Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor, Microbe and Gasoline, The Kind Words, The Innocents

Our Kind of Traitor
Microbe and Gasoline

The Kind Words
The Innocents

Brief capsules on a mixed week at the movies:

You've got to give Susanna White and Hossein Amini, the director and adapter of the minor John le Carré work "Our Kind of Traitor," grudging credit. Their plot is so absurd that, as Anthony Lane pointed out in the New Yorker, it could all be resolved by dropping a package in the nearest mailbox. But at least they have Stellan Skarsgard (as a Russian Mafia accountant ready to reveal all) ask Ewan McGregor (a poetry prof he met randomly in Marrakech) why he agreed to deliver a memory card for him before both men break into inconsolable laughter. Skarsgard fares best with his beefy (in every sense) part, commanding the screen. McGregor's a bit of a wimp here, but I liked Naomie Harris as his lawyer wife and Damian Lewis even more as the British intelligence agent who negotiates the extraction of Skarsgard's wife and kids. For most of its length, "Our Kind of Traitor" is a passable time-killer - the cinematic equivalent of airplane reading - but the story's too silly to provide genuine satisfaction.

Michel Gondry's "Microbe and Gasoline" ("Microbe et Gasoil") introduces us to two young best friends (both, for different reasons, outcasts at school) who concoct to spend the summer traversing France in a motorized house on wheels. Ten years later, "The Science of Sleep" remains my favorite Gondry, but here too he mostly avoids the calculated whimsy that can be so off-putting (as in "The We and the I"). The film offers some sweet insights into the bonds between boys and a few laugh-out-loud moments, as when Microbe wins them a trip home in an art contest and Gasoline cuts short their latest argument: "Forget it. I'm marrying that flight attendant."

The pick of the week is Shemi Zarhin's Israeli import "The Kind Words," about married but restless Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen) and her brothers Netanel (Roy Assaf), who keeps kosher for his Orthodox wife, and Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon), who's gay. Their mother (Levana Finkelstein) passes away early in the picture, after which the man they've known as their father (Sasson Gabai) reveals that he's been incapable of producing sperm all his life. This leads them on an international mission to find the Algerian (Maurice Bénichou) who may be their biological father. And could he be - gasp - an Arab?

"The Kind Words" is a film of rare ambition (merely daring to be about something of substance qualifies in the current cinema) and great wit. It gives us a full, rich relationship between siblings that feels wholly authentic, yet leaves newcomer Zissman-Cohen room to break out with one of the year's best performances. Because her Dorona maintains a cynical façade, she faces a stiff challenge in allowing us to glimpse her vulnerabilities and the awakenings she experiences during this odyssey. That she does is testament to writer-director Zarhin's patience and clarity of vision. He's crafted a work not of soap-opera revelations but of mysteries gently teased out or left unsolved entirely.

There's an element of criticism that rarely gets talked about. How you feel going into a movie (or a play, or a concert) - whether you're in a good or bad mood, or preoccupied with something else, or even just hungry - may affect your enjoyment of it. You try to be aware of it and assess the work fairly, but sometimes there's just no getting around it. I was atypically tired when I saw "The Innocents," a challenging new film by Anne Fontaine, whose "Adore" and "Gemma Bovery" I've enjoyed in recent years. This is the true story of Mathilde, a Red Cross nurse attending to the last French survivors in Warsaw in 1945. A distraught Benedictine nun dares to visit Mathilde's outpost and implores her to visit her convent. There she finds several nuns in various stages of pregnancy - raped by Russian soldiers. "The Innocents" is told with discretion and compassion and exquisitely lit - certain images of the nuns evoke Vermeer - but I can't deny that in my somnolent state I dozed off frequently.

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