‘The Sense of an Ending’
How do you film an unfilmable novel? Pack it silly with great English actors! Tackling Julian Barnes’ 2011 award-gobbler is a fool’s errand, with its unreliable narrator and gradually parsed out backstory and flashbacks that may or may not be on the level. Alain Resnais would have nailed it. Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”) does not, but he puts in a solid effort. It’s not just the casting agent who deserves credit; Batra and screenwriter Nick Payne work hard to retain the subtlety and fuzzy nuances of the source, ensuring something more complex than seen in its groaning trailer.
Jim Broadbent is at peak powers as an anti-social curmudgeon prompted by an acquaintance’s death to recall his wild youth of heartache and selfish destruction. “Ending” is being sold as a typical English middlebrow bonanza, and sometimes it plays that way. But more often than not it stays messy, not reductive. It’s messy in other ways, too, yet it’s still a procession of great scenes with great actors, in particular Harriet Walker as our hero’s ex-wife. Called on to perform the unenviable task of sitting there as Broadbent tells her about his past — cue epic flashback blocks! — she helps make these potentially thumb-twiddling scenes flirty, lively and funny. (Charlotte Rampling, as the older version of an old flame, is also at her cagey best.) And yet of course it has no idea how to end.
It aspires to Old Testament brutality, but “Brimstone” is closer to a dimestore trash novel you tear through while a candle burns. The tale unfolds over four, non-chronological chapters. Dakota Fanning plays a tongue-less frontier woman who mysteriously catches the ire of a traveling preacher (Guy Pearce). When he guts her husband and burns down her house, we flash back to find out the jaw-dropping reasons why. Eventually we go back to the future to see what other horrors lie in wait.
“Brimstone” isn’t the most gruesome of the new rash of extreme Westerns; at least no one gets lovingly disemboweled a la “Bone Tomahawk.” But the WTF depravities and twists come early and often, usually involving man’s inhumanity to woman. It’d be a Steve Bannon wet dream, except that Fanning’s mute hero always rises up, always eludes a villain who’s like a Trump appointee crossed with the Terminator. Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven gives the story the space and the precision and the bold imagery it deserves, though the movie really earns its keep with yet another fine, contained performance from its former child star. The older Fanning has been raking up a long list of quietly killer turns — in “Night Moves,” in “Every Secret Thing,” in “American Pastoral” — while too few have been paying attention.
‘My Scientology Movie’
The towering, teetering pile of anti-Scientology fare now contains the latest from Louis Theroux, which adds nothing to the conversation except the presence of Louis Theroux. Every bit as ambitious as its title, “My Scientology Movie” is like a late-comer to a barn-burning party that’s already dying down, and it didn’t even have the decency to bring a fresh six pack. We see the broadcaster and doc-maker lend his Michael-Moore-only-British persona to a subject that warrants a bit more than deadpan put-downs and faux-naif queries. We see him fly into Los Angeles, put himself into situations that will bring the Scientology fuzz then respond with mock-alarm when they show up.
There’s nothing we haven’t seen or heard or read before, in “Going Clear” or that classic episode of “South Park,” only with far more insight and rigor, even compassion. “MSM” even nicks a page from “The Act of Killing,” only to of course water it down. Theroux’s main gimmick involves roping in noted renouncer Marty Rathburn, then hiring actors to recreate behind-the-scenes confrontations with fearsome honcho David Miscavige and poster boy Tom Cruise. There’s something here about the religion’s ever-lasting traumas, with Rathburn getting a little too into the staged scenes, his formerly oppressive self disturbingly reawakened. But it’s never less than The Louis Theroux Show, and our host only succeeds in getting in the way of a subject more fascinating and even more alarming than seen here.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge