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Unforgettable

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There’s trash, and then there’s good trash. “Unforgettable” falls into the latter category. Slick, glossy and radiating juicy villainy, it knows exactly what kind of movie it is and goes for it with giddy abandon.

The story of two beautiful women embroiled in a battle over the same blandly handsome man, it’s not a complete parody of the hair-pulling sexual thriller that was a staple of guilty-pleasure cinema in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and had a revival with 2009’s “Obsessed.” But veteran producer Denise Di Novi (“Heathers,” “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” “Crazy, Stupid, Love”), directing for the first time, takes this premise right to the border of knowing camp and delights in letting it simmer there.

I’m not saying it’s good. But I’ll admit that I had a good time.

And a good deal of that has to do with the performance from Katherine Heigl as a scorned divorcee out for revenge against her ex-husband’s new love. With her statuesque frame, platinum mane and icy stares, Heigl dominates her every scene in ways that are hilarious, frightening and hilariously frightening. Finally, this is the perfect use of her commanding on-screen presence; playing rom-com heroines in movies like “27 Dresses,” “The Ugly Truth” and “Life As We Know It” always seemed like a poor fit.

But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the depiction of both Heigl’s character, Tessa, and Rosario Dawson’s Julia seems uncomfortably outdated. “Unforgettable” portrays these women as vicious rivals, both seeking the love and approval of a rich hunk to make them feel validated, complete. But the script from Christina Hodson finds room to explore the origins of their insecurities as well as their feminine strength. And the depiction of perfect, judgmental mommies in a predominately white, wealthy, Pasadena-like town in Southern California isn’t too far off.

Mostly, though, “Unforgettable” is just nutty. This much is clear early on, when Julia cuts into her going-away cake as she prepares to leave the San Francisco online publishing company where she works. Di Novi takes the time to linger on the giant blade as it slices into the letter “L” in her name. We already know that a murder has taken place: Julia’s ex-boyfriend, whose abuse drove her to seek a restraining order and a new life, is now dead. But while the actual whodunit isn’t all that intriguing, the performances and the production values elevate this familiar, tawdry material.

Julia wants to leave her troubles behind and start over with her fiancé, David (Geoff Stults), whose chief desirable attribute seems to be that he’s even-tempered. There’s not much to him. But if he’s a Ken doll, his ex, Tessa is “psycho Barbie,” as one character describes her. This is the kind of movie in which people are constantly explaining themselves to each other—and explaining each other to each other. The expository dialogue may be clunky, but the zingers are choice.

Also not terribly subtle is the fact that Tessa and Julia are complete opposites, although the wardrobe selections from costume designer Marian Toy make that clear in inspired ways. Tessa is all stick-straight hair and monochromatic, form-fitting sheaths. She’s an equestrian, and she rides her horse with intense purpose. Julia, meanwhile, is all flowy, dark curls and boho-chic sundresses. She’s a former smoker with a hearty laugh.

“Unforgettable” never specifically addresses the fact that Julia is the only person of color in this idyllic, small town, but you can feel the implicit racism in the way Tessa and her prickly posse size her up with disdain. Dawson’s earthiness keeps the film from spiraling out of control into soapy territory, and she’s afforded the few, rare instances of genuine emotion here. She may actually be too good.

Anyway, Julia joins David and his sweet, 6-year-old daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice), in the family’s stately, Spanish-style house in the hills. (Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel gives all the interiors a creamy sheen that’s positively Nancy Meyers-worthy.) A former Wall Street financial guru, David is now pursuing his dream of launching a microbrewery; uptight Tessa was never impressed with that plan, but fun-loving Julia is down for whatever.

And it’s that obvious, vibrant connection between the two of them that makes Tessa seethe with jealousy. No bunnies get boiled in “Unforgettable,” but Tessa does engage in some elaborate, high-tech trickery. Her increasingly (and awesomely) ludicrous antics eventually result in the return of Julia’s ex-boyfriend (Simon Kassianides), albeit in rather distasteful fashion. It’s all laughs—for us, at least—until then.

But none of the men here are nearly as interesting as the women. Besides Heigl and Dawson, Cheryl Ladd is just deliciously evil as Tessa’s Botoxed and perfectly coifed mother, who will stop at nothing to ensure her daughter’s happiness. Ladd gets some of the film’s most prime, passive-aggressive lines (“Oh, you didn’t bake the scones?”) but her character’s incessant nitpicking also provides a window into what messed Tessa up so badly. And comedian Whitney Cummings does more with the obligatory, wisecracking-best-friend role than you might expect.

None of it is terribly memorable. But it’s fun while it lasts.

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Born in China

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Who exactly is Disney nature documentary “Born in China” for? The obvious answer is baby-animal-loving kids and their parents (sorry, stoners!). But realistically, much of “Born in China,” which revolves around four animal families as they face challenges together, is for parents. The film patly confirms what “The Lion King” already taught ’90s kids: we should take comfort in knowing that everything in life is natural when seen as part of the “circle of life,” as surprisingly effective voiceover narrator John Krasinski reminds us. Animals live, die, grow apart, and then come together again: all of these major changes are completely normal. 

Still, if children are supposed to learn anything from “Born in China,” it’s only because the film conforms to the Heisenberg Parenting Principle: the act of being observed by your parents means that you act differently. This is a movie designed to teach kids life lessons that are inoffensive and trite enough to pass muster with mom and dad. It’s a film that anthropomorphizes animals’ actions for the sake of applauding the sacrifice of parents like snow leopard Dawa, the ferocious mother of two cubs, and panda Ya Ya, the over-protective mother of Mei Mei. The film doesn’t offer anything new, and doesn’t stop pushing “Family” until even the cutest animal seems to be lecturing you to listen to your parents.

Throughout “Born in China,” animals’ lives are ostensibly made more relatable through voiceover narration that establishes sentimental character arcs for each group of animals. There’s the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, a group of animals whose stories are limited to child-birth, child-rearing, and child-saving (from hungry wolves). Next there’s the golden-snubbed nose monkeys, a group defined by playful young male Tao Tao’s rejection and reunion with the family he runs away from in order to hang out with a group of fairweather male monkey friends called “The Lost Boys.” Dawa protects and feed her cubs, and Mei Mei tries to break free of her mom long enough to climb up a tree. 

All four of these stories serve to reassure parents. Sure, there are scenes that tell kids that they are ultimately the masters of their own destinies, but these moments are fleeting since everything boils down to “family comes first, and without them you are nothing.” The chiru are a unit: they escape from peril together, and are never defined as individual members. Tao Tao’s dalliance with the Lost Boys ends after he realizes he can’t keep warm during the winter with a bunch of selfish monkeys, and now must run back home to his family. Dawa struggles to feed her cubs after she injures herself; the cubs are completely useless, and just cower behind her at a distance. And Ya Ya seems to exist only to feed and look on admiringly as Mei Mei rolls around and tries to get into a tree (any tree).

Never mind that these are animals, not people that we’re talking about. If we accept “Born in China” as being as educational as an after-school special—but with baby animals!—then surely we can judge the film based on its life lessons and the way it relates them. Through over-edited footage of animals running, jumping, and climbing around their natural environments, we see a microcosm of characters who are entirely defined by their co-dependence on each other. There’s a weird tension between the lesson that you’re supposed to learn, and the way the animals’ juxtaposed stories teach you those lessons. Be independent like Mei Mei, but don’t be surprised if you find the world outside of your family to be full of perils, like the chiru’s wolfy foes, the antagonistic snow leopards that try to steal Dawa’s turf, or the Lost Boys who don’t really care for anyone but themselves. 

That kind of pseudo-balanced consideration of life’s cyclical changes makes it hard to just turn off your mind, and laugh at inoffensive animal pratfalls, or mindlessly coo at the sight of baby animals yawning. “Born in China” is not necessarily kiddie propaganda since it’s a Disney documentary, but that’s no excuse for its creators’ lazy attempts at pandering to parental viewers. If you’re so delusional as to think that cute animals will convince your kids to trust you implicitly, then you ought to save your money, and save up for a good wine cellar. Forget the nature doc: you’re going to need plenty of libations for the lonely, child-free years ahead of you.

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The Promise

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The Belfast-born writer and director Terry George is most at home in settings where there are troubles, and sorry about the unintentional play on words. With director Jim Sheridan he crafted two of the most searing and memorable films about his homeland and its tortured history, 1993’s “In the Name of the Father” and 1997’s “The Boxer,” both starring Daniel Day-Lewis. When he’s been behind the camera himself, he hasn’t chosen rom-coms: his 1998 HBO movie “A Bright Shining Lie” treated the Vietnam debacle from a particular military perspective, and 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda” took a focused look at one man’s action against the Rwandan genocide. Even George’s little-seen 2007 domestic tragedy “Reservation Road” had a larger point about societal ills animating its core.

With “The Promise,” George, co-writing with Robin Swicord, treats the Armenian genocide of the early part of the 20th century, an action undertaken by the soon-to-be-displaced Ottoman Empire, as a side exercise in its alliance with Germany as World War I was about to break out. Well over a million souls were killed in this action, which the contemporary Turkish government still declines to acknowledge. Indeed, the recent movie “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” set in the same period as this one, is produced in part by Turkish interests and has several scenes in which there’s a pronounced “whatever Armenians WERE killed kind of had it coming” vibe. And this film has been preemptively down-voted on IMDb by Armenian genocide deniers. One nice thing about George is that when he takes on a subject, he doesn’t flinch or back down about the truths he needs to convey. But it’s hard to deny that in some respects, “The Promise” takes a long way to getting around to the meat of the story.

George and Swicord have chosen to focus the story around a love triangle. Young Mikael Boghosian, an apothecary from a village in Southern Turkey, betroths himself to a young woman from a family of means in order to go to Constantinople to attend medical school. At the house of the well-off relative with whom he’s lodging, he meets the beautiful Anna, an artist who’s also Armenian. Anna is married to Chris Myers, a committed American journalist who’s also a hard-headed hard drinker. You see where this is going.

As Mikael, Oscar Isaac doesn’t settle into his role right away, perhaps because for a while there isn’t much of a role to settle into. He is the embodiment of goodness, of earnestness. Making a friend at the institute where he’s enrolled, the fellow student asks “So you’ve already studied medicine?” and Mikael answers, “Yes, it’s my passion,” and all the ingenuousness Isaac can bring to bear on the character doesn’t rescue the line. Once he admits his passion to Anna, he also reminds himself and her that he is indeed promised to another. Anna, in an excellent portrayal by Charlotte Le Bon, is the one who winds up pushing the issue. If Christian Bale’s performance as Chris has the most vigor and intelligence, it’s at least in part because the troubled character himself has those traits in the most abundance. Alliances are formed, trusts are broken, and then history intrudes; these three characters lose and find each other time and again as war destroys everything around them in each of the environments they travel to.

For Mikael, that’s initially a prison camp, where after a depiction of the depredations of hard labor, a dramatic incident involving “weeping” dynamite affords him his escape. He then returns to his village, where he does marry Maral, the young woman he’d left behind; the couples’ families hide them in a mountain cabin, and Mikael grows to love his bide. The theme of the good man who becomes a devoted husband while secretly loving another from afar is reminiscent of “Doctor Zhivago.” But while Anna and Myers take up resistance to the Armenian “evacuations” at a Protestant Mission, the Turkish exterminators are rampaging.

The movie hits its cinematic stride, as it happens, when events are at their worst. “The Promise” is drenched in production value and replete with ravishing shots of sunrises and sunsets, but it’s in the scenes of fleeing, of battle, and of horrendous loss that the film is at its most effective. The depiction of the savagery inflicted on Armenia is bracing. George is determined to make his story as much about the dead as about the fictional survivors. It’s in that respect that “The Promise” earns its unsettling honor. 

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The Student

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Certain discontents of contemporary Russia get a fascinating, provocative treatment in Kirill Serebrennikov’s “The Student,” the tale of a high school boy who disrupts his school and home as he falls deeper and deeper into religious mania.

In certain moments, the film displays a daring that’s bound to strike some viewers as extraordinarily nervy. In scenes early and late in the story—which obviously reflects a displeasure with the increasing prominence of state-sanctioned religion in Russia—characters make bold statements while standing beneath a portrait of Vladimir Putin, a gesture of stinging commentary that makes you wonder if the filmmaker is not pushing the envelope of what’s permitted in Russian cinema.

The main character’s slide begins innocuously enough. A slender and good-looking if often sullen teen, Venya (Petr Skvortsov) tells his harried single mom (Julia Aug) that he’s gotten in trouble at school for refusing to don a bathing suit and take part in mixed swimming classes. She asks what’s wrong. Is he ashamed of his body? Does he get unwanted erections being close to girls in bikinis? No, he says; it’s against his religion. “What religion?” she scoffs.

But he’s not kidding. At school, he begins declaiming passages from a tattered Bible he carries around with him. Girls showing so much of their bodies incites lust and encourages sin: that’s the problem, he avers. Interestingly, his arguments aren’t dismissed out of hand by everyone. While young teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), evidently the faculty’s most liberal member, rolls her eyes at Venya’s crusade, the principal (Svetlana Bragarnik) muses that maybe teen girls wearing bikinis is too provocative. Perhaps they should wear less revealing bathing suits.

As this might suggest, one of the strongest aspects of “The Student” is that, while its view of Venya’s beliefs is decidedly skeptical, it doesn’t ridicule him or suggest that others are immune to his Biblical zealotry. As he becomes more vocal, he gains one disciple. A crippled boy named Grigory (Aleksandr Gorchilin), who’s taunted and abused by the other kids, accepts Venya’s friendship and allows him to try some spiritual healing on him. He also develops a crush that will become very problematic.

Though everything Venya proclaims is offered with Bible quotes to back it up, his faith is clearly of his own making, and of a stronger potency than more conventional varieties. When an Orthodox priest tries to engage him in dialogue, the boy shows his fierce contempt for forms of faith less ferocious and uncompromising than his own.

But his greatest opponent is Elena, who develops a mild form of mania herself when Venya’s challenges prod her to spend most of her spare time reading up on Christianity in order to refute his arguments. And it’s her biology class that enrages him most. When she teaches that homosexuality is a natural expression of sexuality, and tries to demonstrate the use of condoms with carrots, he strips naked and storms through the classroom ranting against her until the principal runs in to stop the commotion.

When the subject is evolution, Venya stages his classroom rampage dressed in a gorilla suit—shades of “Toni Erdmann”—and scores a victory of sorts when the principal, intervening yet again, wonders if the school perhaps should teach the Biblical account of creation alongside Darwin’s ideas.

Elena remains commendably sanguine through many such insults to reason—until she explodes under that portrait of Putin that all this servile Father worship will inevitably lead to a “totalitarian dictatorship”—but her defenses of homosexuality, feminism and evolution are not finally what light Venya’s fuse. It’s when he discovers that she’s Jewish that he decides she must be stopped, and the deep ugliness of his crusade becomes undeniable as well as physically dangerous.

Though it has elements of satire and moments of comedy, “The Student”—which, at two hours, could stand to be a bit shorter—is a serious, sharply mounted drama that gets more engrossing as it moves along. Serebrennikov’s writing is smart and flavorful, and he gets terrific performances from his cast (the older actors are all Russian screen stars). The director also has a very distinctive style, using extended takes and fluid handheld camerawork that makes the most of Vladislav Opelyants’ attractively naturalistic photography. In all, the film may be the strongest piece of Russian cinema to reach the U.S. since “Leviathan” two years ago.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Henrietta Lacks is one of those people who greatly impacted your life and you don’t even know her name. What’s even more fascinating about her story is that she didn’t even know how much good she would do in the world after she died. In 1951, after having five children, Lacks discovered that she had cervical cancer, from which she would pass away at a tragically young age of 31. Without the knowledge of Henrietta or her family, tissue from the tumor that killed her was taken from her body and essentially made immortal at Johns Hopkins. For decades, scientists there had been trying to grow a cell line on which the medical industry could experiment in ways that they couldn’t do with living people. Henrietta Lacks was the key that unlocked the door, leading to decades of medical advancements, including developments in the treatment of polio, Parkinsons, influenza, leukemia, and many more. With the cells named HeLa, most of the world had no idea that it was the biological property of a Virginia mother who changed the world.

George C. Wolfe’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” premiering on HBO tomorrow night, tells Henrietta’s (Renee Elise Goldsberry) story. Sorta. It also tells the story of journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne), the woman who spent a decade researching this strange story and wrote the bestselling book on which this film is based. Sorta. It also tells the story of Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey), Henrietta’s daughter, who has become somewhat obsessed and damaged by the saga of her mother and how little she feels like she knows about a woman who has somehow become the property of the world. Any one of these stories could have worked on their own, but the awkward blending of all three doesn’t work. Rebecca becomes little more than an unnecessary sounding board for Deborah, who could have anchored the story on her own. And, worst of all, it feels like we get to know the woman writing this tale more than the person it’s about. At one point, someone says “This story is crazy enough for three books!” Which makes it both too much and not quite enough for one film.

The Lacks family saga is an amazing one. Not only did Henrietta grow up a young mother without much to her name, but her family tree developed fascinating subplots after her death. Deborah’s obsession with her mother makes her the natural leading lady of this story, but we also meet the aggressive Zakariyya (Reg E. Cathey), a man hardened by a criminal lifestyle into which he might not have fallen if he knew more about his mother. The entire Lacks family becomes bitter and angry over a system that essentially took part of a mother they never really got to know, without anyone’s permission. They became downright paranoid about it, convinced both that John Hopkins had made millions to which they were owed and even that they might have cloned Henrietta. Courtney B. Vance appears as a slimy attorney who tries to take advantage of the Lacks’ family drama.

If it sounds like a lot of movie for 91 minutes, you’re not wrong. There is a socially relevant subtext here about how easy it was for the medical industry to take advantage of minorities, and often for little reason at all, other than they could. Would Henrietta Lacks have given her cells for research? Probably, but no one even asked. And John Hopkins would continue to deceive the Lacks family. Wolfe’s movie seeks to humanize someone who became immortal. It takes someone who became huge in the world of science and shows us who she was, the life she led, and the family she left behind.

Then why isn’t this her story? We see flashbacks to Henrietta, but Wolfe and his team chose to make this the story of a daughter “finding” her mother instead, and it truly feels like we never really find Henrietta as viewers. It’s about a woman who never knew her mother, and so it feels like something that was given to the rest of the world was stolen from her. That’s powerful drama, but the storytelling approach here diffuses it. Nothing feels invested in long enough to register because the narrative is constantly jumping around, almost as if it’s scared there’s not enough story here to carry a film.

Thank God for great casting. Winfrey is typically fantastic, finding the emotional undercurrent of a child who just wants to hold on to what she can when it comes to her mother. Cathey and Vance are spectacular in small roles. Only Byrne seems adrift, but that’s a problem of direction and writing. Typically underrated, she is sometimes downright distracting here, giving an overdone performance designed to be the straight man to the oddity of Deborah. As great as it is that Rebecca helped bring this story into the light, her story is thin, and not only because it once again feels like we’re hearing the story of a minority family through the eyes of a white protagonist.

Henrietta Lacks was a mortal. She was a sister and mother who died way too young, and did more for the world after she died than she ever could have imagined. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” does its most good by bringing the full name back to HeLa. With such a unique, decades-long story, perhaps it’s only appropriate that it’s going to take more than one movie before we really get to know her.

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Tramps

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“Tramps” director Adam Leon once said something in an interview that I will never forget. While talking about his gritty debut film “Gimme the Loot,” about two young graffiti writers wanting to tag a New York City landmark, Leon said that his goal was making someone’s favorite movie of the year. That’s quite a novel idea that only interesting filmmakers could accomplish—to make something that speaks to a viewer so directly, it essentially fulfills what they need, what they’ve been yearning to see. And it proves a fitting statement coming from Leon, given that he’s made a direct companion piece to “Gimme the Loot” with “Tramps,” which has a similar urban verve, style and even more sweetness. But while “Tramps” may be inspired and unusual, it’s hard to shake off the idea that Leon isn’t just making the film he wants to see, he’s riffing on himself.  

Like “Gimme the Loot,” “Tramps” concerns two young people in New York City, getting into an odyssey well over their heads and placing themselves into some mischief. This time it’s Callum Turner’s Danny and Grace Van Patten’s Elle, as their meet-cute is a simple, profitable and possible crime. Pick up a suitcase, make an exchange, get paid later. Danny is doing it to help out his recently incarcerated brother, and we soon find out that Elle is doing it to start her unsatisfactory life anew. As strangers to one another, neither know what is in the suitcase. Still, the stakes of a payday causes enough nervous energy for the both of them, especially when Danny leaves the bag at the wrong spot, and the wrong person takes it. 

Despite that mystery, this movie is more about mischief than danger. It gets a lot of mileage out of what could be in that suitcase, but since comedian Mike Birbiglia is cast in the movie to more or less play his persona, whilst wearing baggy khaki shorts, you get pretty comfortable that the bag probably doesn’t contain anything like Marcellus Wallace’s soul or even a murder weapon. Like how “Gimme the Loot” had one member of its graffiti-tagging duo walk around the city in socks, “Tramps” prefers innocence. Credit goes to the nifty script by Leon (who co-wrote the story with Jamund Washington), which keeps the story active with jolts of stressful bad luck or completely surprising good luck, all while adhering to the logic the story has set for itself. Throughout their journey, as they search for the rural woman who might have their bag while realizing they might maybe kind of like each other, neither Danny or Elle have anything intriguing to say, but they are fun as a pair. And it’s warming to see them enter into the boonies as a type of new reality, where they role-play relationship life by breaking into a fancy home and bike away wearing the owners’ clothes. Still, it’s “Tramps”’ attitude to be short and sweet that proves definitive, vital. 

“Tramps” has a “La La Land”-level nostalgia for the filmmaking of numerous gritty NYC movies from the ’70s, and achieves a similar effect, where it comes off as old-school with a level of charm wholly reliant on individual taste. When recreating New York’s bustling and behemoth qualities, Leon uses slow zooms onto two actors who are hundreds of feet away, while their dialogue is captured as if we were eavesdropping on them. This is the kind of film that seems excited about unintentional extras in the background glaring into the camera, whereas productions of similar size but previous eras and lesser filmmaking technology took that fourth-wall breaking as a budgetary sacrifice. “Tramps” specifically yearns for a scrappy and practical look but edges on tacky vintage, especially as its narrative becomes one splash of water away from losing its grit or one wrong music cue from being too twee. 

Also like “La La Land,” “Tramps” is a time capsule narrative experiment, in service of a romance that is equally sweet and stubbornly old fashioned. For example, Danny and Elle have fluffy banter at a carnival, while a gorgeous big band-like tune plays in the background. Framed like a dream away from their urban realities, it works. And yet later on, Danny insists to Elle, “I don’t want the girls in my building,” as if “Tramps” was taking place in a century where people only met and fell in love with those in their neighborhood. All of this whimsy seems to be part of Leon’s goal, especially as he wraps them tighter and tighter together using an admirably constructed tone, but it’s just not that interesting of a goal. It is cute, though. 

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The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

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Like Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” this is a movie about a boxer. Like Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” this is a movie about a boxer that was shot in black-and-white. Like Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” this is a movie about a boxer that was shot in black and white and that is not a “boxing movie” despite being a movie about a boxer and having a fair amount of authentic-looking boxing recreations in it.

And all these similarities notwithstanding, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki,” a Finnish film that’s the debut feature from director Juho Kuosmanen, is the antithesis of “Raging Bull.” Perhaps all the similarities are there to underscore that point. Because Olli Mäki, the real-life boxer on whose biggest match this movie is based, is the antithesis of Jake LaMotta, the real-life basis of “Raging Bull.” Olli, a compact lightweight boxer played by the appealing Jarkko Lahti, is not a fellow prone to violence, battling inner demons and sexual jealousy. As his manager and hypeman Elis contends, he’s a simple baker from Kokkola who’s going to put Finland on the map by fighting the American featherweight Davey Moore, who’s coming to Helsinki for the bout.

But in the weeks prior to the big match, Olli finds himself strangely distracted. The movie opens with him driving his steadily dysfunctional little automobile to his girlfriend’s place, only to learn that their date that night is to attend a wedding, for which he’s not dressed. To top off the harriedness, his car breaks down for good. So Olli balances his sweet, pretty girlfriend Raija (Oona Airola) on the handlebars of a bicycle and off they go. The long, steady shot of the couple calmly gliding down the road has a lyricism that’s the basis of the movie’s rhythm.

Not all is placid for so long. Olli then makes his way for Helsinki, with Raija in tow. Manager Elis is putting them up in his place—they have to sleep in the bunk beds that usually belong to his kids. The big money and accommodations of boxing have not yet come to Helsinki, it seems. Elis was once a boxer himself, and he’s constantly trying to sell Olli on the glamour that accrues to a champion, swearing to his acolyte that the day Elli won a particular championship was “the happiest day of my life.”

But Elis is not an ideal mentor. He has set up Olli in any number of sponsorship schemes, and is constantly insisting the socially ill-at-ease and naïve boxer perform like a trained monkey at photo shoots and dinners. There’s also the matter of weight, which Olli tries to explain to a friend in one of the movie’s funniest scenes. Olli is most comfortable as a lightweight, but Elis, in order to get the bout with Moore, has ordered Olli to trim down to featherweight, which Olli is hard-pressed to do. Not least because of the epiphany that hits him like a thunderbolt during a press conference at which he can’t stop looking at Raija smiling at him from the back of the room. He is truly in love, he decides then. And he makes the mistake of confiding to Elis about it.

Resentment and backbiting ensue. Raija is compelled to take a train back to Kokkola, and Elis is revealed to be spending money on promoting the match far faster than he can accrue actual revenue from it, compelling HIS wife to kick him out of the house. A scene in which Elis has to beg a consortium of promoters for expense money as his kids wait in the car in a torrential downpour, and then one of said kids wanders into the building because he needs a bathroom, is one of the movie’s most cringeworthy hilarious set pieces. It all builds up to the title event, a day that is the happiest not because of the outcome of the fight.

This movie won an award in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes last year, and was also Finland’s entry for consideration for a 2016 Academy Award. For all that, I should warn some readers that this is a movie that’s laid back to what many would consider a fault. Its portrayal of Olli Mäki’s ordinary-guyness risks making him ordinary to the point of invisibility. The movie doesn’t hammer too hard on its ostensible theme that what one may be good at doesn’t always define what one is. In this case, Olli is a reasonably skilled boxer whose temperament is antithetical to what one needs to be a great boxer. Which is not brutishness but single-mindedness. Lacking that single-mindedness with respect to boxing, Olli concludes that all he needs is love. A lesson for our time? I can only hope. 

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Slack Bay

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“Slack Bay,” a black comedy set in the picture-esque French countryside during the summer of 1910, is a mystery that isn’t especially mysterious, and a comedy that isn’t all that funny. This is a deliberate strategy rather than a failure of imagination. For starters, writer/director Bruno Dumont reveals to viewers—within the first 20 minutes!—the fate and the culprits behind a series of disappearances that plague the film’s title location. Dumont (“Hadewijch,” “The Life of Jesus”) also sucks the air out of a number of broad slapstick gags, using long takes and medium-range photography that reminds viewers that what they’re watching isn’t supposed to be funny in a laugh-out-loud way. Dumont’s characters’ motives are consequently hard to divine, despite convincingly twitchy performances from French actors Fabrice Luchini and Juliette Binoche. So while I do recommend “Slack Bay,” I must warn you: this is a misanthropic comedy that features cannibalism, weird religious overtones, and a lot of goony pratfalls. The film’s charms are substantial, but what makes “Slack Bay” so original and enticing is also what makes it fairly alienating.

Dumont, who is more interested in characters than plot, follows three groups, each defined by their limitations. First, there’s the Van Peteghem family, a group of slow-witted, inbred artistocrats who vacation in Slack Bay every summer. The Van Peteghems love the countryside and are quick to gush over its natural beauty. They’re also quick to flail their arms, and goggle their eyes whenever something unexpected or improper seems to happen (ex: they’re constantly silencing their outspoken maid Nadege). Next, there’s bumbling police Inspectors Machin (Didier Despres) and Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), two clueless police officers who tellingly wear the same matching suit and bowler hat combination as Laurel and Hardy (or maybe Thompson and Thompson, from Hergé’s famous Tintin comic books). Malfoy is just as blinkered as the Van Peteghems, but he’s not nearly as clumsy as Machin, an obese buffoon who frequently trips or falls over because he’s oblivious of his own surroundings. Finally, there’s the Bruforts, a family of poor mussel-gatherers  who keep to themselves, and are quickly (again: 20 minutes!) revealed to be thuggish cannibals (more on this shortly, promise).

Any description of “Slack Bay” must make it sound exhaustingly nihilistic. After all, the Bruforts and Van Peteghems are both defined by broad stereotypes: the rich Van Peteghems are oblivious and shrill while the poor Bruforts are withdrawn and un-introspective. This divide is best illustrated by the differences between the Brufort and Van Peteghem children. The Bruforts have four boys who, save for atypically 18-year-old Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), are quick to start fights and play pranks on everyone while the Van Peteghem girls, led by bold Billie (Raph), are flirtatious but remote. 

But Ma Loute and Billie defy their respective families’ clannishness by developing a romantic bond in the shadow of the Inspectors’ ongoing (and completely ineffectual) investigation. It’s an unusually tender relationship defined by innocent flirting and adolescent awkwardness, though both characters exemplify and are victims of their families’ close-mindedness. The Van Peteghems see the world through the lens of progress: goofy patriarch Andre (Luchini) marvels at the growth of nearby wisteria, but his wife Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) poo-poos him, saying that “That’s the nature of things: they grow.” Andre is also quick to dismiss Machin when he explains that his wife is also his cousin (once-removed): man, woman, family, outsiders—it’s all the same to the privileged. Ma Loute is also a product of his insular, incurious family. When asked what his name means, he shrugs. And when Billie remarks with awe about the beauty of the surrounding country-side, he shrugs, and tells her that it’s nothing special. 

Still, according to the logic of “Slack Bay,” both characters are right. This marriage of gorgeous landscape photography, and psychologically simple protagonists is a Dumont specialty. Ma Loute—technically the film’s title character since the original French title is “Ma Loute”—and Billie are compelling because they’re outcasts. They try to break free of their normal programming in order to be something other than what they already are. 

But Dumont also lavishes so much attention on the inhuman Van Peteghems and Bruforts because he finds their ugliness fascinating, too. They’re fundamentally obvious characters who think they’re more complex than they are. They’re as dumb and klutzy and ugly as they seem, but their inability to see that is what makes them more than just hateful caricatures. Dumont’s longer-than-average takes make viewers feel time passing: these aren’t just objects of pity, or condescension, but rather a pessimist’s idea of humanity’s struggle to transcend their more abject qualities. “Slack Bay” is, in that sense, a deceptively spiritual film. It just happens to be about incestuous snobs, and man-eating hicks. 

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