Monday, January 01, 2018

Unrest

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 daughter’s consort Alex Lifschultz has spent most of the past year traveling to film festivals around the world, more than twenty countries, with the new film he co-wrote and produced, Menashe (see below).  Through it all, he maintains that the film he liked best all year was My Happy Family (MC-86, NFX), and now it’s available on Netflix, also anointed by the Village Voice as “Best Film of the Year.”

This was of particular interest to me, since it was a Georgian film set in Tblisi, where my son goes every summer, to fan out for his archeological 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

Menashe

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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Surveying 2016 films

I’m so far behind in my commentary on new films that I’m going to take on the whole year at once, using Metacritic’s list of the hundred best-reviewed films of 2016 as an organizing guide, working my way down through the numerical ratings, but adding my own pluses or minuses to the ranking.  So far I’ve only seen half the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, so I’ll start with those.  [I’ll do a supplemental survey of late-arriving DVDs.]

My personal favorite was Manchester by the Sea (MC-96, NFX).  I was definitely predisposed toward it, being highly appreciative of Kenneth Lonergan’s previous films, You Can Count On Me and Margaret.  I avoided reviews and spoilers, and actually got out of the house to watch it, renewing my lapsed Images Cinema membership to see this, and the next two films, before any reached home video.  Now it’s out on Blu-Ray and I’ve seen it again, without the profound sense of surprise and discovery upon first viewing, but with a finer grasp of its artistry, just as riveting the second time around.  Lonergan’s film is sad and funny, harsh and lovely, all at once, and true as life itself.  He has a feel for the complexities of place and personhood, and perfect control of the story’s whiplash emotions.  Those emotions, either expressed or repressed, are rarely overt, though frequently overbearing.  For me the film calls to mind the T.S. Eliot line, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  Any plot summary would be full of spoilers, and give the false impression of melodrama, or be superfluous if you’ve already seen the film.  All I can do is praise every technical aspect of the film, writing and direction, cinematography and editing, the music and above all, the acting.  Casey Affleck gets the role he was meant to play and makes the most of it, with suppressed affect but deep thought and churning emotion.  Superlative support comes from Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges, not to mention a host of peripheral characters.  The New England seacoast setting, and grief-inflected humor, hit all the right notes for me.  This is certainly my pick as the best film of the year, and moves Lonergan into the ranks of my most esteemed living filmmakers.

For Moonlight (MC-99, NFX), the most acclaimed film of the year, I have to enter a modest demurral.  I liked it a lot, but didn’t love it.  While appreciating the authenticity that director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell McCraney bring from their own experience – in telling the story of a gay black youth growing up on the wrong side of Miami, following his life as he tries to create a space to be himself – I was not swept along with all the visual and storytelling choices.  Strong performances are contributed by the three actors who play the central character as boy, youth, and young man, and especially by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae as an unlikely pair of surrogate parents who take him in when his single mother descends into drug abuse.  The film is inventive and original, well worth seeing, but my preference for Manchester over Moonlight was predicated more on regional – rather than racial or sexual – prejudice, along with my own elder person taste, in discriminating the styles, preoccupations, and maturity of the respective directors.

Back in 2011, reviewing a not-so-good film with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, I made the prediction, “One of these days Ms. Stone will be in a decent movie, and she will be amazing.”  Well, La La Land (MC-93, NFX) is that movie at last, and she is indeed amazing.  But you don’t need me to tell you that, since by now she’s garnered an Oscar, while the movie itself came this-close.  I join the chorus of praise for Damien Chazelle’s resurrection of the movie musical, with nods to masters from Minnelli to Donen to Demy (but I do have to point to the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (see below) as an even more impressive pastiche of lapsed Hollywood genres).  What’s notable about all three of these top films is the commitment and personal vision of directors who write for themselves.  Each of Chazelle’s films is obsessed with jazz, and the passion comes through.  Emma and Ryan are charmingly inexpert at singing and dancing, but pleasing in their naturalness, energy, and conviction.  From the razzle-dazzle opening – where an L.A. freeway traffic jam becomes an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza – to the extended wish-fulfilling fantasy ending, the film is flashy and exuberant, and director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren earned their Oscars.  In fact, I wouldn’t have objected to this film as Best Picture, though I understand the political considerations that gave the award to Moonlight.

Hell or High Water (MC-88, NFX) will remind you of many films without ever seeming like anything other than itself.  It’s classic, yet of the moment.  Something you’ve seen a million times, but there’s nothing quite like it.  Two brothers go on a bank robbing spree in hardscrabble West Texas, and a Ranger tracks them down.  A familiar story, to be sure, but in Taylor Sheridan’s script, David Mackenzie’s direction, and Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography, it is something to see, as if for the first time.  Violent yes, but so much more – witty and pointed, beautifully structured and designed, and impeccably acted from top to bottom.  Chris Pine and Ben Foster are the brothers, the former showing a lot more than his dreamboat blue eyes, and the latter releasing the suppressed energy that underlies all his performances.  Jeff Bridges is the Ranger, indolent but canny, racist but funny, utterly in command while showing no effort at all.  This being the Trumpian Wild West, everyone has a gun and an itch to use it, the banks are the enemy, the land has been stolen many times over, and poverty gets passed down like a disease.  After the inevitable shootout, the film resolves itself in a quiet scene of open-ended menace and something oddly like reconciliation.

Given the back-loading of quality in the film year, early release Love and Friendship (MC-87, NFX) spent most of 2016 as my favorite film, and still ranks among the best for me.  I’m an unabashed Janeite, but not always happy with what the movies have done with Miss Austen.  In this case, Kate Beckinsale in the lead role carries all before her.  Kate is Lady Susan, “the most accomplished flirt in England,” of the eponymous novel by a teenage Jane (the film appropriates the title of another piece of her juvenilia).  Whit Stillman outdoes himself in adapting his trademark comedy of manners to Austenite dress.  Along with Kate, he brings over Chloe Sevigny from The Last Days of Disco, and freed both from his own autobiography and the constraints of the official Austen canon, he lets rip with a rollicking tale of romance and the cash nexus.  But Kate, oh Kate, you are the essence of our dear Jane, so deliciously witty, and so wicked to boot.  (It’s worth mentioning that twenty years ago, she was a perfect Emma.)  Good sharp fun all round.

So that’s my top five so far from films of 2016 -- click through to read my brief takes on more than fifty others.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Immigrant sagas & other classics

Over the past year I’ve continued to watch way too many new films (and my mammoth year-in-review should be posted here sometime after the Oscars), but I’ve been making an alternative effort to re-watch classics from all-time lists, my own or others.  Here are some brief reactions.

This seems a good moment to celebrate family sagas about the vitality and heartbreak of the immigrant experience in America.  I’ve been waiting decades for a decent video release of Jan Troell’s magnificent diptych from the early 70s – The Emigrants and The New Land – and when the Criterion Collection finally delivered, with a pair of beautifully-restored Blu-Ray disks, which Netflix does not deign to carry, I had no choice but to purchase it.

It’s odd for such an acclaimed classic to be lost to general memory, and to be treated so shabbily by its American distributor, who began by cutting forty minutes from the three-hour running time.  The Emigrants was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 1972 Oscars, and the next year, after the release of an execrable and nonsensical version dubbed into English, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  So why is this film, and its equally superlative second half, so difficult to see?

But so worth the effort to see.  Except for one extended sequence in the second film, nothing in the appropriately slow-paced six-hours-plus is less than enthralling.  The Emigrants follows the 1850 journey of a group of Swedish farmers from the land to the sea, across the sea, and across half of the American continent to MinnesotaThe New Land shows them carving a homestead and a community out of the wilderness over the next decade.

Troell adapts the celebrated Swedish tetralogy by Vilhelm Moberg, and also directs, photographs, and edits the film, a truly commanding accomplishment.  He must be the least-known of great filmmakers, though for me his Everlasting Moments (NFX) was the best film of 2009, so he has had a long and productive career.  As Terrence Rafferty writes of his do-it-all approach, “The documentary-like freedom of Troell’s shooting style gives his historical epics an unusual sense of intimacy; they’re alert, unstudied, dense with small revelations.”

This is the film that made Liv Ullmann an international star.  Max von Sydow had already crossed over to major Hollywood epics, from all the films they’d made with Ingmar Bergman.  But they’ve never been better together, than as Kristina and Karl-Oskar Nilsson, on their long, hard, but exquisitely beautiful journey from stony times in Sweden to the harsh struggles of settling the American heartland.  They’re supported by a large cast that rings true in every particular.

While I can no longer proselytize for my favorite films by showing them at the Clark, in this case I can make this rare gem available to locals who own a Blu-Ray player, by donating my disks to the Milne Public Library in Williamstown (along with the dazzling Criterion disks used to show the “Colors of Japan” film series at the Clark).  If you can, take advantage of this rare opportunity to see one of the least-known great films of all time.

Hard to say that The Emigrants got robbed of Best Picture, when that award went to The Godfather, another magnificent family saga of American immigration, which is equally appropriate to re-watch and remember, at this vexed historical moment.  I recently had occasion to confirm the high esteem in which the first two Godfather films are held, after which I was primed to find The Godfather Part III  better than it’s reputed to be.  Alas, the third installment does represent a major falling off, but not in a way that casts shade on Francis Ford Coppola’s monumental achievement in the first two parts.

[Click through for my brief comments on a number of classics worth seeing again, or must-see for a first time]