Monday, April 20, 2015

Lost River, True Story, Alex of Venice, Dior and I, Monkey Kingdom

Lost River
True Story

Alex of Venice
Dior and I

Monkey Kingdom (my rating)
Monkey Kingdom (Scruffies' rating)

Quick capsules on the week in film:

The Sundance Cinemas in West Hollywood scheduled nine showings of "Lost River" each day last week. When a friend and I asked the box office attendant why, she leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, "They overestimated how popular it would be." You might say; there was exactly one other person in our audience for the 7pm show. After getting hooted out of Cannes, Ryan Gosling's directorial debut stains the States with its muddled vision of life below the poverty line, including stabbings, mutilations, and a scene of a bully (named Bully) decapitating the pet rat (of a girl named Rat) using a pair of scissors. At no time does "Lost River" feel like anything other than a fabricated exercise in misery and pretension. Of all the auteurs out there to emulate, why would anyone in his right mind pick Terrence Malick?

The least interesting cat-and-mouse game in recent movie memory, "True Story" is much less enjoyable than the spoof of it that stars Jonah Hill and James Franco will undoubtedly do before some roast on Comedy Central. Hill plays Mike Finkel, a journalist who loses his prominent post at the New York Times in disgrace (after amalgamating the experiences of several African boys into a single composite figure) and, shortly after returning to his wife's family's ranch in Montana, gets a call from Oregon, where a man accused of killing his wife and children has identified himself to the cops as Finkel. Thus begins a series of jailhouse interviews in which the killer, Christian Longo (Franco), plays Finkel like a drum, showering him with praise for his work and asking him to explain concepts (such as a double negative) that only a mesomorph wouldn't understand. Franco gives a genuinely bad performance, while Hill, behind a pair of owlish glasses, can't make us invest in such an obvious scam. Felicity Jones, so integral to last year's "The Theory of Everything," is wasted as Hill's adoring wife.

The attractive L.A.-based actor Chris Messina makes his directorial debut with the small-scale neighborhood movie "Alex of Venice," starring the always interesting Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a workaholic environmental attorney whose husband (Messina) moves away, citing a need for "space," leaving her to care for their son and her father (Don Johnson), a former TV star whose memory, as he runs lines for a small part in "The Cherry Orchard," begins to fade. Alex's mercurial sister, Lily (Katie Nehra), arrives just in time to help her - and the movie, with her unfiltered straight talk. I also liked Derek Luke as the spa developer Alex is opposing in litigation but sleeping with in his glass-windowed beach house. The Alzheimer-y stuff is a drag, and the movie's not as good as Henry Jaglom's similarly set "Venice/Venice," but Messina uses locations effectively and finds enough grace notes in quiet moments (and unexpected laughs) to merit a mild recommendation. 

Frédéric Tcheng, who co-directed 2011's four-star documentary "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel," finds less success working alone on "Dior and I," about Raf Simons and the eight weeks in which he created his first haute couture collection as creative director of the legendary French fashion house. Perhaps in part owing to Simons' reactive, seat-of-the-pants approach, Tcheng never gives us a vision of the collection as a whole or the individual pieces that comprise it. The atelier's two premieres - whom Simons' right hand man, Pieter Mulier, rightly identifies as businesswomen in charge of major operations (one suiting, the other dresses) - don't present as compelling a dichotomy as Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington in the also superior "The September Issue." We get only a minute or two with each of the lower-level hands whose painstaking work defines the specialness of couture. Tcheng's idea to incorporate readings from the diary of Christian Dior never zings.

Finally, a mild recommendation from me for Disneynature's latest, "Monkey Kingdom," which, while clearly dumbed down and anthropomorphized, nonetheless succeeds in showing viewers the social structure and immutable natural laws of Sri Lankan macaque monkeys. Tina Fey's narration is not as unique and engaged as John C. Reilly's for last year's superior "Bears," but then macaques are no Alaskan brown bears. (And scenes of them in a food vending stall or in a kitchen after a schoolchild's birthday party are downright disgusting.) As for Scruffies, they enjoyed watching the monkeys play with some sloth bears, but - admitting to just a wee bit of bias - much preferred last year's subjects.

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