Monday, October 24, 2016

American Pastoral, The Handmaiden, Christine, Moonlight, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, In a Valley of Violence

American Pastoral

The Handmaiden



Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

In a Valley of Violence

Quick capsules on a largely terrific week of movies:

Ewan McGregor makes a strong directorial debut with the ferociously alive Philip Roth adaptation "American Pastoral," featuring first-rate performances by Dakota Fanning and the too-little-seen Jennifer Connelly. McGregor stars as high school football hero Swede Levov, who marries the former Miss New Jersey (Connelly) and inherits his father's (Peter Riegert in a very funny supporting turn) glove manufacturing business. Their daughter Merry (Fanning), a paralytic stutterer, takes up with anti-Vietnam War radicals and disappears the same day the town post office is bombed, killing one. Valorie Curry also impresses in an important secondary role that consistently upends expectations. This is a terrific piece of work by all involved, at each turn quieter and wiser than it had to be, and Roth himself has given it his blessing. It moved me far more than the stuffier "Indignation" earlier this year.

Chan-wook Park of "Oldboy" fame returns with a sumptuous and shape-shifting psychological thriller called "The Handmaiden" that's one of the most stunningly beautiful films of this or any year and also features the best and most exciting lesbian sex scenes in memory. The outline of the plot involves a wealthy young Japanese woman isolated on a sprawling estate, the uncle who forces her to read pornographic stories to the men who fund his collection of rare books, the con man attempting to woo her, and her new handmaiden who's actually a reluctant participant in the scam. The less you know about "The Handmaiden" coming in, the more you'll enjoy it; and what you think you know as you're watching it you probably don't.

Director Antonio Campos - who placed seventh on my 2013 top-ten list with the brooding "Simon Killer" ( - again explores the dark side of life in the un-sensationalistic "Christine," with the gifted Rebecca Hall in peak form as Christine Chubbuck, an on-air personality for a Sarasota, Florida network news affiliate who committed suicide on live television in 1974. Campos puts us in the studio with Christine's anchor and romantic obsession (Michael C. Hall) and her if-it-bleeds-it-leads station manager (Tracy Letts), and at the apartment she and her mom (J. Smith-Cameron) share. Her last few weeks were a series of personal and professional disappointments, but references to her past ("It's like Boston all over again") and her social ineptitude make clear Christine simply had no idea how to live in a world with other people. Hall should be remembered come nomination time, if only for an Independent Spirit Award.

Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” arrives in theaters buoyed by film festival awards and rapturous reviews that may allow it to reach a significant number of gay black men who have not before seen their lives depicted on the big screen. I hope so. But all the hype may overstate the case. “Moonlight” is a small coming of age movie of lovingly chosen details, infectious humor and directorial eloquence, but also of some clich├ęs, a bit of fat in the storytelling, and performances that both miss and hit their marks. The middle sequence is the strongest, with the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) sharing his first sexual encounter with his best friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), whom the school bullies later force to beat Chiron. As the drug dealer who provides refuge for Chiron from age 10, Mahershala Ali continues a breakthrough year that began with “Free State of Jones” and saw him the high point of “Kicks.” Naomie Harris does as well as anyone could with Paula, Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, but the role never transcends stereotype.

The third and final segment is the weakest. I didn’t believe Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) would look like he does – not from a quick montage of push-ups and weight reps – or be in his line of work. His reunion with Kevin (Andre Holland) feels just slightly off almost throughout, occasionally bordering on unintentional comedy. And a word about the “ambiguous” ending. At its best, as in John Sayles’ great “Limbo” (1999), such an ending leaves the outcome to our imaginations. (Are the men aboard this turboprop airplane coming to save Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn and Vanessa Martinez, or to kill them?) Here, I’d have preferred either choice to this trite cop-out. Still, I look forward to seeing what Jenkins does next. And if “Moonlight” does float your boat, race home to see Dee Rees’ fresh-as-a-daisy 2011 gem “Pariah.”

What is there to say about Ed Zwick’s “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”? Well, friends and family who devour the Lee Child books tell me the casting of Tom Cruise as Reacher is downright sacrilegious. Maybe not having read them is an advantage, because all I see is a 54-year-old action icon who’s still in phenomenal shape and does a lot of his own stunts. The plot is that of a decent airplane novel, devoid of originality but perfectly watchable and rarely outright boring. I liked Cobie Smulders as the female lead and even warmed to the different-looking Danika Yarosh as Reacher’s maybe-daughter. It’s as far from “Moonlight” as two films that share a star rating can get (call “Moonlight” a 2.74; Reacher, a 2.26), and not as special as the previous Reacher flick, but if you think you might enjoy it, you probably will.

Finally, a mildly perplexed discommendation for Ti West’s comic Western “In a Valley of Violence,” with Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. The comedy on offer is not Tarantino-esque; it’s more oblique, having to do with incongruities of tone and performance pitch. That’s interesting to me. But the vengeance-based plot is thin and uninteresting and everything about this already-On-Demand flick feels ersatz, from the single-town set to a score that’s microwave Morricone. And an instance of brutal, close-range violence to a dog is drawn out far too cruelly for my sensibilities.

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