FilmSpace: The Wife; Night School; Skate Kitchen

Film Critic Calum Cooper takes a look at the past week’s additional releases, including a career-best from Glenn Close in The Wife, the well-meaning but lacklustre Night School, and a collection of deep themes and impressive skating in Skate Kitchen.

The Wife – ★★★★☆

The premise behind The Wife is an extraordinary one. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s book of the same name, it opens with Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) learning that he has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature. As exciting as this is for him however, our main character is his wife Joan (Glenn Close), who begins to question her life choices throughout the film, as they travel to Stockholm for the award ceremony.

From the trailer, the film seemed to be a study on fame’s success on the spouse and family of the celebrity. While it does dabble with that concept, its roots run far deeper. It’s hard to really assess the film’s content or themes without plunging into a pool of spoilers. What can be analysed though is how it acts as a study on relationships, narcissism, and double standards that exist in a work field that should have no such thing.

It does this through its characters and the various truths they have to confront on what should be a joyous celebration of a journey. The performances are utterly mesmerising. Jonathan Pryce’s character may appear to be a simple, decent husband and parent, but he embodies the role of a narcissist who has been rolling around in his own success for far too long. He’s a passionate, and even loving, person. But the years of fame have gotten to his head, and winning the Nobel has now skyrocketed his arrogance to atmospheric heights. Pryce is so articulate in his delivery of these attributes, effortlessly reigning in the audience to both like and dislike his character simultaneously.

READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE: A Star is Born

However, this may be the single best performance Glenn Close has ever given. Her constant internal conflict between supporting her husband’s success and calling out his behaviour, as well as her deep feelings of injustice at his work getting favoured over her own purely due to gender is magnified by Close’s spellbindingly subdued sense of restraint. With her doubts acting as a juxtaposition to the legitimate chemistry and sense of love between the spouses, her character is fascinating, but Close is what makes the role so astonishing. The Academy Awards would be imbecilic to overlook her this year.

Combine these two compelling performances with genuinely interesting conflicts, beautiful cinematography encompassing the gorgeous Stockholm landscapes, and a story that takes surprising twists and turns, and we have a film that’s dripping with suspense and thought provoking sentiments. Although its ending does feel somewhat manufactured, it shouldn’t disqualify this film from being provocative food for thought.

If nothing else, it serves as an intriguing vehicle for Glenn Close’s talents.

Night School – ★★☆☆☆

Night School has some initial appeal going in. Kevin Hart is our star and it’s directed by Malcolm D. Lee, the guy behind last year’s surprise hit Girls Trip. Even when coming out of the film, it’s hard to deny some touching merits. But it’s a disappointment overall.

Kevin Hart plays Teddy Walker, a salesman who has recently proposed to his girlfriend. After a bizarre prologue that leaves him unemployed, he’s offered a new job at a financing firm. The only problem is he dropped out of high school and needs his GED. So, behind his fiancé’s back of course (because we wouldn’t have a third act if there wasn’t a tired conflict waiting to happen), he goes back to his old high school and enrols in Night School, taught by the sternly cunning Carrie (Tiffany Haddish). Hijinks ensue.

Despite what I’m going to write about it, the film does seem to have a well-intended message underneath its clichés. Whenever the film opts for more serious moments, it does look into why Teddy despised school so much. We learn that he has a wide assortment of learning disabilities. It would’ve been easy to play this for laughs, but it doesn’t.

The film actually uses this as a way to show that people who don’t do as well academically shouldn’t be looked down upon. Academia and general intelligence are not intrinsically linked. Anyone who thinks so is being, ironically, stupid. Everyone has their own form of smartness, whether that’s successfully pitching convincing ideas to someone, being able to understand people emotionally, or getting good grades. One shouldn’t overshadow the others. That’s a genuinely comforting moral to teach audiences, and could be quite the confidence booster to some.

With a story this overused, I’d be far more forgiving if it was at least funnier. But it has no real comedic flair, and so didn’t generate any noteworthy reaction outside of the occasional chuckle.

Unfortunately, the film feels too safe. Teddy and Carrie are okay, but the side characters are a hodgepodge of emotional plot sequences and annoying exasperated personalities. This is particularly the case with Taran Killam’s character, who is an affront to the senses. Pair them up with a humdrum narrative, and a near two hour running time, and the film can be surprisingly difficult to stay awake to.

It just isn’t that funny either. It mostly relies on your typical misunderstandings, exaggerated slapstick, or gross out humour – stuff we’ve already seen a thousand times. The punchlines are obvious, and even the delivery felt scattershot. With a story this overused, I’d be far more forgiving if it was at least funnier. But it has no real comedic flair, and so didn’t generate any noteworthy reaction outside of the occasional chuckle.

Night School is what I like to call a noble failure. It overall didn’t work for me, but its heart was in the right place. I wouldn’t dissuade anybody who’s interested from checking it out, but it might be better to wait for the DVD release.

Skate Kitchen – ★★★☆☆

Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen is a timely slice-of-life film with a lot on its plate. Immaculately filmed and well realised, it makes even ivory tower owning snoots like yours truly see the potential art in skating. Yet it’s also a lot more than that too.

Featuring a cast of predominantly non-actors, and inspired by a real life skating group, our main character is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a quiet and lonely suburban girl with a secret passion for skateboarding. Enticed by online content from an all-female skating group, she travels to New York where she meets and quickly befriends the group. As she adapts to this new found freedom however, she finds her recent friendships challenged.

A large portion of the film is dedicated to changing times – primarily the increased neutrality of gender’s place in sports. Skateboarding has often held connotations of being a male sport when it shouldn’t. The film showcases these girls pulling off some killer moves on the boards, yet constantly feel like they’re being talked down to by gatekeeping boys who are unjustly afraid of being robbed of an identity. This is something that’s unfortunately present with sports and nerd culture alike. Thus, the film could be seen as a piece on finding or maintaining a female voice in a male dominated world. Or perhaps that femininity can mean different things to the individual.

READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE: The House with a Clock in its Walls; Mile 22; The Little Stranger

This is very compelling stuff, and much of the craftsmanship backs this up. Moselle employed mostly non-actors for the film (excluding Jaden Smith), and while their performances are solid, it’s their skills on the board that truly shine through. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner masterfully captures the skill and concentration one must maintain to pull off some of the stunts these girls can manage. And it feels brutally authentic as well. Whenever someone falls over it’s hard not to curl in pain a little. It derives emotions from the audience purely on what is filmed, utilising visuals the way any film should.

It’s just a pity that a vigorously clichéd third act undoes a lot of the momentum. Slice-of-life films are only meant to present a portion of someone’s overall experiences, but even then the material does feel a little loose. We do learn about Camille’s past and how skateboarding is a sense of freedom she can’t let go of. That’s all good, but much of the third act feels calculated compared to the rest of the film’s natural vibe. It was predictable and kind of dull too. It does end with a powerful image, but I much preferred watching these girls pull off exciting moves for the thrill of it over the arching narrative. It probably would’ve been better as a documentary than a feature film.

Nevertheless, it’s still an engaging piece. It’s smart, it’s beautifully filmed, and it boasts a lot of talent on and off screen. I’d recommend it.

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