Thursday, September 28, 2017


The Unknown Girl

Brad's Status

American Assassin

Battle of the Sexes

Victoria & Abdul


School Life

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

The Force

Several terrific films and some dogs as September winds down:

For a movie-as-metaphor such as Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" to work well, it must work first as a movie - a story with believable, involving characters and a narrative arc - and only secondarily, perhaps in an aha moment sometime after it ends, as a metaphor. "mother!" fails this test. The problem is not that it is resolutely unenjoyable, though it is that, but that the characters never become more than pawns on a chessboard, personifications of Aronofsky's preconceived ideas. And, too, a flood of redundancy, as we wait for ever more bizarrely behaving interlopers to infiltrate the home of Mother (Jennifer Lawrence, the director's girlfriend, filmed almost entirely in closeup) and Him (Javier Bardem). Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive first, and their takeover makes us feel uncomfortable in the best and freshest of ways. But there are dozens and eventually hundreds more, and the movie becomes a two-hour-plus wait for the next indignity and horror to be inflicted on our leads. I appreciate that the symbolism is capable of multiple interpretations - from Aronofsky's intended leftwing metaphor of Mother Earth and her human plunderers to my reading of the western world overrun by migrants and refugees - but that didn't win "mother!" any friends from an audience that emerged ready to revolt.

In the Dardenne Brothers' "The Unknown Girl" ("La Fille Inconnue"), Jenny (Adèle Haenel), a young doctor new to town, instructs her intern (Olivier Bonnaud) not to answer the after-hours buzzer, only to learn the next morning that the ringer, an unidentified woman from Africa, died shortly thereafter on a nearby embankment, having fallen while being chased. Wracked with guilt, Jenny sets out on a quest for information that sometimes conflicts with the cops' investigation. I'm afraid the Dardennes, whose high-water mark in recent years was 2012's "The Kid with a Bike," have fallen into a bit of a rut. As in their last picture, the Marion Cotillard starrer "Two Days, One Night," the female protagonist conducts a series of interviews with locals, whose behavior ranges from coolly pleasant to not-credibly antagonistic. "The Unknown Girl" in particular culminates in an avalanche of late plotting, probably upon the realization that we're not far from where we started. Haenel, however, is terrific throughout.

Austin Abrams as Ben Stiller's piano-prodigy son Troy - already, as a high-schooler, more comfortable in his skin than his father - is easily the best, most honest thing about the college-trip warmedy "Brad's Status." Too much of the film is devoted to Stiller's internal monologue of envy of his more financially successful college friends, none of whom ever feels like anything other than a screenwriter's construct. Stiller makes a solid living from the nonprofit he started, and his wife (Jenna Fischer) does nothing but shower him with love and pep talks. So Brad's middle-age dissatisfactions come off as somewhat annoying self-pity and fodder for pat lessons about how the impossibly happy and fulfilled lives his friends portray on social media diverge from reality. There's also time for a more explicit diagnosis of Brad's "privilege" - "You're 50 years old, and you still think the world was made just for you" - from a racially "diverse" woman already attending Troy's first choice, Harvard. Like Troy, I wanted to get some distance from Brad and spend time with this smart, sensitive, living, breathing human. Whenever we leave the kid, "Brad's Status" feels false.

The globetrotting Mitch Rapp CIA actioner “American Assassin” proves surprisingly entertaining, ending just short of a full three stars. Sexy Dylan O’Brien stars as the black ops recruit, Sanaa Lathan lends superb support in the well-developed part of deputy director and Rapp’s handler, and Michael Keaton just lets loose as Rapp’s antagonistic, off-the-grid trainer Stan Hurley; he has the movie’s funniest moment, and his grizzled veteran-young hotshot interplay with O’Brien defies cliché. “Assassin” kept me involved and amused throughout.

Even better – pure fun – is Jonathan Dayton’s and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes,” a triumph of casting at every level that just works from the moment you hear “Emma Stone as Billie Jean King” and especially “Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.” The latter perfectly captures the late showman’s larger-than-life, anything-for-a-buck hucksterism, and almost every scene with Riggs in it is hilarious. (There was never a trace of malice to the man.) Stone has the more dramatic part – King must not only dispose of this “clown” and his antediluvian chauvinism but come to terms with her nascent lesbianism and the balance between her professional and personal lives – and she’s as delightful as ever. Down the line there’s Sarah Silverman as WTA matriarch Gladys Heldman, Bill Pullman as the smug sexist Jack Kramer, Alan Cumming as Ted Tinling, Andrea Riseborough as King’s hairdresser and love interest and Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife. I also want to make note of Australian actress Jessica McNamee, note-perfect as King’s rival, the judgmental Margaret Court. The production designers have re-created the title match down to the last detail, and the technical advisers merit commendation as well: this may be the first tennis movie in which the tennis looks like tennis.

It’s a little sad to find Stephen Frears – the director of films as vital as “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters” and “The Snapper,” with even edgier work earlier in his career – settle into old age as Judi Dench’s personal director, this time with the tame and trifling “Victoria & Abdul,” about the unending English monarch’s friendship with a young Muslim servant from India (winsome Ali Fazal) who becomes her tutor of Urdu and the Koran. It’s a hangout movie – nothing much happens, unless you count the entire court’s resentment of the interloper, or Abdul’s buddy Mohammed’s box-ticking denunciation of British imperialism (as if life had been irenic over there before Whitey arrived). Dench can do queen in her sleep (and does), and Fazal lights up the screen with his smile, but between this and “The Big Sick” I’m left to wonder: are we going to get only warm and fuzzy Muslims in the movies henceforth? Mangoes are lovely, but I wanted someone to put them down and ask Abdul how he feels about throwing gay people, alive, from the tops of towers.

David Gordon Green’s “inspirational” Boston Marathon survivor’s story “Stronger” isn’t. Isn’t inspirational – I can barely remember it a week later – and isn’t strong in the areas of character and theme development or dialogue. Jake Gyllenhaal is too important and exciting an actor – “Nightcrawler” was just a few years ago – for this sort of generic uplift. He’s Jeff Bauman, to whom we are only briefly introduced before he, a chronic disappointer of his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Masanly), actually shows up to cheer her at the finish line, only to lose both legs in the radical Islamic attack. From there, it’s standard road-to-recovery stuff, interspersed with Jeff’s occasional sarcasm and anger at the well-meaning but inevitably empty well-wishes of strangers. The fine British actress Miranda Richardson frumps it up as his mom, Patty, the only vaguely real presence in a family of “pahk the cah” Southie caricatures.

Finally, quick notes on four documentaries. Best of the bunch is Neasa Ní Chianáin’s and David Rane’s “School Life,” a thoroughly engrossing and winning year in the life of Headfort School, a primary-age boarding school in Kells, Ireland, as seen especially through the eyes of the husband-and-wife senior faculty members Amanda and John Leyden. He’s the outwardly gruff bear and she’s the seeming pushover (in one hilarious scene, she tearfully begs the headmaster to let a student perform in her play “from the bottom of my heart”; when he accedes, she dries up and gets straight on to the next thing), but their love for these sweet and innocent young people (of several races and wide-ranging national origins) comes through in their quiet conversations, the way they worry over students struggling to socialize and inform each other of students’ special talents and needs. It’s just lovely to spend time in the company of all involved, and when the year ends, damn if there’s not a lump in your throat…No lump, no nothing in the needless biodoc “Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards,” an indulgent and boring-though-short puff piece on the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. If you must, wait for it to hit the tube…Far more boring, deadly so, is Frederick Wiseman’s 197-minute “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.” Not that spending time in the various departments and backdoor meetings at the NYPL isn’t scintillating, but you could get as much out of watching any one hour as out of all three. Wiseman has always been of the more-is-more school of documentary cinema, an approach I don’t share. The institution itself appears to put on nothing but left-wing programming… Finally, an appreciative thumbs-up for Peter Nicks’ “The Force,” which aims to lower the boil on our national discussion of race and policing. Nicks embedded with the Oakland P.D. beginning in 2014, a tumultuous time in which the department hoped to emerge from federal oversight by building community relations and trust through progressive policing practices (a hope dashed by a prostitution scandal that consumes the last 20 minutes of the movie). The then-Chief, Sean Whent, appears deeply committed to rewriting the department’s dubious history by rooting out bad cops, demanding by-the-book reporting of all incidents involving the removal or discharge of weapons, and engaging with the citizenry. The understaffed force itself mostly wants to come home in one piece each night. Nicks allows the BLM crowd to have its say, and they come off as ignorant and hateful as you would expect. As a street cop hustles to keep the brother of a woman hurt in a car crash from attacking the other driver, the man rattles off slogans like “I can’t breathe.” (The cop hasn’t laid a finger on him.) Their vapidity is laid bare for all.

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