Lou Diamond Phillips and Antonio Banderas in The 33THE 33

Even if you can't recall the event's salient details, you likely remember the Chilean mine disaster that led the international news cycle for weeks in 2010, and that has now inspired director Patricia Riggen's The 33. But as this strong, heartfelt film's tension is built almost entirely on those salient details, it's hard to determine, in describing the story, exactly what about this five-year-old true tale should be considered a spoiler. Do you remember, for instance, how long the 33 miners were trapped before anyone even knew they were alive? How many days it took after that for rescue teams to excavate them? How many of the 33 actually perished underground?  

Consequently, I feel the most fitting route would be to avoid mention of the narrative's particulars, because the highest praise I can give The 33 is that, like Apollo 13, it's gripping and suspenseful enough to make you doubt your own memory. You may know in your gut that the miners' saga had a happy ending - or, as a postscript reminds us, a happy-albeit-moderately-infuriating ending - but on a minute-to-minute basis, Riggen and her almost uniformly exemplary cast keep you hoping for the best and dreading the worst. The movie is, pardon the pun, a rock-solid docudrama-slash-melodrama, and the emotions it elicits don't feel manipulated even when the screenplay pounds its points too insistently and the tears of its characters flow in buckets, along with those of more than a few audience members. (I plead the fifth as to whether I was one of them - but I will say that whenever Juliette Binoche breaks down on-screen, I tend to as well, and she's on-screen quite a lot here.)

Like most disaster films, The 33 opens with the requisite getting-to-know-you scenes involving the future imperiled and their significant others. There's Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), the shift captain who's worried about his copper/gold mine's potential safety hazards. (And, it turns out, for very good reason.) There's the alcoholic Darío Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba), who sleeps on park benches and is unhappily estranged from his doting sister María (Binoche). For comic relief, there's the Elvis impersonator Edison Peña (Jacob Vargas), and also the lothario Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nuñez), who's juggling an unhappy wife (Adriana Barraza) and voluptuous mistress (Elizabeth De Razzo). There's Mario Casas' Álex Vega, a young man about to become a first-time father, and Federico Luppi's Mario Gomez, a miner a mere two weeks from retirement. There's Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas), the passionate, tirelessly optimistic born leader of the group. Plus, there's Rodrigo Santoro as a well-meaning minister of mining, Gabriel Byrne as a frustrated engineer, Bob Gunton as the well-groomed president of Chile ... .

Antonio Banderas in The 33There was also, on my part, a lot of early- and mid-film eye-rolling at The 33 given the sheer volume of situational and character-driven red flags signaling "Cliché ahead!" (True figures or not, the expectant dad and two-weeks-'til-retirement guy feel awfully movie-ish.) Riggen, however, demonstrates dual gifts for unashamedly embracing those clichés and counteracting them with moments of enticing subtlety. She may let her actors go to town with fiery speechifying, but she's also sensitive enough to focus the camera on small, revealing physical reactions, such as the way Dario's and his pastor's hands reflexively tremble when joined in prayer. And when the shifting mountain causes the calamitous cave-in, the rock slide is appropriately noisy, scary, and effects-heavy, yet Riggen wraps up the intensity of this sequence with a horrifyingly quiet coda - a mere pop and quick burst of smoke as seen from outside the mine's lone entrance far from camp, which in no way suggests the minutes of chaotic turmoil experienced by those trapped within. The script by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, and Michael Thomas certainly works harder than it needs to. ("If we don't get them up fast, we're going to be bringing up 33 corpses!") But Riggen's direction is spot-on; even the fantasy scene, in which the miners consume their final rations by imagining the copious food-stuff they wish they were eating, has a delicate, near-poetic grace.

Some of the casting does feel off. While the French dynamo Binoche, somewhat astoundingly, is completely believable as a native Chilean, one can't say the same for the Irish mope Byrne, and considering he's forever recognizable as the sadistic warden from The Shawshank Redemption, Gunton's mere presence might immediately stack the deck too neatly against the Childean president. Still, this smartly paced, genuinely touching rescue drama finds many others (particularly Banderas, Santoro, Rabo, and the invaluable Binoche) doing their jobs with exemplary skill, and that includes the off-screen talents - not least among them the late James Horner, whose score for The 33 is one of the last he composed before his passing in June. It's beautiful work, melancholy yet hopeful, and Horner's contributions here can make your eyes water even if you're not mourning the loss of the fantastically gifted artist, or remembering his score's penny whistle from all those tear-jerking scenes in Titanic.

 

Meryl Streep in SuffragetteSUFFRAGETTE

Roughly halfway into director Sarah Gavron's period drama Suffragette, our British heroine Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) - a young wife and mother recently recruited to the cause of voting rights for women - attends an impromptu street rally led by the militant political activist Emmeline Pankhurst. The year is 1912, so no one refers to Pankhurst as a rock star. Yet the moment she appears, looking uncannily like Meryl Streep and orating with a bone-deep fervor that incites her female listeners to even greater degrees of indignation and outrage, that's unquestionably what she is, and you can clearly see her effect in the transfixed expression of new acolyte Watts. I'm guessing this scene might've been relatively easy for Mulligan to play, considering that the performer's career trajectory has seemed to mirror Streep's own early years in film - one movie after another in which she struggles, and suffers, and cries and cries and cries. Mulligan was utterly delightful, if still frequently teary, in her An Education breakout of 2009, but since then it's been the long road to Downerville in such movies as Brothers, Never Let Me Go, Drive, Shame, and this summer's Far from the Madding Crowd; she even managed to out-miserable Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. (It seems oddly fitting that the only goofy lark on her résumé is her role as Lady Anne York in IFC's soap-opera satire The Spoils of Babylon - a role that Mulligan actually only voiced, as the character itself was played by a department-store mannequin.) The beautiful, quick-witted, intelligent Mulligan has tragedy down pat, but if memory serves, she also has a killer smile. Why are we so rarely allowed to see it?

Clearly well-meaning, and inherently moving just by virtue of its subject, Suffragette is a lot like Mulligan's portrayal: determinedly earnest, admirably angry, impressively rendered, and just a little bit boring, if only because of how little surprise it contains. The issue of global suffrage, it goes without saying, was and is a very real thing; a postscript crawl here reveals the years, some of them sadly recent, in which countries of the world finally decided to extend equal voting rights to women. (More than a few of these mentions were true revelations to me. What took you so long, Switzerland?) So I'm not entirely convinced that the best way to tell this particular tale of the British-suffragette movement was through the eyes of the fictional character Maud Watts, who follows a too-traditional, movie-ready path to enlightenment, morphing from oppressed working stiff to rock-throwing revolutionary. (Watts' place of employment, by the way, is the Glasshouse Laundry, and I guess women who work at Glasshouse's should throw stones.)

Carey Mulligan in SuffragetteWhile bonding with salt-of-the-earth types played by Anne-Marie Duff and a refreshingly human Helena Bonham Carter, Mulligan's initially apolitical Watts endures all of the expected tribulations: the dubious glares of co-workers and neighbors; the shame and ire of her callow, sexist husband (a deeply unpleasant Ben Whishaw); the unwanted attentions of a dogged detective (Brendan Gleeson). All this plus beatings, jail time, forced separation from her child, a hunger strike, and more, and the on-screen incidents would be far more infuriating and galvanizing if you didn't see each of screenwriter Abi Morgan's narrative developments landing three scenes in advance, or if Gavron's pacing weren't quite so plodding. (I know this is Serious Stuff, but I also could've used more than one moment of humor in the film's 105 minutes; the lone funny bit involving a collapsing bed is timed and performed beautifully enough to make you long for more overall variety in mood.) The period design is unerringly excellent, and heaven knows there are affecting sequences; an early riot in which female protesters are clubbed by policemen and trampled underfoot is especially harrowing. Yet the film remains uncomfortably formulaic and one-dimensional, and never more depressingly so than in the scenes with Gleeson's cop, who keeps popping up, with suspiciously convenient regularity, at the right place at the wrong time. Gleeson and Mulligan can be phenomenal actors, but I had hoped for more from Suffragette than a Les Misérables re-designed as a cat-and-mouse game between Javert and Fantine.

 

Diane Keaton and John Goodman in Love the CoopersLOVE THE COOPERS

It may not accomplish much else, but Love the Coopers does manage to pull off a heretofore unimaginable feat, considering director Jessie Nelson's holiday comedy presents circumstances under which it actually isn't a delight to spend time with June Squibb. Playing a dotty elder aunt who routinely forgets her nephew's name and silently blames her eye-watering gas on the family pooch, there's nothing Squibb can do to make her sad, gross material play, which puts the generally indefatigable performer in the same boat with just about everyone else in this labored, desperately unfunny lump of Christmas-stocking coal.

Like The Family Stone, The Big Wedding, Because I Said So, and other titles, Nelson's film is one of those maddeningly contrived family-reunion sitcoms that co-star Diane Keaton seems to naturally gravitate toward - if she weren't cast, producers would've no doubt Photoshopped her in - and about as witless as they come. Here, the holiday-meal guest list includes Keaton and John Goodman, whose characters are preparing to end their 40-year marriage; Ed Helms and Olivia Wilde as their floundering children; Marisa Tomei as Keaton's Miss Lonelyhearts sister; Alan Arkin as the salty grandpa; Amanda Seyfried as a depressed waitress; Jake Lacy as a young Republican en route to basic training; and assorted precocious grandchildren. (Anthony Mackie has a sizable role as a cop who bonds with Tomei, but given the stifling WASP-iness of the proceedings, he's not invited to dinner.) Oh yes, and there's Steve Martin - kind of. His identity isn't revealed until the movie's final seconds, and you may feel like throwing a brick at the screen when it is. But Martin frequently pops in with cloying voice-over that sounds like Alec Baldwin's Royal Tenenbaums narration as re-written by a second-grader, though his "presence" does at least contribute to the nominal fun of playing connect-the-dots with our celebrity cast. Will Martin fawn over Keaton with some cheeky Father of the Bride reference? Will Arkin say to Goodman, "Argo f--- yourself"? Will Helms refer to former Office-mate Lacy as "Plop"?

Jake Lacy and Olivia Wilde in Love the CoopersGiven that cast list, there can't help but be a few other pleasures, as well. (Barring a few seconds of her lovely soprano crooning, though, none of them comes from Keaton, who's so mannered, excitable, and shrill that when she misinterpreted one of Goodman's benign comments and literally shrieked in panic, a gentleman sitting several rows behind me loudly said, "Oh, Jesus, really?!") Arkin has a particularly touching bit in which his octogenarian practically declares his love for Seyfried - a moment that isn't anywhere near as icky as that sounds - and Wilde and Lacy, both in topnotch comic form, are dreamily flirtatious; their characters first meet at an airport bar, and you wish like hell that the movie would let them stay there, and let you stay with them. But the random happiness provided is nothing compared to the misery of listening to screenwriter Steven Rogers' sentimental treacle fall flat on its face, or watching Goodman uncomfortably shuffle around in an attempt to play someone much less vibrant than himself, or enduring the unexpectedly hateful racism. (The Coopers' pesky Jewish neighbor, a boy whose nose is thrust at the camera upon his introduction, is referred to as "Schnoz" behind his back. Happy Hannukah, everyone!) As there's no comma following the "Love," I'm not sure if the title Love the Coopers is mean as a declaration or a command. Either way, I don't, and I won't.

 

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeSchulzNow.

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