The Public

⋆½ out of four stars

Rated: PG-13, mature thematic elements, nudity, strong language, drug abuse, a racial epithet and some suggestive material.

 

In this moralistic melodrama that pits a group of cuddly homeless men against a soulless, uncaring bureaucracy, a character remarks on the difficulty of choosing the virtuous path in life. “Our biggest problem,” says a chirpy do-gooder (Jena Malone), is knowing “which side of the ‘right’ we’re walking on.”

For other characters in this story — about the takeover of Cincinnati’s main public library by a contingent of street people on the coldest night of the year — things are less ambiguous: “You’re either one of us, or you’re one of them,” says Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), the leader of the homeless siege, to the waffling head librarian, played by the ever-earnest writer/director Emilio Estevez.

It’s a little too on-the-nose that this librarian turns out to be a formerly homeless person himself and that his main adversary, once he decides to risk his job by letting the insurgents move in, is an overreacting cop. Sure, as a filmmaker, Estevez’s heart is in the right place. And he’s assembled an impressive cast, including Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Gabrielle Union. But he has stuffed the narrative with too many issues for a single movie, including (but not limited to) addiction, poverty, race, the environment, the death of literacy and the political machine. The project topples under the weight of its unwieldy themes.

MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN Washington Post

 

The Mustang

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: R for profanity, some violence and drug content.

Theater: Uptown.

 

Part prison picture, part horse story, this solid if dramatically predictable story was filmed mostly in western Nevada, but it has a tinge of foreign flavor. That’s probably because it’s the feature directorial debut of French writer and director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and it stars Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (best known here for “The Danish Girl”).

He plays Roman Coleman, a tight-lipped convict who is a recent transfer from another facility. It’s clear from the start that Roman, as he himself acknowledges, is “no good with people.”

He’s assigned to the Wild Horse Inmate Program (a real program, by the way) in which wild mustangs are captured and turned over to the inmates for training, after which they are sold to the public.

Roman and the horse he names Marcus recognize each other’s similarities instantly. The audience is right there with them. As the program’s wizened horse trainer (Bruce Dern) pushes the prisoners toward greater understanding and patience, Roman butts up against his own fears.

The script is exceedingly tidy in its beat-by-beat developments. The director workshopped her script at the Sundance labs for several years, and one has to wonder if a messier but more interesting version of it didn’t get left behind along the way. But that won’t matter to many viewers. It’s easy to root for the hard-won friendship at the heart of things here.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

 

Diane

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Not rated: contains profanity, drug use, smoking and adult themes.

Theater: Lagoon.

 

A quietly astonishing title performance by Mary Kay Place drives this naturalistic portrait of service and self-­sacrifice. The feature film debut of documentarian Kent Jones (“Hitchcock/Truffaut”), it’s purportedly based on a woman he knew in his childhood.

The title character is a widow and mother who is in nearly constant motion doing for others, whether it’s visiting her fatally ill cousin in the hospital, dropping off food for a laid-up neighbor, doling out macaroni and cheese at her church’s soup kitchen or, in the film’s rawest moments, letting herself into the apartment of her drug addict son to make sure he hasn’t relapsed.

Place avoids playing the martyr, instead infusing her character with disarming common sense, even when she succumbs to bouts of self-pity (and a few too many margaritas). But in time, a mystery begins to develop, suggesting that Diane is driven by penance as much as an innate sense of altruism.

As sad as “Diane” often is, it also offers its own hard-won optimism. For the religiously observant, it might be the perfect Lent movie: Although we never see the title character attend church, she offers a radiant if self-effacing example of evangelism, not as proselytizing but as faith in action.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post