Friday, November 13, 2015

Miss You Already, Spectre, Trumbo, Spotlight, Welcome to Leith, What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

Miss You Already


Welcome to Leith
What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

The first four-star film of 2015 highlights a mostly good week at the movies:

It began with the pleasant surprise of Catherine Hardwicke’s “Miss You Already,” an effective weepie about British BFF’s Milly (Toni Collette) and Jess (Drew Barrymore). Milly married her first sexual partner, a punk rocker named Kit (Dominic Cooper) who turns out to be quite domestic; they have two kids. Jess and her guy, a commercial sailor named Jago (Paddy Considine), have been trying to conceive. Milly, the proudly pulled-together daughter of self-absorbed actress Miranda (Jacqueline Bisset), struts into her doctor’s office, hoping to keep things quick, when he gives her the word that stops her cold: cancer.

I appreciated several aspects of “Miss You Already,” starting with its insistence on getting out of bed and away from the hospital and its refusal to turn Milly into a saint. She acts out frequently and, on a trip to the moors, takes an action to which Jess (and we) take sharp exception. But the movie is honest about friendship and the balancing it requires among concern, judgment, and support. Cooper, Considine and Bisset provide solid support, but the movie belongs to Collette – ugly though she may be – in an unexpectedly wide-ranging performance and to Barrymore, who in a quieter role serves as the conduit for our emotional reactions. It’s the kindness and authenticity of her smile I’ll remember when I think of “Miss You Already.”

Less to like about “Spectre,” Daniel Craig’s self-professed swan song as James Bond, which, like so many films in the franchise, never again reaches the heights of its crackerjack opening sequence, here an extended tracking shot through Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos that culminates in a penthouse shootout and helicopter chase. In a way, it’s a shame he’s leaving; once or twice, looking past whomever he’s talking to and winking his line readings into the camera, the odd-faced and hard-assed Craig locates Bond’s long-lost sex appeal.

But then come two and a half hours of redundant, preposterous action. In movies, preposterousness can take the form of “let’s share the enjoyment” silliness, or of “please look past this” insult to the intelligence. The latter predominates here, particularly in an escape from a bomb-rigged chair that’s not exactly Houdini-esque. Léa Seydoux of “Blue is the Warmest Color” makes a wan, nothing Bond Girl; her drab, sallow-silver dress doesn’t help. Among the supporting cast, only Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw as Q consistently delight. The luminous “Skyfall” topped a recent Rotten Tomatoes ranking of all 24 Bond films, making the dozy “Spectre” all the more anticlimactic.

Jay Roach's "Trumbo," about the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is a showy, outsized picture, familiar in its contours, pitched to the rafters, largely devoid of nuance, and entertaining as hell. As Trumbo, Bryan Cranston (in his first major silver-screen role) appears in almost every frame of the film, and delivers a memorable, nom-worthy performance. Among a superb supporting cast, Louis C.K., Helen Mirren (as Hedda Hopper), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a conflicted and guilt-wracked Edward G. Robinson), and an actor named David James Elliott (as John Wayne) stand out. But it is John Goodman, that certifiable national treasure, who takes the movie to another level as the schlockmeister Frank King. He had me slapping my knees with his hilariously unfiltered real talk. A number of clever segues and scene-ending lines mark John McNamara's first-rate script.

It took until mid-November, but Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" - from a screenplay he co-wrote with Josh Singer - ensures that 2015 will not pass without a four-star film. It's clearly a cut above the ennead of features to which I have awarded 3.5 stars, none of which I had relished the thought of naming the year's best. Based on the Boston Globe's (arguably belated) uncovering of that city's epidemic of pedophile priests, many placed on euphemistically labelled leaves and recirculated to other parishes, "Spotlight" combines the compelling forward thrust of a top-drawer thriller with stop-you-in-your-tracks moments of sorrow and pity; the pit-of-your-stomach gravitas of a social and religious crisis with a rare lightness of touch; genuine wit and humor with purpose and focus. 

Here is by far the finest ensemble cast of the year, almost all of whom turn in work as good as or better than any in their filmography: as the editors, John Slattery, Michael Keaton (in a performance as understated as his "Birdman" was all-out), and Liev Schreiber (whose Marty Baron, brought in from Miami by corporate, would in a lesser movie certainly have been turned into a villain); as the Spotlight reporters, Brian d'Arcy James, Mark Ruffalo (given the showiest role), and Rachel McAdams (never better); and as victims' attorneys with antithetical styles, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci. It's the sort of movie where the level of acting is so high across the board you come home and check IMDb to look up who played half a dozen smaller parts.

"Spotlight" works so well because at every step it's smarter than it had to be, softer than it had to be, more trusting of its audience to recognize the "lead" in each new interview, each new document the team uncovers. It's also remarkably attuned to all of the interpersonal dynamics within the newsroom. One scene ends with a wry little "huh" by McAdams, barely audible, but hilarious in context. That's typical. These journalists grapple as intensely with strategic considerations as with ethical questions. That they respect and trust one another comes through in a hundred quiet conversations in which one accedes - often reluctantly - to another's vision. "Truth" also celebrates the hard work of reporting, but "Spotlight" is even finer. It's the best film so far this year.

Quick capsules on a pair of documentaries: Do check out Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker's "Welcome to Leith," about the white nationalist Craig Cobb's attempt to take over the tiny North Dakota town of Leith (population: 24) by buying up abandoned real estate on the cheap and inviting fellow supremacists to migrate in. A number of increasingly heated confrontations between Cobb and his followers and appalled locals are impossible to turn away from. Cobb's plan was ingenious; its failure can be attributed to his bombastic, in-your-face tactics. What's scariest of all to contemplate is how it could be implemented by hatemongers armed with honey rather than vinegar.

Finally, a big thumbs down for David Evans' "What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy," in which Philippe Sands, the film's writer and a prosecutor with the International Criminal Court, travels through Europe with the sons of Nazi officers Hans Frank and Otto Wächter. Niklas Frank, who had been Adolf Hitler's godson, renounces his father's legacy, retaining a photo of him after his hanging following the Nuremburg trials only to be sure he's still dead. Horst von Wächter, by contrast, has chosen the path of self-denial, insisting that his father did not himself directly murder any Jews and, at an earlier time, had helped the people of Ukraine (the hero's welcome Horst receives on a visit to the country appears to bear out the latter point). 

This leads to ever harder-to-watch scenes in which Sands, with all the smugness of one infatuated with his own virtue, badgers Horst to admit his father's guilt. You first wonder, to what end? You then notice that the "evidence" upon which Sands relies in one instance is essentially a postwar accusation, while he rejects out of hand the defense (a perfectly valid defense at criminal law) of duress. One may ask why a man's father didn't stand up at a parliamentary session to oppose implementation of the so-called "Final Solution." But when the answer is that he would have been shot and killed, then what? Sands and his sanctimonious ilk are cordially invited to visit North Korea and call Kim Jong-un out on his human rights abuses. Then they'll have earned the right to require a man to be either a hero or a war criminal.

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