SEPTEMBER Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

With traditional marriage on the verge of obsolescence, this romantic comedy dares to offer an alternative: "a seven-year contract with an option to renew." It's a compromise between "'til death do us part" and "We'll live together as long as this lasts." Like the similarly "groundbreaking" Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice at the dawn of the sexual revolution, it's all a tease that comes down firmly on the side of marriage as we know it in the end; but the concept could still catch on for unions less idyllic than those in the movie turn out to be. There's some fun along the way as three couples whose relationships appear to be on shaky ground are recruited for a BBC documentary being made by bitter divorcee Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells). The honeymoon is over for Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser after 31 years. Ed Helms and Lake Bell (the film's writer-director) are in dire financial straits and have been unable to conceive in seven years. Her younger sister, Amber Heard, is in an open relationship with Wyatt Cenac; they run a new age retreat together. Vivian tries to manipulate their lives like a reality show (fans of Lifetime's UnREAL should appreciate this aspect), worsening their problems in hopes of catching one or more breakups on camera. This being a movie, she winds up solving their problems instead (except for some that are ignored for a happy ending). It won't displace The Big Sick as the year's best romcom but advocates of the short-term marriage concept will like it...until they don't.

An indie drama with production values, especially cinematography (Hélène Louvart), worthy of a studio production, Beach Rats is ultimately unsatisfying in terms of storytelling. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, it might have been called Moonlight in Brooklyn. We know from the opening scene that Frankie (Harris Dickinson – a Brit, but you'd never guess) is gay because he's cruising a gay chatroom. After a few weeks of his last summer as a teenager, he's still trying to figure out how to integrate that into his life, and we're left wondering if he ever will. Between hookups that are casual, though not to him, Frankie dates Simone (Madeline Weinstein), who's far more enthusiastic than he is. He hangs with his three buddies, getting high and committing petty crimes; he buries his father, consoles and confounds his mother (Kate Hodge), and as the new man of the house tries to keep his younger sister from having a sex life. We want to feel sorry for Frankie, stuck as he is in an insular, unenlightened community; but his behavior is often less than admirable. There's lots to think and talk about here, and perhaps it's a tribute to Hittman and Dickinson that we care too much about Frankie to leave his story unresolved. Do we have to wait for Beach Rats 2?

Members of the Black Lives Don't Matter movement will enjoy all but the ending of this true story. The rest of us will endure 90 minutes of anguish and frustration, but that's nothing compared to the 21 years Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield of Atlanta and Straight Outta Compton) suffered in real life. He's 18 in 1980 when he's arrested for a murder he had nothing to do with. The state has no case except the testimony of an unreliable eyewitness who changes his story on the stand, but a jury hears "black man" and "gun" and draws the obvious (to them) conclusion. Warner is sentenced to 15 years to life. His best friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) makes it his mission to get Warner released. "The truth is going to come out," he promises Warner, but he doesn't say when. King becomes a one-man Innocence Project, neglecting his family and going into debt as his friend remains in prison through one setback after another. Warner's not painted as an angel – he steals a car shortly before his arrest – but he doesn't deserve the things that happen to him in prison or the "justice" system, such as being denied parole because he refuses to express remorse for the crime he didn't commit. Some supporting actors are hard to keep track of as they change appearance over the years, and writer-director Matt Ruskin prolongs the agony a bit too long; but Crown Heights tells an important story that needs to be heard, even if those who need to hear it most probably won't go near it.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an extraordinary woman whose time has come. She was played by Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert, which was barely released last spring, and plays herself – with the voice of Tilda Swinton – in this brilliant documentary by first-time filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum. When Bell is mentioned elsewhere it's usually as the female counterpart to her contemporary, T.E. Lawrence. (Think of her as "Florence of Arabia.") After graduating from Oxford she visited relatives in Tehran and fell in love with the region. She explored the cities as well as the Arabian desert, arousing the suspicion of the Ottoman Empire that she was a British spy. Initially unaware that British Intelligence was paying attention to things she discovered in her travels, Bell was finally hired by the Admiralty in 1915 to serve in various diplomatic posts in Cairo, then Baghdad. The British occupied Iraq after World War I. In 1921 Bell, Lawrence, Churchill and others held a high-level conference to recommend Faisal to run the country as king, which a popular election confirmed. Bell stayed on as chief British official and later, Director of Antiquities, in which capacity she created a museum of regional artifacts. Her letters were mostly to the family she rarely saw, but also to her great love, a married English diplomat. Swinton reads them beautifully over photos, many taken by Bell herself, and rare ancient footage of the region. There are talking heads too – people of the period played by excellent but mostly unfamiliar actors. Even if you're as historically and geographically challenged as I, and left wondering whatever happened to Mesopotamia, you'll be impressed by the visuals and by learning about a woman who embodied feminism without preaching it.

Suddenly it's ballet time at the movies. On the heels – er, toes – of the animated Leap! comes Polina, the story of a young woman seeking her place in the world, preferably the world of dance. The film begins with non sequiturs. Eight-year-old Polina (Veronika Zhovnytska) is one of dozens of girls auditioning for a Moscow ballet school. She doesn't seem to do very well but she comes home and tells her parents she was accepted. Her mother says they won't be able to afford it, but then Polina's in the school and grows into a teenager (Anastasia Shevtsova), still evoking valid criticism from cruel ballet master Bojinsky (Aleksey Guskov). Her father apparently works for gangsters to pay for it. Early on, Polina's impromptu dance in the snow suggests classical ballet may not be her forte. Though accepted by the Bolshoi she opts to join a less traditional company in France with her French boyfriend Adrien (Niels Schneider). This time her hard taskmaster is Liria, played by Juliette Binoche. (Who knew she could dance?) All goes well until Polina sprains her ankle and gets jealous watching Adrien dance with a new partner. She goes off on her own, growing sadder and more beautiful, and winds up working in a bar in Antwerp, Belgium. She's too independent to perform someone else's movements so she has to become a choreographer, but this comes down to a clichéd "Will she get there on time?" climax. That's one of several minor annoyances in the film, including frequent intercutting of scenes that don't go together. This is especially true in dance sequences. Polina won't appeal to anyone who's not interested in dance, so why not show entire numbers without cutaways? Aficionados will still want to see it, but they could have been indulged a bit more.

You needn't have taken The Trip and The Trip to Italy to enjoy Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's latest buddy-foodie-travelogue, again cut down from a six-part BBC-TV series. Again the men are traveling for a week to write restaurant reviews. (Coogan's hoping to write a book this time.) They hop a ferry from England to Spain and drive around, eating and seeing the sights, and engaging in banter all the time. The sights are magnificent (I wanted to hop on the next ferry to see them in person!), the food appetizing; and while the talk – apparently all improvised, as no writer is credited – occasionally gets tiresome, most of it is terrific. The guys take turns mocking themselves and each other. Brydon boasts of having younger children, while Coogan touts his Oscar nominations for Philomena. They also engage again in dueling celebrity impressions, perhaps more than ever: Mick Jagger, Ian McKellen, Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, David Bowie, etc. And they spend time on the phone dealing with situations back home or wherever, have some wild dreams and do a Don Quixote/Sancho Panza photo shoot in La Mancha. I was expecting it to be same wit, different country; and that's pretty much what I got, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it hasn't gotten old.

The Fencer gives you three genres for the price of one. It's the story of a dedicated teacher who risks his own freedom for the sake of his students. It's a sports movie with a climactic championship match. And in a low-key way it's also a political thriller. There's a romance too, but that fits in any genre. Based on a true story, The Fencer begins with title cards that told me more than I ever knew about the country of Estonia, which was occupied by the Soviets after World War II. Estonian men who had been drafted by the previous occupiers, the Germans, were hunted by the Secret Police and sent to labor camps. In 1953 Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) arrives in a small Estonian town and takes a job as a phys ed teacher in a school run by a bureaucratic butthole. He starts a sports club and teaches the students fencing, his specialty, even though the authorities consider the sport unsuitable for the proletariat. With his suspicious boss checking up on him, he's afraid to enter his students in a tournament in Leningrad, where he's likely to be exposed and arrested; but Endel puts the kids first. The Finnish-Estonian-German production would probably get a PG rating; there's nothing too strong for anyone old enough to read subtitles. Some details about Endel's past aren't too clear but the main plot is easy to follow, and the look young Marta gives the best fencer on the opposing Moscow team is priceless!

If I kept a running list of the Most Boring Films of All Time, Columbus would easily make the Top Ten. If you are, like one of the main characters, "an architecture nerd," you may find it slightly more interesting. It seems Columbus, Indiana, is famous for several mid-century modern buildings that stood out in the Midwestern milieu decades ago. Some of them are rather eye-catching the first time we see them, but by the twelfth time you're thinking the people in the foreground have to be more interesting than this. Wrong! Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) finished high school but is afraid to go away to college because her recovering meth addict mom needs her. She works at the library, where she and co-worker Gabe (Rory Culkin) flirt with each other, but not at the same time. Jin (John Cho) comes to town because his estranged father is dying slowly in the hospital. He becomes friends with Casey and if there's sexual tension between them, it's either creepy or just odd, depending on Jin's age. "She's way too young," he admits to his father's associate (Parker Posey), an older woman with whom he has a vague history. Most details of the story are either left vague or withheld far too long, while we stare at buildings or watch Jin moping (Cho gives good mope!) or Casey smoking (for a movie about intelligent people, there are a lot of smokers). This first feature by director Kogonada has been praised by those critics who are impressed by arty touches, but I would have liked it better if it had a pulse.

A history lesson and detective story, Two Trains Runnin’ depends on a coincidence you wouldn’t believe in a fictional film.  The metaphorical trains bring civil rights workers and music researchers to Mississippi in June 1964.  One “train” is actually two cars which run on parallel tracks until they converge at the station: the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.  They share a common interest (not to be confused with Common, the film’s narrator) in tracking down African Americans who recorded country blues in the Depression era and haven’t been heard from since.  One car is looking for Son House, the other for Skip James.  Both locate their quarries on June 21, the same day three young men who came down from the north to register black voters in Freedom Summer are arrested in Mississippi and never seen (alive) again.  Their story has been told in Mississippi Burning and several documentaries, so the musical train gets more attention here.  Fans of the music may feel more teased than satisfied, as many more songs fade out after one verse than play to completion.  This includes most of those performed by contemporary musicians such as Gary Clark Jr., Buddy Guy and Lucinda Williams.  It allows for more variety and whets your appetite to seek out more of what you like.  The artists and their music are a lot easier to find today than they were in 1964.



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