Monday, February 2, 2015

Black or White, The Loft, Timbuktu, We'll Never Have Paris

Black or White
The Loft

We'll Never Have Paris

The first Academy Award nominee from Mauritania highlights the week in film:

I surprised myself by liking the Kevin Costner-Octavia Spencer custody battle “Black or White,” with Costner as hard-drinking attorney Elliott Anderson, whose wife dies as the movie opens from wounds sustained in a car crash. He’s raising granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), the love child of his own late daughter and Reggie (Andre Holland), a drug addict and felon and the son of real estate empress Rowena Jeffers (Spencer), better known to her vast extended family as “Grandma Wee Wee.” She engages her good son, legal eagle Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), to bring suit for custody of Eloise. 

This sets the stage for some atypically credible movie courtroom drama, with Paula Newsome impressive as Judge Cummins, who controls the proceedings and makes law-based rulings the way real jurists do. The performances are uniformly strong, though Mackie can do little with a thankless part. Holland brings dimension to the bad seed Reggie, his failings motivated not by evil but emotional immaturity. I like that Estell keeps Eloise busy with kid stuff; while most child actors mug for the camera, she doesn’t seem to care that it’s there. Spencer brings sass and a lot of laughs to the larger-than-life Grandma Wee Wee, holding her own with Costner in several memorable confrontations.

But it is Costner’s movie – he’s poured millions of his own dollars into it – and what a nice second act he’s constructing to his career. He’s doing real acting here, not just being Kevin Costner, and in many of those confrontation scenes he shows strength by yielding the last word to Spencer or Holland. It’s only at the end of Elliott’s testimony that Costner allows himself an extended speech, but what a doozy it is, a seemingly clumsy but actually deeply eloquent effusion on race. Writer-director Mike Binder's words would make a useful starting point for a new kind of dialogue on the subject that gets beyond blame and recrimination to mutual understanding.

The jarring image of Eric Stonestreet – Cameron from “Modern Family” – as a poon hound is the only memory I’ll retain from the Lifetime Movie Network-worthy “The Loft,” about five rich Nola buddies who share a secret luxury apartment used exclusively for extramarital sexcapades. One morning, they discover the body of an unknown woman cuffed to the bed and stabbed to death. Each comes under suspicion, but their motives and subsequent actions are random products of the script. There’s no mystery here for a smart viewer to work on, just writers turning cranks before revealing which of the implausible possibilities “really happened.” 

Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu," one of the Oscar nominees for Foreign Language Film, employs elegantly constructed imagery and hypnotic music to weave a fabric of life in and outside the Malian city during a recent period of occupation by jihadists. Kidane, a mild-mannered cattle farmer, lives in a commodious tent in the dunes with his loving wife Satima and daughter Toya and their young shepherd, Issan. When the fisherman Amadou kills Issan's favorite cow ("GPS"), who's wandered away from the herd and become entangled in his net, Kidane crosses the lake to accost him in a scene that ends with Amadou's accidental drowning.

The Islamists sentence Kidane to death (even a legitimate tribunal would convict him of some form of homicide), while in other cases a street vendor is ordered to wear gloves while handling fish, a woman receives 80 lashes for playing music (a new offense), and two adulterers are buried in sand and stoned to death. Sissako paints a devastating portrait of women's lot throughout the Islamic world: second-class citizens at best, sub-human afterthoughts at worst. Those cowards who abide Islam (often while taking cheap shots at Christianity, an infinitely lesser threat) are either enemies of equality, hypocrites, or both.

The extended Woody Allen impersonation that is Simon Helberg's "We'll Never Have Paris" is neither the best nor the worst I've seen. He stars as Quinn, who's in a long-term relationship with Devon (Melanie Lynskey) and contemplating proposing as the picture opens. But when he learns that Kelsey (Maggie Grace), his comely co-worker at a flower shop, actually has feelings for him (she's leagues out of his league), he reassesses and Devon takes off for France. Helberg has written himself a few amusing bits of neurotica, but he's not believable as a chick magnet, and Lynskey, so good in "Happy Christmas," towers over him awkwardly. Dithering and overly forgiving, she almost manages to give an unappealing performance.

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