Nocturnal Animals

November 27, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment

◊ ◊ ◊ ½

It’s going to be difficult to say much about this film without any spoilers. But, don’t worry, I will warn you first. This is the second film directed by fashion designer Tom Ford. His first, “A Single Man,” was criticized for being overly stylized but it was gorgeous to watch. Again, Ford’s aesthetic shows through as he creates a visually lush film. From the first images in the opening credits, you realize you are in for something different. The movie manages to engage you right from the start and draws the audience into its complex web. And this plot is complex as it tells a story within a story and adds flashbacks on top of that. Susan Morrow (Amy Adams, looking absolutely luminous in every scene) is wealthy but rather unhappy. She and her husband (Armie Hammer) are clearly no longer in love. Then her ex-husband, Edward, sends her a copy of a book he has just written and that he dedicated to her. She reads the book and we get that story acted out, as well as Susan’s present day and flashbacks to her relationship with Edward. Given that Jake Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and the lead character of the book, it can all get a tad dizzying, if you’re not paying attention. But one gets the sense that Ford was going for dizzying. He is playing with the idea of a story-within-a-story and with how much the two may bleed into each other. A car from the fictional story shows up in the background of the “real” story and women from the real world show up in the background of the book. Characters from one world echo characters from another. And all of it seems to be driving toward a single question: why did Edward write the book and why did he share it with Susan. Here come the spoilers, so, if you have not seen the movie, I might skip to the end. SPOILERS: is the book his revenge on her? What parallels should we draw between the fiction and the real world. They seem completely unrelated on the surface but there is a vein of commonality. In a flashback, Susan tells Edward that a story he wrote is boring and he should not write about himself. He responds by saying that is all anyone writes about. It seems fair that Tony (the protagonist of the book) is Edward. And, just like Edward lost everything because he was too “sensitive” (or weak as it is referred to several times), Tony loses everything because he is weak. Tony also loses his wife and child, just as Edward did. Granted his was through horrific violence but that seems to be a metaphor for the emotional violence of what Susan did to Edward. This layering of meaning creates a tension that builds throughout the film, promising a confrontation between Susan and Edward that is never delivered. What is the meaning of that final scene? My audience laughed at it and I can understand why. It feels a bit disappointing given the build up. But Ford was so deliberate in his choices throughout the film, that I found it provocative. END OF SPOILERS: this was not a perfect film and it certainly struggled, sometimes with clarity, sometimes with pacing and one could argue that it does not deliver on an implicit promise. That said, I was completely drawn into the journey and found it visually arresting and intellectually rich. It’s interesting to compare it to “Manchester by the Sea,” which I saw yesterday. That movie made me feel very deeply. This movie did not make me feel but it made me think far more than that one did. I wonder which one will stay with me longer.

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Manchester by the Sea

November 27, 2016 at 9:41 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

As we head into the thick of the holiday season (read the Oscar season), somber character studies start piling up like gifts faster than I can open them. I find no story more moving than one that tries to explore how real people deal with life, how we are strong and weak and succeed and fail, all at the same time. Here we have Lee Chandler returning to the town he has run away from in order to deal with a death and his teenage nephew. Stories like this work best when they remain small in scope and allow all the heavy lifting to be done by the actors. There is nothing flashy here, nothing that feels forced or unrealistic. In fact, I noticed several moments where another film might have gone for sentimentality but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me,” “Gang of New York”) pulled back each time. Instead, we get a film that is quiet, like its frozen landscape, but is crackling underneath with all the layers of grief. There is numbness and a biting, brittle sort of humor just under that, and then anger and deep sadness beneath both of those. These characters have such depth that all of those feelings can be seen all the time; even when they laugh (and the film is quite funny) it comes from pain. The story primarily revolves around the relationship between Lee and his nephew, played by Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges, respectively. Affleck is nothing like his older brother as an actor, in terms of pacing, cadence and energy. Perhaps as a result, he has had a difficult time finding his footing in Hollywood. His style of acting reminds me much more of his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix, who I could have easily seen play this same role. Affleck gave what may finally be his breakout performance as he fully inhabits the shattered Lee. He is a man scarcely holding himself together who is now asked to do this big thing. The power of this film is in watching how hard he tries to do it. There is tremendous beauty in watching this suffering man trying to be brave. Hedges (who has had mostly small roles in films like “Moonrise Kingdom”) is also fantastic, as is the entire supporting cast, most of whom only have small roles. The always amazing Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Blue Valentine”) is hardly on screen but her character feels completely real, none-the-less. The most powerful scene of the film comes between her and Affleck and it devastates. The story is built on a grand metaphor: as we wait for the frozen ground to thaw enough to bury a body over the course of the film, we are also waiting for people to thaw and other ghosts to be buried. But, I warn you, don’t expect pat answers or comfortable resolutions. The journey this film, and these actors, takes us on feels always, painfully, just like grief in the real world.

Loving

November 20, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Movies about pivotal court cases can often be loud, splashy affairs (think “Erin Brockovich” or “The Rainmaker”), building dramatically toward a climactic courtroom showdown. What was so arresting (excuse the pun) about this film was just how quiet it was. The movie opens with silence. There is no score, just two people back lit at night, sitting quietly. It’s a beautiful scene that sets the stage for the story of how two unassuming people managed to change this country. Because it is more a character study than the standard David-vs-Goliath story, the film hinges on the performances of it’s two leads. Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom,” “The Gift”) gives a stellar performance as a painfully shy and unassuming Richard Loving. Having seen him in other roles, I know how much Edgerton transformed to become this man. That said, the strength of the film was in Mildred Loving. Ruth Negga (known largely from television shows like “Preacher”) gives us a woman who is quiet and unassuming like her husband but has an inner strength that drives all the action in the film. This couple’s love is so fierce that they are each willing to go far beyond their comfort zone for the other. These were both incredibly moving performances. Director Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) understands that the power of this story is in the Lovings’ quiet earnestness. He honors that through his tone and pacing, which focuses more on them as a couple than on the sensational nature of the case. In what could have been the “biggest” scene of the film, when the ruling is announced, we are not in the court room with the Supreme Court Justices, we are watching a face, in almost silence, on a phone call. It’s a perfect moment that understands who this story was really about and, larger implications aside, what it meant for one family. This film reminds us the the political is personal and that there are real lives behind culture-shifting moments. As it began, the film ends quietly, simply, focused on two people who loved each other.

The Edge of Seventeen

November 20, 2016 at 9:09 am | Posted in 2016 | 1 Comment
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In the long history of coming-of-age films, the truly successful ones (think “The Breakfast Club” or “Juno”) all have the same core message: you’re a weirdo, but we all are, so forgive yourself. That theme of self-acceptance against the weight of alienation is what makes these films resonate so deeply, both with young people in the middle of that struggle and with the rest of us, who so keenly remember those painful days. While that same trope could seem tired and cliche after a while, writer and first time director, Kelly Fremon Craig, has given it her own spin. Just as Jason Reitman did with “Juno” a decade ago, Craig has managed to tell this story for a new generation. The film is essentially a millennial’s “Sixteen Candles.” And, as with most of everything else in media these days, it is far edgier and less innocent that film. It’s hard to know if that is because teens are so much more worldly today or if films are just more willing to be honest about it. The fantastic Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit,” “Ender’s Game”) plays Nadine, the awkward teen at the center of our story. Around her, the typical group of peers and family circle, played mostly by unknown actors. We have her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson), her “perfect” brother (Blake Jenner, who you might recognize from “Everybody Wants Some!!” or “Glee”), the bad boy who she wants (Alexander Calvert) and the nerdy boy who wants her (Hayden Szeto). Despite not looking remotely like a teenager (he’s in his 30s), Szeto does a terrific job of playing the bumbling and awkward Erwin and is one of the real joys of this film. Woody Harrelson, who plays one of her teachers, is also great to watch. Though his is the one character that rings false (neither how he treats Nadine nor how she responds to his treatment feels remotely realistic), his interactions with her are genuinely funny. However, the character I found the most compelling was Nadine’s mother, Mona, played by Kyra Sedgwick. In John Hughes’s films, the parents are essentially invisible; they float irrelevantly in the background. But Mona is the backbone of Nadine’s story. Who she is completely explains who Nadine and her brother are and why they behave with each other the way they do. She is the most fully developed parent I can remember seeing in a coming-of-age film and Sedgwick portrays her beautifully. Without her, this film would have been cute, funny, clever, but not much more than that. Mona gives more impact to everything in the film because she gives depth to the central tension. Nadine is a typical sixteen year old; she is melodramatic and unrelentingly self-involved. She could be very unlikeable and, in moments, she is. But, understanding her home dynamic softens her edges and allows the audience to connect on a deeper level. It allows this film to be more than just funny; it allows it to also be insightful.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

November 19, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Rebooting a very successful franchise can be a risky gamble; just look at Star Wars. Fans have incredibly high expectations. They love the world just as it is but they don’t want a retread of what they have already seen. How do you create new characters who do not look like shadows of previously beloved ones but can still find a place in this world? How do you even reenter this world in a way that feels fresh and familiar at the same time? To her credit, JK Rowling has done a fairly good job of doing exactly that. We are brought back to the world of Harry Potter, only we have been transported to 1920s America and introduced to whole new set of characters. The four main protagonists (two men and two women) are sufficiently different from Harry, Hermione and Ron, so as to not feel like cheap copies. Also, the arc of this story is utterly different from the Potter series. Much credit should be given for her ability to create such a different look into the same universe. That said, I am not sure that this one is as compelling as the original. Newt Scamander is not nearly so engaging a character as Harry Potter. He lacks the sense of destiny that was a driving force in the original books. Also, where Harry was a moral compass (righteous, brave, charismatic and unflinching in the face of destiny), Newt is timid, painfully shy and prone to tears (he reminded me more of Redmayne’s “Danish Girl” than anything else). He’s likable as a character, but only in a “hey, buck up. You’re better than you think you are” kind of way. The audience likes him because he seems vulnerable and misunderstood. He does not command attention the way Harry Potter did, nor does he seem to have the hidden potential that drove our interest in Harry. In addition, this story lacks some of the fundamental tension of the original series. There is no great rising danger that we know is coming (though we are given hints of a potential future villain). Rather, this story is more of a goofy romp around New York, full of slapstick humor and dashes of sentimentality, that may work more for other audiences than for me. The story worked best when it strayed back into darker territory, as it did with Samantha Morton (“Sweet and Lowdown,” “Minority Report”) as the anti-witch evangelist and Ezra Miller (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and The Flash in the new DC movies) as her disturbed son, Credence Barebone. The name is classic Rowling and the character is full of pain and menace, played perfectly by Miller. We are introduced to a lot of new, silly creatures but also to one terrifying one, an obscurus. It isn’t quite as good as a dementor, but it’s pretty good. In fact, my main takeaway from this film is that, it isn’t as good as the original series yet, but it could be. This film was fun and mostly silly. If the next ones get darker, as the original series did, then I think there is real potential here.

Arrival

November 15, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

In the range of Sci-Fi movies from flash-bang, special effects overload (think “The Fifth Element”) to slow, moody and ponderous (think “Moon”), this one lands somewhere just north of middle. In mood and theme and pacing, it very much reminds me of “Contact.” It isn’t devoid of action but it’s filled with more big ideas than big explosions. The short story that the film is based on, “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, was the winner of three prestigious science fiction literary awards in 1999. It draws heavily on mathematics and modern linguistic theories to construct a plausible, but very science-fictiony, story about how an alien language might look and how it might influence us. So, yeah. No Bruce Willis in this one. Instead, we getting acting heavyweights like Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner (who may be making his bread off of franchises like “The Avengers” and “Mission Impossible” these days but, all you have to do is rewatch “The Hurt Locker” to understand how powerful he can be). The three of them do an admirable job, well below their skill levels, of bringing these characters to life. This isn’t Scorsese but it’s a cut above your regular genre fiction. The plot is complex and interesting and the twist, which is revealed slowly, is a gratifying one. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”) isn’t going for shocks here, he’s going for quieter surprises, so don’t expect a “Shutter Island” moment. The reality of the twist is in its implications more than its reveal. The short story spends more time on those implications and why certain choices aren’t made differently. Chiang is posing a question and asking us to consider how language shapes our perception and what free choice really is. Unfortunately, the film only hints at some of these issues but then, I guess, it couldn’t have delved too deeply. After all, it did need to leave room for an explosion somewhere.

The Handmaiden

November 12, 2016 at 9:56 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

About halfway through my viewing of this film, I heard loudly whispered behind me, “this movie is a lot weirder than I thought it would be.” Indeed. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Lady Vengence,” “Thirst”) or the novel upon which the film is based (“Fingersmith”), you could be forgiven for being utterly baffled. The story is a convoluted one, with multiple narrators telling their version of the same events. This is very clear in the novel but was far less so in the film. When Part 2 started, not everyone understood that we were seeing the same story, now narrated by another woman. Had the film been in English, with actors American’s knew, the audience might have recognized that the two voice-overs were from different women. In addition, the story itself is complex with twists and turns and strange asides that can be hard to follow, especially when subtitled. However, I had read the book (and read the Wikipedia entry on it just yesterday to remind myself), which helped immensely in following along. The story is fun and clever and full of tension and surprises. Park is known for his beautiful visuals and this film does not disappoint. Every single scene was just breathtaking. Some of the scenery was almost distractingly beautiful and the costumes were equally gorgeous. Park knows how to frame a scene and I was continually taken by the imagery on screen. In one scene, a blood spot on a white sheet is contrasted against a white kimono covered in red flowers; genius details like that really make me happy. The film also had a quirky and delightful sense of humor, sorely missing from the book. Park’s telling of this story was, at times, playful. At other times, it was not. Anyone familiar with his work, knows that Park has a penchant for revenge porn and a little good old fashioned porn, as well. While the book definitely has sexual content, it was made much more explicit in the film. Parts 1 & 2 match the book’s very closely but Part 3 changes quite dramatically. This is largely an improvement (the book becomes a melodrama in the last section, so full of silly twists as to be ridiculous). Park’s version is much tighter and avoids the worst of the book’s endings. However, he also inserted a revenge torture scene and a lot of graphic lesbian sex. It was all gratuitous and did nothing to drive the plot. I could have done without the titillation. That lovely, twisting story and all of those beautiful images were more than enough for me.

Money Monster

November 12, 2016 at 8:57 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

While we primarily know her from her extensive acting career, Jodie Foster has also established herself as a skilled director and producer (“Little Man Tate,” “The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys,” “Home for the Holidays”). Her films have tended to be heartwarming, funny and intimate portraits of how people try to find meaning/ fit into the world. But that is not the case here. “Money Monster” is a flashy Hollywood production with top-tier stars, action and very little depth. George Clooney plays Lee Gates, a tv personality and financial advisor, who is a thinly veiled Jim Cramer character (his show is even called “Money Monster,” which is an obvious reference to Cramer’s “Mad Money”). In the middle of filming a live episode, a disgruntled young man with a bomb enters the studio and takes Lee hostage. The young man, played by Jack O’Connell (the British star of the fantastic film “’71” and Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”), has a message he wants to share about the evils of rogue corporate interests and the plight of the little guy. This is another post-financial crisis movie but, unlike “The Big Short” or “Margin Call,” it sheds no light. The crisis is simply a cheap tool used to give a certain superficial relate-ability to O’Connell’s character. In fact, that is what I thought of the film, in general: it never went deep, or even tried to. It was always willing to simply move the story along. These are one-dimensional characters (well, maybe two-dimensional) who exist only to entertain the audience. That’s not a bad thing. Many films are pure escapism. I had just been under the impression that there would be more than that here. The film moves along quickly and, at barely more than an hour and a half, is over before you know it. It isn’t an unpleasant way to spend your down time. Just don’t show up expecting insight, catharsis, or any depth of emotion at all. This movie, for good or bad, is just a slick, glossy, thrill ride.

 

Moonlight

November 6, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Sometimes, a film is so awful that I find I have virtually nothing to say about it. Then, there are times like this one, when a film is so close to perfect, it also leaves me speechless. “Moonlight” may prove to be my favorite film of the year and, as an exercise in curiosity, it is worth comparing it to my one other 5 lozenge movie so far this year: “Swiss Army Man.” They could not be more different. While that one is shocking, vulgar, profane, and absurd, this film is so earnest and painfully real. Every single moment felt exactly right, because every single moment felt completely true. The film tells the story of one boy growing into a man. Growing up on tough streets in Miami, we watch the young boy nicknamed Little become the teenager Chiron and then the fully grown Black. Circling around him are the various men and women and boys who will help shape and haunt him. I really cannot convey how right this movie felt to me. I do not know this community but I absolutely believe that Tarell McCraney does. McCraney’s play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” is the basis for this film. I am familiar with McCraney and was blown away by his play, “The Brothers Size” when I saw it many years ago. Like much of his other work, “Moonlight” deals with intimacy of all sorts between Black men, but sexual intimacy in particular. It’s raw and touching and incredibly powerful. There are so many scenes I could talk about, but I will mention just one, when Black visits his old friend Kevin at a diner. From the clink of the bell as he walks in that door to the clink when they leave, that scene is perfect. Every moment is filled with unspoken, heavy emotion. Just watching the food get made was a joy because there was so much language in those images. Every look, every smile or pained expression, every held breath and long pause all said so much. The language of this film was not just in its words, but in its images and the final one was heartbreaking. There are many reasons to make films. To tell a simple, needed truth is a great one and this is a great film.

Doctor Strange

November 5, 2016 at 10:30 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful for everyone, not least of all Marvel Comics, who was on the verge of bankruptcy 15 years ago, that they must have a full time employee at Marvel whose only job is to dig through every remaining character in their pantheon, looking for their next gold mine. The current list of Marvel characters that have been featured in recent film or television include Captain America, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-man, Ant-Man, The Black Widow, The Black Panther, The Falcon, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Daredevil, The Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Nick Fury and the list goes on. At this point, they have to dig deep into their archives to find new material. Fortunately for them, they have more than 50 years of it. Doctor Strange is what you might call one of their B- List characters. He was created in the 1960s and languished in obscurity until he was rescued in the 80s by artist Marshall Rogers. Briefly, he had a cult following before slipping into the background again. Well, Marvel has now revived him for a film series of his own, inspired heavily by Rogers’s art and the visuals of films like “Inception.” The end result is a better-than-it-should-be romp through a lighter, funnier, campier film than either “Inception” or the comic book ever were. There is certainly plenty of magical action (I wish the magic from “Harry Potter” had looked half this good) and the final battle was a visual delight that must have been murder to film but was sheer fun to watch. There was also room for back story, pensive introspection and life lessons without slowing the plot down. In the end, the lighthearted tone eases the audience through the sillier aspects of the story and keeps things going at a jaunty pace. Doctor Strange will never be much more than a bit player among superheroes but this film shows Marvel’s genius at lifting him up enough to at least get a trilogy out of him. He may not be cinematic gold but he’ll be worth a few silver.

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