Small(er) Movies Roundup: ‘Frank,’ ‘The Giver,’ and More
Because not even the worst movie here is worse than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Expendables 3.
The Hundred-Foot Journey, directed by Lasse Hallström
Just appalling. A family of Mumbai asylum seekers settle in a French village. They open their funky soul-food restaurant right across the road from the snootiest joint in all the land. Om Puri runs the Indian place. Helen Mirren is his clenched Gallic rival. If the movie has to exist at all, it ought to be a duel between these two actors — her soupy accent versus his root vegetable of a nose.
It is, instead, a tale of assimilation, in which the talents of the old Indian’s son (Manish Dayal) become too much for the old Frenchy to resist. She must have him in her kitchen and inculcate him with the sort of national culinary traditions that will land him fame in Paris, where a kind of Iron Chef–Modernist Cuisine hell awaits (the dust, the foam, the facial stubble). There’s a way in which the movies can make progress seem totally backward. The young man is all too happy to oblige, having already won the local lovely (Charlotte Le Bon), who wears perfectly tailored floral-print dresses and rides the sort of cute, basketed bike that non-French movies always put French women on.
Of course, she works in Madame Mirren’s kitchen, where her envy over her boss’s preference for her new pal temporarily compromises their relationship. Hallström’s confusion of tastelessness with tastefulness strikes again. (Perhaps you’ve seen Chocolat or The Cider House Rules or Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.) Another instance comes in the idea that what boring-old French cooking needs is lots and lots of spices. But my favorite is the scene in which a shot of the Indians’ kitchen-wise matriarch burning alive in a politically ignited fire promptly gives way to a shot of sizzling shellfish. If the movie is high on gastronomy, it also redefines cooking with gas.
Mood Indigo, directed by Michel Gondry
How is it possible that we’ve given up on Gondry already? Is one bad blockbuster (2011’s Green Hornet) all it takes? His last two films — the dreamed-realist docudrama The We and the I and the realist-dreamed docu-toon Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? — came and went in the U.S., and the same fate appears to await this new movie, a romantic dramedy. It’s a crime. The first hour might be the loveliest you’ll see all year.
Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou meet at a party. They dance, fall in love, get married, and live happily until she gets sick. Sounds ordinary, but this is the same man who made both literal and surreal Jim Carrey’s melancholy for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He invented the civil agreement for moviegoing as community organization in Be Kind Rewind. He put a lot of Kylie Minogues on an ever-looping city block for her “Come Into My World” video.
Here, formal ingenuity and production design come at you so fast that to watch it is to be Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory, stuffing candy into your pockets and inside your bra and down your throat. Duris and Tautou leap from his loft bed in pajamas and land on the floor fully dressed for the day. When Charlotte Le Bon (far better used than in The Hundred-Foot Journey) gets a load of Duris’s friend and amanuensis (Omar Sy), she drops the tray she is holding and the camera cuts to her feet slipping on it cartoon-style until she’s got the momentum to sail in his direction and attack him with kisses.
But all the blisses of this movie wipe you out. The first hour is so happily innovative with its Richard Lester zip, and the last half-hour so forlorn (the Jean-Paul Sartre sight gags aren’t a joke). Gondry has such an incomparable understanding of the way in which strange and unexpected sights can tickle you. What he sometimes lacks as a filmmaker is the awareness that he can tickle an audience to death.
Magic in the Moonlight, directed by Woody Allen
It’s possible Allen has solved the Emma Stone problem. It was pretty simple: Hire her. Here she’s Sophie Baker, an American psychic residing among rich Yankees in late-1920s southern France. Is she a four-star clairvoyant or a two-bit gold digger? Who better to crack the case than the esteemed if conceited Orientalist stage magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth)? What happens here needs no clairvoyance. Firth is not as 25 as Stone is, so they’re a match.
But the movie’s opening hour has a fascinating balance of nonsense and depth. The buttery haze of Darius Khondji’s photography goes nicely with Allen’s attempt to conflate Nietzsche’s human distrust and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s class ladders with poetic writing. The more Sophie appears to be the real deal, the deeper into spiritual doubt Stanley’s arrogance sinks. If only Allen could keep that introspection and frippery going.
Eileen Atkins, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden, and an elegantly spent Simon McBurney do fine work. And Stone doesn’t overdo anything — she’s daffy and cunning. You don’t know whether she’s running a con. Actually, yes you do. You just don’t care. But the movie runs out of ideas for her character. Sophie and Stanley appear to be in a belief-oriented arm-wrestling match that you want her to win. But her character gets dumber and dumber the further from her gift she gets. If Allen thinks he has transferred that magic to the embarrassing last scene, then he should be the object of Stanley’s next debunking.
The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce
One risk of these dystopia series is that they start to run together. Lois Lowry’s Giver novels, the first of which showed up in 1993, are a recent forerunner of series like The Hunger Games and the delusionally, self-defensively titled Divergent. But this adaptation arrives after those and sleepwalks in their shadow. It’s hard to care that its special-chosen-gifted nonconformist hero, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), wants to restore painful memories to a utopia from which such truths have been erased.
Thwaites and the kids playing his fellow classmates are like live-action Kohl’s catalogue models. Meryl Streep does some half-chilling insinuation as the head elder. Jeff Bridges, in the venerated title role, mumbles through another part. (He’s like a car radiator that needs water.) And the brief appearance of Taylor Swift is like an answer to clues in a game of charades: blonde? Hallucinated? Plasmatic? Piano?!
The film’s been shot in dreary black-and-white. The primary mode of communication is ritualized passive-aggressiveness (“Thank you for childhood,” young graduates are told; and the mantra “We accept your apology” comes to sound like “Up yours”). And the color montages of those erased memories feature all the brown people who aren’t actually part of the narrative. This might be an anti-pharmaceutical, anti-cult (Katie Holmes aptly drones along as Jonas’s mom), anti-plot, anti-suspense allegory. It could also just be Thanksgiving at your robot-zombie in-laws.
Into the Storm, directed by Steven Quale
I’ll say this for humanity. It’s still strong enough that when this lazily conceived, lousily acted, painfully dumb movie gives you the option to root either for the computer-generated tornadoes or for the people exploiting them for fame and cash, I’ll still choose the people. But it’s not an easy choice. What we’ve got here is somewhere between Twister and one of those storm-chaser reality shows, except Jan de Bont made Twister. That man knew how to make a comic-suspenseful set piece — and Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, and Philip Seymour Hoffman knew how to act.
This movie uses that found-footage device in which none of the characters can ever put the camera down, especially when running for his life. Even the brand-new Oklahoma high school lovebirds keep theirs running while the building they’re trapped in turns them into the kids from Titanic. Occasionally the gimmick vanishes, and you have to wonder who’s doing the camerawork and who has supplied the pseudo military-video-game home-screen music.
You’re asked to wonder a lot, actually. Why is saving the day the job of the vice-principal (Richard Armitage) and not the Obama-eared, Updike-quoting, hardheaded principal-principal? (No answer required.) And is the movie really gonna start a thing between the vice-principal and the guilty, single-mother meteorologist (Sarah Wayne Callies)? Oh my god, it is! (It’s preposterous to have Armitage wear his suit this wet and this tight if he won’t rip it off and start catching falling barns.) The one beautiful image is of Veep’s Matt Walsh, defanged of comedy, and his armored vehicle as it’s sucked into the eye of the storm. Then you remember there’s only one direction left for him to go in, and that, even though he’s playing the biggest asshole and most selfish moron, it’s the wrong one. But barely.
The Dog, directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren
There’s a brashness to this documentary that sneaks up on you. In recounting the life of John Wojtowicz, the Brooklyn guy whose all-day, all-night 1972 bank robbery was the basis for Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, the film gets personalities of a New York vintage that have gone out of style. Wojtowicz, who died in 2006, is, as they say, a character. But so are the woman and men he married. So is his mother.
Old and flabby and gray when the filmmakers find him, he loves their attention. And they indulge him, letting him surf jovial tirades about how he was a “chauvinistic pig” and “the boss” and a real “motherfucker” and the “gay Babe Ruth.” But the movie always has its eye on a bigger story of sex and sexuality, never losing the thread of Wojtowicz’s megalomania, narcissism, and libidinousness. The robbery was for money to fund a sex reassignment surgery for Wojtowicz’s wife, Elizabeth Eden. But the marriage seemed doomed during the wedding, when Wojtowicz tried to make out with everyone in sight.
Berg and Keraudren have done reporting and research. They’ve found archival video and audio footage as good as Lumet’s film, and, in some instances, far more illuminating. They tell the story of mental illness, sexual politics, homophobia, and personal profit. Even with the social, legal, and political advances of the past 40 or so years, what blew minds about and drew crowds to Wojtowicz’s particularly yet peculiarly American story in the 1970s only seems slightly less bizarre now.
A Will for the Woods, directed by Amy Browne, Tony Hale, Jeremy Kaplan, and Brian Wilson
Another documentary that ends with a plea to visit a website — in this case to find out more about so-called green burial. You roll your eyes only because the movie itself opens into an eloquent enough sales pitch on behalf of its primary human subject, Clark Wang. Wang is a North Carolina musician and psychiatrist who has terminal cancer. Upon his death, he’d like to be buried au naturel — no preservatives, no fancy coffin. A wood box in the dirt will do.
The movie feels entirely promotional, provoking separate, unanswered questions about green medicine too. Natural burial’s supporters want a normal process of decay in which the body enters the earth chemical-free. But Wang fights for his life, and that requires lots of machines and treatments and cross-country driving. I’m sure there’s a rationale the natural-burial people could articulate, but the filmmakers aren’t journalists enough to ask. They do have a sense of serenity and, in Wang, a persuasive, movingly all-too-human case for the cause. Why bother with a URL when you’ve got this?
Jealousy, directed by Philippe Garrel
There’s only one way to run in Garrel’s movies: passionately. I mean that physically — at some point Anna Mouglalis abruptly bursts out of a café and barrels down the street. Who, at first, can say why? It’s an instinct. But the running is true emotionally, too. The characters in Garrel’s umpteenth romantic drama run passionately, but they’re cool. Mouglalis plays an actress who hasn’t worked in years. She does odd jobs when she does anything at all. Her relationship with another actor (Garrel’s son Louis) seems to satisfy and exasperate her at the same time. But despite a dalliance with a cast mate, he finds the idea of life without her impossible.
The film’s 77 minutes, shot in an autumnal, woolly, Bergmanesque black-and-white, watch them do nothing much — alone together, or her with friends, or him with his young daughter and other actors. There’s a casualness at work here that’s absorbing because Garrel doesn’t make a moment mean more than it ought to. So much of being in a relationship is spent in idleness, on standby, being slumped over the other person, ostensibly doing nothing but being bound. For Garrel’s character, that bond is sustenance (few actors are as all in as Garrell can be). For Mouglalis’s, the bond is something to toy with. Hers is the voice of a woman whose first words were, “Do you have a light?” Here, Mouglalis moves so casually from blasé to neurotic that you question her employment status. She hasn’t worked in so long because she has turned love into theater.
Dinosaur 13, directed by Todd Douglas Miller
In 1990, a group of American paleontologists discovered Sue, the most complete T. rex fossil ever. They just happened to do so on land whose ownership was in dispute. This documentary works hard to be a custody drama among the scientists, the federal government, and an old South Dakota rancher with a complicated legal claim to what turns out to be Sioux land. It gets most of the way there. The story itself is so strange, and the case so baffling. There’s no filmmaking to speak of, just a collection of talking heads, not enough of which belong to the government or the rancher. The storytelling raises more logistical and legal questions than it’s equipped to answer. But what Miller does have, for anyone unfamiliar with Sue’s fate, is a story with a suspenseful climax and, at the very least, a determination to tell it decently enough to leave the audience happy for the dinosaur and sad for the men and women who dug her up.
Frank, directed by Lenny Abrahamson
The reason rock dramas are usually so bad is that they don’t know where in the band to find the story. Is it with the musicians, the creation of the songs, their performance? Very few movies supply the answer. Instead, they give you poses and tics. This tedious movie does that as well. Domhnall Gleason winds up in a band with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, and Michael Fassbender, who, as Frank, spends the movie in a disproportionally large papier-mâché head, presenting an aggravating affront to the sport of losing oneself in Fassbender’s face. It’s based on the story of the comic and musician Chris Sievey, who spent some of his career in a similar head as Frank Sidebottom.
Things go from cutesy to clever to grim, from the band’s country shack to the road, and it takes too long to get everywhere. The songs, meanwhile, are knowing nonsense, but they don’t point to any larger idea about nonsense songs, making you wonder if the band really knows. They’re what in Infinite Jest would be called après-garde. And it doesn’t feel good to watch actors this good look this lost. All the irritation in Gyllenhaal’s performance and the boyish bafflement in McNairy’s appear to arise from the possibility that none of the actors — except Fassbender, who, by the film’s insultingly cheap last act, is in a totally different movie — knows what they’re doing. It’s as if the director is made of papier-mâché too.