Monday, September 5, 2016

The Light Between Oceans, Complete Unknown, Spa Night, Klown Forever

The Light Between Oceans
Complete Unknown

Spa Night
Klown Forever

Quick notes on a weak and light weekend of movies:

Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans” – from his own adaptation of the M.L. Stedman novel – asks us willingly to suspend disbelief again and again and again. The last time proves a bridge too far. Michael Fassbender – a talented actor, but hardly one’s first thought for a romantic weepie – plays Tom Sherbourne, a war veteran who eagerly accepts a post as lighthouse keeper on the fictional Australian island of Janus, content to be “the only living man for a hundred miles in any direction.” He barely meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) in the port town from which he sets sail for Janus before the two of them begin an epistolary romance (Griffin and Sabine need not watch their backs) and quickly wed. Life on Janus is idyllic, or would be if any of Isabel’s pregnancies went to term. Happily, a boat washes up after a storm bearing a dead German and a living baby. (Echoes of superior works haunt “LBO”; this time, it’s John Sayles’ magical 1995 film “The Secret of Roan Inish.”) Tom goes to the tower to tap out the discovery in Morse Code, but Isabel stops him: they could just keep the baby and raise her, and nobody would know. (News of her latest miscarriage hasn’t yet traveled.) After much hand-wringing, Tom consents, setting in motion a tragic saga that will come to involve Rachel Weisz as Hannah, a German widow whose husband and infant daughter perished at sea. Da da da dum. I went along with “The Light Between Oceans” as far as I could, only Vikander’s radiance and Adam Arkapaw’s seascapes to sustain me through its soporific 132-minute runtime. But when Hannah came to Isabel’s door with a proposition no mother would ever tender, one that would conveniently doom Tom and destroy their marriage, it took all I have not to cry out, “SCRIPT!”

Rachel Weisz appears in a second new release this week, Joshua Marston’s “Complete Unknown,” a real disappointment from the fine director of “Maria Full of Grace” (2004) and “The Forgiveness of Blood” (2011). This is the supremely silly story of a protean woman (Weisz) who currently goes by the name Alice and claims to be a scientist studying frogs. At the cafeteria of an environmental lobbying firm across the street, Alice initiates a conversation and eventually a friendship with Clyde (Michael Chernus), who invites her to a dinner party. One of the guests, Clyde’s colleague Tom (Michael Shannon), is sure he knows her – more than knows her, had a long-term relationship with her that ended abruptly with her sudden disappearance. “Jenny?” he asks, as Alice appears not to hear him. The stories Alice tells grow more and more fabulous – echoes of Falstaff’s monologue from “Henry IV, Part I” – until finally everyone calls bullshit and she walks out, Tom (who’s married) trailing alone behind her. On the street, they bump into a woman (Kathy Bates) who’s having trouble walking. That’s OK, Alice (now Jenny) assures her, I’m a doctor, and what’s more, Tony here is an osteopath. This is the most promising scene in the movie – a chance for Marston to show the universal appeal of pretending to be someone you’re not – but now it’s the behavior of the woman’s husband (Danny Glover) that becomes risible. There’s a great movie to be made about a pathological liar, but “Complete Unknown” isn’t the one.

Andrew Ahn’s “Spa Night” is a squirmily slow gay coming-of-age movie that operates on the mistaken belief that cliché characters and situations will feel new simply by setting them in Koreatown. Inexpressive neophyte Joe Seo plays aimless David, who works at his parents’ restaurant, attends church with them, and indulges their demands that he immerse himself in SAT prep. (He’d better; a counselor informs him he’ll have to raise his score “600 points” to compete for admission to a good college, a feat that would simultaneously qualify him for the Guinness Book.) But when business slows and Mom and Dad have to close the restaurant, David takes a job at a Korean spa to help out with money. There he first witnesses – albeit obliquely – sexual contact between men, and, well, Mom may have to wait a lifetime or two for the daughter-in-law she dreams of. There’s a cheap, trite quality to many of the scenes of David’s sexual awakening. He visits a church friend who now attends USC and accompanies him to the gym, where his friend stands over him to spot him on the bench press. “Feeling good?” his friend asks after several reps. “Yeah,” David replies, “feeling real good,” his face inches away from the friend’s shorts. When David finally yields to temptation in the spa’s steam room, his traditional boss – who, we were told, was away attending to an emergency – returns and catches him in the afterglow. Such a surprise. The parents are also clichés: the father who drinks himself to sleep out of failure, the mother who just wants everybody to make nice. “Spa Night” is over 90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and has an average user rating under 5 (out of 10) on IMDb. This is one of those times when the critics overpraise a movie so as to appear progressive, and the poor saps who pay to see it bear the brunt.

Finally, a somewhat affectionate thumbs down for the Danish import “Klown Forever,” with Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen reprising their roles as estranged best friends for whom a trip to L.A. may offer a dim hope of reconciliation. It’s as vulgar and sophomoric as an average American bro comedy, scoring only a few self-deprecating laughs about Danes’ (alleged) star-struck idolatry of all things Hollywood.

With no pick this week, I'll remind you of my strong recommendations from August: "Hell or High Water" and "Joshy" (each 4 stars); "Equity," "Hands of Stone," "Little Men," "Morris from America," "Pete's Dragon," and "War Dogs" (each 3 stars).

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