THE AGE OF ADALINE
In director Lee Toland Krieger's The Age of Adaline, Blake Lively plays a 29-year-old who, following a supernatural accident involving a car crash and a bolt of lightning, goes through life never again aging a day, and 82-year-old Ellen Burstyn plays her daughter. You may recall that Burstyn also recently portrayed Matthew McConaughey's elderly daughter in Interstellar. If this is the continuation of a trend for the magnificent actress, I'm really hoping she keeps acting for another decade or more, because I'm dying to eventually see her cast as the great-grand-niece to that adorable little girl on Modern Family.
I wasn't at all bothered by the movie's magical-realism conceit, and actually thought it was really clever when narrator Hugh Ross - the voice-over artist probably best known for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - explained that Adaline's eternal youth sprouted from a scientific principle that would gain widespread acceptance in 2035. (Omniscient narrators in fiction are common; omniscient ones from the future, less so.) But Krieger's film, with its screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz, sure could've used more of this sort of cheek and charm. Although her performance, which basically amounts to a 100-minute Robin Wright impression, is in no way an embarrassment, Lively is really anything but. (Lively, that is.) Her decades-spanning figure hasn't been written with any interior life or contrasting levels - Adaline's predicament is shown to be one endless, depressing burden - and even in her theoretically lighthearted moments, Lively's melancholy is unvaried; she mopes and mopes and becomes an incredible drain on the film. Things perk up a little when she begins her romance with the appealing Michiel Huisman, despite his character - a scruffily bearded, socially conscious millionaire who loves baseball and can cook! - nearly being a parody of wish-fulfillment perfection. And things perk up a lot with the arrival of Harrison Ford as Huisman's dad ... though in order to fully enjoy his presence, you'll have to agree not to be put off by what might be the most astounding coincidence in the history of romantic melodrama. Between the Ford angle and Adaline's hysterically improbable escape from the backseat of a squad car and numerous narrative contrivances just as silly, our lead remaining forever 29 might be the least unbelievable thing about The Age of Adaline. But at least the movie has a fair degree of wit, and Kathy Baker as Huisman's mom, and the phenomenal Burstyn, whose scenes, fittingly, also boast the script's best dialogue and Lively at her most winning. "I don't have any recent pictures of you," complains Burstyn to her mother. "Eh," counters Lively, "if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all."
The previews for the sentimental period drama Little Boy filled me with such staggering dread - Weeping children! Saccharine bromides! Kevin James! - that I was less surprised than stunned at how not-bad the results were. If you've seen those trailers, which seemed to accompany a year's worth of family releases, you know it's the story of a sweetie-pie pipsqueak (the mush-mouthed but endearing Jakob Salvati) who's encouraged to believe that faith, his performing of good deeds, and his nonexistent super-powers will bring his beloved dad (Michael Rapaport) back from World War II combat. All told, it's about as gooey and shameless as you'd anticipate. But what I absolutely didn't anticipate was that on occasion, even amidst the treacle, director Alejandro Monteverde and co-writer Pepe Portillo would display such bracingly tough-minded sensibilities. Their film doesn't even slightly shy away from the period's hateful racism, which we discover with the introduction of the elder Japanese American Hashimoto (the marvelous Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) who's the subject of continual abuse; I think I audibly gasped when our heroic little cutie Pepper sneered at the mention of him and spat out, "I'd like to smash that Jap with my bare hands!" (Little Boy makes a fervent and, to its enormous credit, successful argument for racism being a learned behavior.) And even after Pepper befriends Hashimoto, the film stays, for the most part, unusually dark, given the townsfolk's continued ill treatment of their lone citizen of color, the shockingly brutal flashes to Dad's experiences in a POW camp, and the unhidden ugliness in the portrayals of David Henrie as Pepper's brother and Ted Levine as a grieving father. (As a staunch and vociferous non-fan, I was delighted to also see the typically unwelcome Kevin James at least employed in the service of an intentionally unwelcome character.) With its bum dialogue, cheap-looking production design, and incessant manipulation - there's even a bit that's uncomfortably close to the little-girl-in-the-red-dress moment from Schindler's List - I can't, in good conscience, recommend Little Boy. But I also can't deny its occasional effectiveness, evident in everything from the first-rate performances of Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson to the fact that, much as I fought against it, I actually welled up on two or three occasions. And not from yawning.
KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which just began its run at Iowa City's FilmScene, is about a morbidly depressed Japanese woman who digs up a buried VHS copy of the Coen brothers' Fargo, becomes obsessed with Steve Buscemi's hiding of the suitcase filled with cash, and - thinking the film is the "true story" its opener claims it to be - travels from Tokyo to North Dakota to unearth its untold riches. It sounds, in other words, like a slapstick that the Coen brothers themselves would attempt, or maybe a rambling, humanist comedy in the vein of Alexander Payne. (Payne is actually one of the film's executive producers, along with his frequent screenwriting partner Jim Taylor and Kumiko portrayer Rinko Kikuchi.) But while there are certainly laughs to be had in this mostly foreign-language release by another pair of filmmaking brothers - director/writer David and producer/writer Nathan Zellner - Kumiko is also one of the saddest and most borderline cruel movies I've seen in years. It's an impressive achievement, to be sure, but not one that I'm (yet) convinced needed to be made. As designed, the single, childless office drone Kumiko is almost paralyzed by misery and loneliness, but for reasons the screenplay never bothers to address; there's no rationale for why this beautiful woman with the ever-downcast eyes appears nearly masochistically averse to human contact. (She's like Carrie White without backstory or telekinesis.) Consequently, there isn't any pleasure, schadenfreude or otherwise, in watching her suffer through one humiliating, frequently self-inflicted ordeal after another even in the scenes of Minnesota-based fish-out-of-water comedy, and the movie starts to feel redundant awfully early - one continent of agony merely supplanting the other. As many of my fellow FilmScene patrons did laugh, I'll readily concede that this is likely a matter of personal taste. But I tasted a sourness in the Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter experience that stayed in my mouth the whole drive home and into the next day, and that wasn't much mitigated by Kikuchi's exceptional performance, the Zellners' obvious smarts, The Octopus Project's ominously frightening score, or even Kumiko's scene-stealing pet bunny Bunzo. And don't get me started on the ending. It's enough to make Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark look like Dirty Dancing.
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