Tuesday, February 17, 2015

50 Shades of Grey, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Rewrite, The Last Five Years, GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Girlhood, Ballet 422

50 Shades of Grey
Kingsman: The Secret Service

The Rewrite
The Last Five Years

GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Ballet 422

Quick capsules on a mostly good week at the movies:

The first half of "50 Shades of Grey" is the most fun movie so far this year. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who made the fine John Lennon coming-of-age picture "Nowhere Boy" (2010), uses innuendo and withholding to play on her audience's collective anticipation - in short, to fuck with us. There are many nervous laughs in this hour, almost all of them intentional. The second hour is less successful - at times redundant, never quite matching the sensual materialism of, say, Adrian Lyne's "Indecent Proposal" - but always watchable. The film is BDSM 101, with terms defined and procedures delineated at a pace that experienced practitioners will find glacial. As the smart and curious Anastasia Steele, Dakota Johnson finds the right mix of meekness (not weakness) and strength. Jamie Dornan is less compelling as Christopher Grey; Dornan's got a great body, but he's a bit generic and a trifle callow for the part.

Infinitely less fun - torturous, actually - is the brain-dead spy spoof "Kingsman: The Secret Service," which wastes the talents of Michael Caine, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mark Strong in a frenetic plot that would take ten chalkboards to diagram and distends the runtime to a grotesque 130 minutes. "Kingsman" - with indistinguishable newcomer Taron Egerton as a new recruit named "Eggsy" - plagiarizes liberally from the James Bond franchise but boasts precisely none of its suavity, sophistication or wit. As a nefarious telecom jillionaire bent on world destruction, Jackson's shtick is to lisp his lines, which is not funny the first time and becomes less so over the succeeding twenty.

Another strong cast is wasted in Marc Lawrence's "The Rewrite," with Hugh Grant as a once Oscar-winning screenwriter now so desperate for work he agrees to a teaching gig at SUNY Binghamton. Marisa Tomei co-stars as one of his students, a sophomore and single mom of two who also waitresses and works at the campus bookstore. J.K. Simmons and Chris Elliott play fellow faculty members and Allison Janney the department chair and world's leading authority on Jane Austen. Why cast Janney and only use her as a castrating bitch? One who, incidentally, has never heard of the movie "Clueless" or that it's based on Emma? (In the real world, she would have included a chapter on "Clueless" in her book on Austen in contemporary culture.) Grant and Tomei are always appealing, and Simmons delivers a few punchlines effectively, but the Elliott character is a comic dead zone and, as usual, the classroom scenes appear to take place on Mars. You never feel for a minute like you're watching actual human beings. Every scribe in Hollywood has a script about a failed writer somewhere on his or her back shelf. There's just nothing about "The Rewrite" special enough to be the one that got made.

Richard LaGravenese's "99% lyrics, 1% book" film of the musical "The Last Five Years" stars Anna Kendrick as Cathy, an aspiring actress, and Jeremy Jordan as Jamie, a best-selling author. The conceit is that Cathy's half of the movie begins at their breakup; Jamie's half begins when they first meet five years earlier; and they intersect at his marriage proposal. It's not always clear from scene to scene where we are temporally or in the relationship, probably because Cathy and Jamie rarely feel like real people to us, just pawns on a chessboard. It's a tough ask for anyone who doesn't immediately identify as a member of its target audience, though Jordan makes pleasant eye candy. Still, the radiant Kendrick, a gifted soprano, adds just enough human touches (and laughs) to eke out a marginal recommendation, if only for the one showstopper number, "A Summer in Ohio." 

The cream of this week's crop is "GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem," a gripping courtroom odyssey about an Israeli wife's petition to a rabbinical council for a divorce from her estranged husband. Brother and sister co-directors Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz (the latter of whom also stars as Viviane) demonstrate the institutional sexism of the proceedings (an overused phrase, properly applied here) without turning husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) or the rabbis into trite villains or canonizing Viviane. Through such characters as Viviane's equally incredulous attorney (Menasheh Noy), Elisha's brother and counsel (Sasson Gabay), and various friends and neighbors, the filmmakers paint a microcosm of Israeli social and cultural norms. By confining their film to the courtroom and a cramped waiting room outside, they force us to feel along with Viviane the pressing weight of a system stacked against her. (The saga lasts over five years.) Here is an economical and brilliant bit of cinematic storytelling.

No relation whatever to Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," Céline Sciamma's "Girlhood" introduces us to Marieme (impressive newcomer Karidja Touré) just as she's being told that her grades and test scores consign her to vocational rather than high school. Slapped around at home, she falls in with a girl gang and hardens herself to fit in with them. Later, she goes to work for an older man who promises her safety and some small comfort. Several moments in "Girlhood" feel wholly natural and fresh as a daisy, but a few ring false (an all-female football game in which a girl who would never "throw like a girl" does, the world's least discreet drug sale). And, at seven minutes short of two hours, there are lulls in the storytelling. Still, on the strength of Touré and its distrait soundtrack, a mild recommendation.

Finally, a short note about a short (75 minutes) documentary: Jody Lee Lipes' "Ballet 422," which follows Justin Peck (then a member of the New York City Ballet's corps de ballet, now a soloist), who at age 25 is commissioned to choreograph the venerable institution's 422nd new ballet. Lipes offers a Wiseman-lite immersion in all aspects of the mounting of such a production, from endless rehearsals to consultations with costumers, lighting directors, and the wary conductor of the autonomous orchestra. It's a nice reminder of how much planning goes into the spontaneous, how much work into the effortless.

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