Tag Archives: B+

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

Producer: David Thompson and Ed Rubin
Director: Ritesh Batra
Writer: Nick Payne
Stars: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Joe Alwyn, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, James Wilby, Edward Holcroft, Peter Wight, Hilton McRae, Jack Loxton, Timothy Innes and Andrew Buckley
Studio: CBS Films

B+

Very British and very literary, “The Sense of an Ending” isn’t your typical happy-at-the-end-of-the-day tale of elderly English eccentrics doing alternately naughty and silly things on the way to old-age contentment and camaraderie—the sort of stuff that pleases more mature American audiences at Sunday matinees and so has become a staple of Blighty’s film industry. Though its linchpin is a canny performance by Jim Broadbent as a grumpy septuagenarian who’s forced to learn some life lessons, Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ well-received novel is a more pungent affair entirely, though told with a degree of restraint that’s true to its pedigree.

Nick Payne’s screenplay shuffles together the two parts of the novel that were presented separately on the page. It opens with divorced retiree Tony Webster (Broadbent) getting up at the same time every morning to attend to his hole-in-the-wall shop specializing exclusively in vintage Leica cameras. A fussily hidebound, punctilious man who treats ancillary figures like the postman with an abruptness that’s less contemptuous than simply oblivious, he even seems vaguely ill-at-ease with his daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery), who’s having a child on her own and whom he almost apologetically accompanies to her birthing class.

Tony’s predictable existence is ruffled by the delivery of a letter from a lawyer, which he takes a good long time opening. When he gets around to doing so, it reveals that Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer), mother of his old high school flame Veronica (Freya Mavor), has died and left him a modest bequest—a small amount of money and something else that was supposed to be included with the letter but wasn’t. He eventually learns that the item is a diary written by a schoolmate named Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), whom—we learn in flashbacks—the young Tony (Billy Howle) looked up to (and perhaps had a crush on), and who later developed a relationship with Veronica that ended in his suicide.

The problem for persnickety (and perhaps obsessive) Webster is that Veronica, the executrix of her mother’s estate, refuses to hand over the diary. That induces Tony to ask his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter), a lawyer, for help, and to tell her the story of his time with Veronica and Adrian. When Margaret can—or simply will—offer no assistance, Tony takes it upon himself to seek his inheritance, eventually forcing a meeting with Veronica (now played by Charlotte Rampling), which, as a result of his further sleuthing (which both Margaret and Susie call stalking), reveals the existence of a mentally-challenged young man also named Adrian (Andrew Buckley), whom Tony takes to be the son Veronica had by Adrian, the unexpected pregnancy perhaps being the cause of his father’s suicide. That presumption links up with an incident from the boys’ school days, when Adrian challenged Mr. Hunt (Matthew Goode), their history teacher, about his discipline, arguing that historical reconstruction merely represents “the point where the imperfection of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation.” And the example he cited was the recent suicide of a classmate who, it was rumored, killed himself when he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant.

That, of course, provides the key to the puzzle at its center—how much truth there is there in Tony’s reconstruction of his own past? The title of Barnes’ book refers to a literary theory that relates to fiction being the means by which a person tries to make sense of his life, a means that involves suppression of unpleasant memories and the invention of positive excuses for his conduct. Margaret suggests that Tony isn’t giving her the full story about his relationship with Veronica and Adrian, and as it turns out, she’s right. As the narrative continues, the truth will emerge, but in sudden bursts of recollection. And as it turns out, Adrian’s diary is of no help—Veronica, whose anger with Tony is palpable, claims to have burned it. It is up to Webster, and by extension us, to work out what happened, while also tending to the needs of his daughter.

Completing the puzzle necessitates picking up clues that are strewn throughout the picture. What, for example, is the significance of the trip that young Tony takes to visit Veronica’s family—Sarah, her somewhat goofy husband David (James Wilby) and her smoothly handsome older brother (Edward Holcroft)? Tony will tell us, very quickly, in a montage at the close that’s curiously reminiscent of that in “The Usual Suspects,” but elsewhere Barnes and Payne seem intent on misleading us. Early on, for instance, there is a scene with a suspiciously inquisitive customer at Tony’s shop, but nothing comes of it. And the periodic digressions to demonstrate Webster’s fuddy-duddy personality seem intended to impede a resolution, most notably a sequence in which he enlists a couple of old classmates (emphasizing the adjective) in the search for answers, not only so that they can jog his memory about how Veronica and Adrian met, but so that they can teach him the mysteries of Google. One might also like a bit more information than the picture provides on Tony’s past. What was his profession, for example—or was his entire life devoted to the camera shop?

Still, despite a bit of frustration along the way, “The Sense of an Ending” is a film that challenges you to figure things out rather than have them spoon-fed to you, as is the usual practice nowadays. And it gives Broadbent, one of Britain’s most reliable character actors, the relatively rare opportunity to shine in a lead role worthy of his gifts. He brings a lifetime of experience to the part, adding little grace notes throughout that may be slightly hammy but make Webster a far more likable, multi-layered character than he might have been. He’s challenged, in the picture’s latter sections, by Rampling, whose fierceness teases out a measure of vulnerability in Broadbent that makes Tony even more human. They work brilliantly together. The rest of the performances are less exceptional, but all the cast contribute solid work, with Howle and Mavor in particular bringing soulfulness to the youthful Tony and Veronica.

With impeccable technical work from cinematographer Christopher Ross and production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and editing by John F. Lyons that manages to keep the tale’s chronological shifts reasonably clear, “The Sense of an Ending” might be too rarefied for many viewers, but for those with a bent for intellectually stimulating pieces with a literary bent—think Neil LaBute’s adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s “Possession”—this is a film to search out.

GET OUT

Producer: Scott McKittrick, Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm, Jr., and Jordan Peele
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Milton "Lil Rel" Howery, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson and Lakeith Stanfield
Studio: Universal Pictures

B+

Science-fiction and horror have long served as vehicles for social commentary, and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is a particularly biting example, as well as one that shows his gift for humor. Funny, creepy and thought-provoking at the same time, it’s a picture that transcends mere genre pigeonholing to become an outstanding blend of different elements.

That doesn’t mean it’s entirely original. One has to wonder whether Peele is a fan of Brian Yuzna’s 1989 “Society” and Wes Craven’s 1991 “The People Under the Stairs,” since there are echoes of both here. To their post-Reagan critique of socio-economic disparity, however, Peele adds a strong dose of racial politics, beginning with an opening prologue, reminiscent of the Trayvon Martin incident: Logan, a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) who’s searching for an address as he walks through a suburb at night, is abducted by an unseen fellow driving a white sports car. Viewers will encounter both the victim and the car again before long.

Cut to the city, where Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), an up-and-coming photographer, is getting ready for a first meeting with the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) at their elegant rustic home. There’s a bit of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” at work as Chris frets that Rose hasn’t told them that he’s black, but when they arrive—after an unhappy encounter with a deer on the road that reveals some casual racism on the part of the cop called in to investigate—Dean (Bradley Whitford, a neurosurgeon, and Missy (Catherine Keener), a therapist, couldn’t seem more welcoming, at least on the surface. To be sure, their comments reveal that they’re bending over backwards in oversensitivity to the situation, and Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is more abrasive, especially after he has a few at dinner. The unsettling behavior of the Armitages’ black staff—groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both of whom seem strangely addled—is also troubling.

Still, apart from Missy’s insistence on hypnotizing Chris to rid him of his addiction to cigarettes, all seems reasonably unthreatening until the next day, when a bevy of the Armitages’ friends arrive for an outdoor party. The affluent, almost completely white crowd seem incapable of talking with Chris without making some horrible gaffe—with the exception of blind art expert Jim Hunter (Stephen Root), who greatly admires his work. But the appearance of a much-changed Logan among the guests begins to reveal what dark secret is lurking beneath the apparently placid surface of the Armitage family estate.

It wouldn’t be fair to disclose what the secret is, or precisely how it centers on Chris. Suffice it to say that “Get Out” morphs gradually from weirdly off-kilter social satire to full-fledged horror in a way that suggests Peele’s appreciation not only of Yuzna’s “Society” but of Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” (which Yuzna produced) as well. The final reels include a good deal of violence and bloodletting while avoiding the over-the-top grossness that afflicts so many genre pictures nowadays, and one has to appreciate the care with which the script ties up the various threads that it has arranged over the course of the plot; this is one puzzle that actually fits together in the end.

Overemphasizing the horror elements of the picture, moreover, would downplay the fact that it also elicits plenty of chuckles and outright laughs. Many, especially in the early going, take aim at the absurdity of weak-kneed liberalism that pretends that ours is a post-racial society; Dean’s attempt to prove his bona fides by emphasizing that he voted for Obama is just the first of such well-meaning blunders. But there are also the periodic scenes stolen by Milton “Lil Rel” Howery as Rod, the best friend who regularly phones Chris to warn him, with a hysteria that comes to be quite reasonable, of the dangers of going to visit a white family. The fact that Rod is a TSA employee with delusions of grandeur—a fact made clear in a scene in which he visits the police to ask for their help in locating his friend—makes him all the more absurd, and amusing.

Peele secures expert performances from his cast, with Kaluuya anchoring the picture by playing Chris as an agreeable, anxious-to-please guy who becomes increasingly aware that he’s in imminent danger, and Williams making the most of a major character turn. Whitford and Keener bring an appropriate measure of not-quite-rightness to her parents, and Root adds a touch of malicious glee to his blind art dealer. Gabriel, Henderson and Stanfield are happily unafraid to go from creepily subdued to broadly over-the-top in the space of seconds, while Jones is suitably vile.

For a modestly-budgeted production—something typical of Blumhouse releases—“Get Out” looks fine, with widescreen cinematography by Toby Oliver that’s surprisingly traditional and slick editing by Gregory Plotkin. Michael Abels’ score, meanwhile, pretty much makes a joke of the “gotcha” moments that are part of the horror canon, like the sudden appearance of the deer and another quick-moving figure in early scenes, to which it adds a goofy shriek.

“Keanu,” Peele’s earlier movie with his erstwhile TV partner Keegan-Michael Key, might not have been a winner, but “Get Out” hits the bull’s-eye dead on.