Friday, May 29, 2009

One week at the Kendall: The Merry Gentleman and Adoration

Back when I worked in a movie theater, we almost never had these sort of one-week bookings: Even if a show was a colossal bomb, it would hang around for two weeks minimum, even if the second week was in Theater #3 (at Showcase Cinemas Worcester Downtown (Now the Hanover Theatre), a long narrow closet of a room) for one show a day. It was booked for two weeks, and Sumner Redstone wasn't going to have that print sitting in the booth not earning any money for the second week!

Of course, that was a mainstream theater, while Kendall Square is more of a boutique house, and distributors of independent films are likely happy for any screen they can get, even if it's just for one week - especially if the film is on a calendar, rather than just a random booking the audience knows nothing about. Still, we're lucky enough in the Boston area that the second-run places will pick up independent stuff: The Merry Gentleman only lasted the one week, but Adoration moved over the the Arlington Capitol (though it will already be gone by the time this gets posted). Sugar, after hanging around for a bit at the Kendall, also got its time extended, over at the Somerville Theater.

The Merry Gentleman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

The Merry Gentleman is one of those movies that appears at the local boutique theater for a blink-and-miss-it one-week engagement with just about zero fanfare, and I probably would have missed it if I hadn't noticed Michael Keaton's name in the credits, both as star and director. He's not the best reason to see the movie - co-star Kelly Macdonald is - but he is the one that got me into a film I might have otherwise skipped.

Keaton plays Frank Logan, a Chicago hitman whose job is making him despondent to the point of being suicidal; he doesn't talk much. Macdonald is Kate Frazier, a nice Scottish girl who, as the film opens, has packed up and left her abusive husband (who is also a policeman, which tends to smooth over any domestic violence reports). One night in December, Kate looks up to see Frank perched on a ledge (she doesn't know someone in her building has just been shot); her shout causes him to fall backward rather than forward. A few days later, they meet again - Frank has a target in her building, and winds up helping her with her Christmas tree. They grow close, but there are secrets and complications: Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes), the detective investigating Frank's hits, is also attracted to Kate, and as an audience, we kind of know that they didn't hire Bobby Cannavale to play Kate's husband if he's only going to appear in one wordless scene.

Writer Ron Lazzeretti doesn't fill us in much on how Frank and Kate got to their positions: We never learn why Logan is knocking various people off (or even whether he's a hired gun versus and interested party), nor how Kate wound up in America and married to Michael. We don't need to; our initial introductions to the pair tell us pretty much all we need to about who they are right now, and that's all we need to know. In fact, we probably learn as much about Dave's background as we do about Frank and Kate put together, because Dave is chatty and self-justifying in a way that Frank and Kate are not.

Frank's laconic nature is probably Keaton's biggest stumble as both actor and director, and it's on display early on. It takes what seems like forever for Frank to speak his first lines, including a couple of scenes where he's obviously staying silent to some effect because talking would make much more sense, and all it does is call attention to a gimmick that doesn't have much in the way of payoff. Keaton often seems to be trying very hard to be low-key, and it occasionally looks too studied.

He may just have problems with directing himself, because most of his direction is good, if not necessarily attention-grabbing. He can work various types of tension fairly well, and the rest of the cast seldom falters. He also makes sure to choose some fine collaborators: Lazzeretti's script is peppered with interesting characters, most of whom act in a reasonable way most of the time, and between them Lazzeretti and Keaton avoid spelling more out than necessary. Chris Seager's photography is also very nice; the film has a properly chilly atmosphere, but can still put across the beauty of falling snow, for instance.

That's good, because Macdonald's Kate is the sort who would appreciate it. Macdonald makes it very clear early on that Kate is not defined by her history of domestic violence. She's got that down cold, from Kate always seeming to have her guard up to the earnest but transparent way she tries to explain her black eye, but that's not the entire character. She's a naturally cheerful, good-hearted person, but doesn't overdo it.

The rest of the cast does their jobs well. Bobby Cannavale has a small part but it's an absolutely memorable one (really, you don't want to see anyone with the sort of certainty he does). Darlene Hunt is pleasant in the role of Kate's friend and co-worker. Tom Bastounes has a nifty supporting role as Murcheson, making him likable enough but with just enough hints of maybe being humanly selfish in his dealings with Kate. It's a thoroughly convincing, intriguingly linked group of characters, and the cast does a fine job of bringing them to life.

Looked at as a movie about a sad assassin, the movie is only so-so. The half of the movie that features Kelly Macdonald, though, has a sneaky way of pulling one in, even if it's not what initially caught the eye.

Also at HBS.


* * (out of four)
Seen 19 May 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

Adoration is a movie about unreliable narrators, though it does not necessarily feature one. That sets it up for a bit of trouble, since it isn't quite clever enough to impress with its storytelling gimmick. Using that gimmick takes time away from the actual story, so that falls just a bit short. It's also heavy-handed but kind of vague with the moralizing, so while it has good intentions all around, it's never up to its ambitions.

The narrator is Simon (Devon Bostick), a teenager being raised by his Uncle Tom (Scott Speedman) who, when given an assignment in French class to translate a news story about a Canadian woman whose Middle-Eastern husband placed a bomb in her luggage on her flight to Israel fifteen years ago, does so in the first person; if the bomb had exploded, he concludes, he would never have been born. His teacher Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian) encourages him to explore it further, and the discussion eventually makes its way online, where it spreads from classmates to academics to the general public.

Despite some provocative comments made by Simon's dying grandfather (Kenneth Welsh) which are included in a way as to be misleading, the actual facts become clear fairly rapidly. The film plays it cute for a little while longer, eventually introducing other, even weaker mysteries/ambiguities to unravel. It spends so much time on getting to notice that characters are lying about or omitting events or otherwise emphasizing perspective that when it does present us with a scene that Simon and Tom couldn't possibly know about, it may feel like a cheat, even though writer/director Atom Egoyan has not placed third person omniscient out of bounds.

It's not just the storytelling tricks that Egoyan uses that cause trouble, but the motivation of the characters for using them and the way they go about it. It basically comes down to some characters stirring the pot for the express purpose of stirring the pot, although the profile of agitator doesn't quite fit them. It works well enough in the case of Simon, I suppose - losing his parents the way he did can make a kid dark and the influence of his rather nasty grandfather (both through words and genes) could make up the rest, but I would have liked to be more convinced. It's Sabine that's the real stretch; her deal isn't so far-fetched or unpleasant as to damage the film, but it doesn't provoke the best of reactions. I found myself thinking "really, Atom? that's the way you want to go with this?"

Arsinée Khanjian gets saddled with a lot of stuff like that, frankly, and that Sabine is still being taken somewhat seriously by the audience near the end says good things about her performance. She's helped immensely in this by Scott Speedman, whose character has to actually see the strange stuff up close, acknowledge it, and move past it. He's a good everyman, convincing us of details like how Tom handles a job that sees him despised (tow truck driver). He's nicely unsure of himself, in contrast to Welsh, who is all too confident in his beliefs.

There are other fairly well-done things sprinkled throughout the film. There's some sharp satire of how people respond to these sort of visceral ideas (Maury Chaykin has a sort-of funny cameo here). The flashbacks to a fateful family dinner are fascinating. Bostick plays his role fairly well. As is the case in much of Egoyan's work, what's done well isn't always pleasant, so even when Adoration works, it is more something to be admired than to be enjoyed.

It just doesn't work often enough to rate as a top feel-bad movie. It's got plenty of interesting and/or provocative ideas, but none are given a chance to really get under the audience's skin, and they could be put together much better.

Also at HBS.

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