French writer Thomas Bidegain has shown an interest in individuals outside society's mainstream in A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan. In Les Cowboys, his directing debut, also written by him, Bidegain presents an equally atypical story: a father's frantic search for his 16-year-old daughter Kelly, who disappears along with her 18-year-old Muslim boyfriend Ahmed.  

Beginning in 1994, Kelly is last seen at a rural French fair with an American cowboy theme, a nod to John Ford's iconic film The Searchers which provided Bidegain inspiration for pursuing cultural conflicts embedded here. As in that film, the plot also draws on an archetypal motif of confronting oneself while pursing another. Over years, as father Alain and later brother Georges travel to diverse locations, their pursuit leads from France to Belgium, Yemen and Pakistan. The European Muslim intersections along with the title Les Cowboys and frequent, early use of Patti Page's song "Tennessee Waltz" invite serious reflection on cultural beliefs and the consequences of alienation.

In that regard, the Islamic content allows for a wealth of contemporary allusions, with brief reminders of tragic terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and North London. This multilayered, global mix presents a challenge for the film to navigate clearly and coherently, especially with the opening country fair followed later by shots of line dancers' feet and legs in cowboy boots and attire, plus a bow and arrow tutorial. No spoilers here, but unexpected and not always convincing twists and turns in this complicated quest soon involve human trafficking and financial exploitation, against a backdrop of enduring love. 

It's a lot to process, though never dull. Some of the credit goes to Arnaud Potier's cinematography that beautifully frames sweeping landscapes and snow-capped mountains as effectively as cramped quarters. Quality acting contributes as well, with John C. Reilly an American presence in a small role. Les Cowboys asks tough questions. In English and in French with English subtitles at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

The opening scenes of Our Kind of Traitor set an ominous tone, beginning at a Moscow performance of the Bolshoi Ballet and ending in starkly presented disaster. No spoilers here; but for fans of cloak-and-dagger stories, succeeding events are less ingeniously plotted, a surprise in a John le Carré story, adapted by Hossein Amini, directed by Susanna White.

The intrigue intertwines Perry, a naïve but good-hearted British professor of poetics at the University of London; Gail, his savvy lawyer wife; and Dima, the top money launderer for the Russian Mafia, with MI6 operatives at odds with each other as they so often are. But taken as a whole, developments feel cobbled together with a violent action choice from column A, friendship from column B, hostility and treachery--all set amidst stunning locations, including Marrakech, Bern, the Alps and London. Rather than offer a tightly knit, international crime dramaOur Kind of Traitor globe-hops along and unfolds predictably, even as the narrative showcases accomplished acting, cinematography, and sound.

As Perry, Ewan McGregor embodies an everyman caught up in deception beyond his comprehension. As wife Gail, yet another underused female character, Naomie Harris conveys intelligence and conviction, even as she and Perry face a crossroads in their marriage. Stellan Skarsgård makes Dima come alive as the larger than life manipulator who sets the gears in motion. And Damian Lewis, MI6 agent Hector, holds his own, along with Khalid Abdalla as MI6 agent Luke. 

Our Kind of Traitor is a beautiful film to watch. Through lighting and architectural design, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives each location a distinctive personality, appropriately glamorous or sinister while costume designer Julian Day makes each character's choice of clothes express his or her personality. In addition, the themes resonate since, as screenplay writer Amini observes in press notes, as British power has diminished in a global context, "morality has turned into something far more like compromise." Therefore, while this isn't the best of John le Carré and the good/bad differentiation is heavy handed, Our Kind of Traitor invites some thought-provoking afterthoughts. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre, the Hi-Pointe, and select Wehrenberg theatres.

 

Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first of three plays that tell the story of Eugene Jerome, a baseball loving New Yorker who wants to be a writer, if he doesn't get signed by the Yankees first. He's also going through puberty and dealing with an onslaught of unfamiliar feelings and sexual urges. Act Inc. gets the details right, and delivers them with familial warmth and optimism in a memorable production filled with strong performances. 

Set in 1937, the show is a nostalgia-filled coming-of-age tale and a tribute to family unity that doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of life. Eugene, his father, mother, and brother have taken in Eugene's widowed aunt and her two daughters. Because the family is not wealthy, his father works two jobs and, though they still struggle to put food on the table, they make do. 

Eugene's older brother Stanley is having troubles at work, losing money, and considering joining the army. His cousin Nora wants to drop out of high school to audition for a Broadway show, and, much to the consternation of Eugene's mother, his aunt is considering dating an Irish Catholic. After all this stress, Eugene's father suffers a heart attack and the family's sense of security is put to the test. 

Zac O'Keefe is thoroughly engaging as Eugene, his monologues are filled with hope, humor and ever-changing moods, but delivered with a light, humorous touch. Eugene is filled with optimism, but also a growing understanding of the challenges and stress of growing up. Through the course of the play, O'Keefe adroitly handles the character's many mood swings and realizations with clearly motivated reactions. 

Kimberly Sansone radiates with warmth, caring, and a sharp wit as Eugene's mother Kate. She's at times quick to judge others, but fiercely protective of her family, particularly her sister Blanche, a wonderful turn by Susan Kopp. Chuck Brinkley shows the wisdom of Solomon and patience of Job as the hard-working father, and Evan Fornachon gives Stanley a sympathetic voice and appealing personality, while Natalie Krivokuca, as the rebellious Nora, and Mary Pat Dailey, as the bookish Laurie, are charming and engaging.

The characters in Brighton Beach Memoirs, are filled with depth and human conflict while remaining memorably distinct. Director Emily Jones guides the cast with a clear sense of the story arc and necessary motivation, keeping the show moving at a crisp pace and developing a natural ebb and flow that complements Simon's delightful script. 

Family relationships are explored honestly and thoughtfully, reflecting real life -- we don't always like our family, but we love and support them as best we can. The efficient stage, coordinated by Jason Flannery, is a bit crowded, enabling us to see into the family's apartment in a way that underscores the tension likely to arise when so many people live in a small space. Wesley Jenkins' costumes and Flannery's properties reflect the period and the family's financial situation in an understated fashion. Moments are emphasized by the lighting and sound design by Michael and Zoe Sullivan, respectively. These small touches help bridge any gaps between the audience and the family, an important consideration in a story set before most audience members were born. 

Simon's powerful coming-of-age trilogy, though set in a different era, explores themes that resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. Growing up presents universal questions and personal challenges and the cast taps into this commonality with great success. 

We see the Stress in Brinkley's face, hear the concern and mothering in Sansone's voice, understand Fornachon's stubborn pride, and feel sympathy for Kopp and her daughters. Most importantly, we gladly follow O'Keefe and share in the joys and disappointments as his character humorously navigates puberty while dreaming of a glorious future.

As much as this is a story about Eugene, Simon's play is also a warm tribute to family, and the strength and values we learn from those closest to our hearts. The result is an authentically warm and engaging production that's filled with genuine affection. Brighton Beach Memoirs running through June 26, 2016 at Act Inc.

 

 

Swiss Army Man is unlike any movie ever made. Ever. It is the movie-theater of the absurd, not a new genre but a barely plumbed one. The film involves two men, one dead and one suicidal and lost, some dream women in magazines and suburbs, forests, swamps and gas, oh, my!

Let's tackle the flatulence first. See, Hank (aka Hanker Wanker) needs to find a way off an island. He picks suicide until he sees another human being on the beach. He discovers that humans emit excess gases post-mortem and uses the man called Manny as a Jetski to bubble blast through the waters. Trust me: it's funny in the way that flatulence always is. 

The two men, each awakening in his own way, begin the struggle to survive in the woods, discovering the litter left behind and turning it into fantasies. Hank also uses the items as teaching tools to remind Manny of what life is like. That includes sex life when they gaze upon a bikini-clad woman in a magazine advertisement. Here's a teaching moment, too: Hank tries to explain to Manny why it's better not to discuss masturbation in polite society. Again, funny. Again, trust me. But then, the funny stops in this short, and the fantasies take over, and you begin to wonder, again, if the whole thing is made up.

Paul Dano works Hank's angles well, especially in the physical and vocal asides. Daniel Radcliffe, known unto his epigraph as Harry Potter, turns in a fine -- maybe the finest since Weekend at Bernie's --  portrayal of a dead man slowly returning to life -- or not. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the woman well.

The film is credited to the Daniels, that is, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They do not fear showing oddballyness in all its states, even in cheese balls. They created song lyrics here like, "Rescued. I thought I was rescued, but you're just a dead dude." Sing along. Swiss Army Man is solidly unpredictable.

 

Some stories just never make it into the American history books, either because there's simply not time or space or because the books are written by committees with agendas that blot truth. Free State of Jones tells such a story of Newton Knight of Jones County, Mississippi, during and after the Civil War.

Knight represents factions during that bloody conflict--poor folk, both men and women, whites and blacks--who were tired of fighting for plantation owners, made rich off the backs of slaves. The small farmers were tired of being robbed of all they had to finance and feed that war. They were tired of defending the slave-owning society to support the cotton culture. One soldier avers that he's not fighting for cotton but for honor.

Knight deserted his post as a hospital worker and fled to a swamp already inhabited by men of color. One, self-named Moses (played by Mahershala Ali) becomes Knight's ally, as does a house slave played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw ("Belle"), who becomes Knight's paramour. Knight, played so well without ego by Matthew McConaughey, is a gentle man: the way he calms and caresses children shows this. Knight is a natural leader, magnetically drawing his kind. 

Director Gary Ross (who wrote Seabiscuit) continues Knight's story post-war instead of ending of a boffo battle. Ross co-wrote the script with Leonard Hartman and extended it intelligently into the 1950s in a trial of miscegenation for Knight's descendant.

What does not play so true is the production value of Free State of Jones. So often the acting and enacting are wooden, the make-up a few smears of mud on a face. The film could have used subtitles, for the men's mumbled Southern accents are muddy, too. 

Free State of Jones lays out a morsel of history too often consigned to the swamps of Mississippi.

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