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Michelle Pfeiffer Gives the Performance of Her Life in “Where Is Kyra?”

There has always been an air of loneliness about Michelle Pfeiffer onscreen. Even in her glamorous, gorgeous movie-star heyday, she often played women who were somewhat removed from the world. Catwoman, after all, was a cat lady; Countess Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence an outcast; Married to the Mob’s Angela de Marco a widow out of step with the mafia housewives surrounding her. It wasn’t so much unapproachability, or aloofness that she conveyed, but a reserve that suggested — even in some of her comedies — melancholy, pain, dreams deferred.

I hadn’t fully realized this until I saw Andrew Dosunmu’s marvelous, shattering Where Is Kyra?, in which the actress is often the sole figure onscreen, playing a New York woman sliding deeper into poverty and despair. Although the film might seem a departure for her — and at least in terms of budget, it certainly is — watching it, I felt that Dosunmu had connected to something elemental within Pfeiffer, that solitude that brought subtle dimension to her earlier, more famous roles. This is the kind of part, and the kind of performance, that makes you see an actor’s entire career in a new light. And it’s probably the best she’s ever been.

When we first meet Pfeiffer’s Kyra, she’s living in a small, cluttered apartment caring for her elderly, ailing mother. She already seems like she’s at the end of her rope…and then Mom dies. Unable to find any work — she’s either too old, too late, or too poor to get the gigs — Kyra descends further into desperation. She strikes a tensely romantic relationship with a nursing home attendant (played by Kiefer Sutherland) who himself is trying to stay on the straight and narrow after screwing up his life. He’s poor, too, but at least he has money for beer and food, and he likes spending it on her. Is she with him because she needs help, or does she really care for him? The reasons aren’t clear to us — and they’re probably not clear to Kyra either.

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The story turns on what might have been just a quirky plot point in another movie: When Mom’s pension checks keep coming even after her death, Kyra begins dressing as the dead woman to try and cash them at the bank. This is not, however, the story of a grifter or a welfare cheat. It’s instead about the things we do to survive in extreme circumstances, and Dosunmu’s grim gaze never wavers from Kyra’s predicament. The director and cinematographer Bradford Young sheathe Kyra in oppressive darkness, and they hold on her for extended periods, even when other characters are speaking or acting. Close-ups often show her half-concealed in the gloom, emerging from pitch-black corners of the screen. No lamp gives off enough light, no street scene is bright enough. A pall has descended over this woman’s life. Rarely on film has the sheer debilitating exhaustion of poverty been conveyed so clearly.

Dosunmu — whose last film was the sublime Mother of George (written, like Kyra, by Darci Picoult) — is an electrifying filmmaker, a former photographer with a striking sense of composition as well as a willingness to experiment with image, audio, and narrative. He brings rhythmic rumblings to the soundtrack, walls of noise that drift in and out, a disorienting symphony of subways, street noise, chatter, and silence. Kyra is both of this world and outside it — part of a landscape of poverty and sadness that’s ever present, but also often invisible.

The whole movie is built on such contrasts. The director is fond of static, off-balance compositions with very shallow focus, but he also likes to point his camera directly into his actress’s face, one of the great visages of modern cinema. Pfeiffer is beautiful, but when we look at Kyra what we see is fatigue, anger, loneliness, hopelessness. The way Dosunmu shoots her, she appears somehow both fragile and unchanging: It wouldn’t take much to turn Kyra herself into a blur, to erase her from the screen completely, but the broader sorrow that she represents will never go away. Where is Kyra? She’s in the midst of disappearing, but she’s also everywhere.

Where Is Kyra?
Directed by Andrew Dosunmu
Great Point Media
Opens April 6, Quad Cinema

 

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist Follows A Bright Young Man from Princeton to Pakistan

In the same way novels can be better and worse than journalism at processing history, so can movies be better and worse than novels: too unreal, yet too specific. For the movie of Mohsin Hamid’s novel, director Mira Nair mounts a sensitive retrospective procedural of radicalization: Here’s how a bright young Pakistani man (Riz Ahmed) goes straight from Princeton into a boutique corporate valuation firm (with Kiefer Sutherland as his sharkish boss), then has a promising meet-cute with an emotionally unavailable American woman (Kate Hudson), then has his priorities rearranged by the fallout of 9/11. He returns to Pakistan as a university lecturer whose ideas may or may not encourage terrorism, drawing attention from a journalist (Liev Schreiber) whose lengthy interview-cum-standoff serves as the film’s narrative frame. At times it’s dense and sluggish, too much like a novel. But there is some exhilaration to be had from Nair’s sincere interest in Hudson’s character, who is appealing but hung up by grief over a previous relationship. In the richest moment, she offends her new suitor with a naively exploitative art project—she calls it an expression of love; he says it’s defamation—and he stuns himself with the cruelty of his response. Thus the central arc is a function not just of sadly expected post-9/11 affronts—the airport strip search, the tire slashing, the colleagues getting nervous about his beard—but of doomed romance, with a vision of America that’s all the more alluring for being so tragically stunted.

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Kiefer Sutherland and Pals Bring Wattage to NYC

Newly revived on Broadway, That Championship Season is Jason Miller‘s Pulitzer-winning 1972 play about a reunion of Pennsylvania high school basketball team members that ends up being a slam dunk into sourness.

The play doesn’t totally hold up, mainly because some of its melodramatic revelations now seem too calculated and they just aren’t all that shocking anymore (though I have to admit I was surprised by the liberal use of the c word. I should have paid more attention in 1972.)

A starry cast is helping provide some juice, though for patches of it, I felt they were playing the surface emotions without digging between the lines. Plus the direction had some of the play’s actions happening too quickly rather than mining them for real human responses and interplay.

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But the play garners lots of laughs, features some solid writing, and it picks up steam, especially when Brian Cox gets to scream a lot as the coach who believes in winning at any cost.

As for his co-stars:

Chris Noth is appropriately smarmy as the amoral businessman who sleeps with people he shouldn’t.

Jim Gaffigan is good as the inept and apparently antisemitic mayor.

Kiefer Sutherland — the troubled teacher — was singled out in the Times review as superb, though you might not even notice him for a while; he’s a wispy little thing!

My personal fave was Jason Patric as Kiefer’s cynical alcoholic brother, who sees the truth in everything going on, even though he’s ostensibly falling down a lot.

Jason — whose dad wrote the play — is pretty riveting.

Dad (whose ashes are supposedly watching from an urn onstage) must be loving it.

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‘I Trust You to Kill Me’

Perhaps you are wondering why a little-known band called Rocco DeLuca and the Burden merits a glossy feature-length documentary of its whirlwind European tour. After watching Manu Boyer’s film, you may still wonder: This could be the first film in the annals of rock docs in which the star power is supplied by the tour manager—a fellow named Kiefer Sutherland, who chose DeLuca as the first signing on his new label. Charmingly lacking in Jack Bauer’s surly sangfroid—his tipsy tackling of a hotel lounge Christmas tree is an instant YouTube keeper—Sutherland flogs DeLuca’s music from dingy London dives to Scandinavian TV: His ultimate goal is to get out of the group’s way, but his fame is inevitably the currency that gets anyone to pay attention. Especially since DeLuca—a scruffy, brooding sort given to chipped black nail polish and pronouncements like “The most beautiful instrument in the world is a black woman’s voice”—is a less than compelling stage presence whose bluesy coffeehouse alterna-rock makes Sutherland’s passionate devotion a mystery. (A London booking agent nails it when he says the band needs to “play at least another 200 shows.”) Boyer does a slick recital of rock-doc greatest hits, from black-and-white interviews to roughed-up basement performance footage, and the rousing finale catches the band at its liveliest. Even so, when Sutherland gets the movie’s title engraved on his arm in Icelandic runes, you can’t help but feel you’re watching the most ill-advised megastar tat since Johnny Depp’s “Winona Forever.”

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‘The Wild’

“It’s not Pixar” is becoming the mantra of parents who dutifully shlep their tots to each new 3-D animated feature, and Disney’s latest entry won’t silence them. The premise combines a largely laugh-free variation on Madagascar with a landlocked Finding Nemo emotional arc: A domesticated daddy lion (voice of Kiefer Sutherland) confronts his own parenting issues when his sulky cub (Greg Cipes) is accidentally shipped from the New York Zoo to Africa. Along with Sutherland, reduced to directing his patented Jack Bauer bellow at a gassy cartoon hyrax, the voice cast includes Eddie Izzard, Janeane Garofalo, and William Shatner, but there’s not a spark of chemistry among them. Which is too bad: They’re the only personality the bland character designs have. Under Steve “Spaz” Williams’ direction, the animation is exquisitely detailed, down to the lions’ individually moving whiskers—but when’s the last time you enjoyed a cartoon for its realism?

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Paranoia will destroy you: The never ending anxiety of 24

Kiefer Sutherland has aged a lot in three days. That’s because, as all 24 fans know, his days as government agent Jack Bauer have been stretched out over three full television seasons. I’m not a loyal watcher, having lost the plot sometime during season two, but even I can tell that Jack looks even more pouchy-faced and desolate than usual. Last season he vanquished a lethal virus threat, kicked a smack habit, chopped off a colleague’s hand, saved the world (again), and was fired from his job at the Counter Terrorism Unit. This time around, his girlfriend, dopey daughter, and most of his co-workers have disappeared, to be replaced by an almost entirely new cast. That includes a fresh bunch of malicious foreigners, in particular a close-knit Turkish family/sleeper cell forced to deal with issues ordinary immigrants face, like, is it OK to date an American girl when you’re plotting to destroy her country?

Balancing out the terrorist family circle are Secretary of Defense Heller (William Devane) and his brood: a sexy, obedient daughter and a rebellious son who harangues him for America’s warmongering policies. “Spare me your sixth-grade Michael Moore logic,” Heller shouts at his son. “America has enemies!” 24 clearly takes the dad’s side, mounting an endless series of threats that give Heller an excuse to bulk up the defense budget and keep Jack in the hero business. Jack still solves every crime, and his new job as Heller’s sidekick is the perfect perch for sniffing out potential terror activity.

The adrenaline-fueled format of 24 originally felt like a real innovation: heart-pounding plots unfolding in real time, split screens dividing into a mosaic of misery and tension. But now the show has worn out those particular neural pathways. Perhaps it’s because terrorism has become an utterly routine part of our daily news cycle, or maybe it’s just that you can only spin out anxiety so long before it stops being entertaining, but the fantasy element of 24 has worn thin. A wild American loner, with no regard for rules or conventions (like that Geneva thingie), defeating those big bad Muslims—it all sounds uncomfortably like a White House wet dream.