Thursday, September 29, 2016

'Miss Peregrine' runs a cluttered home

Tim Burton tries his hand a weird YA novel.

The YA novel, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, seems a perfect vehicle for director Tim Burton, whose ability to blend effects, story and mood tilts toward the dark and perverse without sacrificing something we might call general appeal.

With movies such as Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride, Burton has developed a following based on his distinctive style and a willingness to dip into the dark side of his palette.

Considering all that, Miss Peregrine should have been a slam-dunk.

But for reasons having to do with a glut of plot and the somewhat confusing creation of an alternate reality, Burton's adaptation of Ransom Riggs' 2013 novel proves only fitfully engaging.

Burton mounts a variety of captivating images -- from scary monsters to moments frozen in time to a floating girl who wears weighted shoes to keep herself earthbound.

At times, Burton seems to have been inspired by the Quay brothers, whose work with stop-motion animation surpasses almost all other cinematic peculiarities.

The story finds young Jake (Asa Butterfield) mourning his grandfather (Terrence Stamp). Just before his death, Grandpa instructed his grandson to travel to Wales to locate Miss Pergerine's School for Peculiar Children: Put anther way, Grandpa sends Jake on a destiny-defining journey.

After consultation with a child psychologist (Allison Janey), Jake's parents (Kim Dickens and Chris O'Dowd) decide that Dad should take the boy to Wales.

Once in Wales, Jake finds Miss Peregrine's school in ruins, destroyed by a direct hit from a German bomb during World War II.

But as he rummages through the bombed-out rubble, Jake begins to see the peculiar children of the movie's title. Eventually, he time travels back to the day the school was bombed.

He soon learns that Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), the school's head mistress, has the ability to stop time by creating time loops. Moments prior to the German bombing, Miss Peregrine stops the clock, and the day again repeats. Her charges are saved, although they're suspended in time. They never age another day.

For emotional heft, the movie focuses on the developing relationship between Jake and Emma (Ella Purnell), the girl who floats. He also meets Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), a kid who knows how to give life to expired creatures.

There's also an invisible kid and a girl who has a mouth with sharp predatory teeth on the back of her head; at times, the movie feels like an off-kilter take on X-Men, a story about young people who are heroic precisely because they don't fit into any mold.

Burton embeds all of this in a jargon-heavy screenplay that requires those unfamiliar with the novel to master a new vocabulary. An example: Ymbrynes, of which Miss Peregrine is one, can create time loops. You'll also find monsters called Hollowgasts -- or some such.

By the end, a new villain surfaces, Samuel L. Jackson's Barron, a creature known as a wight; i.e., a Hollowgast that can assume human form after devouring lots of eyeballs plucked from peculiar children.

And, yes, I gave Google a workout to catch up.

No stranger to over-the-top menacing, Jackson does what's expected of him. Butterfield doesn't bring much by way of expression to his role; and it falls to Purnell's Emma to make the biggest impression.

Not surprisingly, all of the actors are a bit outdone by the movie's copious effects.

Finding the story less than compelling, I drifted from scene-to-scene, wondering how Burton achieved some of the movie's more impressive images and trying to decipher the screenplay's murky references to the Holocaust.

What I didn't do was emerge with a coherent feeling about a movie that doesn't seem to have an entirely coherent feeling about itself. Miss Peregrine felt like movie I'd just as soon thumb-through as watch.

A teen-age queen of the chess board

Director Mira Nair tells the unlikely true story of chess champion from Kampala.
 Set in the slums of Uganda, Queen of Katwe tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a teen-ager who becomes a junior chess champion.

Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!) has made a formulaic, against-all-odds story but manages to freshen it by focusing on a game not often associated with sports movies and by her commitment to showing life among the impoverished folks struggling to survive outside of the capital city of Kampala.

Nair supplements the work of a young and appealing cast with work from two seasoned performers. Lupita Nyong'o portrays Naku Harriet, a widowed mother whose energies are devoted mostly to eking out a living. Whatever doesn't fall under that heading can seem superfluous to Harriet, and that includes her daughter's chess abilities.

Wyong'o is joined by David Oyelowo, as an earnest fellow who runs the church-oriented youth center where Phiona learns to play chess. Oyelowo's character eventually must decide whether his job as a youth counselor is temporary or represents a true calling.

Oyelowo's Robert Katende becomes Phiona's mentor, and begins to act as liaison between Phiona and the mother who -- at least initially -- can't understand how chess will help her daughter endure the rigors of a hardscrabble life.

Phiona and her chess-playing cohorts from the neighborhood become the movie's underdogs. And we root for them when Robert bucks the odds by enrolling his charges in a chess tournament usually reserved for well-off kids who attend a private school.

Watching Nalwanga's confidence grow as she embraces her gift for developing complex strategies at the chess board might be reward enough for any movie, but Queen of Katwe not only has us pulling for a kid with a great gift, but for everything she represents to the people who surround her.

Like most good sports movies, it's undergirded by hope.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Seven take another ride

Denzel Washington leads a diverse troupe of rogues in a remake of The Magnificent Seven.
 The late John Huston, a director with a resume that commands respect, once confessed to bemusement about Hollywood's approach to remakes. Why remake movies that worked, Huston asked? Why not have another go at movies that didn't make the cut? Maybe a fresh eye could figure out what went wrong.

Director Antoine Fuqua didn't follow Huston's advice. Instead, he tried his luck at an emphatic but not entirely stirring version of The Magnificent Seven in which Denzel Washington, who teamed with Fuqua on Training Day, took the role Yule Brynner played in the 1960 original.

Fuqua brings plenty of style to the project, but the movie's magnificent seven -- rogues who sign on to help protect defenseless farmers from a ruthless robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) -- tend to be sketches rather than well-drawn characters.

As a result, the movie is only moderately successful in its attempts to write a rousing ode to brutal men who find redemption by helping to protect the helpless.

This version of the Seven story has been ethnically diversified for contemporary audiences. In addition to Washington's Chisolm, we meet a knife-throwing Asian (Byung-hun Lee), a cigar-chomping Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an outcast Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), a former marksman (Ethan Hawke) for the Confederacy, a bearish loner (Vincent D'Onofrio) and a tag-along novice (Luke Grimes).

Washington, Hawke and D'Onofrio receive the most attention; the others are reduced to embodiments of their skill sets. Good with knives. Not-to-be-messed, etc.

Washington's performance consists mostly of stoic minimalism. Dressed in black, he's the all-business member of the team. Perhaps that's why it falls to D'Onofrio's Jack Horn to sound the movie's theme: No man can ask for more than to serve his fellows in the company of men he respects.

Early on, Fuqua seems to be embracing genre cliches with gleeful relish. He has some fun with the scenes in which Washington's character rounds up the crew that will protect the decent people of the embattled town of Rose Creek.

Initially reluctant to get involved, Washington's Chisolm eventually responds to a request from a plucky woman (Haley Bennett) whose husband was gunned down in cold blood by Sarsgaard's Bogue. Bogue's capitalistic interests clash with the homespun agrarian virtues of the townsfolk.

Oddly, the movie begins to lose steam with its first gunfight, and the massive final battle sacrifices realism to non-stop pyrotechnics, including a vicious hail of bullets launched from a Gatling Gun that Bogue brings to the fight.

Cliches aren't necessarily a bad thing in a movie such as this, but by the time Washington straddles his horse as he fires one impossibly precise shot after another, the cliches have become ... well .... cliches.

Mauro Fiore's cinematography provides one of the movie's biggest pleasures: spacious landscapes, weathered faces, galloping horses. Even the town of Rose Creek -- though typically portrayed -- adds a welcome familiarity to Fuqua's Western adventure.

And the villain? Eli Wallach's Calvera from the original was more convincing than Sarsgaard's blandly ruthless capitalist. The endangered Mexican peasant farmers of Sturges's movie, of course, have given way to Rose Creek's predominantly white-bread population.

Composer Elmer Bernstein's trademark theme from Sturges's movie, hinted at throughout, provides a stirring coda for a drama that could have used that kind of punctuation throughout.

The Magnificent Seven isn't a bad movie, but there's something wrong when a movie's end credits feel more spirited than the scenes that immediately precede it.

And, no, neither the 2016 edition nor Sturges's movie surpasses the real inspiration for both films, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), a true masterpiece.

The vicious side of college life

 Fraternity hazing may be an easy target, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't become the subject of a cautionary tale about uncontrolled cruelty on college campuses. Director Andrew Neel's Goat is just such a movie. Neel begins his story when local thugs attack a high school senior (Ben Schnetzer), beating him almost senseless. Time passes and Schnetzer's Brad heals, but he heads for his first year in college with a lingering case of post-traumatic stress. Neel contrasts the random cruelty Brad suffered in his hometown with the organized humiliations orchestrated by the fraternity Brad pledges. Brad's older brother (Nick Jonas) -- a senior at the same school -- urges his brother to join the frat. The promise, of course, is that friendship and social acceptance will follow the demeaning rigors of Hell Week. Increasingly, Neel focuses the drama on Jonas's Brett, a young man who begins to understand that his fraternity brothers are crossing the line between acceptable rites of initiation and behavior that -- in other contexts -- might qualify as criminal. Goat doesn't take us any place we haven't been before, but its message bears repeating. Neel and his young cast skillfully handle events that are intended to repulse -- and do. Consider Goat an antidote to recent hard-partying, frat-boy comedies such as 2014's Neighbors. Goat's not about college fun; it's about the torture some will endure in order not to feel socially ostracized.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Oliver Stone tackles Snowden's story

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance clicks, but Snowden doesn't reach powerhouse levels.

Oliver Stone's Snowden turns out to be a reasonably straightforward procedural about a young man who drank lots of patriotic Kool-Aid before learning that it gave him moral indigestion. We are, of course, talking about Edward Snowden, whose explosive 2013 leak of classified information exposed a mass NSA surveillance operation that included ordinary US citizens.

Now resident in Moscow, Snowden has become one more figure around which Americans can divide. Some view him as a hero who did his country a great public service. Others see him as a traitor.

By the end of Snowden, it's clear that Stone wants to place Snowden on the heroic side of the ledger, even including him in a final series of images.

Whatever you think of him, Snowden hardly projects the personality of a calculating villain intent on damaging his country, something we already learned from Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras's Academy Award winning documentary about how Snowden leaked his information to the press and, subsequently, to the world.

The talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Snowden as a one-and-done whistleblower; he captures Snowden's persistence and intelligence, and charts his course from an apparently conservative patriot to a man at odds with his own government.

In this version of the Snowden story, Zachary Quinto appears as single-minded Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald; Tom Wilkinson breathes a bit more life into Ewan MacAskill, another Guardian journalist; and Mellisa Leo plays Poitras as a filmmaker who tries not to add to Snowden's already huge pile of problems.

For the most part, these characters remain underdeveloped, but Stone uses scenes in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden and the journalists were ensconced to punctuate a story that traces Snowden's development from a solider (he enlisted after 9/11, but was discharged after he both broke legs) to a rising star in the nation's intelligence apparatus.

Rhys Ifans brings suggestions of evil to the role of Corbin O'Brain, a fictional CIA character who hires Snowden. The young man's intelligence impresses O'Brain, partly because hje believes that the future of warfare isn't on battlefields but in rooms full of tech wizards who know how to hack and protect data.

A teleconferencing scene in which O'Brain confronts Snowden about a violation of CIA rules finds O'Brain towering over the young man on a huge screen, and, I'm afraid, serves as an example of Stone's fondness for overstatement, which he mostly keeps in check here -- unless, of course, you believe there could be more sides to the Snowden story.

Nicolas Cage shows up as a jaded CIA cryptographer Snowden meets during his training; Cage's character later reappears to add an exclamation point of approval to Snowden's decision to fight the power.

Perhaps to keep Snowden from turning into a vaguely fictionalized version of Poitras's documentary, Stone focuses much attention on the relationship between Snowden and girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

Stone captures the tension that ripples through a relationship in which one of the partners (Snowden) never can talk about his day at the office.

The screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald sometimes resorts to position-paper dialogue, and the movie lacks the dense intrigue of Stone's JFK or the undertow of rank corruption that filtered through Stone's Nixon.

I suppose that's another way of saying that a certain thinness keeps Snowden from feeling like a major statement about the ways in which the government may have violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects individual privacy.

The story often benefits from Stone's ability to create momentum, but if Stone wanted to shake us to the core about the perils of a government that's using security as a pretext to widen its control over us, I don't know that he gets the job done.

Perhaps Snowden isn't an epic enough character around which to build a powerhouse drama. As Snowden himself might attest, it's the debate he hoped to foster that matters, not him.

She's back -- and she's pregnant

Renee Zellweger reprises her role as Bridget Jones. The results are decidedly mixed.

I don't know about you, but I haven't breathlessly been awaiting another Bridget Jones movie, although I have missed Renee Zellweger's presence on the big screen. Zellweger hasn't appeared in a movie in six years.

I suppose it was inevitable that Zellweger would return to movie action by reprising her role as a British woman who first stole hearts in 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary (good) and followed with 2004's Bridget Jones, The Edge of Reason (not so wonderful).

These days, Bridget works as a TV news producer. Even with an established career, she's still wondering whether her life ever totally will jell. On the night of her 43rd birthday, she ponders the question in her apartment -- alone and in PJs.

The movie quickly introduces the men in Bridget's life: two of them.

As a reluctant attendee at a music festival, Bridget meets Jack (Patrick Dempsey), a billionaire who has made his fortune in the computer-dating business. For Jack, romance can be reducible to algorithms.

Bridget also reacquaints herself with the charmingly diffident Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), one of her flames from the first two movies.

Bridget sleeps with both men, becomes pregnant and then agonizes about which of her lovers might be the father of the expected child.

Director Sharon Maguire, who also directed the first movie, isn't working in subtle mode. Laughs are derived from bits such as the one in which Bridget falls face forward into the mud that has turned the outdoor musical festival into a swamp.

Lots of ink has been spilled about Zellweger's appearance. I won't spill any more, but this edition of Bridget Jones finds everyone looking a bit long in the tooth for a supposedly rollicking rom-com.

Perhaps because he was busy acting his age in Florence Foster Jenkins, Hugh Grant is absent from this edition -- although the screenplay finds ways in which to refer to his character.

Emma Thompson, Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent turn up in generally negligible roles.

Some of the comedy involving Bridget's job is border-line smart. She feeds questions to an on-air personality played by Sarah Solemani, a woman who takes a far more pragmatic approach to romance than Bridget.

And, yes, the movie finds ways to add a culminating spasm of physical comedy, the unavoidable scene in which Bridget's water breaks. She's hurried to the hospital in the company of both men in her life: They struggle to carry her crumpling body through the hospital's revolving door.

I probably should report that a largely female preview audience found the movie a good deal funnier than I did, but I also must confess to a deep lack of concern about whether Bridget Jones's Baby bombs or booms, except to fret that a whopping success just might breed more such strained efforts.

A movie that understands real horror

The Polish movie Demon looks at what happens when the past is buried.

Early in Demon, an outrageously conceived Polish film that explores a haunted part of the country's past, we see a huge construction site where crews have dug deep into the earth. In an important sense, excavation becomes the movie's subject -- not only what it means to dig into the soil, but to uncover disturbing remnants of a past that resists burial.

Because of its title, Demon can be seen as a horror film -- albeit one that owes a debt the Yiddish play The Dybbuk. Still, if you're expecting to be frightened by typical horror film ploys, you'll surely be disappointed.

The story begins when Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran) boards a boat to reach his destination, a small Polish village. Piotr has traveled to Poland from Britain to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), a woman he met in London.

Zanete's father (Andrzej Grabowski), who runs the construction site we've just seen, expresses doubt about the impending marriage's chance for success, but has little choice but to go along.

Piotr and Zaneta plan to live in a rundown villa that she recently inherited from her grandfather. Skilled in construction, Piotr wants to build a paradise for himself and his bride.

Using a borrowed backhoe, he starts digging a hole for a swimming pool. His digging turns up a skeleton. Later, he has a ghostly vision of a young woman, presumably the spirit released along with the bones he's exhumed.

Most of the movie takes place at the wedding reception, held at the crumbling home the couple plans to renovate.

As the party progresses, Piotr's behavior grows increasingly strange. Gradually, it becomes clear that he's being possessed by a spirit, the ghost he inadvertently unearthed.

Adept at the art of denial, Zaneta's father keeps urging her boisterous but good-hearted brother (Tomasz Schuchard) to keep the guests well lubricated.

When it comes to vodka, the guests need little encouragement. Thanks to drink and a celebratory atmosphere, the revels becomes more and more frenzied, and we begin to realize that the wedding itself may be a form of crazed collective denial.

Denial of what? Eventually, director Marcin Wrona makes it clear that the townsfolk are eager not to be reminded about Poland's once thriving Jewish population.

When the ghost begins speaking through Piotr, her language is Yiddish. As the only person in town who understands Yiddish, the town's lone remaining Jew talks to the ghost. He begins to recall a past that he, too, probably has tried not to remember.

It may seem odd, at this point, to say that Demon has a comic side. Wrong reveals his wildly satiric impulses as the guests become sweaty, and the hem of the bride's dress becomes mud-stained. Intermittent torrential rains flood the reception.

No ordinary horror film, Demon raises questions about Polish complicity during the war years when Nazis began the systematic murder of Europe's Jews. How did grandpa wind up with this house? How, when the Nazis were busy rounding up Jews for mass shootings or shipment to death camps, could a Jewish skeleton remain behind?

Demon leaves us with much to ponder, hinging its drama on a contradiction: A haunted past tends not to stay buried. At the same time, the urge to deny that past proves astonishingly powerful.

At one point Zaneta's father strains to reach a consensus among the guests. They should, he says, agree to forget "what they didn't see."

What has been seen, of course, can't be unseen, but Wrona leaves it for us to decide whether the father's advice will be followed or whether the past will be acknowledged, digested and properly memorialized.

It should be noted that Wrona committed suicide just before his film had its premiere at last year's Gdynia Film Festival in Poland. His death adds a terrible footnote to a movie in which it's not really a ghost that does the haunting but a country's fraught history.

An American kid in Heidelberg

Adolescence inevitably seems to immerse young people in alien territory in which they can feel awkward, uncertain and confused.

In Morris From America, the ordinary problems of a dawning adolescence are amplified in ways that make for an illuminating movie with plenty of heart. Morris (a winning Markees Christmas), you see, is a black American kid living in Heidelberg, Germany, with his widowed father (Craig Robinson). Dad works as a coach with the local professional soccer team.

So what's life like for a 13-year-old who'd rather be back in the States?

Well, the kids at a local recreation center keep asking Morris whether he's a rapper or a basketball player? When drugs turn up at the center, a counselor immediately and wrongly accuses Morris. Even a 15-year-old (Lina Keller) who seems to accept Morris as a friend can't resist playing a cruel joke on him at a party.

Put another way, Morris faces racism that derives from stereotypes that have little to do with anything in his reality.

To make a movie such as this, director Chad Hartigan had to find just the right kid to play Morris. Chunky and reticent, Christmas gives a performance to which we slowly warm. By the end, he has entirely won us over as a young man forced to play the role of the stranger.

Much of the time Morris is on his own. He meets with the young woman (Carla Juri) who has been hired to tutor him in German or tries to stave off loneliness. He attempts to deal with a misguided crush on Keller's Katrin, who has an older boyfriend and who runs on a faster track than Morris can handle.

The heart of the movie beats around a father-son relationship. Familiar from such comedies as Hot Tub Time Machine, Pineapple Express and This Is The End, Robinson portrays a loving father who battles his own loneliness. He alternates between seeing his son as a companion and peer and as a kid who needs an authority figure in his life.

Robinson plays this character with a level of honest awareness that seems as real as the defenses Morris has developed to cope with this alien world.

As directed by Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner), Morris From America becomes a sweet and knowing movie about a kid who must learn how to navigate a foreign society -- even if he'll never fully accept that society or be accepted by it.

People vs. Fritz Bauer

Fritz Bauer, a prosecutor working in post-War Germany, turned up as a character in the recent movie Labyrinth of Lies. When I saw that movie, in which Bauer plays an important supporting character, I wondered whether Labyrinth shouldn't have spent more time with him than with a fictionalized young lawyer who tires to bring former Nazis to justice. In the new movie, The People vs. Fritz Bauer, Bauer becomes the main character in a complex and well-acted drama that, like Labyrinth, draws power from the real events on which its based. Director Lars Kraume focuses on Bauer's efforts to bring Adolf Eichmann to trial in West Germany. Bauer, a Jew, learns that Eichmann may be hiding in Argentina. He confirms what he's heard, but faces resistance from colleagues who wish to let the matter die. Bauer (Burghart Klaussner) presses on, eventually turning to the Israeli Mossad for help. Bauer works with an associate (Ronald Zehrfeld), a fictional character whose relationship with his boss is complicated by the fact that both have homosexual leanings that could land them in jail in West Germany of 1957. Kraume, who co-wrote the screenplay with Olivier Guez, can't quite give the drama the moral sweep for which he may have been aiming, but Klaussner's performance as the cigar-smoking, difficult-to-read Bauer conveys the complexities of a man trying to find justice in a society that not long ago wanted to see him dead and in which remnants of those sentiments haven't totally been purged.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Dysfunctional family, dysfunctional movie

Somewhere in the movie called The Hollars, a good family story might be hiding. Unfortunately, director John Krasinski, who also plays the lead role, didn't find it. This story of a dysfunctional Ohio family centers on the discovery that Mom (Margo Martingale) has a brain tumor. Dad (Richard Jenkins) can't stop weeping. One of the family's grown sons (Sharlto Copley) is mired in on-going tension with Dad, whose heating business verges on bankruptcy. Krasinksi plays the family's other son, the kid who left town to establish himself as an artist in the big city. Lest any stone of complication be left unturned, Krasinski's John Hollar and his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) are expecting a baby. Sincere in its sentiments and including a few touching scenes, The Hollars nonetheless presents a symphony of false notes that even a cast featuring the wonderful Martingale and Jenkins can't bring into tune.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Eastwood and Hanks team for 'Sully'

A real-life drama with stunning highlights.

In a society riven with division, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger qualifies as a hero nearly everyone can get behind. You remember Sully, I'm sure. In January of 2009, he made an emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. The feat was hailed as a heroic act of competence and daring in the face of potential disaster.

It all happened in a matter of minutes. Shortly after leaving Laguardia Airport, Sullenberger's jet was struck by a flock of geese. The plane's engines were disabled.

Sullenberger quickly calculated his chances of returning to Laguardia or making an unscheduled landing at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport. After determining that he couldn't reach either airport, Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Skiles landed their plane in the Hudson.

Miraculously -- there's really no other word for it -- all 155 passengers survived. No one was even seriously injured.

We all saw pictures of the shaken passengers standing on the plane's wings in the middle of the Hudson on a day when temperatures dipped into the 20s. We saw rescue boats scurrying to bring the passengers to safety. It was a national "Holy shit" moment, and -- for once -- it ended in a good way.

Director Clint Eastwood's Sully, which stars Tom Hanks as Sullenberger, offers stunning recreations of those events on the Hudson, but rather than move steadily toward the fateful moment, screenwriter Todd Komarnicki places them toward the middle of a film that focuses on the National Transportation Safety Board investigation that followed the landing.

According to the movie, an NTSB committee left an already shaken Sullenberger wondering whether he'd made the right decision.

Hanks' low-key performance underscores Eastwood's celebration of Sullenberger's competence and modesty, even as Hanks conveys Sullenberger's continuing bouts with doubt. Sully dreams of what might have happened had he miscalculated. He experiences post-traumatic stress, and his life is made more difficult by a relentless flood of media attention.

As co-pilot Skiles, Aaron Eckhart shows a bit more flare. He's a staunch defender of Sullenberger, and believes that the highly experienced captain had no choice but to gamble on a river landing.

Although the tension of the landing can be felt throughout Sully's entire 95-minute running time, Eastwood makes a public NTSB hearing the movie's climax, hinging its outcome on questions about the validity of NTSB computer simulations used to evaluate Sullenberger's decisions.

In a battle between human judgment and computers, there's little doubt which side Eastwood will take. I suppose the NTSB is vilified a bit -- albeit not in excoriating fashion. The NTSB investigators -- Anna Gunn plays one -- are portrayed as a panel of not-always-friendly inquisitors.

A compelling story helps Sully survive some of the problems that keep the film from total takeoff. Flashbacks to Sully's past (his start as a crop-dusting youngster and an episode from his stint in the Air Force) are inserted without great finesse, and there's little attempt to flesh-out the drama.

Despite Sully's statement that the landing and rescue reflected a team effort of which he was only a part, the movie remains a solo flight built around Sully's experiences, which include brief, troubled phone conversations with his wife (Laura Linney).

Eastwood, who has been praised by those who work with him as a no-nonsense director who knows what he wants, must have warmed to Sully, who never regards himself as a hero and who talks about what he accomplished in mundane terms: He was just doing his job.

The film compacts (justifiably, I think) the NTSB investigation, which took place over the course of 18 months -- not in the few days following the emergency landing. Besides, can you imagine the outcry that might be heard if the NTSB didn't investigate emergency water landings?

A few nuances might have given us a better feeling for such complexities, but Sully seems interested mostly in keeping faith with the unquestionable trustworthiness of its main character.

The movie also leaves you with an indelible sense of the terror and panic that would rattle you to the core if you were on a plane that was heading for water, and you were hearing fight attendants straining to overcome the sounds of a falling aircraft. "Brace. Brace. Brace," they shout in drum-beat fashion.

It's a moment you won't soon forget.

A revenge film and a bold British musical


The Norwegian movie, In Order of Disappearance, has a regrettably familiar undertow, perhaps a result of the pervasive influence of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Following a schematic structure in which various sections are introduced with titles, director Hans Petter Moland takes us through a series of revenge killings carried out by a snow plow driver (Stellan Skarsgard). The driver's son, we quickly learn, was mistakenly killed in a drug-related crossfire. Skarsgard has the chops to make us believe that an apparently ordinary man has the grit to carry out such a relentless mission. A character called The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen) becomes the most colorful villain in the piece, a brutal fellow who's constantly being frustrated by mundane problems, arguments with his former wife (Brigitte Hjorth Sorensen) and concerns about getting his kid to school on time. With a movie such as this, much of the kick stems from how Skarsgard's Nils dispatches his prey, but additional complications ensue: Rather than focusing on Nils, the unsuspecting Count decides that a rival Serbian gang must be muscling in on his territory. A weary looking Bruno Ganz portrays an aggrieved Serbian gang boss who's also trying to avenge the death of a son. A desolate snowbound setting gives the entire enterprise frosted chill, and the movie manages to hold our interest despite its somewhat derivative feel. Credit veterans Skarsgard and Ganz for giving In Order of Disappearance weight it otherwise might have lacked.


Forget the photo that accompanies this short review. The British actor Tom Hardy appears in only one scene in London Road, a musical based on a series of 2006 killings that terrorized Ipswich, a town in Suffolk, England. A forklift operator named Steven Wright (never seen in the movie) was convicted of murdering five prostitutes during a six-week period that attracted tabloid interest and set the Ipswich townsfolk on edge. Rather than follow a thriller path, the screenplay by Alecky Blythe explores the impact of the killings on the town -- both before and after the killer is apprehended. It's hardly surprising that the townsfolk begin to regard one another with suspicion or that some of their judgmental attitudes about prostitution are put on display. First produced as a play, London Road makes a reasonably good transition to the screen under the guidance of director Rufus Norris. Composer Adam Cook's urgent score fits the movie's fleet 91-minute length. London Road is further distinguished by the fact that much of the dialogue (including moments in which actors speak directly to the camera) derives from real interviews with Ipswich residents. In sum, not quite the groundbreaker it must have felt like on a London stage, but still worth a look.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A romance burdened by melodrama

Light Between the Oceans seems trapped by its austerity.

In The Light Between the Oceans, his most conventional and commercially oriented movie to date, director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines) casts Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as a husband and wife living on a remote slab of rock off the Australian coast.

The story begins when Fassbender's Tom Sherborne, an emotionally scarred veteran, arrives in a small Australian coastal town toward the end of World War I. Riven with guilt about having survived the carnage so many of his fellow combatants did not, Tom takes an isolating job as a lighthouse keeper.

Even with some heavily applied atmospherics, watching a man tend to a lighthouse doesn't make for much of a drama, so a story kicks in.

Cianfrance, who wrote the screenplay based on a 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, quickly brings Tom together with Isabel (Vikander), the daughter of the man who oversees activities at the lighthouse.

Attractive and glowing with vivacity, Vikander's Isabel breaks through Tom's emotional armor. She wins Tom's heart, and soon becomes the lighthouse keeper's wife.

Isabel desperately wants to become pregnant, but she suffers through a couple of miscarriages that demoralize her and tarnish the glow of romance.

Then, the improbable happens. A lifeboat boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a still-living infant. Isabel implores Tom to keep the child.

Tom knows Isabel's request will open the door to moral and legal difficulties, but love compels him to bury the dead man and allow Isabel to raise the child.

Young Lucy becomes the object of Tom and Isabel's mutual affection, and for a time, they live as a happy family -- until, of course, they don't.

For those who don't know the story, I'll say no more except that Rachel Weisz shows up about midway through in a role that helps give a sagging story some real humanity.

Heavily reliant on close-ups that allow the camera to study the actors' faces, Cianfrance's approach doesn't quite mesh with increasingly melodramatic material that revolves around Tom's attempts to unburden himself of the guilt he's been carrying.

Fassbender captures the stoic control with which Tom approaches his post-war suffering, and Vikander conveys Isabel's misguided willfulness, but, as I suggested, they're both outdone by Weisz, as a grieving, tormented woman.

The rest of the story concern's Tom's attempt to make things right, before the movie finds an ending (a postscript, really) that's more sentimental than one might expect from Cianfrance.

Despite Cianfrance's attempts at infusing every moment with an aura of importance and depth, The Light Between Oceans can't disguise the fact it's a certifiable weepy -- only one that's a too austere and self-absorbed to give the tear ducts a proper workout.

A fine movie from Italy and two lesser movies as a disappointing summer draws to a close

For the most part, this has been a summer of discontents, to borrow (badly, I suppose) from Shakespeare.

The pleasures we have found at the movies have been mostly on the fringes, so it's probably entirely appropriate that Labor Day weekend, regarded as the conclusion of summer ever since the days when politicians put their white shoes back in the closet for another year, follows suit.


In Mia Madre, Italian actress Margherita Buy plays a woman with plenty on her plate. Her character -- also named Margherita -- is directing a movie, dealing with her aging mother's decline, trying to be a good mother to her teen-age daughter, and seeking a break from her relationship with a needy lover. She's also trying to coax a performance out of an egotistical American actor (a funny John Turturro) who shows up to play the part of a beleaguered factory owner in a movie about labor/management conflict. Director Nanni Moretti appears in the movie as Margherita's brother, a reassuring man who holds together even when others are falling apart. Moretti (Dear Diary, We Have a Pope and The Son) follows Margherita as she rushes between her movie set and the hospital where her once highly competent mother (Giulia Lazzarini) is slipping ever deeper into the fog of dementia. As if all this weren't enough for a single movie, Moretti includes flashbacks, fantasies, and, in what seems to be a case of piling on, a flood that forces Margherita out of her apartment. Perhaps directing a movie and trying to balance an emotionally taxing personal life aren't entirely different enterprises. Both require the ability to function in the midst of apparent chaos and both require belief in the illusion that circumstances can be controlled.


Director Alice Winocour (Augustine) succeeds mostly in frustrating us with Disorder, a portentous thriller about a traumatized French soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts) who lands a temporary job guarding the family of a Lebanese businessman (Percy Kemp). When the ostentatiously wealthy tycoon leaves on business trip, Schoenaerts' Vincent is left to fight a series of invaders who are connected to a murky, arms-related plot in which the businessman's wife (Diane Kruger) and her young son (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant) are targeted. Sensible behavior (leaving the gated mansion that's under attack, for example) too often gives way to atmospherics as Schoenaerts and Kruger struggle with the screenplay's insistent vagueness. To me, their efforts went for naught. Winocour teases us into involvement without giving Disorder a satisfying enough payoff.


The 9th Life of Louis Drax begins as if it's going to be a seriously intriguing drama about a nine-year-old boy who spends much of the movie in a coma after he falls off a cliff. Rather than an examination of how people cope with tragedy, The 9th Life begins raising doubts about whether Louis (Aiden Longworth) is accident prone or the victim of sustained abuse. As director Alexandre Aja moves through a variety of flashbacks, we meet Louis' angry stepfather (Aaron Paul), a neurologist (Jamie Dornan) who wants to help the boy, and the boy's mother (Sarah Gadon). Dornan's character believes that it's possible to carry on mind-melding communication with people in deep comas. Additional complications arise when Dornan's character, who's married, begins to fall for Gadon's character. Rather than building on its strong premise, Max Minghella's screenplay -- based on a 2004 novel by Liz Jensen -- devolves into a strained and unsatisfying thriller that's intent on leading us down one more muddled path.

Observing life on a small scale

Ira Sachs's winning Little Men chronicles a boyhood friendship in Brooklyn.

Director Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) brings a gentle but knowing touch to Little Men, a story about two boys who become friends in Brooklyn.

That may sound like the basis for an achingly ordinary feel-good story, but Sachs's movie is fueled by issues as diverse as a father's failure to become the actor he hoped to be and a family's struggle with money issues -- not to mention the disruptive consequences of urban gentrification.

At the start of the movie, 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) moves from Manhattan to Brooklyn with his parents (Greg Kennear and Jennifer Ehle).

Dad's getting a bit long in the tooth for a performer who still works in the kind of small New York productions for which the actors aren't paid. Mom, a psychotherapist, supports the family.

Money being an obvious problem, the family is relieved to move into a Brooklyn apartment that Kenner's character inherits from his recently deceased father.

The apartment sits atop a store that comes with the building. The store is occupied by Leonor (Paulina Garcia of Chile's Gloria), a seamstress who never paid market value for her shop. Jake's aging father evidently welcomed Leonor's company, and adopted a casual attitude toward collecting the rent.

Pressed for money, Jake and his sister (Talia Balsam) believe they're justified in asking for a reasonable rent increase. Leonor thinks otherwise.

Leonor's tough-cookie recalcitrance is further complicated by the fact that Jake and Leonor's son (Michael Barbieri) become fast friends.

An infectiously likable kid who wants to be an actor, Barbieri's Antonio perfectly complements Jake's shyness. The friendship between Jake and Tony gives Sachs an opportunity to celebrate the freedom of city life for a couple of 13-year-olds.

Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias develop a carefully balanced drama that revels in the delights of boyhood, understands the psychological complexities of the adult relationships and isn't out to slam anyone ever the head.

Credit Sachs with taking us deep into the lives of people whose struggles may not be epic, but never feel anything less than real. In a time of unashamed movie preposterousness and bloat, Sachs's movie reminds us that observing life on a small scale beats not observing it at all.