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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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This rom-com starts off balky, rights itself into a traditional flow, gets deliciously weird (catty women do some frightful things to rivals in Singapore) and then, eventually, wins you over.  Not in a “what a splendid and unexpected surprise!” way, but rather, in a “I am no worse off than I was 2 hours ago and I’ve certainly spent my time in less valuable pursuits” way.  The film’s additional bonus is as a travelogue.  I would now like to visit Singapore and if I were crazy rich, I’d really like to make the trek.

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What good can be said of this 1987 blockbuster that, along with The Untouchables, catapulted Kevin Costner to stardom?  Not a lot.  The film does not age well at all.  It is blocky, flat and some of the chase scenes are comically leaden.  Costner running from computer room to computer room is Hardcastle and McCormick fare, and waiting for the printer you had in college to deliver the coup de grace is pretty damn funny.  Director Roger Donaldson’s work (Cocktail, Thirteen Days, Dante’s Peak) is as pedestrian as it gets.

Then there is Will Patton.

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As the bad guy, he is so over-the-top, it’s hard to stifle a laugh.  His devotion to the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) is akin to that of a coked-up Moonie.  He almost looks hypnotized.  And is he trying to sneak in some homoerotic longing for Hackman?  Bob Duvall, sure.  But Hackman?  It’s crazy.

That said, this dinosaur can make you nostalgic for the days of actual sex appeal in pictures.  Costner and Sean Young didn’t have a story, but they sure had chemistry, and in the days before VCRs gave way to the internet, that kind of sizzle was both bankable, a treat and a minor staple.  Think Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Debra Winger and Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward in Against All Odds (1984), Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Witness (1985), Ellen Barkin and Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy (1986), Mimi Rogers and Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer (and Kurt Russell) in Tequila Sunrise (1988), Pfeiffer and the Bridges brothers in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), even Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost (1990).

It didn’t always work (check out Al Pacino with Barkin in Sea of Love (1989), hoo boy, Barkin looks like she’s kissing a hobo),  Still, these were romantic and racy mainstream films that presented non-comedic stories but relied on the strong and compelling mutual sexual attraction of their leads.  We just grew out of these kinds of movies and “sexual chemistry” became quaint, jettisoned for talky, quippy, modern rom-com dreck.  1992’s overt Basic Instinct, where Sharon Stone had to give a glimpse of her hoo-ha (trademarked) to keep folks interested was the end, and now, we are in mannequins-in-bondage land (Fifty Shades of Dull).

Don’t believe me?   Take in 20 minutes of Passengers, a recent sci-fi flick that accidentally becomes reliant on real desire between Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.  It’s ugly.  These two couldn’t ignite enough heat to juice a GameBoy.

But I digress.  No Way Out is awful, but also, a little sad.

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A charming, surprisingly thoughtful film, anchored by co- writer Kumail Nanjiani’s (Silicon Valley) substantial performance and deft support by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.  Nanjiani is a stand-up comic (a staple in a Judd Apatow produced film) and Uber driver who falls for student Zoe Kazan, a gentle heckler at one of his shows.  The hitch is his family and his cultural background – he is a Muslim from Pakistan and while he is decidedly “American” in most respects, his parents will not countenance his marrying a non-Muslim and per custom, are in the process of arranging his nuptials.  To that end, he is enlisted for ritual family dinners with prospective suitable brides, none of whom do it for him.  But he is both dishonest and weak, keeping his cultural constraints secret from Kazan while feigning devotion to his parents even as he blows off prayers and tantalizes them with the possibility of law school.  When Kazan confronts him, he wilts and does not choose her.

And then she gets sick.  So sick, she is placed in a medically-induced coma, necessitating his attention, not only towards her but her parents (Hunter and Romano).  The experience forces him to reevaluate his station, his choices and his own cowardice.

This could have been played mainly for laughs and it would have worked very well.  And the film is very funny,  Nanjiani has an understated humor, at once self-deprecating and subtle.  Some of the best moments are when he makes a joke to people who are a little slow on the uptake, only to immediately apologize at the moment the jest dawns on them.  Nanjiani is, naturally, surrounded by comedians who relentlessly attack each other, also providing solid humor.

But what elevates the film is Nanjiani’s impressive expression in dealing not only with the culture tug of his family, but with the depth of emotion at the near-death of who he comes to realize is the woman he loves.  And in his support for her parents (Hunter and Romano), from whom he gets both caution and encouragement, he grows.  The movie works on multiple levels, you invest in these people, and the result is a really tight, funny, bittersweet picture.

It has been an atrocious year for films, but this would stand out in a solid one.

Jane Austen has been treated well and often by Hollywood, but – with the exception of the recently humorous but underwhelming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – she has been treated with a reverence which also brings with it a certain torpidity.  How often have we seen that same dour, tortured Mr. Darcy; the loyal, suffering Elinor Dashwood; or the quick-witted but headstrong Elizabeth Bennet?  Don’t get me wrong.  I love them all, but their portrayals tend to be so bleeding earnest, and of the same stripe, that it begins to feel very rote.

Whit Stillman has written and directed three modern Austenian pictures- Metropolitan (essentially, Mansfield Park), Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco.  When he gets his hands on an actual Austen short story, it is no surprise that Stillman shakes it all up with an original and witheringly funny adaptation.  Rather than dally with dialogue establishing the Austen archetype – handsome rogue, lovestruck hysterical wife, scheming social climber, etc . . . – he gives us the actors in poses, drawing upon the audiences’ presumed familiarity with Austen, so as to get the ball rolling more quickly.

And in the hands of the most vicious and hilarious of all Austen protagonists, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), what a ball it is.  An elegant bloodsucker, Lady Vernon flits from household to household, leaving each in tumult as she wheedles her way into the most advantageous social position she can find.  Her dexterity when she encounters obstacle is noteworthy and her aplomb when thwarted is near winning.  In Beckinsale’s hands, Austen’s wit crackles, and the repartee is fast and furious.  I won’t ruin any of the fun, save to offer my favorite line from the film:  “Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates, only by having children can we begin to understand such dynamic.”

Austen’s work always delivers us a fop, a fool, or both, but Beckinsale is almost upstaged by Tom Bennett who plays the utterly unflappable, cheery, and utterly clueless James Martin, one of Lady Vernon’s many targets.  I laughed out loud in all of his scenes.

One of my top five for the year thus far.

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A charming, light romantic comedy about a young New Yorker (Great Gerwig) who has an affair with an older would-be fiction writer/academic (Ethan Hawke) married to an even more prestigious academic (Julianne Moore). Hawke leaves Moore for Gerwig, but Gerwig soon realizes she has upset the natural order of things. What follows is her “plan” to rectify her error, which is breezy, funny and blessedly bereft of skin-searing indictments about betrayal, trust and commitment. It drags a bit at the end, but ultimately, the film delivers as a sweet, semi-screwball slice of life. It’s also satisfying to see such a product from writer-director Rebecca Miller, whose The Ballad of Jack and Rose a decade ago was as heavy, dreary and miserable a film about relationships as you could imagine. Perhaps she’s in a better place.

imageAfter the gruesome This is 40, it’s good to see Judd Apatow back.  He owes it to Amy Schumer’s crackling script and impressive breadth, as well as an unexpected Bill Hader as a rom-com lead and fantastic support, especially cameos by non-actors LeBron James and John Cena.  Schumer is a loose narcissist who shuns intimacy when she is given the assignment to write a magazine piece on Hader, surgeon to sports stars.  They click and he weans her off her casual cruelty, but, of course, she relapses and then . . .

Schumer is very funny, as evidenced by her Comedy Central sketch show, where she melds winning and loathsome, no small feat (Lena Dunham has mastered the same trick).  Schumer digs a little deeper here, showing some real depth in a few scenes of despair, so you’re rooting for her, a critical element for a rom-com.  As noted, she’s well-supported, and James is particularly memorable as himself, although I don’t know if he is notoriously cheap, into Downton Abbey, or so relentlessly competitive that he wouldn’t let up on the likes of Hader in a game of one-on-one.

There are some problems.  The film is too damn long at two hours, and the scenes that could be cut (an unfunny intervention, a scene where Schumer condescends to two stock, unhip suburbanites who don’t stand a chance, an overlong wacky seduction, one scene too many of an otherwise hilarious and barely recognizable Tilda Swinton as Schumer’s boss) are obvious.

Still, what’s funny is very funny and the picture sticks the landing.