KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Mark Jenkins

Stuffed with references to classic crime flicks, American Animals is British writer-director Bart Layton's clever and assured bid to rival Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino. The film is highly self-conscious, but no more so than its real-life antiheroes, a quartet of Kentucky college kids who study The Killing and Reservoir Dogs to plan a heist that turns out to be poorly scripted.

Among Isabelle Huppert's many impressively vehement roles are several murderers, a mother who seduces her son, and the abortionist who was the last woman France ever sent to the guillotine. So the first joke of the intriguing but bewilderingly scattered Mrs. Hyde (Madame Hyde) is director Serge Bozon's casting of the anything-goes actress as a shy, awkward schoolteacher.

As he announced with The Artist, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius makes movies about movies. So it was nearly inevitable that he would someday burlesque the work of Jean-Luc Godard, the Franco-Swiss director who virtually invented the meta-film. The result, Godard Mon Amour, is fascinating but not as much fun as the movies its title character made between 1959 and 1966.

In 2007, writer-director Tony Gilroy dispatched the protagonist of Michael Clayton, a cynical and corrupt law-firm fixer, to unravel a plot so grubby it made him look clean by comparison. Gilroy pursues the same strategy in the involving if somewhat predictable Beirut, which was directed by Brad Anderson.

A boy-and-his-horse drama that's not designed for horse lovers, Lean on Pete is a movie in two parts. The first and better half is melancholy, but with encouraging glimmers of humanity. The second chapter is mostly grim, and when it finally offers a sort-of-happy ending, few viewers will be in the mood to accept it.

When the 60-ish heroine of the moderately charming Finding Your Feet decides on a change of locale, she doesn't travel to anyplace as warm and colorful as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Yet viewers may think of that dramedy anyway, even though the expatriate merely takes refuge with her older sister in a cluttered apartment in a grungy London public-housing complex. The place is less than alluring, but enchantment is sure to arrive later.

Jose Padilha's 7 Days in Entebbe opens with a galvanizing flurry of activity. But the bustle is not the 1976 airliner hijacking that begins the main story, or the Israeli commando raid that concludes it. The prologue is a modern-dance piece whose relationship to the rest of the movie is puzzlingly tenuous.

The distinctions between human and animal, alive and dead, and even mobile and inert are fluid in November, an adult fairy tale that's as earthy as it is lyrical. The movie's central story, a tortured-love triangle, is slight. But the context is fascinating and the visual style bewitching.

The first characters to enter the silvery black-and-white landscape of the film are a wolf — later revealed to be a shape-shifting human — and a kratt, a creature constructed of farm implements and an animal skull and brought to life by a blood pact with the devil.

The heroine of Double Lover suffers chronic abdominal pain, but an exceptionally revealing trip to the gynecologist indicates no physical cause. Perhaps it's all in her head, so Chloe (Marine Vacth) is referred to a psychiatrist. That medical judgment turns out to be faulty, but viewers will sympathize with the doctor who made it. It might seem that the entire movie is in Chloe's head.

What is love?

That query proves even more complicated than usual in Before We Vanish, Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's engaging if messy, and overstuffed, 20th feature. It's a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers that meanders from action to satire to romantic affirmation.

The chain-smoking, beer-swilling protagonist of A Ciambra is a one-man crime wave. When his father and older brother are arrested, Pio takes responsibility for supporting his entire Romani-Italian clan by stealing and hustling. Pio is observant, audacious, and quick-witted, yet has a few weaknesses: He can't read, and is terrified of elevators and trains. Also, he's only 14.

The first half hour of The Final Year is as pointlessly hectic as one of those action movies that's all incidents and no plot. But gradually documentarian Greg Barker's look at Barack Obama's foreign policy team comes into focus, thanks in large part to the counterpoint played by the Trump campaign.

When you're in love, "you just feel good, like you're wrapped in a big coat," says a character in Lover for a Day. Yet there are no big-coat moments in veteran director Philippe Garrel's latest examination of French erotic discontent.

In the most hopeful story recounted by In the Land of Pomegranates, a mother takes her young son from the Gaza Strip to an Israeli hospital for repair of a potentially fatal heart blockage. But no other hearts are mended in Hava Kohav Beller's documentary, whose centerpiece is an encounter session between 20-something Israelis and Palestinians in Germany, the historically fraught land of the director's birth.

Jared Moshe, the writer and director of The Ballad of Lefty Brown, is a fan of classic Westerns and he's made a movie that should please fellow aficionados. He offers one twist on the formula, but the plot, setting, and widescreen images are all as standard-issue as a Colt 45.

A murder mystery narrated by a toxically self-aware teenager, Sam Munson's 2010 novel The November Criminals is the kind of book that attracts smart filmmakers and serious actors — that then, all too often, gets diluted into a bland disappointment like November Criminals.

Arriving in supposedly liberal Europe, a refugee is hounded by the authorities but saved by a handful of scruffy outsiders. If the scenario of Aki Kaurismaki's The Other Side of Hope sounds familiar, that might be because it's essentially the same as the plot of its predecessor, 2011's Le Havre. The principal distinction is that the Finnish writer-director's latest comic melodrama is darker and more directly tied to current events.

In 1823, the publication of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (aka "The Night Before Christmas") put into circulation holiday lore that retailers, advertisers, and other true believers have been rejiggering ever since. So it's a tad presumptuous to call Charles Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol was published 20 years later, The Man Who Invented Christmas.

'Wonder': Why?

Nov 16, 2017

Life is hard for the Pullmans, the affluent Brooklyn family at the heart of the watchable but underachieving Wonder — or at least that's what this semi-comic weepie sets out to demonstrate. Yet the Pullmans' troubles, which stem from their youngest member's medical condition, turn out to be as superficial as the boy's disability.

The protagonist of Thelma is immensely powerful. But does teenage Thelma (Eili Harboe) derive this mojo from her budding sexuality? Does the woman, just beginning college in Oslo, squeeze demonic juice from rejecting her parents' austere Christianity? Is the small-town naif's chandelier-shaking force a medical matter?

Or is Thelma just a fledgling filmmaker?

There's one thing curator-producer Jeff Deutchman couldn't have known when he set out to make 11/8/16, a coast-to-coast, dawn-to-midnight look at the most recent U.S. presidential election day. Not who was going to win, but how inescapable the effects of that victory would be.

'The Square' Is Edgy

Oct 26, 2017

Life does not imitate art in Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund's The Square. No, something much worse happens: Life imitates conceptual art.

The Square is the first Swedish movie to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival since 1992's The Best Intentions. That's ironic, since Östlund's often startling satire is about a man with the best of intentions: a contemporary-art museum director tellingly named Christian (Claes Bang). He's handsome, successful, and, of course, as insensitive and self-centered as the rest of us.

Todd Haynes may not have been at the top of anyone's list of potential kiddie-movie directors before Wonderstruck, but the movie does dovetail with several of the filmmaker's previous projects.

In the anxious years after World War II, crusaders for decency accused many comic books of promoting deviant behavior. In the case of Wonder Woman, at least, the bluenoses were entirely correct. Some of the vintage Wonder Woman panels reproduced in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women are seriously kinky.

That was intentional and, in a way, high-minded. Briefly a professor of psychology, Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston wanted to bring his DISC theory (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance) to the pubescent masses.

Director Hany Abu-Assad's film, which stars Kate Winslet, Idris Elba and a cute dog, is prettily shot but blandly predictable.

"The goddamn punks are running the country!"

That outraged remark, delivered by the upright protagonist of Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, might suggest to some viewers that the movie was made with one eye on the current White House. But that is an interpretation supported by only a few moments in the film, which wrapped production before the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Not a single person says "shhh!" during Frederick Wiseman's three-hour-plus tour of New York libraries. In fact, Ex Libris: New York Public Library immediately introduces garrulous author, scientist, and atheist Richard Dawkins, and there are a half-dozen other talky authors waiting in the wings. In this documentary, chatter among the stacks is encouraged.

It sounds like an avant-garde theater maven's most cherished dream: Every year a small town writes and stages a topical "autodrama" based on the residents' own experiences. But a Tuscan village's 51st annual spectacle — Spettacolo in Italian — may be the last.

The manipulative British filmmaker seems to have come to the right place. Fresh from her own bitter breakup, Vivian (Dolly Wells) arrives in Florida in search of couples who are about to split. She has an assistant/cameraperson, Mel (Connie Shin), and a thesis: Marriage should last for only seven years, with an option to renew.

In the exhilarating introduction to The Villainess, you are there. But who are you?

Shot from the perspective of the attacker, the sequence tracks a lone fighter through a building full of thugs, all of whom get dispatched with bloody efficiency. Finally, the unseen figure enters a martial-arts studio with a dozen or so adversaries and a mirrored wall. Only when the camera catches the intruder's reflection does the point-of-view switch from hers to ours.

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