Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Elle, Bleed for This, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, The Edge of Seventeen, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Bleed for This

Manchester by the Sea
Nocturnal Animals

The Edge of Seventeen
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Capsules on a mixed week of movies:

Paul Verhoeven has said, while making the rounds to publicize his new picture “Elle,” that he originally wanted to direct it in the States, with an American lead actress. Could never have happened. This is one of the most French films in cinema history, so sexually transgressive and replete with amoral characters it dares you to hate it. Isabelle Huppert gives a formidable performance as Michelle Leblanc, co-founder (with best friend Anne Consigny) of a successful video game company about to launch a new title that depicts the rape and murder of women with orgiastic brio. As "Elle" opens, she is assaulted and raped by a masked intruder at her Paris home. Is it Kurt (Lucas Prisor), a contemptuous programmer who publicly contradicts her at a staff meeting? Her ex, Richard (Charles Berling)? Her neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte)? Anna's husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), with whom she's having a sexual affair? Her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet)? And whoever it is, why does Michelle fantasize about it and seem to seek out a replay? "Elle" holds your interest throughout with its almost inhuman detachment, sardonic humor and plethora of shocks - and, of course, Huppert, who may finally receive due recognition in the States.

2016 offers a second terrific boxing movie ("Hands of Stone" was the first) in Ben Younger's "Bleed for This," starring Miles Teller as Vincent "Vinny Paz" Pazienza, a fighter out of Providence who captured two world titles before a freak car accident broke his neck and left doctors unsure whether he would ever walk again. But Vinny, outfitted with a "halo" device vaguely reminiscent of the neck chain worn by Mahershala Ali in "Free State of Jones," has more than walking on his mind. He's determined to fight again, and has legendary trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) move into his basement, where they place blankets on the floor to dampen the sound from weights and sneak in 3 a.m. workouts under his family's nose. (Completing the circle, Vinny's payoff is a title bout against "Stone" subject Roberto Duran.) Eckhart is unrecognizable as Rooney, as are Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal as Vinny's parents. All are excellent. Teller is an uncommonly gifted actor; I've been waiting for him to leave behind callow fare such as "That Awkward Moment" and "21 and Over" and show off his capabilities. Here, he's not just sympathetic but commanding. In certain shots, he looks older than his 29 years, giving a hint of the man he's still growing into. I look forward to witnessing his continued development.

Good but not great, Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" merits recommendation on the strength of first-rate performances by lead Casey Affleck and young supporting actor Lucas Hedges. It's the story of Lee Chandler, once a happy family man and backup hockey goalie, now (after a tragic accident) a hard-drinking and slow-burning janitor living alone in a one-bedroom Boston apartment. When Lee's brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, his will provides for Lee to take custody of his son Patrick, a role for which Lee feels entirely unready. The relationship between Lee and Patrick forms the heart of "Manchester by the Sea," and the film features some moments of hilarious honesty and genuine insight. But, man, does it crawl, with way too many montages of the shoreline set to operatic arias, and a glut of domestic drama-drama-drama. As with Isabelle Huppert in "Elle," this isn't Casey Affleck's most searing performance - for that, I'd look back to Scott Cooper's 2013 "Out of the Furnace" - but if it's the one that gets him Oscar's attention, I'll be leading the cheers. Michelle Williams could eke out a supporting nom (in the Judi Dench/"Shakespeare in Love" - Anne Hathaway/"Les Misérables" mold) for essentially one heart-wrenching scene.

Quickies on the rest: I dozed through much of Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals," which from its opening credits signals greater interest in being artsy-fartsy than in telling a compelling tale. It's a story within a story, but only the inner story (a novel's plot about a family's nightmarish experience with road rage) is involving, and it only at a visceral level. There are too many shots of Amy Adams reading, or slamming shut, the book written by her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal). Adams usefully fills a role in Hollywood, but candidly she doesn't stir deep emotions in me. The ending works but lacks great potency… An actress I like more, Hailee Steinfeld, feels too mature for the part of an angsty high school junior in Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge of Seventeen." Every movie could use Woody Harrelson in sarcathlete mode - and I mostly liked newcomer Hayden Szeto as the sweet, nerdy Asian boy who's obviously right for Nadine - but the material involving her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and hunky brother (Blake Jenner) hooking up goes nowhere, and the pet-store stock clerk (Alexander Calvert) upon whom she's inexplicably crushing ends up, after a promising start (I love the forwardness of the women's sexual propositions both here and in "Elle"), being treated quite shabbily by Craig's script. For the too-good Steinfeld, this movie is like shopping in the Brass Plum department at Nordstrom when you have a house account at Neiman Marcus… Finally, one of the most bizarre and unsuccessful movies of the year, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," by a celebrated director, Ang Lee, who keeps getting worse and worse. This one - which feels like an experimental play transposed to IMAX for no discernible reason - tells the almost incoherent, neither-fish-nor-fowl story of an Iraq war hero's (unimpressive newcomer Joe Alwyn) return home to appear with his squad in the halftime spectacular of a Thanksgiving Day 2004 NFL game. If Lee ever knew how human beings talk, he's lost his ear. The dialogue here - when not interrupted by flashbacks to half-hearted battle scenes - consists of strained barracks humor and (mostly) platitudinous sermonizing, by a cast so incongruous (Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin) you half expect Hulk Hogan, Hillary Clinton and Daffy Duck to make cameos.

Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble gobble!

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