Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Green Prince, The Skeleton Twins, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, Memphis, Guardians of the Galaxy, Canopy

The Green Prince
The Skeleton Twins

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them

Guardians of the Galaxy

Quick capsule reviews on the rest of the week's releases:

A modest recommendation for Nadav Schirman's documentary "The Green Prince," about the unique handler-informant relationship between Gonen Ben Yitzhak of Shin Bet and Mosab Hassan Yousef, who just happens to be the son of the head of Hamas' operations on the West Bank. Schirman's use of generic re-creations and an endless loop of the same drone footage can't mask the inherently un-cinematic back-and-forth between his talking heads, but the evolution of the two men's strategies and personal connection remains just compelling enough to hold our interest nonetheless… "The Skeleton Twins" suffers from an increasingly common malady: all the good stuff (or at least the vast majority of it) appears in the trailer. Bill Hader gives a breakout performance as Milo, an actor struggling to make it in Hollywood and the suicidal twin brother of Kristen Wiig's equally suicidal dental hygienist Maggie. Director Craig Johnson's script (co-written with Mark Heyman) incorporates equal parts truth and falsity; the best example of the latter sees Milo turn up, out of nowhere, just in time to save Maggie from herself. The "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" sing-along (reluctant on Maggie's part, whole-hog on Milo's) is a great movie scene, but after we've seen it in the preview half a dozen times, the effect is diminished. And mere months after the four-star "Happy Christmas" gave us an impeccably observed brother-sister relationship, "The Skeleton Twins" can't help but pale by comparison… Akira Kurosawa set the bar for multiple-perspective films with "Rashomon," and in recent memory perhaps only Errol Morris rose to it with the groundbreaking documentary "The Thin Blue Line," a purposeful examination (inter alia) of the unreliability of eyewitness identifications. Alas, I won't be around to assess Ned Benson's planned trilogy of films entitled "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby." There's one called "Him" and one called "Her," preceded into theaters by the mishmash called "Them" in which the lovers, bereaved parents Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), lack any dimension or interest, and her folks (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) stand desultorily around the house, delivering scripted advice ("Don't take our relationship too personally," Huppert counsels Chastain. Ha ha) with numbing lethargy. Only Viola Davis brings the movie intermittently to life as a no-bullshit professor whose identity-theory course El audits… In "Memphis," writer-director Tim Sutton's fever dream of the Southern African-American experience, the musician Willis Earl Beal, playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself, sleepwalks, awake, through jazz bars, churches, unfurnished apartments, recording studios, crack dens and wig shops. There's an element of "Pippin" to the film in the galaxy of lodestars by which Willis attempts to chart his course toward self-definition. Sutton filters many images through a photographic sensibility that lends gravity to the meandering and folkloric proceedings. But a hemorrhoidal squirminess set in halfway through the 84-minute film, and I couldn't wait for it to end… After one too many "C'mon, ya gotta"s from friends, I finally caught "Guardians of the Galaxy," and I wish I'd enjoyed it more. It strikes me as about fifteen minutes of mildly amusing bickering buddy comedy surrounded by 105 minutes of generic, redundant and frankly boring-as-hell comic-book fighting. Among an expensive cast, most of them wasted or unrecognizable in costume, only the lead, Chris Pratt, comes out ahead, showing a self-deprecating and enormously appealing sense of humor to go with his rocking bod. I love the 80's as much as anyone, but the retro appeal of the decade and its music were burnished more effectively in, for instance, "Hot Tub Time Machine"… There are elements to appreciate in writer-director Aaron Wilson's immersive "Canopy," a nearly dialogue-free film about an Australian airman who awakens suspended from the treetops in Singapore after being shot down in combat in 1942. Mostly we follow Jim (Khan Chittenden) as he walks, hides, and tries to survive under the rainforest canopy. Sutton conveys the fog of war literally, as a mist that surrounds Jim and blurs our vision of him. He also makes extraordinarily effective use of sound to convey the sense-heightening uncertainty and ubiquitous danger of Jim's position. Jim's second-half encounter with a Chinese soldier named Seng (Mo Tzuyi) lends perspective as both men understand their only remaining purpose is to stay alive. Still, "Canopy" covers the same ground once too often, and Jim is more a construct than a fully realized man.

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