Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A Bigger Splash, The Family Fang, Dark Horse, Viva, Gayby Baby, Memoria

A Bigger Splash
The Family Fang

Dark Horse

Gayby Baby

Five recommendations out of six in a strong week at the cinema:

Best of the lot is Luca Guadagnino’s devious and decadent “A Bigger Splash,” with Tilda Swinton as Marianne Lane, an iconic rock star giving her vocal cords the month off during a getaway to the (volcanic, natch) Italian island of Pantelleria with doc-filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Enter – to the consternation of all – Marianne’s lustful-for-life ex-producer and lover Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), with a smoldering young beauty on his arm: his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whose visage conceals as many secrets as Harry’s logorrhea bares. She brings a thinly veiled contempt for Marianne to the party and sets about seducing Paul while Harry, who introduced Marianne to Paul, attempts to re-replace him. The melodrama is juicy, and the juice is pulpy. I’ve not always been the president of the Tilda Swinton fan club, but she’s arresting here; you can’t take your eyes off her. Fiennes shows a new side and excels in a part that could easily have gone over the top. Johnson continues to evince promise and, as for Schoenaerts, suffice it to say I wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers. (Then again, why else would he be there?) Guadagnino masterfully creates moods out of changes in the weather, idiosyncratic choices in image composition, and a carefully curated soundtrack that mixes classical with classic rock.

What a nice surprise Jason Bateman’s “The Family Fang” proves to be, with Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett as Caleb and Camille Fang, performance artists renowned for their elaborately constructed pranks, which involved their daughter and son (“Child A” and “Child B”) throughout their youth. Now grown up, Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman) are, respectively, an actress on the downslope of her career and an author trying to recreate the success of his first novel. When Caleb and Camille are found dead in a rest stop shooting on their way to the Berkshires, Baxter’s ready to mourn and move on, while Annie’s not buying it for a minute. She’s sure it’s their pièce de résistance. As she commences her own investigation and Baxter reluctantly accompanies her, they forge a new relationship and find the wherewithal to define themselves independently of their famous folks. The performances are uniformly strong. Walken is as committed to his character as Caleb is to the sanctity of his art, whatever the personal cost. Kidman, so often aloof and otherworldly, finds in this low-budget film the freedom to be ordinary. It’s emancipating. And Bateman – whose work in Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift” was some of the best of last year – again took my breath away with the honesty, patience and quietude of his reactions and line readings. I only warmed to him lately, but he’s making himself into a compelling film actor.

The water works flowed freely in Louise Osmond’s soul-stirring documentary “Dark Horse,” about a fading Welsh mining town in which the barmaid, twinkle-eyed Jan Vokes, formed a loose syndicate of patrons who put up ten pounds a week to breed and train a racehorse, which they named Dream Alliance. Dream started slowly but found his stride and won several major races before a devastating injury threatened to end his career. The horse is a beauty, but “Dark Horse” is really the story of a group of commoners, whose way of life was slowly dying, finding a respite from their struggles and crashing the beautiful people’s turf. Only the hardest of hearts will be unmoved.

I also liked a lot the Havana-set Irish Oscar entry “Viva,” about Jesus (Héctor Medina), a young, gay, orphaned hairdresser who aspires to take the stage with the drag queens whose hair he styles at “Mama’s” place (Luis Alberto García). He’s self-sufficient, with his own apartment and a job that puts food on the table (his girlfriend Cecilia always asks to borrow his pad for sex with her boxer boyfriend). Out of the blue, Jesus’ father, Angel (Jorge Perugorría), shows up, himself a fighter, past his prime, with a gut and a drinking problem. When I tell you that Angel disapproves of Jesus’ new drag gig (we first meet him when he punches his son in the face during a performance), you’ll think, as I did, that you know exactly where “Viva’s” going. It does go to those places, but that’s the least interesting aspect of it. Its freshness lies in the surprises in the father-son relationship, director Patty Breathnach’s composition of images (particularly of Jesus’ window out onto Havana’s inescapable rain), and the hilariously catty and witty exchanges among the divas. The last thirty minutes of “Viva” should have been fifteen (I expected it to end five times before it did), but it deserved its place on Oscar’s long shortlist.

Another thumbs up for the Australian documentary “Gayby Baby,” about four children being raised by gay and lesbian parents. What’s so striking about the film is that it quickly becomes a documentary about four families dealing with the same everyday questions as any others: Will our daughter get into a school for the arts? How do we talk to our son about God and help him as he figures out what he does and doesn’t believe? What can we do to help our son with his learning disability? How much roughhousing can we allow between our wrestling-obsessed son and his younger, smaller sister? The only jarring note involves two dads who move to Fiji for work and tell their son that, if anyone asks, “Peter is your dad and I just help take care of you.”

Finally, skip “Memoria,” a 75-minute film based on more of James Franco’s stories from his childhood in Northern California. Unlike “Yosemite” earlier this year, this one is strictly kids behaving badly and parents who just don’t understand.

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