Friday, May 12, 2017

Gifted, The Lost City of Z, The Fate of the Furious, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Truman, Tommy's Honour, Graduation, Born in China, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Free Fire, A Quiet Passion, Chasing Trane, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, The Circle, One Week and a Day, The Dinner, Obit, The Lovers, Chuck, Risk, Snatched

The Lost City of Z

The Fate of the Furious
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Tommy's Honour

Born in China

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki
Free Fire

A Quiet Passion
Chasing Trane

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
The Circle

One Week and a Day
The Dinner

The Lovers



The quickest of capsules on a month's worth of movies, including a few gems:

"Gifted" is a passable who'll-get-custody-of-the-gifted-girl drama, with a mostly un-precocious turn by young McKenna Grace as math whiz Mary and Lindsay Duncan in a nuanced performance as the less-villainous-than-you-first-think grandmother with her own crushed dreams of mathematical greatness. The best line belongs to Octavia Spencer as Mary's neighbor and friend, who admonishes hunky dad Chris Evans, "You don't even have enough sense to hire a white lawyer."

As for "The Lost City of Z," I can do no better than to point you to Kyle Smith's critique in National Review. He nails its mush-headed multiculturalism to the cross.

"The Fate of the Furious" lacks the grace notes that made 2015's "Furious 7" the apotheosis of the franchise - F. Gary Gray is no James Wan, and the untimely death of Paul Walker gave the earlier film an unmatchable poignancy and resonance - but there are still some jaw-dropping scenes (one involves cars that start themselves and reverse from high-level garages onto the street, another auto-piloted cars that crash into a building in something like Tetris formation) and top-shelf stunt work throughout.

"Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer," about an endlessly insinuating, small-time wheeler-dealer who finally makes it big after buying a pair of expensive shoes for the right Israeli politician, is elevated by the performance of Richard Gere and especially by the witty direction of Joseph Cedar, who in 2012's "Footnote" turned Talmudic philology into the stuff of high suspense. This guy really knows how to direct a movie.

The Spanish import "Truman," about a divorced actor recently diagnosed with cancer (Ricardo Darín of Argentina's brilliant original "The Secret in Their Eyes") and his childhood friend Tomás (Javier Cámara), now a married teacher in Canada, who reunite in Madrid for a few days of nostalgia and new experiences, exemplifies the difference between Hollywood and foreign film. In Hollywood, this picture would be (if ever made) mawkish and false; "Truman" is soft-spoken, unforced and true.

"Tommy's Honour," with Peter Mullan and Jack Lowden respectively as the father and son who gave birth to modern professional golf, is strictly for duffers. The acting can't be faulted - Sam Neill has a small part as a snobby patrician - but the youngster's love interest, and her war of wills with his mother, pads the runtime to an unnecessary two hours. That's enough time to get nine holes in instead.

Cristian Mungiu's Romanian import "Graduation" is rich with the moral and ethical complexity of a country still shedding the corrupt skin of its communist days. Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a respected doctor whose bright, accomplished daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is one exam away from a generous scholarship to an English university (and the bigger world that both parents wish for her and, regretfully, for themselves). But when she is suddenly attacked on the day before her test, what lengths will Romeo go to to secure for her extra test time or even an artificially high score?

With "Born in China," I can officially announce I've had my fill of Disneynature's anthropomorphized nature documentaries. The mother and child pandas are the inevitable highlight, and I laughed with delight at baby bear's tumbles while learning to climb a tree and become independent. But John Krasinski's narration is perfunctory at best, lacking the humor that John C. Reilly and Tina Fey brought to previous episodes.

"The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki," a sweet-natured Finnish import about a humble boxer with a shot at the 1962 world featherweight title who finds he'd rather hang with his girlfriend than spar with his expensive trainer, never pulled me into its spell. I admire its quietude and some lovely black-and-white cinematography - and I get what it's trying to be (think of the films of Guy Maddin), but I was bored.

Fast on the heels of last year's "High-Rise" (and with 2013's "Sightseers" still in memory), Ben Wheatley's "Free Fire" has convinced me to pull the plug on seeing his films. This is a totally unfunny, self-obsessed single-site action comedy about a gun sale gone wrong, with two of my least favorite working actors, the charisma-free Armie Hammer and the fingernails-on-blackboard Sharlto Copley. That Brie Larson would choose this film to follow up her Oscar win for "Room" defies credulity.

Best of the lot - and one of the two best films of 2017 to date - is Terence Davies' Emily Dickinson biopic "A Quiet Passion," with a nomination-worthy performance by Cynthia Nixon as the belle of Amherst, devoted sister (to Jennifer Ehle) and daughter (to Keith Carradine). Anything but stuffy or starchy, this is a full-bodied study of a woman, made with wit and, especially in the first half, laugh-out-loud humor (Catherine Bailey enchants as the naughty, ahead-of-her-time Miss Vryling Buffam). As in "The Deep Blue Sea," Davies evinces his mastery of light and darkness; where so many directors aim for the crepuscular glow of dusk, the hours between twilight and nightfall, when just a hint of illumination suffuses the house, belong to Davies as to no other. Also as in that film, which made my 2012 top-ten list, you may find yourself thinking deeper thoughts and feeling deeper emotions than you realized lay within you. Davies also makes use of the poetry itself - as read by Nixon - as effectively as any film since 2013's "Reaching for the Moon." What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant mind that rarely failed to get in the way of its owner's happiness.

Of the two documentaries I saw one night recently, John Scheinfeld's serviceable "Chasing Trane," with Denzel Washington reading from the writings of John Coltrane, painted the fuller picture of its subject, the soulful and spiritual jazz saxophonist. Less incisive was Lydia Tenaglia's unfocused, incomplete "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent," a bio of one of the fathers of California cuisine (from whom, he claims, Alice Waters stole virtually all of the recipes in the Chez Panisse cookbook) that's more apt for the small screen than the silver screen.

I walked out of James Ponsoldt's howler "The Circle," from a Dave Eggers book that I can see how it might have worked on the printed page. Onscreen, its ideas about the online world infiltrating and taking over our lives and minds come crashing down around real-world places, situations and dialogue that couldn't sound phonier if they'd tried. Emma Watson, a joy in "Beauty and the Beast," is all wrong for the lead, while Tom Hanks, as the Zuckerberg-like CEO of The Circle, continues to cement his status as a sure-fire indicator of a huge flop (and the annoying Patton Oswalt stumbles as his lieutenant). Ellar Coltrane from "Boyhood" and John Boyega are also saddled with thankless parts in a movie where every member of Hanks' vast workforce laughs at every laugh line and aside in every speech. I rolled my eyes, then grumbled aloud, then decamped.

The Israeli import "One Week and a Day," which follows a married couple the day after the end of Shiva for their late 25-year-old son, did nothing for me. The mother, a teacher who returns to school to find her substitute still there, is more interesting than the father, a jerk who befriends his neighbors' stoner son Zooler (a character as antic as the name indicates). I found their behaviors unconvincing and the humor not to my sensibility.

I also walked out of Oren Moverman's "The Dinner," a major disappointment from the director of "The Messenger" and "Time Out of Mind" and the writer of "Love & Mercy." Talk about false advertising: the trailers sell this as a Richard Gere movie about a Congressman whose son gets into criminal trouble (with his brother's son) that imperils his latest campaign. But Gere's a supporting player; virtually the entire movie belongs to Steve Coogan as the most annoying, psychotic father whose kid hasn't been forcibly removed by Child Protective Services. Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney as the respective wives are afterthoughts (especially Hall) - a real shame. This bizarre, often incoherent mess of a movie will surely rank among the worst of 2017. Please, God, there cannot be ten worse than this.

I enjoyed Vanessa Gould's documentary "Obit," about the (failing) New York Times' obituary writers. (Obituaries of people, that is, not of their employer.) As with the NYT crossword, the obits have evolved in recent years from staid recitations of fact to living, breathing pieces of prose; wit, long exiled, is welcomed in the right measure. As you might imagine, spending time in the company of these writers (of whom the lone woman representative, Margalit Fox, is also the most insightful) is mordantly funny. My only complaint is that Gould devotes significant time to the development of three obituaries in particular (those appearing on a day chosen at random) but only reads from one.

I feel ungrateful panning Debra Winger's first significant movie in ages - especially when it also posits the rotund playwright Tracy Letts as a romantic leading man (giving us all hope) - but "The Lovers" is schematic and overheated, a concept movie whose concept isn't all that clever. The idea is that they've been married forever, she having an affair with a writer and he having one with an actress, until they start cheating on their paramours with... each other. The fundamental problem is that the writer's such a putz, and the actress a lunatic, that we don't buy those pairings at any point. (The ending doesn't make sense on any level, and the last scene renders the previous 90 minutes essentially meaningless.) A young actor named Tyler Ross gives a viscerally dislikable performance as their hateful, resentful collegian son.

"Chuck" - about Chuck Wepner, the "Bayonne Bleeder" whose life story Sylvester Stallone mined for the character of Rocky Balboa - isn't at the same rarefied level as last year's boxing films "Hands of Stone" and "Bleed for This." But it's consistently watchable thanks to a superb cast: Liev Schreiber as the ne'er-do-well Chuck; Elisabeth Moss as his put-upon wife, Phyllis; Jim Gaffigan and Michael Rapaport as, respectively, his best friend and brother; Morgan Spector as Stallone, who wants to give Chuck a shot in pictures but winces through his coke-fueled audition; and especially an unrecognizable Naomi Watts as Linda, the bartender who sees through all his bullshit from the jump (and ends up the love of his life). Call it a winner by split decision.

Without the frisson of suspense that made her Oscar-winning "Citizenfour" so engrossing, Laura Poitras' Julian Assange documentary "Risk" unfolds with all the excitement and forward thrust of Assange's Wikipedia entry. A documentarian must always be praised for obtaining insider access, and clearly Poitras has a preternatural gift for earning her subjects' trust, but despite placing us inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, she sheds little light on Assange or his beliefs or aims. Where "Citizenfour" held us enthralled from moment to moment, "Risk" operates on a more abstract level that lends to tuning out.

I laughed once at the lamentable Amy Schumer/Goldie Hawn comedy "Snatched," the kind of dumb two-star vehicle we used to get weekly in the 80s, with titles like "The Great Outdoors" or "Spies Like Us" or "See No Evil, Hear No Evil." This one's best moments are leftovers from 2015's "Trainwreck." Schumer's increased stridency over the subsequent two years cannot be ignored; nor can her unbecoming avoirdupois. As for Hawn, I prefer to remember her as she was in "Seems Like Old Times" or "Overboard." Schumer's one great line, after the hyper-nervous Hawn claims she leads a rich, full life: "Mom, all you do is check the locks all day."

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