Saturday, September 5, 2015

What to See Over Labor Day Weekend

Here are my strong recommendations for the holiday weekend:

Anna Muylaert’s Brazilian import “The Second Mother” (“Que Horas Ela Volta?”) holds over for a second week at the Royal. In this rich and finely observed class-struggle comedy set in São Paulo, Val, a maid and nanny (Regina Casé in a nomination-worthy performance), has worked for high-powered style maven Dona Bárbara (Karine Teles), her wealthy husband Jose Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), and their sweet-natured son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) for thirteen years - since Fabinho was in diapers. She sends money home to Pernambuco in the north, where her relatives are raising her daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), with whom she hasn't had a real conservation in years.

Out of the blue, Jessica telephones Val to announce she'll be coming to São Paulo to prepare for and take her college entrance exams, a program of study to which Fabinho applies himself only sporadically. Val is delighted by the news and carves out a tiny space for Jessica in her already cramped maid's quarters, but upon arrival Jessica makes herself at home, noting that the guest suite is empty and asking Carlos, "So this is where I'll be staying, then?" Later, she helps herself to Fabinho's favorite ice cream and, when Barbara asks whether she'd like a glass of water, replies, "No, thanks, I already have some." Val is floored by her daughter's impudence and disregard for the strictures by which she has defined her existence; Jessica, for her part, is appalled by her mother's prostration.

Muylaert (who also co-wrote with Casé) reaps keen insights into human nature from this fertile scenario, fully developing each of the five primary characters with fairness and empathy. Though Barbara's initial generosity gives way to annoyance and finally petulance, she never becomes a caricature. In Carlos, who feels comfortable making certain advances on Jessica, we see the regret and lack of self-respect of a man who inherited family money and abandoned his artistic aspirations. Fabinho - who barely fails the board exam Jessica aces - lives a life of unexamined privilege, meaning no harm. Jessica properly refuses to let her family's finances dictate her place in society, but also lacks the social graces that denote true class. And then there's Val, brought unforgettably and with great humor to life by Casé, who in the film's closing moments finally experiences the simple joys of self-definition and self-expression.

The psychological thriller “The Gift” 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, usually 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 "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 simultaneously in Robyn. 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.

You can also still find “The End of the Tour,” a full-on gabfest taken to another level by mesmerizing performances from Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace and especially Jesse Eisenberg as reporter and novelist David Lipsky, who convinces his editor at Rolling Stone to send him to Bloomington to interview Wallace. Eisenberg has turned in first-rate work in films as varied as “Adventureland,” “The Social Network,” “30 Minutes or Less” and last year’s “Night Moves.” Here, he’s our surrogate; we see Wallace through his eyes and ears, and his lead-ins, reactions and constant attempts to shape the conversation blew me away with their honesty. He flirts with affectation, but only as each of us might if put in such a unique circumstance beside someone clearly blessed with a greater gift. The dialogue itself is not as memorable as, say, that of “Before Midnight” – its aperçus less lacerating – but still compelling; nobody got up as the closing credits rolled. Joan Cusack provides brief bursts of welcome comic relief.

While the mountaineering documentary “Meru” does 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.

Finally, if you’re in L.A., nothing could top seeing “E.T.” on the giant video screens at the Hollywood Bowl, with an introduction by John Williams and David Newman conducting the L.A. Phil. If, like me, you haven’t seen it in full in thirty years or so, you’ll be reminded why it deserves to be called a modern classic, and Steven Spielberg one of the foremost directors in film history. The sweetness of E.T. – the way he falls around drunk on Coors, or musses Elliott’s hair, or his shambling old-man walk up the gate of his flying saucer – had tears running down my face almost the whole time. What I’d forgotten was how much humor Melissa Mathison packed into her script, and how much authentic feeling. Drew Barrymore was impossibly cute as little Gertie, while Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote and Robert Macnaughton found all the subtleties in what could have read as stock characters. But the movie belongs to E.T. and to Henry Thomas, who gives a performance that is strikingly soulful, empathetic and wise beyond his years. Somewhat to my surprise, the live symphony actually does enhance the experience, especially as it swells in the unforgettable final few scenes.

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