Four July movies you shouldn’t miss

Movies including ‘Dark Money’ and ‘Custody’ were some of Monitor film critic Peter Rainer's favorite films to be released this month.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
Tuheï Adams and Vincent Cassel star in 'Gauguin: Voyage to Taihiti.'

A biopic depicting the life of painter and sculptor Paul Gauguin and a documentary about the power of “dark money” in politics were two of the movies that received top marks from Monitor film critic Peter Rainer this month.

'Custody' doesn’t skimp on the ordeal of the child in a custody battle

Xavier Legrand’s intense debut feature, “Custody,” opens with a custody hearing. Miriam (Léa Drucker) and her ex-husband, Antoine (Denis Ménochet), flanked by their lawyers, square off before a judge. Legrand plays out the “he said, she said” scenario without tipping his hand. Who is telling the truth? 

When Antoine is unexpectedly granted joint custody of Julien, it is the boy who is caught in the middle of all this toxicity. But we still don’t know what’s going on: Has his mother, in vengeance, poisoned his relationship with the father who is only trying to do right by his son, or is the bearish Antoine anything but a teddy bear?

What rescues the film from melodrama is that Legrand drew on extensive interviews with psychologists, emergency police personnel, female victims, and batterers. The drawback to Legrand’s approach is that at times the people are presented more as symbols than as individuals. 

There are still moments that sear, many of them centered on Julien. As in all good movies of this kind, the ordeal of the children is not skimped. They bear the brunt, and the legacy, of the anguish. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)

Documentary ‘Dark Money’ is close to a political thriller

The making of Kimberly Reed’s documentary “Dark Money” was prompted by the 2010 United States Supreme Court Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate spending in election campaigns if it is done apart from a candidate or party. Its primary focus is Montana, a state that for nearly 100 years had in place the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act forbidding corporations from donating to state and federal elections in the state. That act was in response to the rapacious tactics of the copper barons who bought into the state’s political system. In Reed’s view, the rapaciousness of those days is once again upon us.

To characterize “Dark Money” as some kind of PBS-style educational treatise (indeed, the movie is distributed by PBS) would deny its urgency. It’s closer to a political thriller, complete with crusading reporters, suddenly discovered caches of incriminating documents, and courtroom climaxes. What distinguishes the film from a Michael Moore-ish partisan screed is that Reed goes out of her way to present all sides of the controversy – which is not to say that she doesn’t clearly delineate, through vast documentation and testimony, her indignation at what Citizens United has wrought. 

Reed’s implicit point, which could have been more pronounced, is that dark money, at least in theory, is not the exclusive province of either Republicans or Democrats. The undue influence of money on elections is not exactly news, but the ways in which that influence can now be secured, given the current state of the law, certainly is. 

The film’s ultimate clarion call is for new constitutional laws at the state and federal level designed to reveal the sources of dark money. To put it another way, citizens have the right not to be duped. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)

Modest charmer looks and sounds right in depicting 'Eighth Grade’ 

It’s rare to see a movie about middle school years that looks and sounds as right as “Eighth Grade,” a modest charmer written and directed by Bo Burnham about 13-year-old Kayla (a marvelous Elsie Fisher), who posts motivational monologues on YouTube about how to be confident without ever – away from the web – appearing very confident about anything.

Burnham avoids most of the “Mean Girls”-style tropes in favor of a more gently humorous and nuanced approach. Given the potential young audience for this film, its R rating seems especially punitive. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language and some sexual material.)

'Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti' chronicles Gauguin’s desire to see a new way

“Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti,” directed and co-written by Edouard Deluc and starring Vincent Cassel, draws on the legend of the artist while also subverting it. It’s a perplexing, fascinating, maddening movie, not quite like any other film biography of a famous painter, most of which tend to be equal parts ho-hum and hokum.

The basis of French post-Impressionist painter and sculptor Paul Gauguin’s legend was his decision to leave his wife and five children in 1891 and flee Paris for French Polynesia, where he hoped to rejuvenate his inspiration. This was greeted by his fellow artists as an act of heroism, but director and co-writer Edouard Deluc doesn’t soft-pedal the raging narcissism at its core. 

At the same time, Deluc wants us to know that Gauguin (Vincent Cassel) was not simply some bohemian outlier. The movie cuts directly from Paris to a thatched hut in Tahiti where Gauguin is furiously painting, oblivious to the torrential downpour outside. Such is the power of Cassel’s performance that this sequence surmounts camp. 

He takes a willing bride, 17-year-old Tehura (Tuheï Adams), and she becomes his muse. Tehura is, in a sense, the true hero of this movie, not because she devotes herself to Gauguin (despite an erotic attachment to a local boy) but because she understands better than he does the animistic essence of things. 

With his near-hallucinatory stylistics, Deluc creates a visual equivalent to Gauguin’s fervid temperament, but there were times when I lost sight altogether of Gauguin the artist. It’s the kind of approach that Werner Herzog might also have taken. Despite Cassel’s intensity, this often means Gauguin seems more like an agonized avatar than a person of flesh and blood. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)

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