Mark Jenkins

In 1823, the publication of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (aka "The Night Before Christmas") put into circulation holiday lore that retailers, advertisers, and other true believers have been rejiggering ever since. So it's a tad presumptuous to call Charles Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol was published 20 years later, The Man Who Invented Christmas.

'Wonder': Why?

Nov 16, 2017

Life is hard for the Pullmans, the affluent Brooklyn family at the heart of the watchable but underachieving Wonder — or at least that's what this semi-comic weepie sets out to demonstrate. Yet the Pullmans' troubles, which stem from their youngest member's medical condition, turn out to be as superficial as the boy's disability.

The protagonist of Thelma is immensely powerful. But does teenage Thelma (Eili Harboe) derive this mojo from her budding sexuality? Does the woman, just beginning college in Oslo, squeeze demonic juice from rejecting her parents' austere Christianity? Is the small-town naif's chandelier-shaking force a medical matter?

Or is Thelma just a fledgling filmmaker?

There's one thing curator-producer Jeff Deutchman couldn't have known when he set out to make 11/8/16, a coast-to-coast, dawn-to-midnight look at the most recent U.S. presidential election day. Not who was going to win, but how inescapable the effects of that victory would be.

'The Square' Is Edgy

Oct 26, 2017

Life does not imitate art in Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund's The Square. No, something much worse happens: Life imitates conceptual art.

The Square is the first Swedish movie to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival since 1992's The Best Intentions. That's ironic, since Östlund's often startling satire is about a man with the best of intentions: a contemporary-art museum director tellingly named Christian (Claes Bang). He's handsome, successful, and, of course, as insensitive and self-centered as the rest of us.

Todd Haynes may not have been at the top of anyone's list of potential kiddie-movie directors before Wonderstruck, but the movie does dovetail with several of the filmmaker's previous projects.

In the anxious years after World War II, crusaders for decency accused many comic books of promoting deviant behavior. In the case of Wonder Woman, at least, the bluenoses were entirely correct. Some of the vintage Wonder Woman panels reproduced in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women are seriously kinky.

That was intentional and, in a way, high-minded. Briefly a professor of psychology, Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston wanted to bring his DISC theory (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance) to the pubescent masses.

Director Hany Abu-Assad's film, which stars Kate Winslet, Idris Elba and a cute dog, is prettily shot but blandly predictable.

"The goddamn punks are running the country!"

That outraged remark, delivered by the upright protagonist of Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, might suggest to some viewers that the movie was made with one eye on the current White House. But that is an interpretation supported by only a few moments in the film, which wrapped production before the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Not a single person says "shhh!" during Frederick Wiseman's three-hour-plus tour of New York libraries. In fact, Ex Libris: New York Public Library immediately introduces garrulous author, scientist, and atheist Richard Dawkins, and there are a half-dozen other talky authors waiting in the wings. In this documentary, chatter among the stacks is encouraged.

It sounds like an avant-garde theater maven's most cherished dream: Every year a small town writes and stages a topical "autodrama" based on the residents' own experiences. But a Tuscan village's 51st annual spectacle — Spettacolo in Italian — may be the last.

The manipulative British filmmaker seems to have come to the right place. Fresh from her own bitter breakup, Vivian (Dolly Wells) arrives in Florida in search of couples who are about to split. She has an assistant/cameraperson, Mel (Connie Shin), and a thesis: Marriage should last for only seven years, with an option to renew.

In the exhilarating introduction to The Villainess, you are there. But who are you?

Shot from the perspective of the attacker, the sequence tracks a lone fighter through a building full of thugs, all of whom get dispatched with bloody efficiency. Finally, the unseen figure enters a martial-arts studio with a dozen or so adversaries and a mirrored wall. Only when the camera catches the intruder's reflection does the point-of-view switch from hers to ours.

The wildly inventive Dave Made a Maze creates a fantastic universe on a tiny budget, using mostly cardboard. Yet although it's a scrappy indie, the movie has something in common with many platinum-plated CGI blockbusters: The visuals are as strong as the script is feeble.

In After Love's opening scene, the handheld camera observes Marie (Bérénice Bejo) as she arrives home with her 8-year-old twins, Jade and Margaux (Jade and Margaux Soentjens). But we viewers don't follow them from the street, through the pleasant garden and into the tasteful first-floor apartment. We're already inside, awaiting them in the place nearly all of the film is set.

Imagine Lost In Translation set in a much sleepier metropolis than Tokyo. That's Columbus, which derives its title from its Indiana locale, a small city known for many buildings designed by notable modernist architects.

"Why choose to be unhappy?"

Gabrielle (Marion Cotillard), the protagonist of From the Land of the Moon, addresses that question to the man who's agreed to marry her. But it might just as well be directed to Gabrielle herself, or to veteran French writer-director Nicole Garcia, because both sink into sorrow as if it were a feather bed.

Although Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is visually overstuffed and sometimes cloaked in darkness, one thing is easy to see: how its principal setting, the sprawling space-station Alpha, parallels writer-director Luc Besson's utopian filmmaking vision.

As it winds north through rural Thailand, Pop Aye makes only a brief stop at a Buddhist site. But there's plenty of karma in writer-director Kirsten Tan's affecting low-key drama, beginning with its human protagonist's quest to repay what he owes his elephant companion.

Partisans on either side of Northern Ireland's "Troubles" will naturally gravitate to one of The Journey's two principals: Republican Martin McGuinness or Unionist Ian Paisley. But for those watching at a certain distance — from across the Atlantic, say — the movie is as much a clash of acting styles as a political debate.

Playing McGuinness, Colm Meaney emphasizes warmth, humor, and naturalness. As the older and chillier Paisley, Timothy Spall is more mannered, relying on such gear as false teeth that make his occasional grin even more menacing than his frequent scowl.

Beijing's 1989 Tiananmen Square protests ended with a military massacre that left hundreds dead. Hong Kong's 2014 Occupy Central movement ended with a pizza party. Talk about one country, two systems.

That's too flippant, of course. As depicted in the friskily titled Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, the Hong Kong protests do appear something of a lark. But the Occupy Central protesters were attacked with batons, tear gas, and flash grenades, and the encampments were eventually destroyed. Unruly-haired Joshua Wong, now 20, was one serious teenager.

From the pages of sober financial journals to Hollywood's slapstick-econ adaptation of The Big Short, commentators often note that no American banks were indicted in the wake of the 2008 financial cave-in. Hoop Dreams director Steve James is here to say that's not true. In May 2012, New York's district attorney brought charges against Abacus Federal Savings Bank and 19 of its employees.

After a millennium of mystical and/or pious Arthurian lore, someone — could it have been Guy Ritchie? — determined that the once and future king needed the Guy Ritchie treatment. But then someone — could it have been the selfsame Ritchie? — concluded that snarky attitude wasn't enough. And so we have King Arthur: Legend of The Sword an intermittently amusing mashup of frisky medieval-gangsta flick and ponderous sub-Tolkien war saga.

"We all die here together."

That vow, heard several times in Last Men in Aleppo, is apparently a common response to the suggestion that life might be better in Turkey or Germany than in the rubble of what was once Syria's biggest city. The country's White Helmets, who pull survivors and corpses from bombed buildings, will stay as long as there is anyone to aid.

There are many explanations for Bertrand Russell Berns' relative obscurity. The subject of Bang! The Bert Berns Story flopped as a performer, and so turned to songwriting and producing. He sometimes composed under aliases such as Bert Russell and Russell Byrd. And several of his tunes became associated with their performers, who were widely assumed to have written them.

Also, Berns died young, succumbing to the long-term effects of childhood rheumatic fever at 38. It was 1967, and rock 'n' roll was just beginning to be chronicled by sympathetic observers.

Everything is a little off in the small French seaside town of Slack Bay — even gravity. Bruno Dumont's period farce is punctuated by frequent pratfalls, and some of his characters can barely stand upright. Yet toward the movie's end, several of them become lighter than air, and threaten to float away.

Midway through Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, the title character sketches a diagram of his intersecting business, political, and charitable connections. Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is at the center of the web, and yet he's barely there at all.

Take my alcoholic girlfriend... please.

Colossal begins as a variation on the musty Henny Youngman line, crossed with a self-consciously wacky riff on the genre known in Japanese as daikaiju ("big strange beast"). But the premise can't sustain a nearly two-hour movie, so writer-director Nacho Vigalondo adds more twists, designed not only to keep the plot moving but also to partly exonerate Gloria, its heroine.

Gloria is fundamentally nice. (She has to be; she's played by Anne Hathaway, who rarely does mean.) But when she acts out, she really acts out.

Cézanne et Moi opens with one of the most difficult things to depict on screen: the inner toil of an artist at work. Yet the first character to appear is not painter Paul Cezanne but the movie's "moi": novelist Emile Zola, a friend of Cézanne for most of his life.

The namesake of Wilson is the kind of guy people try to avoid on the bus, at the sidewalk cafe, or while using the adjacent urinal. Yet the makers of this deadpan comedy want us to spend 90 minutes with him.

The experience isn't painful, but it is a little frustrating. Playing the reclusive, misanthropic, yet oddly gregarious title character, Woody Harrelson is as engaging as the man's personality allows. But Wilson struggles with tone, shifting from monotonously bleak to predictably satirical to improbably sanguine.

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