Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Magnificent Seven, Queen of Katwe, The Dressmaker, Goat, My Blind Brother, Cameraperson, The Lovers and the Despot

The Magnificent Seven
Queen of Katwe

The Dressmaker

My Blind Brother

The Lovers and the Despot

Capsules on a movie week of great highs and modest lows:

The weekend's box office champ, Antoine Fuqua's "The Magnificent Seven," shows a mediocre director straining and failing to find a reason to remake the 1960 John Sturges classic (itself a variation on Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai"). With the exception of Ethan Hawke's PTSD-afflicted Goodnight Robicheaux (great name), none of the 7 is even well sketched out, their motivations for joining the vastly undermanned crusade perfunctory at best. Vincent D'Onofrio provides welcome comic relief, and Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are always nice to look at (though the latter's lazy approach dampens his character's already corny comedy), but after that, it's a redskin, a Chinaman and a Mexican - no development - and an effete Peter Sarsgaard as villain Bartholomew Bogue (again, great name). This seriously overlong version rarely zings and occasionally bores… Far superior - and opening this Friday in wide release - is Disney's feel-great "Queen of Katwe," a marvelous family film with good messages about the equality of women in every corner of the world, the importance of long-term planning and delayed gratification, and of course never giving up on your dream. Director Mira Nair largely avoids forcing them down our throats, and when she does we don't gag because of the quality and likability of the performers, the vibrancy of the color palette, and the subtlety of William Wheeler's adapted screenplay. Highly ingratiating newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi, who with her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) sells vegetables in the streets and markets of Katwe, a poor neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda. Phiona stumbles into a student center where Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, for the first time kinda cute) - a trained engineer unable to find employment - coaches soccer (which he had played professionally) and teaches chess. Phiona likes that - as adorable youngster Gloria (Nikita Walligwa) tells her - "in chess, the little one can become the big one." She demonstrates aptitude for the game, soon beating up on the boys in the center and at local tournaments and eventually schooling Robert himself on her way to international grand mastery. Harriet's primary function through most of the movie is initially to reject each of Phiona's travel requests, saddling the luminous Nyong'o (Oscar winner for "12 Years a Slave") with a bit of a killjoy part, though we understand her desire to keep Phiona from the men, sex and alcohol to which her older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) has fallen prey. "Queen of Katwe," like "Pete's Dragon" earlier this summer, left me in tears, though there are lots of laughs along the way. Don't leave right when it ends; stay for a heartwarming epilogue in which each actor appears with the real-life person he or she portrays, while onscreen titles report on the continuing success of these heroes… Thumbs down for long-dormant director Jocelyn Moorhouse's slow and increasingly unpleasant Aussie import "The Dressmaker," about a couturier (Kate Winslet) who returns from Paris to the tiny outback town of Dungatar from which she was exiled as a child after appearing to kill a schoolmate and in which her dotty and dowdy mum (the great Judy Davis) is known to all as "Mad Molly." Winslet and Davis each score a chuckle or two, and keeping Liam Hemsworth shirtless during most of his screen time proves these women are no fools, but despite one impeccably executed plot twist, the revenge fantasy involving the hypocritically prudish townspeople (including Sarah Snook, wasted) sours… Andrew Neel's frat-hazing drama "Goat" (from a script co-written with David Gordon Green) impresses most during the hazing scenes themselves, which bear the awful ring of truth. The surrounding story of two brothers (already-in Phi-Sig Nick Jonas and introverted initiate Ben Schnetzer, who is carjacked and badly beaten before entering school) is alternately overheated and undercooked. I felt a step ahead much of the time, and the music is straight out of the Vivid Video archives. Those seeking homoerotic content, though, will be disappointed… The mumblecore mess "My Blind Brother" only makes me appreciate Jeff Baena's "Joshy" even more (if that's possible). Director Sophie Goodheart has been blessed with three major talents in Nick Kroll and especially Jenny Slate, both of "Joshy," and Adam Scott, who in Patrick Brice's "The Overnight" gave the male comic performance of 2015. She strands them in the deeply dislikable story of Robbie (Scott), a self-obsessed blind athlete who goes from one publicity stunt/charity fundraiser to another while his never-credited brother Bill (Kroll) runs the marathon or rows the swim alongside him, steering him to glory. Kroll and Slate, who feels responsible for her late boyfriend's death, meet at a bar and share a one-night stand. The next morning, she declines to give him her number, vowing to become a better person and devote herself to charity. Lo and behold, that means working with Robbie, who she doesn't know is Bill's brother. Sound contrived enough for you? Only once or twice can even Slate puncture the falsity of "My Blind Brother"… It sounds strange for a working documentary cinematographer to label a collection of her footage a "memoir," but Kirsten Johnson does just that in the wittily titled "Cameraperson," which is not only the pick of the week but a must-see for any lover of film. Carefully curating video from films such as Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning "Citizenfour" and Johanna Hamilton's terrific "1971," Johnson takes us to postwar Bosnia; a Nigerian maternity ward; a Yemeni government ministry; a controversial boxing match in Brooklyn; and myriad other places around the world. Though she appears onscreen only for a few seconds herself, we hear her throughout, interacting with both her subjects and her directors and assistants. Johnson raises profound questions of artist and subject, background and foreground, agency and passivity, the objective and the narrative. Rather than compiling a series of self-contained episodes, she cuts from one to another as she sees fit, occasionally interweaving video shot at her family's farm in Wyoming, where her (late) mother was coping with Alzheimer's. I love, though, that Johnson ends with a seemingly random street scene in Monrovia, Liberia, where her camera follows one person until another catches its eye, and another, and another. Because "Cameraperson" is so personal, it is universal… Finally, a generous two stars for Ross Adam's and Robert Cannan's poorly scored documentary "The Lovers and the Despot," which manages to turn a jaw-dropping true story dull. In the 1970's, actress Choi Eun-hee and her husband, director Shin Sang-ok, were the power couple of South Korean cinema. North Korean dynast Kim Jong-il, a would-be auteur who bewailed the sameness of his country's movies (duh) and their inability to secure entry into film festivals, had Choi and Shin kidnapped in Hong Kong and brought to Pyongyang to serve as his personal filmmakers. Read the rest on Wikipedia; this movie's only grace notes come from the filmmakers' interview with still-elegant survivor Choi.

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