April 2017 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on March 25.

Captain Fantastic
Road trips vivify the great American indie movie, and while Matt Ross’s feature is light as a travelogue, it successfully shows the U.S. in all its ambivalence. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife are raising their six children off the grid in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and while visiting her parents to treat her depression she kills herself. Ben packs the brood into a refurbished school bus and heads to New Mexico for the funeral, to which his father-in-law (Frank Langella) has not invited them. Along the way we learn what kind of person Ben is—not just a radical leftist, but an intelligent man with a chip on his shoulder that he attempts to hoist onto his oldest son (George McKay), who wants a “normal” life. The kids know more about Plato and the Bill of Rights than anyone else their age, but these gifts are presented as blunt objects to pound the bourgeoisie, and while there’s an honest appeal to Mortensen’s performance, the character and the situations don’t add up to anything believable or affecting. (photo: Captain Fantastic Productions LLC)

Death in Sarajevo
Set in a major hotel on a day when the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is commemorated with a scholarly summit, Danis Tanovic’s newest film intercuts between various guests and employees who put flesh to the academic rhetoric about a “crumbling Europe.” It turns out that the hotel, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, is about to be hit by a workers strike that means to take advantage of all the media in town for the symposium. Tanovic carefully weaves the various plot threads into a forceful study of post-communist economic desperation and the failure of Europe as an ideal. He takes advantage of the ominous title in various ways that don’t always play fair with the viewer’s expectations, but nevertheless add something thoughtful to the conversation. He gets a little heavy-handed with the philosophical posing, but that’s what happens when you put a lot of eggheads—many of whom are real and play themselves—in the same city talking about a past that isn’t really the past. In Bosnian, French and English. (photo: Margo Cinema SOCA/pro.ba)

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank
Robert Frank was a photographer and filmmaker whose prime period of production was in the decades right after the war. His setting and subject was his adopted home of New York City—he was born in Switzerland—and the objects of his gaze were the rebellious geniuses of the era, many of whom were part of what was referred to as the Beat Generation. However, before that he was, in the great tradition of the immigrant autodidact, fascinated with America as an idea, so it’s more than fitting that he is best known for his book of photographs, The Americans, which, more than any other “document” of the era, introduced the world to the actuality of American life that wasn’t properly represented by Hollywood or the Marshall Plan. It also represented Frank’s motivating artistic sensibility, which was finding the truth in images rather than words. This documentary, by longtime confidante and colleague Laura Israel, captures Frank’s unique combination of gruff realism and warm philosophy in a winning way, and it’s easy to understand why it took her so long to make. Reportedly, Frank realized someone would make a movie about him (he’s still alive) and that someone should, but he nevertheless was careful in what he exposed to Israel and, in doing that, he is as much an author of the resulting doc as she is. What you get is less a documentary and more of a consideration of Frank as a man and artist done in the style that Frank himself favors. In fact, we learn very little of Frank’s biography, and mostly get to know him through his work, which is prodigious and almost intimidating. As a dyed-in-the-wool outsider, Frank was peculiarly suited to profiling anyone he met, and while he is famous for things like the Beat document Pull My Daisy, the most characteristic work here is probably his chronicle of a Nova Scotian newspaper deliveryman (which, we learn, was filmed while the Twin Towers were toppling), celebrating the everyday peculiarities of its subject without fetishizing them. Frank’s oblique shooting style is mimicked somewhat by Israel, and the people she chooses to interview, including Frank’s wife, June Leaf, have a way of talking that seems to fit into the distinct rhythms of the film and which punctuated Frank’s life. Life as art, in the literal sense. (photo: Lisa Rinzler/Assemblage Films LLC)

The Edge of Seventeen
After the protagonist of this teen dramedy, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), catches her best friend in bed with her older brother, she suffers an emotional meltdown that sends her to her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). She tells him she’s going to commit suicide, a revelation he counters with a joke. Though the relaxed candor between the two is not unusual in real life, in Kelly Fremon Craig’s movie it feels special simply because the director doesn’t make a big deal out of it. But the film’s knockabout tone is deceptive, because the viewer is lulled into thinking that they shouldn’t take Nadine’s bitter misanthropy and poisonous resentments that seriously. We’ve seen characters like Nadine before in teen movies, and they’re usually played for laughs, but things become worse before then get better. As it turns out, Nadine’s beloved father died three years before the events chronicled in the movie take place, and her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), while well-meaning up to a point, has aggressively put her own needs before her daughter’s. And while Nadine wants us to believe that her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), is a real dick, he’s mostly just frustrated trying to make his sister not hate him out of sheer jealousy. So when she caught him sleeping with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), it’s the last straw. Nadine flirts with sluthood to the point where she unjudiciously sexts a guy she has a crush on, but she’s too much of a natural cynic to believe she’ll derive any satisfaction from sex, and when the opportunity presents itself she chickens out, anyway. In the end, she decides to treat everyone with contempt, regardless of whether or not they have been mean to her in the past. Erwin (Hayden Szeto), the nerdy rich kid who has a thing for Nadine and isn’t afraid to express it, is both refreshing as a stereotype in that he seems comfortable with his awkwardness and welcome as an antidote to Nadine’s toxic attitude. Beneath all the desperate bravado, Nadine harbors an intelligence she can’t quite project to the wider world, which is the source of the movie’s affecting sense of tragedy as well as its most appealing quality. Craig doesn’t go in for easy laughs or coy sentimentality. It’s one of the more mature high school comedies ever made. (photo: STX Productions LLC)

Ghost in the Shell
This Hollywood-initiated, Japan-approved remake of Mamoru Oshii’s classic sci-fi anime, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, has been derided for its casting of Caucasians in Asian roles, though given the futuristic themes and the nature of the technology at the heart of the story, those concerns don’t seem that problematic while you watch the film. What Hollywood gets wrong here is what it always gets wrong when adapting Asian material: it keeps the elements that lend themselves to big budget tweaking and discards what made the original special to so many people, its “soul,” to use a term that’s central to the theme. Scarlett Johansson’s Major, a cyborg with a human brain, spends the film hunting down and killing terrorists, all the while giving lip service to the philosophical questions surrounding her being. The other actors, like Juliette Binoche as her enabler, Takeshi Kitano as Major’s Godfather-like superior (the only person in the film who speaks Japanese throughout), and Pilou Asbaek at her human partner, feel superfluous. Casual fanboys will enjoy the CG and the violent set pieces, but real fanboys will dismiss the movie as being half-assed. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Hardcore Henry
This first feature by Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller puts the viewer in the drivers seat, which is ostensibly occupied by a semi-cyborg named Henry, but he never talks and we only see his face in a mirror once. The purposely thin, easy-to follow-plot, which has something to do with Henry finding his wife, is only a frame on which to hang some bitingly thrilling action tableaux whose mix of daredevil stunts and manufactured carnage is so closely controlled you find yourself cringing and laughing almost simultaneously. Though Henry at first comes off as a bullied victim, his rage and desperation keep leap-frogging each other as his rampage continues one broken bone and busted artery after another. Set in a Russia where everyone feels like a potential enemy, Henry’s handiwork becomes random but not senseless. When the movie slows down on occasion to give us some background on our hero it feels almost lifeless. It’s a one-note gimmick, for sure, but Naishuller’s single-mindedness pays off in the end. (photo: STX Financing LLC)

I, Daniel Blake
As has been the case with Ken Loach’s work over the last two decades, his latest dramatized screed is heavier on the social comment than it is on filmmaking brio, but due to the nature of the bureaucratic abominations on display, I, Daniel Blake, offers up its own dramatic reason d’etre, and that’s even before you absorb the performances. Standup comedian Dave Johns plays the title character, a tradesman who suffers a coronary episode on the job and is told by his physician to lay off work for the time being. Blake then enters into the labyrinth that connects the NHS to social services in order to receive employment insurance while he recovers, and they make him jump through miles of hoops to even get to the hearing stage. Even Brits have found the exegesis of this process confounding, and that seems to be Loach’s and his writer Paul Laverty’s point. By trying their damnedest to present the details of Blake’s odyssey in frustration with as much clarity as they can, they expose the process for what it is: a boondoggle made so complicated that applicants are encouraged to just give up. Critics who have scoffed at the militant tone of these scenes, complaining that officials are demonized for political reasons, fail to acknowledge that the denial of Daniel’s payments are the norm, so dramatizing them in this way makes sense if your aim is to provoke social action. But because Loach takes advantage of Johns’ natural ability to poke fun, the dastardly mein of the exchanges is leavened with wit. He really gets to the meat of the problem with Katie (Hayley Squires), a transplant to this part of Scotland from London forced to move because her housing allowance is too small for the expensive capital. Dragging her two kids on a train she’s not familiar with, she ends up late for her housing assignment appointment and told to reapply, at which point Blake takes her side and berates the heartless functionary. At this point, Loach’s patented sentimentality kicks in, with Blake selflessly and against doctors’ orders helping Katie and her kids get set up in their broken down apartment, while at the same time battling the powers to be to get his money, which isn’t coming, thus compelling him to find work that could kill him. And while Katie’s eventual entrance into the sex trade feels over-determined, an incident at a food bank where she is overcome by hunger is devastating, and perhaps the single most effective scene Loach has ever staged. Sure, Daniel Blake is a loud, harsh call to arms that eschews the niceties of cinematic presentation in favor of polemics, but Loach’s point is inescapable and especially timely. (photo: Sixteen Tyne Ltd., Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, Les Films du Fleuve, BBC, France 2 Cinema and the British Film Institute)

The strangeness of Pablo Larrain’s movie about Jacqueline Kennedy’s mourning period is exemplified by Natalie Portman’s snooty New England accent, which at times makes her character seem ridiculous. Though oppressively serious, the movie, which is mostly set during the immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband, is about appearances and the way Jackie sold herself as the first bona fide first lady and then the most famous widow in history. Consequently, it’s almost impossible to see anything beneath Portman’s steely surface. During an interview with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup), she clearly states that what she is telling him is what she wants people to believe, and the journalist unsmilingly obliges. Jackie wanted JFK to go down as one of the greatest presidents in history despite his relatively short time in office. It’s easy to believe in her orchestrations because JFK doesn’t have much presence in the movie. As an idea he can’t compete with the creepy recreation of that time and atmosphere, when indestructible myths were relatively easy to perpetrate. (photo: Jackie Productions Limited)

Kong: Skull Island
This latest addition to the King Kong library sticks to the monster-movie basics and doesn’t leave Skull Island, meaning there’s no New York skyscrapers to climb or media circus to endure. It’s nice that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts cuts to the chase in terms of action and creature thrills but his direction lacks the common touch this material demands. It’s 1973. Watergate is brewing and the Vietnam disaster winding down. A shady semi-government functionary (John Goodman) gets funding to send an expedition to the titular lost island and takes some soldiers, led by an old school battler (Samuel L. Jackson), to accompany them, as well as a photographer (Brie Larson) who provides the requisite feminine touch and a hunk of indeterminate value (Tom Hiddlestone) as ballast. The model seems to be Jurassic Park rather than any previous Kong incarnation and you can’t help but wonder what Spielberg might have done with the concept, which is simple to the point of mindlessness: humans chased and chomped by a variety of giant, ugly creatures, including Kong, who is just way too big. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Legendary Pictures Prod. LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC)

The Lego Batman Movie
The Batman joke in The Lego Movie was the best in a script that was uncommonly filled with great gags: The superhero’s lone wolf status played up as insecurity masked by arrogance. With his own movie now, this toy version (voiced by Will Arnett) has to reveal more layers, as it were, and toward the end Chris McKay’s interpretation falls victim to the kind of sentimentality the first movie mightily avoided, but that was a film about the conformities of capitalism. This is just another snarky superhero tale. It immediately sends up its own non-importance with Batman narrating how these movies always start, and from there it’s one self-serving attitude-bomb after another. In the first half hour, Batman beats up all the bad guys he’s ever faced with merciless agility before ending up back with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), whose main gripe is that the Caped Crusader doesn’t take him seriously as a nemesis. This is the movie’s theme, and everybody, including new sidekick Robin (Michael Cera), complains that Batman doesn’t let them into his life. Learning to care is the most superhuman achievement of all. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC)

Garth Davis’s melodrama is based on a true story and it’s obvious which aspects in the second half of the film were constructed. The first half feels on the nose as it follows a five-year-old boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who has inadvertenly fallen asleep on an out-of-service train, after he wakes up 1,500 miles from his impoverished Indian village in the city of Mumbai, where he must fend for himself in a language he doesn’t know. Twenty years later, now evolved into Dev Patel, Saroo is a college graduate about to enter a promising career thanks to his adopted Australian family (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), but he needs to find out where he came from, even if it means breaking the heart of his mother and his new American girlfriend (Rooney Mara). The dramatic trajectory from here on in is predictable and a bit pokey, and Davis isn’t really capable of pulling off the coincidences that make the return journey fruitful. Still, he knows how to photograph the sub-continent. Maybe he should have left the whole movie there. (photo: Long Way Home Holdings Pty Ltd. and Screen Australia)

Mon roi
With his huge grin and fox-like features, Vincent Cassell is the perfect actor to play Georgio, a consummately self-centered restaurateur who gets what he wants through finely calibrated passive-aggressive behavior. The main target of his attention is his wife, Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot), a fledgling lawyer who falls for his act without a lot of compunction and suffers mightily for his lies and professional miscalculations—even after they’re divorced. The director, Maiwenn, uses a weird, fractured structure that moves back-and-forth between the linear development of their relationship and Tony’s post-breakup stint in rehab after she injures her leg skiing, an accident her therapist thinks may have been psychologically triggered. Since Tony is the main focus of the film, we never get a good sense of what made Georgio the man he is. Maiwenn’s aim seems to be to make his personality a function of others’ reactions to him: Tony’s wrong-headed devotion, a former lover’s suicide attempt when she learns he’s getting married. Cassell does ego-justification better than any actor on the planet. The movie should be about him, not her. In French. (photo: Les Production du Tresor – Studiocanal)

Based on an unproduced play by Tarell McCraney, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Barry Jenkins’ surprise Oscar-winner often comes across more as a theater piece than as a movie, despite James Laxton’s sensuous cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s languorous score. The film’s tripartite structure, covering the life of an African-American male during episodes as a child, a teenager, and a young man, lends itself to scenes that get by on dialogue, and Jenkins’ decisions to open up these scenes can feel gratuitous; or, more to the point, as opportunities to show off his facility as an audio-visual artist. Which isn’t to say the conversations themselves are gratuitous or mannered. If Chiron’s upbringing by a single mother (Naomie Harris) hopelessly addicted to drugs occasionally seems like an unfortunate stereotype, the story’s focus on his silence and struggle to stay strong provides uncommon insight into a situation that most viewers, especially white ones, would probably prefer not to think about too much, especially when the only reliable father figure is Juan, one of the men who sells drugs to his mother in this neck of Miami. One day, Juan sees Chiron (Alex Hibbert) being bullied by a bunch of classmates and brings him home, feeds him, and introduces him to his girlfriend (Janelle Monae), who is more responsible than Chiron’s own mother but knows her place. This conundrum of being raised by the man who has a hand in keeping your mother unable to raise you is not the main theme of the story. The theme is Chiron’s attempts to understand his sexuality, which seems to be more apparent to his tormentors than to him. Even Juan understands it better and in his own capacity for sympathy upends the image of the hard black drug dealer. As to whether or not this image so impresses Chiron that he turns into a drug dealer himself is not really McCraney’s purpose. The beauty of the character is that Chiron, over the course of his development into an adult, is meant to be both a product of and an exception to his environment—meaning he’s really the norm. We only see him have one homoerotic encounter, when he’s a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and it’s implied none have occurred in the interim when he meets up again with Kevin (Andre Holland) years later after they have both done brief stints in prison and settled into routines—Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) as a dealer and Kevin as a short-order cook. It is probably this scene, pregnant with unspoken assertions and questioning glances, that won Moonlight its Best Picture award: two men sitting uncomfortably in a diner booth, sipping wine, and trying to make sense of their feelings for each other, even while those feelings are not expressed verbally. Moonlight, no matter how bright, doesn’t always bring things into focus. (photo: A24 Distribution LLC)

The premise of this sci-fi opus is so elemental to the idea of long-term space travel that it seems strange it hasn’t been done before. A huge spaceship is carrying 5,000 people to a distant galaxy to colonize a new world. It will take more than a century to get there, so the colonizers have been put to sleep, but what if one of them awoke by accident? This is what happens to Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), an engineer, after a meteor shower hits the ship and screws up the computer system. Why he’s the only person who wakes up isn’t clear and, initially at least, the movie takes on the tone of cosmic fate pulling a fast one. Unable to reprogram his sleep pod, Preston realizes he will spend the rest of his life on this ship alone. He thus bonds with the robot bartender (Michael Sheen) during his nightly benders. These semi-comical scenes of solitary drinking while trying to make conversation with a machine set up to offer anodyne companionship is both touching and horrifying—eternity with the blissfully agreeable. If the rest of the movie doesn’t stand up to this poignant idea (which would require a great deal of imagination to adapt to feature length), it’s mainly because the Jon Spaihts script means to appeal to viewers who want more from their sci-fi than sci-fi. Awoken during his prime, Preston has physical and emotional needs, and as he wanders the ship looking at the blisfully content countenances of his sleeping co-travellers he becomes attracted to one woman and does research on her. Deciding, apparently, that she’s a good match, he does the unthinkable and overrides her own sleep program, causing her to wake up prematurely as well. Pretending that she was the victim of the same malfunction that interrupted his slumber, he easily convinces her that they are stuck in the situation together, and after a brief Kubler-Ross interval of panic and acceptance, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) starts falling in love with him, which was the plan all along, even if it’s based on a lie. The thematic changeover is startling—enforced monogamy, as it were—and while the movies have always taken one-love-for-life as its default romantic situation, they’ve never approached it with this sort of clarity. Tyldum and the actors do better than one might expect in keeping tedium at bay, what with a paucity of characters and such a limited setting, and the reintroduction of sci-fi cliches when the unhappy couple realize that the malfunction that caused them to awake may jeopardize the mission as a whole lends the ending a more prosaic sense of desperation. Still, the “death do us part” aspect of the story should provide hours of fun discussion for couples who take in the film for a date.

Despite its declarative title, there isn’t as much music in this animated feature by Garth Jennings as you might imagine. Like Zootopia, it’s set in a city where animals representing all phyla live in harmony, though it doesn’t say anything about their natural relationships; which is a relief, but Jennings doesn’t put anything in its place except a hackneyed notion of striving for one’s dreams against all odds. Impresario and full-time koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) watches as his family-run theater hits the skids and tries to revive it with a singing contest based on a misunderstanding. Oddly, Jennings doesn’t make Buster into a conniving Zero Mostel character, which, while trite in and of itself, at least would have given the story a shot of much needed cynicism. As it stands it’s too good-natured. The jokes have that ratatat rhythm common to all animated movies these days, though overall the film is funnier looking than sounding. The songs are good enough that you actually wish more attention were paid to them. (photo: Universal Studios)

Jafar Panahi is banned by the Iranian government from making films, but that hasn’t stopped him. In fact, he’s expanded his thoughful output with experiments that are no less thoughtful for all their technical limitations. For all I know Panahi may be making ends meet these days by actually driving a cab, but in any case his latest is framed as a reality show, with Panahi engaging fares in conversations he captures on cameras installed in his vehicle. Some know who he is, and Panahi comments on his celebrity with more comic directness than he did in This Is Not a Film. The situations are staged, but it isn’t designed to fool anyone. In one scene, he drives a bloodied man from an accident to the hospital as his wife wails in despair. The man borrows Panahi’s phone to record his will, and the scene becomes a pointed comment on bureaucratic ineptitude. In another, Panahi discusses his “sentence” with a friend who used to be sympathetic but isn’t any more. As a comment on the value of documentation, Taxi is fascinating. As a comedy of manners, it’s priceless. In Persian. (photo: Jafar Panahi Productions)

Things to Come
Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie, a high school philosophy teacher who undergoes a late middle-age crisis of identity, is strangely serene, and it is director Mia Hansen-Love’s intention to avoid the usual histrionics when depicting a woman whose husband leaves her after several decades of marriage. Maybe it’s Nathalie’s vocation, but when she rekindles her acquaintance with a former student (Roman Kolinka) who has decided to forego his own promising academic career to live the life of a rural artisan, she doesn’t fully appreciate his nattering on about politics and social forms. “Revolution is not my goal,” she tells him, and you wonder, contrary to what she says later, if teaching kids to think for themselves has been that fulfilling. The glory of the movie, and Huppert’s performance, is how it presents a character’s growth through new experiences that aren’t in any way earth shattering. It’s a movie cliche for a woman to discover herself when her marriage ends, but Hansen-Love plays down Nathalie’s romantic urges—she doesn’t even go for her old student, though you think she might. You feel better having known her for a short period. In French. (photo: CG Cinema, Arte France Cinema, Detail Film, Rhone Alpes Cinema)

This Beautiful Fantastic
In the movies, OCD is usually portrayed as an adorable, inconvenient character quirk, and the English do it better than Americans, who tend to slide over the condition’s more troubling features. With her abrupt bob and soft, rounded looks, Jessica Brown Findlay intensifies the cuteness factor in her character Bella Brown, whose compulsions incorporate a physical aversion to plants, which proves unfortunate when she rents a garden apartment whose landlord insists she keep the place up. This landlord, Alfie (Tom Wilkinson), has emotional issues of his own having to do with his late wife, and in the fine tradition of curmudgeonly capitalists his mean-spiritedness hides a hurt that, once exposed by Bella’s artless honesty and the defiant demeanor of his nerdish nurse-helper, Vernon (Andrew Scott), breaks down in record time. In turn, Bella’s own creative impulses are unleashed and she starts seeing an equally obsessed researcher (Jeremy Irvine) at the library where she’s unsteadily employed. It’s all a harmless ruse to get you to cry on cue, which isn’t a terrible mission, though you wish the movie were funnier. (photo: This Beautiful Fantastic UK Ltd.)

T2 Trainspotting
Based on Irvine Welsh’s own followup to his original novel, this sequel to the influential 1996 British film, also directed by Danny Boyle, feels constricted by obligations to honor the earlier movie’s legacy. Boyle serves up the original’s distinctive sense of forward motion and druggy atmospherics, but such diversions have a tendency to conflict with the mechanics of the story. When Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh from Amsterdam 20 years after ripping off his mates in a big drug deal, he’s met with violence from Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), who now makes a living trapping middle aged men in sexual situations with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Angela Nadiakova), for the purposes of extortion. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still a junkie, having attempted the straight life to no avail for the sake of his wife and son. At this point he doesn’t have the energy for resentment, though he still seems to have the capacity for redemption. As Renton and Simon attempt to bury the past and embark on their own scam, the preternaturally vindictive Begbie (Robert Carlyle), having escaped from prison, wants nothing less than to see Renton dead. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is how Boyle maintains the gritty feel while updating the cynicism for our online world. Renton, having tasted the good life in the Netherlands, complete with family, middle class trappings (the opening scene sees him working out on a treadmill), and a settled, complacent attitude, returns to his old ways reluctantly but return he does, embittered by economic failure and primed to reassert his skeptical view of whatever it is that now passes for modern life. Though his motivation for coming back to Edinburgh isn’t spelled out clearly, it’s not too difficult to discern that he has nowhere else to go, physically or emotionally. After Simon vents his resentments on Renton’s head they fall back into “nostalgia,” which is depicted as being both bourgeois and unavoidable (cue well-curated scenes from the first movie) and thus their old nefarious ways, which includes a hilarious scene of the pair invading a pub full of Protestants and distracting them with an improptu anti-Catholic song as they steal their ATM cards. (The punchline is that almost everyone’s password is the year of a famous battle where the papists were defeated) Not surprisingly, the most interesting character is really Veronika, whose objective take on the Scottish mentality puts matters into a perspective that works to dispel the feeling of pointless claustrophobia. Spud’s discovery of his latent talents seems like a desperate attempt to find something heartening in the grey squalor, or at least a counterbalance to Begbie’s frightful misanthropy. All these plot vectors keep shooting past one another on their way to nowhere, which is where you expect the characters to end up but not the movie itself.

The Unknown Girl
The protagonist of the Dardennes’ latest stroll along Belgium’s socioeconomic margins is an establishment figure, a young physician who has put off prestige and fortune to work in a neighborhood clinic. In the first scene, Jenny (Adele Haenel) submits her credentials by scolding a younger intern on his bedside manner, and in doing so sets the thriller plot in motion. Someone wants in to the clinic but it’s closed. The next day, Jenny learns the woman at the door wanted sanctuary. She was found not far away with her head beaten in. Guilt-ridden, Jenny tries to find out who she was and where she was from. Along the way she learns uncomfortable truths about some of her patients and herself, and in solving the mystery loses her purchase on moral stability. The Dardennes are good at suspense and tension, but by applying their skills to what is essentially a detective story they neglect the aspects of the tale that should matter. In the end, Jenny’s journey of self-discovery hardly seems worth following, and the unknown girl is still dead. In French. (photo: Les Films du Fleuve-Archipel 35-Savage Film-France 2 Cinema-Voo et Be TV-RTBF)

The Wailing
A monumental achievement in cinematic overkill, Na Hong-jin’s blockbuster eventually outlasts the viewer on its way to three or four different endings, each of which is designed to shock more than the previous one. Set in a backwater Korean village where a series of bizarre murder-suicides take place, The Wailing presents a police detective, Jong-goo (Do Won-kwak), who is decidedly inept and an embarrassment to his superiors. However, it is his outlier status that gives him insight into the supernatural aspects of the crimes, and if in the end Na can’t quite put across the demonic particulars with any credibility—there’s just too much that needs to be explained—he does make their impact on Jong-goo’s domestic situation dramatically powerful. His main suspect is a Japanese expat (Jun Kunimura) whose colonial-era resonance as the Devil incarnate is brilliantly rendered. As the set pieces become more violent and bizarre, the movie practically runs off the rails. The characters’ sense of desperation in the face of pure evil feels like a dead end, but it’s still quite a ride, quite a wail. In Korean and Japanese. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

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4 Responses to April 2017 movies

  1. morganmf says:

    Looking forward to seeing the Robert Frank film. Was surprised to see no mention of his Rolling Stones documentary in the review.

    • philipbrasor says:

      Cocksucker Blues is mentioned in passing, and there’s some footage of Mick Jagger in New York, but I don’t know if it’s from the doc. I got the feeling Frank didn’t particularly care about it, but it’s hard to tell because he’s cranky by default. Also, nobody can see it anyway, so there may be some rights issues.

      • morganmf says:

        Actually I have seen it (C. Blues) and wouldn’t call it a must-see. But kind of historic footage, in its way…
        BTW, I don’t know if we’re allowed links to trailers here, but here it is. Cranky seems to be the word!

      • philipbrasor says:

        Thanks. After the screening, which was at the FCCJ, someone said it was only shown once a year in a private screening set up by someone in the Rolling Stones, which sounds like an urban legend to me.

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