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Mid-August Movie Takes

It’s the mid-summer doldrums and there’s mostly dross at the multiplex.  But here are five movies worth a look.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (U.S. 2019
Beyond being a devoted fan of director Richard Linklater, I was predisposed to like this latest effort, a sparkling adaptation of the eponymous 2012 bestseller by Maria Semple.  Back in March 2018 I had a brief chat with Linklater during Austin’s South By Southwest festival when he was in production on the film (principal photography began in 2017 and the theatrical release date has been pushed back several times).  I’ve also been in Port Lockroy on the Antarctic peninsula, a tiny British outpost with the world’s southernmost post office, where one of the scenes is set.  Indeed the movie opens with an overhead of kayaks amid awesome icebergs, anticipating the developments of the last half hour.
            First we meet the central characters, a Seattle-based family of three.  Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett)—she’s in one of the kayaks—is a chronically anxious insomniac with annoyingly antisocial behaviors.  Years ago she was a rising star architect in L.A. but now she’s in a compulsive creative drought unwisely communicating with a virtual assistant (that turns out to be fake and an identity thief). Bernadette does, however, dote on bright teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) while understanding husband Elgin Branch (Billy Crudup), a tech guru, gamely tries to maintain a balance, bringing in a therapist Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer).  Bee, whose been reading up on Antarctic explorers (my Antarctic expedition in 2000 followed the route of the legendary Sir Ernest Shackleton), proposes a family trip to Antarctica. As Bernadette careens from one unhappy situation to the next—one with exasperated neighbor Audrey (Kristin Wiig) involves a mudslide—such a venture seems unlikely, until that is, the remote continent becomes the ultimate solo escape.  But St. Bernadette be praised, the family threesome are reunited on an Antarctic research station where Bernadette has found a calming purpose that revives her talent for designing structures. 
            I won’t give more away of the pleasures of this very talky picture.   Linklater is known for his touch with actors and feel for the rhythms of dialogue … again much in evidence here notwithstanding the fictional improbabilities of the storyline.  Go see it!  A-   
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (U.S. 2018
Pamela B. Green’s fascinating documentary, which premiered at the 2018 Cannes film festival, will be a revelation, not just to movie nerds, in restoring one of the great female pioneers of early cinema to her rightful place.  Jodie Foster narrates what is both a tribute to Alice, including clips from restored films along with archival interviews, and a detective story gathering clues to her cinematic career. Alice went from being a secretary to Léon Gaumont, to becoming head of production in 1897 and then a prolific filmmaker and innovator in her own right.  After marriage and a move to the U.S. she even headed her own studio “Solax” in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was the hub of a fledgling American movie industry before a famous dispute with Edison prompted a move to California and the rise of Hollywood. The title “Be Natural” comes from Alice’s message to actors that was inscribed in her studio.  Although it and her role faded into obscurity, the visionary influence of such women merits a prominent place in movie history.  A
Of the Affleck brothers, the younger Casey is definitely the most talented.  But after his deserved best actor Oscar for Manchester By the Sea he retreated to a low profile following allegations of inappropriate behavior with women (never mind the seeming impunity enjoyed by the current occupant of the White House, a boastful serial sexual predator).  Casey is back on screen, as writer-director-producer of this low-key dystopian fable that (similar to 2018’s Leave No Trace) revolves around a father-daughter bond escaping civilization.  Except in this case a mysterious plague has wiped out most of the world’s female population and the father is determined to protect his young daughter, nicknamed “Rag” (Anna Pniowsky) and disguised as a young boy, from other male intruders. We know this only from glimpses of newspaper reports and the briefest of flashbacks with Rag’s late mother (Elisabeth Moss).  Devoted Dad (Affleck with an unkempt mane and heavy beard) invents stories for Rag as they camp in damp autumnal woods (mostly filmed in British Columbia). A brief respite in an abandoned house is followed by a wintery journey to his grandmother’s house now occupied by three older men. But indoors or out, the menace of discovery by others is constant and this father is determined to fight for his daughter.  For all its strangeness and minimalist scenario, the movie casts a haunting spell. B+  
The Art of Self-Defence (U.S. 2019
Jesse Eisenberg has a knack for playing slightly off-kilter characters.  In writer-director Riley Stearns odd drama he plays Casey, a dweeby accountant and easily ignored anti-macho sort who lives alone with an equally mild-mannered small dog, a dachshund, while trying to teach himself French.  Then after being violently assaulted by a motorcycle gang, a beaten curious Casey enters a karate studio run by an instructor named Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and is drawn into an increasingly dark and hardcore world that is all male except for the driven brown-belt Anna (Imogen Poots).  Brutal night classes lead to a loss, a terrible revelation, and a lethal result. In this lesson of self-defence, Casey’s transformation from underdog to alpha dog is complete. B+    
Ask Dr. Ruth (U.S. 2019
Now in her 90s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, America’s most famous and frank sex therapist, remains an irrepressible force of nature whose zest and disarming manner are captured by director Ryan White in this absorbing portrait.  Born Karola Siegel in Germany to Jewish parents, she had a fortunate escape from the Holocaust by being sent to a Swiss orphanage but lost her family. She then spent time in Palestine before pursuing studies in Paris and later emigrating to the U.S. where she earned a doctorate and met her third husband Fred Westheimer with whom she had a son and daughter. Dr. Ruth worked with Planned Parenthood, but it was her groundbreaking and taboo-breaking 1980 radio program “Sexually Speaking” that became a hit and would introduce her to a mass audience. Watching this tiny woman with the easy laugh, we get a sense of how she has been able to connect with people over the course of a remarkable life and career.  A-


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