Saturday, February 11, 2017

Elle

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is likely best known to American audiences for the bloody sci-fi adventures Robocop and Starship Troopers and the psycho-thriller Basic Instinct. Others might appreciate more his pre-Hollywood period, when he directed uncompromisingly graphic films set in various historical periods that featured people scarred by choice and circumstances guided day-to-day by their little understood appetites. The French language Elle, which features a remarkable performance by Isabelle Huppert, is a welcome return to that time for fans of Verhoeven’s “foreign” films.  Huppert plays Michele, a middle-aged businesswoman who is raped in her home at the beginning of the film and tries to identify her masked assailant, presumably to get revenge. We discover over the course of the movie that she suffered an unspeakable trauma as a young girl and lives amongst those ruins with her manchild son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), her disaster of a cougar mother (Judith Magre) and her professionally stifled ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling). Huppert, who has been nominated for her role as Michele, is in nearly every frame of the picture, including several startling scenes of brutal sexual assaults. These depictions are not for the squeamish and the film’s overall tone might be too dark for many viewers but the story, based on the novel by Phillipe Djian, is provocative and perceptive. Highly recommended.

The Founder

John Lee Hancock’s biographical melodrama The Founder is the story of Ray Kroc, the man who built the McDonald’s empire with tenacity and grit and then strong-armed ownership of the company from the two brothers who began it in San Bernardino. When we meet Kroc (a never-better Michael Keaton), it’s the 1950s and he’s schlepping milkshake mixers from pillar-to-post trying to get fast food restaurants to take interest. No dice until his office receives an order for eight from a small burger joint in the middle of nowhere in California. The two brothers, Mac and Dick (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, respectively), have created a “speedy” system that can turn burger orders around in seconds and an iconic symbol of their enterprise – golden arches. Kroc, a silver-tongued devil, convinces the brothers he can take their model and reproduce it across the country. The three enter into a contract and almost immediately Kroc begins to chafe under the deal; he’s weary of the brother’s “take it slow” mentality and he finds effective ways to work around them, expanding the company in the Midwest. His myopia and egotism lead to trouble with his wife (the reliable Laura Dern) and with the brothers, who worry they’re losing control of their business. A showdown is inevitable. All of the performers and the period details are terrific. The take-away? Being a slimeball can indeed pay off. 

Split

M. Night Shyamalan’s films are so hit and miss that it’s actually entertaining to bet on how and when any given picture will fall apart. His latest, Split, is more successful than most, mainly because it features James McAvoy in the gimmicky role of Kevin, a man with 23 separate personalities who kidnaps three teen-aged school girls to sacrifice to “the beast within.” We get a glimpse at only half-a-dozen of them. Why then 23? More is more? The gutsiest of the kidnapped girls, Casey – played by Anya Taylor-Joy of last year’s best horror flick, The Witch – proves to be a formidable adversary for the lot of them and for the most disturbing of reasons. (I believe this is the film’s anticipated twist.) Though the movie has some creep to it, especially Casey’s backstory, it’s the relationship between the crowded Kevin and his shrink, an earnest but miscast Betty Buckley, that is the real mystery

Patriots Day

Peter Berg directs fiercely masculine, patriotic films that are grounded in Hollywood liberalism, that is, they are not jingoistic celebrations of American exceptionalism. Rather, they depict the exceptionalism of Americans and the compassion we exhibit in a crisis. While Berg’s work is often artful, after a fashion, to my eye, it is mainly methodical and structurally pristine. In other words, Berg’s stories are always told clearly and economically. Patriots Day, his retelling of the manhunt that followed the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, is taut and completely engaging and features winning performances by Mark Wahlberg, J. K Simmons and Kevin Bacon as city and federal law enforcement officers chasing bombing suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze). The film seamlessly weaves together the stories of the first responders, the victims of the attack and those whose lives were affected – or ended – by the brothers as the radicalized terrorists attempted to leave Boston for New York City. It’s a fine picture. Recommended.

Jackie

Pablo Larrain’s elegant motion picture Jackie is an intimate recounting of the week after the assassination of President Kennedy told from the perspective of the first lady. It is a sympathetic film about a woman many pitied and some disliked but many – over time – came to admire, if not love. In the style of the great masters of cinematic character studies like Cassavetes, the camera is never far from its subject as she almost sleepwalks through hell from Dallas to Washington to Hyannis Port, weeps and rages and attempts to drown her despair in pills and alcohol. Larrain explores how the president’s death transformed this woman who, as we come to discover, was barely holding it together as first lady – unnerved by threats to her husband and the country, doubting God, his purpose and hers – when she becomes the most public of widows. Natalie Portman is riveting as Jackie Kennedy and gives the best, most fully sustained performance I’ve seen over the past year. A long sequence in the middle of the film follows the mourning Jackie as she wanders from room to room in the White House, draping pearls around her neck, pulling on gowns, a burning cigarette always within reach, and the soundtrack of the broadway musical Camelot, one of JFK’s favorite recordings, playing in the background. It’s mesmerizing and heartbreaking.

Yesterday

  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...