Wednesday, February 28, 2018

'Party' guests are out for blood

Despite a strong cast, director Sally Potter's arch little movie takes us nowhere we haven't been before.

It concerns me to know that I’ve sometimes felt the way Timothy Spall looks in The Party, a slender black comedy filmed in black-and-white. But even at a shockingly brief one hour and 11 minutes, The Party feels as if it could have been condensed into a 40-minute short as it builds toward a nifty punchline.

Spall, who has never projected so much doom and futility, portrays a British academic whose doctor has given him a fatal diagnosis. Haggard and expressionless, Spall’s Bill seems the personification of pitiless depression.

Joining Spall's Bill in this happily bitter ensemble piece are his wife Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a variety of friends: the catty, mordant April (Patricia Clarkson), her bromide-spouting boyfriend (Bruno Ganz), a coke-snorting financial executive (Cillian Murphy), and a lesbian couple portrayed by Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer.

The group has gathered to celebrate Janet’s appointment to a ministerial post in the department overseeing Britain's health.

The movie revolves around Albee-style insults that the characters hurl at one another while harboring secrets that will be revealed as the movie builds toward its final surprise.

Part of the trouble with movies such as The Party is that they seem to ask us to feel superior to their embittered, pretentious characters while creating few points of real identification.

Directed by Sally Potter, who also wrote the screenplay, The Party's main thrust -- the celebration that goes terribly wrong -- feels awfully familiar. Clarkson deftly delivers her character’s withering lines and Spall convincingly dangles at the end of his character’s rope, but The Party passes without arriving at a consequential destination.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Imaginative highs and consternation

Annihilation casts Natalie Portman as a biologist who combats a strange extraterrestrial force.

Director Alex Garland follows 2015’s brilliant Ex Machina with a movie that’s likely to provoke equal amounts of consternation and pleasure. In Annihilation, a loose adaptation of the first in a sci-fi trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer, Garland imagines a world in which a mysterious and unwanted guest — dubbed The Shimmer — arrives on Earth. A viscous-looking force field, The Shimmer seems to be an extraterrestrial visitor that possesses staggering disruptive powers -- and it's spreading.

As a great admirer of Ex Machina, I found myself accumulating an increasingly mixed response to Annihilation, fascination and dread accompanied by a sense of disconnection as I vainly waited for the movie to gather something resembling profound force -- or at least the illusion of such force.

In what amounts to a prologue, Garland introduces us to Lena (Natalie Portman), a grieving biologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins University. Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac), a soldier, has been missing for about a year. The two met when Lena also served in the Army.

One day, Isaac’s character mysteriously reappears. He doesn’t seem to remember where he’s been; his face has the blank look of someone who has been anesthetized. Suddenly, he begins bleeding from the mouth and must be rushed to a hospital.

At this point, Lena and her husband are spirited off to an outpost that seems strangely removed from anything resembling normal life. Lena learns that her husband is on life support and that she inadvertently has involved herself in a government effort to understand The Shimmer.

It doesn’t take long for Lena to join the latest expedition that's about to enter The Shimmer in an attempt to reach the spot where it first landed, a lighthouse.

Movies long have sent small patrols on dangerous missions, offering violent shocks along the way. Annihilation distinguishes itself by sending an all-female cast into the fray. Lena joins forces with a paramedic (Gena Rodriguez); a physicist (Tessa Thompson, and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). Skilled in the use of combat weapons, the women are led by a psychologist who previously selected those who would enter the Shimmer. So far, only Lena's broken husband has returned from such a mission.

It’s worth pointing out that Gena specializes in cellular-level investigations of cancer: Perhaps The Shimmer can be seen as a kind of traveling intergalactic cancer that has invaded the Earth. It has begun to mess up the DNA of both plants and animals, producing unholy combinations, interspecies creatures such as a giant albino alligator with the teeth of a shark or a bear whose bite may remind you of the creature in Alien.

The movie's attacks are graphically presented and geared to producing knots in most stomachs.

Garland’s greatest achievement involves the creation of the world inside The Shimmer, a multi-colored fungal paradise where dangers lurk and everything feels a few clicks away from normalcy. You almost can feel the dampness as the quintet of women moves deeper into The Shimmer's embrace.

The movie’s atmosphere feels strange and novel, but even as it seeps into your pores, some conventional conflicts emerge, well conveyed by the movie's players. Of these, Portman portrays the character with the most extensive backstory. Her stated reason for entering The Shimmer: To save her husband, which also means saving her marriage. I won't say more.

Garland wisely refuses to explain The Shimmer, allowing it and us to wallow in ambiguity. Is it a living thing? Does it have desires or is it simply a wanton force that indifferently spreads genetic nihilism?

It’s always precarious to try to read the mood of a preview audience, but I’d say that Annihilation came to an end without creating a widely shared response among those who had just seen it. Speculation on my part, of course, but you usually can tell when a movie has connected with an audience — even if you’re not on the receiving end of that connection.

There are reasons that audiences may be put-off. Garland tells much of the story in flashbacks as men in Hazmat suits question Lena. These intermittent interrogations stall the movie's narrative engine. It’s also possible that the movie's finale is too ambiguous to produce a collective “wow.”

Annihilation follows Lena to the end of the story; the result is creepy enough but it’s not clear that Annihilation will produce many blown minds. Maybe this is a case where laudable ambitions couldn't carry Garland far enough to make us more than interested -- if perplexed -- tourists in a weirdly conceived world. There, basic elements shatter and recombine in ways that, like the movie, startle and intrigue without ultimately cohering.

A look at three Palestinian women

In Between focuses on life for Arab women in Tel Aviv.

If at least two of the Palestinian women in the movie In Between didn’t live in Tel Aviv, you might have a difficult time telling them apart from any other women their age. And that may be the point of director Maysaloun Hamoud's keenly observed slice of Arab life in contemporary Israel. I especially value movies such as Hamoud's because they’re committed to the kind of statement that cinema always needs and too seldom makes: This -- the filmmaker says -- is how we live.

To start the cultural pot boiling, Hamoud introduces a new element into the lives of two roommates. The apparently religious Noor (Shaden Kanboura) moves in with two boldly secular women: Mouna Hawa's Leila, a lawyer who works on criminal cases, and Sana Jammelieh's Salma, an aspiring DJ who has held a variety of jobs. She's also a lesbian.

Noor, a student of computer science, takes up residence with these mismatched companions after her cousin moves out of the apartment and recommends that Noor, claiming to be bothered by dormitory noise, take her place.

Perhaps this unseen cousin had something more in mind than providing Noor with a good environment for study. Maybe she wanted to broaden Noor's exposure to a life about which she knows little.

Not surprisingly, Noor and her new roommates don’t always see eye-to-eye about how women ought to behave. The differences can lead to conflicts, mostly presented with a sympathy for both sides and without sitcom-like exaggeration.

The men in Hamoud’s movie represent different poles of male dominance. Wissam (Henry Andrawes), Noor’s tyrannical fiance, rigorously objects to her association with these free-spirited, independent-minded women.

The other important man in the movie — Mahmud Shalaby’s Ziad — is attracted to Leila and she to him, but eventually, Hamoud tests Mahmud's willingness to support Leila’s independence.

The story expands to include contacts with Noor and Salma’s respective families and, as a result, shows both the religious and social diversity of Israel’s Palestinian population.

Both the Christian and Islamic traditionalists we meet tend to view Leila and Salma as corrupted and perhaps beyond redemption. To the Western eye — at least to my Western eye — they could be young women living just about anywhere.

The movie includes a disturbing scene about which little should be revealed to avoid spoilers, and although Hamoud clearly sides with these women, she’s in tune with the complexities that challenge all of her characters.

In Between has the feel of lives depicted by someone who understands the difficulties of living under the strains of being an Arab in Israel and of dealing with a tradition-bound society that has difficulty accommodating women who want to chart their own courses. The result is engaging, lively and tough-minded enough to earn serious attention.

Sorting through the stuff of life

Nostalgia boasts a strong cast, a willingness to carry some heavy emotional weight and an anthology-like structure. But (and you probably knew there was a "but" coming), the movie plays like a collection of ideas and monologues fueled by a sincerity that isn't quite the same as insight or hard-won dramatic truth. Several semi-linked stories ponder the relationship between memory and the possessions people accumulate over a lifetime. John Ortiz portrays an insurance assessor who puts a price tag on such things; he begins by meeting with an elderly man (Bruce Dern) who's going through an evaluation of his belongings. Next, we meet a widow portrayed by Ellen Burstyn. When her home was destroyed by fire, she managed to save only one thing, a baseball autographed by Ted Williams. The ball was one of her late husband's cherished possessions. The movie's longest segment involves Jon Hamm as a savvy but compassionate trader of collectibles. After his parents move into an assisted living facility, Hamm's character finds himself helping to dispose of the things they've left behind. He also lands in the middle of a tragedy involving his sister (Catherine Keener) and her husband (James LeGros). The movie sometimes confuses the maudlin and the meaningful, proving of interest only for a cast that deserved a more unified and incisive screenplay. Screenwriter Alex Ross Perry (Queen of the Earth, Listen Up Philip) doesn't get the job done, leaving director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies) to lean heavily on his actors. Otherwise, Nostalgia comes off as a kind of dramatic estate sale, a look into the lives of characters who are stuck contemplating the stuff of their lives -- and doing it much too literally.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love in a time of gender fluidity

Oscar nominee, A Fantastic Woman, takes us to Chile where a transgender woman finds herself in conflict with her dead lover’s family.

A Fantastic Woman
tells the story of the war between a transgender woman and the family of her deceased lover, heightening its emotional impact with a magnetic performance from Daniela Vega as Marina, a trans waitress whose creative side emerges when she sings in the cabarets of her hometown, Santiago, Chile.

Nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category, A Fantastic Woman opens as if it’s going to be a traditional rom-com. Marina and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) seem like an ideal couple. They enjoy each other’s company and share a sexual attraction. The two are out for an evening. They’re celebrating Marina's birthday and preparing for a romantic vacation trip.

It’s at that point that director Sebastian Lelio pulls the rug out from under Marina — and us. On the eve of their trip, Orlando dies of an aneurysm.

From that point on, the movie presents Marina with a twofold challenge: She struggles to gain a measure of acceptance from Orlando’s family while fending off constant assaults on her identity as a woman.

Informed by routine bigotry, the police question Marina about whether she may have been complicit in the 57-year-old Orlando’s death. Suspicions also are raised that Marina may have been out to bilk an older man. A detective wants to know if she was paid to have sex with Orlando.

It doesn’t take long for Orlando’s family to make their feelings known. Orlando’s former wife (Aline Kuppenheim) and his adult son (Nicolas Saavedra) aren’t shy about expressing their contempt for Marina. To make matter worse, they bar Marina from attending Orlando’s funeral.

Only Orlando’s older brother (Luis Gnecco) tries to be a little sympathetic to Marina’s position.

The conflicts in A Fantastic Woman are distinctly (if not distinctively) drawn. And there’s little question about where Lelio (Gloria) expects our sympathies to lie.

As for the second matter — how a transgender woman is perceived — the film proves more interesting, involving Marina in a variety of confrontations that strike at the core of her being.

At one point, Orlando’s son tells Maria, “I don’t know what you are.”

She says that she’s the same as him — human.

I suppose that's the challenge that Lelio presents to an audience, to see Marina simply as human -- and perhaps to realize that the real questions that torment Marina's antagonists only can be addressed by the now unavailable Orlando. Did his family really know him at all?

A singer and model by trade, Vega gives a performance that encompasses both Marina's ferocity and vulnerability. She ably advances the movie’s best instincts, those that celebrate a spirited woman whose only aim is to have the legitimacy of her grief recognized and respected.

Aardman again achieves its goal — silliness

Generally, I’ve liked the work of Britain's Aardman Animations, the folks who gave us Wallace & Gromit. Aardman’s Early Man follows the studio's Shaun the Sheep movie (2015) with a story built around a shamelessly ridiculous notion. Hapless cavemen from the Stone Age face off in a high-stakes game of soccer with a Bronze Age championship team. You probably didn’t know that soccer — football to the Brits — was invented during the Stone Sage, but fell out of favor with cavemen who never were able to win a big game. Time passed and the sport was taken over by the more advanced Bronziacs. As usual, voice work in an Aardman movie hits the spot. Tom Hiddleston provides the voice for Lord Nooth, a greedy Bronze nobleman who wants to gobble up all the bronze he's able to obtain -- legally or otherwise. Eddie Redmayne gives voice to Dug, the movie’s hero, a cave dweller who tries to whip his unruly cohorts into a bona fide soccer team. Timothy Spall does duty as the voice of Chief Bobnar, the aging head of the caveman clan and director Nick Park goes vocal as Hognob, the cheerful pig companion of the cavemen. As the creator of Wallace & Gromit, Park knows his way around this kind of animation and there are clever bits, many of them arriving as asides. Not as funny as expected or quite as wild as it might have been, Early Man boasts some of the trademarks of Aardman characters, bemused figures with hearts as big as their oversized chompers. Score this one as “amusing.”

An animated helping of Chinese noir

Writer/director Jian Liu tackles adult animation in Have a Nice Day, a slyly cynical helping of neo-noir filmmaking. Liu puts money at the center of a plot that introduces us to a variety of characters who exist on the margins of Chinese society. The story kicks off when a low-level driver steals money belonging to Uncle Liu, a gangster who seems to have been pulling the strings of crime so long he's a bit bored by his own ruthlessness. Many different folks look for the money as the world-weary Liu orders a variety of subordinates to do his bidding. Among them, a butcher named Skinny who works as a hitman. Watching Have a Nice Day feels like turning the pages of a wily graphic novel set in a trashed-out industrial town where neither the Chinese economic miracle nor the remnants of Mau's ideological boom have much relevance. To emphasize the point, the movie defines three levels of freedom, all revolving around money. First freedom: Buy stuff at the local market. Second level: Buy at a supermarket. Third level: Purchase goods online. Jian creates a world in which nothing soars and money-grubbing wears just about everyone out. If you think about it, there's a fitting response -- sort of an ironic shrug -- to what the movie has to say, something simple really: "Have a Nice Day."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Black Panther' elevates the comic-book genre

Chadwick Boseman stars in a fine Marvel Comics movie with a feel all its own.
Director Ryan Coogler begins Black Panther, his Marvel Comics adventure, in Oakland in 1992. Although we’re looking at the streets of a city where kids play basketball on decaying courts, the ensuing sequence adds a whole other dimension. It starts with a knock on the door of a small apartment adjoining the basketball courts. One of the men in the apartment checks the peephole and says that a couple of "Grace Jones-looking chicks" are knocking.

I won’t reveal more except to say that in this Oakland-based prologue, we meet a king, two of his female soldiers and the king’s treacherous brother -- all from the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda.

That’s a lot of information for a movie that hasn’t really even started. But it’s telling because Coogler (Fruitvale Station and Creed) wastes no time linking the lives of those kids on an Oakland playground to an ennobling mythos that draws on African tradition. The movie involves a fair measure of fantastic developments, but they feel solidly grounded.

Whatever meanings you read into Black Panther, you’ll find a movie that’s filled with the kind of commanding characters who do as much to create the movie’s world as the CGI razzle-dazzle Coogler also employs.

The story centers on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince and soon-to-be-king of Wakanda. Wakanda allows the world to believe that it's impoverished and irrelevant. The country appears bereft but hides its true face from the world. In Wakanda, tradition and advanced technology mingle without strain; tribal culture is maintained while amazing technical feats routinely are accomplished.

Coogler, who wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, deftly balances action, exposition and a large cast of characters that includes T’Challa’s love interest (Lupita Nyong’o), a woman with her own agenda. Nyong'o's Nakia feels duty bound to use Wakandan knowledge to help an ailing world, so much so that she puts civic obligation before love.

We also meet a variety of other characters, the most important of them a ruthless refugee from Oakland named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger, a man with a giant chip on his shoulder and a plan to arm the world's non-white populations, eventually challenges T’Challa, a.k.a, the Black Panther, for his throne.

Perhaps because of the way Coogler creates the appealing landscapes and urban environments of Wakanda -- almost an African Shangrila -- and perhaps because the movie seldom feels less than mythic and elevated, Black Panther differentiates itself from every other movie ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics.

It's also encouraging to discover that the women in Black Panther boldly claim their turf. In addition to Nakia, there’s General Okoye (Danai Gurira), a warrior who wields a mean spear and who's ferociously loyal to Wakanda. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright adds brashness as the young woman who invents and controls most of Wakanda’s miraculous high-tech inventions. Her obvious counterpart, Q in the James Bond movies — only with a devilish streak.

The women in the cast are in fine form, and so are the men, especially Jordan who's scary good as a man at war with the world. Unassuming and unburdened by an overload of machismo, Boseman’s Black Panther makes an appealing superhero. Better yet, he shares the movie with every other actor without ever getting lost in the action, plot mechanics, and comic-book jargon.

Black Panther probably will give Boseman his widest exposure yet, but he’s already proven that he’s a terrific actor in earlier work. (He should at least have been nominated for an Oscar for his stunning portrayal of James Brown in the underrated Get On Up.)
Black Panther more or less divides into two parts. In the first, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer, steals an African artifact from a British museum. We quickly learn that the artifact is made of Vibranium, the mysterious substance on which Wakandan civilization and the Panther's powers have been built. Klaue thinks he’s gotten hold of something that will make him rich, but his meanness is no match for those with bigger dreams.

At this point, we also meet Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent who gets swept up in Wakanda's affairs. I haven't even mentioned Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), who plays one of T'Challa's allies.

And, yes, there’s abundant action, most of it decently handled by Coogler — from car chases in the cramped streets of Seoul, South Korea, where the movie takes up early residence to a final battle in Wakanda involving clashing warriors and charging giant rhinos.

Coogler and his team deserve credit for creating a great-looking and distinctive entertainment. But this is one helping of popular culture in which effects don't dominate every scene and characters have room to breathe. That’s good news for Marvel and even better news for those in the audience who think they’ve already had enough comic-book movies to last a lifetime.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

'Fifty Shades' reaches its end -- thankfully

Soft-core sex and soft-headed plotting make this chapter a bore.

Anastasia and Christian Grey are now married. Don't feel bad. I wasn't invited to the wedding, either.

But I did see some of the photos. In fact, Fifty Shades Freed, the third movie featuring the bondage-loving couple of E.L.James' best-selling trilogy, opens with Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan reprising their roles as Anastasia and Christian by exchanging vows.

There's dancing at a glamorous reception before the happy couple hops on a private jet and heads to Paris. Of course, no honeymoon would be complete without a set of handcuffs to spice things up in the bedroom of Christian's luxury yacht, another part of the honeymoon trip.

Much of Fifty Shades Freed's one-hour and 45-minute running time involves sex scenes staged in various expensive surroundings as the Greys learn to adjust to married life. He's still too possessive; she bristles a little at the loss of some of her independence.

Don't fret, though. The Greys' idea of kissing and making up may involve being strapped to a wall, but it seems to work for them.

In this gauzy, soft-core world, money is no object. Maybe that's why the Greys feel free to bore us with their inane lives and well-sculpted bodies, putting the latter on display in much the same way as the trendy furnishings of the Grey's apartment or the film's fashionable settings.

If there's a strategy here, it might have something to do with pleasing the eye and subduing the restless mind. Anastasia's bare breasts and Christian's exposed butt substitute for plot points as the movie leafs through one coffee-table image after another.

Director James Foley takes charge of the conclusion of the Fifty Shades trilogy, which strains to find something to do with its two protagonists by introducing thriller elements in the final going.

The first movie, which was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, had the distinction of being better than anyone imagined it could be. The next two, both directed by Foley? Not so much.

You can tell a movie is running low on imaginative gas when it must work in a car chase, this one involving prominent display of Grey's spiffy Audi with Anastasia at the wheel.

Other characters appear, notably Anastasia's ex-boss (Eric Johnson) and one of her gal pals (Eloise Mumford). Rita Ora portrays Christian's sister. Marcia Gay Harden returns as Christian's mom.

None of these secondary characters matter because the movie runs them over as it pushes Anastasia and Christian toward conventional family life -- at least as it's lived in soft-headed fantasies that treat reality as if it were a disease no movie ever would want to catch.

Oscar shorts go long on hot topics

It's time to focus on short films again.

This week, shorts in all Oscar-nominated categories (live action, animation, and documentaries) will be available for viewing at a variety of outlets around the nation.

My impression: Taken as a whole, the nominees aren't quite as strong as they've been in previous years, but that doesn't mean that you won't find stimulating fare in all categories. Besides, the Oscar shorts packages provide us with an opportunity to support the kind of filmmaking that isn't subject to the customary and often-oppressive commercial constraints that sometimes limit mainstream filmmaking.

First, the live action shorts: These include a variety of films about topical subjects, many inspired by real-life events. A gunman invades a school in Dekalb Elementary. A Christian woman is terrorized by Al-Shabaab in Watu Wote: All of Us. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till becomes the focus of My Nephew Emmett.

Two additional films (The Silent Child and The Eleven O'Clock) are fictional with The Eleven O'Clock serving as the group's only comic entry. Moving in its depiction of a family conflict, Silent Child focuses on a deaf girl whose preoccupied mother thwarts her daughter's development when she refuses to allow the girl to learn sign language.

The Eleven O'Clock involves comic confusions in a psychiatrist's office, features sharp byplay from its actors and leads us to an amusing, though slightly predictable, conclusion.

Though based on a true story, Dekalb Elementary struck me as somewhat flat, although it does illuminate the brave efforts of an ordinary woman who tries to defuse a potentially violent situation. The starkly conceived My Nephew Emmett deals with volatile racial issues, calling attention to the Mississippi relatives the 14-year-old Till, who hailed from Chicago, was visiting at the time of his brutal murder.

The Oscar-nominated documentary category also touches on a variety of hot-button topics: from a telling portrait of a mentally troubled artist (Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405) to an elderly interracial couple (Eddie+Edith) who are forced to separate when family intervenes. Eddie and Edith were 95 and 96 when they tied the knot.

Heroin(e) examines the fight to curb rampant heroin use in a West Virginia town where fire chief Jan Rader devotes her days to rescuing addicts who have over-dosed. Knife Skills takes us to Cleveland restaurant where newly released convicts receive training in the culinary arts. Traffic Stop offers a timely look at the plight of Breaion King, a black teacher who's pulled over by a cop in Austin, Texas. The ensuing encounter, captured with disturbing dash-cam footage, highlights the issues that can arise when police encounter members of the black community.

Animated shorts include Dear Basketball, an ode to former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant. This offering -- which tells of Bryant's early fascination with the game -- might have been more appealing if didn't feel so ego-driven. Bryant co-directed with Glen Keane and wrote the poem on which the movie is based. Bryant talks his love for basketball, but seldom mentions the team aspects of the game that he played with such undisputed brilliance.

In the darkly satirical Garden Party, frogs and toads take over a luxurious villa in the French countryside where evidence of rot seems to have been accumulating for months. Lou, an animated short from the Pixar powerhouse, deals with the reformation of a schoolyard bully. Finely wrought and artful, Negative Space tells the story of how a boy and his father bond over the fine art of suitcase packing.

In my favorite -- Revolting Rhymes --

(photo above) we're treated to the story of the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood and other fairy tales as filtered through the urbane and slightly macabre sensibilities of Roald Dahl.

If I had a vote in these categories, I'd opt for The Silent Child in the live-action offerings; Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 from the documentary category, and, as just suggested, Revoting Rhymes from the Academies collection of animated films.

A cautionary note: If you're looking to me for guidance in filling out your Oscar ballot in these categories, beware. My record for accurate predictions when it comes to short films is, to put it kindly, spotty.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Small matter, big consequences

Oscar-nominated, The Insult examines conflicting passions in Lebanon.

To get the most out of the Lebanese film The Insult you’d do well to learn a little about the Lebanese Civil War, a struggle that began in 1975 and didn’t reach its bitter conclusion until 1990.

Director Ziad Doueiri’s movie is set firmly in the present, but the lingering hostilities generated during a horrible civil war filter through every frame of a story in which a trivial incident — replacement of a drain pipe — escalates into a courtroom battle. Inside the courtroom, all the country’s tensions erupt, sometimes in overly ripe fashion.

The story centers on Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a mechanic who gets into a feud-like argument with a Palestinian refugee (Kamel El Basha). El Basha’s Yasser works as a foreman on a construction crew that’s trying to bring the buildings on Tony’s block up to code. For Tony, even an act of goodwill becomes an intrusion, particularly if the "intruder" is a Palestinian.

Tony’s pregnant wife (Rita Hayek) tries to temper her husband’s rage, but nothing pushes Tony off a course that stems from a terrible incident in his past. Yasser had nothing to do with what happened to Tony, but Tony's hatred has been generalized to include any Palestinian.

Yasser has his own problems with the past; he’s one of some 100,000 Palestinian refugees who has taken up residence in Lebanon. As a refugee, he’s unable to work as an engineer, his chosen field. He has been forced into supervising laborers, and he does so with ingenuity and mostly without complaint.

Both Karam and El Basha give strong performances, El Basha as a foreigner in a country in which many resent his presence. Karam’s Tony becomes Yasser's antagonistic opposite: He's always giving into his emotions. He won’t budge an inch when it comes to looking for a resolution to the conflict that consumes him.

In court, a female attorney (Diamand Bou Abboud) represents Yasser: Tony’s attorney (Camille Salameh) proves the more pragmatic and calculating of the two lawyers.

Doueiri (The Attack) has made a movie that hits its points on the nose, which some may find bothersome, but it’s helpful to remember that the lines of conflict that cut through every scene are drawn from reality.

Perhaps because The Insult spends much of its time in courtrooms, it occasionally loses a bit of steam, but Doueiri understands that the fate of every one of his characters is also the fate of a troubled country. Wisely, he refuses to allow us to forget those stakes.

Agnes Varda and friend take to the road

Faces Places — a documentary by Agnes Varda and a photographer known simply as JR — teams the 89-year-old director with a 33-year-old photographer who specializes in pasting large-format photographs on the least likely of places. Varda and JR set out on what appears to be a casual road trip. They stop, meet the locals, shoot photographs and paste them onto walls, shipping containers, large rocks and on the exterior of a decaying village that never had been inhabited. But if you think about what you’re watching, you’ll probably realize that this free-wheeling look at the traveling relationship between an older filmmaker with failing eyesight and a plucky young artist must have taken lots of planning — not to mention obtaining permissions to film in odd places. An example: A factory that manufactures hydrochloric acid. The relationship between Varda, who has adopted a two-tone hairstyle, and JR, who never removes his sunglasses, has some mildly testy moments (Varda doesn't always like JR's jokes), but mostly the two seem to enjoy each other’s company as they travel about celebrating and monumentalizing the lives of ordinary people. Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, a Varda compatriot from New Wave days, hovers over the movie, although he appears only a clip from one of Varda's films. At one point, JR pushes Varda through the Louvre in a wheelchair, paying homage to a scene Godard filmed for Band of Outsiders. The trip concludes when Varda and JR visit Godard’s home in Rolle, Switzerland. Godard refuses to answer the door, although he has scrawled a note on one of his house's windows. Her feelings hurt, Varda leaves her own note: “No thanks for your bad hospitality.” This little scene adds a note of sadness, a feeling that the past — no matter how vital it felt at the time — can’t be recaptured. At this point, JR senses Varda’s mood of melancholic acceptance. He tries to boost her spirits. But we know that for all its celebratory moments, nothing will overcome the feeling of evanescence that haunts this little movie: The art that JR makes surely will be ruined by weather and if he's lucky, he too eventually will experience the debilities of old age. But there’s nothing morbid in either the movie or in Varda’s attitude toward the conclusion of an amazing and well-lived life. At one point, she says she’s even looking forward to death because “that will be that.” No more films. No more adventures, but an ending that Varda seems to be approaching without regret and without abandoning her desire to live every moment until that final one.