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Drama

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.

I looked at the IMDB description for this film, and nearly did a spit-take when I saw it categorized under “Comedy.”  A woman estranged from her family for years, clearly mentally disturbed and also a recovering substance abuser, arrives at her sister’s massive Thanksgiving get-together in Texas, where we get to watch every holler and stomp destabilize her like a gut punch, as she repeatedly retreats to the bathroom or patio to pop pills, smoke and/or eventually, booze.

Hilarious!

What follows is an intense exploration of the sufferings of a sick mind as it shimmies and shatters and the shards go flying into the innocent bystanders.  Krisha Fairchild is riveting as the poor wretch, but I’m simply too old for this kind of film.  One reviewer noted: “The story will eventually draw the viewer outside Krisha’s perspective, but the beauty of the film is that its compassion deepens along with its very real sense of horror — compassion not just for Krisha but for those who still love her or have given up on trying.”

Not so.  I don’t care about her and i don’t want to care about her.  She’s a narcissistic cancer and it’s neither fun nor interesting to watch the world try to pull her from a dizzying descent down the crapper.

Winner of the South by Southwest Film Festival Grand Jury Award and Audience Award, available on Amazon Prime, and as entertaining as orange juice on a canker sore.

A haunting, mournful yet cautiously optimistic film.  As with You Can Count on Me, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan depicts family like no one else.  In this family, the protagonist is Casey Affleck, a Boston janitor so emotionally stunted he struggles to maintain a personal conversation longer than a minute, seeking outlet in drinking and getting his ass kicked. He is forced to return to his home town of Manchester due to tragedy, and while there, must confront his unforgiving past.

It’s hard to say enough about Affleck’s performance.  He is required to do so much with so little emotion, yet in a wince, a stare, or a wry smile, he imparts more than he ever could with pages of overt dialogue.  He is ably matched by Lucas Hedges (both are nominated), his teenage nephew, who has been placed in Affleck’s care for a period of time.  Kyle Chandler, as Affleck’s  older brother, exudes responsibility and vulnerability.  Yet, despite the lack of real familial relationships, these three actors seem as if they are indeed brothers. The scene where the adult Chandler and Affleck won’t stop goofing around during a dire time at the hospital (much to the frustration of Chandler’s wife and their gentle, peacemaking father) is foreshadowing for a later rough, jokey and conspicuous dialogue between Affleck and Hedges.

Lonergan provides no easy resolution or pat answers. He stitches the pain of the past in his characters very tightly and eschews melodrama. I kept expecting to be overwhelmed by a moment or a revelation, but really, the entire piece is quietly, almost stealthily moving, a studied portrait on loss and family and life.

I still have a few flicks to see, such as Moonlight and Hacksaw Ridge, and I was over the moon for La La Land, but as of now, this is the best film I’ve seem from 2016.

One nit.  The score, by Lesly Barber, which is orchestral with a lot of strings, and is at times affecting, is at others intrusive and overstated.  In such a restrained film, this was off-putting.

Filmed in the Amazonia region of Columbia in black and white, director and co-writer Ciro Guerra give us the life of a shaman, Karamakate, as a young and old man making the same journey, to find the rare plant yakruna.  The first trek is on behalf of a dying German ethnographer who has contracted a disease only the plant can cure; the second occurs 40 years later, as an American explorer seeks the plant for its rubber yield, a find that will aid the U.S. in World War II.  The young Karamakate is angry, as he points out the wreckage inflicted upon his home by the encroachment of the whites (essentially, the “rubber wars” of Chile and Peru, which resulted in the enslavement of some indigenous tribes).  In his second journey, he is wiser, resigned to complete a task unfinished in his youth.

This is heavy stuff with a strong reliance on Joseph Conrad.  Indeed, a Jesuit mission happened upon by Karamakate in his youth becomes a Kurtzian religious cult of a Jim Jonesian quality in the 40 years that passes.

The film drags a bit, but the back-and-forth keeps the pace quick enough.  The culture clashes are memorable and the political import, if not subtle, is fleshed out.  More importantly, save for a cheezy drug trip that feels more like Epcot than kissing the sky, the look of the picture is gorgeous.

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Three extraordinary African-American women work in segregated Hampton Virginia to assist NASA in its endeavors to put a man in space. Along the way, they confront everyday casual racism, structural impediments imposed because of their color and gender, and the general pressures of life. There are sweeping moments, a few speeches, some comic relief, and some genuinely tender exchanges (the best bits are between Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, respectively, underling and her supervisor, as they negotiate their roles, hidden frustrations and biases). At its best, this is a pleasant and occasionally winning semi historical drama. At its worst, it is Hallmark Channel tripe, uneven (the insistence on telling three stories short-changes all of them; there is just too much going on, giving the characters short-shrift) and unoriginal.

It took me a little time to find the analog to this picture, but eventually, I settled on it. Hidden Figures is very much like another inferior film that was all the buzz at Oscar time but proved entirely underwhelming in the viewing: The Imitation Game . That film was loaded with melodrama and schmaltz, and it too played fast and loose with the history in an effort to elicit an emotional response that, upon reflection, seemed the product of manipulation rather than honest presentation. In the process, it jettisoned a much more interesting reality – that protagonist Alan Turing’s homosexuality was not as closeted and did not create the frailty depicted in the film – to serve a well-worn narrative, the long-suffering, noble and unheralded hero, maligned for his essence whilst saving England from the Nazis.  Snooooorrrrreeeee.

In researching the fact versus fiction aspects of this film, I was struck by the following in History v. Hollywood:

Did Katherine Johnson feel the segregation of the outside world while working at NASA?

No. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research,” says the real Katherine G. Johnson. “You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Even though much of the racism coming from Katherine’s coworkers in the movie seems to be largely made up (in real life she claimed to be treated as a peer), the movie’s depiction of state laws regarding the use of separate bathrooms, buses, etc. was very real. African-American computers had also been put in the segregated west section of the Langley campus and were dubbed the “West Computers.” -WHROTV Interview

In Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, she writes about a cardboard sign on one of the tables in the back of NASA Langley’s cafeteria during the early 1940s that read, “COLORED COMPUTERS.” This particularly struck a nerve with the women because it seemed especially ridiculous and demeaning in a place where research and intellectual ability was focused on much more than skin color. It was Miriam Mann, a member of the West Computers, who finally decided to remove the sign, and when an unknown hand would make a new sign a few days later, Miriam would shove that sign into her purse too. Eventually, the signs stopped reappearing at some point during the war.

Now, juxtapose this extremely interesting recitation of what actually happened from Johnson with the cookie cutter incidents used in the film. A colored only coffee pot – untrue.  Johnson having to go to the bathroom in a separate place – nope, she used the unmarked whites bathroom. Being mistaken for a janitor on her first day working with a made up character played by Kevin Costner – made up.  The smashing of a “Colored Only” sign with a sledgehammer by Costner – untrue (and at the expense of the great story about the cardboard signs so persistently and surreptitiously discarded by the real life figure).

So, the real Johnson states that she didn’t really even feel segregation in her workplace yet the screenwriters make it a factor in every single aspect of her work life. These decisions are bad decisions for two reasons. First, we have seen all of the standard tropes before. They tell us nothing new. They are boring. And they are so stale they feel counterfeit.  Second, and most importantly, they substitute Katherine Johnson’s real story, which sounds interesting as hell and very nuanced, with this comforting and comfortable pap written by these two:

(Writers of Mean Girls 2 and St. Vincent)

As with The Imitation Game, everyone applauded at the end, so, there’s that.