Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Gift, Ricki and the Flash, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Cop Car, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Dark Places

Ricki and the Flash
The Gift

Shaun the Sheep Movie
Cop Car

Diary of a Teenage Girl
Dark Places

Notes on a good week in film:

Best of the lot is "The Gift," a psychological thriller that holds us rapt in its thrall, consistently upending expectations and keeping us guessing about the nature, motivation and troubled past of its three primary characters. Married couple Robyn (Rebecca Hall), an interior designer, and Simon (Jason Bateman), a tech sales exec, leave Chicago for his new job in L.A., where they buy a glass-walled home in the hills. Shopping for furniture at a mall, they're accosted by Gordon Mosley (director Joel Edgerton), who reminds Simon they went to high school together. "Gordo?" Simon asks, Bateman's face registering a flicker of disquiet at the memory.

When Robyn and Simon return home, Gordon, who overheard Simon tell the clerk his new address, has left a bottle of wine at their door. He begins showing up, always when Robyn is home alone, always bearing gifts and barely plausible excuses for his visits. Robyn invites him to dinner at their place, an offer he reciprocates in a scene that quickly ceases to go according to plan. And here I will refrain from revealing more of the plot, as you are likely filling in blanks with memories of films from "Caché" and "Chuck & Buck" to "Oldboy," "Unlawful Entry," and the French classic "With a Friend Like Harry…"

What's so wonderful about "The Gift" is that it forges its own path, using our built-in biases against us to heighten our displacement as we realize who is the real villain, whom we should genuinely fear. Edgerton throws in two big jump-scares (the latter hilariously effective), both relatively early - enough to keep us on edge the rest of the way. But "The Gift" is not a horror movie; it's a character study wearing genre trappings. Regular readers will know that Rebecca Hall is a personal favorite, and she's terrific here, revealing the instability and strength that reside in Robyn simultaneously. But the movie belongs to Bateman, whose truly special performance marks the best work of his career by the length of several football fields. Simon has been wearing a mask, and watching Bateman pull it off layer by pitiful layer is one of the mesmerizing movie experiences of 2015.

I don't expect the soundtrack album to "Ricki and the Flash" to lead sales on iTunes - with due respect to Meryl Streep's singing ability - but neither will moviegoers stand on line for refunds, as Streep, Kevin Kline and Diablo Cody's punchy script keep them smiling for most of two hours. Streep is rock guitarist Ricki Rendazzo, who abandoned her husband Pete (Kline) and children in Indiana to pursue her dream of stardom. Now, she and the Flash (including wild-eyed Rick Springfield as her long-suffering flame) are the house band at a bar in Tarzana with a clientele of improbably into-it regulars. (Days, she - real name: Linda Brummell - cashiers at a "Total Foods," where her much younger boss warns her never to let her fake smile fall.) 

When Pete calls out of the blue and tells her their daughter (Mamie Gummer) has just survived a suicide attempt, Ricki catches the next plane to be there and make good. As you may expect, one of her two sons has a few resentments to get off his gay chest. And there's a deliciously nasty catfight with Pete's second wife (Audra McDonald) over who's the kids' real mom. Mostly, this middle hour in the Midwest - with little at stake dramatically - gives us time to relish the company of Streep and especially Kline. God, is he a treasure. Watch him as all hell breaks loose during a family dinner at the nicest restaurant in Indianapolis. Accusations and recriminations fly around the table as Kline attempts to preserve a semblance of order. Softly, he tells the waiter, "Two pommes frites,…"

Quick capsules on the rest: from the much-loved Aardman animation house comes the inelegantly titled "Shaun the Sheep Movie," a simple story without spoken words about some animals from Mossy Bottom whose affectionate if dim farmer improbably lands in The Big City with a case of amnesia. They must work together - at times incognito - to find him, elude a mean animal "container," and get home in one woolly piece. Packed with visual wit and possessed of a handful of big out-loud laughs, "Shaun" might have made an Oscar-winning short; stretched to 85 minutes, it occasionally drags… Given the storytelling skills director Jon Watts evinces in his strange, spare and gripping "Cop Car," it's easy to see why Sony and Marvel handed him the new "Spider-Man" reboot. Here is an old-fashioned short story, the kind a young reader would devour, about two grade-school boys taking a ditch day (James Freedson-Jackson and the more interesting Hays Wellford) who during the course of a long, aimless walk come across an abandoned cop car. They decide to take it for a joyride, incurring the wrath of the local sheriff (Kevin Bacon, giving off-center line readings), who's been up to no good, and not particularly pleasing the blood-soaked, left-for-dead man in the trunk, either. The film culminates in a memorable set piece on a nearly desolate stretch of highway, a long wait leading up to a short shootout. (I was reminded of the Coen brothers' debut, "Blood Simple.") And the denouement is even niftier: a kid driver hurtling, with little visibility, through a seemingly endless landscape, not sure whom he's trying to save, or from what… I came prepared to loathe Marielle Heller's "Diary of a Teenage Girl," but it quickly won me over with its unflinchingly honest depiction of a girl's discovery of the joy of sex. One whose understanding of humankind came only from the movies would be forgiven for forgetting that sex is supposed to be fun; here, Minnie (Bel Powley) revels in its pleasures. That it involves an adult - her mother's boyfriend, no less (Alexander Skarsgård) - only heightens the excitement. (One of the few advantages of being gay before it was cool was the sheer transgression of it, the thrill of thinking about - let alone committing - taboo acts.) As the domestic drama plays out, the intrigue wanes somewhat, but this movie does not blend in easily with all the others. Major-role newcomer Powley's a standout, and the always dependable Skarsgård makes Monroe unaccountably sexy… I reserve all of the week's animadversion for the repellent "Dark Places," with Charlize Theron as Libby Day, the lone survivor of a family massacre for which her brother Ben has served 28 years in prison. (He's played as a kid by Tye Sheridan; as an adult, by Corey Stoll.) Libby's been living off checks from well-wishers, but they're running dry when a weird laundromat owner (Nicholas Hoult) offers her thousands to help his group of amateur investigators prove Ben innocent. (He brings her to what may be the most ludicrous party in movie history, where guests in masquerade bump to techno on the ground floor while, upstairs, eminent forensic scientists review decades-old case files.) The movie becomes a series of lurid reёnactments of the murders interlaced with ersatz horror elements from Libby's new detective work. A talented cast goes completely to waste in a movie that's deadly dull and ugly inside and out. Theron changes clothes once, in the epilogue.

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