“The Wedding Guest”

The worse movie of the year happens to be an Indian “Bonnie and Clyde”. Dev Patel’s character is still connected to a hotel, but don’t see this latest hook-up if you are looking for his warmth and charm.

The screenplay, if one can call it that, is horrendous. Michael Winterbottom as both script writer and director is to blame. His comedy/drama “ The Trip To Italy” ( 2014) was so much more satisfying with its sharp editing and with its characters, who were worth caring about. Winterbottom should stick to lighter fare. Noir is hard to do. Love of money is just too shallow as an impetus to fuel this duo. A back story may have helped, but as written, this story is an effort to watch.

Both Jay ( Dev Patel) and Samira ( Radhika Apte) are liars, and they are snake-like in their contortions to steal and kill for pure mercenary ends. There is no ideology here, just pathological self-interest in beating the game. There is some smarts needed to parlay four passports, plan for car exchanges, and border crossings; but, we have seen this kind of underground network many times before. International sim-cards and throw away cell phones have lost their cool.

Patel is good at giving orders: “ You stay here.” “ Put your hair up”.  A sub-theme may be stretched out to include women as their own agents, yet who wishes to be like this creepy, bold planning  male. Samira has her own plan to pocket her former fiance’s family gemstones. Patel’s character just wants a cut. He seems romantically inclined to a girl more despicable than he is. Her first boyfriend side kick is shot by Jay, and Samira helps drag the corpse off the road. She watches Jay torch the body without shedding a tear. Later,  Samira’s swim in a hotel pool is stupidly set to add something sexy to the screen. The soundtrack is cloying and poorly done.

If India is a perfect place to get lost in, the UK is not the place to educate the masses in morals. These are British educated, bad people who are impossible to  like. One scene that is particularly off-putting has Jay, who lies that his real name is Joseph, tries to scare Samira at a  hideaway beach house. He picks up a rock and jabs it toward her as if a live toad would scare her, or that juvenile antics could be equated with this character.  This one glimpse of silliness is the Dev Patel of previous better films, it does not jive with Jay, and is never seen again.

The ending has Jay calling Samira’s name after she has long escaped with half his money and half the jewels. His cell rings and she says that she will miss him. Viewers won’t miss either one.

“Never Look Away”

Over three hours long, “Never Look Away” is good enough that one never wishes to glance away. Immersive  in scope and mesmerizing in tone, this film covers a timeframe from 1937 Dresden to 1966 Düsseldorf.  German director and writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck bases his tale loosely on painter Gethard Richter. Though this art-themed-thriller-cum-love-story is not a bio-pic, Richter chose to distance himself from the film. Ironically, his natural reticence can be seen in the film’s ending interview scene.

Philosophically, “Never Look Away” becomes a treatise on how to confront evil through the truth of art. Our protagonist, Kurt Barnert, is six-years-old. He still has his baby teeth when his Aunt Elizabeth takes him to see the abstract art of Russian Wassily Kandinsky and other expressionists. Elizabeth wants to encourage and inspire. The docent giving the tour mocks the art as degenerate. The 1933 Exhibition is titled “ Degenerate Art” and shown to tout the superior values of the German State. Their art outing sets up the social divide: Nazi social realism versus free expressionism. One of my favorite frames is when the young Kurt, played extraordinarily by  Cai Cohrs , stares into the deep recesses of a sculpture’s eyes. The docent remarks that this art just ” pesters the nation with non-sense.” Soon Nazi nonsense is mocked by Johann, Kurt’s father, as he substitutes ” Heil Hitler” with ” Three Liters” when forced to salute.

Saskis Rosendahl is equally mesmerizing as Kurt’s Aunt Elizabeth May. Her nude scenes are remarkable. Her schizophrenic joy with her flashing eyes and devilish smile are memorable. Her surface feelings so acute that bus horns produce a twirling dervish of ecstasy .

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel captures this all in a warm, water-colored blur that is a symphony of art itself.

If Elizabeth is an unstable sensualist, her head-banging and straight-jacketed ambulance ride lead us back to the film’s title, “Never Look Away”. Eugenics and forced sterilization, institutionalization and euthanasia, power and responsibility, and life and art are all thematic elements.

Sebastian Koch is former Nazi Carl Seeband. He escapes international trials by successfully delivering a distressed baby for a Russian commander. Having saved the Russian’s wife and child, the former S.S. Commander, Carl, is allowed to escape punishment.

The two lovers Ellie Seeband ( Paula Beer) and Kurt Barnert ( Tom Schilling) center the film. As the designer seamstress and art student romance, Ellie’s father finds Kurt’s genetic line dotted with mental illness and suicide reason enough to abort their child. Ellie and Kurt marry, anyway, and finish school. Ellie tells Kurt that his paintings will be their children. They escape to West Germany, where Kurt’s mentor tells his artists that they are liberators, priests, and revolutionaries.

Ellie’s father torments Kurt by commenting on his still being a student at thirty. He takes on a part-time job as a janitor, as did his father. He struggles with his art. Blank canvases ensue. His father-in-law labels them ” allegories of emptiness”. Retribution comes when Nazi hunters find Doctor Carl and label him as one of the ” murderers of the sick”, judge of ” meaningless lives”.

Max Richter’s score is transcendent. Art becomes a way to confront evil. ” Never Look Away” leaves you in a trance-like state that promotes the creative life.

“ Isn’t It Romantic”

In under eighty minutes, Dana Fox, Erin Carrillo, and Katie Silberman become the rom-com writers to spoof rom-coms. We begin with a big-face close-up of a young teen obsessing over “Pretty Woman” and identifying with Julia Roberts while force feeding herself popcorn. Her mother directs her to “forget about love” ,and most surprisingly, she does. Toxic rom-coms are bad for young girls seems to be the message. Enter Rebel Wilson twenty-five- years later.

Wilson plays Natalie, an architect paying her dues , relegated to designing parking garages. Nat is  sharp-tongued and funny, and says she can play office “coffee bitch” and design. Liam Hemsworth is the mega-rich Blake, who is building a hotel. He only looks like a heart-throb.

Adam Devine is Josh, the project manager. He is smitten with Nat. They are best of friends, but she will not join him in his favorite thing, karaoke. Betty Gilpin is Nat’s underling and best friend, Whitney. Nat listens to Whit tell her of Josh’s crush, but responds with ” I just what to have a man bring me a salad.” Josh gives a monologue about how Nat needs to be more open. She listens and opens herself up to a mugger.

With her head in concussion mode, Nat takes us to her dream-land. The emergency room is more like a Williams and Sonoma space. Her lost and found clothing a Southern-belle number replete with floppy, black straw hat. New York smells like lavender, and her apartment is redone in white and turquoise, and gelato fills her freezer. Her dog is posed in a glamour shot over the fireplace. She is the star chief architect while in her parallel universe! Blake rows her around the lake in Central Park. There are lobsters as big as a cat dined upon. And there are funny lines like: ” All those rich women have crabs.”

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson knows how to blast out the song and dance numbers, and viewers will be smiling throughout the reprises. There are slow-motion running sequences that are equally as enjoyable. prepare yourself for randy jokes on penis pepper-grinders and chlamydia.

Josh saves a beautiful yoga ambassador with the Heimlich maneuver, and her heart and a wedding ensue. Predictably, Nat realizes she is dating the wrong guy when Blake steals her design idea as his own and demands that she change her name to ” Georgina” to fit his circle of friends. Nat runs to stop Josh’s wedding and palm readers in Ibiza sigh. We have lots of fun with the message of ” Learn to love yourself” coming first. Fast-paced, silly, and manages to be a parody of its rom-com self.

“Greta”

Humor and terror are a hard mix, but done masterfully the film audience really takes part in the campy fun. This was my experience in viewing “Greta”. One middle-aged man yelled at the screen, “ Don’t be stupid. Don’t go down there,” and a boy to my far left shouted out directions to our frantic, trapped protagonist: “ Pick up the rolling-pin!”.  I was laughing  out loud one second and grimacing the next.

“Greta” does have a slow build-up, but some of the reason for this is due to the television trailers that reveal too much. Still there are plenty of surprises. There are numerous  traditional horror tropes and routines: severed fingers, hidden rooms, locked toy chests, drug laden syringes, and dead bodies buried in the cellar. Add stalking, manic outbursts, mental asylum history, and cretin private detectives, and subway chases to ramp up the narrative arc, and one will not glance away.

The acting is superb. Isabelle Huppert plays the lonely, revengeful Greta. Her Chanel suits and French cooking prowess, her musicality at the piano keep us interested. Greta’s trench coat chic and ballet steps leave us more surprised at her gum spitting  than her lye-sprinkling. Huppert is having more fun than she did in her early “ The Lacemaker” film, and we are enjoying her.

Irish Director Neil Jordan of “The Crying Game” fame uses the New York setting to great advantage. The restaurants, the subway, the alleys, and off-beat residences ground us in the life of the city.

The two TriBeCa roomies are perfectly cast, too. Maika Monroe plays Erica, the city girl who admonishes naive Francis McCullen (  Chloë Grace Moretz ) that when you find a purse left  on the subway, you don’t return it. You call the bomb squad. Erica has all the best lines and the most moxie. The loft is a gift from Erica’s father. Her answer to most problems is a colonic spa day! Moretz’s heart-shaped face and big eyes make Frankie, who just lost her mother, a vessel to victimize. Greta takes her to atmospheric sanctuaries to light candles. She tells Frankie that her husband played the  church organ here. Her only daughter is in Paris. Loneliness haunts her, so Frankie helps her pick out a rescue dog.

There is a terrific elevator scene with drug induced closing walls and up and down vehicle thrills. The musical score makes the film, beginning and ending with “ Where are you? Where have you been without me?  I thought you cared about me…” and ending with the same Frank Sinatra song. The award-winning Javier Navarrete uses classical music, lullabies, and dance rhythms to underscore Ray Wright and Neil Jordan’s modern-gothic tale.  The refrain “ Where is my happy ending ?” may just set a sequel in place for next Halloween.

“ Arctic”

Jack London’s character in “To Build A Fire” could learn a thing or two from the red-jacketed protagonist, Overgård  ( Mads Mikkelsen). Methodical, thoughtful, resourceful, and strongly rugged, the sole speaking character of “ Arctic” exudes competence and caring. Mikkelsen, a handsome Dane, was trained as a dancer; and,  his stance and movement even when pulling a comatose body on a sled is easy to watch. Step, slide, pull. He also exudes competence, even when his eyes occasionally reflect despair.

“Arctic” begins with the sounds of scrapping ice. We see a three-hundred foot S.O.S. being carved out of the snow and scree and witness a panoramic view of white wilderness. A prop plane with a broken wing houses our survivalist. He has a unique system for ice fishing that keeps him sustained. One of the more tender moments has him holding his catch in the palms of his hands in almost benediction.

Loneliness is a sub-theme as one would  expect. A rather monotonous   routine of walking to a rise and hand-cranking a distress signal leaves our pilot returning to a polar-bear-smashed container of frozen-fish larder and fresh fears. We note Mikkelson’s chiseled cheek bones as he fillets and eats raw trout in white expanses of varying shades.

In his directional debut Brazilian U-Tube sensation, Joe Penna, keeps the lonely pace interesting. Shadows and declivities focus and recede. Punishing, driving snow and cold become a force of nature to be part of rather than conquered.

Shot in Iceland, his film “ Arctic”, gives us not quite fifty types of snow and ice formations, but enough for us to distinguish otherwise dream-like sequences of white on white. At one point a clump of purple saxifrage catches our rescuer’s eye. He knows that this vegetation often grows above melting ice, but he falls into a large cavern before he can adjust his path. Could this be another polar bear den? Waiting for the wild things to emerge after hearing the growls is heart-arresting~ plus, one of the best bear pawing, mouth-snarling polars I have seen.

Sounds are magnified in the stillness. The zip of a sleeping bag, majestic snow thunder, and the soft “ hello” after the first helicopter rescuers are downed ( we presume because of the same harsh conditions encountered by his own plane) add to the feeling of isolation.  The sound of sliding metal offers up one dead body and a gravely injured co-pilot. A fresh map, flares, noodles, and rice cakes are appreciated staples. The cigarette lighter and the small one burner stove is a reason to celebrate.

Even breathing take on a more exaggerated rhythmic sound, as a woman’s wound is stapled and a man is hastily buried under a salvaged helicopter door. Respect for life and human connection are underlined in the few snippets of dialogue offered. “ You are not alone” is meant to bring warmth and hope. A photo of the feverish and near comatose woman’s husband and child is meant to push her desire to live. Film goers learn of the character of Overgård by induction. The conclusion being that this is a man well-worth watching.  More than man against nature, this is man with nature.

 

“Everybody Knows” (2018) “Todos Lo Saben”

A wedding, a kidnapping, a secret, and a real man make “ Everybody Knows” a captivating mystery thriller. The acting is outstanding and Javier Bardem is every romantic’s dream. His character, Paco, is fun-loving, loyal, self-sacrificing, and comfortable in his skin. He has masterfully risen above his servant station with industry and love of nature’s bounty. His Spanish vineyards are producing excellent wine and his blood pulses through every scene.

Add his youthful sweetheart Laura ( Penelope Cruz ) returning to her small village outside of Madrid for her sister’s wedding without her husband.  Paco’s cool wife, Bea ( Barbara Lennie)  is wary. Everybody knows they were once on fire. Cinematic devices like bell towers with its roosting pigeons and carved stone graffiti and a majestic thunder-storm keep our emotions in tune. One trope of an ornate iron gate opening and closing is very effective.

The “who dunit” plotline , written and  directed by the Iranian director Asgar Farhadi, begins with Laura’s teenage daughter, Irene ( Carla Campra), being taken for ransom. Cruz is amazing as the frantic mother. Suffocating in secrets, Laura calls her husband , Alejandro, in Argentina to come for support. Once a heavy drinker and now bankrupt, he relies on God.

Laura has shared her secret with him, but his ego as the once benefactor of the village church has been bruised. Ricardo Darin, as Alejandro, plays a weaker foil to Paco; and we realize that class distinctions were taught to Laura through her father with ironic and sad outcomes.

Questions of love, family and choice radiate in the film’s rather abrupt closure. The question of who lost whom makes us feel like the video drones viewing all the characters from above. “Everybody knows” is long, but thoroughly engaging.

“Capernaum”

 

The award-winning Lebanese film about human rights, specifically immigrant issues and child abuse, is hard to watch and just as difficult to review. We begin by seeing a pre-pubescent boy being orally examined while standing in his underwear. The medical examiner tells the note-taker that the boy has lost all his baby teeth and that he could be twelve. Zain, as we learn his name, looks more like nine or ten. It is Zain’s harrowing life that propels us through squalor and all the horrendous ways that the underclass tries to earn shelter and food at the expense of ethics and personal safety.

Street smarts are shown through watching Zain. He instructs his 11 year-old sister, Sahar, on menstrual hygiene, or more to the point, how to keep her burgeoning womanhood  hidden from their parents, who will arrange  a marriage immediately to the highest bidder. We see Zain fake family illnesses for prescription drugs,  while the entire family washes  clothing in drug- laced-water for eventual sale. “Juice-washed clothing” is a growing concern, as is “beet juice better than booze” and sundry spiked shots. Forged work permits, sold babies, sex for ramen noodles and licorice, all are seen.

An Ethiopian mother takes pity on Zain, but then uses him to babysit her son while she washes windows, or whatever she can do as she saves to buy a work permit. As  an illegal, human rights are at a minimum.

In one of the most haunting scenes, Zain is left to tie the one-year-olds’s leg around a street pole to keep him from traffic and from following him. When the mother, Rahil, is placed in custody along with hundreds of other undocumented workers, Zain sadly agrees to let a crudely enterprising shopkeeper  purchase  Rahil’s baby. The look of utter despair on Zain’s face will ravage even the most jaded viewer.  We are reminded what the young actor, Al Rafeea, has said to his charge: “ your mother is even worse than mine.” though we don’t think so. Rahil is in many ways an exemplar of motherhood.

The film’s title “Capernaum” means both chaos and miracles. A Biblical city where Jesus berated unbelievers, Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee, was also the place of miracles.  Director Nadine Labaki  keeps this in mind as we see small kindnesses and self-serving debaucheries.

Children dying having children; children  living in the streets scouring for basics ; and, children suing their parents for bringing them into a hopeless world all are touched. As one pre-teen Syrian girl says, “ I dream of where kids only die from natural causes.”

Over one and a half  million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, and support services are available. In one scene, Zain’s street friend tells him about a food dispensary. Resourcefulness  is high-lighted when Zain tries to explain how he and his black charge are Syrian. He tells the in-take desk clerk that his mom drank a lot of coffee; then sweetly, he tells the woman in charge of the dispensary that milk and diapers are his first concern. Zain’s call to a television show and his statement that he was expecting to be a good man, respected and loved stabs our hearts. When the judge asks what he wants, Zain states simply: “ I want them ( my parents) to stop having children.”

The film moves back and forth between the subsequent  assault trial to the street life that contributed to it. The hospital refused to care for Zain’s sister , the pregnant Sahar. Zain stabbed her husband in revenge. Selim, Zain and Sahar’s father, opines that with no papers we are treated like insects to be swatted away. When he states in his whiskey breath that,  “If I had a chance, I would be a better man than all of you.” we wonder rather than judge.

The parents see their children as a way to keep them alive. When Zain rebels, their harsh words are the saddest in the film. Though Zain’s mother visits him in custody before his transfer, we are not any more comforted than when we see missionaries sing to cheer up the caged workers.

“Capernaum” is powerful and covers many issues. The music is as haunting as the screenplay. At a time when the United States is considering walls,  this is the film to see about giving people chances. When the question is “ Do you need someone to hold your fishing pole for you?”, we think of the black market world and say “yes”.