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Is it Safe to Go Back to the Movies Yet?

August 24, 2016


Blame it on Jaws. Forty-one years ago—how is that possible?—Steven Spielberg’s shark-attack shocker invented the summer-movie season, and the cinematic waters have not been fine for adults seeking thoughtful fare in the hot-weather months ever since. But if Ghostbusters made you gag, Independence Day: Resurgence made you regurgitate and Suicide Squad made you want to kill yourself, there is hope. Now that we’re in August, a handful of smart movies have thankfully sneaked into theaters.

The best of the lot by a country mile is Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western with a career-best performance by Jeff Bridges (and that’s saying something, considering his 65-year career — he made his debut at 2 as an uncredited “Infant at Train Station” in 1951’s The Company She Keeps). He plays a Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement, and breathes such vivid life into the character that he skirts any hint of a cliché. He’s on the trail of a pair of brothers (the always-electric Ben Foster and Chris Pine, rising to his co-stars’ level) who go on a bank-robbery spree.

The screenplay, by Sicario‘s Taylor Sheridan, contains some sly social commentary about the mortgage crisis and right-to-carry laws, but Starred Up director David Mackenzie’s drama works best as a character study, and Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton stands as one of the most fascinating characters in recent film. He’s casually un-p.c., making offensive off-hand remarks to his half-Mexican, half-Native American deputy (Banshee‘s Gil Birmingham, in a breakout turn). But he’s also a deeply decent man. When Hamilton shoots a man in one scene, Bridges’ reaction is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on screen, literally laughing and crying at the same time. I felt the same way throughout Hell or High Water — at once elated and deeply moved.

I experienced similar emotions watching Captain Fantastic, at least until the end when the story goes off the rails. Viggo Mortensen, who made his film debut more than 30 years ago in Witness, brilliantly channels the spirit of Harrison Ford’s other cinematic collaboration with director Peter Weir, 1986’s The Mosquito Coast. (Both films fell in the brief period when Ford actually acted instead of just posing or growling.) Like Mosquito, Captain follows a father who takes his family away from civilization to live in the wilderness. Not surprisingly, given the fact that it was written and directed by an actor, Silicon Valley‘s Matt Ross, the film’s cast is uniformly remarkable. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn—hey, their names rhyme!—wisely underplay Mortensen’s bourgeois sister and brother-in-law, and Frank Langella and Ann Dowd deliver typically flawless portrayals as his materialistic father- and mother-in-law. All six kids are stellar, with George MacKay the standout as the eldest son. He’s reminiscent of River Phoenix, not just in Mosquito Coast but also in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (another family-on-the-lam drama), as well as Heath Ledger in his aching vulnerability.

Captain Fantastic raises fascinating questions about what makes a good parent, but they ultimately can’t be answered. Still, the film attempts to wrap itself up in a too-tidy package. The opposite holds true for Equity, a tightly wound feminist financial thriller that leaves a few too many loose ends dangling as you leave the theater. Yet the strong work of Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn as well as co-writers/co-stars Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas cannot be denied, and director Meena Menon gives the film a seductively cool surface that makes it a palpable pleasure to watch.

That’s not where the worthy fare ends. I’ve previously sung the praises of Woody Allen’s Cafe Society and James Schamus’ Indignation, and I also enjoyed Florence Foster Jenkins, although it may have been as much for the air-conditioning—I saw it in the middle of a heatwave—as for the robust performances by Meryl Streep as a tone-deaf socialite and Hugh Grant as her lovingly unfaithful husband (and no, that’s not an oxymoron). The movie’s biggest surprise is Simon Helberg, who erases any trace of The Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz as Jenkins’ fluttery, formidable accompanist.

So there you have a half-dozen flicks currently in theaters that won’t cause your brain to melt. Maybe going to the cineplex in the summertime isn’t so hellish after all.

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  1. TV Gord permalink

    Thanks, Bruce! That’s one chock-full-of-information synopsis! I’m glad to read that Simon Helberg is good in Florence Foster Jenkins. The clips I’ve seen have made me chuckle. I hope to see more of his reaction shots to her voice in the film.

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