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2016

An unsettling and very smart film, writer-director Tom Ford (A Single Man) autopsies the relationship of Susan and Tony (Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal) while recounting a murder story.  The former is seen in flashback, as Adams, a successful, chic but deeply unhappy art dealer, is presented with her ex-husband’s novel as a prelude to their meeting after a long separation.  That relationship blooms as most do – with fire, unwavering support and the feel of having found a soulmate.  It is eventually undercut by Gyllenhaal’s lack of sophistication, emotional instability and the fact that, as Adams’ patrician mother (Laura Linney) wickedly tells her, “he’s too weak for you.”  As Linney deliciously explains, “Come on, Susan. I know you think that we don’t care about the same things, but you’re wrong. In a few years, all these bourgeois things, as you so like to call them, are going to be very important to you, and Edward’s not going to be able to give them to you. He has no money, he’s not driven, he’s not ambitious. And I can promise you, if you marry Edward, your father’s not going to give them to you either.”  As Adams sits in her classy LA house, a living embodiment of her mother’s prediction, she awaits her reconnection with Tony and starts to read his book, an engrossing tale which ends in a chilling act of brutality that seems directed right at Adams.

The performances are astounding. Since Zodiac and through Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal exudes a compelling mix of sincerity and if not menace, danger, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.  Adams is properly fragile and haunted, with a lacquered face that evokes a cracking shell.  Linney’s one-scene turn is for the ages, and the contributions of Michael Shannon as a taciturn Texas lawman and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his frightening quarry are riveting.

Ford has crafted an original, intricate form of noir that is unnerving and unmannered.  Likely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t remember a film I’ve concentrated on as much as this one for some time.  It was one of the best from last year.

After getting through the hackneyed “man leaves wife and daughter to go to the sea” introduction, made more unpleasant by the spunky, Nickelodeonesque cutie pie daughter of oil rig safety engineer Mark Wahlberg and wife Kate Hudson, Peter Berg’s (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day)  disaster flick settles down nicely.  The pace is taut, the action gripping, the explanation of foreign concepts effective, and the clash of personalities (true blue safety guys Wahlberg and Kurt Russell versus corporate, dollar-watching rig manager John Malkovich) not too heavy-handed.  A decent expenditure of time, but as my daughter remarked, probably better delivered as a documentary.

The movie hewed pretty close to the facts, but, incredibly, left one off that perhaps seemed to incredible to portray:  college kids were fishing under the rig when it blew up.

Image result for 20th Century Women

An affecting confluence of nostalgia and deep emotion born of human connectedness, this film presents as a standard coming of age tale, but it is a great deal more.  We find 15 year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman) growing up in Santa Barbara in the late 70s with his idiosyncratic mother (Annette Bening, a mix of traditionalist and free thinker), who raises him in a home in which she rents out rooms to people who will eventually become instrumental in his upbringing.  Her cockeyed plan at the outset is to rely on one of her renters, a feminist photographer (Greta Gerwig), and an older neighbor teen (Elle Fanning) to teach her son how to be “a man.”

Bening beautifully renders a woman grappling with her own doubts, confusing times (she is referred to as a daughter of “the Depression” by her son as if she has an illness, and at one point she notes, “I think history has been tough on men.  I mean, they can’t be what they were, and they can’t figure out what’s next”), and the establishment of her own values (my favorite of her observations is “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed”).

There are too many pitch-perfect, smart scenes to recount, but some merit mention, particularly the scene where the house handyman (Billy Crudup) who – having been deemed an insufficient role model because he and the boy do not connect – signs on as Bening’s guide to the culture, and in particular, punk rock. When Bening and Crudup, who is a bit of a hippie, attempt to dance,  first to Black Flag and later to Talking Heads, the result is a joyous rendering of representatives of two distinct tribes trying to understand the totems of a third.  The scene is almost as funny as when Gerwig insists that everybody at a house dinner party not only acknowledges her period, but says the word “menstruation” out loud.  And Fanning’s advice to the boy after he corrects a neighborhood kid boasting of his sexual prowess with a dissertation on the mechanics of the clitoris (for which he catches a beating) is both cruel and exceedingly wise.

In the wrong hands, this film would be a series of snappy vignettes, one more quirky than the next, and the result would likely have been cloying and unsatisfying.  But writer director Mike Mills never slums for your laughs or tears, and he stitches together the experiences of the characters seamlessly through the process of brief biographical snippets.  Better yet, he has a strong sense of what is authentic, and the film is loaded with grit and heart.

Some will accuse the picture of dragging, but I felt it simply took its time, allowing the feel to make the same deep impression as the dialogue, and nothing felt gratuitous.  One of the best from last year.

Isabelle Huppert (nominated for best actress) is a successful video game designer who is, in the film’s first scene, brutally raped. The twist is that she is already so cynically wired and self-loathing that the act does not have the consequences one might expect.  In short, she’s a tough-as-nails cookie, central to the maintenance of her successful business, dolt of a son, needy ex-husband and outrageously libertine mother.  She is also brazenly selfish, carrying on an affair with the husband of her best friend, with whom she has an almost romantic relationship.

So, when her rapist begins to text her and even break into her house to leave “mementos”, she is as much intrigued as terrified.  The result is, at its best, a Hitchcockian sexual thriller and sly comedy of manners, and, when the mystery is solved, at worst, a smugly self-satisfied weirdo tale.  All in all, a solid film by Paul Verhoeven (Black Book, Robocop), who has made a career sticking his thumb in the eyes of traditional sexual mores, usually with a taste for the violent.  Huppert is nothing less than commanding.

The politics of the film are also interesting. It has been dubbed by many critics as a “rape revenge” movie, but it is really a great deal more complicated than that.  I am guessing the moniker was affixed to ward off much of the picture’s untidy political incorrectness (as one progressive reviewer unsurprisingly notes, this is a “male filmmaker’s lurid, repeated depiction of violence against a female character, one who is defined, almost entirely, by her relationship with men, shown in nightmarish detail”).  If someone brought this baby on to an modern American campus, the viewers would likely be institutionalized and those responsible tarred and feathered.

 

I am a huge fan of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories), and in particular, his methodical, textured and grounded style of filmmaking. And boy does he exhibit all of those qualities in Loving, the story of the Virginia couple, Mildred and Richard Loving (played by Ruth Negga and the hardest working man in show business, Joel Edgerton) at the heart of the Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage.  Nichols’s depiction of their small Caroline County Virginia town, with its slow pace and cloistered mentality, eschews the Hollywoodization of most civil rights flicks.  The system is wrong and cruel, and the instruments of same (the police, the courts) are in service of that wrong, but these are just people, neither mustache twirling villains or radiant, untouchable martyrs.

The problem with the film, however, is that not every historical figure is deserving of a movie treatment. George Patton, sure, but Omar Bradley?  The fact is, the Lovings, as presented by Nichols, are so simple, so unremarkable, that they feel less like leaves caught in a whirlwind or champions for their own cause and more like bystanders.  Mistreated bystanders, but mere bystanders nonetheless.  Negga shows some deftness in delivering her culture shock at having to escape to the city, and you can see a steel in her spine stiffen at the injustice at play (the Lovings were essentially banished from Virginia).  But Edgerton is so internal and non-demonstrative that he doesn’t even classify as inscrutable.  He’s just a dud, bordering on the disinterested.

It is almost to Nichol’s credit that this film is so boring.  He steadfastly refuses to dramatize.  But boring and entertainment are not reconcilable.

Perhaps Nichols sensed this flaw, because while he gets estimable but sober help from Bill Camp and Martin Csokas as the local attorney and sheriff who, respectively, assist and plague the Lovings, he tries ever so slightly to give the audience some flash in the form of comic actor Nick Kroll, as the ACLU lawyer for the couple. The gambit fails.  Kroll is, frankly, a lousy, one-note dramatic actor and it almost feels like he wants to start cracking up.  The effect is weird and off-putting.

Ultimately, this film feels like an obligation.  If you feel so obliged, go to it.

Prior to seeing Moonlight on Saturday, my two “best” pictures for the year were the rousing, throwback to old Hollywood musicals La La Land and the deeply affecting, painfully human Manchester by the Sea.  Last night, Moonlight inexplicably (and awkwardly) won best picture, and I have to say that in the three horse race (actually, four, because Hell or High Water is every bit the film as these three), I would have been happy with any coming out on top.  Moonlight, however, distinguishes itself from the others in a few critical ways.

First, let’s put La La Land to the side, not with short shrift, but simply as a “which one of these doesn’t belong and why?” entrant.  I’m still captivated by Damien Chazelle’s light and vibrant revival of the Hollywood musical, but it is a different animal and one that I think suffered from an early over-exuberance that gave way to more serious and deeper fare, as well as a time-worn presumption that LA would be unable to resist rewarding itself (with the assistance of Price Waterhouse and a befuddled Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, LA almost pulled it off).

Hell or High Water was a sneakily political film with rich turns and deep roots , but ultimately, it was a heist and manhunt pic; Jeff Bridges was a derivation of the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men; and the film was as much about desolate Texas as the characters hurtling towards each other on its dusty roads.

So, my eggs were in Manchester’s basket.  Casey Affleck’s tortured yet reserved and meticulous performance was one of the best I’ve ever see on film, and Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of what a family means in its whole and then in its shattered parts, along with its stubbornly non-Hollywood ending and countenance, sold me.  Best film of the year.

Then, Moonlight.  The story of a young black kid (Chiron) from Liberty City wrestling with not only a forbidding environment but his own sexuality was tender and poetic.  Also, I found it just a tad more interesting, in that it depicted a world and a struggle not often covered in film, and it elevated restraint and finesse to its highest form.  While not as moving as Manchester, in part due to a more ambitious and necessarily distracting style, the films are very similar in capturing a character at different stages of his life, changed by trauma and haunted by doubt.

The film is also blessed by numerous strong performances.  Though nothing approximating Affleck’s turn, the three actors who play Chiron as a boy, a teen and later as an adult all were deserving of the Best Supporting Actor nod given to Mahershala Ali, who plays the Cuban crack dealer who puts Chiron under his wing.

The quiet, unhurried moments in the three non-musicals are the ones I found most impressive, moments where you filled in the blanks and never felt even nudged to a conclusion or resolution.

I don’t know which of these films is the best of the year, but they are all great.

As a director, Mel Gibson has visual chops, but that’s about the whole of it.  Accordingly, unless someone writes him something of value, it can be a long slog.  Hacksaw Ridge, which recounts the incredible story of WWII conscientious objector medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) as he staves off court-martial and saves75 lives on a hellish plateau in Okinawa, is that slog.

First, to the history.  After Hidden Figures and Sully, I smelled a rat, and sure enough, most of the particulars of those stories – which could have and should have stood on their own – were b.s.  After Hacksaw, I was sure I’d hit the trifecta.  I was wrong.  Doss’s story is basically retold straight.  The problem is that his story is so incredible, Gibson should have said, “You know, let’s leave this part out, or people are going to start rolling their eyes.”  For me, the part when Dawes has a grenade thrown at him, and he wheels around and gives it a back-kick reminiscent of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill or top form Pele’ – that was the moment.  But hell if Doss didn’t do just that.  From History v. Hollywood:

On the night of May 21, 1945, just a half mile past the escarpment on Okinawa, Desmond’s unit inadvertently walked into a company of Japanese soldiers. The unit engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy and Desmond scrambled to treat the wounded. “They begin to throw these hand grenades,” recalled Desmond. “I saw it comin’. There was three other men in the hole with me. They were on the lower side, but I was on the other side lookin’ when they threw the thing. I knew there was no way I could get at it. So I just quickly took my left foot and threw it back to where I thought the grenade might be, and throw my head and helmet to the ground. And not more than half a second later, I felt like I was sailin’ through the air. I was seein’ stars I wasn’t supposed to be seein’, and I knew my legs and body were blown up.” The blast left 17 pieces of shrapnel embedded in Desmond’s body, mostly in his legs. The Conscientious Objector Documentary

 Now, to the film.  I don’t know what to say about the non-combat portion, where we see Desmond as a boy and later in basic training.  As dewy-eyed hokum goes, this is buffed to almost the point of art form.  Garfield is so damned earnest in his role he threatens veering into Gomer Pyle and even Forrest Gump territory, but to his credit, his ardor actually works.  He inhabits the role fully and effectively communicates the viewpoint of a simple, decent and brave man.  Unfortunately, those around him are so melodramatic or stock, it is hard not to stifle a laugh.  His sweetheart (Theresa Palmer) is the vintage beauty in the gleaming white nurse outfit, the sun streaming through her lovely hair.  His mother and father (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths – Mel takes care of his Aussie own) are damn near operatic.  And my God, his introduction to his unit threatens to break into song, as every stereotype steps up to say “Hey, I’m the Italian/Hollywood/Tough/Nice/Shy/Hick guy” and “Howya doin’, goodtomeetcha’, heytheresport, getalookatdosegams, fuggedaboudit”

“WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . .

OFF TO FIGHT THE JAPS!

CAN’T WAIT TO SEE SOME ACTION

IN TOJO’S ASS WE’LL PUT SOME CAPS.

WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . . . .”

After this incredibly uncomfortable segue, the scenes of Doss’s trial by fire to get him to quit and his convictions being challenged during basic training are perfunctory.  One gets the sense Gibson wants to get to the battlefield.  Understandably so. Mel does maelstrom and carnage better than most, and the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are fluid, inspired and riveting.

But that ain’t nearly enough.