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Small(er) Movie Roundup: The Least Fast, Least Furious Edition

‘Woman in Gold,’ works, ‘Serena’ doesn’t, and ‘Effie Gray’ is a slog. Plus: haunting dogs and stagey acting.

Woman in Gold, Directed by Simon Curtis

Sometimes you know a movie is going to work in about the first three scenes. This one really works. It’s immediately clear it has good pacing and the confidence of its stars. Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, the film recalls the years-long legal battle, in the late 1990s and 2000s, between a Los Angeles dress-shop owner named Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) and the Austrian government for custody of a Klimt painting the Nazis stole while excising and imprisoning the Jews of Vienna. The painting hung in the national museum of the Belvedere palace, and it is considered the Mona Lisa of Austria. But the figure in it is Altmann’s aunt, Adele, and it was at the Belvedere illegally.

This is a good, juicy, infuriating story with a well-documented but extremely satisfying moral outcome, one precipitated by an emotional tug-of-war between Altmann and Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a young American lawyer. She convinces him to take the case. Increasingly moved by his own connection to the past (he’s the grandson of the great Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg), he winds up having to convince her to keep fighting. Even as the movie flashes back to the Nazi era — Mirren, in the present, cocks her head to one side or stares off somewhere, and off we go — it’s moving forward. This kind of parallel storytelling device and its transitions can be labored; directors and writers like the challenge of narrative double-dipping. But it works here because Altmann’s family, the Bloch-Bauers, provides an opulent, affluent contrast to encroaching Nazi barbarism.

Tatiana Maslany plays young Maria, who eventually has to go on the run, looking for a way out of Vienna. Daniel Brühl plays an Austrian journalist helping Maria and Randol with the legal case. Most of the other members of the cast — Elizabeth McGovern, Charles Dance, and, Jonathan Pryce (as William Rehnquist!) — have tiny parts that give the movie some PBS Masterpiece pedigree. (As Randol’s wife, Katie Holmes does a lot of literal and figurative plate-cleaning and chest-nuzzling.)

But the parts for Mirren and Reynolds are rich. The minute Altmann scolds Schoenberg for being late to their first meeting at her little home, then offers him streusel, you can sense a deep well of affection building between them. Putting these two alongside each other is an act of gumption. His height lends him an imposing quality that Mirren summons just in her carriage. But she’s not going for ritziness, just pushiness and the presumption of decorum. She brings out an actor in Reynolds — he’s patient, watchful, full of quick thought and mounting emotion. In the last year or so, he’s finally ripening as a performer. Who knew that all it took, in order to see it, was playing a Jewish lawyer?

Serena with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence2929 Productions

Serena, Directed by Susanne Bier

You know how I was saying that with something like Woman in Gold, you can tell within minutes that it’s going to work? Well, there are movies for which the opposite is true, where you know in the opening shots that you’re about to spend the longest 109 minutes of your life.

Bier’s movie begins with scenic images of treetops and landscapes and a place card that tells us we’re in the Great Smoky Mountains of 1929. Then there’s a wide shot of Bradley Cooper standing on a porch at dawn (or is it dusk?!) looking yonder. He plays a lumber baron named George Pemberton with what sounds like a mildly Boston accent (he doesn’t get a proper full sentence for about 30 minutes). George fights environmentalists and is obsessed with capturing a panther rumored to be loose in the surrounding forest. In the meantime, he gets Serena, a wife who has come to the Carolinas from Colorado and who is played, in what can only be called a coma, by Jennifer Lawrence. “She’s a pistol,” says George, by which he must mean a tranquilizer gun.

Their meeting on horseback is almost exactly the same as the one Cooper and Lawrence shared while jogging in Silver Linings Playbook, except the garbage-bag poncho is replaced by garbage-bag moviemaking. Serena’s competence (and jodhpurs) proceeds to set the men on edge, especially George’s no. 2 (David Dencik), whose closet-case envy turns him hilariously untrustworthy. One character can’t take his eyes off her and loses a hand. The movie tries to lose its mind, in a rush of James M. Cain–style luridness. But it’s embarrassing: the sex, the accents (most of the locals are played by Europeans), the eagle training, the conspiratorial glances, the jealousy, the prophecies, the manslaughter. The dialogue requires Lawrence to drone things like, “Our love began the day we met. Nothing that happened before it even exists.” I’d probably sleep my way through this role, too.

The film is bad enough that by the end of the week, Serena could no longer be in movie theaters, just on demand. The badness, though, is transfixing. It’s rare to watch a movie made by a professional director — albeit, in Bier, a maudlin, overly rewarded Danish one — with two major stars and some veteran actors (there are dumb parts for Rhys Ifans, Kim Bodnia, and Toby Jones) and have no idea what or why you’re watching. Absolutely nothing works. No one seems to understand the place or the people. And the only thing gleaned from the lumber industry is that you can build an entire movie from performances made of wood.

effie gray review dakotaDavid Levinthal/Adopt Films

Effie Gray, Directed by Richard Laxton

Now is a pretty good moment for modestly pitched, adult-oriented movies. There’s Woman in Gold (a second cousin of 2013’s Philomena); the very good Danny Collins; the not-that-exasperating Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; and Noah Baumbach’s earnest, messy, mostly funny artistic-maturity satire, While We’re Young. This latest incarnation of Euphemia “Effie” Gray’s suffocating 19th-century marriage to the art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) would seem to be part of the club, but it’s deadly dull, clogged with all kinds of string and piano music and sunk by a perplexingly lifeless performance by Dakota Fanning as Gray.

It’s not all her fault, but she seems hemmed by all the period and accent. This version of Gray is determined to be a good wife but is thwarted by both Ruskin’s haughty aristocratic parents (Julie Walters, David Suchet) and his asexual interest in her. There’s a way to play disappointment and confusion, but Fanning doesn’t find it, and Laxton doesn’t appear to know how to help her. She makes a lot of long faces. She’s not playing the woman so much as the malaise implied by a name like Euphemia. It doesn’t help that lively folks like Claudia Cardinale, as a Venetian countess, and Emma Thompson, as the art critic and historian Elizabeth Eastlake, arrive here and there to lay out the movie’s politics with both abandon and authority. Thompson wrote the script and is married to Wise. Casting herself as Gray’s guardian angel underscores the movie’s point-blank feminism while also giving it some desperately needed snap.

There have been many retellings of this relationship. Some, as this one does, imagine it as a triangle of propriety between Gray, Ruskin, and the painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). But it’s more of a slowgoing jailbreak narrative than a love story. The movie makes it clear from the start that it stands with Gray’s liberation. In the meantime, you’re left with a lot of dark rooms and foggy bogs. It is a film about art and artists with no visual imagination and emotional heat, just heaps of repetitive right-thinking. It’s as much a movie as it is a term paper.

white-god-hpMagnolia Pictures

White God, Directed by Kornél Mundruczó

It doesn’t feel good not loving an oppression-and-revolution allegory — mostly starring actual dogs — that some other critics and filmgoers think is the cat’s meow. There is, after all, a real intelligence behind this movie. A Hungarian girl (Zsófia Psotta) is separated from her mixed-breed pet, Hagen, after her cheap, cold-blooded conductor father (Sándor Zsótér), whom she’s just moved in with, refuses to pay a fine for the dog. Wandering the streets, the homeless Hagen faces one humiliation after the next, courtesy of other dogs and heartless human dognappers, until enough is enough, and sweet Hagen sours.

The danger is meant to be pervasive enough to tempt you to bow down once the film reaches a moment of submissive divinity in its final scenes. But the allegory is something of a nonstarter: Cruelty of every kind exists, but what beyond that does Mundruczó, who’s 40, have to say? His previous movie, Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project, a handsomer, equally politically overburdened parable of suffering, also got better the less like a parable and the more like an action-thriller it became.

The movie’s best stuff involves streets flooded with dogs. Many of these dogs have a fascinating screen presence. The intimacy of their close-ups is something. Watching some of them makes you understand why Lassie and Benji were so popular: Their sentience seems to explain the heretofore inexplicable. Here, that sentience and the fascist critique to which it’s affixed just aren’t enough. The obviousness of the message — follow the right leader — would be more tolerable in a less badly acted, less shoddy-looking film. 

sapience-sapienzaKino Lorber

La Sapienza, Directed by Eugène Green

An acclaimed French architect (Fabrizio Rongione) and his education-theorist wife (Christelle Prot) head to Italy so he can research and write a book on the architect Francesco Borromini. The husband visits wondrous structures with a young architecture student (Ludovico Succio) while the wife sits with the young man’s nervous, ailing sister (Arianna Nastro). What actually follows involves the couple applying baroque-theater ideas to film interaction. They speak to each other while facing the camera, turning face to face only once they’ve recited their lines.

The speaking that transpires among them is voluminous, but it barely qualifies as conversation. These presentations of place and state of mind are presented self-seriously and snobbishly as a walking tour away from 21st-century modernity. I hate obnoxious public cell phone calls, too, but having the wife overhear one and give the camera a disdainfully blank look makes you roll your eyes. Green has been at this style of bone-dry theatrical moviemaking for most of this century. He’s an American-born French citizen and academic.

What you do get here are new ways of seeing architectural space. It’s a mystery why you’d want to watch two actors not quite act when you can send a camera up toward the dome of majestic buildings. But you don’t know what Green derives from working this way, beyond an expression of cultural superiority. He’s asking us to open our minds as he appears to be thumbing his nose. This kind of formalism needs to do more than walk through classical wonders. It should want to create cinema that can stand near or beside them. This movie defensively consecrates what’s already there. You don’t need a film to do that.