The Unknown Girl – 8

A thoughtful, very real examination of guilt, confession and community responsibility from the Belgian masters, the Dardennes brothers. Star Adele Haenel was onscreen the entire time, and I never tired of watching her. The plot toyed with that of a policier, which the directors said they wanted to avoid, but that’s what drove the action and our interest. In the end, though, it was Dr. Jenny’s refusal to let the ‘unknown girl’ pass away unremarked that made everyone else face up to their own responsibility, and that gave a coherence to the story. Kudos (Oscar?) to Haenel, but I don’t think she needed to smoke. (NYFF)

Bright Lights – 5

An overlong, pointless documentary about two aged former film stars – Grey Gardens, anyone? – that is ultimately dispiriting, especially as one of the former film stars, Carrie Fisher, is the daughter of the other. Debbie Reynolds, America’s Sweetheart in the ’50s, is still performing, sort of, on the geriatric circuit; whereas Carrie, famous as Princess Leia, has gone to pot and other drugs and looks awful as she smokes and drinks Cokes. The film is certainly not an advertisement for aging, and you can’t help but wish two actresses who have given so much enjoyment to so many couldn’t have a more refined retirement – or at least have said ‘no’ to the documentarians.

Niagara – 8

It won’t do to compare this 1953 thriller to current movies, but, much as Elevator to the Gallows showed us, it can be tremendously fun to watch well-crafted old movies on the big screen. Director Henry Hathaway showed more than a touch of Hitchcock with his visual clues, but what set him apart was his use of his physical set – in this case the immense and powerful falls of Niagara. The secondary characters were caricatures, but the three leads – Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters and Marilyn Monroe – lived up to reputation. (NYFF)

Queen of Katwe – 6.5

A by-the-book sports movie, with no story-arc cliche left unexplored, made interesting and eminently watchable because of its (purported) setting: the slums of Kampala, Uganda. I couldn’t help think of the current hurricane-induced tragedy in Haiti as I watched Phiona’s family evicted from their one room, then washed by a flash flood. Seeing humans triumph over these odds was heartwarming, as always; and learning that the story was true trumped my suspicions that so much could be accomplished through the game of chess.

Deepwater Horizon – 6.5

SullyEverest (which I watched on the plane the day before), Patriots Day (for which I saw the trailer) and Deepwater Horizon – there seems to be a trend to dramatize recent real-life tragedies, and the formula is becoming somewhat predictable. There’s the Everyman in the lead – a guy just doing his job, albeit a rather specialized job demanding expertise as well as competence. And the wife, who adds nothing to the plot but is there to tug at the heartstrings: while I quite enjoyed the shots of Keira Knightley, I could have done without Laura Linney and Kate Hudson. Then there are the technical details, which are just beyond viewer understanding but are crucial to the outcomes. DH went a little overboard, so to speak, in this regard, with the characters speaking so fast we had trouble hearing what we couldn’t understand. And the calamity, too, was rather overdrawn; so that we were surprised that only 11 people died, instead of being saddened by the calamity. At the end, though, I felt I knew more about the event but hadn’t had a particularly memorable dramatic experience. The bad guys – BP execs – were caricatures (John Malkovich, anyone?), and there wasn’t a lot of clarity as to what went wrong, how it could have been prevented, or who, if anyone, were heroes. Questions abound.