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Drama

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One of the best of the year, powered by Melissa McCarthy’s misanthropic turn as a struggling biographer in the leanest of times. Unemployed, unpublishable and unliked, McCarthy (playing writer Lee Israel) hits upon a scheme to forge letters from the ranks of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker and soon, her money woes are over. The endeavor also fills an artistic void. She takes pride in her turns of a phrase and bon mots, her work put in the mouths of giants, and she is invigorated. It all goes bad, as it must, but it is eventually to the good.

I can’t say enough about McCarthy. She inhabits the skin of Israel, with a vicious self-protective quality and a reflexive meanness. Yet you invest in her. Her bitter exchanges with her agent and attorney are both hilarious and poignant.

There is good in her, and a hell of a lot of hurt, both of which are unearthed by her chance friendship with an elegant scammer and libertine, Richard E. Grant.  McCarthy and Grant were rightfully nominated for Oscars and it is a joy to watch him match McCarthy’s desire to be left alone with an insistence that they will be friends.  Their hi-jinx and commiseration are the heart of the film.

I was blown away by the fact that this is director Marielle Heller’s first major feature.  It felt like the work of an old hand, steady, confident and mature. The movie skips with ease but pauses for moments of true beauty and consideration.

This is an elegant movie, folding how much people need each other into a very funny, well-told story.

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I always thought Queen was camp, a goof, and their primary contribution was “We are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You” which you sang in the bleachers during CYO basketball games. When I realized some people thought they were a great band, I was surprised. So, I walked into this as if it were a biopic of Emerson Lake & Palmer. Or Kansas.

Still, a great movie does not have to be about a great band. This, however, is not a great movie. It is cookie cutter, inoffensive, as risk-averse a biopic as you’ll find (it’s clear why Sacha Baron Cohen was jettisoned from the project), but well-paced and energized by the erstwhile Bryan Singer and made a little more interesting by Rami Malek’s weird, lizard-like performance (he’s just this side of Bela Lugosi, you never know if he’s just about to bite someone on the neck).  To be fair, Malek is also very moving towards the end.

The scenes of the band playing live and in studio are silly. The scenes of the band talking about the music and themselves are like a slightly more serious episode of the Monkees.  The rendition of the creative process is hilarious.

The primary feeling you’re left with is foreordained watching any story sanctioned by its subjects (the band had script approval) – it’s pleasant.  Rock and roll, drugs, cats and AIDS, brought to you by Disney.  It’s formulaic, harmless and overlong at two hours and fifteen (ending with an extended scene of their set at Live Aid, which is dull in that Malek is lip-synching), but not unentertaining.

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Captain Fantastic was about a father who raised his kids in the woods because he did not trust modernity. It was a terrible movie, mainly because the grown man (Viggo Mortensen) wouldn’t shut up about his philosophy and how superior it was. This movie is about another father (Ben Foster) who insists on living off the grid with his teenage daughter. This is a better film, and the relationship between Foster and Thomason McKenzie is well developed.  But their circumstances suffer from too little explication.  Why are they off the grid? What brought them to this extremist situation? All we really know is that Mom is dead, Foster is introverted and plagued and that as much as he appears to love his daughter, he is really just making her share his demons.

McKenzie is accomplished as the girl torn between loyalty to her Dad and a need to connect with and be in the wider world.  Her desire to commune, to be a part of, is heart-rending.  Writer-director Deborah Granik’s Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map and I can see this film doing the same for McKenzie.  Foster, as always, is stellar as the troubled father, economical and precise.  There is a scene where he is required to answer a computerized voice asking him true or false questions to determine his mental health that he handles beautifully.

There is also a thematic bright spot.  The duo are consistently helped by people who are outgoing, caring and supportive, and yet, Foster rejects all their assistance, underscoring just how near impossible it is to deal with many mentally ill people. The system and surrounding community are, for a change, not the villains. They’re the heroes. And for the most part, it ain’t enough.

On Amazon.

 

 

 

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Arty, messy, self-indulgent and obtuse, a very bad movie. Joaquin Phoenix plays a violent loner with a side line finding missing children and beating their abductors with a ball peen hammer. He himself is plagued by childhood trauma, trauma from the Iraq war, and even more trauma from his time as a border agent? I don’t know. It’s all in flashback and unnecessarily muddled.

He catches the wrong case, saving a pre-teen girl from a sex ring who just happens to be the favorite sexual partner of the governor (Allesandro Nivola, who has zero lines). That’s right, the governor of the state of New York is a pedophile, and at his disposal are numerous police officers and security men who will murder on his behalf so he can continue his disgusting practice. Hell, Trump can’t even get people to shut up about cadging Hillary’s emails.

But I digress.

Really dumb, with the primary feature of creating lethargy and numbness in the viewer.

But what do I know?  It got 89% from rottentomatoes.com. Currently on Amazon.

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Damien Chazelle has directed two gems (Whiplash, La La Land) that could not be more different, and his third picture is every bit as accomplished and even further afield tonally from his prior movies.  On the surface, the film is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the Moon landing, but this is not the gripping, white-knuckle paean to American ingenuity that was Apollo 13 or the sweeping, ironic The Right Stuff, both exquisite films in their own right.  Instead, this is the personal story of Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who, after having lost a young daughter to a malignant tumor, forge ahead in the space program, where calamity is a daily feature.  It’s a beautiful, personal picture, seamlessly melding the grit and determination of one family with an overarching, monumental and patriotic (more on that below) achievement.  It is one of the more moving yet subtle films I’ve ever seen.

Two addenda.  First, the omission of Gosling and Foy in the acting categories for the Oscars is, in my view, the filmic version of the Saints-Rams no-call.  Gosling’s driven and emotionally-stunted introvert is meticulous and engrossing, a master class in precision (think Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea).  Foy, as the wife holding it all together, is simply heartbreaking.

Second, this film caught some flack for failing to depict Armstrong planting the American flag on the Moon.  When asked (and never ask an actor anything), Gosling took as stab at an answer, observing that the landing “was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement” and that he didn’t think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero.”

And . . . .kaboom!  The culture dummies – this time on the right – went after the picture, as some sort of anti-American agitprop.  Little Marco Rubio was particularly incensed:  “This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission,on rockets built by Americans,with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”

The criticism is moronic.  Films are not required to meet a quota of patriotic content.  Worse, though, the charge is false.  The singular American achievement of the landing is represented by footage of JFK literally crowing over, well, the race to that achievement.  Moreover, there is footage of a French woman who observes, “I always trust an American. I knew they wouldn’t fail.”

As if that idiocy wasn’t enough, the left weighed in to label the film a right wing fetish object with a “misbegotten political premise that America used to be greater—and that the liberating and equalizing activism of the sixties ignored, dismissed, and even undermined that greatness” or, gasp!, potentially dangerous for reinforcing the “pervasive notion about achievement—that it occurs when people toughen up and don’t let feelings impair their judgment.”

What a bunch of fucking losers.

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Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was the best film of 2016, and his latest picture is of the same high quality, with the same dreamy, contemplative finish.  Told in flashback and forward, Jenkins’ script is based on a James Baldwin novel set in 1970s Harlem.  We meet childhood friends Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as young adults who have become lovers.  Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and a pregnant Tish, with her family and Fonny’s father, work to pay the legal fees and perform the legwork to free Fonny from prison.

While this film is about many things, at its core, it is a love story, and Baldwin lovingly melds the city and the courtship with great care.  There are scenes that seem almost like portraits, sensuous and evocative, such is the care he takes with his actors and the setting.

The film is also about race, and in this regard, it is subdued in its expression but forthright in its message.  Baldwin is not interested in a political discussion, but instead, a demonstration of how racism pervades the lives of his characters in the seams, adding just another weight to an already heavy institutional burden.  In the wrong hands, the theme would be overwritten and perhaps worse, overacted.  Not here.  The drag of the inequity is not sugarcoated but rather, presented as an open, inescapable legacy for the characters, which leaves a deep impression.

I have two criticisms.  First, Tish often speaks in voice over, which I am not opposed to in all circumstances, but which also suggests a little distrust in the narrative.  Given the ethereal nature of the picture, Jenkins likely felt it necessary to have Tish’s voice explicitly draw us back to the story, but I found it obtrusive and unnecessary.  Second, a racist cop sends Fonny away, and when we meet him, he is so gruesome, so cartoonishly evil, it almost felt as if he would twirl his mustache.  Perhaps that is what Jenkins was going for, to show the cop as the bogeyman the characters see, but I have to say, it was discordant.

Finally, all of the performance are impressive, but as Tish’s mother, Regina King is understated, yet commanding.  She is a veteran of many movies (Ray, Enemy of the State) and even more TV series where she’s mostly powerful and overt, but here, she transcends anything she has done before with a subtle, restrained, nuanced performance.

 

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I caught this a few rainy days ago.  There are very few films that deal with contemporary hot button issues well. Most of the time, the inclination of the writer and director is so patently obvious that the art is robbed of plausibility and force.

This movie is an exception.  The issue is subordinate to the human story, and while that story is primarily told from the viewpoint of an anti-death penalty character (Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean) ministering to convicted murderer and rapist Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), that in no way colors the message, which is admirably equivocal, even, to my mind, shockingly, a hair pro-capital punishment. That is probably just me, given the hackneyed uniformity of most such films, but that the picture provides an emotional and almost ethical argument for the practice is astonishing.

Sarandon is restrained and effective as a woman of faith called to provide spiritual comfort to a man who has committed a monstrous crime, and as that man, Penn exhibits all the bravado, self-pity, cruelty and narcissism of a thug.  Eventually, she learns she is not there to redeem him in any way, and shucks off her self-comforting fantasies that he was just a good boy led astray,  and focuses on simply leading him to confession.

Director Tim Robbins takes meticulous pains to display the brutal toll on the victims’ families and has the balls to juxtapose the execution with an unforgiving flashback of the crime, and unlike what Poncelet has been selling Prejean up until the last moments before he is executed (he is innocent, he was stoned, his accomplice did the killing and raping and things just got out of hand), those flashbacks show him as a vile, entirely in control piece of shit.

Nobody is caricatured. No easy rhetorical gotcha’ lines are delivered.  The employees of the prison, the medical professionals involved in the process, the families, they are treated with rare grace and equanimity.  An example: Sarandon has dinner with her wealthy family, some of whom question her service to Poncelet.  In the wrong hands, they would have been portrayed as the aristocratic, privileged rich, more concerned with their name and espousing small, likely bigoted views.  Robbins, however, shows them as loving and concerned, with questions (“Why spend so much time on this cretin when you could be helping young children not to grow up into becoming this cretin?”) similar to that of the audience.

Similarly, Poncelet is never a beatific victim.  Near the end, he praises Hitler, he spews racist invective, he even makes a sexual come on to Sarandon.  But she works with him, to help him find a dignity within himself through the sole act of the admission of his guilt and contrition.

Great film.