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Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert

“ELLE”  My rating: B+ 

  130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Isabelle Huppert has made a career of playing prickly, disturbed, often downright unpleasant figures.

For “Elle” this  reliable fixture of French cinema has taken everything she’s learned in nearly four decades of screen acting and created a character who is charismatic and compelling even as she engages in behavior that most of us would find morally questionable and psychologically twisted.

She more than deserves her Golden Globe win.

Paul Verhoeven’s film begins with the sounds of a violent assault. The fiftysomething Michele (Huppert) has been attacked in her Paris home by a masked intruder who beats and rapes her.

Michele doesn’t report the incident to the cops. Instead she cleans up the mess, trashes her dress, takes a bath, and gets herself tested for STDs.  New locks, a hatchet, and some pepper spray — she’s good to go.

David Birke’s screenplay (based on Philippe Djian’s novel) blends Hitchcockian suspense with one of the deepest character studies the movies have given us in ages.

Most women would be incapacitated by such an attack.  Not Michele. As we learn, she is tough, smart and ruthless.

With her partner  Anna (Anne Consigny) she runs a successful firm where programmers half their age crank out sex-and-violence-drenched video games. “When a player guts an orc,” she tells her staff, “we need to feel the blood on his hands.”

Michele views the world around her — and the lesser beings that inhabit it —with a sense of irony that stops just short of contempt. She can be funny, charming…and she’s certainly attractive.  But apparently she needs no one except her indifferent cat. Continue Reading »

Andrew Garfield

Andrew Garfield

“SILENCE” My rating: C+ 

161 minutes |MPAA rating: R

The trouble with passion projects is that sometimes the passion isn’t felt beyond the small group of die-hard creators involved.

So it is with “Silence,” a film Martin Scorsese has wanted to make for at least 25 years.

This epic (almost three hours) adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel takes on the issues of faith and mortality Scorsese raised with his first major film, 1974’s “Mean Streets,” issues he has returned to [and to which he has returned] often during his long and celebrated career.

This story of Jesuit priests risking their lives to bring Christianity to 17th century Japan is visually beautiful and impeccably mounted.

But it is less an emotional experience than an intellectual one — and by the time the film enters its third hour, more than a few viewers will be wishing for the simple pleasures of a samurai swordfight.

Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) cannot believe reports that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has spent years in Japan, has committed apostasy, rejecting the church’s teachings.

They convince their superiors that they must travel to Japan — where an anti-Christian purge is in full swing — to both learn the truth about Ferreira and to minister to Japanese converts, who for the better part of a decade have practiced their religion in secret.

Their mission is filled both with inspirational moments and abject terror. They spend most of their time hiding from troops under the command of the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata), an arthritic old fellow with a steel trap mine.

Suspected Christians are given the opportunity to renounce their faith by stepping on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. After this token display of rejection they are free to go on privately practicing their religion. Continue Reading »

Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch

Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch

“THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE” My rating: B- 

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In general, gruesome viscera and good acting make for strange bedfellows.  But they get along quite nicely in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.”

The action of Andre Ovredal’s claustrophobic thriller takes place almost entirely in the cellar morgue of a rural Virginia funeral parlor.

The father-and-son team of Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden spend a stormy (naturally) night dissecting the body of a beautiful young woman brought in by the local sheriff.

The cops have found three members of a local family murdered in their home. And down in the basement they discovered the nude, half-buried corpse of a girl (Olwen Kelley).  They have no clue as to who she is — she’s designated a “Jane Doe” — how she got there or what caused her death.

Answering that last question is the job of Tommy and Austin, who methodically and dispassionately go about the gory business of taking the young woman apart, piece by piece.

Almost immediately there are mysteries.  Though there are no signs of trauma on her body, her wrists and ankles have been shattered (the result of shackles?). Her tongue has been cut out. There are traces of peat under her nails. The morticians discover sexual trauma. (Perhaps she is a victim of sex traffickers?)

Once she’s cut open things get weirder. There are scars on her internal organs. And the inside of her body cavity is covered with tattoos of rune-like symbols.

Continue Reading »

Octavia Spencer, Taranji P. Henson, Janelle Monae

Octavia Spencer, Taranji P. Henson, Janelle Monae

“HIDDEN FIGURES” My rating: B+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

A piece of  fact-based historical uplift that flirts with sappiness but never succumbs, “Hidden Figures” is a late addition to the 2016 awards race.

The story it tells — largely unknown until the film’s publicity drive kicked in a few weeks ago — is kinda jaw dropping. And the three lead performances instantly land on the list of Oscar contenders.

During the early days of the American space program — back when a mechanical computer took up an entire floor of an office building — NASA hired two dozen mathematically gifted African American women to perform  complex calculations using nothing more than their brains and slide rules.

These women were referred to as “computers” — that was their official job designation.

Despite being second-class citizens both on and off the job, they made possible John Glenn’s breakthrough orbital flight and gave the U.S.A. a fighting chance in the space race.

Writer/director Theodore Melfi (he was behind the sublimely funny Bill Murray starrer “St. Vincent”) balances the private stories of three of these women against the grand historic sweep of those years. The film works equally well as a satisfying celebration of personal triumph and as a symbol of national pride.

The screenplay (with Allison Schroeder) wastes no time in illustrating the times.  Three “computers” are on their long daily commute to their jobs in north Virginia when their car breaks down.  The white highway patrolman who investigates their stalled vehicle at first exhibits the overt racism of the times.  Only when he learns that the three are helping Uncle Sam beat the Commies to the stars does he drop the attitude and ensure they are sent safely on their way.

Once at work, the women must put up with more crap.  The space program (it wouldn’t take the name NASA for several years) and its white management practice what might be called “racism with a tight smile.”

The African American women work in their own building separate from everyone else. There is minimal interaction between them and the engineers and scientists who daily shower them with mathematical problems.  Like the field hands of a Southern plantation, they produce the wealth but get none of the credit.

Continue Reading »

Lewis McDougall

Lewis MacDougall

“A MONSTER CALLS” My rating: B- 

108 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The makers of “A Monster Calls” work so hard to avoid anything resembling sentimental manipulation that the film runs the risk of being emotionally bland.

Blending psychological insight, fantastic images and the most painful of human conditions, this Spanish/U.K. production is nothing if not ambitious.

In describing how a 12-year-old British boy copes with the looming death of his single mother, this film from Spanish director J.A. Bayona wades into some serious territory. But despite a late-breaking emotional crescendo that will have all but the coolest viewers reaching for a hankie, I found much of the film to be curiously detached.

Conor (Lewis McDougall) — described early on as “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” — has some of the usual adolescent problems, including a trio of schoolyard thugs who revel in beating him up every day.

Things are no better at home where his loving Mum (Felicity Jones) is sinking into chemo-misery while his brittle granny (Sigourney Weaver, attempting but not really mastering an English accent) exudes about as much warmth and sympathy as a prickly pear.

Small wonder that Conor finds refuge in his own imagination. “You’re always off in your own little dream world,” observes one of his classroom tormentors. “What’s there that’s so interesting?”

A lot actually. Every night Conor is visited by a monster, a giant tree creature that uproots itself from a hilltop churchyard and comes stomping to his bedroom window.

Continue Reading »

Sunny Pawer

Sunny Pawer

“LION” My rating: B+

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Half Dickensian epic, half heart-wrenching domestic drama, “Lion” tells a real-life story so unlikely that it stretches credulity.

But it happened.

In 1986 five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawer, in one of the most astonishing performances by a young child ever captured on film)  was living with his widowed mother and two siblings in a rural area of central India.  His mother worked as a laborer (she literally lifted rocks all day); Saroo and an older brother stole lumps of coal from passing trains,  trading them for food.

On one nighttime outing, Saroo was separated from his brother and found himself locked inside an empty passenger train being driven more than 1,000 miles to Calcutta to be decommissioned.

Little Saroo didn’t know his family’s last name or the town he hailed from. Worse, he spoke only Hindi, while the Calcuttans spoke Bengali.

For months the child lived on the street — begging, stealing, avoiding capture by criminals seeking child prostitutes. After several close calls Saroo found himself in an orphanage where, miraculously enough, he was paired with an Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman).

Relocated to middle-class comfort in Tasmania, the lost boy seemed to have washed up in paradise.  Not even the addition to the family of his troubled adopted brother, Mantosh — like Saroo an Indian orphan but with severe emotional and social issues — could seriously erode the fairy-tale quality of Saroo’s good fortune.

(By the way, John and Sue seem pretty good candidates for sainthood.)

Continue Reading »

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington

“FENCES” My rating: B+

138 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington has  never given — and may never again give — a performance as deep and revelatory as he does in “Fences.”

This screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer-winning drama — directed by Washington — offers the ideal match of performer and part, allowing the actor to sink his teeth into a role so  perfectly  balanced in subtlety and grandiosity as to reduce most film acting to the level of cardboard cutouts.

The dialogue is rendered in a sort of mid-century black urban dialect, but the effect is nothing short of Shakespearean. In its power and complexity “Fences” feels like an African American “King Lear.”

Set in the late 1950s in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s drama centers on Troy Maxson (Washington), a man fiercely determined to keep his dignity while fighting his own set of demons.

A minor star of baseball’s Negr0 leagues, Troy was too old to benefit from Jackie Robinson’s integration of the majors, and that missed opportunity still rankles him. Now he works as a city trash collector and is noisily wrangling for a position as a truck driver, a gig usually restricted to whites. Troy sees that discriminatory policy less as a social injustice than as a personal affront.

Smooth talking but essentially combative, Troy nurses old hurts that gnaw at his manhood. He can be outwardly friendly and garrulous, a raconteur and an entertainer. But he can turn on a dime if the wrong button is pushed, and then his belligerent, dark side flashes. Troy  invariably has a loquacious argument to justify his transgressions, but push him too hard and the dominating and intimidating side of his personality steps up to slap down his critics.

Wilson’s screenplay (actually it’s his stage play, with the addition of just one line of dialogue) provides Troy with an assortment of friends and family members who serve as his audience and occasional victims.

His wife Rose (a stunning Viola Davis) is a friendly, outgoing woman who  has learned how and when not to push her explosive spouse. Often they seem true equals; at other times it’s obvious that Rose must walk on eggshells around her man. Continue Reading »