Thursday, September 11, 2014

God Help the Girl, Starred Up, Levitated Mass, Frontera, My Old Lady

God Help the Girl
Starred Up

Levitated Mass


My Old Lady

The good stuff can't get here quickly enough. A documentary about a giant rock highlights another poor week in film.

First, though, a word about Scottish films, including two of this week's offerings, "God Help the Girl" and "Starred Up." Though I wouldn't have recommended the films in any case, it is a crime to release them without subtitles. American audiences earnestly attempting to understand the dialogue through a combination of lip-reading, auditory input and contextualization will still miss a significant chunk of these scripts, especially idiomatic phrases. Only one in ten or twenty Scotch or Irish films (the problem is equally acute there) arrive with subtitles, a failing that can be rectified easily and cost-efficiently. The madness must stop.

"God Help the Girl" is Belle & Sebastian lead singer Stuart Murdoch's self-satisfied and cutesy-poo musical about Eve (Emily Browning), a young loony bin escapee who bunkers down with James (Olly Alexander), the bespectacled lead singer of a West End Glasgow band he has no interest in naming. The picture is not without some charms, but they're few and far between in an almost two-hour runtime. 

The prison drama "Starred Up" features the supremely buff Jack O'Connell as Eric Love, a hot-tempered and violent offender who's just graduated out of juvie and into the big house (I wouldn't go as far as my friend, who called it "posh," but you've seen much worse). One must truly suspend disbelief for this flick. Of all the prisons in Scotland, his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), also a con, happens to serve time in this one (on the same wing, no less). Meanwhile, do-gooder shrink Oliver (Rupert Friend) sees something nobody else does in Eric and invites him into his amazingly well-behaved therapy group. Neville's intimate relationship with his young immigrant cellmate is the most interesting aspect of "Starred Up," but director David Mackenzie doesn't develop it much beyond some dubiously overt touching. The fights between inmates are unrelenting in both their brutality and their repetitiveness. The writing is on-the-nose, as when a prison administrator admonishes Oliver for getting "way too involved." You can almost hear Mackenzie whispering, "Isn't he supposed to do?"

My lone recommendation this week - a mild one - goes to "Levitated Mass," director Doug Pray's documentary about Michael Heizer's 2012 artwork (but is it art?), a 700,000-pound granite boulder transported from a quarry in Riverside, at a cost of ten million privately raised dollars, on a custom-built 206-wheel tractor trailer, to where it now sits, suspended on rails above an entrance to LACMA. Pray does a nice job of introducing us to "Land Art," a school of art founded in large part by Heizer 50 years ago that focuses on presence and absence, juxtaposition, and what Heizer calls "negative sculpture." Pray has also done well to interview the museum officials who greenlit and the donors who funded the esoteric project, administrators from the 22 cities through which the rock passed on its 105-mile odyssey, and their constituents, whose reactions to the project varied from awe to giddy enjoyment to negation ("It can't be art because he didn't make it") to a decrial of misplaced priorities.

Writer-director Michael Berry wastes a strong cast in the Western immigrant drama "Frontera," devaluing the talents of Ed Harris and Michael Peña by reducing their characters to pawns to be moved across his xeric chessboard. Harris plays Roy, the almost comically terse ex-sheriff of a Texas border town, whose massive property includes an arroyo called "The Wash" that refugees use as a way station to the American city. Among "those damn Mexicans," as Roy calls them, is the honorable Miguel (Peña), whom the "coyotes" have separated from his wife Paulina (a near-incog Eva Longoria) - whom they rape - and who's now travelling north with the immature and opportunistic Jose (Michael Ray Escamilla). Roy's sympathetic wife Olivia (Amy Madigan) brings them water and blankets, and lets them spend the night in relative safety, but three dumb white high school friends shoot from an overlook at Miguel and Jose, spooking Livvy's horse and causing her to fall onto a stone, cracking her head open. Miguel tries to come to her aid and is standing over her when the cops arrive, so they book him for murder in the first. These are poorly staged moments of dramatic action reliant on coincidence and misapprehension. We never come to know who these people are, just what they stand for: white, bad (but perhaps, at length, redeemable); brown, good.

After ceding "The Last of Robin Hood" to Susan Sarandon, this time it's Kevin Kline who gives the noteworthy performance in the odd little Parisian tale "My Old Lady." Kline plays Mathias Gold - call him Jim, please - a broke, thrice-divorced and thrice-unpublished novelist from New York who comes to Paris to collect - and sell - the apartment devised to him by his late estranged father. But there's a problem (or there wouldn't be a movie): Maggie Smith's Mathilde Girard occupies the apartment as a viager; Kline owns it, but must pay her 2,400 Euros a month and let her live there until she dies. Anyone he sold it to would take it under the same terms, so its value (and Jim) remains depressed until she croaks. Fortunately, she's 92. Mrs. G's daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), lives with her, and of course has an allergic reaction to this American interloper. 

KST, my vote for last year's best supporting actress for her unfiltered performance as Ryan Gosling's profane and oversexed mother in "Only God Forgives," is miscast here as both a married Frenchman's other woman and Kline's eventual love interest. Smith gives a fuller performance than usual (and usual is enough for the many who hear her name and buy tickets). But the movie belongs to, and is almost saved by, Kline. He's a movie drunk like few we've seen, impolitely honest, witty, tortured, self-deprecating, endlessly garrulous. This is a risky, turn-on-a-dime performance, with shifts in voice modality and stream-of-consciousness connections that require and reward the viewer's full attention. Still, writer-director Israel Horowitz needed to cut the last 15 minutes of KST's childhood resentments; they're not as compelling as Kline's, and they make the movie take forever to end.

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