Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Straight Outta Compton, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mistress America, Ten Thousand Saints, Meru, People Places Things, Fort Tilden, Tom at the Farm

Straight Outta Compton
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Mistress America
Ten Thousand Saints

People Places Things

Fort Tilden
Tom at the Farm

Capsules on a busy week at the movies:

You can't not see "Straight Outta Compton," the N.W.A. biopic that blew out the box office this weekend. It's got half a dozen iconic scenes, from the Detroit concert stormed by cops as soon as the group began performing "Fuck tha Police" to the hilarious diss-song feud that culminated in ex-bandmate Ice Cube's "No Vaseline" to a winky origin story for the phrase "Bye, Felicia." The surviving members who participated in the project have been accused of self-glorification and whitewashing the record (one critic called the F. Gary Gray-directed flick "history as told by the winners"). My main problem is that we spend too little time getting to know the three leads (Cube, Dre and Eazy-E) as individuals; Jason Mitchell as the late Eric Wright gives it what soul it has. Paul Giamatti impresses as longtime manager Jerry Heller, though a late-night come-to-Jesus convo with E is laughably repetitive.

Guy Ritchie's film of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." brings together two of Hollywood's biggest black holes of charisma: the cardboard Henry Cavill as CIA agent Napoleon Solo and the positively nondescript Armie Hammer as KGB agent Illya Kuryakin, who are teamed up against their wills to prevent an Italian heiress (Elizabeth Debicki) from getting her white glove-covered hands on a nuclear warhead. Ritchie applies his customary techniques, which in the hands of pros such as Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law can produce entertainments as fine as "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." With these two stiffs, though, scenes fizzle and fade; intended laughs never come off; and I dozed off repeatedly. Alicia Vikander continues to flounder after her intriguing debut in "Ex Machina." As for Hammer, I wouldn't have recognized him had he been standing in the doorway as we exited the theater.

We've all had a friend like Brooke Cardinas - someone so impossibly worldly and sure of herself, we forgo our reservations and rationalize her flaws just to spend more time in her vortex. That's the choice Tracy (Lola Kirke), an introverted Barnard frosh, makes when her stepsister-to-be (Greta Gerwig) takes her under her wing in Noah Baumbach's latest offering, "Mistress America." It's much richer than his "While We're Young," which opened earlier this year, with a handful of big laughs and some fascinating ideas about the performance each of us puts on every day - to con ourselves as much as anyone else. But the movie builds to a would-be farcical third act, in which Brooke pitches a rich ex-flame and his wife, her ex-best friend, for money to open a restaurant. It's full of unpleasant supporting characters and festooned with falsity, and shows that Baumbach and Gerwig fundamentally value bons mots over truths.

The gem of the week is a little 1987-set sleeper called “Ten Thousand Saints,” with one of the best ensemble casts of the year. It’s told through the eyes of a Vermont teenager named Jude (Asa Butterfield), whose parents split up early in the picture. He stays with mom Harriet (Julianne Nicholson) and sister Prudence, spending most afternoons with his best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia) and occasionally huffing turpentine for a cheap high. Dad Les (Ethan Hawke) – as in, “anything a kid could want in a father, and Les” – sneaks into his upstairs bedroom one day (soon after Teddy has died in an accident Jude survived) and takes him to Manhattan, where Les deals pot out of his rent-controlled East Village apartment. In Alphabet City, Jude tracks down Teddy’s brother Johnny (an unrecognizable Emile Hirsch), who plays in a “straight-edge” punk band that abstains from all the vices generally associated with musicians. Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of Les’ new highfalutin girlfriend Diane (Emily Mortimer), had come to visit Jude on New Year’s Eve and is now pregnant with Teddy’s baby. Johnny vows to marry her and care for the baby as his own, while Jude’s face registers a combination of envy, resentment and curiosity. (The reactiveness of Butterfield's performance recalls Patrick Fugit’s William Miller in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.”)

The script – by co-writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini – is wall-to-wall with hilarious lines. Steinfeld continues to deliver on the promise she first showed in “True Grit,” slowly but surely taking command of the movie and knocking her toughest scene out of the park. As the women in Les’ life, the wearily wise Nicholson and the wound-up Mortimer each have wonderful moments. And Hawke just gets better – more vulnerable, less fearful of failure – with age. “Ten Thousand Saints” ends a weeklong run at the Royal on Thursday and is already available on demand. Don’t miss it.

Quickies on the rest: While the mountaineering documentary “Meru” may not reach the heights of Kevin Macdonald’s “Touching the Void,” the firsthand video by climbers Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk (who ascended the titular peak with Conrad Anker) will have you shaking your head with disbelief at the difficulty of the expedition and the daft daring of these men. (Their sleeping accommodation – a “port-a-lodge” – essentially consists of a vertical cot with a flap tent around it.)… For most of “People Places Things,” about a Manhattan comic book artist (Jemaine Clement) whose wife (Stephanie Allynne) leaves him and whose graphic art student (Jessica Williams) sets him up with her AmLit-professor mother (Regina Hall), I liked everyone in it except Clement – especially Audrey and Gia Gadsby, the adorable twins who play his daughters. It gets more honest as it goes, but the underutilized Hall speaks for all of us when she tells Will, “You didn’t even get a chance to know me”… A guarded thumbs up for “Fort Tilden,” about Harper (Bridey Elliott) and Allie (Clare McNulty), New York studio dwellers for whom the term “white privilege” would appear to have been coined. Most of the runtime is devoted to their feckless, stop-start odyssey across Brooklyn to a beach date with a young hunk and his sidekick. The movie’s comic snark curdles into hatefulness once too often, but by the end it takes up residence in the memory… Finally, thumbs down for Frenchman Xavier Dolan’s latest exercise in self-absorption, “Tom at the Farm,” which squanders an exciting premise. Tom, gay and mourning the death of Guillaume, travels from MontrĂ©al to his late lover's remote family farm only to find they were expecting a woman, Sarah, who Tom knows was just a work colleague of Guillaume’s. Francis (yummy Pierre-Yves Cardinal), Guillaume’s strong and strapping brother, suspected the truth, and orders Tom to play ball for his mother’s sake – or else. Pretty soon he’s put Tom’s car up on blocks and taken over his life, but a) Tom's early eschewal of an opportunity to leave strains credulity and b) his abrupt, almost cheerful acquiescence in his captivity defies it. Dolan throws in a handful of cheesy horror tropes (a chase in a cornfield with zero chance Tom makes it out safely) and some arty music in a vain attempt to mask the silliness of the story.

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