Friday, January 13, 2017

December 2016


LA LA LAND (2016)
     This critically acclaimed romantic musical begins in full stride with a high-energy, smoothly choreographed dance number set during a Los Angeles traffic jam (it looks like the 105 on-ramp to the 110 north).
     After struggling actress Mia (a chirpy, upbeat Emma Stone) and dreamy jazz pianist Sebastian (a miscast Ryan Gosling) meet cute, the mostly hand-held camera follows Mia to her day job at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, to a disappointing (and typical) audition and then back to her apartment she shares with three other waitress/actresses.
    The musical, to this point, is filled with people, energy, song and dance, all set in the real settings of Hollywood dreams. But once Mia and Sebastian run into each other again, at a typical industry party, the story’s clichés become tedious and repetitive, these characters grow tiresome and the music of this musical disappears.
    A two-person drama doesn’t make for much of a musical (Martin Scorsese tried with “New York, New York” and only partially succeeded), but that’s what writer-director Damien Chazelle, who also made the equally over-rated and thinly plotted “Whiplash,” tries to pull off.
    Obviously, I am in the minority in my opinion of “La La Land,” as it now looks, after the Golden Globe sweep, to be the leading candidate for Oscar’s top prize. What am I missing?  Not sure, but I think Chazelle could have used more of the bombast he heap into “Whiplash.”
     Not only is the score lackluster, but Stone and Gosling, among the most likable and talented actors of their generation, are weak-voiced, awkward and bring little emotion to their singing. At points, I thought I was watching a high school production of a forgotten musical from the 1930s.
      Plot has never been the strength of movie musicals; from the Astaire-Rogers charmers from the 1930s to the 1950s masterpieces from Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, original screen musicals are about camera movement, innovative dances and delivering memorable songs. But the simplicity of “La La Land” hackneyed plot is disappointing even for a musical.
     It relies too heavily on its tried-and-true boy-meet-girl, boy-goes-on-the-road-and-loses-girl outline without maintaining the charm and musicality of the opening sequences.
     By the end, during a dragged-out, painfully obvious set piece—overall, this may be the slowest paced musical in film history—I was trying to grasp what had seduced so many critics (its box-office success has yet to be determined). 
      Like “Les Misérables,” Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” and “Moulin Rouge,” the film benefits from the rarity of musicals in this era, earning marks for not being your typical comic book adventure or raunchy comedy. And it makes great use of the environs of Los Angeles, with Griffith Observatory playing a central role, along with scenes at the legendary jazz club The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, the Warner’s lot, downtown L.A.’s Angel’s Flight, an array of building paintings and the spectacular city light views in the hills above the city.
    The most interesting, but ultimately disappointing, aspect of the second half of the film involves a one-woman show conceived by Mia. She is shown backstage about to present the play at a small theater for a handful of faithful friends, yet the film doesn’t present a single line of it on screen.
     Timing is everything in both art and entertainment and, I guess, “La La Land” landed at the perfect moment. I suspect that if had been released in the 1980s or ‘90s, this movie would be dismissed as a bomb and would have closed in a week. It’s better than that, but not by much.


FENCES (2016)
     With an audience of his long-suffering, devote wife and his best friend, Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage man and one-time baseball star of the Negro Leagues, holds forth in his backyard one Friday afternoon after work, fueled by a pint bottle of gin and a lifetime of disappointment. For 15 or 20 minutes, Denzel Washington gives a master class in acting, hitting every emotional note of this character who loves life even as he recounts 40 years of grievances, pitting himself against Death himself.
    This adaptation of August Wilson’s play, also directed by the star, never gets better than this opening scene (I could have happily watched Washington rant for two hours without a story or other characters). The story’s overstuffed plot makes it play more like a parable than a life, but the role of Troy is one for the ages.     
    When I saw the original production of “Fences” on Broadway in 1987 (when prices were reasonable), it was the first time I had witnessed a great actor dominate a stage, as James Earl Jones’ unforgettable baritone voice filled the 46th Street Theatre, offering the emotional complexity of an entire life in a two-hour play. (Courtney B. Vance, who recently won an Emmy for his performance as Johnnie Cochran in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” played the son in his Broadway debut.)
      But Wilson tries to do too much in this play; not only does it examine the classic father-son culture clash, but Troy also has an older son from an earlier marriage who comes around when he’s short of cash and a disabled brother who drifts the streets of the city. And then there’s the third-act surprise that can’t help but deflate any sympathy the audience feels for Troy.
     The running battle between Troy and his teenage son Cory serves as the story’s focus. The father, still bitter from being barred from playing in the major leagues, refuses to allow his son the chance for a college scholarship to play football. (To modern audiences, the very idea of this seems impossibly foolish).      
But Troy sees himself as protecting his son against the same white world that kept him from competing against whites, before Jackie Robinson broke the league’s color barrier.
     Director Washington sticks close to the play, from a script written by Wilson years before his 2005 death, setting 90 percent of the film in and around the couple’s home.
    Yet it never fells stagy, as it was shot in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, still looking like the 1950s, known as the Hill District, where the play (and most of Wilson’s works) is set. The director uses the city’s steep streets, small brick homes, vibrant black community and even the radio broadcasts of Pirate baseball to paint a very real world where Troy (and thousands of other Troys) existed.
       The role allows Washington, one of the best film actors of his generation (he just turned 62), to fully utilize the charisma that has sustained his acting integrity through too many mediocre action films since he won the 2001 best actor Oscar for “Training Day.” He completely seduces the audience with his backyard rants and unwavering stubbornness. Troy, as determined as he is flawed and unapologetic for putting himself front and center, rules his world as a life force who won’t listen to reason. I can’t image him not winning the Oscar.
       Matching him scene for scene is Viola Davis (“Doubt,” “The Help”), whose Rose tries to soften Troy’s bullheadedness and keep the household peaceful, all within the confines of a 1950s housewife. With every glance, her sorrowful eyes reveal a life of joy and pain and love and frustration that this put-upon woman deals with on a daily basis.
     Rounding out the cast is the superb Stephen Henderson as Bono, Troy’s devoted friend and co-worker; Jovan Adepo as Cory, the son who will never be good enough; and the always entertaining Mykelti Williamson (Bubba in “Forest Gump”) as Troy’s damaged brother, who’s waiting for his heavenly salvation. 
     Despite heartfelt acting, don’t look for an uplifting message in “Fences”: This slice of life film is filled with fatherless children, unfulfilled dreams, the “fences” of bigotry and an anger at the limited choices for African Americans, all still a reality to various degrees. Even if he lays it on a bit thick, Wilson knew that the work of breaking down the barriers of discrimination would always be one fence post at a time. 
    
      
JACKIE (2016)
     Rare is the film telling the story of a real person that avoids creating a caricature or turning their life into a series of movie tropes and easy sentiment. “Jackie” is that exception.
    This tightly focused film examines, nearly hour by hour, the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the preparation, orchestrated by First Lady Jackie Kennedy, for the funeral and burial.
     While chronicling a deeply American story, this movie, as directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (“Go,” “Neruda”), has the look, tone and pacing of a European film; explaining very little and relying on emotional responses rather than verbal while allowing the lead performer, the perfectly cast Natalie Portman, to take her portrayal to places few Hollywood “star” performances go.
     For anyone who lived though these traumatic events—I was in second grade—this movie will play very differently than it will for those who know the events only through history books and documentaries. Whether it was the abrupt ending to a (make-believe) fairy tale presidency or the first shot in the societal revolutions ready to explode  (the Beatles, youth movements, loss of trust in leaders and institutions, the reign of television and the end of boundaries in popular movies), Nov. 22, 1963 was a demarcation point for America.
      “Jackie,” most effectively, recasts the 34-year-old first lady as the architect of the Kennedy legacy, determined against objections by the family and the new administration to give the grieving nation a funeral of historic dimensions. I assume those who have read more about the aftermath of the assassination than I—the impressive script by TV producer and first-time screenwriter Noah Oppenheim took about six years to get made—already knew the fight Jackie faced in planning a public funeral, as many feared more killings if family members or dignitaries appeared in public.
     Yet she wants to cast the assassination not as a political act but a personal one in which “they” murdered a husband, father of two small children, a man. She has her way, despite objects from Lyndon Johnson’s people, with a horse-drawn caisson carrying the casket from the White House to the Capitol building down Pennsylvania Avenue, with her and the children walking behind. Adding to the power of the moment, earlier that Sunday, Lee Harvey Oswald was himself shot to death, live on TV.
    Portman’s acting reaches new heights as she presents the bipolar state the widow struggled through after Dallas, portraying the shock, confusion, uncertainty and a determination not to be the pretty but powerless adjunct she was when Jack lived. In a framing device (the film’s weakest scenes), she shows a more in-control Jackie during an interview months later, manipulating the reporter (Billy Crudup) and controlling every aspect of her public image. And Portman nails Jackie’s breathy, prep-school fashioned wisp of a voice. 
     There are subtle references to the president’s infidelity during their 10-year marriage and the unfulfilled promise of his presidency—not even three years—but the film is more focused on the grandness of “Camelot” that Jackie presents to the American public. An impressive recreation of the black-and-white TV special in which Jackie gave a tour of the redesigned White House, shown in bits and pieces throughout the film, serves as a constant reminder of the sophistication the couple brought to Washington. 
    The film is filled with moments that bring instant emotion: the bloody pink dress; Jackie showering the blood off; her walking aimlessly through the White House; her telling LBJ’s bulldog Jack Valenti (Max Casella) that she will be deciding how her husband’s funeral takes place; the Kennedys watching, moments before the funeral procession, Oswald being murdered; and, heartbreakingly sad, Jackie holding her husband’s blood soaked head as the motorcade races to Parkland Hospital.
     While the film is totally dominated by Portman’s Jackie, good performances are delivered by Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy, the one overtly sympathetic member of the family and her stalwart against the Johnson people and Greta Gerwig, for once low-keyed, as the first lady’s invaluable assistant.         
      I was surprised how moved I was by the film as I’d never held Jackie in high regard during her later years as she seemed to do everything she could to remove herself from the JFK legacy. She became, to most Americans, a gold digger marrying Greek shipping mogul Aristotle Onassis and, later, an elite New York book editor and fashion icon.
      At the time of her death in 1994, at age 64, she seemed a celebrity of little substance. Yet, as the cliché goes, “for one brief and shining moment” she helped to create a legend, an American mythology much needed at the time and one that has endured for half a century. 


MOONLIGHT (2016)
     While this movie offers a stark look at growing up in a drug-infested neighborhood, its main character, Chiron, while played by three different actors, never really grows up.
       In fact, the script seems to promote the worst kind of stereotypes of the Africa-American community. Compared to “Fences,” not much more hopeful in its outlook, “Moonlight” doesn’t attempt to offer a way out or even suggest a road to a better life.
     The movie tells a story we’ve seen (and read about) many times: a sensitive boy faces bullying at school and finds no refuge at home with his drug-addicted, negligent single mother. Chiron is rescued (at least befriended) by a father-figure from his Miami neighborhood, a wise and thoughtful drug dealer (only in the movies), who gives him a sense of self worth and the courage to deal with the bad influences that surround him.
     While the movie avoids TV-movie clichés in its final act, it fails to make a believable connection between the child (played by Alex Hibbert and then Ashton Sanders) and the man (Trevante Rhodes). The last act seemed to be part of another film.
    Throughout, the film relies on an unfortunate trend of contemporary cinema: the misuse of silence. I keep experiencing crucial scenes that drag on and on with pregnant pauses in an attempt (I guess) to replicate real life conversations.
     To pull this off, you need very talented actors who can imbue that silence with meaning. It rarely works and doesn’t reflect reality. If anything, people speak too much, filling the empty spaces of conversation with pointless verbiage. That’s real life. Even the most artful cinema should strive to entertain; quiet, nonverbal characters are not very interesting.
      What makes “Moonlight” watchable isn’t its story, but two memorable supporting performances, by Naomie Harris as Chiron’s irresponsible mother and Mahershala Ali as Juan, the local pusher who takes a fatherly interest in the boy.
      Harris is one of those actresses (there seems to be fewer and fewer of them) who leave an impression no matter how small the role. The Brit has sparkled in such diverse fare as the comedy “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” the first two “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and the two recent Bond movies. 
     Ali has been a presence in TV for 15 years, earning great notices, and an Emmy nomination, as lobbyist Remy Danton, who plays both side of the aisle in the Netflix series “House of Cards.”
     Both should score supporting actor Oscar nominations for their roles.
     I’m sure writer-director Barry Jenkins (who has mostly directed short films) saw this story very differently than I do. It’s has been compared to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” in the manner it follows a boy’s journey to adulthood; and maybe if you enjoyed that episodic, very ordinary tale you’ll like “Moonlight.”
     Sometimes it’s not about how you tell a story, but the story you decide to tell. This story tries to argue, it seems, that one’s environment offers inevitable choices (and an excuse for them) that leave no room for thoughtful decisions and evolving. The filmmakers are determined to offer unvarnished reality, yet fiction, at its best, should provide larger truths.


ESCAPE FROM EAST BERLIN (1962)
     The Cold War may seem like ancient history, but as long as the world is filled with repressive governments, stories of that era still resonate.
      This film, shot just months after the Berlin Wall was completed, tells the daring efforts, based on a true story, of an odd collection of Germans who attempt to escape to freedom, led by a very reluctant hero.
     Don Murray plays Karl, a driver for a German general whose family home is just yards within the Soviet side of the newly erected wall. After Karl witnesses a friend’s failed attempt to crash through the barrier, he’s convinced by the man’s sister (Christine Kaufmann) to find a way across. Digging a tunnel from his basement, he soon has a small group of people helping.
     The film overindulges in philosophical debates, turning every conversation into an exploration into the meaning of life; yet, it’s forgivable considering how immediate and frightening this situation was when the film was made.
     While the production values aren’t much better than a TV series episode of the era, director Robert Siodmak elevates the picture with his taut, fast-paced style. The tension is palatable as the escape efforts keep coming very close to being uncovered by authorities.
     One of the masters of crime films, Siodmak brought German Expressionism to a handful of essential 1940s film noirs, “The Phantom Lady,” “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Killers,” “The Dark Mirror” and “Criss Cross.”  After what was probably his most popular film, “The Crimson Pirate” (1952), featuring a spectacular Burt Lancaster performance, Siodmak returned to Germany. This film, also known as “Tunnel 28,” is the best English-language work of his later career.
     Kaufmann, who is quite good as the determined sister and moral force of the picture, is still working, having just played Aunt Polly in the 2014 film “Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn.” She spent most of her long career in German television, but her best known role is as the rape victim in “Town Without Pity” (1961).
    Adding to the verisimilitude of “Escape From East Berlin,” the actual 1962 escape took place in January and the film was released in November. I doubt any film could more accurately be described as “ripped from the headlines.”
    

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)
   From its opening frame, this second film from fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford exudes a disturbing, oppressive tone as its characters live out unhappy, desperate lives.
   The plot is a simple one, at least on the surface, starting when a well-to-do, Los Angeles art gallery owner, in what seems like a cold, loveless marriage, receives a manuscript from her first husband.
    Though the film offers glimpses of Susan’s (Amy Adams) and Edward’s (Jack Gyllenhaal) just-out-of-college marriage, the driving narrative is the dramatization of Edward’s novel.
   While photographed, by Seamus McGarvey, with a somewhat surreal quality, the fictional scenes feel more real than the glossy, steel and glass modernism of Susan’s home and life. Ford seems to be arguing for the power of fiction to both illuminate and devastate.
     In the novel, a young couple (played by Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher, who resembles Adams) and their teen daughter are harassed by a trio of young thugs on a deserted stretch of road. It ends very badly. Entering the “novel,” is the film’s most interesting character, a quirky but determined lawman, played to perfection by Michael Shannon.
   For Susan, as she reads the words that we see played out, the story hits her to her core, forcing her to face the mistakes of the past, the realities of the present.
    Adams, with this performance along with “Arrival,” shows a range that few actresses can match; in “Nocturnal Animals,” she manages to be convincing as a romantic youth swept away by a high-school friend and a soulless, aimless fortysomething woman.
      I’m not sure why Gyllenhaal played both the writer and his character (yet Adams didn’t play her stand-in in the book), but he’s exceptional in both roles. Yet Shannon steals every scene he’s in, maintaining the edginess of the film and pushing it to the intense levels it thrives on.  
    Ford (scripting from a novel by Austin Wright) sees art as the undressed truth of our controlled, censored lives, as signaled by the unwatchable “art” exhibit that plays behind the opening credits; the novel provides an opportunity to correct the mistakes of reality and rectify apparent injustices.
     There are plenty of missteps as the director attempts to pull all his ideas together, but it’s excusable as “Nocturnal Animals” offers more insight into the human condition than most films coming out of Hollywood.



MISS SLOANE (2016)
    There was much talk during the presidential campaign about cleaning up the corrupt system that dominates Washington political culture. What this film starkly dramatizes, much like “The Big Short” did for the financial world, is how utterly compromised the system has become.
    Bottom line: As long as we have lobbyists our legislatures are bought and paid for by the highest, most persuasive, bidder.
    Jessica Chastain, in her most complex and accomplished performance in her short but impressive career, plays Elizabeth Sloane, a ruthless, resourceful, occasionally maniacal lobbyist who abruptly quits her company (lead by the estimable Sam Waterston) over demands to side with the NRA. The group wants to kill pending legislation that would tighten gun registration.
      It’s ironic that to show the power of special interests, first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera had to present an unimaginable scenario that has federal gun registration laws with an actually chance to get passed.
     She joins a small, struggling firm, run by Rodolfo Schmidt (the fine character actor Mark Strong), which is only looking for a moral victory in the fight over the bill. Sloane will have none of that and begins her take-no-prisoner approach to get it passed, winning over senator by senator.
     While some of the plot points are foreshadowed with a sledgehammer and too often the script over explains the obvious—this is not a film that should be talking down to the audience—it remains compelling right through the final comeuppance, delivered with cool bravado by Sloane.
     Part of the pleasure of the film is seeing the special interest groups battle for every vote with Michael Stuhlbarg (who seems to disappear into every one of his roles) as the big firm’s bulldog and impressive British TV actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the passionate young lobbyist working for stricter gun control.
    While director John Madden has had a very inconsistent career since his Oscar-winning breakthrough “Shakespeare in Love,” he always brings out the best in his actors. The little-seen “Proof” and “Killjoy” include top performances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jack Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis, Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And the cliché-filled “Marigold Hotel” films (he did both) are loaded with wonderful moments from a half-dozen of Britain’s best actors.
     Overall, “Miss Sloane” is easily his best since “Shakespeare” and one of most insightful political movies in recent years.




    




Tuesday, December 6, 2016

October-November 2016

 


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)
      As much as I love the cinema of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, it can’t be denied that nearly the entire canon of classic Hollywood filmmaking is built on fairy-tale lies: Love doesn’t conquer all, happiness isn’t always attainable, life isn’t always fair and sometimes problems just don’t go away.
      By the late ‘60s and into the 1970s, writer-directors took American films in a new direction, seeking to portray life in all its heartbreak, frustrations, compromises, injustices. But, like everything else in our entertainment culture, it was a trend that passed quickly.
       That’s why when a movie that cuts to the heart of emotional truthfulness arrives, almost like an alien into the fantasy factory of Twenty-First century cinema, it’s worth celebrating.
      Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film, only his second since his impressive 2000 debut, “You Can Count on Me,” offers a novelistic examination of the ways we deal with tragedy; an uncompromising study of a man who struggles to find a reason to keep going as life keeps piling on bad news, wrecking havoc on his soul.
      Casey Affleck, in the performance of his career, plays Lee Chandler, a temperamental loner who works as a maintenance man at a Boston apartment complex. His dead end existence is upended when his older brother, who lived with a heart condition, dies, drawing Lee back to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts, and the memories that still haunt him.
      The strength of the movie is the deliberate, piece-meal way that Lonergan metes out Lee’s back story, the events that made him the man he is today. Those slices of the past are seamlessly edited (Jennifer Lame) into the present, amplifying Lee’s relationship with his late brother’s exasperating teenage son (a spot-on Lucas Hedges), who insist on living as if nothing has happened.
      The sea plays a crucial role in the lives of these people as Lee’s brother earned his living with his fishing boat and the son insists on maintain it. Lee’s connection to the sea, his brother and Manchester itself all collide as he endures his burdens and faces decisions he’s not ready to make.
     Affleck, a standout in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and “Gone Baby Gone,” both from 2007, finds the perfect balance of determination and exhaustion in Lee as he just barely sustains his sanity as he copes with his past and his future. Through the insightful writing and Affleck’s measured performance, Lee evolves in a very deliberate way, almost unnoticeably, resembling real life, not most movie characters.
       Two women also play crucial roles in this story: the late brother’s alcoholic ex-wife (Gretchen Mol), long estranged from the family and now born-again; and Lee’s ex-wife (the extraordinary Michelle Williams), who, with more resilience than Lee, has found a path to a new life for herself.
    Near the end of the film, Lee and his ex run into each other in Manchester (she’s with her newborn). Their conversation, as she tries to reconnect with him, bristles with raw emotions rarely seen on screen today; his inarticulate attempts to push her away, her heartbreaking realization that she’ll never be able to reach him, made me feel like an intruder, as their mutual sadness resonated with gut-wrenching reality.
    While the film is superbly made and photographed, it is more of a literary achievement than cinematic. Like one of John Updike novels of a tragic everyman or the brothers and lovers that populate Sam Shepard’s plays, “Manchester by the Sea” gives voice to the irreconcilable nature of grief and the struggle to maintain humanity in the face of fate, cruelly delivered.


ARRIVAL (2016)
    If there’s a theme emerging from this new century of filmmaking, it’s that Earthlings should be paying more attention to what’s going on beyond our atmosphere.
    Among the most ambitious post-millennium films include “Melancholia,” “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian” and now “Arrival,” all thoughtful explorations of extra-terrestrial effects on humans. The latest entry has elements of “Interstellar” along with a bit of classic sci-fi, tapping into “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and all those ‘50s meet-the-aliens films.
     When a dozen oblong-shaped transports arrive at various points around the globe, the military pulls Louise Banks (the protean Amy Adams), a world-renowned linguist, into service to decipher the alien’s language. In an otherwise extremely measured film, the opening plays a bit too much like a Roland Emmerich popcorn space flick. But it quickly becomes clear “Arrival” is much, much more.
     The influence of Steve Spielberg’s epic is obvious when the film arrives at the compound that has rapidly been assembled around the Montana site of the alien ship. But 40 years of technology, in real life and on the screen, makes the science aspects of this film look and sound as if it’s part of a documentary; more convincing and, because of that, more ominous.
      The sense of impending doom among all the military and intelligence collective never wanes. Like in “Close Encounters,” this group of most anonymous experts (led by the always excellent Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg) displays the utmost in professionalism, but can’t offer the inspired heart that the film’s civilian protagonist brings.
      One of the film’s strengths comes from treating the audience as knowledgeable insiders rather than an open-mouth, frightened mass. By the time Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) arrive for “the show,” as they call it, contact has already been made with the visitors, here and around the world. It’s up to Louise to find out why they’ve come.  
     Adams, an actress who has been superb in so many films in her still young career that she’s easy to overlook, gives an extraordinary performance as the low-keyed college professor who finds herself in the middle of the defining event of mankind. The actress dominates virtually every frame of this picture; it’s a performance so internalized, solemn and thoughtful that a close-up of her awaking speaks like a page of dialogue. Not only does she serve as the conduit between “them” and “us,” but she ends up taking on an almost mystic aura.
      Director Denis Villeneuve’s previous work, including the kidnapping film “Prisoners” (2013) and “Sicario” (2015), about border drug enforcement, were briskly told, intense thrillers, but do not anticipate the complex structure and thoughtful introspection he brings to “Arrival.” Here he’s clearly influenced by recent Terrence Malick pictures: Louise, much like a Malick character, finds a new language to understand her world; while the director, though not quite to the extent of Malick, doesn’t do much explaining, leaving viewers to find the message.
     Each encounter with the aliens has a breathless power to it, while the detail devoted to decoding their inkblot–like written language offers the film’s central message: How we communicated determines everything.
      Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who has mostly written supernatural-horror films, expanding on a short story by Ted Chiang, take the film way beyond the typical “aliens arrive” scenario, daring to dig deep into what it means to be human and, like “Interstellar,” unleashing the whole time-space continuum mindbender.
    The director wisely keeps the action and the actors at an unusually low-energy level, allowing the last act, devoid of the usual hysteria, work in a subtle, mysterious manner, making you wonder: “What just happened?”
     Yet maybe the film’s most poignant message is that someone out of the classroom, a lonely intellectual, not some fantasy superhero, will save the world. 


KATYN (2007)
      Scant attention was paid in this country when, in October, one of the most important filmmakers of the second half of the 20th Century, Andrzej Wajda, died at age 90.
     Though his most memorable films were made from the late 1950s to the early ‘80s, this champion of the Polish people never stopped working; just three years ago directed a biopic of the towering figure of recent Polish history, Lech Walesa.
    Wajda quickly moved into the first-rank of European filmmakers with his trilogy of pictures depicting the oppressive life of Poles during World War II, starting with “A Generation”(1954) and followed by “Kanal” (1956), an intense, heartbreaking story of resistance fighters, and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), which looks at the immediate aftermath of the war.  “Kanal” won a special jury prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.
    Working despite the iron rule of the Soviets, Wajda captured the early rumblings of the Solidarity movement in his “Man of Marble” (1976) and “Man of Iron” (1980), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. In the early 1980s, he also made a couple of high-profile films in France, “A Love in Germany” (1983), starring the great German actress Hanna Schygulla as a woman who has an affair with a Polish POW, and “Danton” (1983), an epic telling of the legendary French revolutionary, played by Gerard Depardieu. The film won the Cesar award as the best French film of the year.
     Though he continued to direct, Wajda spent much of the late 1980s and 1990s as part of the new independent government of Poland.
     Earning Wajda an Oscar nomination for best foreign film in 2007, “Katyn” chronicles, though various characters, one of the most horrific tragedies in the sad history of Poland during World War II. Caught between the invading Germans and “friendly” Soviet troops, Police officers and enlisted men are murdered and tossed in a community grave by the Russian military.
     After the war, when the mass grave is uncovered, the Soviets (now in charge of the country) blame the Germans, but many of the families of the victims continue to push for the truth.
    It’s an episodical film that I found some difficulty keeping track of the characters, but there are some beautiful staged scenes that show the director retained his filmmaking prowess into his 80s. The film concludes with a reenactment of the officers’ final journey to their death, a sequence as powerful as anything Wajda has put on film.
    In receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscar ceremony in 2001, Wajda put his career in perspective: “I accept this great honor not as a personal tribute, but as a tribute to all of Polish cinema.” Few great filmmakers are so closely associated with the fate of their nation as Wajda was.  
    “Afterimage,” his final film, opening for Oscar consideration this month, chronicles the life of a famous Polish painter, who lived under post-WWII Communist oppression. Fitting, as this is the theme of Wajda life’s work.


THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)
     While it’s not the groundbreaking film that early commentaries promised, this response, over 100 years later, to D.W. Griffith’s racist silent epic, tells a powerful story of a slave who led a short-lived revolt in 1831.
     There’s nothing subtle about this film, but then the institution of slavery was hardly subtle. For director, star and co-writer Nathan Parker, a little-known supporting player over the past decade, the movie provides an auspicious entry into the world of major Hollywood filmmaking.
     This story of Nat Turner begins when he’s given the chance to study the Bible by the lady (Penelope Ann Miller) of the plantation where he serves as a slave. The precocious child takes to reading and preaching, soon leading service for other slaves.
     Life seems to remain relatively unchanged for Turner as he becomes an adult and his white boyhood friend (Armie Hammer) becomes master of the Virginia cotton ranch. At least until Hammer’s Turner (remember, slaves were given their master’s name) decides to make some extra money off of Nat’s preaching skills, “renting” him out to other slave owners. Finally, Nat realizes that his words telling of a better life in God’s kingdom are actually aiding the subservience of the African-Americans.
      This awakening, along with the rape of both his wife and his best friend’s wife by whites who face no consequences, spurs him to revolt, a move as hopeless as it is admirable and brave.
   The thin story isn’t aided by either the script or the supporting performance. No character other than Turner is written as a three-dimension character, a fault of both the underwritten script and the unimpressive supporting cast. I kept waiting for a memorable scene that didn’t include Turner to provide some depth to the story, but that never happened.
     But Parker is excellent as Turner, a complex character who is caught between serving his god and those suffering around him. Turner, as imagined by Parker, never doubts his decision to take up arms.
     But not addressed by the film is the aftermath of the short-lived revolt. After he was captured, tried and hanged, the education of both free blacks and slaves was banned across the South along with other restrictions.
     This film was once considered a prime candidate for multiple Academy Award nominations, but fell out of favor not because of what’s on the screen but because of Parker was charged, and acquitted, with rape when he was in college.
     Should that affect my opinion of this film? I don’t think so; while I am a doubter of the fairness of our criminal justice system, especially when it deals with college sexual assaults, how can I second guess a case I know nothing about?
    What I do question are the production companies that put money into this Parker project from the start. Did they think his past would be ignored? Not surprisingly, the film opened and closed within a few weeks. That’s a shame, since this is a story that all Americans should know about. But, clearly, many questioned whether Parker was the right person to tell it.


THE ACCOUNTANT (2016)
    I usually applaud any film that dares to be complex and densely plotted, but this sporadically entertaining story of a man suffering from a variety of social disorders plays like six different version of the same life. Watching it was like channel surfing from movie to movie.
     Ben Affleck, who appears in at least four films this year, portrays Christian Wolff (at least that’s one of his names), a mysterious loner but brilliant accountant who splits his time between dull, run-of-the-mill jobs and working for a series of international criminal organizations, where the big bucks, but major risks, are found. One day he’s offering tax advice to local farmers, the next he’s helping an arms dealer look legitimate.
     His mental condition is amplified by a stressful upbringing, including his mother deserting the family and an intimidating, rigid father who pushes Christian and his brother to become hand-to-hand combat experts.
      Things get confusing when he takes a job for a large corporation in Chicago after the firm’s accountant (a very shaky Anna Kendrick) questions the company’s books. Turns out, the company (and its CEO played by John Lithgow) didn’t really want to know what happened to their money, at least I don’t think so. Quickly, Wolff and Kendrick’s Dana are on the run and the lives of everyone they know are in danger.
    There’s also a federal investigator, Ray King, (J.K. Simmons), who has been after Wolff for years. Needlessly, King blackmails a Treasury Department analysis to help him unearth Wolff, but then seems to know everything she discovers. Does that sound idiotic? It is. The film would have improved greatly by eliminating these characters.
     The film also tries to address the treatment and care of people with autism, adds a bit of romance and then ends it all with an over-the-top shoot’ em up, more suitable for a Nicolas Cage straight-to-DVD movie. At its best, the film focuses on Wolff’s “Beautiful Mind”-like genius for numbers, but director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”) and writer Bill Dubuque keep trying to tell the wrong story.
     It’s almost a “Batman”-like role (see below) for Affleck in that he’s a humble, isolated professional by day and a justice-serving killing-machine by night.
     In parts, the film is a superbly made, sharply written profile of an outsider whose single-purpose life frees him from all moral and ethical restraints. Or maybe I’m just projecting what it could have been. 


BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)
    After a half dozen films, starring an endless number of actors who have wedged themselves into these iconic costumes, we’ve reached some kind of nadir. This pointless, laughably serious superhero battle royale makes the old George Reeves television series look like Shakespeare.
    Bruce Wayne nee Batman (a joyless Ben Affleck) joins a growing chorus in Gotham (or its is Metropolis?) that blame Superman (a more engaged Henry Cavill) for opening up the planet to extra-terrestrial evil, at the same time that Batman takes heat for his one-man justice system. Of course, Lex Luthor (a weasel-like Jesse Eisenberg) takes advantage of the plunging popularity of these two celebs to plan some mischief of his own.
    Essentially, this is a continuation of the reboot of Superman, “Man of Steel” (2013), with Batman serving as a confused supporting player. From “Man of Steel,” Amy Adams returns as Lois, Larry Fishburne as Daily Planet editor (and Superman hater) Perry White and Diane Lane as Clark Kent’s mother back in Kansas. Zack Snyder, who directed the compelling 2013 reboot, remains behind the camera for this sequel, trying, it seems to out noir Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”
    I can’t image fans of either of these comic book legends, the core audience for the film, being very happy with the way this story plays out. For the rest of humanity, it’s a very long 151 minutes.


CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)
    I’m not going to write more than a few sentences on this colossal waste of my time. What bothers me most about this loud, pretentiously serious “Avengers” installment is that the popularity of these cartoons-on-steroids seems to be growing exponentially. 
     All I want is this unpleasant comic-book hero trend to end so these actors can get back to the business of making movies about life.
     “Civil War” basically has the same plot of “Superman v. Batman”: blowback from superheroes doing their job. I will admit that it’s invented that after all these years, Marvel and DC are addressing the death and destruction caused in the wake of their heroes battling the bad guys.

      Here they mostly battle each other and it comes off as senseless as the Superman-Batman bout. And is it just me, or is Capt. America (Chris Evans) the dullest dude to ever be granted superpower status?