Jane Got A Gun
Directed by Gavin O’Connor | Written by Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, and Joel Egerton 98 min | ▲▲▲△△ | On DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD
A moody if somewhat standard-issue western from O’Connor, the helmer of the excellent MMA drama Warrior and executive producer on one of the best shows on TV, The Americans.
Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) is the wife of an outlaw, Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich, who plays Stan on The Americans). He’s wanted by a gang led by a black hat named Bishop (Ewan McGregor, black moustachioed, too). When Bill is wounded, Jane goes looking for help from an old boyfriend, Dan Frost (Edgerton). As Jane and Dan hole up in her frontier shack preparing for the worst, and Bill is unable to climb out of his bed, the combination of love triangle/revenge western is set.
O’Connor chooses to provide the backstory for Jane, Dan, and Bill in a periodic flashback structure, stalling the film’s narrative momentum rather than adding to it, and the inevitable standoff and gunfight isn’t staged nearly as compellingly as it should be. The ability to provide a solid sense of spatial geography is an ability sadly lacking in a lot of filmmakers these days—it dilutes the suspense in action sequences when the audience doesn’t know where everyone is.
But it’s the casting that ends up saving the day: Portman, Edgerton, Emmerich, and McGregor, evil as arsenic, all lift their characters above the genre-typical costumes, whiskers, horses, and revolvers. A coda of torn wanted posters is particularly satisfying.
By The Sea
Written and directed by Angelina Jolie | 122 min | ▲▲▲△△ | On iTunes
After watching the privileged-but-unhappy-in-the-Mediterranean movie A Bigger Splash , I sought out Jolie’s under-appreciated retro drama. Last fall we saw the posters and the trailers, but it never opened locally.
Off the top I can see why: This is a deeply untrendy film. Vanessa (Jolie, credited here as Jolie-Pitt) and Roland (Brad Pitt) are a miserably married couple vacationing at a hotel on the French Rivera (actually shot in Malta). She’s so immobile she seems barely alive, paralyzed by some inconsolable grief. He’s a frustrated writer who drinks, spending too much time at the hotel bar, hanging with the hotel owner (Neils Arestrup) who’s grieving the death of his wife.
In the suite next to them there’s a young, newly married couple (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). Through a small hole in the wall, Vanessa and Roland watch them. It’s like watching an earlier version of their own marriage, back when they were young, horny, and happy.
It starts slowly and stiffly, a carefully constructed period piece—it’s set sometime in the 1970s—also playing as an homage to the European dramas of that era, which Jolie has said were a favourite of her mother. It sails across into self-parody occasionally—you can almost see the couple winking at the audience— and then it’s pulled back by a moment of intensity or eroticism. Jolie continues to convince as a communicator of deep personal trauma. Pitt is charismatic, but I’m starting to feel like we’ve seen everything he has to offer as a leading man. I enjoy him most when he’s in a supporting role or unhinged, and here he’s front and centre, the calmer of the two.
By The Sea gets more engaging as it goes along, and Jolie, now with her fourth feature, proves she has real chops as a visual stylist, with credit also going to DP Christian Berger. It’s a cinematic equivalent to liver paté—it won’t be for everyone, but those with particular palates will find things to enjoy.
Rock The Kasbah
Directed by Barry Levinson | Written by Mitch Glazer | 106 min | ▲▲△△△ | On Netflix
Catching a film long after its vicious pasting by critics in the cinema is often a good idea. It tends to moderate expectations. The reason I watched Rock The Kasbah wasn’t for Glazer, whose feature directorial debut, Passion Play, was a spectacular misfire. It also wasn’t for veteran filmmaker Barry Levinson, whose output lately has been spotty.
Bill Murray was the reason I teed this one up, and it’s good to see him headline a comedy again. There are a few solid laughs in the first act: He’s Richie Lanz, a washed-up rock manager from California with a single client of any value, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), who he convinces to do a few shows in Afghanistan. So far, so Ishtar. But she bails, leaving Richie alone and broke.
That’s about when the laughs cease. Richie catches some work from a couple of gun runners (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) and with the help of an American mercenary (Bruce Willis), he finds his way to a Pashtun village where he hears a girl (Leem Lubany) sing, and he gets the idea to audition her for the local Pop Idol show. Along the way an American prostitute, Merci (Kate Hudson, miscast), also gets involved.
For the most part, this is an episodic mess, with a script that desperately needed a rewrite. It’s also another case of a Hollywood picture telling the presumptuous and condescending story of a white westerner going to the Middle East and fixing the culture. As it hobbles to an unsatisfying finale, the emotional beats never amount to anything resembling real feeling, and that’s mostly because the picture buries the lead: This is based on the true story of a woman who sang on a show called Afghan Star, but Rock The Kasbah isn’t interested in her, and it really should be.
Directed by Ben Palmer | Written by Tess Morris | 88 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | On Netflix
The Brits have a great tradition of romcoms, in the past 25 or so years that’s largely thanks to the genius of Richard Curtis. While Man Up may not reach the upper shelf of the best Curtis, it’s still a dazzling entry in a fallow genre.
Nancy (Lake Bell, rocking the best British accent from an American actor since Renee Zellweger) hasn’t had much luck in love. She’s headed into London to attend her parents’ 40th anniversary party and, while on the train, she meets Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) headed in for a blind date. Thanks to machinations that only seem to work in romcoms, she poses as Jessica and connects with Jack (Simon Pegg), which triggers the best date either of them have been on in ages, all set against the sexiest parts of West End London.
If a case of identity theft was the only thing happening in this story, it would fall flat pretty quickly. Thankfully, it doesn’t take too long for the ruse to be sussed, and by then Jack’s insecurities have also been served up—he’s freshly divorced (from Olivia Williams), with the papers in his satchel.
There’s a silly bit where Nancy and Jack race each other to a West End bar, with Jack in a taxi and Nancy on foot, and there’s a moment at the end that feels a little too much sunshine and flowers, but overall this is great fun. It manages to cling to enough realism about loneliness in our couple-centric society that explains some of Nancy’s outrageous behaviour, and Morris’ script is strong, especially in scenes stuffed with banter, like when Nancy and Jack meet on the dance floor to argue while making all the right moves to Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.”
The MVPs here are Bell and Pegg, whose chemistry and character work is unimpeachable. If there were any justice they’d be showered with accolades, but this one’s coming in under the radar.
5 To 7
Written and directed by Victor Levin | 95 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | On Netflix
Brian Bloom is a 24-year-old unpublished New York writer. He’s witty, urbane, and self-deprecating. He believes some of the best writing in the city exists on Central Park bench-plaques, odes of love to couples past and present that signpost moments in the film. One day he crosses the street and meets Arielle, a French diplomat’s wife, and she ushers him out of his comfort zone and into the world of extra-marital liaisons.
This is a lovely film, one that starts as a charming indie, doing its best to upend some conventional American thought about commitment and fidelity, before doubling down on its French film aesthetic, delivered with a swooping score.
Anton Yelchin is wonderful as Bloom, bringing just the right amount of delicate inexperience spiked with wordy charm. (The actor’s unexpected death earlier this week may lend the film an extra portion of bitter to its inherent sweet.)
As Arielle, Bérénice Marlohe has all the beauty and exoticism to stir male fantasies—after all, she was a “Bond Girl,” Severine in Skyfall—and convinces as someone who enjoys a certain amount of emotional austerity in her life, but also manages to be vulnerable. As Bloom’s parents, Glenn Close and Frank Langella get a passel of great lines, too, and Olivia Thirlby shines. She deserves to be a much bigger star than she is.
In the end, the sharp turn into melodrama may leave some cold, but I admired the dedicated earnestness in this affair. 5 To 7 tells us where its headed in longhand love letters with lacy borders and refuses to deviate from its weepy destination.