Friday, October 28, 2016


Opening this weekend:

InfernoA darkly visionary geneticist has developed a virus to wipe out half of the world’s population, thus solving, or at least postponing, the overpopulation crisis. “Symbologist” Robert Langdon scampers around Florence in the company of a pretty young English doctor, trying to find where the bug is stashed. Agents of the World Health Organization and of a super-secret and lethal security firm chase them from landmark to landmark, led by clues encoded in Botticelli’s illustration of Dante’s version of Hell.

This is the third movie directed by Ron Howard and featuring Tom Hanks as Langdon, based on the fourth of Dan Brown’s syntax-challenged Langdon novels. The first film, 2006’s The Da Vinci Code, was on the limp side; the second, 2009’s Angels & Demons, was feverishly entertaining.

Happily, Inferno takes after its immediate predecessor. Screenwriter David Koepp, who wrote the adaptation, brings a bit more bite and wit to the dialogue than Brown is able to muster, and Howard keeps the action flying from one James-Bond-worthy exotic locale to another, pretty close to non-stop. The cast is full of attractive sorts like Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster and, perhaps most memorably, Ana Ularu as a chic and scary motorcycle-borne assassin.

Best of all is Hanks, who as in Angels & Demons spends his footage belting out exposition on the fly, like a tour guide way behind schedule. Giving him temporary amnesia and a bleeding head wound just adds to the fun.

These are silly stories, to be sure, steeped in the thudding, reductive literalism and reticular paranoia of Brown’s response to Renaissance masterpieces. But it’s hard—for me, anyway—to resist a movie hero who’s a pedantic middle-aged know-it-all.

ChristineThe title refers not to Stephen King’s demonic Plymouth Fury, but to Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota, Florida news reporter who made a grim kind of TV history when she shot herself on the air in July of 1974. In her final statement, she said her action was “…in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts…” The incident has long been thought to be part of Paddy Chayefsky’s inspiration for Network.

If a movie on this subject sounds like a bummer to you, you aren’t wrong. Directed by Antonio Campos from a script by Craig Shilowich, Christine is bitterly sad, often heartbreaking. It’s not a movie I’d be likely to watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once, because it’s also superbly done—measured, rich in convincing period detail, compassionate, free of tawdriness.

The key to its success is the talented, underutilized Rebecca Hall, who makes an award-worthy tour de force of the title role. With her long, stricken face, and speaking in the sort of flat Midwestern honk that Brits love to give Americans, she creates a portrait of a highly intelligent and decent-hearted person excruciatingly shut out from enjoying the common pleasures of life.

It seems almost certain that Chubbuck suffered from chronic mental (and physical) illnesses, along with ongoing romantic and sexual frustration and other personal disappointments. Given the understanding of such afflictions at the time, a happy outcome for her was probably a long shot. But her chosen field was no help, and it’s this that makes Christine trenchant rather than gratuitous.

Are many leisure activities more unsavory than watching local TV news? The sensationalism of the stories, and the deliberately dumbed-down insipidity and editorial timidity with which they’re presented, are queasy enough to watch; the effect of working in that world on a person of serious sensibility who wanted to do worthwhile journalism—and who was still vain and ambitious enough to want success—is awful to contemplate.

Throughout the film we hear the great national stories of the time—the aftermath of Watergate, Ford pardoning Nixon, etc—as a backdrop to Chubbuck’s lurid or fluffy stories at the beginning of the “If it bleeds, it leads” era in local TV coverage. Her struggle to keep her dignity in an undignified industry—ending in utter failure, as she herself became part of the bloody spectacle—makes Christine tragic.

The Pickle RecipeOn a lighter note...

Joey (Jon Dore), a Detroit wedding and bar/bat mitzvah entertainer badly down on his luck, is enlisted by his shady uncle (David Paymer) to filch the fiercely guarded secret recipe for the incomparable pickles made by his Grandma (Lynn Cohen). Joey agrees, goes to work as a lowly "assistant busboy" in Grandma's deli, and gradually bonds with the diverse staff, all the while coming up with wacky schemes to get his hands on the precious recipe.

This comedy, directed by Michael Manasseri from a script by Sheldon Cohn and Gary Wolfson, bogs down in overcomplication and heavy-handed sentiment at times, especially toward the end. But the performances are strong, and there's a pleasant energy to the affair, driven along by rousing klezmer on the soundtrack. Dore is agreeable in the lead, and it's great to see the veteran Cohen, remembered from Sex in the City and as a judge on many episodes of Law and Order, get a juicy showcase role all to herself as the loving but cantankerous Grandma.

You might want to have some good kosher dills ready in the fridge for when you get home from this one.

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