Tuesday, December 6, 2016

October-November 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.

     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.

    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. 

    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.

    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?