Thursday, October 26, 2017

Wonderstruck, Only the Brave, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), The Paris Opera, Jane


Only the Brave

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Paris Opera


A mixed bag as we approach the last two months of 2017 and what should be a plethora of Oscar contenders:

"Wonderstruck," Todd Haynes' odd choice for his follow-up to 2015's "Carol," tells of Ben, a deaf 1970s boy who wants to know his father (Oakes Fegley, memorable from the terrific remake of "Pete's Dragon), and Rose, a 1920s girl (Millicent Simmonds) whose actress mother (Julianne Moore) doesn't have time for her. Both travel to New York City and the Museum of Natural History in stories that unfold with what the press kit calls "symmetry" and I call predictability and contrivance. Haynes and screenwriter Brian Selznick fail to explore several aspects of Ben's saga - his deafness, his untidy friendship with a city boy - that might have made their movie more compelling, while Rose drops out of view with increasing frequency and for longer periods of time. Moore will not count "Wonderstruck" among her career highlights, despite a dual role. It reminded me of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," though nowhere near as annoying; the pieces are there, but the glue (heart, emotional connection, and - dare I say - wonder) is missing.

I've been torn between 2.5 and 3 stars for Joseph Kosinski's "Only the Brave." As usual when confronted with such a dilemma, I've rounded up, here on the strength of a truly special cast and a coda that left me bawling. This is the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting crew summoned only for the fiercest and most perilous of conflagrations. Miles Teller plays rookie Brendan "Donut" McDonough, a former addict upon whom superintendent Josh Brolin, who has his own skeletons, takes a chance. I've been waiting for Teller to grow into adulthood and leave behind some of the callow roles of his younger days. (He first impressed me in the underseen "Rabbit Hole," opposite Nicole Kidman.) With his work here and in "Bleed for This" and "War Dogs," he's proving himself a reliable lead actor, one with a sufficiently substantial presence as well as the ability to bring nuance and a point of view to a part. Brolin is already there. Jeff Bridges, as usual, makes any movie at least a half-star better, while Jennifer Connelly as Brolin's wife brings defiant dimension to a traditionally supporting role, culminating in a moment of grief not quite like any other I've seen onscreen. "Only the Brave" sounds like a title for a cliché movie about heroism, but the subject matter here is far more profound: sacrifice for others and acceptance of loss.

It's easy to see what attracted Dustin Hoffman to the part of the querulous and self-absorbed sculptor and retired Bard College art professor Harold Meyerowitz in Noah Baumbach's Netflix feature "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)": like the Rain Man, it's a gimmick/stunt part where he gets most of the dialogue. Tons and tons of dialogue - five times too much - but that's par for the course for Baumbach (in case the cutesy-poo title didn't tell you all you needed to know). Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller are, respectively, Harold's layabout and prodigal sons, both still scratching in vain for any scrap of paternal love or respect. Elizabeth Marvel plays probably the most interesting character, their sister Jean, whose reaction to the arrival one of Harold's former colleagues (at the hospital; Harold suffers a stroke) caught me off guard with its honesty and timeliness. Unfortunately, the movie is mostly boys' time, with Sandler's Danny and Stiller's Matthew at one point literally rolling around on the ground fighting. A low point in a movie of falsity that at its best plays like dime-store Woody Allen: "It doesn't seem fair, Doctor," Harold's kids protest, "that you get to go to China while our father is lying here." Does that sound like any humans you know? Me neither.

Finally, recommendations for two new documentaries: a mild rec for Jean-Stéphane Bron's "The Paris Opera," a briskly paced and good-humored all-access pass behind the scenes at the centuries-old opera and ballet company and its two distinct venues; and a strong rec for Brett Morgen's "Jane," a biography of the pioneering chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who had no formal scientific training but knew as soon as she landed in Gombe that "the forest is my home." Morgen compiled and edited the footage he wanted to use before interviewing Goodall. Most of it comes from the recently discovered treasure trove of film and video shot by Goodall's photographer (and later lover and husband) Baron Hugo van Lawick. The choice, an unusual one, pays off by allowing Morgen to focus his conversations with Goodall on the tragedies, triumphs and unbelievably rigorous process that we see her work entailed. You may wish you knew a bit more about this comely Brit before she takes off for Tanzania, but by the time the unmistakably Philip Glass score crescendos and Morgen finds just the right final image of the young Goodall flinging herself past the camera and into her new world of wonder, you may find a lump in your throat and sunglasses over your eyes to hide a tear.

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