Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 05, 2016 5:35 am 
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A young African American man, reeling from the tragic loss of his wife, travels to rural Maine to seek answers from his estranged mother-in-law, who is herself confronting guilt and grief over her daughter's death.

This decidedly lackluster effort is mainly a chance for the two principles, David Oyelowo and Dianne Wiest to act up a storm. Oyelowo, whose enormous talents have been seen in many films over the past five years, plays Sherwin, the bereaved and insomniac husband who drives up from New York after his wife's death in a car accident. Dianne Wiest plays Lucinda, the cranky mother of his wife, dying of cancer, whom he visits, to act up a storm. Not so much of a storm, really, because the writer-director Curran provides them with such thin material. One could use the familiar metaphor "like watching paint dry" if the paint periodically cracked or blistered up. Because there are events, however unsatisfying. The widower, a black man, goes jogging in the Main woods nearby. Apparently being shot at, or so he assesses the gunshots later, he rushes into bramble and emerges in pain and limping. Later he breaks into stifled tears at the dinner table. Lucinda, who according to nurse Ann (bad name for Rosie Perez) "is in a lot of pain" but "tough," collapses at one point and has to be rescued from the floor. Getting out of a car, she gives evidence of being in physical agony. Finally she cries out that she should have been the one to go, a remark as much practical as selfless, given her present state.

The dying mother prompts comparison, decidedly unfavorable, with Josh Mond's James White 2015, in which Cynthia Nixon gives such a remarkably lifelike performance as a dying mother. But this is unfair because the films are opposites. James White unreels over five months not five nights and James White is the son, present to be with his mother while she dies. Mond provides a surfeit of solid, meaty material; Curran seems determined to deliver a skimpy meal, as if the dry restraint of traditional New England were to be a model for how dealing with death may have to be. And of course sometimes is.

However this film seems confused about tone and style as it is about pacing and structure, because the shaky handheld closeups are as expressionistic and overwrought as the dialogue is constipated. And though they have little to say to each other Sherwin and Lucinda nonetheless chew up the scenery.

The setup is efficient, if typically skimpy. No scenes for the death of Fiona (Hani Furstenberg of The Loneliest Planet and Yossi and Jagger, wasted here); just an enigmatic police phone call, followed up (Hamlet would be impressed) by almost immediate delivery of the ashes in a large cardboard box containing a handsome small white urn. Thought Sherwin is shown doing lot of drinking and smoking, he's in his car approaching Lucinda's house within fifteen minutes of the movie's start. But what's the rush? So little happens.

Fiona and Lucinda were "estranged," Fiona was up for a visit shortly before her death. What does this mean? We don't learn. Sherwin, a masochist at heart, comes to find out why his wife disliked her mother so much. He seems satisfied on that score. But for the audience there is no explanation, no exposition.

I felt kind of sad for the hundreds of Kinkstarter patrons listed at the end who contributed so "generously."

Five Nights in Maine, 82 mins., debuted at Toronto (Discovery section) Sept. 2015 (reviewed there by Andrew Barker for Variety - "tasteful yet inscrutable," he called it); ten other festivals currently listed through Apr. 2016, including San Francisco (SFIFF), where it was screened for this review. It opened 5 Aug. 2016 in NYC (City Cinemas Village East Cinema).

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