SCREENINGS & MEANINGS

By Gerald Schmitz

A few movies you don’t have to ‘leave behind’

“Light! Camera! Jesus! How Christians are Building Their Own Hollywood,” was the title of a perceptive Huffington Post commentary Oct. 2, in which Eliot Nelson detailed how conservative Christians are embarking on their own filmmaking enterprise. Among the movers and shakers in this parallel universe is a Canadian, Paul Lalonde, whose production company is behind a second attempt to bring to the big screen the “Left Behind” message of end-times biblical rapture proclaimed in a series of eponymous books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins — a publishing phenomenon with 65 million copies sold since 1995. Still there hasn’t been a “Christian” box-office blockbuster in a decade since Gibson’s sanguinary The Passion of the Christ.

The low-budget 2000 version, Canadian-made by Lalonde’s Cloud Ten Pictures, was something of a flop. The new Left Behind is more ambitious, starring former Hollywood A-lister Nicolas Cage and armed with an over $30 million budget, including aggressive marketing and garish critics-be-damned website (http://www.leftbehindmovie.com/), as well as a wide release into 1,750 U.S. theatres (30 in Canada). The result — a miserable miniscule rating of two per cent on rottentomatoes.com — will only inspire rapture in fundamentalist true believers. Anyone else should wait till December for Ridley Scott’s awesome-looking Old Testament epic Exodus: Of Gods and Kings.

At least it’s not all doomsday and dismal fare among a handful of movies playing this month that, with reservations, have enough to their credit to keep you from heading early to the exits.

Gone Girl (U.S.)

Director David Fincher’s adaptation of the 2012 Gillian Flynn novel has been earning Oscar-contender buzz even though it’s a thoroughly dislikeable story with nary a sympathetic character — unless you count the silent witness of an orange tabby cat belonging to the Dunnes, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike), unhappily married in an upscale house in Missouri (filmed on location though for some reason police cars have North Carolina on their sides?). Amy, transplanted rich-girl New Yorker, is the subject of the “Amazing Amy” children’s books written by her parents. Missouri-native Nick is a failed writer turned co-owner of a bar with his twin sister, which is where he’s moping the morning his wife disappears amid signs of violence.

Cutting to the chase and layers of deception, a local detective duo are on the case — amped up by media sensationalism — as the days pass and suspicions pile up against Nick. The clincher seems to be discovery of a partially burnt diary of Amy’s with descriptions of abuse ending with “my husband may kill me.” Actually the mystery unravels midway because, as much as Nick is a hapless jerk, Amy is also a cold-hearted world-class liar who relents on plan A and then sets up a former obsessed boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) leading to one of the year’s more revolting scenes. It gave me shudders of disgust and if there is such a thing as a couple’s reunion from hell, the final minutes surely qualify. That said, the movie is expertly crafted, with elements of social commentary (financial-crisis effects, media manipulations), and the performances are creepily convincing.

The Good Lie (U.S.)

I’ve already mentioned this Toronto festival selection, a first foray into Hollywood filmmaking for Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) who was behind the camera for a documentary on Sudan during the vicious civil war between north and south. He’s cast an A-list actress Reese Witherspoon in the unglamorous role of Kansas City, Missouri, employment-agency worker Carrie stuck with the challenge of finding jobs for three “lost boys” Sudanese refugees — Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Toronto-based rap artist Emmanuel Jal). After spending 13 years in a Kenyan camp, they are struggling to adapt to a radically different culture and to cope with a painful separation from Mamere’s sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel)), sent to live with a Boston family. The foursome, and the actors playing them as children, are the real stars. Initially there were five fleeing from a village massacre across a harsh and murderous landscape. Before reaching safety, Mamere’s brother Theo sacrifices himself to save the others from armed men.

The story of survival is the movie’s strongest part, building up an empathy for these characters who have had to endure and overcome so much, and who are so anxious to find a place in a North American society where the bottom line often comes before people and community. When necessary to help others, they’ve learned it’s OK to tell a “good lie.” And their faith and solidarity, more than the American helpers’ goodwill, provides the true inspiration.

Love is Strange (U.S./France)

Director Ira Sachs draws wonderful understated performances from Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as aging couple George and Ben living together peacefully in Manhattan for almost four decades when they decide to wed. George has been a music teacher and choirmaster at a Catholic high school for years without his sexuality becoming an issue. But word of the offending marriage reaches the bishop and George finds himself out of a job. Unable to afford the area, the couple are forced to sell their apartment and temporarily live apart in order to find cramped space with relatives and friends. It’s a painful and awkward separation, particularly for 71-year-old Ben, a painter, who must share a room and bunk beds with a nephew’s adolescent son Joey (Charlie Tahan) who doesn’t handle the intrusion well. His parents, Eliot (Darren Burrows) and Kate (Marisa Tomei), grow exasperated with the situation until something happens to alter everyone’s lives. There’s a palpable sense of loss, but Sachs lets us down gently, leaving open the possibility that love, however strange, can bring light into fragile lives.

The Skeleton Twins (U.S.)

Winner of a screenwriting award at Sundance, director and co-writer Craig Johnson’s offbeat dramedy pairs Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as troubled twins Milo and Maggie whose suicidal tendencies (their father jumped off a bridge when they were 14) bring an end to a 10-year separation. Maggie brings Milo, a wannabe actor and melancholic gay man, back from L.A. to their small New York town, where he was molested by his high-school English teacher. It’s cool though with loving hubby Lance (Luke Wilson), the kind of slightly goofy Joe-average nice guy who’s always the last to catch their drift. Going from years of no contact to being in each other’s face, the sibling “gruesome twosome” (sporting matching skeleton tattoos) range over the emotional register, not helped by a brief unwelcome visit from their mother spouting new-agey gibberish. Along with the pity plays, mistaken encounters with the former teacher and domestic melodramas, there are some high-spirited moments and flashes of mostly deadpan humour. Hold the funeral because just maybe they can put mutual miseries behind them.

My Old Lady (U.K./France/U.S.)

Writer-director Israel Horovitz’s screen adaptation of his play is set in a grand if rundown Paris apartment. It’s been inhabited for decades by a 90-something lady Mathilde Girard (the great Maggie Smith) and her waspish daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) until intruded on by New Yorker Mathias (Kevin Kline), a thrice-divorced failed writer who mistakenly thinks he’s hit the jackpot upon inheriting the apartment’s ownership in his father’s will.

Turns out what he owns is a “viager” arrangement which entitles Mathilde to residency and a sizeable monthly stipend until death. A slick condo developer has long been eyeing the prime property (which comes with a large adjoining garden), but there’s no quick-sale fortune to be had for the penniless Mathias. And when he learns about his father’s long-ago liaisons explaining his mother’s suicide attempts (ultimately successful), the relationship among the three gets a whole lot closer. Abandoning her married lover, Chloé especially appears in a new light — though obligingly for the story’s rose-coloured resolution, not a sisterly one. A slight affair but not without some charms.

A few last words about The Calling, a middling American thriller by Jason Stone filmed in the same bleak chilling Ontario landscape as Egoyan’s The Captive. A serial killer, Simon (Christopher Heyerdahl), is on the loose administering grotesque last rites to an apostle’s dozen of the chosen according to some twisted resurrection fantasy supposedly rooted in early Christian mysticism. It’s up to the police of the fictional Fort Dundas to solve the body count — a trio of chief Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon), by-the-book senior officer Ray Green (Gil Bellows), and gay greenhorn Ben Wingate (Topher Grace). I’d leave it behind except for a standout performance by Sarandon as Micallef, an alcoholic battling her demons who finds an inner strength up against death’s dark messenger.

 
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