Four Films: one for the wise son, one for the laughing son, etc...

EASTERN BOYS

Directed by Robin Campillo

Gen X youths and older from the Eastern Bloc loiter around Paris, mostly the Gare du Nord, waiting for opportunity -- to pinch someone’s wallet, lift a suitcase, feel up a female, or get into drug misadventure for dark tribal “fun” and profit. Career louts, these Eastern Boys are not particular who they scam or what they wreck. Though police sweeps occasionally scatter them like cockroaches, lest they be deported, arrested, or decked, they reunite daily for their scrofulous careers in repellent crime. Their ages range from oleaginous late teens with a Sal Mineo boyishness, to the late 20s or so, sans the cosmetic polish of regular Parisian commuters and residents.

Passing these ragged toughs one evening, a closeted bourgeois, attractive 40-ish male, Daniel, forgets whatever warnings French mothers must bestow on their enfants not to truck with unvetted strangers, especially not those dispensing favors for fivers. Daniel makes an assignation. Ukrainian Marek is nonchalant as he goes about his task, knowing that this bit of bare business is the gateway to… much more remunerative exertions with this same hapless citizen. Thence begins a sordid tale of gang abuse and home invasion, theft on an Olympian scale, and a resolution that irritated the hell out of viewers.

The charged, nausea-inducing film was written by Robin Campillo, himself a Moroccan-born screenwriter, director and editor of indie and zombie films. Maybe it was not just nausea. There was a substantial quotient of rage that the illegals were able to take such advantage of a man seeking comfort, a little respite from solitude.

In its way, it is as ugly as 24 Days, save that the victim is left alive, grappling unsuccessfully to make an omelet from the broken appurtenances of his emotions, living space and life. Precisely the kind of wrap-up that further infuriates for its implied forgiveness for the unforgivable.

Isn’t it telling, at least for a moment, to consider these two scuzzoid narratives both occur in modern Paris -- a brutalization, perhaps, of what Victor Hugo would have written had he lived in this 21st century rather than his 19th? 

The director meant, he says, to create a stark scenario around anonymous liaisons, in which incaution, tolerance for risk, and untrammeled desire produce volatile and unwanted consequences. One pities a mark so isolated in work and dailiness that he is reluctantly unable to resist these challenges to his autonomy, sanctity and possessions for the fleeting sheets of a hardened and dangerous unknown.

And not to be missed, if you choose wisely not to visit this dispiriting exercise in abnegation, is the dislocation deriving from aimless immigrants with low aspirational horizons, but unlimited energies for the unquestionably unwholesome. The film threads its way through ambiguities, clandestine moments, borderline and marginal situations, But it still does not merit your undivided attention amid a fistful of ever-harsher, ever-more demanding news events.

Is there redemption? Frankly, who gives a sou.

Save your depreciated Euros, francs, and dinero.

TRUE STORY

Directed by Rupert Goold

James Franco and Jonah Hill, competent if larky actors, are here taking a break from their customary line of adolescent and stoner celluloid. Here they’re doing the Capote thing.

Jonah Hill, as recently disgraced ex-journ for the NYTimes, Michael Finkel, becomes enmeshed in the prison case of Christian Longo, an accused murderer. Franco, with a soberer demeanor than his last (The Interview) pic, may or may not be guilty of murdering his entire family as charged, but Hill is concerned that in being arrested, the Longo character gave Finkel’s name, rather than his given name, to the papers. 

Newsies may recall the smithereen’ed career of once-rising star Stephen Glass, working at The New Republic, who fabricated an unlikely series of engrossing but made-up features, until his chutzpah-laced jig was uncovered. A somewhat peculiar case of former New York Times correspondent Michael Finkel, disgraced after juicing up aspects of a 2001 mag piece to give it added impact. He returns to Oregon, lackluster in his search for an appropriate berth. In what is supposedly a true story, he discovers his persona/identity has been misappropriated by an accused serial-murderous nutter, Christian Longo. 

There follows a drawn-out cat-and-mouse game; Hill, dispatching himself to Oregon, trying to record the possible last months of the life of this maybe killer, Longo seems to outthink Finkel at every turn. It appears not to be Finkel’s comeback moment to both scoop the big town media and re-establish his bona fides, with his name literally all over it.

Longo knows the torment Finkel has been undergoing about his fall from grace. He adds to it with a particularly stinging betrayal, again demonstrating that Finkel can’t somehow get his facts straight. Still, it is more a head-game, milder than it might be. Should be.

Felicity Jones, last of the persuasive Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, is Hill’s girlfriend.

The film feels stale, as demonstrated even by the least imaginative title you could dream up. We invest a modicum of interest in the story, but it fails, in the end, to go anywhere interesting we have not been many times before. Though Goold is a respected stage director, the cool feel of the film puts one off; the story may be about violence and murder, and the  manipulative protagonist is clearly about to betray his interviewer, but the overall effect is still… mild.

Hill as disgraced hungry writer Finkel is clearly being played by Longo, who has researched his interlocutor well. A case can be made that Longo’s selection of Finkel for his assumed ID is a study in recovered self-esteem, as the exposed ex-reporter is desperate to clean his tarnished image, and this seems an amazing vehicle on the platter for him.

Take-away? There are much more compelling stories around, true tale or no. Beheadings, “crisis” over “income inequality,” or drought in San Isidro: take your pick. Set up a mirror across the dining table, stare at it without smiling, then occasionally ask yourself questions meant to penetrate the impassive façade across the table. Or click on the nightly news on your iPad or tablet.

EX-MACHINA                                                                                      

Directed by Alex Garland

Taking up where Blade Runner left off. To many speculative fiction (or sy-fy, as it is now fashioned) fans, Alex Garland is the author of The Beach, as well as the guy behind  28 days Later and Never Let Me Go. With the disquieting Ex Machina, a foreshortened hint of “deus ex-machina” for those familiar with Greek and Roman drama of two millennia ago, Garland makes his slick debut as director, staging an upsetting futuristic what-if with confidence and a scary taste of a being aloof from everyday realities.

Among Garland’s virtues is an impeccable sense of how to get a story moving: To start, we meet the delighted Caleb, an avid millennial computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson), who has won a week’s stay at the secluded high-tech digs of his iconic jefe, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Whirring by private chopper over latifundia of lush greenery and sylvan falls, Caleb wonders when they’ll get to Nathan’s property. The pilot remarks they’ve been overflying it for hours.

The immaculate, dazzlingly modern, soulless aerie-manse has been cut into the cliffside, like something out of James bond, circa 1974. Boss Nathan, bushy beard and shaved pate cool, invented a Google-ish search engine, Blue Book, and enjoys a pasha existence, a New Age unmodulated emperor (the house is real, up in Norway somewhere). The enchanted Caleb, out of thousands of Blue Book hirelings, is tasked with conducting a “Turing test,” to match wits with an artificial intelligence android Nathan has built. You will recall the name [Alan] Turing from last year’s excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, in The Imitation Game (2014), who deciphered the German Enigma code. Caleb will test the beauteous animatronic female: Can it navigate genuine human circumstances and unprogrammed consciousness?

The film makes one decidedly uncomfortable, as the circumstances emerge as different from those depicted, and the man/machine interaction is plain creepy.

Ava (Alicia Vikander) is otherworldly, but nefarious and cleverer than her human counterparts expect. Acting is quite eerily good, and the house becomes a key part of the proceedings.

Unlike many films, this one lingers like an itch under a number of impenetrable layers of clothing. It’s not distant enough, not safe enough away from possibility, to ease into enjoying the hypotheticals posed.

MONKEY KINGDOM

Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill

Narrated by Tina Fey

This is the most fun, for adults [and children, of course, too], you can have without removing any apparel or visiting Ben & Jerry.

Macaques in Sri Lanka, a colony in the forest -- adventures, heartbreaks, parenting, misadventures, greed, loves and jealousies. Playing, cavorting, falling out of trees, making with the water, backbiting. Acting a lot like the primal upright primates on the planet, pretty much. 

No way to sufficiently praise the filmmakers for their outstanding patience, attentiveness, and speed at capturing Maya and company; these doughty cameramen trekked and ran all over the place and underwater to capture this thrilling narrative.

Maya is our heroine, and you can’t help loving her, with her struggle to find food and prevail against the mean princesses who have first dibs on everything. And her straining to safeguard her newborn, Kip, from the others and from natural obstacles and constraints of weather and shortage of nibbles

Best line from narrator Tina Fey, when protagonist macaque Maya first spots a handsome newcomer from another colony loping toward her in the near distance. “Wow: And here comes Kumar, a dreamy 15 pounds of hunky monkey.”

Fabulous.