Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hands of Stone, The Hollars, In Order of Disappearance, The Intervention, Mia Madre, My King, Southside With You

Hands of Stone
The Hollars

In Order of Disappearance
The Intervention

Mia Madre
My King

Southside with You

One thumb up, six down:

The pick of the week - and it's a dandy: writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz's "Hands of Stone," an uncommonly good boxing movie featuring Robert De Niro's best performance in recent years as the trainer Ray Arcel, who takes Roberto Duran (a strong Edgar Ramirez) from the streets of Panama all the way to Madison Square Garden and the world welterweight title. For all the braggadocious machismo of Duran's posturing - particularly in his war of wills with Sugar Ray Leonard (a convincing Usher Raymond) - what makes the movie resonate is Arcel's fidelity to his code, which comes out in quieter moments with his wife (Ellen Barkin), Duran's agent (Ruben Blades), and the mob boss (a nicely subdued John Turturro) who ensures (literally on pain of death) that Arcel makes no money from his tutelage. I also want to single out the actress Ana de Armas - as I did in reviewing "War Dogs" - who again brings something extra to a standard girlfriend/wife part. I hope we'll get to see her in a starring role soon. Jakubowicz's script shows respect for every one of its characters, yielding unexpectedly substantive speeches and dialogues and lines that veer off in unpredictable directions. "Hands of Stone" is much smarter than the movie for meatheads I'd been prepared for.

The fine actress Margo Martindale deserves a showpiece role, and John Krasinski, directing his first major motion picture, "The Hollars," gives her one as Sally Hollar, the matriarch of a family of troubled men: husband Don (Richard Jenkins), whose business has been running at a loss for some time; divorced son Ron (Sharlto Copley), who lives with them while his ex-wife (Ashley Dyke) raises the two daughters he loves with new hubby Reverend Dan (Josh Groban); and out-of-the-nest son John (Krasinski), unfulfilled in his job in New York City even with girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) about to deliver their first child. When Sally - the glue holding everyone together - is diagnosed with a brain tumor, the stage is set for a series of formulaic crises and catharses. Martindale is a treasure, and easily the best thing about "The Hollars," her quiet yet forceful line readings an antidote to its sometimes manic activity. Jenkins can be a wonderful character actor, but the one thing he can't do is play dumb, and too often James Strouse's script infantilizes Don. Kendrick and Krasinski are adorable, but their plotline smacks of White People Problems. As for Copley, if I could vote anyone out of show business, he'd make my shortlist. 

There's something vaguely unseemly to the timing of Richard Tanne's "Southside with You," about the daylong first date between second-year Sidley & Austin associate Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and summer associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). Idolization of a sitting president of any stripe feels queasy to me, and releasing this picture at the peak of the election to replace him tarnishes its few strengths. Chief among them is Sumpter - a genial presence in the "Ride Along" franchise - who stays true to the smart if prissy Michelle Tanne has written. Sawyers is entirely credible as Barack - no mean feat - though some of his pronouncements bear the whiff of mansplaining. The film lacks forward thrust, and the dialogue - unlike that of, say, Richard Linklater's "Before Sunset" (an obvious walk-and-talk antecedent) - drifts in and out of authenticity. A speech Barack gives at a community center sounds fine, but many of the crowd reactions are movie-ish. And at 81 minutes, even the president's most ardent adherents may feel cheated.

Hans Petter Moland's Norwegian import "In Order of Disappearance" stars the redoubtable Stellan Skarsgard as Nils Dickman, a snow plow driver whose efforts to keep the roads moving earn him his town's Citizen of the Year award. When Nils' son dies unexpectedly, purportedly of a heroin overdose, Nils rejects the official explanation and uncovers the truth: Ingvar was the unwitting victim of a turf war between local and Serbian drug dealers. The movie is two hours of Nils' revenge. He works his way up the chain of command, killing each echelon in ways that range from mundane to deliciously specific. The picture is not without moments of humor and style. Ultimately, though, I came to resent the simplicity of its plot and its refusal to engage with any of the moral quandaries Nils' murder spree raises. Perhaps inevitably, an American version is set to open in 2018 featuring - who else - Liam Neeson.

Clea DuVall's mumblecore concept movie "The Intervention" suffers from temporal proximity to Jeff Baena's superior-in-every-way "Joshy," also about thirtysomethings coming together to process an unfortunate situation. Here, alcoholic Annie (Melanie Lynskey) and her go-along-to-get-along fiancé Matt (Jason Ritter); Jessie (DuVall) and her jealous girlfriend Sarah (Natasha Lyonne, usually a bad omen); and widowed Jack (Ben Schwartz) and his too young, too soon new girlfriend Lola (Alia Shawkat) stage a "marriage intervention," urging their friends Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza) to divorce. Lynskey can be such a special actress - cf. 2014's "Happy Christmas" - that it pains me to see her misdirected. Still, she creates one or two moments of comic truth among the little tics and false flourishes. Among the rest, only Shawkat makes much of an impression; she's got more lifeforce than the others combined. DuVall's script is at times cringingly unfunny, as when Annie, putting off revealing the real reason for the weekend, slurs, "Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got."

It takes balls to identify yourself, in the trailer for your new movie, as "Master Director Nanni Moretti." He's got those, but, on the basis of "Mia Madre," 2012's little-seen "We Have a Pope," and 1994's awful "Caro Diario" (a Jennifer Beals sighting!), mastery? Not so much. This one's about a perfectionist film director (Margherita Buy) juggling hospital visits to see her ailing mother (Giulia Lazzarini) around her latest shoot, debased (to the point of incredulity) by a giant ham of an American actor (John Turturro). "Mia Madre" is replete with so many dream sequences, flashbacks and reveries, it makes "Last Year at Marienbad" seem dully linear by comparison. Whatever self-restraint Turturro mustered in "Hands of Stone," he unlooses here, making his Barry Huggins insufferable company. For Buy, who had the lead in 2014's film-as-product-placement "A Five Star Life," this is a more rewarding role, though I still don't count her among the world's great actresses.

Emmanuelle Bercot - the French thespian and writer-director - staked her claim to that territory by winning Best Actress at Cannes 2015 for her leading role in Maiwenn's "My King." She plays Tony, a criminal defense attorney who shatters her knee in a skiing accident as the film opens and uses her time at a rehabilitation center to reminisce (at great length: 125 minutes) about her tumultuous ten years with the restaurateur Georgio (Vincent Cassel, working a lot lately). The fundamental problem with "My King" is that Georgio is such an insensitive clod (ok, an asshole), we begin to resent Tony - a smart woman albeit one with major psychological problems - for staying with him. In 2012's "Polisse" - which I strongly recommended - Maiwenn showed a flair for conjuring moods out of music, most particularly in a scene in which the cops in a child protective unit took to the dance floor for Keedz's esoteric "Stand on the Word." This movie's meet-cute (or, more precisely, re-meet-cute) starts in that direction before abandoning it. From there, Bercot's terrific, and Cassel can be, but we just want out.

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