Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road, I Am Michael, In the Name of My Daughter, The Connection, I'll See You in My Dreams

Mad Max: Fury Road
I Am Michael

In the Name of My Daughter

The Connection
I'll See You in My Dreams

Let’s take this week’s releases in ascending order of quality:

At the bottom of the scrap heap lies George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” two hours of unpleasant action that makes “Furious 7” look even better (if that’s possible) in the rearview mirror. The threadbare narrative of this long-unawaited third installment finds Max (now played by Tom Hardy) joining forces with the Amazonian Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and a ragtag band of castoffs to topple the tyrannical, water-hoarding regime of the xeric post-apocalypse. The fights in, on, and under every imaginable type of motor vehicle quickly take on a video-game redundancy; Miller has no idea what pseudo-feminist message he wants to convey through a harem of sister wives freed from servitude; and the only moment or two of comic relief comes in the form of a rock guitarist wailing away from the front of the emperor’s behemoth while the carnage piles up around him. I suppose the way to rationalize “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that it will pay for Hardy and Theron to do more of the fine work (“The Drop,” “Locke,” “Monster”) of which they have proven capable.

There’s a compelling story trying to poke its head through the stilted speechifying of “I Am Michael,” by first-time director Justin Kelly. It tells of Michael Glatze, the former editor of magazines aimed at gay youths who renounced his homosexuality and turned to Christ. James Franco, in the lead, strains to honor Glatze’s internal crises, but Kelly doesn’t know how to express them beyond repeated scenes of heart palpitations set to intrusive sound effects. Zachary Quinto provides a solid foundation as Bennett, Michael’s lover of many years, who would gladly engage with him on his spiritual quest if it didn’t take the form of pity or contempt. (Too much of the dialogue sounds like a précis of TV pundits’ talking points.) As Rebekah, the girlfriend (and eventual wife) Michael meets at a bible academy, Emma Roberts’ odd screen presence somehow works to her advantage; she’s just naïve enough not to have known about Michael’s past, and just open-hearted enough to see past it. Daryl Hannah has one scene.

Director André Téchiné shifts from one story to a second to a third in his latest film, “In the Name of My Daughter,” but only the first is fresh enough to hold our interest. Catherine Deneuve stars as Renee Le Roux, owner of the underperforming Palais casino in Nice. Guillaume Canet, the actor turned director of such quality films as "Tell No One," "Little White Lies," and last year's "Blood Ties," plays Maurice Agnelet, Renee's most trusted advisor, whose legal practice she's keeping afloat. Adѐle Haenel is Agnes, Renee's daughter, who returns to Nice from Africa to collect on her late father's inheritance but is told to wait a couple years until the Palais turns profitable. An Italian with reputed mob connections has been buying up casinos along the coast and makes a play for the Palais. Maurice, passed over by Renee for the casino manager position he coveted, begins a sexual affair with Agnes, and convinces her to cast her deciding vote against the renewal of her mother's term as president.

This segment of the film, with its backroom back-stabbing and sun-drenched power plays, hums along at a three-star level. Then Téchiné makes the first of two wild turns, as Agnes, who had averred she wasn't the jealous type, goes full psycho hose beast on the promiscuous Maurice, culminating in her failed suicide attempt. The third act picks up after 30 years pass, with Agnes having gone permanently missing. Maurice, with whom she had opened joint bank accounts, closed them out and absconded to Panama. Renee, believing he must have killed Agnes, seeks to extradite him to France and bring him to justice. This is perfunctory courtroom drama, the lowlight being Maurice's old-age makeup, the worst this side of "J. Edgar." It's always a pleasure to bask in the company of the still-luminous Deneuve, but the first third of "Daughter" makes the second and last all the more disappointing by contrast.

Strong performances by the two leads and mid-70's style mark Shannon Harvey and Cédric Jimenez' French Connection saga "The Connection." Jean Dujardin stars as the newly installed Marseilles magistrate Pierre Michel, intent on bringing down "La French," the crime ring that's made the Côte d'Azur port the world's leading heroin hub. Gilles Lellouche is Tany Zampa, its imposing kingpin. As Pierre wages his war and Tany tries to stay a step ahead, I enjoyed the ways in which Dujardin and Lellouche adapted to their changing circumstances. Pierre sees his marriage and his family's safety threatened, while Tany slowly loses face with the middlemen from whom he continues to attempt to extort top dollar. Mélanie Doutey also impressed me as Tany's inscrutable wife Christiane, who never lets on how she feels about the nasty business that funds her showy new discotheque. We've seen the elements in "The Connection" in many other films - including a certain one directed by Billy Friedkin - but the performances and the harsh glare of the Marseille sun kept me engaged almost throughout.

The clear pick of the week, though - and bumping right up against the next-higher star rating - is "I'll See You in My Dreams," a showcase for star Blythe Danner and a picture whose warm reception proves how hungry audiences are for full, rich depictions of men and women in their seventies and beyond. Danner's Carol Petersen is a widow of 20 years who enjoys a largely solitary life in a spacious Westside house with her dog, Hazel, playing bridge and golf with three friends who've moved into a nearby retirement community: fun-loving Sally (Rhea Perlman), jaded Georgina (June Squibb), and nosy Rona (Mary Kay Place). When Carol has to put Hazel to sleep, the emptiness of the house begins to weigh on her. The thought of dating at her age, though, mortifies Carol, a revulsion only exacerbated by the disastrous speed-dating event Sally coaxes her into attending. Then one day she's looking at multivitamins at the supermarket when Bill (Sam Elliott), a deep-voiced stranger she recognizes from the clubhouse, pulls alongside: "You don't need all that stuff. You're just right the way you are." Later, he sees her in the parking lot: "I'd like to take you out. What's your name?" "Yes." "Your name is yes?"

Meanwhile, Carol strikes up a friendship with her ambitionless young poolman, Lloyd (Martin Starr), soliciting his help in trapping the black rat that's had her sleeping outside and later going with him to karaoke night at a dive bar. Throughout, Danner enchants with her idiosyncratic facial expressions and thoughtful reactions to the words and actions of those around her. Carol's relationships with Lloyd and Bill have a lived-in honesty, and both Starr and Elliott create real people out of little dialogue. Perlman, Squibb and Place make the best Greek chorus of movie gal pals in a long time, with the film reaching its comic zenith when the four smoke weed and go out for munchies, getting pulled over by a cop for walking their shopping cart down the middle of the street. There's a wishful quality to the ease with which Carol finds new love, but director Brett Haley employs such a light, graceful touch, we're carried along with her. Only the rushed quality of a late, incongruous plot development breaks the spell, though Haley's found a lovely coda. Everyone I know who's seen "Dreams" has loved it; I think it's that we get so few films about this age group, we don't mind that this one's on the slight side. We just want more.

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