★ out of four stars
Rated: R for some sexual material and language. In English and subtitled Russian.
Here is a symphony of wrong notes. For one, the star is Bryan Cranston, who always seems to be trying hard to force it in every performance. Here he plays Howard Wakefield, a prominent lawyer spiked with bile, who comes to his lovely suburban home after work and suffers one doozy of a midlife crisis. Rather than greeting his lovely wife (Jennifer Garner) and two teen daughters, he hides in the attic of the sizable detached garage. Spying on his family from a small window, he feels less and less attached, prolonging his absence to banish them from his life and escape from theirs.
As time drags forward, the bewildered Wakefield women move from anxiety to grief and then acceptance. Wakefield arranges a basic toilet system, develops a Rip Van Winkle beard and dresses like a hobo, prowling the town’s garbage cans, which are always packed with cast-off gourmet foods. (I’m not exaggerating.)
Adapted by writer/director Robin Swicord from an E.L. Doctorow short story, the film is narrated scene by scene, like an audio book. Wakefield savors his voyeuristic glimpses of his wife undressed in the bedroom they once shared. He resents what he sees as his daughters’ insufficient appreciation of all he accomplished and provided. He enjoys having run away from life’s responsibilities, the freedom-sapping trap of his home’s back door a total distance of 30 feet away.
You don’t often see this type of character as the focus of a movie, and there is a very good reason for that.
Acting solo in most of the film, Cranston cranks his performance up to 11, enamored of his own work and incapable of hitting the brakes. And yet he never brings his character’s conflicting motives to life. He comes off as agonizingly showy and more than a little unbelievable.
Garner does better. She embodies her character with a fine blend of fragility and force. Adding a twist where she runs off with the girls, leaves the clod behind and has her own adventures would have made a much more entertaining movie.
Score: A Film Music Documentary
★★★ out of four stars
Unrated by the MPAA; suitable for all audiences.
You don’t need a brilliant composer/conductor to arrange superb soundtracks for your films. Stanley Kubrick did many of his by leafing through his record collection. Still, it doesn’t hurt to have Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, Randy Newman or Trent Reznor on your team. While we don’t give their work the same kind of sensory attention that we focus on screen images, the emotional trajectory of their work is essential to the overall shape of a film. A 007 movie without the James Bond theme? Excruciating.
Matt Schrader’s documentary gathers a wide gallery of Hollywood’s best composers, raising their contributions from footnote status to long-deserved applause. It reminds us that we don’t have to see Sly Stallone box a hanging side of beef to think “Rocky.” Bill Conti’s brassy tracks will do just fine. It explains the importance of character themes in “Star Wars” movies, and how Alex North revolutionized films’ sonic signatures by packing contemporary jazz into “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It’s a well researched, solidly constructed, star-studded look into a film community that has been vital since the days of silent pictures. Highly recommended.
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
★★★ out of four stars
Rated: Not rated by the MPAA.
“If I don’t dance, I’d rather die.” That’s a rather melodramatic utterance, especially from a ballerina past the age when most retire. But when Wendy Whelan, who has been called “America’s greatest contemporary ballerina,” says it in this documentary, she means it. Dance is her life. And her disarming combination of humility and honesty, making light of heavy emotions without concealing their true weight, has much to do with how this affecting film portrait can sneak up on you.
Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, the film captures Whelan in 2013 at age 46, as she’s struggling to recover from a potentially career-ending injury and facing pressure to give her final bows at New York City Ballet after nearly 30 years there. Following her as she begins to reinvent herself as a dancer outside of ballet, this is a comeback story and, more profoundly, a coming to terms with aging.
The film and Whelan turn an extreme form of midlife crisis into a heartening tale, making the potential compensations of age seem as beautiful as any ballet.
Brian Seibert, New York Times