Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Equity, Indignation, Don't Think Twice, The Seventh Fire



Don't Think Twice

The Seventh Fire

Quick capsules on a mixed week at the movies:

Best of the lot is Meera Menon’s “Equity,” dubbed a “female ‘Wall Street’” but more compelling than that emblem of 80’s materialism on the strength of three well drawn women: Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn), a senior investment banker looking to bounce back from a failed IPO and rise to department head; Erin Manning (Sarah Megan Thomas), Naomi’s put-upon lead assistant with ambitions of her own; and Samantha (Alysia Reiner), Naomi’s high school classmate, now a U.S. Attorney investigating possible insider trading at her firm. “Equity” will be remembered as a showcase for “Breaking Bad’s” Gunn, who delivers with a versatile performance that calls on her to show both formidable power and vulnerability, both self-doubt and, when Naomi’s new mega-deal hits a stumbling block, the fortitude to turn it around. On her first major film, Menon sticks mostly to two-shots and close-ups, exposing Gunn to intense scrutiny in a way that parallels her character’s. “Equity” is unsubtle and schematic, but compulsively watchable and alive to the beating heart of New York City: money.

The best fifteen minutes of James Schamus’ airless, stilted adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Indignation” comprise a single verbal confrontation between the protagonist, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a scholarly Jewish butcher’s son from Newark, and Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts, the brilliant writer of “Killer Joe” and “August: Osage County”), dean of men at the fictional Ohio college Marcus reluctantly attends to avoid conscription during the Korean War. It’s a virtuoso set piece and a welcome respite from Marcus’ obsession with the co-ed Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a blonde shiksa who caps their first date by getting on her knees and giving him an unexpected hummer. Gadon brings an edge to her line readings in a vain attempt to imbue Olivia with dimension, while Lerman somehow seems both too old and too callow for the lead.

It’s strange. I love to laugh, yet I’m an awful audience for stand-up comedy. When someone so deliberately – and in such an artificial format – sets out to amuse me, I become like a contestant on the old Bobby Van game show “Make Me Laugh!” It’s as if I earn a dollar for every second I hold out. All of which is to say that a movie like Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice,” about an improv troupe facing the loss of its theater and the possible departure of several members to the Holy Grail of “SNL,” had better be freaking hilarious to win me over. What it is is just funny, occasionally quite funny but equally often unfunny and repetitive. And when the ride ends – however enjoyable you found it – you realize you know amazingly little about most of its six-person ensemble. Several have one or two defining traits and that’s about it. I’ll most remember a scathing monologue delivered, reluctantly, by Tami Sagher’s Lindsay late in the picture, that in two minutes bursts the bubble in which Birbiglia and company had taken permanent refuge.

Perhaps I’m losing my patience with documentaries. Ten years ago, they were a rare treat; now, everyone thinks he or she is a documentarian, and most of them stop working once they’ve selected a subject. Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s “The Seventh Fire,” about drug and gang culture on an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota, is the latest prawn on the barbie. The choice simply to plop us down in the middle of a situation sometimes proves highly effective. Here, it’s a fatal mistake. Riccobono, far more than an outsider, could offer relevant experiential observations or contextualizing factual information. Without them, I slept soundly.

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