War Machine.

Three new Insider pieces for you to check out this week: scouting notes on Yu Darvish, more notes on Aaron Nola and some young Phillies hitters, and my annual look at players I was wrong about.

War Machine, released briefly to theaters this spring but residing in perpetuity on Netflix, is a thinly fictionalized adaptation of Michael Hastings’ non-fiction book The Operators, itself an expasion of Hastings’ infamous Rolling Stone article that led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal from his post as Commander of the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan in 2010. It is a decidedly unflattering depiction of just about everything and everyone involved in the endless war against the Taleban, although it succeeds more in its portrayal of individual foibles than as an indictment of the war effort as a whole, laying more on the comic end of the scale than on the satirical side.

Brad Pitt stars as General Glen McMahon, the movie’s pseudonym for the McChrystal character, a tough-talkin’, f-bomb-droppin’, let’s-go-kick-some-terrorist-ass general brought in to replace the last let’s-go-kick-some-terrorist-ass general who couldn’t win the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. It appears that this is what McChrystal was really like, although he feels like a walking cliché, a Hollywood-ized representation of what a no-nonsense military leader should look, act, and talk like. He comes to the coalition with his group of acolytes and toadies, including the rah-rah Major General (based on Michael Flynn) played hilariously by Anthony Michael Hall, who largely cheer him on or at least avoid contradicting him, and has somewhat predictable conflicts with American diplomats, notably Karl Eikenberry stand-in Pat McKinnon, played by Alan Ruck (whom you know as Cameron Frye). McChrystal comes across as well-intentioned but largely naive about how unwinnable the conflict really is, although he does have moments of clarity – like the talk he gives to the European Parliament where he explains how killing insurgents likely creates more insurgents in the long run – amidst the standard military maneuvers.

Pitt seems so focused here on doing his impression of McChrystal that any nuance in the character is lost. The portrayal is all accent, facial expressions, and gait – his jogging scenes are just strange, as it seems impossible that Pitt could appear that unathletic – and lacks any depth, which is shocking because Pitt is capable of so much more. His performance is indicative of the misuse of so many talented actors in two-dimensional roles here – Ben Kingsley as the drug-addled, feckless President Karzai; Topher Grace as McMahon’s “civilian media adviser,” who sets up the ill-fated Rolling Stone article; Meg Tilly, looking disturbingly old in short grey hair, as McMahon’s ignored, adoring wife. Only Tilda Swinton, given one scene as a German politician who interrogates and questions McMahon during the talk to the Parliament, gets any material with which she can work, and it’s all of one scene. (There’s also an uncredited cameo at the end of the film that I won’t spoil but that did generate one of the many laugh-out-loud moments I had.)

War Machine has been reviewed and marketed as a satire, but I think it works better as a straight comedy with tragic elements. It’s too close to real events to work as farce; the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was destined to fail, at least once the initial goal of removing the Taleban, who harbored al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, had been achieved, and everything after that was theater. The script certainly hones that to a fine point – the value of the war effort to politicians and the political cost of increasing the engagement both come through – but without parodic exaggeration. Instead, the script succeeds by crafting comedy against an unusual backdrop, including two scenes where Kingsley’s Karzai gets probably the biggest laughs of the film, without telling the viewer anything s/he didn’t already know about the circular nature of the war effort.

(The film contains a clip of President Obama’s speech at West Point, announcing a troop surge in 2009; just last month, almost eight full years later, President Trump announced the same thing. The effort to train Afghan forces to protect their own country has already cost us $70 billion and costs another $4 billion every year, while parts of the country remain within Taleban control or “contested” between the government and insurgents.)

The magazine article that eventually led to this film toppled a general and drew back the curtain on a little bit of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but ultimately led to no substantive change in our policy there. Even if this film had become a massive hit in theaters – Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, so we have no idea how many people have even seen it – it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind on our policy there. War Machine is often very funny, and it may increase your weariness of the war, or our country’s repeated, failed attempts at nation-building (even where our intentions were good) abroad, but I don’t think this movie tells us anything about the war or the politics thereof that we didn’t already know.

Dunkirk.

Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) and starring every good-looking British man under the age of 40, tells a fictionalized story of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France, in 1940, after German forces routed the combined allied troops and pinned them in on a small section of France’s northwest coast. Ordinary British citizens sailed their small vessels, including fishing boats and other pleasure craft, across the English channel and rescued an entire army – over 800 such boats evacuating over 330,000 troops. It would seem an impossible tale had it not actually happened.

Nolan’s script contains very little dialogue – I’m hard-pressed to recall a live-action film with less – and lets the tripartite story drive the film, with intertwined narratives focused on land (the evacuating soldiers, especially one who’s late to the beach and trying any which way to get out), sea (a father and son plus the son’s friend, sailing across the Channel to try to aid the rescue), and air (three Spitfire pilots battling the Germans). The connections seem tenuous at first, but the narratives all collide as the film progresses and their separate timelines begin to converge with the arrival of the small boats at the mole (causeway) at Dunkirk beach.

The script thus gives us little about most of the characters, and many are left unnamed within the film itself. One pilot is only seen with his mask on until his final scene near the end of the film. Kenneth Branagh, a favorite actor of mine who isn’t afraid to chew a little scenery when given the chance, is marvelously understated throughout as Commander Bolton. Oscar winner and Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance plays the civilian sailor Mr. Dawson with similar restraint, the embodiment of British stiff-upper-lip-ness in repeated crises as they sail toward France. Harry Styles – yes, Harry Freaking Styles – is one of the few young soldiers to stand out in spite of the paucity of dialogue, even overshadowing Fionn Whitehead, another acting neophyte who plays the fleeing soldier in the “land” narrative.

The script may be subtle, but the film isn’t; watching this in a theater was an extremely loud and incredibly close experience, with perspective shifts and wobbly camera shots that immerse the viewer in the action, often to an uncomfortable extent. (If you’re claustrophobic and/or have a fear of drowning, you might give this film a miss.) War movies often break the tension by shifting to planning scenes, away from the action, where old men in brass buttons plan the deaths of thousands by moving miniatures on a tabletop map, but Dunkirk never leaves the corridor from England, which we only see from Mr. Dawson’s boat, across to France, moving us from sky to sea to land and back but never pulling us far from soldiers in peril.

Nolan skirts some dangerous lines in the script, giving us Chekhov’s gun in the form of airplane fuel tanks, but writing his way out of obvious endings in two of the three main strands. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the conflict, with German aircraft bombing beach and ships even though these are retreating forces with little to no ability to defend themselves, yet there’s a clear effort here to keep the blood offscreen – one assumes because that would detract from the story Nolan is trying to tell and appeal to the baser instincts of those in the audience who mistakenly wandered into the theater while looking for the next Saw installment. The body count is high, even if they’re mostly redshirts, but the horror here has to come from the actors’ expressions and the constant sense of confinement, in ships’ holds, in a tiny airplane cockpit, or even on a wide-open beach that is a perfect shooting gallery for German dive-bombers. The one slight misstep, the thread that leads the ending’s one real nod to sentiment, essentially sacrifices a side character for the plot value of his death, but it’s the only time Nolan submits to that impulse and it at least has the good grace to stay out of the way of the remainder of the plot.

There’s an organic nature to the script that ultimately takes Dunkirk from good movie to great, as Nolan thinks more like a novelist than a screenwriter here. Knowing the history of the evacuation, Nolan creates sets of circumstances for each character or group, and then sees how they react to the stresses under which he places them. We get three pilots who have three differing reactions to disasters in the air. We see a wide variety of soldiers reduced to scrapping for places on ships, refusing to rescue others, or threatening to turn a soldier over to the enemy to make room on a boat. Mr. Dawson and his crew are tested repeatedly, and he becomes the stoic heart of the film, standing in for the hundreds upon hundreds of British men of all ages who risked their own lives to bring the boys home.

It’s early to forecast honors for any film, but I will throw out there right now that I think Dunkirk has to be the favorite for that SAG “best ensemble cast” award, or whatever it’s called, given in lieu of a proper “best picture” honor. Also, I was sure I saw an uncredited Una Stubbs – that’s Mrs. Hudson from Sherlock – on one of the boats, but IMDB tells me it’s an actress named Kim Hartman. But there is an uncredited appearance via voice only that I won’t spoil beyond saying every film is better for having this actor say a few words in it.

American Honey.

American Honey was the last movie on my to-watch list from 2016 that I hadn’t seen, put off by its running time (163 minutes) when there were so many other, shorter movies to see. It’s too long, which almost goes without saying, and the story doesn’t really gel until the final twenty minutes, but this is a star-making turn for neophyte Sasha Lane, and the meandering script still has some cogent points to make about the American teenaged underclass, enough that you might still want to tough this one out through the slow parts. The movie is available free on amazon prime or to rent on iTunes.

Lane, who was discovered by director Andrea Arnold while on spring break and then won the part after her audition, plays Star, a possibly 18-year-old girl who scavenges dumpsters for food, is regularly molested by her (step?)father, and watches two (half-)siblings because their mother is too busy getting drunk and line dancing to bother. A van of young adults traveling the country selling magazine subscriptions door to door stops in a parking lot right in front of her, when team leader Jake (Shia Laboeuf) flirts with her and recruits to join them. Star runs away the same evening, foisting the younger kids on their disinterested mother, and the remainder of the film follows the van of misfit boys and girls across several stops, focusing on the incipient relationship between Star and Jake – and the ongoing one between Jake and their boss, Krystal (Riley Keough, the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley).

Lane is a revelation in this role, stepping into it like a child actor who’s been on screen for years, switching effortlessly from false bravado to childlike neediness, emanating an inner strength shackled by her lack of any life experience or the self-confidence that comes from it. Lebro is convincing as Jake, but the character is so unlikeable – manipulative, greedy, amoral – that it’s hard to see why Star would remain attracted to him or desirous of his attentions after he has repeatedly taken advantage of her, lied to and in front of her, stolen, and even threatened several people with a gun (in the least believable scene of the film). If we’re just rehashing her childhood – girl from an abusive environment is attracted to abusive men – then we need some sort of growth for Star, character development she doesn’t really get from the script. And Krystal is as one-note a character as they come, a mere plot convenience who’s there to throw a wrench into the Jake-Star relationship.

The other fundamental problem with this movie is how joyless it is until the last couple of scenes. Even when the kids are supposed to be having fun, there’s nothing fun about these scenes; there’s often a Lord of the Flies vibe just under their surface. You can tell a story about kids with no direction and little hope yet still show their quotidian lives as having moments of happiness that eventually lose out to the bigger despair, but there just isn’t much of that here. Only when Star bottoms out and then runs into a family that reminds her of her own home life does she have a small epiphany that propels her forward even as the other characters remain the same. That may be the point – that for most of these kids, the same is all they’re going to get, and maybe we should pay more attention to this underclass so they don’t end up selling possibly-fake magazine subscriptions while riding around the country in the back of a van singing bad rap songs – but the story needs to go somewhere, and it doesn’t really get enough of an ending.

(One detail that bugged me: The van was full when Star joined, but later we see the crew picking up more recruits. So did they just dump some of the others? Or is the van actually a sort of clown car?)

Water recurs as a motif throughout the film, including in the final scene, in a way that I think was intentional, a symbol of rebirth but also of a primal need that ties everyone, regardless of wealth or poverty, together. (Thirst comes up several times in the movie, which I’m including as the same symbol as the water.) Star ends up taking a ride with a trucker – she’s too trusting – and they end up discussing how neither has ever seen the ocean. She slips into a puddle and has a momentary meltdown. And when she hits her nadir, she’s surrounded by oil, with no water in sight.

Will Leitch and Tim Grierson often refer to an old line of Gene Siskel’s, asking whether it would be more enjoyable to watch the movie or have dinner with the cast and crew. (At least, I think that’s the quote. If not, just go with it for now.) There is no question in my mind that dinner with the actors who play the kids in American Honey would be a more interesting, even educational experience. Arielle Holmes plays Pagan, but she herself spent several years as a homeless heroin addict on the streets of New York, eventually writing a memoir and starring in a movie about her own life. Arnold cast several other non professionals in the other roles; I can’t believe they wouldn’t collectively have a more interesting set of stories to tell me than the one told in this movie. Maybe she should have given us fewer characters but told more about the ones she shows, instead of using them as backdrop for the Star-crossed lovers’ broken romance.

The Sense of an Ending (film).

I adored Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, a spare and unsparing look at how one impetuous act could ruin multiple lives yet leave the actor unscathed until he discovers the consequences decades later. Barnes’ protagonist, Tony Webster, is bright and can think critically except where he’s involved; his lack of self-awareness is the central theme of the work, and Barnes unfurls the history to Tony as he does to the reader, allowing us to share in the main character’s befuddlement, denial, and rationalization in a sort of literary real time.

The film version of The Sense of an Ending came out earlier this year and is now available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes, and it is excellent but falls just short of the book. The acting is superb, and the story largely hews faithfully to Barnes’ concepts, but alters a few key details in ways that muffle the impact of various revelations – and utterly alter the meaning of the book’s ending.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony, a divorced, very slightly grumpy old man who runs an antique camera shop in his semi-retirement, maintains good relations with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Wheeler), and is on call for the imminent birth of his first grandchild to his unmarried daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery). Tony gets a certified letter saying that a woman he knew decades earlier, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), has died and left him an object, but it turns out that Sarah’s daughter, Veronica (Freya Mavor), whom Tony briefly dated, refuses to part with the object – the diary of Tony’s friend and later Veronica’s boyfriend Adrian. Tony becomes obsessed with obtaining the diary, largely because it’s legally his (rather than any expressed interest in its contents), and his efforts to acquire it lead him to an encounter with Veronica (now played by Charlotte Rampling) and revelations from their shared past that will discolor Tony’s entire understanding of his own actions and character.

This is in so many ways a very British movie, from the way almost everything in it is so understated and even under the surface to the murderer’s row of a cast all delivering sparkling performances. The filmed Tony is less self-aware than the literary one, and Broadbent infuses him with aloofness in manner and accent, as if he is constantly flummoxed by the existence of other people and their feelings. Rampling absolutely seethes in her few appearances in the film, an angrier Veronica than the one in the book, who holds herself above Tony in word and deed because it is the only victory available to her this late in the match. Mortimer also gets limited screen time, only in flashbacks, but the subtlety of her performance as Sarah is more evidence once Sarah’s role in the events that followed becomes clear.

The novel on which this is based is only about 165 pages, but it felt like the film still rushed past some of the book’s flashbacks to Tony’s time in school with Adrian and his dalliance with Veronica. It also changes several major details from the story, not least of which is dispensing with Barnes’ structure, where the book starts with the school days, and the bequest doesn’t happen until about a third of the way into the book, starting part two and causing Tony to reevaluate the story he has narrated in part one. Tony follows Veronica from one of their meetings, somewhat creepily, whereas in the book Veronica shows him what he discovers by stalking her in the movie.

The most unforgivable sin of the film’s script, however, is the ending, which is much kinder to Tony than the book’s conclusion – and kinder than the film version of Tony deserves. He set this all in motion, but the movie’s ending doesn’t make his culpability sufficiently clear, and concludes his story on a somewhat hopeful note – even as we hear the text of a new letter he has sent to Veronica that left me thinking that even after he’s learned the truth, he still doesn’t get it, and at this point, he probably never will.

I don’t usually give grades or ratings of movies, especially since I often write about them months after their release, but in this case I’ll make an exception. This is a good movie that falls short of a great book – a 55 film from a 70 novel, in scouting terms – buoyed by a tremendous cast and that very British way of letting the audience work out a lot of details on its own. If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it like I did, however, you may find the deviations distracting, especially as they’re all to the bad.

The Beguiled.

Sofia Coppola won the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes festival for The Beguiled, making her just the second woman ever to win that honor (which is sort of an ‘honorable mention’ next to the Palme d’Or, which has only gone to a woman once in 70 years) and I would expect making her a very likely nominee for the same Oscar category. The film didn’t quite live up to that kind of billing for me, but is still very good, a thought-provoking, moody, well-shot and extremely well-acted movie that suffers just slightly from a thin and not entirely credible plot.

The story takes place in 1863 at a Virginia ‘seminary’ for girls, really more of a boarding and finishing school, run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with help from teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), with five pupils remaining after others’ parents have pulled them out. The girls are also the school’s staff, as the slaves also fled the fighting in the area, with troops passing by the large estate that houses the school regularly over the course of the film’s 94 minutes. As the story opens, one of the youngest students finds Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier unable to walk, and brings him back to the house, where Martha decides to take him in and help him recover from a bullet wound to his leg before turning him over to Confederate troops or even passing Union soldiers. The introduction of a male contaminant into the all-female household has some predictable results, as sexual tensions and internecine rivalries spring up between the women, with the younger girls all flirting or just plain acting silly while the oldest three – Martha, Edwina, and Alicia – show signs of real attraction to the convalescent, who, by the way, isn’t real keen to get back to the front himself. Of course, this can’t abide, and eventually the pot simmers over and someone gets hurt, which turns the movie from a genteel and often funny look at gender dynamics into a dark, psychological thriller that pits the Corporal against the women and flips the power balance back and forth in the last half-hour of the film.

The performances sell this movie more than the story does; I am no expert at spotting movie twists, but the moment the key element in the story’s resolution appeared on screen, I knew what Coppola was showing us. But the three main women and Farrell all deliver right-tail level performances in their roles, especially Kidman and Dunst, whose characters have more nuance than Fanning, who is just frighteningly seductive despite rarely doing anything beyond looking at McBurney or the camera. (It kills me that the voice of Mei from My Neighbor Totoro is now making sexy eyes in grown-up movies.) Martha is the head of the school and the house, a woman in control who confesses to the corporal how exhausted she is by the role and, I presume, by the lack of anyone else in whom she might confide. Her attraction to the patient is slower to build and more reluctant, while Edwina exposes herself as the more miserable character, one whose romantic innocence doesn’t line up with her worldly upbringing. Both Kidman and Dunst fill out the corners of these characters with little aspects like Kidman’s clipped speech or Dunst’s mournful, almost haggard expressions, communicating their attractions to McBurney almost entirely through non-verbal and still era-appropriate body language and gestures.

Farrell’s character is less nuanced – it becomes clear after a bit that he’s playing the women individually, altering his language and tone to flatter each of them, even the children who are just mesmerized by the presence of a man, but it’s only after the major plot event around the two-thirds mark that Farrell gets to do something more than turning on the charm. This character has been deeply affected by what he’s seen and suffered at the front, but none of that surfaces until it’s provoked. Between In Bruges, The Lobster, and now The Beguiled, Farrell’s certainly shown remarkable acting prowess along with a willingness to take on some unconventional roles.

The Beguiled is also remarkable to look at, with lush sets and hazy, dark lighting that accentuates the moody nature of the script and its characters. The house is dim in the daytime and forbidding at night, while the characters are often surrounded by a slight fog or smoke that might be coming from nearby battles (we frequently hear gun and cannon fire in the distance). There are some exceptional close shots showing detail in the dresses and jewelry worn by the women, as well as some tremendous shots outside the house in the garden and the nearby forest. The two large scenes at the dinner table are incredibly evocative between the candlelight, the details of the table itself – even something as simple as one of the girls pouring wine from a decanter – and the visual transformation of the girls as they all get dressed up to impress their guest.

The story itself is based on a novel (originally titled A Painted Devil) by Thomas Cullinan and was previously filmed in 1971, and while Coppola has made a film that puts the women more at the center of the story, the plot remains a little thin. I mentioned the predictable ending above, and there’s also a gun that disappears and suddenly reappears as needed in a different character’s possession later in the film, with no explanation of how that happened other than that it was necessary for the plot. Edwina’s actions in the final third of the film also seem to come out of nowhere, or at least to be incongruous with what happened before in a way that I don’t think gives her character enough emotional consistency to seem real.

The Beguiled works because of the performances and the visual style, enough that I’d recommend it if you can enjoy a movie that brings you something beyond plot. If your tastes in movies are story-driven, this one just didn’t hold me; it feels like a short story stretched into 94 minutes rather than a novel condensed into that window. It lurches too much from A to B to C for me to give it a full recommendation, perhaps a result of my own obsession with plot constructions in literature, so that I left feeling like I would praise the actors involved for weeks but could give the entire plot with spoilers on one side of a 3×5 index card.

Lion.

Lion (now out on amazon and iTunes) was the last of the 2016 Best Picture nominees I needed to see (I’ve said before I’m skipping the anti-Semite’s film) and just never got around to it while it was in theaters because I saw a bunch of other movies I thought would be more interesting and then hit draft season. It turns out that I’d shortchanged the movie, which is based on a true story, largely because the commercials and trailer made it look like a much more sentimental, cloying film than it actually was. It’s still driven more by great performances – Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman both earned well-deserved Oscar nominations – than by a great script, but Lion still delivers a compelling story without resorting to too much claptrap.

The movie follows Saroo from age four to adulthood on a story that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t true. Saroo becomes separated from his brother in a train station in northern India while they’re begging for money, falls asleep on a train, and ends up over a thousand miles away, in Kolkata, where he doesn’t speak the language (Bengali) and can’t help anyone find his family because he mispronounces the name of his village and doesn’t know his mother’s name (he tells a police officer her name is “Mum”). He’s then adopted by an Australian family and seems to assimilate well into the new culture, but as a young adult, is spurred by a handful of fairly minor events and a diverse circle of friends to try to find out where he came from, a quest that relies heavily on Google Earth and eventually gets him back to the village of his birth.

What truly surprised me about Lion was how thoroughly it affected me. I’m used to mainstream films (and TV) trying to manipulate my emotions, and I’m largely immune to it at this point, because I see it coming and often find it hackneyed. Lion certainly cranks up the intensity of some of its emotional payoffs, but they’re grounded in reality, and many of those moments rely on universal sentiments – especially the scene where Saroo returns to the village of his birth for a reunion with his family that comes with a heartbreaking corollary. There’s a bit of that scene that feels very Hollywoodized, where the women of the village come around a corner, almost marching, in a stunning array of colors (thanks to their saris, which can really put Western fashions to shame), to come meet Saroo … but it’s trivial, and it’s over in a flash, after which you get the moment you’ve waited 100 minutes to see.

That’s not to excuse the numerous tweaks to the true story that did detract from the film’s impact. Saroo has another (biological) sibling who’s simply erased from the film. The beautiful woman who seems to be trying to kidnap or sell the young Saroo was a man in reality. And Saroo’s girlfriend is a total cipher of a character – I forgot her name (Lucy) because the character was so utterly bereft of any defining qualities, and is played by Rooney Mara, who has always struck me as a fairly bland actress, which compounds the problem. Lucy is a plot device, not a character, and it’s hard to understand why Saroo, depicted here as a sensitive adult who starts to lash out at loved ones because he’s struggling with his identity, would be attracted to her in the first place.

The critical consensus around Lion seemed to be that it was a good film kept from being great by slow pacing, especially in the second half, where Saroo distances himself from family and friends while immersing himself in the needle-in-a-haystack quest on Google Earth to find his village. I actually appreciated the reduced pace, in part because so much is thrown at the viewer in the first 45 minutes, but also because … that’s how it would have been, right? This had to have taken hundreds of hours over a period of weeks or months, with lots of dead ends and a sense of futility. It’s the one big element in this film that felt anti-commercial, and I think it ended up a strength rather than a weakness.

Toni Erdmann.

My first book, Smart Baseball, is out now!

The German film Toni Erdmann (amazoniTunes) was critically acclaimed all over Europe and here when it first appeared last year, winning the German equivalent of the Oscar for Best Picture and earning a nomination here for Best Foreign Language Film (which it lost to The Salesman). The 165-minute movie has been widely described as a comedy, but it is anything but. It is a truly unpleasant movie to watch, an extended, pointless exercise in misanthropy and the humiliation of its characters.

Winifred is a divorced and apparently retired German man, probably around 70, who appears to be unable to stop himself from playing juvenile pranks on people, most of which involve the use of a set of false teeth. His daughter, Ines, is an ambitious, hard-working management consultant who is working in Bucharest on a difficult project involving a Romanian oil company. Winifred tries to connect with her for some quality time, showing up in Bucharest unannounced for a weekend, but the effort fails as she prioritizes work over her father. As a result, he decides to play a huge prank, posing as Toni Erdmann, a life coach to the oil company’s CEO, with an utterly ridiculous shaggy wig of black hair and those same false teeth. Every plot description says he’s doing this to spend time near his daughter, but I think he does it because he’s a giant asshole who doesn’t care what damage he does to anyone else as long as he gets a laugh.

I said as long as he gets a laugh, because we don’t. This movie isn’t funny, and I don’t think the script was trying to be funny most of the time. I suppose the brunch scene at the end may have been intended as humor, but it is so unrealistic that it doesn’t even get the cringe comic effect of the excruciatingly awkward. If Toni Erdmann had some charisma – say, as a platitude-spouting new age thinker, or a parody of the consultant who borrows your watch to tell you the time – he could have been hilarious. Instead, he’s just constantly in the way, and the script is totally unable to achieve the comic effect of the bumbler or the walking satire.

It doesn’t help that neither Winifred (outside of Toni) nor Ines is a particularly sympathetic character. We’re almost forced to believe that Winifred misses his daughter, but without any context for their past relationship, it’s hard to imagine why she’d suddenly want to be closer to him when he’s still unapproachable. Ines’ character is written as the woman who has to work twice as hard as the men around her to get the same respect, and has the awful habit of deferring to men in meetings even when they’ve disagreed with her or even undercut her points, but the script gives us nothing to hang on to in support of her character – no evidence of inner strength, or even something to explain her sheer competence, some reason to root for her against the dimwits and chauvinists around her.

(I also felt that the look of Ines, played by Sandra Hüller, didn’t work. Here’s a character who, again, we’re supposed to accept as a strong, hard-working, sharp woman in a male-dominated workplace. Yet she’s almost sickly looking at times – her hair, makeup, even her clothing all work against the character, and Hüller being so pale unfortunately plays into it as well. It was a chance to reveal something more about Ines by exaggerating her physical appearance. Perhaps this is a woman unconcerned with her appearance, but that would contradict a scene near the end where she seems overly concerned with it instead.)

So much of this movie just does not work on screen, in ways it’s hard to fathom would have worked on the page. What begins as an unconvincing sex scene between Ines and the coworker she’s sleeping with turns into an utterly gross non-joke, as if she’s playing a bizarre prank on her partner (who may have had it coming – but I liked almost no one in this movie anyway). Somehow Ines and Winifred end up at a Romanian family’s Easter dinner, where Winifred volunteers Ines to sing a song, which she does, and then runs off, after which the whole event is simply forgotten by all participants. At one point, a few of the characters, including Ines, do lines of coke, which seems completely out of character for her given everything that came before. And the brunch scene … well, without spoiling it, I’ll just say the whole thing was so preposterous I couldn’t buy into any aspect of it.

I tend to think that English-language remakes of foreign films always lose something from the original. But with word coming that there’s an American version of Toni Erdmann in the works starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig, I wonder if it could be any worse than the German film; if nothing else, it will at least be shorter, as there’s no way they could expect American audiences to endure nearly three hours of this. And Wiig is truly too funny for the original script. I can only hope they rework it from scratch and see if there’s actually something good to be found in this premise.

Christine.

The 2016 film Christine is a good movie, not a great one, that gives some life and depth to a real person who’s only remembered today because she committed suicide on live television. The script itself plays pretty loose with the facts and fails to stick the landing, but succeeds at humanizing its subject and is bolstered by several extremely strong performances, notably that of its lead, Rebecca Hall. The movie is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Christine Chubbuck was a 29-year-old reporter for a local TV news program in Sarasota at the time she took her own life, a decision that seems to have come at the end of a series of personal and professional setbacks as well as the reemergence of an undertreated case of mental illness. Christine delves into those setbacks while also giving some depth to her character, but without romanticizing either her or her decision. She’s sympathetic despite obvious flaws here, without becoming just an object of curiosity for the ending we all know is coming.

Most of the film compresses Chubbuck’s professional and personal problems into a period of a few days or weeks prior to her suicide. Her station manager, Michael Nelson (played by Tracy Letts), is pushing everyone to chase more salacious stories, citing the “if it bleeds, it leads” maxim, to boost ratings, which shifts the kind of longform news pieces that Chubbuck wants to do on to the back burner, increasing her conflicts with Nelson, who is depicted here as anti-feminist but who understands that Chubbuck has untapped talent. She also has an unrequited crush on the show’s lead anchor, George Peter Ryan (a charismatic Michael C. Hall), and discovers that she has to have an ovary removed, reducing her chances of ever getting pregnant. (She really did have that operation, but it was a year before her suicide.)

Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck as permanently tightly wound, regardless of mood, giving the impression that she’s bipolar rather than simply depressed, which fits her brother’s recollections of her rather than her diagnosis at the time. Hall’s Chubbuck is always in fourth gear, which makes her difficult to work with, but never a caricature of a “crazy” person; when the script calls for her to be erratic, Hall portrays her with self-control, like someone who’s internalizing the pain of her mental illness.

I had less issue with the film’s bending or fabricating of details – for example, the character Jean (Maria Dizzia, who is just waiting for her part in a Gilda Radner biopic) doesn’t seem to have existed, but here plays Christine’s closest friend at the station instead of sportscaster Andrea Kirby – than the film’s mawkish ending and cloying use of details to tie parts of the movie together. The movie doesn’t shy away from Chubbuck’s suicide, showing the shot from a distance but otherwise playing it straight, including the disbelieving reactions from coworkers who thought it was a prank at first. But it overdoes the aftermath by showing us Chubbuck’s mother watching the program (probably not true) and then a fabricated ending with Jean that serves no purpose but to tie back to a conversation the two women had earlier in the film. This last scene undermines the dramatic effects of the suicide and the seriousness of the portrayal of Chubbuck’s personal problems, but provides zero benefit in exchange.

Rebecca Hall’s performance here would be, at the moment, the second-best by a lead actress that I’ve seen in any 2016 film, just a shade behind Natalie Portman for Jackie and ahead of Oscar winner Emma Stone. She delivered nuance to a script that gave her enough latitude to play Chubbuck as unhinged or unlikable, even when working against a stock character like her mother (played by J. Smith Cameron, who, I just discovered, is married to Kenneth Lonergan). Hall hits this specific note of internal tension and holds it for almost the entire film, only letting it go briefly in scenes where Chubbuck goes to the local children’s hospital to do puppet shows for the kids (something Chubbuck did in real life). In a highly fictionalized biopic like Christine, a sloppy or bombastic lead performance would destroy the film, but Hall truly carries the picture and helps gloss over some of the script’s missteps.

Michael C. Hall is also surprisingly effective as the insecure, dumb-jock type who’s found his star on the ascendant because of his good looks and on-camera charm, while Letts is his usual workmanlike self, infusing a little depth to a character who’s largely one-note because he’s only seen when interacting with and usually just reacting to Christine. Dizzia probably has to do the most work with the least help, as her character is the hackneyed “best friend with no life of her own” type, stripping some character traits from Kirby (played by Kim Shaw), who is instead just the pretty face who gets the job and the guy that Chubbuck wanted.
I wish Christine had spent a little more time explaining the character’s struggles with mental illness, and hadn’t made her so dismissive of the topic in the one scene where it’s explicitly discussed; Chubbuck’s brother has said she was in treatment at the time of her suicide, which this film seems to contradict. But bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive disorder) wasn’t in the DSM until after Chubbuck’s death, so she was only diagnosed with depression and thus was probably undertreated rather than untreated when she killed herself. The script instead focuses on her unhappiness in her love life and at work as the primary drivers of her suicide, backburnering the depression, when that was almost certainly the main cause.

Watch Christine for its strong lead performance, for the solid supporting actors, and for the film’s effort to fill out the story of a real person whose legacy has been limited to its shock value. The script has its flaws, but does manage to give the viewer a picture of Christine Chubbuck as a real person, and the decision not to sensationalize the suicide itself, instead making her character the center of the film, saved the movie from its handful of missteps.

Captain Fantastic.

I hadn’t even heard of Captain Fantastic until Viggo Mortensen grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance here, but when it popped up on Amazon Prime this month and a couple of you recommended it, I figured I’d give it a shot, even though the reviews I’d seen before watching it were all pretty lukewarm. It’s really not a good movie at all, thanks to a mawkish, preachy script, saved in parts by some good performances and a lot of very funny quips that still aren’t enough to justify this movie’s one-sided existence. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Mortensen plays Ben, a father of six who lives in an isolated cabin in the Pacific Northwest with his family, where he and his wife have home-schooled the kids and raised them off the grid, rearing a bunch of child prodigies with distinctly anti-capitalist, anti-religious, socially progressive views. When their mom, who is absent in the early parts of the film because she’s been hospitalized, kills herself, the brood end up taking a road trip south to New Mexico to attend her funeral, fight with her father, and engage in the obvious comedy of having the kids see American consumer culture for the first time.

It’s a cliche-ridden mess as a script, as a story, and in most of the things the family does outside of itself, which is to say that the only parts of the script that work are the interactions between Ned and his kids, or among the kids themselves. With six of them, there isn’t enough screen time to develop their individual characters, so five of them are cut from the same cloth and seem to represent different stages of development, with the oldest, Bo, the one who gets some depth, although the two sisters, Kielyr and Vespyr, have their moments. The actors playing the children are all quite good, and I would bet this film will one day be a novelty for the fact that a bunch of good actors were all in this as kids, but they don’t have a ton to work with.

The hippie material here provides a few good laughs, although some of them were easy targets, and the film overplays the humorous aspects of having a five-year-old spout Marxist ideology or Bo indignantly inform his father than he’s no longer a Trotskyist but a Maoist. But once the film puts them in direct contact with mainstream kids and adults, like Ben’s sister (played by Kathryn Hahn, who shows how great she can be even in a serious role) and her family, the film just goes for low-hanging fruit, and never recovers the energy it showed in spurts earlier in the film.

The ending is where the wheels truly come off the bus, pun intended; the story jumps too fast, spares us a lot of explanation we need for decisions the characters (mostly the kids) make, and gives us way too much of a feel-good ending for a setup that should give us something very ambiguous. This is a movie about parenting, about the choices we make as parents, about what it might be like to be there every minute of the day with your kids, and how we might raise children to be better humans, better aware of their effects on the environment and on others, more concerned about injustice and less concerned about material wealth. But parenting is hard, and raising kids with values like those, so far out of the mainstream of our culture, is extremely difficult, so giving us a pat ending where everything’s just fine – and, by the way, who’s paying for Bo’s choice at the film’s end – is inauthentic.

Mortensen’s very good in the film, but I would have given Joel Edgerton the nomination for Loving or even Michael Shannon for Midnight Special before him. Heck, even Rolf Lassgård, without whom A Man Called Ove would have failed completely as a film, was better.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine.

Michael Solomonov is an Israeli-born chef who was raised in Pittsburgh and now owns Philadelphia’s Zahav, consistently rated among the best restaurants in the United States, as well as the hummus-focused spinoff Dizengoff, which I can vouch makes some of the best hummus I have ever had. Solomonov only switched his culinary focus to Israeli cuisine around 2008, and in a new documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, he goes back to his motherland to explore the roots and evolution of a cuisine that, by definition, only goes back about 70 years. The film, directed by Roger Sherman, opens this weekend in New York, in Philadelphia and several California cities on the 31st, and rolls out nationwide over the month of April.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine is less documentary than travelogue; Solomonov is an explorer, and the film doesn’t try to give the viewer an encyclopedic look at the cuisine of his home country, in part because simply defining the cuisine of Israel is itself a thorny question. Solomonov bounces around the country, from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the fishing town of Acre in the north, to the Golan region near the border with Lebanon, and to the desert south, visiting Israeli and Arab chefs who are pushing the boundaries of local cuisine as well as farmers, vintners, and other vendors contributing to the country’s vibrant culinary scene.

The film runs past the debate of the definition of Israeli cuisine somewhat quickly, with authors and chefs offering widely divergent opinions, some saying it’s ridiculous to say a country so young has its own cuisine, others pointing out that the cuisine exists because it’s in front of you. Based on what we see in the film, I’d argue with the latter group: This mélange of dishes, ingredients, and traditions comes from such a broad range of countries and cultures that it clearly forms its own cuisine. The film opens with Solomonov going into a small counter-service restaurant and asking for something small from the grill. He gets eighteen small plates, and proceeds to list their countries of origin, getting through about a dozen (not including the one where he just says “no idea”) before he’s even had anything we might call a main dish. Yogurts, salads, breads, and pickles dominate the counter in an array of colors, and it’s the combination of influences that makes this a unique cuisine.

Color is huge in In Search of Israeli Cuisine; since we can’t taste or smell the food, we’re relying on our eyes and Solomonov’s reactions (spoiler: he loves everything) to get a sense of what it’s like. The colors of the produce are eye-popping, as are the various sauces and purees smeared on every fine-dining plate we see in the film. The home-cooking Solomonov experiences is just as appealing, albeit sometimes less colorful because the dishes are slow-cooked and heavier on spices and meats; the scene where one of the chefs Solomonovs interviews (in the man’s apartment) picks up the Dutch oven full of maqluba, a Levantine stew with rice, and inverts it on to a giant metal dish, is mesmerizing and slightly terrifying to watch.

Within Solomonov’s travels, he gets at some of the questions of where Israeli cuisine came from. One controversial topic is how much of it was borrowed – or “stolen” – from Palestinian cuisine, one of many places here where food and politics intersect. Another is the influence of Sephardic Jews on the new cuisine, which some of the chefs in the film fear will mean the end of the cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews, who primarily come from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia. (Sephardic Jews come from around the Mediterranean, including Spain and North Africa.) I found the premise a little tough to swallow, pun intended, because cuisines don’t disappear if they have followers. If people like this food, then someone will find it profitable to keep making it. Cuisines only disappear if no one wants to eat them, or if the ingredients required for the cuisine themselves disappear or become too expensive. It doesn’t seem like either is the case here.

One of the chefs in the film says that the tomato doesn’t care if the person cutting it is Jew or Arab. The Palestinian chef Solomonov ends up hugging (because the food is so good) says that most of the time his clientele is largely Jewish, dipping in the wake of an attack. Several chefs here see food as a way to build bridges between communities, especially between Jews and Palestinians living together in Israel. (Broader issues like Jewish settlements or the occupations of the Golan Heights and West Bank are not mentioned, nor should they be given the focus on food, but it’s hard to forget them while you watch and see the map of places Solomonov visits.)

The star of the show is truly the food, though. The thoughts of the various chefs, farmers, authors, and grandmothers whom Solomonov meets are interesting, certainly, but the food grabs your attention and usually doesn’t let go. There’s something a little primal about the way the chefs eat so much of the food on the screen – just grabbing with their fingers, or picking them up with a hunk of bread. (note: I love bread.) If anything, I wanted more details on what we were seeing on the various plates – those purees, for example, often dashes on the plate before five other ingredients were added. What were they made of? Solomonov tastes one lamb dish by picking up a slice with his fingers and dredging it in at least two of the sauces on the plate – what were they? Other than the noodle kugel he tries in one Ashkenazi man’s house, what did he learn on the trip that might influence the menu at Zahav? And how soon can I eat them?

The film ends with clips of many of the chefs and writers who’ve appeared giving their geographical backgrounds, a parallel to the opening scene of the film where we hear how many different countries contributed to the array of meze (small plates) in front of Solomonov. If the film provides any answer to the question of what “Israeli cuisine” is, that’s it: Israeli cuisine is the sum of everything the people of Israel have brought to it.