Friday, March 02, 2018

Looking at the past year in film

As with my previous post on tv shows, I will lead with a somewhat gynocentric approach to the films of 2017, since most of my favorites featured women characters and creators.  That applies to one of the year’s best, My Happy Family, which I’ve already written about here.

Also guaranteed a place on my final best of year list is Mudbound (MC-85, NFX).  Though the film is the product of many voices, and seems to feature male characters, it is overwhelmingly a product of female sensibility, from the author of the original novel, to screenwriter/director Dee Rees (who is right up there with Ava DuVernay in the tiny elite of black female filmmakers) and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (first woman to get an Oscar nom in that category), to Cary Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, who are the soul of the cast.  The film truthfully depicts racial tensions in the Mississippi Delta in the Jim Crow years just before and after WWII, in a way that is both thoughtful and horrifying.  It tells the polyphonic story of two interlocking families: one white, poor and feckless but privileged to own their farmland; one black, hardworking sharecroppers with no rights to the product of their labors.  No Hollywood prettying up here, despite the intimately epic style.  These people are dirt poor, and bound to the mud from which they try to extract a living, and in which they wrestle with historic injustice.

A surprise possibility for my Top Ten is Marjorie Prime (MC-82, NFX, AMZ).  Though Michael Almereyda is the director, the soul of the film feels female, from its title to its two central characters, a mother and daughter played wonderfully well by Lois Smith and Geena Davis.  Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins play their respective husbands, in clearly supporting roles.  You might call this sci fi, or more probably speculative fiction – it could be a top-notch extended episode of Black Mirror – but it plays as a low-tech chamber piece.  I found out after the fact that it was a filmed version of a play, and that makes sense (I had to back up to catch some of the abrupt scene changes), but I did not feel my usual aversion to filmed theater.  The movie is a puzzle piece, and I’m not going to say anything more about the story, except that it’s a film to exercise your emotions as well as your intellect and insight.

Here’s a pair of 19th-century period pieces, each an unflinching portrait of difficult Victorian era womanhood, in their different ways.   In A Quiet Passion (MC-77, NFX, AMZ), Cynthia Nixon overcomes physical unlikeness to offer a highly credible portrayal of Emily Dickinson.  Terence Davies’ inventive and idiosyncratic approach to writing and directing renders her life with the paradoxical insight of his title, clearly identifying with her mysterious character, subdued and formal yet wild inside.  Jennifer Ehle offers superb support and counterpoint as Emily’s light-spirited sister, while Keith Carradine does the same as her rigid but intense father.  Like Dickinson’s poetry, this film requires submission to its individual vision, but rewards those who succumb to its lovely, subterranean power.

Lady Macbeth (MC-76, NFX) is based less on Shakespeare and more on a Russian novel, opera, and film about a 19th century character who is a cross between Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley, with an even darker shade of Gothic horror.  Transplanted from Siberia to the north of England, the story is immaculately filmed in a constrained style, directed by William Oldroyd, and held together by a magnetic performance from Florence Pugh, as the layers of the poor young woman’s abused character are disturbingly peeled away to reveal an amoral heart of darkness.  It’s an intense and unsettling experience, powerful but not at all uplifting.

To me, Kristen Stewart is not the mega-star of the blockbuster Twilight series, which of course I haven’t seen, but an inventive actress who inhabits challenging roles in independent films.  She is decidedly unglamorous but still transfixing in Certain Women  (MC-82, NFX), which Kelly Reichardt adapted from three short stories about women navigating the man’s world of small-town Montana.  You can understand why a lonely young horsewoman develops a crush on her, and your heart aches for that character, played by affecting newcomer Lily Gladstone.  In the other two barely-connected stories, the leads are played by Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, so you know there is some serious acting going on here, which makes it easy to ride out Reichardt’s slow-paced but meticulous storytelling.  Meanings remain elusive, but tangible reality is strong.

Kristen Stewart also made another film with Olivier Assayas, following up on Clouds of Sils Maria.  In Personal Shopper (MC-77, NFX), she is again a personal assistant to a celebrity, but now much more the center of attraction and attention, as she seeks paranormal contact with her recently-deceased twin brother.  I’m not much into ghost stories (or Ghost Story – see below), but this is definitely one that managed to be spooky without being real cheesy.  The film wanders and meanders, but one’s gaze never wavers from the morose Ms. Stewart, who can go from mousey to glamorous with a simple change of clothes.

A change of clothes also does wonders for Gal Gadot, but she is never mousey.  She is Wonder Woman (MC-76, NFX), and makes the movie well worth seeing.  I generally make it a rule not to watch any superhero flicks, but I made an exception for this film’s supposed feminist slant.  That may be overstated – all nine credited writers are male – but it is directed by a female (Patty Jenkins), and certainly is dominated by its actresses.  I was quite taken with the mythological backstory of the Amazon kingdom ruled by Robin Wright and Connie Nielson, and impressed by the transition to WWI Britain.  But the dazzle soon wore off in the inevitable and interminable action sequences.  Not my idea of cinema, but not an unpalatable taste of popular culture.

More my sort of thing, in various ways, was the backstory behind the female comic book superhero, in Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (MC-68, NFX).  First off, it added another black female writer-director for me to follow, in Angela Robinson.  In this cultural moment of female (dis)empowerment, she streamlines and dramatizes the same story told by Jill Lepore in The Secret History of Wonder Woman: how an academic psychologist wrote the comic in the Forties, to advance radically feminist ideas along with B&D sexuality, while living and having children with his wife and another woman.  As always for me, Rebecca Hall stands out in the cast, as the professor’s more brilliant wife and research partner.  Luke Evans is Marston, and Bella Heathcote is the student who becomes the other woman in the long-term triangle.  It’s all quite kinky, but serious and funny at the same time.  The Metacritic rating is decidedly on the low side, but Manohla Dargis’ review in the NYT captures the right note, in my estimation.

Speaking of wonderful women, Billy Jean King is engagingly played by Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes (MC-73, NFX).  As you would expect from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, this film is rather obvious and crowd-pleasing, but it does have some genuine period flavor and a lot of appealing performances.  Steve Carell makes Bobby Riggs more manic clown than calculating boor.  Their eponymous 1973 showdown in the Astrodome (watched by 90 million people on tv, including yours truly) provides a foregone conclusion, but also an exhilarating thrill of nostalgia, as the tennis scenes unfold with verisimilitude.  Among the women, Sarah Silverman and Andrea Riseborough provide distinguished support, as Billie Jean’s promoter and newfound lover respectively.  In the year of #MeToo, the creepiest scene of all is the actual Howard Cosell with his arm wrapped around the neck of his co-commentator Rosie Casals.  An enjoyable movie, if not an estimable film.

Not vying for my best of year list, but mentioned here for their female directors, are two quite different films from careers going in different directions.  In Beach Rats (MC-78, NFX), Eliza Hittman takes a further step into the moody, sensual, scary world of teen sex in Brooklyn.  As in It Felt Like Love, this film is carried in all intimacy by its lead performer, in this case the captivating Harris Dickinson (incredible to learn after the fact that he is British) as a boy with a girlfriend, who nonetheless trolls the internet for hook-ups with older men. 

While Ms. Hittman is coming into her own and finding her voice, Sofia Coppola is reduced to repeating herself, and older films.  Her remake of the Civil War drama The Beguiled (MC-77, NFX) is also a reprise of her first film, The Virgin Suicides, in its depiction of the sexual urges of sequestered females.  Style is all well and good, but here it decays into nonsense, without grounding in any sense of truth.  This story of a wounded Union soldier taking refuge in a southern female seminary is pure fairy tale, and its arbitrary transplantation from Louisiana to Virginia is indicative of the film’s carelessness and unreality.  I generally like Colin Farrell, but he is no Clint Eastwood, for better or worse, and this character is just an unmotivated hash.  The schoolmarm is Nicole Kidman, and among the rest are Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, who are of course watchable, even when their actions are either too obvious or too senseless.  I’ve been a follower of Ms. Coppola’s career, but here she leaves me behind.

Now we turn our attention from women to men, as characters and creators.  Ken Loach is among my favorite workingdirectors, and I, Daniel Blake (MC-78, NFX) ranks with his best films.  David Johns is excellent as the title character, a Newcastle widower who has had a heart attack and is unable to return to his job as a carpenter.  As such, he falls into a bureaucratic hell where he is ineligible for either welfare or unemployment benefits, just churned through the system and spit out.  He forms a bond with another of the system’s rejects, a young single mother with two small children (Hayley Squires), and caring for them gives him a reason to persist, and eventually to enunciate the film’s credo:  I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user.  I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief.  I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights.”  The lead actor’s background as a comedian does a lot to lift the mood of a film that could have come across as grim, though the residue of outrage remains.  The Criterion Collection disk of this film also contains an excellent feature length documentary, Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach.

Working in very much the same leftist vein as Loach, though in a different style, the Dardenne brothers’ latest is The Unknown Girl (MC-65, NFX).  I don’t understand the reservations represented by that Metacritic rating, twenty points lower than their typical score.  Maybe not quite up to the very highest level of their previous films, it’s nonetheless among the best of the year, IMHO.  In the same manner, the actress around whom the film revolves, Adele Haenel, may not reach quite the level of Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night or Cecile de France in The Kid with a Bike, but she is quite magnetic.  Maybe some critics were put off by the Dardennes spicing up their austere style with genre trappings of crime procedural, as a young female doctor investigates the circumstances of a death for which she feels guilty.  The setting, as ever for the Dardennes, is among the struggling lower classes of Seraing, Belgium, with a tone of deep human sympathy and understanding.

Lucky (MC-79, NFX) was written as a final starring vehicle for 90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton, and it turned out to be something beyond memorial or reminiscence, astringent rather than nostalgic, as befits the long-time character actor.  Another busy character actor, John Carroll Lynch, makes his directorial debut in this comic meditation on mortality and the meaning of life.  In a hardscrabble desert landscape, a cranky old codger goes through his daily routine, waking up to his first cigarette of the day, doing his set-up exercises in his underwear, walking to the local diner for coffee and crossword, home to watch his afternoon tv shows, then back out at day’s end to hang out with the local eccentrics at his regular tavern, declaiming mordant affirmations of misanthropy and atheism at every stop.  He’s wised up, and dried up, but he’s not giving up.

Another miserable guy you come to like and even admire for his peculiarities is the Ray Kroc portrayed by Michael Keaton in The Founder (MC-66, NFX).  I don’t know why this film was not better reviewed; certainly Keaton’s performance here was much more impressive than in Birdman.  As Kroc, he’s a sharp businessman in every sense of the word, screwing the MacDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and the aforementioned John Carroll Lynch) out of their name and franchise.  He’s by no means a sympathetic character, but he is shrewd and indomitable.  Sure he’s as predatory a capitalist as they come, sure he dumps loyal wife Laura Dern for equally mercernary Linda Cardellini, but somehow you have to grant his energy and drive in transforming the landscape (and waistline) of America, for better or decidedly worse.  With this witty cast and even-handed irony, director John Lee Hancock delivers a smart satire of business to rival The Big Short.

[Click through for a score more films of possible interest]

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Looking at the past year in TV

Politically speaking, don’t we all wish 2017 hadn’t happened?  Cinematically speaking, it wasn’t so bad, but still felt vaguely disappointing, though all the returns aren’t in yet, at least for a tardy viewer like me.  Frankly, I don’t get out of the house much, and wait for new movies to come to me by some medium of home video. 

One of the year’s disappointments was the end of my role as film programmer at the Clark.  So I don’t get to foist my favorites on a willing audience anymore, but I still want to call attention to films worth seeing, so I am going to persist with this blog as long as I keep watching oh-so-many films and tv series. 

I’m going to take an anecdotal approach to reviewing the past year, more raconteur than critic, dispensing pats and pans rather than analysis, a simple matter of thumbs up or down.  Not assuming the voice of authority, I’ll take a conversational tone and not strive for rigor or brilliance.

As I look down the list of films and tv I want to highlight, one thing strikes me as a thread running through the year.  In the media, 2017 was definitely a year of coming out for women, as much as it was in politics, from pussyhats to #metoo. 

I’ll start with tv shows, and with what might seem an exception to that generalization.  David Simon is a favorite of mine, and I am inclined to absolve him and George Pelacanos of the male gaze in The Deuce (MC-85, NFX, HBO), and to give extra credit to Maggie Gyllenhaal as producer as well as star.  As she is in the story, playing a Times Square hooker who moves into pornography production in the Seventies.  I thought this was a limited series, but apparently two more seasons are planned, each jumping seven years into the future.  In an unnecessary gimmick, James Franco plays two brothers, one a conscientious entrepreneur and the other a charming ne’er-do-well gambler (he also directs some episodes).  One of the pleasures of the series is getting re-acquainted with alums of The Wire and Tremé – though this show has not yet risen to quite that level.  But, believe me, this HBO series, despite its subject matter, depends a lot less on T&A than GoT.

I gather Big Little Lies (MC-75, NFXHBO) will return for further seasons as well, and I’ll definitely take another look.  How could you miss with a combine of Nicole Kidman, Reece Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern?  Direction by film pro Jean-Marc Vallee adds gloss to a soapy adaptation of a pulpy novel.  Deluxe setting in Monterey showplace homes is made delicious by gossip and infighting among the mothers of a group of first graders.  This could have been “Odious Housewives of Upscale Enclaves,” but rather is rich in characterization, as well as humor and sentiment, and domestic terrors of one sort or another.

Hulu clearly intends to drag out Handmaid’s Tale (MC-92) as long as possible.  I gave it five or six episodes before abandoning it in exasperation and impatience, and will certainly not come back for more.  For me the year’s infinitely better Margaret Atwood adaptation was Netflix’s Alias Grace (MC-82, NFX).  Since I don’t know Atwood’s work at all, the first guarantor of quality here was the adaptation by Sarah Polley, whom I consider a great filmmaker.  Director Mary Harron also has a track record.  Emerging star Sarah Gadon exceeds expectation in the very complicated lead role, of an Irish immigrant servant girl convicted of murder in Victorian Canada, whom many want to see released.  So many in fact, that they hire an American alienist to interview her (Edward Holcroft, a dead ringer for Matthias Schoenaerts) and determine how guilty or innocent she really is.  True to the historical case, it is never made clear whether the protagonist actually participated in the murders or not, but the kaleidoscopic telling and retelling of the story opens up more mysteries than it forecloses.  Absorbing and impeccably done period piece.

Not at that level, but quite entertaining and maybe a bit more, was Feud: Bette & Joan (MC-81NFX), carried by fascinating, resonant performances from Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, centered on their wary, feral relationship while making Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci offer manic but effective support, as director Robert Aldrich and mogul Jack Warner respectively.  There are any number of backstage and backstabbing pleasures in this Ryan Murphy series.

I enjoyed a number of woman-centered half-hour comedies in the past year, about which I have already commented in previous seasons.  Better Things (MC-96, FX) was widely acknowledged as one the best current shows.  Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical series about a single mom raising three daughters just keeps getting better and better.  Reality meets shtick and both are enhanced.  Similarly with Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi (MC-82, AMZ), also better and deeper in its second season.  Catastrophe (MC-96, AMZ), from the writing/acting duo of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, continued its too-true potty-mouthed hilarity into a third season.  Each series comes with my highest recommendation.

A new entrant in this category is GLOW (MC-81, NFX), which stands for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and jumps off from an 80s collective of women creating their own characters, or having them created for them, in a cross-gender attempt to capitalize on the popularity of totally fake professional wrestling.  The collective is not exactly feminist, as masterminded by impresario Marc Maron, but comes to be woman-dominated, by Alison Brie who assumes a Russian villainess role while her ex-friend Betty Gilpin assumes a cartoon Miss America persona.  The other women are engagingly varied in ethnicity and type.  Netflix also has an entertaining documentary on the original GLOW girls.

Joined by a connection to two of GLOW’s creators, and one of its stars, there was a concluded series that I was happy to binge-watch all seven seasons of.  Nurse Jackie (MC-78 avg, NFX) ran on Showtime from 2009-15, and I have to say it’s the first series from that channel that I ever watched and enjoyed from start to finish.  They seem to have a tendency to peter out, even when they start strong (Homeland is only the most extreme example).  Edie Falco as the title character – an extremely competent ER nurse who happens also to be a drug addict – is the rock that holds this whole thing together, though the rest of the cast are effective as caricatures, who develop a shallow depth over time.  Merritt Wever stands out as Jackie’s protégé, who eventually becomes her conscience and nemesis.  I watched this while editing a book about nursing, and it really felt like useful research.

Another show that I caught up with through its final season was AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire (MC-92, NFX).  I wrote about the first two seasons last year, and was engaged by the reversals of the next two seasons, though I was not blown away by the series’ concluding episodes in a way that would move it into my top ten (or however many) of all time.  I enjoyed the journey with Joe and Gordon, Cameron and Donna, as their relationships shifted and characters evolved.  Also, the techno-historic journey from the PC (“the thing that gets us to the thing”) to the wonders of Internet search.  In this series too, the women moved from the periphery to the center of the story.  Between this show and Silicon Valley, I feel that I know something about something I know nothing about.

A real candidate to enter the pantheon, Better Call Saul (MC-87, NFX) continued to rise in its third season, almost to the level of its precursor, Breaking Bad.  Bob Odenkirk is terrific as Jimmy-becoming-Saul, as is Jonathan Banks converging as Mike, but the real heart of the show has become Rhea Seehorn as Kim, especially with the season-ending departure of another major character (I’ll say no more).  It’s a major point of concern among many of us, what happens to Kim between the end of BCS and the beginning of BB.  This is the show whose return I look forward to most.

Here I take note of several highly-regarded shows to which I cannot make a commitment.  I’m on-again off-again with Fargo (MC-89, FX) – dismissed the first season, loved the second, endured the third.  That could be the way with these anthology series.  With American Crime (MC-90, NFX), so hard to differentiate from American Crime Story (source of the great O.J. miniseries), I’ve never had that on-again moment.  Similarly, so many critics declared The Leftovers (MC-98, NFX, HBO) the best show of the year that I had to give it a look.  Admitting that it’s unfair to judge a third and final season without watching the first two, I have to say that I was not grabbed at all, except by the performance of Carrie Coon, who was also the best thing in this season of Fargo.

I’ve lost all patience (and amusement) with HBO’s comedy centerpiece Veep (MC-88, NFX, HBO), but find Silicon Valley (MC-85, NFX, HBO) getting better and better, the only guy-centered show that I really enjoy.  On the subject of HBO comedies, I have to highlight the return of High Maintenance (MC-85, HBO), even though I haven’t yet seen all the current episodes.  Same with Netflix’s Black Mirror (MC-77avg, NFX), though I’ve written about both before.

Before turning to the British shows I enjoyed most of all this past year, I have to cite two highly heterogeneous series that ranked among my favorites.

Everybody’s heard about the new Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War (MC-90, NFX, PBS), but I wonder how many have actually endured it.  I’m here to testify that it is definitely worth 17+ hours of your time.  The rewards are great, however painful at times, in recapturing and understanding an era, especially if like me, that era marks your formative years.  Vietnam was the television war, so there is astounding footage throughout.  Interviews balance all perspectives, including Vietnamese.  The contemporaneous music track alone will carry you through those years.  A powerful, powerful experience.

Nobody’s heard about the new French series on Netflix, Call My Agent! (NFX), but I’m here to spread the word.  If you are a Francophile in cinema, as I am in nothing else (except maybe painting), then this is a series you should not miss, two seasons of six hour-long episodes.  The central characters are four diverse agents for a company that represents French movie stars, one or two of whom appear in each episode.  Some of them are longtime favorites of mine – Nathalie Baye, Fabrice Luchini, Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche – and some are totally unknown to me, but each episode is great fun, with undertones of real-life drama, backstage and in the office.

Though I am an Anglophile in many areas, the Brits really stood out in TV this year.  The second season of The Crown (MC-87, NFX) was every bit as good as the first, and cements Claire Foy as one of my favorite actresses.  It’s a shame she won’t be back as Queen Elizabeth in future seasons, but I will look forward to them nonetheless, since the intelligence of writing and quality of production will likely persist, and there’s some interesting history to traverse.  Talk about women in positions of power!  I don’t have the effrontery to name the best tv of the year, but I can say that there was no show I watched with more relish than this.

With much less notice or acclaim, the tv film To Walk Invisible (MC-71, NFX, PBS) gave a very credible and creditable portrait of the Bronte sisters, and how they broke into print from a world of familial fantasy.  The story and acting seemed true to what I know of the Brontes, and the Yorkshire locations for sure, as it was written and directed by Sally Wainwright, well known for Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley.

I know there are a lot of cooking competitions out there, but I was never lured to watch one until I got hooked on the latest season of The Great British Baking Show (MC-88, NFX, PBS).  Highly entertaining, and more revealing of a diverse national character than you would expect.

Last but far from least, I was thrilled to learn that there were two more seasons (the 7th and 8th) of Doc Martin (BCG, NFX, ATV) available through the streaming service Acorn TV.  If you haven’t sampled the delights of this series, the first six seasons are also available on Netflix.  If you have, you will be delighted to return to the utterly enchanting Cornish seaside village of Portwenn, with its equally engaging tapestry of quirky village characters, stitched around the Aspergerish doctor from London, brilliant but with no people skills at all, played by Martin Clunes.  Against all odds, through each season, his love interest is played by Caroline Catz.  I don’t know that there is a more purely enjoyable show out there, given the humor and heart of the writing, the exquisite scenery and setting, the ease and charm of both the human and canine acting, and the seriousness of purpose that Doc Martin brings to his work.  There’s no show I recommend with more confidence that you will enjoy it, unless of course you’re a miserable human being.

Now that I’m rolling again with this reviewing business, I’ll be back soon with my round-up of the best films of 2017.

Monday, January 01, 2018


This is more an alert than a review.  Unrest (MC-80, NFX) is a documentary that has been shortlisted for an Oscar, which was shown on the PBS series Independent Lens on January 8th (in most areas), and is now available for streaming on Netflix.  My temptation is to call it must-viewing since it profiles a little-understood and unfortunately-named disease, from which my daughter suffers.  “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” became the butt of jokes, and Myalgic Encephalomyeltis is not much more helpful (and a government committee’s stab at “S.E.I.D.” was a complete nonstarter). 

Jumping off from her own experience with the disease, director Jennifer Brea, who was stricken while a Ph.D. student at Harvard, began by filming her own struggles with the severely debilitating effects of the disease, and medicine’s flailing (and frequently derisory) attempts to come to grips with its nature and etiology.  Various doctors had little idea, based on minimal research funding or findings, as to its cause and cure.  Historically belittled as “hysteria” and “all in your head,” the condition has taken a while to be recognized as a post-viral disease that attacks the immune system in multiple ways, with perhaps a million sufferers in the U.S. and as many as 17 million worldwide.

Jen Brea, with strong support from her husband, tries all sorts of treatments, and reaches out by video chat to many other afflicted individuals and families around the world.  Her film has become a rallying point for an organization called ME Action.  It is a compassionate and reasoned plea for more public understanding of the disease and its victims, and for more medical research and training.

Your experience of the film will be different from mine, but I think that you’ll agree that it is moving and well-done, perhaps eye-opening as well.  For more on my daughter’s experience, see my compiled essay on “Rachel’s condition.”

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Categorical comments

My news is always old, but this is getting ridiculous.  I’ve had this final round-up in my survey of 2016 films half-written for more than half a year, as I waffled over continuing with this website or not, now that I can no longer call myself a film programmer. 

This is the answer I finally came to:  While I will no longer aspire to comprehensive coverage of the year’s best films, I will occasionally post my viewing logs to highlight particularly recommended films or tv programs, and when inspired by a film or a career worth celebrating, I may post longer essays.

To complete the survey of 2016, here I cover two separate categories, running through the best documentary and animated features of the year, starting with one that counts among the best of both.  Some of these comments will be categorical in the sense of a simple summary judgment of “thumb up” or “thumb down.”

Tower (MC-92, NFX) is a powerful and resonant retelling of the 1966 massacre at the University of Texas, which in retrospect may have initiated our era of mass shootings.  Though the film is told entirely from the perspective of those on whom the bullets rained down, we are reminded that the sniper with a high-powered rifle, on the observation deck of UT’s signature tower, was a young man who had just killed his wife and mother, and then proceeded to kill 14 people and wound 31 in 96 terror-filled minutes, before he was killed himself.  Director Keith Maitland takes retrospective interviews with survivors, bystanders, and interveners, and artfully mixes their stories with archival footage and rotoscoped re-creations of their memories, in which younger actors recite their words and reenact events, which are then animated by computer.  It sounds tricky, but comes across with conviction and depth.  The feelings the film generates are disturbing, but redeemed by the humanity of the telling.  
[P.S. The recent Las Vegas atrocity makes this film all the more relevant, and raises the question why things have only gotten worse over the past fifty years.]

In a strong year for documentaries, O.J.: Made in America (MC-96, NFX, ESPN) crossed over from tv to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, which it certainly deserved.  I commented on it inmy round-up of the yearin television, and now simply renew my strongest recommendation.

The other Oscar nominees offered strong competition, starting with two that also dove deep into America’s racial divide.  Ava DuVernay follows her powerful Selma with the even more eye-opening documentary 13th (MC-90, NFX).  The 13th amendment nominally ended slavery, but opened the way to slavery by other means, as this film cogently argues, weaving together themes – through history, culture, and commentary across the political spectrum – about the systematic dehumanization and exploitation of African-Americans, from lynching to mass incarceration.  Scattered facts are marshaled into a compelling case that explains way more than the simple title suggests.  This film is must viewing for anyone who confesses to a social conscience.

I Am Not Your Negro (MC-95, NFX) is less an argument than a portrait of an informed mindset, suggestive rather than convincing.  Taking its text from James Baldwin’s notes for his unfinished book about Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar – black leaders all shot dead in the Sixties, before they reached the age of forty – Raoul Peck’s film mixes Baldwin’s words, read by Samuel L. Jackson, with vintage footage of him on tv and in debate, and also of Hollywood films that he discusses as exemplifying American racial attitudes.  Speaking as someone who had his adolescent mind awakened and blown by Baldwin back in 1963, I was glad to be reminded of his greatness as a writer and social commentator, but I found this attempt to encompass his themes historically less convincing or illuminating than 13th, though still well worth seeing.  Somewhat ironically, I was just as gripped by an hour-long interview with the director that is an extra on the DVD.

Of the other Oscar nominees, I tried several times but never made it through Fire at Sea (MC-87, NFX), with a worthy subject in the plight of African emigrants shipwrecked on an island south of Sicily, but too slow and purely observational for my taste. 

On the other hand, the feel-good alternative among the nominees, Life, Animated (MC-75, NFX), appealed to me on several levels.  It jumps off from journalist Ron Suskind’s book of the same name, about how his family managed to break down communication barriers with an autistic son, by connecting with him through dialogue from Disney animated films.  Amazingly, the clenched-fist megacorporation allowed free use of its copyrighted films for this documentary, but maybe not so amazingly, since it does promote them as family-friendly vehicles of commonality.  The portrayal of autism seems honest if incomplete, and the compilation of film clips is entertaining and relevant.

Among the other highly-rated and readily available documentaries of the year, I start with the last I watched, having to gird myself for it.  Newtown (MC-87, NFX) was, as expected, an emotionally wrenching experience; not a recounting of the horrific event itself – the killing of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school – the film focuses intimately on several of the surviving families.  I was moved, but did not find the documentary especially artful or penetrating.

I thought Weiner (MC-84, NFX) was an outstanding probe into the sexual, and other, pathologies of the political personality, but at this point the Anthony Weiner story has been totally outrun by events, a dick pic gone viral.

With rare exceptions, I’m not a fan of true crime documentaries, so I was surprised to find Amanda Knox (MC-78, NFX) quite interesting and well-done.  Not exactly an exoneration of the young American woman accused of murder by Italian authorities, the film emerges as a piquant, self-revealing portrait of several characters, including Knox herself and the prosecutor and the journalist who pursued her for their own self-important motives.

I have to recommend The Eagle Huntress (MC-72, NFX) more highly than its Metacritic rating.  As much as its message has in common with You-Go-Girl Disney princesses, it does not come across as at all Disneyfied, though it does follow the template of many films about kids competing in sports and other contests.  Profiling a 13-year-old Mongolian girl who wishes to follow her father as a champion in festivals where grown men hunt with eagles, Otto Bell’s film is full of scenes of training and competing that make you wonder how they managed to film them, with drones and through re-enactments, but you are so swept along with the action that it hardly matters, until you inquire about its methods after the fact.  The action, the scenery, and the charming girl herself are all spectacular.

The pair of French directors who made Winged Migration return with the equally-captivating, though less acclaimed, nature documentary Seasons (MC-67, NFX), which also raises questions about how they managed to capture such scenes.  Rather than undermining the effect, when an extra on the DVD explains how rescued wild animals were trained to enact, say, a wolf pack chasing a herd of horses through the forest, so the camera could track along with them, you are amazed all over again.  All this cinematic and animal training legerdemain is put in the service of an ecological narrative that runs from the ice age through the natural depredations of humankind.  Again, the film strikes me as better than the Metacritic score.

Another film I want to single out for special commendation is Class Divide (MC-n/a, NFX, HBO).  Mark Levin’s film takes a singular perspective on the issue of growing inequality in America, namely the intersection of 10th Avenue and 26th Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, where the High Line has fueled hypergentrification.  On one corner is a low-income housing development from the Thirties, on another is a high-end private school in a converted slaughterhouse, with tuition in excess of $40K.  It’s oh-so-hard to cross the street from poverty to unlimited opportunity, and it won’t be long till the poor are driven from the neighborhood altogether.  In a neat twist, one of the most hopeful characters is a poor but extremely bright young girl from the projects, and one of the darkest stories is a despairing preppie, but the iron laws of economics rule.  The film first appeared on HBO and so far that seems to be the only place to watch it. 

[Click through for more documentaries, plus animated films]

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Family relations

My Happy Family (MC-86, NFX) was available on Netflix even before it was anointed by the Village Voice as “Best Film of the Year.”  This caught me eye since it's a Georgian film set in Tblisi, where my son goes every summer, to fan out for his archaeological research on the Iron Age transition in the South Caucasus region.  And some of the Georgian social customs portrayed in the film, he had reported first hand.

Anyway, I was predisposed to like this film.  And I certainly did, among my favorites of the year, if not the very best, with the jury still out.    

Directed by a pair who helpfully go by the name of Nana & Simon, saving us the transcription from Georgian (whose script, incidentally, is fascinating to see, halfway between Cyrillic and Arabic), “My Happy Family” is anything but, as you might imagine if you’re familiar with Eastern European films. 

With three generations crammed into a small apartment, 52-year-old Manana is surrounded and hemmed in, with her domineering mother and death-wishing father on one side, and her layabout son and emotional daughter (plus her layabout husband) on the other side, and Manana’s own oblivious husband not on her side at all.  She longs for a room of her own, and gets it, much to the shock and dismay of her family, including her brother and other generations of disapproving relatives.

The cinematography is a wonder to behold, keeping track of chaos within intimacy.  You are there in the midst of this bickering family, and you can only sympathize with Manana’s desire to escape, and applaud the unlikely feminist liberation she achieves, though ambiguously and ambivalently so.  Her escape feels like a small triumph for introverts everywhere. 

The story is essentially told in two trips to the vegetable market, one on an errand for her mother with which fault will inevitably be found, and one for sensuous selection of exactly the delicacy she wants to cook and eat for herself.

Neither you nor I have heard of anyone in the cast, but they are all superbly real.  As the absolute center of the film, however, Ia Shugliashvili has to be singled out.  Manana doesn’t say much - can’t get a word in edgewise most of the time - but her eyes tell all.

P.S.  I guess we’ll have to remember these names, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, since they’re clearly the coming thing in Georgian cinema.  Their 2013 film In Bloom (MC-72, NFX) shows the promise that flowers in My Happy Family.  Presumably autobiographical, it follows two 14-year-old girls in 1992 Tblisi, in a period of domestic unrest and pervasive violence following the demise of the Soviet Union.  Again we are immersed in volatile family life, with regional customs like bride kidnapping and drunken toasts to women as a form of patriarchal suppression.  The directors’ style is evident, though not fully matured, but the film’s greatest strength lies in the performance of Lika Babluani, the girl who plays Nana’s stand-in, fawn-like with her black-as-night hair and dark watchful eyes.  Her uninterrupted folk-dance at a wedding is the centerpiece of the film, overshadowing the gun that dominates the proceedings.    

Monday, August 28, 2017


Not sure whether I’ll stick to this film reviewing “business” now that my “career” as a film programmer seems to be over, but I am roused to recommend a new film with a near-family connection.  It may even be appearing at a theater near you, as it bids fair to fulfill Rolling Stone Magazine’s forecast:  “It has left-field sleeper hit written all over it.”

This is how far out of left field Menashe (MC-82, NFX) comes:  an American independent film almost entirely in Yiddish, made by a director and writers who do not speak the language, with non-actors from a Brooklyn Hasidic community, most of whom had never set foot in a movie theater till the premiere of the movie they were appearing in.  Degree of difficulty, high; execution, highly accomplished.

Menashe Lustig plays the title character, in a story that leaps off from his actual life predicament – as a widower who was prohibited by his strict Orthodox community from having custody of his 10-year-old son until he remarried – into a carefully-scripted 82 minutes of real humor and heart.  Poor Menashe is appealing mix of schlemiel and schlimazel, redeemed from his conspicuous flaws by his evident love for his son, played with equal appeal by Ruben Niborski.

The film is directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein, and written by him in collaboration with producer Alex Lipschultz, with additional credit to Musa Syeed.  Alex is my connection to the film, as the longtime companion of my daughter Rachel.  (Here’s a nice profile of Alex, which appeared in his hometown Chicago newspaper.)

So I’m not an objective observer in this case (if ever I am) and will refer you to the “Universal acclaim” indexed by Metacritic, and point particularly to the Boston Globe’s judgment that Menashe is a “funny, heartbreaking, impeccably observed, and nearly flawless drama.”  And I find IndieWire apt and amusing in describing it as “what might happen if the Dardenne brothers remade Bicycle Thieves with a screenplay by Isaac Bashevis Singer” – nice company to be in.  Documentary-inflected Neorealism lives!

Menashe debuted at Sundance – where it was picked up by A24 (distributor of Moonlight and other high-quality indies).  Thereafter it fared well on the international film festival circuit – Berlin, Edinburgh, Karlovy Vary, Jerusalem, Shanghai, etc. – and had its U.S. theatrical release on July 28 in NYC and LA, expanding through the month of August from 3 to 86 screens.

Back in March, it appeared in the “New Directors, New Films” series at Lincoln Center, and there was an after-film Q & A with director, producer, and star, which was among the most engaging post-film discussions that I’ve ever seen.  Should be an extra on the DVD when it comes out, but see it now on YouTube.

But above all, see Menashe when you get the chance. 

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Wrapping 2016

Here I follow up with last year’s films as they arrive on home video in one format or another, roughly in order of their rating by critical consensus (with some tardy releases to be added later: last update 6/8/17).

About Paterson (MC-90, NFX), let me confess that I adore this film, and also that it’s not for everyone – slow, mundane, and uneventful, but shot through with transcendent glimpses of light.  Jim Jarmusch is sometimes too arch for me, but here his trademark deadpan is alive with signs of grace and humor, love and insight.  Paterson is a place, a person, and a state of mind, a poem about the poetry of everyday life.  The place is the decaying industrial city in New Jersey, famous as the home of Lou Costello and William Carlos Williams, the doctor/poet who wrote a multivolume epic called PatersonThe person is Paterson, who drives a bus in the city, meanwhile jotting poems in his notebook (which appear in lettering onscreen as he recites and repeats them); he’s played soulfully by Adam Driver, in a role that totally supplants his image from Girls.  Equally spirited, but as outgoing as he is inward, Golshifteh Farahani plays his wife, for whom every phase of life is an art project.  It’s a beautiful relationship, though not without friction, much of it supplied by their pet bulldog.  The city is a character in itself, as Paterson walks to and from work, drives his bus through the city’s streets, with the (in)action returning periodically to the waterfall that gives the city its identity.  Each evening he walks the dog to a bar, where he goes in for one beer, and encounters passing moments of humor and drama.  You could say nothing happens in this film, or you could say nothing happens.  To me, every image and every beat seemed just so.  Unexpectedly, this film vies with Manchester by the Sea as my favorite of the year.  Despite its depressed condition, Paterson’s state of mind is ecstasy.

I can see many of the aspects for which Toni Erdmann (MC-93, NFX) has been so highly praised, but personally I’m just not feeling the love.  Much of what I wrote about Maren Ade’s earlierfilm seems to apply to this as well, yet I am less enthusiastic about the new film, in a reversal of critical consensus.  It may have something to do with the film’s length (162 minutes), and maybe with the central characters (though not the actors, who perform admirably), a father and daughter, he a shambling old music teacher and prankster, she a tightly-wound corporate consultant.  The title character is the name of the improvisatory role the father takes on, to embarrass and humanize his daughter, when he goes to visit her on the job in Romania, where she is ruthlessly bringing German efficiency to the formerly socialist backwater.  The movie could also have been different to watch in a theater, where audience laughter might have jollied me along.  Instead of funny, I found many of the scenes puzzling and marked by a weirdly opaque conviction.  So for this film I can issue neither recommendation nor warning, can only say “see for yourself.”
Aquarius (MC-88, NFX) is the name of an aging beachfront apartment building in Brazil, where a widowed music critic is the only remaining tenant of a developer eager to tear down the building and replace it with a lucrative condo tower.  In a prologue that is indicative of the film’s indirect and leisurely approach, we first see her living there as a young mother and breast cancer survivor more than thirty years before.  Then we jump ahead to the present, where she is played by the great Brazilian actress Sonia Braga.  Her ability to command the screen while doing very little is key to the film’s appeal, as she interacts with friends and lovers, grown children and real estate adversaries.  A political or cultural fable about Brazil seems to be implied, but escaped this American viewer (though I could relate bigly to real estate developers as villains).  Nonetheless, the film held my interest through its long and rather slow progression. 

Asghar Farhadi garnered his second foreign film Oscar with The Salesman (MC-85, NFX), and I have no quibble with that choice.  The Iranian director of A Separation and other films is masterful at bringing us into domestic scenes, and absorbing us with small, quiet shifts of perspective, judgment, and emotion.  Each of his films in an inquiry into moral feelings and allegiances.  Each is calculated to engender post-film debate and discussion.  We start as usual with a couple, and work our way out into complicated webs of connection.  The actors’ names would likely mean as little to you as they do to me, but all the performances are layered and excellent.  Both man and woman are actors in the play within the film, a Teheran production of Death of a Salesman.  They are forced to leave one apartment and move into another, where there are complications with a former tenant, and an inciting incident with incisive consequences.  I leave the rest for you to see for yourself. 

20th Century Women (MC-83, NFX) has so many good elements that it ought to add up to more than it does.  Mike Mills memorialized his father in the excellent Beginners, and here does the same for his mother in what might better have been called “The Women Who Raised Me.”  The specificity of place and time – Santa Barbara in 1979 – vouches for the film’s authenticity, which seems more reported than dramatized.  Luckily the admirable cast fills in many of the gaps, most notably Annette Bening as the mother of the writer/director as a 15-year-old, played endearingly by Lucas Jade Zumann.  Bening commands the screen not just for the immediacy of this performance, but in the context of her past performances – she’s won our devotion going in, so has no need to ingratiate.  She’s a working single mother, who lives in a large, crumbling old house where she takes in not so much boarders as surrogate family members.  Director and star are generous with the supporting roles, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning as two young women whom the mom enlists to help raise her fatherless boy, plus Billy Crudup as a live-in hippie handyman.  Throwing visual and musical cues into the mix, Mills does not spin out scenes, or the film as a whole, to the point of resolution, but prefers to pile on glimpses and glances to cumulative effect, shards of memory that combine to create a mosaic, which is striking and attractive but not recognizably coherent.

Diligently working my way through the list of films that Metacritic deems to have received “Universal acclaim,” I started Jackie (MC-81, NFX) with little expectation of enjoyment.  Natalie Portman has held no appeal for me since Beautiful Girls (1996), and I was pretty sure Chilean director Pablo Larrain wasn’t going to have an interesting perspective on events and personalities that were very familiar to me.  But I wasn’t prepared for how annoying every aspect of the film would be:  the acting (absolute antithesis to All the Way, where every historical character was immediately identifiable), the music, the editing, the sheer tone-deafness of the whole production.  I could bear no more than thirty minutes, and fast-forwarded through the rest, so all I can give is my reaction, not a review.  It’s odd to see a film in which the only thing I liked was Greta Gerwig.  When that Metacritic average is unpacked, you can see a bunch of 100 ratings (Ty Burr, what were you thinking, what were you seeing?), but I was reassured to see my most trusted critics (Anthony Lane, Stephanie Zacharek, Dana Stevens) clustered in the 50-60 range.  So I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss something here.

I am not generally a fan of sci-fi, but I held out some hope for Arrival (MC-81, NFX), since Amy Adams stars – as a linguist trying to communicate with aliens who have come to earth in a dozen huge spaceships around the globe – and Denis Villeneuve is not your prototypical action director.  Plus Bradford Young is always a cinematographer worth seeing.  Together they supply enough heart, brain, and eye to make the film watchable, if not a satisfying cinematic experience to me.  Beyond the well-done production values, it is unusually soulful, thoughtful, and beautiful as sci-fi, but for me obscure enough, as well as generic and overblown, to withhold a recommendation.

Fences (MC-79, NFX) represents two types of movie which have little appeal for me – a transposition from theater, and obvious Oscar-bait – but had numerous aspects that did appeal to me.  Starting with the two leads, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who are every bit as good as you may have heard.  Having won Tonys for the revival of August Wilson’s play on Broadway, the cast is brought to the screen pretty much intact, directed by Denzel himself.  Not familiar with Wilson’s work, I have to say I was taken with the language, and the passion with which it is delivered.  The characterizations seem true to life, though the stagecraft is creaky, most notably in the final scene.  The setting – narrow enough to avoid “opening out” of the play – is the 1950s Pittsburgh backyard of a former Homestead Gray turned garbageman, a motormouth and force of nature, in whose climate his wife and children, brother and friend, have to exist.  Each performance lives up to the two leads, and the dialogue carries conviction, however theatrical.  Having followed Denzel’s career for decades, it was fascinating to watch him step into the shoes of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson.  The years go by, as this film will tell you.  

Despite superb performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving, Jeff Nichols’ patient, serious feature Loving (MC-79, NFX) would seem superfluous if more people had seen the moving and revelatory documentary The Loving Story (NFX).  The landmark Supreme Court decision in Loving vs. Virginia overturned state laws against miscegenation, and established marriage as a constitutional right.  Thankfully, Nichols’ film is less about courts and lawyers than the genuinely colorblind love between a white man and a black woman, a bond between two unassuming people that broke the bonds of ancient prejudice.  The film’s approach is appropriately quiet and unassuming as well, showing how deep racism runs without rubbing our face in its more violent aspects, more interested in the heroism of ordinary life than famous judicial triumphs.

In a good film year for African-Americans, it’s no surprise that Hidden Figures (MC-74, NFX) was the highest grossing of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  It’s certainly the most sanitized and domesticated, the most Hollywood of them all, in its approach to race relations and civil rights.  Theodore Melfi’s film strains to be entertaining, but does so all the same, because of the true story behind the film. and the three women who play “colored computers” working on the Mercury space program in the early ’60s: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer.  They endure the double discrimination of being women as well as black in segregated Virginia, at the beginnings of the liberation movement.  A little too much “You go, girl!” attitude, too many sitcom beats, and too little attention to truth of situation or character, meant that I would have preferred a straight documentary, but at least the film is true to its title, and the book on which it’s based, in celebrating some unsung heroes of the space race.

I’m a fan of Martin Scorsese, though not always in agreement about what is his best work, but all I can say about Silence (MC-79, NFX) is that there’s a fine line between passion project and vanity project, and for me this film crossed that line, becoming overt and unconvincing.  C’mon, Marty, 161 minutes on Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan?  Given your track record, and the Shusaku Endo source novel, I expected a lot from this adaptation.  I can see that you wanted to make a Kurosawa film, and this film certainly carries over his sense of spectacle, with lots of eye candy.  But Andrew Garfield?  He’s a good young actor, but you expect him to carry more weight than his slight frame can handle.  Adam Driver is surprisingly good in a much smaller role, as the other young priest sent to search for their spiritual guide (a monumental Liam Neeson), lost somewhere in Japan.  And Marty, I hate to say it, but you’re wandering into Mel Gibson pain-porn territory here.  But, but, but – I had to fast-forward through the second half of this film, and for the rest I offer only a polite silence.

It’s a little rich for me to come across as an arbiter of teen comedies, but Edge of Seventeen (MC-77, NFX) strikes me as one of the best, not as edgy as The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but genuinely witty and true to life, from an authentic female perspective.  In a most promising debut, Kelly Fremon Craig writes and directs, with a good cast led by the charming, piquant, and angst-ridden Hailee Steinfeld, as an outsider child who’s lost her beloved father, and is about to lose her best and only friend to her too-perfect older brother, while herself trying to navigate between an elusive dreamboat and the endearing nerd who has a crush on her.  In times of distress, i.e. frequently, she has recourse to her history teacher and reluctant mentor, played by Woody Harrelson with laconic but friendly satire.  It all sounds very familiar, but comes across as fresh and appealing.

Underappreciated despite an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, Tanna (MC-75, NFX) is stunningly good.  Named for the South Pacific island where it was filmed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, having lived for seven months in a traditional village where men wear penis sheaths and topless women wear grass skirts.  Working with villagers to create a real-life scenario that includes elements of National Geographic, Robert Flaherty, and Romeo and Juliet in an ethnographic paradise (serving as a good companion piece to the recent Disney animation Moana), the filmmakers have put together a beautiful story that is mythic and elemental, but specific to a genuine culture.  The villagers all play roles based closely on their own lives, and the natural expressiveness of the acting is a wonder to behold.  As is the landscape, from jungle to ocean to volcano.  Altogether an experience not to be missed.

A Monster Calls (MC-76, NFX) was another film that exceeded expectation.  In fact I wasn’t sure what to expect at all of this part-animated, part-CGI-wizardry, not-really-for-children story of an 11-year old British boy coping with his mother’s impending death, in the process summoning a King-Kong-sized Green Man from a giant yew tree in the church graveyard.  One expects a lot from Liam Neeson (voicing and motion-capturing the tree), Sigourney Weaver (irascible grandmother), and Felicity Jones (mother with cancer), but the actor who makes this all work is Lewis MacDougall, as the inward boy who finds escape in drawing and fantasy, talents absorbed from his mother.  Sure, there’s shameless tear-jerking, but there’s also flawless production work all round, by a mostly Spanish team, including lovely, painterly animation and convincing special effects.  Mixing fairy tale, creature feature, and family melodrama, director J.A. Bayona strikes me as a cross between Pedro Almodovar and Guillermo del Toro.

Almodovar’s Julieta (MC-73, NFX) could have been called “All About Her Mother,” and as such recalls the best of his films, as well as Douglas Sirk’s.  He disciplines his maximalist style in the material of minimalist writer Alice Munro, in the process transposing her stories from cold, dark, barren Canada to hot and colorful Spain, without betraying their spirit.  If you like Almodovar at this most raucous, this will be a disappointment, but if you appreciate his heartfelt appreciation for the emotional travails of women, then this is a film to seek out.  A glamorous Classics professor, if you can imagine such a thing, is played in the present by Emma Suarez and in flashback by Adriana Ugarte, and in each incarnation the character is transfixing.  The older woman gets chance word of the daughter she has not seen in a decade, and thinks back to how she met her husband and then lost him, in the process getting and then losing the beloved daughter.  This is a careful and caring film that unlocks unexpected depths.

I was inclined to resist Lion (MC-69, NFX), but didn’t entirely succeed.  I suspected it was another production that the Weinstein Company had muscled into an undeserved Best Picture nomination.  And I’m not really susceptible to the presumed soulfulness of Dev Patel, which novice director Garth Davies tries to exploit in repeated wordless close-ups.  There are some pretty things and some touching things in this “based on a true story” tale of a poor young boy (a captivating Sunny Pawar) from rural India who gets separated from his family and winds up on the streets of Calcutta.  After Dickensian adventures, he is eventually adopted from an orphanage by an idealistic Australian couple (Nicole Kidman as fashion victim?), only to grow up into a longing for his unknown birthplace and birth family.  But the self-dramatization of the originating memoir, and the manipulations of its presentation do not come with an aura of truthful exploration of feeling.  Nonetheless I confess to a tear in the eye, at least for the birth mother at the inevitable reunion. 

If, like me, you think that Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are reason enough to watch a movie, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (MC-67, NFX) will disabuse you of that notion.  To call this movie a hollow exercise in style is to make the best case for it.  To call it a garish mixture of lifestyle and violence porn is closer to the mark.  Don’t bother.

The Light Between Oceans (MC-60, NFX) is a well-acted and beautifully-shot “woman’s weepie” directed by Derek Cianfrance in a quasi-documentary style.  With Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz giving their estimable all, I was happy (and sad) to suspend disbelief in this over-plotted melodrama.  Fassbender is a survivor of WWI, who embraces the isolation of a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote outcropping of an unnamed country (presumably Australia, actually shot in New Zealand).  Vikander is the strong-willed and open-hearted young woman he meets and marries on the mainland.  After an idyllic interlude on their lovely but lonely sea-girt promontory, they suffer tragedies, and circumstances that turn tragic after misguided choices.  I can see why some would reject the twists of the source novel as preposterous, but I was so won over by the persuasive acting, and by the immersive direction, that I had no urge to quibble as the story unfolded.  The hypnotic beauty of the people and the place swept away any resistance I might have had to the manipulations of the story, so even if duped, I recommend this film.