Category Archives: Now Showing

ALOFT

Producer:  Jose Maria Morales, Ibon Cormenzana and Phyllis Lang
Director: Claudia Llosa 
Writer:  Claudia Llosa
Stars:  Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Melanie Laurent, William Shimell, Zen McGrath, Winta McGrath, Oona Chaplin, Peter McRobbie, Ian Tracey and Andy Murray
Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics

D

Claudia Llosa’s “Aloft” is set in the frigid north of Canada, and despite all the dramatics, mysticism and quasi-poetic metaphors it trades in, it’s likely to leave you cold—as well as bewildered. Despite the title, the ambitious but muddled picture never takes off.

Jumping back and forth in time, the story begins twenty-some years in the past, as Nana (Jennifer Connelly, who works in some sort of stockyard (we see her helping a pig give birth), brings her two children, Ivan (Zen McGrath) and Gully (Winta McGrath), to a remote site where a faith healer known as The Architect (William Shimell) has constructed a tunnel-like edifice of tree limbs. Holding a sort of lottery among the desperate families that have brought their ill children to see him, the healer selects one boy to enter the tunnel with him for a ritual laying on of hands—not, unhappily, Gully, whom we later learn has an inoperable brain tumor. Unfortunately, Ivan’s pet falcon—we’ll be told that he was instructed in falconry by his grandfather Peter McRobbie)—disrupts the ceremony by flying into The Architect’s construction and wreaking havoc there, leading one disgruntled father to kill the bird.

But the ritual had in fact been successful—not, however, because The Architect had laid hands on the boy’s eyes, but because Nana had done s while trying to protect him from the falcon. She, it appears, actually possesses healing powers, and will be pressured to use them. Curiously, it seems she never tries to cure Gully; instead, working with The Architect, she goes out into the woods to construct weird tree-swings as adjuncts to her efforts. (These wooden structures, it must be admitted, have a strange beauty to them, especially when set against the perpetually icy backgrounds.) It’s during one of these outings that a family tragedy strikes that will take her and Ivan onto different paths in their later lives.

Before that’s revealed, however, we’ve been introduced to the present-day Ivan (Cillian Murphy), a reclusive soul who has a wife (Oona Chaplin) and young son, but apparently spends most of his time in a shed out back where he breeds falcons. There he’s visited by Jannia (Melanie Laurent), a documentarian who claims to be working on a film about falconry but, as Ivan quickly divines, is actually seeking information about Nana’s whereabouts. Put off by this, he orders her to leave, but quickly changes him mind and demands to accompany her to the Arctic regions, where she’s discovered that Nana is plying her trade as a healer. During the journey Ivan and Jannia grow close, but on arriving at Nana’s remote outpost it becomes clear that they both have very different agendas.

It’s difficult to make out what Llosa is aiming for with this strange fable, which continually shifts from past to present to construct each part of the narrative like two puzzles being slowly assembled. The motivation of characters is often unclear, and their actions are frequently bizarre. Given that, it’s no surprise that the performances come across as forced and unfinished. Connelly evinces a generalized intensity, but is defeated by Nana’s opacity, while Murphy broods his way through the entire film; and while the kids are more open and natural, Laurent is defeated by the fact that Jannia is a painfully underdeveloped figure. The falconry motif is apparently meant to have some deep metaphorical meaning, but it’s hard to discern what it might be, though the birds themselves are impressive.

The picture has some visual power, too. The cold ambience, with the sound mix reflecting the crunching of snow and ice underfoot, is convincingly caught in Nicolas Bolduc’s luminous widescreen cinematography. One image of bodies floating beneath the surface of an ice-covered lake is particularly striking, with some of the same horrible beauty of the famous shot that Charles Laughton fashioned of Willa Harper’s submerged corpse in “The Night of the Hunter.” Another scene, in which the ice covering a frozen lake crackles and pops as the older Ivan tries to cross it, is genuinely scary. The Architect’s constructions also show considerable artistry. For the most part, however, the Llosa and her crew are satisfied with a gritty, cinema vérité look that comes across as pedestrian.

There may be some who will discern profundities in “Aloft” that will elude the vast majority of viewers. Most, however, will simply find it a largely incomprehensible story told in a painfully lugubrious, structurally fractured fashion.

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

Producer:  Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales and Dan Fogelman
Director:  Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Writer:  Jesse Andrews
Stars:  Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Connie Britton, Katherine Hughes, Matt Bennett and Masam Holden
Studio:  Fox Searchlight Pictures

B

Saying that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” involves two high-school outsiders and a classmate with leukemia might make it sound like a mawkish retread of “The Fault in Our Stars.” But Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film of Jesse Andrews’ novel (adapted by the author himself) skillfully walks a fine line between the precious and the maudlin, its initially excessive quirkiness morphing into something cheekily amusing and at times quite affecting.

Much of the film’s ability to overcome the extremely busy visual style that Gomez-Rejon and his cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung (as well as animators Nathan O. Marsh and Edward Bursch) bring to the material is due to the likable young cast, and especially Thomas Mann as Greg Gaines, a high school senior who’s skated through the preceding four years by affably maintaining decent relationships with all the campus cliques while belonging to none of them. In fact he has only one close friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), the childhood pal with whom he’s spent years indulging their joint love of cinema by making little movies spoofing classic films (complete with groan-inducing puns for titles), and whom he joins every day for lunch in the office of cool history teacher (and movie buff) Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). He also has unusual parents. His father (Nick Offerman) is a college professor who, being tenured, putters around the house all day indulging his taste in odd foods, which he insists on sharing with Greg and Earl.

But it’s Greg’s chirpy mother (Connie Britton) who starts the plot rolling by insisting that Greg visit Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a classmate he barely knows, who’s been diagnosed with cancer. He’s welcomed effusively by her mother Denise (Molly Shannon), though Rachel herself is at first not at all interested in being the recipient of his pity, however well-intentioned. But Greg’s awkward charm and goofy take on the world gradually overcome her resistance, and the two predictably develop a genial friendship, with Earl joining as part of what becomes a trio.

The movie becomes episodic, and at times it veers dangerously in the direction of over-cuteness. The adults never register beyond the level of sketch comedy, though they’re all agreeably played by talented farceurs. And Gomez-Rejon’s proclivity for a splashy style, abetted by Chung’s camerawork—he is, of course, the man whose virtuoso moves gave such visual razzmatazz to both the original “Oldboy” and “Stoker”—sometimes threatens to go too far, especially when Marsh and Brusch’s animated segments are added to the mix.

But “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” survives mostly unscathed, largely because the three leads keep it grounded in a semblance of reality and avoid the exaggerations that a story of this kind could so easily invite; the result could have stumbled pure coyness on the one hand or bathetic weepiness on the other. Cyler’s gruffly down-to-earth manner and Cooke’s ability to win sympathy without pleading for it are important factors. But despite their importance, the movie is largely dependent on Mann hitting the right notes, not only in performance but in his nearly ubiquitous voiceover. And he does: in his hands Greg is neither a complete geek nor a wiser-than-his-years adolescent. With all due allowance for the teen genre, Mann makes him a convincing example of a garrulous kid struggling his way toward a mature understanding of the world around him, including how to deal with real tragedy rather than the humdrum inconveniences of high school life.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will probably earn an unusually warm welcome among critics, who are going to find the comic expressions of Greg and Earl’s cinephilia in their terrible little video efforts especially amusing while more ordinary moviegoers might not even recognize some of the titles being parodied. They might also be more prone to appreciate the film’s frequently extravagant style, and its obvious homage to the high school pictures of John Hughes. But Gomez-Rejon, along with the cast and crew, have managed to make a movie that’s both warm and funny enough to satisfy the multiplex audience without degenerating into a crass farce or a sloppy tearjerker. In this day and age, that’s a considerable achievement.