself into the family's life, offering to bankroll production of the mechanized dolls Enzo constructs as a hobby (of course, he adds, for mass manufacture they must all look alike), treating Eva, who is again pregnant, and offering the short-for-her-age Lilith an experimental cocktail of growth hormones. Throughout, Lilith looks upon Helmut with a combination of amity and distrust, enjoying his attention and the shared secret of their friendship but fearful of his intentions. There's a terrific exchange in which Helmut explains that just as poets write about what they see and painters paint it, "I measure and weigh what interests me." "Do we interest you?" Lilith asks of her family, to which Helmut ambiguously replies, "You do." 

Puenzo's strong sense of time and place informs "The German Doctor." I like that the game of international hide-and-seek between Mengele and the Mossad agents chasing him (they'd just captured Eichmann) is only as sophisticated as the setting allows. At times, there's almost a hidden-in-plain-sight quality to his presence in Patagonia, and an unimpressive obviousness to his sympathizers' efforts to hide him. Their desperation, though, only adds to the menace Brendemühl brings to Helmut in one of the best performances of the year, and in his final encounter with Lilith the tension is palpable. He pulls a knife on her as she cowers against a wall, but he does not stab her. Instead, he marks her height measurement - she has grown several centimeters - and expresses certainty that she will not betray him. "You'd do anything for me, right?" he asks. Lilith, summoning strength she didn't know she had, looks him in the eye and softly says, "No."

Another superior thriller on offer is Jeremy Saulnier's spare, taut "Blue Ruin," with Macon Blair as Dwight, a shaggy-bearded Delaware drifter whom we meet jumping out of a home's bathroom window when the family to whom it belongs returns. Sleeping on a rainy roadside in his beat-up Pontiac Bonneville - the titular transport - Dwight is rousted by a kindly cop who apprises him that Wade Cleland, the man who killed his parents - sending him into a score-long tailspin - will soon be released from prison. Dwight drives to Virginia and at the prison gates watches, paralyzed by a gallimaufry of emotions, as Wade's family jocosely collects him and peels out to get their drink on. In this Appalachian part of the South, scores are settled extralegally, by means of internecine family feuds, and avenging his parents' murder becomes Dwight's raison d'être

He hunkers down at a motel, shaves off all his hair, breaks into another house, steals some clothes, and emerges looking as awkward and out-of-place as any man ever has in a dress shirt and slacks. He's forgotten how to live among people; when he visits his sister (Amy Hargreaves) to warn her the Clelands are coming, she tells him he's been staring into space. "I'm sorry," he says, "I'm not used to talking this much." Dwight is utterly unprepared for the task of killing, and enlists the help of his childhood friend Ben (Devin Ratray, one of the two dim-bulb cousins in "Nebraska"), who stocks a veritable arsenal of black-market guns. Saulnier stages the violence in sporadic bursts - a crossbow attack, a hand-to-hand fight between Dwight and the Cleland brother he's kept tied up in his trunk for days - punctuating long, patient periods of rest that build exquisite tension. He has a superb eye for the framing of shots, and knows like a master chef how to let the flavor of the region seep into the bones of his film. "Blue Ruin" may be a genre piece, but Saulnier's skills will serve any material well. (There's also an Eve Plumb sighting; she has a single, pivotal scene as the matriarch of the Cleland clan.)

And now I must, as I occasionally do, ask you to ignore what you've read elsewhere, ignore the (currently) 25% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and trust me: "The Other Woman" is very funny. The "Game of Thrones" actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Mark, an archetypally good-looking if unctuous financier whom we first meet on a sex date with Carly (Cameron Diaz), a high-powered Manhattan attorney. Cut to morning, when Mark awakens not in NYC with Carly but in Connecticut, with the frumpy Kate (Leslie Mann), to whom he is in fact married. Kate's not ugly, but she's stopped working at putting herself together in a way that excites Mark. Carly, a romantic despite her lousy track record, thinks Mark may be The One, and after he cancels a date, citing a broken pipe, she shows up at his door, wearing a slutty plumber's uniform (which she presumably kept on hand for just such an occasion), only to be greeted by Kate. After each deduces who the other is, they set their sights on exacting revenge on Mark for his womanizing and monetary misdeeds. In the course, they track him to Nassau, where (to the hilarious strains of Major Lazer's "Bubble Butt") they find him cavorting with the impossibly voluptuous Amber (Kate Upton). Kate thought Carly was perfect - "Yes," Carly admits, "I do keep my situation pretty well situated at all times" - but Amber makes Carly look like Kate. Still, she too quickly joins Operation Destroy Mark. 

What works in "The Other Woman" - and, thankfully, accounts for most of its two-hour runtime - is the interplay between the women. Diaz has honed her comic chops over the decades and they're in midseason form here, and Upton also gets big laughs as a paragon of pulchritude who starts taking selfies as soon as she walks into any room. But the movie belongs to Mann, in a comic performance rivalled so far this year only by Regina Hall's terrific turn in "About Last Night." This is a bold and risk-taking piece of work, with a desperate edge, and she deserves major plaudits for teetering right on the line without ever falling over. Director Nick Cassavetes, who made my top-ten list in 1996 with the tender and fine "Unhook the Stars," finds in Melissa Stark's script moments of genuine truth and wisdom that ground these characters and give the comedy real gusto.

What doesn't work - and takes up the last half-hour - is the sophomoric and scatological revenge itself, during which Mark's hair comes out in clumps, his nipples develop female areolae, and he suffers several of what he calls "fecal incidents" - in other words, he shits his pants. (Coster-Waldau has nothing to do but wallow in suavity and stumble through plate-glass windows.) This material will not be funny to almost anyone past puberty, and is unworthy of the enormously entertaining stuff that's come before. Still, my packed audience thoroughly enjoyed "The Other Woman." It offers enough value for money that Stark can afford to throw off a few good laugh lines as asides, as when Mark steps away from dinner with one woman to take a call from another at the bar, where a third woman paws at him. He fends this last off reluctantly, mouthing the words, "Hold that thought." 

Steven Knight, writer of “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises,” has constructed a one-man filmed play entitled “Locke” and cast Tom Hardy (so stupidly hamstrung behind a face-covering mask as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”) as Ivan Locke, a well-respected, i-dotting and t-crossing construction foreman, who, on the night before he is to spearhead the largest civilian concrete pour in European history, makes – and does not retract – the choice to drive from Birmingham to London, in order to attend the birth of a child he fathered during a one-time, alcohol-fueled extramarital affair with a woman with whom he has no other involvement. You will not be surprised to learn that this decision does not sit well with any of the people he calls and is called by during the 90-minute drive, which comprises the entirety of the picture: his dumbfounded wife, his boss, his sons, the colleague to whom he delegates the morrow’s grave duties. Nor are they placated – rather, all the more infuriated – by his calm insistence that they desist from attempting to change his mind and instead focus on the tasks at hand. 

To call “Locke” a filmed play is in no way to suggest that it is without emotional effect. The connection we feel to this man derives from the particular, undeterred integrity with which he elects to handle his “fuck-up.” This integrity takes the form not only of being there when the woman, Bethan, gives birth – he knows, he says, how it feels to come out into the world alone – but of emotional fidelity to the wife who’s telling him not to bother coming home. Between painful contractions, Bethan tells Ivan she loves him and asks, “Can’t you say it back even once?” Without hesitation he responds, “No. I can’t. But I will be there as soon as the traffic allows.” There are times – a handful of occasions, for example, in which Locke delivers angry rebukes to his own father, whom he imagines sitting in the backseat – when the theatricality of the piece overcomes the strength of Hardy’s bravura performance and Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography, commendably evocative under obvious constraints. But by the end, when Locke, who has tried to do one good thing, faces the possibility that he may thereby have lost his former life, the film packs a punch.

The best weekend of the year at the movies culminated with one of the most stirring and heart-warming documentaries of this or any other year, a great sports movie but even more a great human story, beautifully told. It’s Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s “Next Goal Wins,” about, of all things, the American Samoa soccer team. Composed entirely of amateurs and perpetually dead last (204th) in the FIFA world rankings, the team had lost, as it prepared for the first round of World Cup qualifying in 2011, every match it had ever contested, scoring a total of two goals and suffering, at the hands of Australia, the most lopsided loss in soccer history, by the ignominious score of 31-nil. This is a program in which soccer is played purely for love of the game and of one another, in which scoring a goal is the stuff of dreams and actually winning a game a prospect too extravagant to contemplate. Half the players lack the physical fitness to remain on the pitch for a full ninety minutes. One of the defenders is Jaiyah Saelua, a transgender (male-to-female) member of Samoa’s so-called “third gender,” the Fa’afafine. Once you see how easily Jaiyah is accepted and how fully valued as a member of the team, you’ll be rooting for these lovable losers.

The president of the island’s federation knows they will need outside help to have any chance of performing respectably at the World Cup qualifier, to be held on the home pitch of their resented “big brother,” the relative world-beaters Samoa. He begs U.S. Soccer, which posts the job opening online. Only one candidate applies: the Dutch coach and former player Thomas Rongen, who led D.C. United to their first MLS Cup. There is great humor in watching Rongen’s first practices with the team. He knows the standard will be far and away the lowest he’s ever witnessed, but is amazed to find it’s infinitely worse. Early in his tenure, the team travels to New Caledonia for a tournament among island states, where the players take pride in losing by only 8-nil to Vanuatu. Vanuatu!

Rongen and his wife, who lost their daughter to a car accident, become part of the team’s extended family (in fact, American Samoans view the entire population of 65,000 as one family). The feeling of fraternity is highly spiritual and mutually rewarding. As he teaches his players the fundamentals they’ve never properly learned, they teach him life lessons through their cohesion and indefatigable resilience. Nicky Salapu, the keeper in goal for all 31 of those haunting, permanently YouTube-preserved goals by Oz, un-retires and returns from Seattle to tend the net. Ramin Ott, who left the island to join the military (the most common way out for high school graduates, for whom few jobs await), comes back from Kentucky to play forward. Finally, the fateful day arrives. The team boards a plane from Pago Pago to Apia for three matches over five days: first Tonga, then the Cook Islands, then the hosts. 

I never thought I could care about a soccer match between American Samoa and Tonga (which, it goes without saying, had won thirty straight in the “rivalry”). I will tell you that I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat and, from near the back of a mostly empty theater, I clenched my fists over my head. What followed is not a Hollywood-crafted Cinderella story. There are tears of sadness as well as of joy. But a person who is not touched by the sweetness of these people and their saga is someone I don’t wish to know. Brett and Jamison give just enough of a glimpse of life in American Samoa to leave one wanting more, and, on a small budget, have bestowed solid, professional production values on the story of this ragtag crew. “Next Goal Wins” is one of the two or three most feeling experiences I’ve had at the movies so far in 2014.

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