Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The November Man, The Last of Robin Hood, A Letter to Momo, The Congress, Life of Crime, The Notebook, May in the Summer, The Calling

The November Man
The Last of Robin Hood

A Letter to Momo
The Congress

Life of Crime
The Notebook

May in the Summer
The Calling

Two modest recommendations highlight another poor week in film:

Roger Donaldson's "The November Man" (the given explanation of the title makes no sense) stars Pierce Brosnan as a happily retired CIA agent pulled back in for one last mission involving a rising Russian politician with a history of human trafficking and sexual assault. Attractive Luke Bracey plays Brosnan's disdainful former protégé and Olga Kurylenko a refugee center director with a secret past. Donaldson makes good use of his urban Serbian locales and keeps the action charging with commendable directness (no five-minute deaths here; the bullet hits and you cease to exist). But the script calls on Brosnan to take stupid chances to play out his game of cat-and-mouse with Bracey, and to commit one bloody act totally out of keeping with his character. And the two faces of Kurylenko bear no resemblance to each other… The first two thirds of "The Last of Robin Hood" are as airless and square as anything since "Saving Mr. Banks." Kevin Kline stars as Errol Flynn in this imagination of the swashbuckler's last two years and his scandalous affair with the underage would-be actress Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning). Reviewers have offered antithetical opinions of the accuracy of Kline's embodiment of Flynn, but the movie belongs to (and is almost saved by) Susan Sarandon (whom we'll see later in this post) and her daringly vulnerable, risk-taking performance as Beverly's aspirational mother, Florence. This is not a cliché stage mother from hell but a woman teetering on the edge of desperation and balancing genuine concern for her daughter's welfare with opportunism born of necessity… If "Spirited Away" is "E.T.," then Hiroyuki Okiura's "A Letter to Momo" is "Mac and Me," a crude and thematically undernourished meal of microwave Miyazaki. The parallels are too blatant to ignore in this tale of Momo, a young girl whose father dies after they have an argument and before she has a chance to apologize. She moves with her mother to a remote island, where three willful spirit creatures appear only to her. These creatures look cheap and half-formed, and engage in antics that range from juvenile to scatological. Okiura has the temerity to climax the plot with a chase involving hundreds of spirits, a sequence that only serves to remind us of the unconscious greatness of "Spirited Away." And the two hours it takes to arrive there are, frankly, boring as hell… I give Robin Wright tons of credit for her audacity in appearing as herself in Ari Folman's new genre-bender "The Congress." The movie opens with her agent (Harvey Keitel) and Jeff Green (Danny Huston), the head of "Miramount Studios," cataloguing her lifetime of bad choices, failed relationships and forsaken career opportunities. Green offers her what he calls her "last contract": let Miramount scan her body, her face, her every emotion for perpetual use (as a 34-year-old version of herself) in future films, then never act again. In return, they'll pay her enough to provide for herself and her ailing son for life. This part of "The Congress," while not credible, holds our interest by dint of sheer chutzpah, culminating in the beautifully shot scanning itself. Unfortunately, Folman devotes the last two-thirds to a static and two-dimensional animated vision of the future that, like his "Waltz with Bashir," bored me to tears. He's a filmmaker with interesting ideas, but seems to say, "Here's my next idea. Here's my next idea." Tell a more compelling story and the concepts will come to the fore… The Elmore Leonard adaptation "Life of Crime" boasts a great premise: in 1978, the trophy wife (Jennifer Aniston) of a self-dealing Detroit developer (Tim Robbins) is kidnapped by two small time crooks (John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey, AKA Mos Def) and a neo-Nazi whose house is a shrine to Hitler (Mark Boone Jr.) for a million-dollar ransom. Only thing is, Robbins has had it up to here with Aniston's counting his drinks. He's holed up in Miami with a wiser-than-she-looks girl (Isla Fisher) half his age, and as far as he can see the kidnappers have just saved him a hundred grand a year in alimony. Bey, Boone and a puffy Robbins score some chuckles ("You let your wife out and someone's bound to steal her up." "You promise?"), but the movie belongs to the warring women, Aniston and Fisher, who avail themselves of Leonard's wit to deliver eight or ten big laugh lines. The movie never pops and fizzes like "Get Shorty" or "Out of Sight," but it's worth catching on the tube… Bearing no relation to the Nicholas Sparks weepie of the same name, János Szász's relentlessly grim Hungarian import "The Notebook" tells of two (unnamed) twin brothers, abandoned by their mother late in WWII at the farmhouse of a grandmother they'd never met, a malicious woman known to locals only as "the witch." She calls them bastards, puts them to hard labor, and forces them to sleep outside with the animals. They resolve to steel themselves to her cruelty and the inhumanity of war by inflicting beatings on each other and killing everything from butterflies to chickens. They record these depravities in a notebook their father left them, a dramatic device that never feels like anything but. "The Notebook" is a pointless and poorly written two-hour exercise in miserabilism, with characters created solely for the purpose of coming to some ill fate or other. By the end, I was checking the time every few minutes… "May in the Summer" opens with May (writer-director Cherien Dabis) flying into Amman from New York for her upcoming wedding to Ziad, the "leading expert on Palestine" at Columbia and, to the consternation of her Christian mother (Hiam Abbass), a Muslim. Her sisters (and bridesmaids) are the slutty Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and the wisecracking, possibly lesbian Dalia (Alia Shawkat in the only performance of note). Meanwhile, their estranged and remarried father (Bill Pullman in a WTF moment) wants back into their lives, and possibly mom's too. It's all set-up for what plays like a Jordanian sitcom, complete with contrived misunderstandings, narrowly missed encounters and overheard secrets… Finally, another terrific performance by Susan Sarandon grounds "The Calling," director Jason Stone's intriguing mash-up of a police procedural with a religious thriller. Sarandon plays Hazel Micallef, the alcoholic chief inspector in the sleepy Canadian burg of Fort Dundas. It's the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else and police work is practiced - by Hazel and her colleague Ray Green (Gil Bellows) - informally and at leisure. Until, that is, her lifelong friend is found brutally stabbed - her head almost disconnected from her body - and a rich horseman in a neighboring town is similarly murdered. Both victims' mouths have been manipulated into a sort of clenched rictus that may yield a clue to the killer's identity. The film benefits from its strong sense of place, and really kicks into gear when murders multiply across Canada and a green detective from Toronto (Topher Grace) transfers in to help out. I usually tune out religious material quickly, but the particular theme in play here - involving a prayer transmitted orally through the centuries and explained to Hazel by Donald Sutherland's Latin-fluent Father Price in a compelling exchange -- advances and enriches the plot. Grace's cop takes some stupid risks - and a pivotal supporting character disappears from sight, taking the possibility of genuine menace with her - but if you caught "The Calling" on the tube, you'd think it a better-than-average cop show with an exceptional cast (that also features Ellen Burstyn as Hazel's retired-judge mother). Sarandon deserves special praise for her good work this year, showing a rare willingness among actresses of her vintage to let the years show in her face, her body, her carriage.

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