‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ Film Review: Chiwetel Ejiofor Steps Behind Camera for Confident Directorial Debut

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A lovely and thoughtful family film, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is a far cry from Marvel multiplex-ity. But once viewers (of all ages) adjust to its quiet and respectful approach, they ought to be drawn to a superhero of a different sort — and one who may feel more familiar than any costumed crusader.

Several years ago, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor optioned the rights to William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name. You’d never guess that this strikingly confident adaptation is also his directorial debut.

What’s more, Ejiofor seems to have made things as challenging as possible: He directs a screenplay he wrote himself, and in an impressive, and effective, commitment to authenticity, he decided to film on location in Malawi with a mix of English and subtitled Chichewa (which he then had to learn).

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Ejiofor also works hard in front of the camera on “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” costarring as Malawian subsistence farmer Trywell Kamkwamba. Trywell is, like most of the people in his small village, constantly overwhelmed by a series of potentially ruinous setbacks. The current season is threatened equally by floods and drought, amoral landowners ready to sell out to tobacco interests, and a blithely uncaring government. Trywell and his wife Agnes (Aïssa Maïga, “Caché”) despair of ever sending their bright daughter Annie (Lily Banda) to college. But soon, it becomes clear they can’t even afford to keep their 13-year-old son, William (Maxwell Simba), in middle school.

Though William is kicked out for lack of tuition, he manages to sneak into the library with the help of a sympathetic teacher (Noma Dumezweni, the original stage Hermione in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”). As long as no one notices him — a tenuous caveat that could change at any time — William is free to study books on electricity and energy, with hopes of finding some sort of solution to the problems destroying his village.

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The pacing is slow at first, as we make our way into William’s life. These are the scenes more likely to appeal to adults than kids, who may find themselves bored by the political machinations of a far-away country. Rest assured that patience will be rewarded in full. Though the story may sound (and sometimes feel) like a familiarly inspirational tale, Ejiofor invests the narrative with heartfelt artistry.

Exhibiting a dexterity that suggests far more extensive directorial experience, Ejiofor proves himself a master of impact. His visual approach is expansive and evocative, thanks also to the fine work of cinematographer Dick Pope (an Oscar nominee for “Mr. Turner,” which shared a similar painterly appreciation for light and landscape). And Ejiofor’s script finds respect for each perspective, laying out complex issues in relatable fashion without pandering to younger viewers.

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Ejiofor also creates believable bonds between each of his strong actors, giving even the supporting performers memorable moments. Simba, a charismatic Kenyan teenager making his professional debut, is a natural, as is Malawian musician Banda, also acting in film for the first time.

Maïga, a French movie star, is particularly soulful, making as much of quiet moments as she does the dramatic ones. Don’t be surprised to see much more of her in the future. And while he’s also welcome onscreen any time, let’s hope we’ll see much more of Ejiofor’s work behind the camera, too.



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‘Light From Light’ Film Review: Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan Connect in Quiet Indie Drama

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At most film festivals — and especially at Sundance — attendees trip over themselves to get into the most buzzed-about (and often overhyped) screenings. Happily, this leaves more space for film fans hoping to find some under-the-radar discoveries. “Light from Light” feels like a familiar festival indie in its quirky setup and modest production values. But it also boasts a rare, quiet honesty, and a lead performance from Marin Ireland that’ll haunt you for days.

Haunting is, in fact, the name of the game here, since Ireland’s Shelia is a bit of a ghost hunter. She’s ambivalent about it, as she seems to be about a lot of things. But her uncertainty is reasonable, given how overwhelmed she is as a single mom trying to raise a teenage son while working full-time at a soul-crushing car rental service.

Still, when she gets a call from the recently-widowed Richard (Jim Gaffigan), she’s intrigued. He heard her mention her clairvoyant gift on the radio and wants her help after his wife’s sudden death. After some hesitation she agrees to take the case, thanks to the urging of her son, Owen (Josh Wiggins, “Max”) and Owen’s crush, Lucy (Atheena Frizzell, “Never Goin’ Back”). The three of them set up their equipment in Richard’s Tennessee farmhouse, hoping to confirm whether his flickering lights and creaky floors represent a spectral presence.

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And … that’s it, really. The offbeat structure almost feels like an excuse to get our attention, so that writer-director Paul Harrill (“Something, Anything”) can focus on those who travel through life like ghosts themselves. This isn’t a horror film, or a thriller, or even much of a romance. It’s just a small, nicely-observed study of very ordinary people, who take an unusual approach to their very ordinary experiences. This might be the first haunted house movie in which the ghost is pretty much a third wheel.

But don’t let the film’s quiet intimacy deter you; that’s the reason to see it. And Harrill’s subtle style is beautifully reflected in the performances. Ireland is the sort of talented regular who’s long been just a single role away from true stardom. She works constantly and always makes an impact, but it’s usually on stage (“reasons to be pretty”) or in someone else’s show (“Sneaky Pete”) or movie (“Glass Chin”). She proves here that she deserves more of her own projects, earning every close-up, long take, and extended monologue Harrill favors.

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There are moments, here and there, when her character feels like a screenwriter construct. Would a struggling single parent really refuse payment for her hard work, for example, as Shelia so nobly does? That said, Ireland’s fully committed performance captures her heartbreaks, anxieties, and sheer exhaustion as well as her instinctual kindness.

It also helps that Ireland has solid support from the rest of the cast. Gaffigan turns off his comic side entirely, to tap into his character’s pain with an empathetic and moving restraint. He’s so still that he often seems to meld into the well-chosen rural setting, which aptly complements the characters’ emotional isolation.

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One jarring note is the insistently precious score by Adam Granduciel and Jon Natchez, which feels like such an indie-film cliché it threatens to undermine Harrill’s intentions. And the script could have used another pass to flesh things out at least a little further. But what’s most special about these characters is that there’s nothing special about them — other than, of course, their thoughtfully rendered and relatable humanity.

It’s always a challenge for such an intimate project to thrive on its own in the big bad world. A movie this modest requires patience and generosity and a rejection of expectations. So no, it’s not a high-concept buzz title destined to leave the festival with a record-breaking deal. But it is a gem likely to stay with anyone smart enough to seek it out.

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‘Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary’ Film Review: Portrait of Comic Goes Off the Rails, Then Changes Direction

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You know you’re in for a wild ride whenever a nonfiction film begins with a disclaimer. And there’s an especially promising slyness to the one that opens Ben Berman’s meta-portrait of standup comic and magician John Szeles. The movie is called “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” a pointedly noncommittal name that already hints at some trouble to come. But then we learn that “everything in this film is strictly based on the available facts.” If you appreciate the passive aggression of that deceptively mild “available,” this is definitely the movie for you.

And it only gets better from there. Just a few minutes in, Berman asks Szeles’ Amazon Echo, “What is the best Amazing Johnathan documentary?”

“The jury,” Alexa coldly replies, “is still out on that one.”

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As things unfold, this turns out to be necessarily accurate. But Berman, a TV vet making his feature debut, has crafted such an aptly-pitched tribute to a notorious mischief-maker that it’ll be a hard one to beat.

Not that he doesn’t have competition. In the first of many surprises, he discovers that Szeles has been secretly weighing all his legacy-building options. And Berman seems to be coming in towards the bottom.

He probably shouldn’t have been too shocked about this. The Amazing Johnathan, who is both an outré comedian and an extreme illusionist, has built his career on unreliability. But in 2007, Szeles was diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. In 2014, after doctors gave him one more year to live, he shared his devastating prognosis with fans and retired.

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In 2017, Berman arrives at Szeles’ mess-strewn Vegas mansion to start shooting the documentary. At first, all goes smoothly. But then cracks start to appear. For one thing, Szeles’ health issues may stem less from his heart condition than from a considerable meth habit. For another, Berman keeps showing up to find a different camera crew already there. And for a third, well, it’s three years after his dramatic retirement, and the 60-year-old Szeles is still very much alive.

With his movie continually swerving out of control — Szeles may or may not be in the driver’s seat — Berman needs to figure out an entirely new route. Outpranking the prankster, he turns a documentary about an unpredictable subject into a meditation on what it means to make a documentary about an unpredictable subject.

Even the requisite, peppy talking-head soundbites, with Szeles colleagues like “Weird Al” Yankovic, Judy Gold, and Carrot Top, soon become more about the director’s dilemmas. Is Szeles pulling some sort of Andy Kaufman-esque long con? Or should Berman be ashamed for even contemplating such a cynical question? And why is he so determined to make this seemingly-doomed movie in the first place?

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Eventually, we learn far more about the director than we ever know about his subject. On the one hand, Berman makes a strong case for skipping a traditional approach. On the other, his inexperience is evident throughout, from the inartful visuals and overlooked details to several awkwardly-staged scenarios.

But he’s a deft puzzle-builder, and smart enough to handle his risky, self-conscious (and potentially self-aggrandizing) approach by constantly upping the suspense. What will Szeles do next? How will Berman respond?

At one point, this alternately weird and amusing game of chicken — which is reminiscent of the alternately weird and amusing shows Berman has worked on, like “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and “Tim and Eric Nite Live” — leads to a decision so preposterous, you have to wonder if it’s real. From there, it’s a craftily-guided slope into deep questions about the nature of nonfiction filmmaking. What are Berman’s responsibilities to his subject? Or to us? Most of all, is it even possible to make a purely truthful film?

Well no, of course not. Every edit, camera angle, and moment depicted onscreen is always the result of a very conscious choice. Turns out though, Berman is way ahead of you. Szeles might be, too. By the end, it’s impossible to say.

But there is this: both of them — two apparent adversaries, one of whom announced his imminent death years ago — appeared together in Park City this week, proudly presenting the movie’s Sundance premiere.



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‘The Invisibles’ Film Review: Documentary and Drama Combine to Tell Holocaust Survivor Stories

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In 1943, Joseph Goebbels proudly declared Berlin “free of Jews.” Though he did come markedly close to his goal, around 1,700 Jews managed to endure in secret through the war. “The Invisibles” tells the stories of a few of these survivors, bringing their astonishing histories to life in straightforward but consistently compelling fashion.

Director Claus Räfle interviews four Jews who are now in their 90s, all of whom eloquently share their experiences as teenagers in Berlin. Interspersed with their memories are dramatic re-enactments, a risky approach handled with enough skill to add to the film’s depth.

Hanni Weissenberg was an orphan when she was forced, at 17, into a terrifying homelessness. As played in flashback by Alice Dwyer, she dyes her hair blonde and spends her days seeking refuge in movie theaters. Every soldier who flirts with her brings untold danger, but one winds up offering crucial salvation.

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Ruth Arndt (played by Ruby O. Fee) and her friend Ellen (Victoria Schulz) are young women who also have to tread very carefully. They are lucky enough to have each other to rely on, but together, they become a larger target. Posing as war widows, they find a very precarious safety by working for the family of a Nazi leader. They also have to evade the notorious Stella Goldschlag (Laila Maria Witt), another Jewish student — and a fascinating historical villain — who protects herself and her own family by turning her friends in to the Gestapo.

Eugen Friede (Aaron Altaras, “Mario”) finds himself in a more fortunate situation: Aided by sympathetic Communists, Socialists and Christians, he lives relatively openly in nice homes with plenty of food. But as risks increase and neighbors betray neighbors, he has to go further underground. He winds up joining a resistance group led by the famously heroic Hans Winkler (Andreas Schmidt) and Werner Scharff (Florian Lukas, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). Also connected with Scharff is Cioma Schönhaus (standout Max Mauff, “Sense8”), who erases his own identity while creating new ones as an expert passport forger. Even as his work saves dozens of other lives, he repeatedly endangers his own.

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Räfle’s docudrama approach comes with the risk of disjointed storytelling. But he handles each element with a sure hand, bringing us both a fascinating documentary and a suspenseful drama. Crucially, the screenplay and uniformly strong performances support, rather than undermine, the true-life narration. And though we see the aged subjects intermittently interviewed in comfortable surroundings, we are fully invested in the tenuous experiences their younger, dramatized selves endure.

Their stories are so unique as to seem impossible, but the survivors all have qualities in common. Foremost, in both the present and their depicted past, they are all strikingly practical. Though still baffled and saddened by the inhumanity they faced, they also recount their persecution and personal valor in purely matter-of-fact fashion.

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Each also takes pains to highlight two other crucial elements of their survival. They all made it through the war thanks to both unusual good luck and the extraordinary kindness of others. There were, of course, millions of Germans who either turned a blind eye to their leaders’ cruelty or actively supported it, but there were many others who resisted, often at great danger to themselves. According to Räfle, as many as 10 people had to risk their own lives to hide a single Jewish friend or neighbor.

“The Invisibles” is a powerful testament to the remarkable courage of those forced into heroism, and to the exceptional strength of those who chose it freely.



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‘State Like Sleep’ Film Review: Katherine Waterston and Michael Shannon Float Through Enigmatic Neo-Noir

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As hazy and amorphous as a rain cloud, Meredith Danluck’s “State Like Sleep” does a fine job of recreating the dream-like fog of grief. But it doesn’t go much further, and “somnolence” isn’t an ideal quality around which to build an entire film.

As played by Katherine Waterston (“Fantastic Beasts”), American photographer Katherine has been floating dully since her Belgian movie star husband, Stefan (Michiel Huisman, “Game of Thrones”), was mysteriously killed a year earlier. But when her mom (Mary Kay Place) winds up in a Brussels hospital, Katherine is jolted into action. She wants to know what really happened to Stefan, and the more she looks, the less she finds to like.

Stefan’s severe mother, Anneke (Julie Khaner, “Leap!”), appears to be an open book: she bluntly hates her daughter-in-law, whom she blames for stealing her beloved son. A series of effective flashbacks also suggests that she was the Momager from Hell, though could she have been twisted enough to hurt Stefan for any reason?

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Meanwhile, it’s hard to say whether Stefan’s best friend, Emile (Luke Evans), had any motivation. But as the ultra-sleazy owner of a kinky underground club, he’s certainly got the amorality.

And what’s the story with Edward (Michael Shannon), the enigmatic businessman staying in Katherine’s hotel? His flirtations seem dangerous, and why does he turn up at Emile’s weird club?

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The biggest problem with “State Like Sleep” is that it prefers asking these questions to answering them. It’s fun — or at least diverting — to try and solve them for a while, but eventually every twisty road just dead-ends.

As a result, the cast works very hard to little purpose. Shannon’s character is too ill-defined to exploit his charisma, and an always-welcome Evans can only hint at a darkness that’s never explored. Given the vibrancy Waterston has shown in other noirish projects — “Inherent Vice” remaining the most memorable of many — it seems a waste to direct her towards the general embodiment of “wan.” She amply succeeds in conveying Katherine’s physical and psychic overwhelm, but there’s nowhere for her to go once she’s hit her marks.

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This being the case, the slack has to be picked up elsewhere. A vivid Place is terrific in her brief scenes, the epitome of an experienced performer determined to breathe some life into an unfocused production. Sought-after DP Christopher Blauvelt (“Mid90s”) continues to prove his talents, adding depths visually where the script neglects them thematically. And the moody score from indie composer David Wingo (“Loving”) and ambient musician Jeff McIlwain carries more than its share of weight.

Danluck (“North of South, West of East”) gets us halfway there, with a solid cast and crew, an apt depiction of emotional exhaustion, and a heroine we want to root for in a strange setting we’re ready to embrace. But she floats too ineffectually between dream and nightmare, never settling on one or committing to the other. And when we’re ready to return to reality, it’s regrettably easy to forget everything that came before.

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‘All Is True’ Film Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare Biopic Aims High, Falls Flat

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How do we honor an icon when so little truth is known about his life? If Kenneth Branagh’s earnest Shakespearean biopic is any guide, we would do best to stick with the Bard’s own works. Indeed, it’s hard to watch “All Is True” without noticing what’s missing most: the nimble wit and profound insight we’ve already seen in Branagh’s own Shakespearean adaptations.

One can certainly empathize with the director’s desire to dig more deeply, after 35 years of committing the Bard of Avon’s work to stage and screen so successfully. But in the end, this fictionalized biography primarily reminds us how rare its subject’s talents really were.

As depicted by screenwriter Ben Elton, Shakespeare (Branagh) comes home to Stratford in 1613, hoping for a quiet retirement. He has been devastated by a recent fire, which burned his beloved Globe Theatre to the ground. He is mourning the long-ago death of his young son, Hamnet. And he still carries a torch for a lover who clearly isn’t his sharp-tongued wife Anne (Dame Judi Dench).

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Indeed, Anne is initially annoyed by her long-absent husband’s return, as are his daughters, quiet Susanna (Lydia Wilson, “Star Trek: Beyond”) and headstrong Judith (Kathryn Wilder, Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express”). Also put out is Susanna’s severe and Puritan husband (Hadley Fraser, “The Legend of Tarzan”), though Judith’s hard-partying fiancé (Jack Colgrave Hirst) seems pretty cool with the notion of a super-wealthy father-in-law.

Dench brings both gravitas and a light twinkle to the illiterate and elderly Anne, a woman who has not been treated kindly by history. Many have assumed that Shakespeare’s only bequest to her — his “second-best bed” — was an insult. But Elton and Dench deftly turn this notion around, drawing out the affection in what must have been, to say the least, a complex relationship.

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Judith is also brought to new life in both Elton’s script and Wilder’s spirited performance. Though we know little about the actual Judith, Wilder (primarily a stage actor, like most of the supporting cast) plays her as a complex and brilliant woman undermined by a patriarchy her father implacably upholds. Most curiously, Susanna is portrayed as a meek wife bound to her cruel husband, though in reality she was her father’s favorite, and her epitaph described her as being “witty above her sex.” You may find yourself wishing for another story, in which we could learn something — anything — more interesting about her.

And you’ll definitely want to know more about Shakespeare’s beloved Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen). His presence amounts to little more than a cameo, but McKellen brings so much playful life to his scene that the film deflates considerably once he’s gone.

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But why? Both Elton and Branagh have certainly found great depth and inspiration in Shakespeare before. Elton hasn’t just built his career on irreverence (“The Young Ones,” “Blackadder”), he’s written an entire British sitcom about Shakespeare, called “Upstart Crow.” Even a touch of that show’s lighthearted sauciness would have gone a long way in this effort. Indeed, given that Elton had so few definitive facts to work with, and therefore so much potential to imagine, it’s hard to understand why he chose such a dull and solemn route.

As for Branagh, it’s fair to say that there are few contemporary Shakespearean interpreters more experienced than he is; among his many adaptations are the buoyant and charming “Much Ado About Nothing” and the Oscar-nominated “Henry V” and “Hamlet.”

But now, as both director and star, the enormity of his subject seems more burden than inspiration. Although it’s appropriate to bring some weight to the final years of a great man’s life, there is simply too much of it here: the sets, the cinematography, the costumes all feel heavy, even when the characters release themselves from darkness. It’s hard to say whether Branagh is concerned about getting things wrong, or of being disrespectful. But he never finds the freedom he’s unlocked so often in Shakespeare’s own works. His ambition is honorable, but without substance, it becomes merely the shadow of a dream.



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‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ Film Review: Peter Jackson’s Groundbreaking Documentary Brings WWI to Vivid Life

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Every holiday season brings some cinematic surprises, but here’s something truly unexpected: one of the best movies of 2018 was shot a century ago. Who could have guessed that when Peter Jackson was innovating cinematic techniques for grand fantasies like “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” he would eventually use them to service solemn reality?

“They Shall Not Grow Old” — which takes its name from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poetic tribute “For the Fallen” — started like any ordinary, well-intentioned documentary: Great Britain’s Imperial War Museum approached Jackson about honoring the centenary of the World War I Armistice. But when he began sifting through their archival footage, it looked like, well, archival footage from 100 years ago. Given that there are already plenty of traditional docs about WWI, Jackson set about creating a new experience from antique materials.

This was, undeniably, a risky proposition; no one wants to airbrush history. But by thoughtfully employing cutting-edge technology, Jackson has instead created an essential portal connecting audiences of the present to his subjects in the past.

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He and his team spent years upgrading the museum’s old footage (which was shot at 13 frames per second) to the contemporary speed of 24 frames per second. If the traditionalist in you is already concerned, you may not want to hear about the digitalized clarity, 3D glasses or — hold on to your bowler hat — colorization. But reserve judgment, because Jackson achieves exactly what he wants: a fully immersive event, in which we understand the experience of WWI soldiers as we never have before.

This approach is enhanced still further by Jackson’s careful construction of the film, and his decision to eschew conventional narration. Instead, he sifted through hours of decades-old oral histories collected by the BBC, which allows both aged veterans and youthful troops to represent themselves. (The action is enhanced by carefully matched audio recreations.)

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The contemporary priority of including a wide range of perspectives has been a great asset to culture overall, but Jackson consciously chose to keep his focus narrow here. His intention was to connect us to the experiences of front-line infantry soldiers in a visceral way, and he has succeeded brilliantly.

While we hear the voices of veterans remembering their motivation for joining up (patriotism, excitement, escape), we see the excited, wide-open faces of boys actually living in those moments. And so many truly are boys, some as young as 14. But as the days and months pass, we watch them moving to the front lines, attempting to find some shelter in rat-infested trenches and blowing off steam with remarkable silliness, before facing down death and, in only some cases, walking away.

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There is no safe distance here, in the form of grainy footage or unfamiliar archaisms. Indeed, the immediacy of their reality becomes almost overwhelming, and there are moments when you will assume Jackson must have staged visual reenactments. Your heart will hope he did. But ultimately, we can be grateful that he forged a different path instead.



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‘Dumplin” Film Review: Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald Deserve Trophies for Elevating Sentimental Dramedy

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If your guilty pleasures expand to include Hallmark-style sentimentality this time of year, you might consider adding “Dumplin’” to your viewing lineup. It has nothing to do with the holiday season, but it’s wrapped as neatly as any gift you might find under a Christmas tree.

Though directed by rom-com vet Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses,” “The Proposal”) and written by producer Kristin Hahn (“The Departed”), this modest dramedy — which is being released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix — is a far better fit for the small screen. But a big heart and strong cast go a long way towards elevating its prosaic approach.

Most of the credit goes to the two leads, Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald, who play a markedly mismatched mother and daughter. Aniston’s strenuously meticulous Rosie was, as she’ll happily remind anyone who asks, 1991’s Miss Teen Blue Bonnet. This might not seem like much to us, but in her corner of Texas, it matters. Decades after her win, in fact, Rosie is still a legend.

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Her teen daughter Willowdean (Macdonald, “Patti Cake$”), better known as Will, is a great kid: funny, smart, outspoken. But she’s also overweight, especially by pageant standards, and has little interest in being officially judged. She and her mother don’t seem to have anything in common, and the distance only broadens when Will and her similarly non-conformist friends (played by Odeya Rush, Bex Taylor-Klaus and Maddie Baillio) impetuously try out for the upcoming Blue Bonnet pageant.

Rosie is initially appalled by this rebellion and assumes the girls are making a mockery of an event she still proudly chairs. But Will’s intentions are pure: She wants to modernize the competition that still has such a tight grip on her town. She also wants to pay homage to her recently-deceased aunt, who was overshadowed by Rosie and never got to enter the pageant. And though she’s loath to admit it, she really wants to connect with her mother, who treats Will — whom she calls Dumplin’ — like a slightly embarrassing houseguest she only vaguely knows.

It’s easy to understand why Julie Murphy’s YA novel of the same name is so beloved; Will is both self-conscious and heroic, and her fight against The System — as represented by parents, cooler kids, and stifling beauty standards — is utterly relatable.

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But, of course, adolescents in other, more trenchant films are currently dealing with police brutality (“The Hate U Give”), drug addiction (“Ben is Back”), and forced conversion (“Boy Erased”). In contrast, this movie often feels like it was made back when Rosie first donned her crown, what with its wide-eyed wonder over sassy drag queens (led by Harold Perrineau), superficial takes on Will’s very real challenges and broadly-drawn characters with names like Millicent Amethyst Michelchuk. Moreover, is it really such a victory that Will’s metal-loving feminist pal is finally allowed to strut across the stage in a bathing suit, even if she does refuse to pair it with heels?

But this is a generous movie, and an unrepentant fantasy at that, so it’s hard not to meet it with openheartedness. For one thing, Will’s idol is Dolly Parton, and the soundtrack, to which Parton contributed several new and re-recorded tracks, is a delight. (Who could disagree when ever-overlooked Will notes the eternally wrenching beauty of Parton’s “Jolene”?)

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It’s also nice to see Aniston, who sometimes struggles to find the right material, so ideally suited to a project. She leans into Rosie’s obsession, but steadfastly resists the easy urge towards caricature or judgment. Instead, she portrays a woman whose hardships have been kept at bay by a strict set of rules. Rosie wasn’t able to control her lack of education or the difficulties of being a financially insecure single parent. But for her, there’s both comfort and pride to be found in putting yourself together well, especially when life threatens to fall apart.

Just as her mother has used beauty to buffer a cold world, Will seems bound by her body to feel forever out of place. Macdonald, who brilliantly tackled another version of this theme in last year’s “Patti Cake$,” takes even the more superficial scenes seriously. (She also aces the accent, despite being Australian.) As a result, the movie itself gains some crucial depth.

Granted, it’s a little frustrating to watch someone with Macdonald’s innate talent and star quality confined by the limits of a predictable script and unimaginative direction. But think of this as an early round: the sooner you discover this gifted actress, the more bragging rights you’ll have when Hollywood finally bestows upon her the sorts of trophies she deserves.



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‘Postcards from London’ Film Review: Gay Escort Contemplates Beauty in Skin-Deep Indie

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Steve McLean’s first film, “Postcards From America,” was also his last, made way back in 1994. But with his follow-up, “Postcards From London,” it seems no time has passed at all: the film is so steeped in stylized mannerisms and dialogue that it might have been made 25 years ago.

“I’m searching for a world full of mystery and possibilities,” 18-year-old Jim (Harris Dickinson, “Trust”) announces after arriving in London from the relative backwater of Essex, where he’s long dreamed of adventure. His wish serves as a sort of motto for a movie built upon declarations.

Jim quickly falls in with a group of hipster escorts, who see their work as art. They charge big bucks primarily for their post-coital conversational skills, in which they debate art and literature with the men who hire them.

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Jim willingly joins their ranks, but he’s not truly one of them. We know this because other characters are constantly stopping in their tracks just to tell him how special he is. He has the face, they gush, of “an angel,” “a Caravaggio.”

This, it turns out, is (sort of) literally true. Jim is so exquisitely sensitive to beauty that he suffers from a condition called Stendhal Syndrome. As a result, he has an extreme physical reaction upon encountering great art. He sees a painting, faints, and imagines himself a part of it. Thus he becomes muse to, for example, Caravaggio himself (Ben Cura).

If the disorder sounds familiar, it may be because Dario Argento made a movie about it in 1995, starring his daughter Asia. And it’s certainly a promising starting point for any filmmaker with an extreme visual bent. But self-consciousness is not the same thing as self-awareness. And in a movie overflowing with the former and lacking in the latter, Jim primarily becomes an inadvertent symbol of narcissism and superficiality.

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McLean has taken tremendous care with the film’s look, bathing his deliberately artificial set in rich color and calling attention to every edit and camera position. The costumes are timelessly cool, and the sets strikingly theatrical. But to what end? The characters do little more than quote the work of other, more accomplished people. Derek Jarman, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud serve as lodestars, but inspire more admiration than creative sparks.

And for a movie about rent boys that hinges on Caravaggio, there’s an odd lack of sexuality or even earthiness. When Jim begins his new job, he’s required to take an oath of loyalty: “Place your hand on this packet of condoms, and repeat after me: we’re the oldest profession, and we take pride in what we do.” But rather than treat this timeless occupation with pride or intrigue or even just straightforward practicality, the movie cuts away coyly whenever Jim is actually required to work.

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Mostly he poses, which feels representative of the project itself. Dickinson, who navigated issues of sex and identity with far more complexity in 2017’s “Beach Rats,” is as objectified by McLean as he is by his clients. We’re told over and over how stunning, how sensitive, how remarkable he is. But he’s such a blank slate that there’s not much actual evidence of these traits.

It’s not Dickinson’s fault; he’s been directed towards a particular style of performance that favors tell over show. In the end, Jim learns that it’s not enough to admire art; the next step is to create it in some authentic way. The same holds true for beauty, too.



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‘Hunter Killer’ Film Review: Gerard Butler Stalks Around a Submarine in Passable Thriller

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

You know those DVDs that sit in a giant Walmart bin, where, if you’re so inclined, you can spend half an hour sifting for a $2 treasure? The kinds of movies usually dumped unceremoniously into theaters in January, and maybe if you’re going stir crazy you take a chance and find yourself happily surprised? “Hunter Killer” is one of those.

It’s not going to win any Oscars, or give “Halloween” a run for its money. And what it’s doing taking up valuable cineplex space in the fall is anyone’s guess. But sometimes there’s a pleasure to be had in finding one’s low expectations met and even surpassed. And since we’re already damning this one with faint praise, let’s push it further still: As Cold War submarine thrillers starring Gerard Butler go, you could do a lot worse.

South African director Donovan Marsh, who alternates between genre action like 2013’s “Avenged” and quirky indies like 2010’s coming-of-age tale “Spud,” keeps this ship afloat by embracing his challenges with a wry self-awareness.

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Things do start off worryingly, with Butler’s Captain Glass barking out stilted orders after he’s brought onto a job under duress. Much to the horror of a bunch of extras in military uniforms, it seems a Russian sub has attacked the USS Tampa Bay, stationed in their waters.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Donnegan (Gary Oldman, who maybe hadn’t won his Oscar for “Darkest Hour” when he signed on?) wants to go right to the nuclear option. But he’s pulled back from the brink by Rear Admiral Fisk (Common, admirably solemn) and NSA analyst Norquist (Linda Cardellini, bored stiff), who believe something bigger is going on.

And this is where things get kinda interesting. Satellite images suggest that Russia’s Defense Minister Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy) has gone rogue, kidnapping Russian president Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) and orchestrating a violent government coup. His goal seems to be kick off World War III, so returning fire would just play right into his hands.

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Instead, Fisk and Norquist bring Glass and a sympathetic Russian captain (the late Michael Nyqvist, “John Wick’) onto an American sub, while simultaneously planning a SEAL rescue (led by Toby Stephens, “Lost in Space”) of Zakarin. The aim is to get Americans out of immediate danger, expose Durov’s plan and avoid any further escalation. But there’s a lot riding on Glass’ steady hand: If anything goes wrong, his men will die, and America will be forced to fight back big time.

Screenwriters Arne Schmidt (“Chain Reaction”) and Jamie Moss (“Ghost in the Shell”) have adapted George Wallace and Don Keith’s novel “Firing Point,” and the movie feels like an airport paperback translated for the screen. The plot pulls you in, moves quickly, and falls apart upon the slightest inspection.

As soon as we start to get bored by people in a tiny cabin shouting about hydraulics, we’re already off to a daring rescue attempt or tracking a torpedo. Nicely kinetic camerawork from Tom Marais makes the most of Michael Duthie’s strong editing, which keeps us shifting between D.C., the land raid, and the ocean depths.

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Butler seems a lot more comfortable in this setting than he often does; it would be fair to call his performance “workmanlike,” which is a considerable upgrade from “disdainful” or “stiff.”

Also intriguing, for those who care, is the political message the filmmakers weave throughout. It’s not dove-ish, exactly, but it is unexpectedly pointed. A petulant leader holding an entire country hostage with his own narcissistic anger may feel like an old trope when it’s a Russian, but there are some unexpected hints that the parallel is not-so-secretly meant to hit closer to home. The U.S. president is played by a Hillary Clinton-like Caroline Goodall, and the most dangerous American character is Oldman’s John Bolton-esque hawk.

A militaristic B-movie heavy on action but light on faux-patriotic bombast? It seems fair to call that its own kind of treasure.



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‘Johnny English Strikes Again’ Film Review: Rowan Atkinson’s Third 007 Spoof is Shaky, Not Stirring

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Despite the halfhearted mystery propelling its plot, the primary question that floats above “Johnny English Strikes Again” is … “Why?”

It is true that its two predecessors — “Johnny English” and “Johnny English Reborn” — did remarkably well overseas. (Americans remained flatly immune.) So clearly, there are still loyal Rowan Atkinson fans out there. But if you’re determined to recycle one of his characters over and over, wouldn’t the beloved Mr. Bean or Blackadder make more sense than a James Bond parody made up for British credit card ads? At the very least, doesn’t he, and don’t his fans, deserve better material?

What’s particularly disappointing about this effort is the amount of talent wasted. In addition to the always-game Atkinson, we’ve got accomplished BBC comedy director David Kerr (“That Mitchell and Webb Look”) and screenwriter William Davies (“How to Train Your Dragon”). And also, rather curiously, Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon. The invaluable Thompson is, it must be said, an absolute delight as the frazzled British prime minister. New to the job, she’s just learned that a hacker plans to bring London to a standstill during an upcoming international summit.

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Moreover, he’s exposed all of her secret agents before they can track him down. What to do? First, bring the best out of retirement. And when that plan fails (Gambon, we hardly knew you), there’s always Johnny English (Atkinson). The former M17 spy is as inept as ever, but at least he’s got a loyal aide in Bough (Ben Miller, “Paddington 2”). While the minister enlists the help of a Silicon Valley billionaire (Jake Lacy), English and Bough trace the hack to the South of France, where a dangerous double agent (Olga Kurylenko, “Quantum of Solace”) is lying in wait.

And what’s waiting for us? Linguistic mix-ups, exploding pens, pratfalls involving a suit of armor, and Black Eyed Peas punchlines. When Johnny proclaims, “We’re doing this mission old-school,” he means it.

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There is humor to be mined from Atkinson’s fish-out-of-water persona, particularly since the traditional Bond formula feels so dated itself now. The 80s soundtrack (Wham!, Bananarama, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) plays up this approach, as do jokes about floppy disks and the ecological impracticality of an Aston Martin. The best gag is an extended scene in which an astounded English experiences virtual reality for the first time, allowing Atkinson to exploit his rubber-limbed lunacy.

Mostly, though, it’s the movie itself that feels dusty. Davies and Kerr settle, more often than not, for the easy joke rather than the smart one. When Johnny stubbornly refuses to fill the Aston Martin’s gas tank before a chase, can you guess what will happen next? When he’s given sleeping pills and adrenaline pills, which will he take at just the wrong time? And when all else fails, will you be remotely surprised by the appearance of his bare bum?

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In fairness, more than a few kids giggled at that part during a recent screening. And adults may appreciate Atkinson’s earnest commitment, particularly considering how much Daniel Craig appears to dread each subsequent Bond installment. But as Craig knows, there comes a time when every man has to hang up his tux. When the suspenders snap, that time has arrived.



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‘Mid90s’ Film Review: Jonah Hill Scores Solid Directorial Debut With Coming-of-Age Indie

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Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is an homage so faithful to its titular era, you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint the year in which it was actually made. The giveaway, though, is in the intense sense of nostalgia that suffuses every frame of “Mid90s.”

Hill, currently starring in Netflix’s “Maniac,” was 13 in 1996, the same age as his protagonist, Stevie (Sunny Suljic, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”), who’s struggling to make sense of his unhappy life. His older brother, Ian (a scary Lucas Hedges, miles away from “Lady Bird”), has a lot of rage issues, most of which he takes out on Stevie in violent fashion. And his young single mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston, “Inherent Vice’), is just trying to hold things together.

Facing down a summer with nothing to do and no one to do it with, Stevie finds a new family among the teens who hang out at a nearby L.A. skate shop. Ray (Na-kel Smith) works there, but he seems to be the only one with a job or plans for the future: He wants to emulate his idols and snag a sponsorship. Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin, “Ballers”) has vague dreams of becoming a filmmaker, but then again his nickname reflects his general level of intellectual ability. Ruben (Gio Galicia) is the other “little man,” a kid trying to keep up in a world of intimidating teenagers like Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), whose nickname pretty much says it all.

Watch Video: Jonah Hill Takes Us Back to the ‘Mid90s’ in First Trailer for Directorial Debut

Ruben gives a wide-eyed Stevie his first cigarette the day he walks into the store, and it’s not long before he’s swallowing pills, chugging 40s and following older girls into their bedrooms for bragging rights. Hill envisions these endless days with a kid’s-eye abstraction that’s both timeless and firmly entrenched in its own era: his skate punks banter like Kevin Smith extras, wander like Richard Linklater dreamers, and misbehave like Larry Clark lost boys.

But like a teen trying out adulthood, Hill seems ready to acknowledge consequences without actually wanting to face them. We get brief, impactful hints at the depths of Stevie’s self-destructive pain, but eventually the script considers them too much of a downer to resolve. And depending on one’s age, the bluntly unrealistic final scene could be read as either wish fulfillment or a cop-out.

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Even if they don’t ultimately cohere, though, each individual moment is beautifully played. While it’s a longstanding joke that all actors really want to direct, many of them do have a distinct advantage. Hill exhibits a striking confidence behind the camera, reflected in part through his low-key approach. He cast his movie mostly with amateur skaters, and he draws flawlessly natural performances from every one of them.

He’s also gone out of his way, as sole screenwriter, to give us a chance to get to know the characters intimately. Prenatt shows us the vulnerability beneath his burnout’s hard-partying persona, while Smith is so charismatic we fear Ray may prove too good for this world. McLaughlin and Galicia convincingly portray the hesitancy and resentment of those destined to remain on the edge of any group, and Suljic gives us the sort of heart-wrenching honesty only children can; the last performance this powerfully authentic was from little Brooklynn Prince, in last year’s similarly evocative “The Florida Project.” (Both films come from impressive indie shingle A24.)

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Hedges, an Oscar nominee for “Manchester by the Sea,” once again proves particularly adept at filling in silence; Ian’s quiet anger says just as much as his explosive furies. Waterston’s Dabney, unfortunately, remains frustratingly elusive — not so much because kids don’t know what their parents get up to, but because the script never makes room for her. She’s neither present nor absent enough to provide the extra clues we need into Stevie’s lightning-fast transformation.

But that transformation is undeniably potent, whether Stevie is limiting his options in show-offy drunkenness or embracing exhilarating freedom while skateboarding through crowded car lanes. The parallel soundtrack — Pixies, Cypress Hill, Nirvana — backs him up in every life-altering moment, and the eternal languor of so much summer downtime is captured in all its hazy revelation by superb cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (“Meek’s Cutoff”). Just as Hill makes the most of his first-time actors, he relies on experts to help build the film around them: longtime collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross handle the score, while costume designer Heidi Bivins (“Spring Breakers”) gets the slouchy skate rat uniform down to a T — usually one featuring Ren & Stimpy or a Street Fighter II logo.

Hill’s made an unabashed love letter to a particular decade, sure, but also to a specific moment in everyone’s life. And while he undercuts his own movie by romanticizing even the most extreme experiences of lost innocence, the purity of Stevie’s longing makes the movie’s wistful fantasy understandable.



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‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ Film Review: Maggie Gyllenhaal Blurs Boundaries as an Art-Obsessed Educator

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a good person. She’s a loving mother, a caring wife, and, as the titular educator in “The Kindergarten Teacher,” a dedicated professional. She has endless patience for her students, even as she fills their juice cups up for the thousandth time.

And yet.

Who could fill a juice cup a thousand times, without going a little crazy? Watch her teenage children (Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules) grow up and move on, without her heart breaking? Or look at her worn-out spouse (Michael Chernus,”Orange Is the New Black”) and her worn-in Staten Island home, and not wish for more?

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It’s clear early on in Sara Colangelo’s intently understated drama (premiering October 12 in limited release and on Netflix) that Lisa wants more. And all that dissatisfaction, that feeling that life is half over and she’s barely accomplished anything? It’s eating her away.

She tries to find an outlet in a continuing-ed poetry class, but her teacher (a perfectly-pitched Gael García Bernal) is notably unimpressed. She truly loves art, but doesn’t seem able to produce it herself. It’s a strange and demoralizing dilemma.

Until, one day, one of her students (excellent and adorable newcomer Parker Sevak) makes up a poem. And it’s good — better than hers. Lisa is awed by Jimmy’s natural talent, and becomes convinced that he’s a prodigy. She tracks down his father (Ajay Naidu), and passionately compares Jimmy to Mozart. But his dad, like the other adults she consults, thinks a five-year-old should be free to play, not pushed to write poetry with his teacher.

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So Lisa determines, with increasing urgency, to save Jimmy from the philistines. She begins waking him up at naptime, and calling him at home, to teach him how to “see” better. She bribes him with candy, so he’ll go study with her alone. And all the time, we’re worried about what line she’ll cross next.

As both writer and director, Colangelo — adapting a 2014 Israeli film of the same name — knows that we’re watching with particular expectations. There’s a built-in tension to our assumptions, but Lisa is not the predator we expect her to be, nor the sort of monster with whom we’re most familiar.

Looked at from one angle, in fact, most of the movie could be considered entirely sympathetic to Lisa’s perspective. But then the camera lingers just a little too long on her inscrutable expression. Occasionally, the plaintive piano-and-strings score (by Asher Goldschmidt, “White God”) feels just a bit too ominous. And is her habit of touching everyone an expression of her compassion? Or her needs?

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Though Gyllenhaal (who’s also a producer) is all-in on this complex character study, it’s in an admirably subtle way. She never once overplays Lisa’s precarious emotional state, choosing instead to portray a rather ordinary woman doing some rather extraordinary things. It’s an intriguing approach, and one that carries us far.

However, her spare turn and the film’s deliberately unhurried pacing do require the support of an especially solid script. This one, unfortunately, seems like it’s missing a few pages. When the inevitable finale arrives, it feels false: the Lisa we’ve come to know so intimately would never make the most extreme choices the plot requires of her.

That letdown, though, is a reflection on the strong and honest work to come before it. Anyone with some patience and a penchant for thoughtful ambiguity will find more than enough rewards here, from Gyllenhaal’s intelligent performance to Colangelo’s empathetic insight. True, it’s not always an easy movie to sit through. But the impact of Lisa’s plight lingers long after her fate’s been sealed.



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‘Private Life’ Film Review: Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti Shine as Would-Be Parents

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Tamara Jenkins’ lovely and compassionate new drama “Private Life” (premiering Oct. 5 in limited release and on Netflix) has a pretty specific focus: two fortysomething New York writers whose path to parenthood is … complicated. It was based on the director’s experience, and she has clearly put her heart, soul, and history into every scene.

Like all gifted artists, though, Jenkins — following up 1998’s beloved “Slums of Beverly Hills” and 2007’s Oscar-nominated “The Savages” — elevates the universal within the personal.

It is true that anyone familiar with the complexities of IVF, adoption, donor eggs, or surrogacy will be awed by Jenkins’ pinpoint powers of observation. Her depiction of this complex path is unimpeachably accurate, in a way rarely seen onscreen. But you’re also likely to feel persistent jolts of recognition if you have endured assembly-line condescension at any doctor’s office, family judgments over any of your life choices, or deep pain beneath the surface of any relationship.

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Jenkins couldn’t have asked for a better pairing than Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, who lose themselves thoroughly in the intimacy of this story. In a lot of ways, Rachel and Richard seem like throwbacks to movie characters long-past: she’s a successful playwright and novelist, and he’s an admired theatrical director. One glance at their book-strewn, rent-controlled apartment in the East Village suggests they’re living the cultural dream.

But times have changed, and their focus on work has left them both scrambling to find every means possible to become parents in middle age. They’ve spent all their money, exhausted their considerable compatibility, and pushed their psyches (and Rachel’s body) to the limit. So far, nothing has worked.

In the film’s only forced choice, their emotionally fragile step-niece Sadie (newcomer Kayli Carter) drops out of grad school to arrive miraculously on their doorstep. Could she, and her presumably perfect eggs, be the answer to Rachel and Richard’s problems? The answer isn’t so simple, of course, particularly when Sadie’s parents, Cynthia (Molly Shannon) and Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), find out about their tentative plan.

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Fertility remains tricky thematic terrain, and in its unusual honesty, the movie opens itself up to the same dismissals Rachel faces daily. As both writer and director, Jenkins pushes us to rise above judgment by steadfastly refusing to indulge in it herself. Deep empathy suffuses the screen, enveloping every one of the characters. Another script would have turned Rachel and Richard into entitled narcissists; another filmmaker would have neglected to address the underpinnings of Cynthia’s brittle cynicism.

A movie as singular as this one has to be a collaboration, and it’s fair to say the leads have rarely been better. The hardest personality trait for actors to embody is “ordinary”: it requires them to strip completely bare, relying on nothing but truth. Giamatti meets this challenge so deftly that Richard becomes, improbably, a unique everyman. We might hate him one minute, but we’ll relate to him in the next, just like Rachel does. And Hahn is equally wonderful, as comfortable in silence as she is shifting between rapid and extreme emotions. She hides years of hurt beneath Rachel’s smile, each wince and flash of anger suggesting countless more that have gone unexpressed.

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This detailed intimacy is reflected on every level, particularly in the meticulous set design and very deliberate use of New York as the story’s backdrop. Every small moment is memorable, designed to ping someone who’s been there before. I can’t think of a single movie, for example, that better represents the humiliating infantilization that so often underscores medical procedures. But just as Jenkins aptly renders the tense silence in a serenely decorated waiting room, she also captures the suffocating closeness of an overcrowded apartment, or the full-body relief of finding another person with whom you can be yourself.

Because “Private Life” isn’t really a movie about infertility. It’s about love, and pain, and marriage, and friendship, and family. And it’s also about enduring, about picking yourself up over and over and over, in the eternal hope that something beautiful is waiting around the corner. If it happens that you can relate in any way to Jenkins’ broken characters, know this: she’s made something beautiful, and it’s just for you.



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‘Little Women’ Film Review: Contemporary Take on Literary Classic Feels More Old-Fashioned Than the Original

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Clare Niederpruem’s adaptation of “Little Women” is billed as “the first-ever modern cinematic retelling of the classic story.” (Apparently they’re not counting the 2012 TV movie “The March Sisters at Christmas.”) This sounds like a promising approach; Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel was published 150 years ago, yet it remains as relevant as ever.

Alcott’s books grappled with the place of girls and women (and also boys and men) in the world, so there will always be room for thoughtful adaptations of her work. Indeed, this year brought a well-received miniseries to PBS, and Greta Gerwig is currently working on an interpretation starring Saoirse Ronan and Meryl Streep. Plus, of course, parents still show kids their own favorite versions, from 1933, 1949 and 1994.

But these efforts reflected a crucial understanding missing from Niederpruem’s feature debut: that we are all Jo (or Meg, or Beth, or Amy, or Laurie). The girls in this contemporary retelling — which was produced by the faith-based company Pinnacle Peak — are not messy and complex human beings but Hallmark Channel characters, two-dimensional symbols of virtuous nostalgia.

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The film jumps back and forth in time in confusing fashion, with the characters primarily embodied at different ages by the same actors. Sarah Davenport (“Stitchers”) is thus required to portray both teenage Jo and adult Jo. Unfortunately, both are played in the same wide-eyed manner, which renders her too visibly mature as a young teen and too emotionally naive as a grownup.

Davenport has also been directed to deliver every line of dialogue as a declaration of intent. This would be distracting under any circumstances, but it’s certainly not helped by the lines themselves: “I, Jo March,” she grandly decrees, “will be a very successful writer, and will do all the things.” One of these things, as it turns out, is to help poor Beth (Allie Jennings) when she gets sick. “Web MD scared the crap out of me,” Jo announces to their mother, Marmee (Lea Thompson), when she arrives at the hospital.

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Moreover, Jo’s subversive rebellion — and all the girls’ moral struggles — are sanded down to anodyne blandness. When maternal Meg (Melanie Stone) breaks out of her homeschooled shell for a drunken prom party, she learns her lesson immediately, the camera mercilessly glaring at her cartoonishly vulgar makeup. There are no lessons learned from conflicting with Aunt March (Barta Heiner), because she’s become a smiley eccentric spending her retirement on cruise ships. Laurie (Lucas Grabeel, “High School Musical”) is as unthreatening a childhood crush as one could ask for. Beth, with her puppy-dog expressions and passive personality, is on a path to martyrdom from the start.

Alcott addressed issues of poverty in a way that remains utterly essential today but is similarly scrubbed from this enviably set-designed March home. The repetitious Christmas scenes in the cozy living room are shot with particular care and serve as the movie’s centerpieces. But in their enviable, Pinterest-worthy décor, they’re hardly reflective of the austere and ennobling spiritual experience readers may remember.

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However, as Marmee might note, we can always find a silver lining. Stone and Grabeel are standouts, their low-key presence serving as necessary correctives to the unceasing energy of a frenetic Jo. Thompson also brings some welcome warmth to the household, calmly centering so much unfocused activity. And co-writers Niederpruem and Kristi Shimek take a noticeably careful approach to the issue of the suitors, an aspect of the book that has always been a sore spot for many.

The staid and disappointing Professor Bhaer has been aged down into a handsome teacher called Freddy (Ian Bohen, “Yellowstone”), who works with Jo when she’s in her late twenties. And though young Amy (Elise Jones) always has a crush on Laurie, nothing comes of it until she’s played by the adult Taylor Murphy. There’s also some poignancy to seeing Papa (Bart Johnson, another “High School Musical” alum) Skyping in his fatigues, war being yet another timeless theme of Alcott’s.

Most of those themes, though, go unaddressed. It’s no crime to update classics, as fans of “Clueless” (or Jane Austen) and “10 Things I Hate About You” (or Shakespeare) can attest. But without a genuine respect for the author’s intent, the era is irrelevant. This version seems to have been made not to honor Alcott’s little women but instead to please the parents who want blandly wholesome family entertainment for their own. One can only imagine what Jo herself would have to say on the subject.



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‘Colette’ Film Review: Keira Knightley Offers a Tasteful Look at a Rebellious Artist

Towards the end of her years, France’s most celebrated female novelist looked back with rueful humor. “What a wonderful life I’ve had,” Colette wryly observed. “I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”

A similar sentiment might reflect this tasteful tribute to a true rebel: director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) has an extraordinarily unique subject, but doesn’t seem to realize it until very late in the game.

“Colette” is aesthetically refined, topically relevant, and features a spirited Keira Knightley in the lead. In other words, as a traditional period biopic, it checks all the boxes in fine fashion. But you’d never know it was inspired by a woman whose life was expansive and contradictory and unwieldy in the extreme.

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Westmoreland and his cowriters, Richard Glatzer (Westmoreland’s late husband and collaborator) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (“Disobedience”), chose to focus entirely on Colette’s early adulthood, when she was married to Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). The much-older Willy, as he was widely known, was famous as a Parisian writer and libertine. But as the film takes pains to point out, he was a bit of a sham on both counts. He put his name to works others wrote, and encouraged his young wife’s sexual exploration primarily to the extent that it mirrored his.

The two were together for about 14 years, and there is no doubt this was a crucially formative time for Colette. It was Willy who encouraged her to write (or, more accurately, bullied her into it). Her first success was a series of semi-autobiographical Claudine novels, which she wrote, he took credit for, and they both used to raise their profiles.

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In the movie, this is also the period in which Colette shifts from an innocent housewife to an independent artist. The plotting is so conventional that we can see the marketing plan: Colette’s makeover allows for lots of great costume changes, some satisfyingly feisty monologues from Knightley, and a movie that makes the most of the #TimesUp moment.

Westmoreland deftly plays up the Belle Époque setting, which takes the sting out of the fact that he’s chosen very British actors to tell a very French story. Indeed, he’s gathered an almost uniformly strong cast, which goes a long way towards balancing the movie’s limitations.

Fiona Shaw has some nice moments as Colette’s formidable mother, and Denise Gough (“Juliet, Naked”) is especially striking as Missy, the lesbian aristocrat with whom Colette had a daringly public affair. (An odd contrast is “Poldark”‘s Eleanor Tomlinson, whose florid Southern accent and campy mannerisms as another of Colette’s lovers belong in a different movie altogether.)

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Although West is the designated villain, he turns Willy into an unpredictable foil: the confident charm that attracts Colette so strongly is also the arrogant narcissism that pushes her towards a more fulfilling life.

And what of that life? Only one scene, in which Colette performs a strange and dangerously erotic theater piece, gets at the heart of her innately subversive nature. Even her relationship with Missy — which was, in reality, incredibly risky and complex — is represented primarily by walks through pretty fields. And while Willy talks of Colette’s “volcanic jealousies” and “capricious” moods, we never actually see them. Though Knightley’s charming performance is perfectly suited to this restrained approach, she rarely has the chance to connect authentically with her self-mythologizing, larger-than-life inspiration.

Westmoreland’s primary aim is to present an appealing historical heroine who will resonate today. He accomplishes this goal handily, but then keeps returning to it. Did we need so many moments in which the patriarchal Willy and the independent Colette clash? Couldn’t some have been cut, so we could also witness at least a few of her ensuing triumphs and failures?

Because we spend so much time on her first marriage, we never get to the Colette who became one of the first female war reporters, or wrote a bestselling novel referencing her own affair with her second husband’s teenage stepson, or rescued her Jewish third husband after he was arrested by the Gestapo, or influenced so many of the great minds of her time, or lived long enough to be embraced, shamed, shunned, and celebrated by the same society.

“Colette” does offer us an engaging introduction to a fascinating woman. But it’s hard not to wonder: Why tell the story of an avant-garde, ambisexual iconoclast if you’re planning to play it so safe?



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‘The Land of Steady Habits’ Film Review: Nicole Holofcener Turns Her Sharp Eye Toward Masculine Identity Crises

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Throughout the course of her steadily exceptional career, writer-director Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said,” “Walking and Talking”) has established herself as a peerless master of observation, exquisitely attuned to human foibles and frailty.

“The Land of Steady Habits,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this week and debuts on Netflix September 14, shifts away from her usual POV — compulsively self-sabotaging women — and offers instead the perspective of, well, compulsively self-sabotaging men.

Her approach, however, remains the same: both minutely unsparing and generously empathetic. (For what it’s worth, this description applies equally well to the excellent festival biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” which Holofcener co-wrote and Marielle Heller directed.)

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Holofcener has deftly adapted Ted Thompson’s 2014 novel about Anders Hill (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, “Bloodline”), a finance guy living in mega-wealthy Westport, Connecticut. As seen here, Westport is the kind of place where wives in Range Rovers gather at the train station every night at 7pm, to pick up husbands who have just enough time to eat and sleep before heading back to banking.

Despite the resultant mansions and manicured lawns, no one seems very happy with this arrangement. The women drink alone in their open-plan kitchens, the men drink together in the leather-clad dens, and the kids get high on the bluestone patios when their parents aren’t looking.

Anders was particularly unhappy on this treadmill, so he didn’t just step off: he broke the damn thing, noisily quitting his job and divorcing his wife, Helene (Edie Falco), so he could be “free.” So far this high-minded plan has landed him in a depressing condo, from which he makes one terrible life choice after another while resentfully watching his family move on.

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Not that things are entirely easy for them, either. Helene’s about to get remarried but is still caring for her son (Thomas Mann, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), an unemployed 27-year-old recently out of rehab. She’s also supporting her depressed best friend (Elizabeth Marvel, “Homeland”), whose own troubled kid (Charlie Tahan, “Ozark”) is still in high school but also headed to rehab.

No detail ever seems to go unnoticed in Holofcener’s world, and viewers could spend the entire running time simply admiring her powers of surveillance. This begins with the lenticular feel of the opening scenes, in which excess opportunity seamlessly shades into suffocating oppression.

Similarly, the crisply-shot houses are all stylistically different yet theoretically identical: each is beautiful, meticulously decorated, and very cold. The same could be said for many of the humans inside them, though Holofcener’s natural charity always allows us to see the messiness beneath the placid surface.

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Fans of her previous work may also be gratified to know that despite the focus on one man’s midlife meltdown, she makes plenty of room for the women and children at the edges of Anders’ world. Falco is reliably flawless, as the sort of ultra-competent — and inevitably exhausted — wife-mother-friend usually held up as a societal ideal. Mann and Tahan are also memorable, playing lost boys whose leisure-induced lack of structure becomes their undoing. Thanks to both strong performances and thoughtful writing, their anxieties and errors feel grounded in reality. They’re doing their best just to stay afloat, and we feel for them even as we wince or worry at their mistakes.

Anders is … more complex. His weaselly demeanor suggests an outsider’s mindset, rather than the money-drunk arrogance his Wall Street-to-Westport commute is meant to represent. But while a smoothly handsome actor like Jon Hamm or Bradley Cooper might feel more naturally suited to the role, the unexpected casting adds an interesting twist that helps set the movie apart from other stories of upper-middle-class malaise.

Few are better at playing villains than Mendelsohn, and for a while, Anders’ sheer awfulness is genuinely breathtaking. Is this actor really brave enough to give us such an irredeemable yet uncomfortably relatable protagonist? Is Holofcener? It’s a thrilling thought, and one that carries us well into the movie.

While Anders’ current crisis forms the film’s centerpiece, it’s clear that he was no better, happier, or kinder a decade ago. There’s an undeniable charm to his shambly confusion, and the easy apologies he’s constantly dropping. But he’s still a toxic narcissist, who innately expects the world to revolve around his whims.

We rarely see egos so unvarnished on screen, and it’s to Holofcener’s credit that she allows her antihero to remain true to himself. But this does set us up for a deflated disappointment, when convention finally wins out. Anders destroys everything he touches, often literally, and yet, in time-honored cinematic fashion, he is rewarded nonetheless. (It’s especially dispiriting to see Connie Britton fill this thankless role.)

That’s an unexpected misstep from Holofcener, who crafts most of the movie with characteristically sharp skill. Her update on “Ice Storm”-style suburban ennui feels particularly potent right now, in its vision of a rotting establishment. But in the end, Anders’ deeply-rooted entitlement proves regrettably unassailable.



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‘Where Hands Touch’ Film Review: Amandla Stenberg Packs Emotion in Earnest Holocaust Drama

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Amandla Stenberg has already made her mark on this year’s Toronto Film Festival with an acclaimed central turn in “The Hate U Give.” But she expands her impressive range still further with a second festival entry, Amma Asante’s heartfelt Holocaust drama “Where Hands Touch.”

Despite its upcoming theatrical release, the movie feels like a better fit for the intimacy of living rooms or classrooms, where Stenberg’s powerful performance may draw teen fans into a diligently-conceived history lesson.

The story itself is fictional, but writer-director Asante (“A United Kingdom”) was inspired by the actual experiences of Afro-German citizens persecuted during World War II. Stenberg plays Leyna, a biracial teenager whose mere existence requires perpetual vigilance in 1944 Berlin.

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Her terrified single mother, Kerstin (Abbie Cornish), would prefer that Leyna stay inside all the time, away from the threats of prying neighbors, cruel soldiers and Nazi youth. That describes almost everyone in the city, since each boy, including Leyna’s own half-brother, is required to join the movement, and each girl is either a loyal Aryan or destined for danger. As the daughter of a French-African soldier she’s never known, Leyna is contemptuously deemed a “Rhineland bastard,” marking her an unwitting candidate for such official monstrosities as forced sterilization.

With youthful innocence, she ignores her mother’s warnings and begins an unlikely friendship with Lutz (George MacKay, “Captain Fantastic”), the son of a Nazi leader (erstwhile Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston). Lutz toes the party line in most ways — he spares no sympathy for Jewish “rats” — but is the only outsider to show Leyna any kindness. The two soon fall in love, oblivious to the reality both their parents understand: a relationship between people of such dangerously unequal status is impossible by any standards.

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Asante has faced unfair controversy in the run-up to the movie’s release by those preemptively worried about attempts to romanticize Nazism or to exploit a tragic setting. In fact, her respect for the material is both evident and overarching. Where her 2014 film, the excellent and underseen “Belle,” was suffused with passion, this one feels guided by principle: she is intently determined to give voice to stories that have not yet been told.

She struggles with pacing and an unfocused screenplay, but even these flaws reflect an earnest attempt to grapple with overwhelming historic injustice. Asante’s loyalty to Leyna, her stand-in for so many real victims, is the film’s guiding force, and we can feel the weight of this responsibility in every scene.

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The cast is equally committed to their difficult tasks. MacKay finds a way to convey Lutz’s confusion without underselling the monstrous ideologies he’s been taught to espouse. And Cornish wisely resists the urge to turn Kerstin into a maternal martyr, tempering fierce loyalty with complex anger (though her convincing portrayal of an exhausted middle-aged mother may startle those who remember her wild child roles in mid-aughties movies like “Somersault,” “One Perfect Day” and “Candy”).

It’s Stenberg, however, who carries the film, embodying a wrenching span as Leyna is buffeted between the extremes of love and brutality. Like Asante, she’s put her all into this sprawling project, pulling us in with deceptively effortless skill.

That said, the weight of history is a heavy burden for one film to carry, especially when freighted still further by contemporary parallels. Ultimately, Leyna is as much a symbol as a fully-drawn character, one young girl representing multitudes. Nevertheless, those who find their way to her essential story will come away not only enlightened, but undeniably touched.



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‘Operation Finale’ Film Review: Strong Ensemble Infuses Passion Into Conventional Retelling of Adolf Eichmann’s Capture

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Ben Kingsley has embodied Jewish heroes as iconic as Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (“Murderers Among Us”), Anne Frank’s father Otto (“Anne Frank: The Whole Story”), and businessman Itzhak Stern (“Schindler’s List”). In “Operation Finale,” he adopts another perspective altogether, portraying the ultimate villain in Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The innately intense Kingsley isn’t an ideal match for the mild-mannered murderer who inspired philosopher Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil.” But like the rest of the cast, he holds our attention even when the movie buckles under the burden of earnest intentions.

Once you get past the jarring collection of mismatched accents, it’s a pleasure to be in the company of pros like Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent (“Beginners”), Nick Kroll, and Michael Aronov (“The Americans”). But as Mossad agents, their characters find little pleasure in the task designed by their intimidating boss (Lior Raz) and approved by no less than Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale, “The Death of Stalin”): to secretly travel from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires, risking their own lives in order to capture the elusive Eichmann.

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The script’s blunt approach is indicated early on, when Argentine teen Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson, “Support the Girls”) meets her new boyfriend at a showing of the 1959 racial drama “Imitation of Life.” Sure, it’s a nice way for director Chris Weitz (“A Better Life”) to give a shout-out to his mother, Susan Kohner, one of the film’s stars. But it’s an awfully obvious metaphor for the secretly-Jewish-passing-as-Catholic Sylvia, who proudly brings home the handsome, ultra-Aryan Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”).

Sylvia’s father (Peter Strauss) is stunned to realize he’s got a Nazi heir casually eating dinner at his house and immediately alerts Israeli authorities. While Klaus courts Sylvia by bringing her to terrifying Nazi rallies, the Mossad team begins devising a proposal to bring the elder Eichmann to justice.

The plan is a supremely dangerous one: Peter (Isaac), Rafi (Kroll), Isser (Raz), and Hanna (Laurent) are among the undercover agents who fly to Buenos Aires in hopes of airlifting Eichmann out. But first they have to kidnap him without the notice of his loyal wife (an underused Greta Scacchi) or Fascist henchman (a chilling Pêpê Rapazote, “Narcos”). Then they need to hold him at a hidden safe house that could be discovered at any moment by anti-Semitic local leaders. Worse still, the plane on which they hope to smuggle him out can’t take off unless Eichmann signs a document in which he freely agrees to be tried in Israel.

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That unlikely requirement should be enough to create tension on its own, and Weitz does build a sense of palpable panic around these impossibly high stakes. Moreover, because the movie primarily takes place in 1960, everyone on the Israeli team has been directly impacted by the Holocaust. Eichmann was a chief organizer of the Final Solution, responsible for sending millions of Jews — including Peter’s sister and her children — to their deaths.

That being the case, it strains credulity when we’re asked to believe that a personally haunted, professionally brilliant spy like Peter could be so easily drawn in by his crafty prisoner. First-time screenwriter Matthew Orton often seems to be going more for broad-stroke dramatics than gripping authenticity, given that he’s crafted a fairly generic biopic out of what was truly one of the most remarkable missions in modern history.

But it’s evident that he and Weitz believe passionately in their project, as does this wide range of first-rate actors. Every one of the supporting players makes an impact in his or her brief scenes, with standouts including the luminous Laurent and an effectively subdued Kroll, although both could have used more to do.

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Indeed, the movie really belongs to the central pair, to such a degree that it often feels like a two-hander. Kingsley and Isaac are unusually charismatic actors, which elevates each of their cat-and-mouse scenes. Though it’s off-putting to watch Kingsley humanize a man who dedicated himself to monstrous acts, it was Eichmann’s apparent ordinariness that became his second legacy: the banality that Arendt so famously described after watching him defend himself as a cog in larger machinery.

Both Weitz and Orton are keenly aware of the parallels between Eichmann’s era and our own, and though they don’t hit them too hard, their intent is powerfully clear. This urgency (aptly accentuated by Alexandre Desplat’s score), and the sincere commitment of all involved, gives the movie a greater weight than its labored pacing and bland visuals otherwise might.

It’s a shame the filmmakers felt constrained by the import of their subject matter, rather than inspired to take some artistic risks. But even when the storytelling falters, the story itself — not merely extraordinary, but eternally relevant — remains paramount.



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‘Madeline’s Madeline’ Film Review: Experimental Psychodrama Dives Deep, Surfaces With a New Star

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Some movies are statistically designed to be seen by as many viewers as possible. Others are handcrafted in express defiance of commercialism. “Madeline’s Madeline” was definitely not created with mainstream tastes in mind. But by pushing to the edges of her own iconoclastic vision, director Josephine Decker touches on universal truths rarely found inside a multiplex.
 
Will Decker’s experimental psychodrama — her third feature after festival favorites “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”– be for you? Well, the very first line ought to give some indication: “You are not the cat,” an anonymous woman intones hypnotically. “You are inside the cat.” It should be said that things get much weirder from there.
So yes, you’ll have to be ready to go with the film’s free-form flow. But the rewards are considerable, beginning with the discovery of striking newcomer Helena Howard playing the the teenage Madeline. And when we meet her, she does indeed seem to think she’s the cat, purring and nuzzling against her placid mother, Regina (filmmaker Miranda July, “Me and You and Everyone We Know”).
When the two fight, though, it’s in a way that feels darker than the ordinary tension between a 16-year-old girl and her mom. The teasing and charged flirting from local boys offer clues to their history, as does Regina’s incessant anxiety. But it’s not until Madeline forms a close bond with an avant-garde drama group that the picture starts to come into focus — at which point Decker immediately smudges the lens.
 
The group’s director, Evangeline (Molly Parker, “House of Cards”), is so taken by Madeline that she’s willing to redefine the company’s entire season around this beautiful, charismatic teenager. Though Evangeline’s magnanimous enthusiasm feels increasingly ominous, Parker walks such a fine line between empathy and egotism that we’re constantly reshifting our vision of her.
 
Regina, too, is an unsettlingly enigmatic character. She might be an ordinary, loving single mom doing her best under difficult circumstances. But this depends on whether Madeline is suffering from an externally-imposed identity crisis, or something much deeper. Are the shocking images that interrupt Madeline’s waking hours daydreams? Or memories? And what are we to make of the fact that Madeline is biracial, and both of the maternal figures guiding her self-definition are white?
 
Some of these questions are eventually answered, but more will be asked. Decker works in an improvisational mode aptly reflected here by Ashley Connor’s expressionistic camerawork and Caroline Shaw’s jarring score. Howard — only 19, and making her film debut — reflects this destabilized environment ideally as well, with a remarkably layered performance. Expect to hear her name come up again during awards season, particularly among film critic groups. 
 
July and Parker also impress in roles that are more restrained, but still tricky. Both women are presented, at various points, as Madonnas, martyrs, and maternal parasites: they give and they take, and they don’t seem able or willing to draw the line in either case.
 
Decker has so much on her mind that while her ambition is thrilling, her aim can feel scattershot. Among other things, she’s undertaken an in-depth exploration of adolescent confusion, filial enmeshment, cultural appropriation, racial and gender division, and mental illness. And despite her admirably uncompromising creativity, she undermines her intentions a bit by stacking the deck: Madeline is, ultimately, the only character with whom her full sympathies lie.
 
But the sincerity of her intentions, combined with three unusually haunting performances, casts a powerful spell. She and her fine actors approach their vast themes with an openhearted intensity likely to be appreciated most by those who rise and meet it.



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‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ Film Review: Chloë Grace Moretz Plays a Rebellious Lesbian Teen

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” gay Montana teens are forced into conversion therapy. And it’s likely that arthouse audiences inclined to seek out a Sundance-approved indie about Red State religious dogma will find some of its more brimstoney bits outdated or exaggerated.

But then — and perhaps you’ve also seen “The Handmaid’s Tale”? — reminders of reality will intrude.

Director Desiree Akhavan’s source material (the YA novel by Emily Danforth) was inspired by the very true story of Zach Stark, who was sent to a Love in Action camp much like the one we see in the movie. Akhavan understands that there’s no need to amplify authenticity, and grounds her story with an admirable, if ultimately frustrating, subtlety.

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Here the camp is called God’s Promise, which is the last thing Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is thinking about in the back of a car after a high school dance. It’s 1993, and the recently-orphaned Cam resides in a small town with her Aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life”). Had Cam been found fooling around with a boy, Ruth might have looked the other way, but because Cam was caught dress-down with another girl (“Blame” director Quinn Shephard), she and her blighted shame are immediately shipped out of sight.

The camp is run by the sternly terrifying Lydia (Jennifer Ehle), who has already successfully cured her formerly-gay brother, the benevolent Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.). You might feel that quotation marks would be appropriate for some of the words in the previous sentence, but both Lydia and Rick are entirely convinced of their truth. And they are determined to spread that truth to the next generation.

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Among the other kids struggling with SSA — same sex attraction, the love that dare not spell itself out — Cam’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs, “When We Rise”) and the touchingly awkward Helen (Melanie Ehrlich) distinguish themselves as aspiring true believers. But Cam is immediately drawn to Jane (“American Honey” standout Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck, “The Revenant”), gentle-souled rebels who share both her skepticism and their own well-hidden stash of weed.

Akhavan (“Appropriate Behavior”) presents her point of view — that the camp is basically a socially-sanctioned cult — without falling back on broad strokes. It’s hard to think of a more highly-charged topic than the brainwashing of vulnerable adolescents in the name of God, so it’s certainly to her credit that she uses such a determinedly understated style.

Moretz’s quiet performance is perfectly attuned to this approach: Cam spends much of her time observing the action around her with a mature intelligence that’s undercut by youthful inexperience. She’s self-assured but she’s also 16, and authority figures who insist that down is up and up is down need to be kneecapped at every opportunity.

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The supporting cast is equally impressive. Each teen has a few standout moments, and each actor makes the most of them. If casting agents are looking for a diverse range of talented newcomers, this is a pretty great place to start.

Akhavan is wise to keep her focus on the kids, but this does leave their elders with fewer opportunities to shine. Marin Ireland (“Sneaky Pete”) deserves more screen time as the camp teacher, and Ehle’s role as the designated villain reads as overly familiar. But Gallagher modulates his performance beautifully, finding both the confidence and confusion in Rick’s hard-won beliefs.

Ultimately, the film could have used more of that complex conflict. We’ve seen Christian doctrine explored with greater nuance many times before, in both fiction (“Higher Ground” being an apex) and documentaries (“Jesus Camp,” for starters). And Gallagher’s presence reminds us that “Short Term 12” tread somewhat similar territory with as much insight as empathy.

There is plenty of the latter here. Akhavan and cowriter Cecelia Frugiuele have thoughtfully streamlined Danforth’s novel, making smart cuts and sensitive alterations. (Cameron is only 12 in the book, a significant change used to strong effect.) The soundtrack, which replaces Cam’s beloved Breeders with Christian rock, aptly defines this intimate culture war. And the striking cinematography by Ashley Connor (“Butter on the Latch”) underscores a long American tradition of setting one’s religious distortions in a naturally beautiful setting.

So we have a compelling storyline, and characters we genuinely care about. But since Akhavan doesn’t drill deeply enough, the movie ends at what should be its midpoint. And her lovely final shot winds up feeling as avoidant as it is poignant.



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