Monday, June 12, 2017

May 2017

 

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN (2017)
     I’ve always been reluctant to write about television series as I haven’t seen enough TV in the past 20 years to make sound judgments. Of this so-called “Golden Age,” which I’m constantly reading about, I have very little firsthand knowledge.
     I rarely watch more than two or three series a year, not counting the endless episodes of “Shark Tank” that serve as background view in our house. While I realize that I’m missing dozens of impressive shows, I remain devoted to feature films. Just watching a single TV series (even these modern limited-run shows) takes the time of watching six or seven movies. Not a good trade-off in my mind.
    But I couldn’t resist tuning in to FX’s “Bette and Joan,” a docudrama about the long-running rivalry between Golden Age (of movies) stars Davis and Crawford, who co-starred near the end of their careers in the 1962 gothic horror movie, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
     If even 50 percent of this story is true, these legends lived sad lives, wasted on bitter jealousy and petty hatred, fueled by a level of insecurity more typical of a high school freshman. It’s pitiful that these privileged stars, in an era when popular actors and actresses were society’s gods and the envy of millions of movie fans, were incapable of enjoying their success for more than fleeting moments.
      Of course, the difficulties between the two are legendary, along with their failings as mothers, but nothing I’ve read over the years quite prepared me for the ugly behavior—at least as portrayed in this series—of these giants of the silver screen.
    The low point comes when Crawford bullies young Academy Award nominees Anne Bancroft (for “The Miracle Worker”) and Lee Remick (for “Days of Wine and Roses”) to skip the ceremony and allow her to accept their Oscars if they were to win. Her goal? Steal the thunder from her co-star Davis, who was nominated for “Baby Jane,” while Crawford was left out. In addition, she and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, her longtime ally, lobby their Hollywood friends to vote for Bancroft over Davis. It works (like in a movie) and Joan become the “star” of the 1963 Oscar show while Bette is denies her third best actress trophy.
     Watching “Baby Jane” a few weeks after the series ended, for the first time in decades, made it more interesting having just seen all the backstage battles, but the picture never rises above a curiosity. Davis is convincing (when wasn’t she?) as the child star turned psychopath, but there is very little Crawford could have done with the sister role; it’s a flat, stock victim role (and, she’s made up, at her insistence, like she’s headed to a cocktail party). The film lacks any sense of directorial style and it’s shot in over-lit black-and-white like TV episodes of the time.
     The film was a huge box office success, but did little to resurrect the careers of Davis or Crawford, who at ages 54 and 56, had been tossed aside by the Hollywood studios. It did boost the directing career of Robert Aldrich, who five years later was the toast of the town with his oft-copied World War II adventure, “The Dirty Dozen” and went on to work steadily until his death in 1983.
    In the series, Alfred Molina plays Aldrich as a nervous, frustrated Hollywood veteran, capturing the confusing world faced by directors as the studio system began to crumble, but the era of ceding control to the filmmakers was a few years away. He does his best to keep the demanding actresses happy while enduring the barrage of insults and demands from Warner Bros chief Jack Warner (played with old-school élan by Stanley Tucci).
   But it’s the combination of unrelenting nastiness and obsessive need to be catered to evoked by Jessica Lange (as Joan) and Susan Sarandon (as Bette) that kept me watching through eight episodes.
     These impressive performers will no doubt be remembers when Emmy nominations came out (but wouldn’t it be perfect if Sarandon receives a nod and Lange gets snubbed, just like their characters?) In their one-on-one scenes, Sarandon’s Davis always comes off more believable as she goads Crawford into another hissy fit. Yet, Lange really shines in scenes with her longtime housekeeper/nanny who she calls Mamacita (a memorable Jackie Hoffman). If Crawford feels mistreated by the studios, she gives it back in triplicate to the devoted Mamacita.
    The attempt by the series, created Ryan Murphy, to blame the stars’ nastiness on the era’s dominance of male executives and filmmakers who look down on actresses, even encouraging the feud for the publicity, seems forced. The lack of basic human empathy, graciousness—especially when you have enjoyed more success than nearly everyone in your business--can only be laid at these individuals’ feet.
       But unquestionably, it was very difficult for middle-aged women to continue to work during the studio era. To make it, they had to be tougher, harder than any actress or actor today. A prime example is that Sarandon is 16 years older than Davis was in 1962 and Lange 11 years older than Crawford; though neither were ever the stars of the magnitude of these 20th Century actresses they are still cast in a high-profile roles and work steadily after qualifying for Medicare.  


ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
    Like the clean-cut family that dismisses all the signs—before it’s too late—that their new home is haunted, highly trained, resourceful astronauts continue to be lured into a world where boney, insect-like creatures tear apart their bodies and invade their spaceships.
     Director Ridley Scott, whose 1979 original “Alien” remains of one of the masterpieces of sci-fi, has re-entered this world, first with 2012’s prequel “Prometheus,” and now with that film’s sequel, “Alien: Covenant.” Central to the effectiveness of these films is the late FX specialist H.R. Giger’s slimy life forms, created nearly 40 years ago, that remain more nightmarishly real than almost any contemporary CGI monsters.
   The plot is standard issue: Plans to repopulate a friendly planet with humans go awry when the ship, Covenant, is jolted with some kind of atmospheric disturbance. Walter, the very human-looking android played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, is forced to awaken the crew early, resulting in a detour to a nearby planet. Separated parties, broken communication and a suspiciously gracious host, all tropes of horror, make appearances, along with the recent sci-fi film requirement of a feisty female protagonist.
     Daniels, played with steely calm by veteran British actress Katherine Waterston (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) serves as our eyes and ears after her partner and the crew’s chief dies while emerging from hyper-sleep. That sets up her close relationship with the android, which, along with the script’s detours into philosophy (creativity v. obedience; faith v. science; risk v. stability) keeps things interesting between the unstoppable carnage perpetrated by those repulsive carnivores.
      Scott remains one of the surest filmmakers working in Hollywood, having made some of the most entertaining films of the past 40 years. “Blade Runner” (1982), “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000), “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “The Martian” (2015) are just the highlights. Not that doing another “Alien” film is a great challenge, but Scott delivers just the right blend of character development, scientific lingo and gory alien attacks to make this film stand out among the glut of movies in this genre.
     Fassbender, starring in two or three films a year, continues to impress with his versatility—from a sex addict (“Shame”) to a disturbed rock singer (“Frank”) to the Scottish king Macbeth to Steve Jobs and now two very different  androids (he plays both Walter and the older, less compliant model David)—and the low-key intensity he brings to his roles. He’s quickly becoming one of the cinemas best, and most adventurous, actors.   


THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)
    Stealing liberally from two of the best jungle adventure films ever made, “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” and “Apocalypse Now,” writer-director James Gray has fashioned a fascinating chronicle of one of the 20th Century’s most passionate explorers, Britain’s Percy Fawcett.
     Seeking to redeem his family’s name after his alcoholic father squandered his legacy, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, star of the TV show “Sons of Anarchy”), a career military man, accepts assignment to survey the border between Bolivia and Brazil, deep in the Amazon jungle in 1905. This begins a lifelong obsession with finding the mythical Lost City of the Amazon.
     Under the banner of the Royal Geographical Society, the esteemed elitist British organization that promoted exploration around the globe, Fawcett seeks to prove that civilization in these so-called savage areas were as develop as Europe was at the time, not a very popular idea among Western scholars. By the very force of his obsession, he convinces the Society to back him.
     Though the rigors of traversing the jungle and encounters with the natives are at the heart of the film, Gray (working from David Grann’s nonfiction account) also shows the human cost of a life spent far from home. He struggles to maintain a relationship with his children after being absent for years at a time. His wife (Sienna Miller) is portrayed as an enlightened modern woman who supports his obsession beyond any reasonable expectations. Along with his South American adventures, he and his men serve the crown on the front lines of World War I. (Gray clearly is offering the question: Who exactly are the savages?)
     Hunnam captures the life-change spirit that engulfs Fawcett when he enters the Amazon jungle. Also leaving an impression is Angus Macfadyen as a well-to-do member of the society who insists on joining Fawcett on one of his explorations, all but destroying it; and an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson as Fawcett’s loyal right-hand man Henry Costin.
    It’s not often that I think a film should be longer, but “The Lost City of Z” could have used another 30 minutes in the jungle to better project the tedious, grueling nature of Fawcett’s exploration—it felt too much like a highlight reel (one beautifully captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji), especially his first excursion into the South American forest.
    Gray, whose previous films have been gritty urban dramas—“Little Odessa,” “Two Lovers” and “The Immigrant”—has made his best picture by capturing the dark and light of a world far from his comfort zone. But this film continues Gray’s fascination with how those thrown into a new environment adapt, survive and, ultimately, are enriched by the chances they take.  


TONI ERDMANN (2016)
   In today’s state of overly cautious filmmaking that dominates Hollywood, finding an unpredictably demented movie catches one off-guard, a bit perplexed as to how to process pure absurdity.
     This German comedy, the most critically acclaimed picture of 2016, follows an overly concerned father (Peter Simonischek, best known as a stage and TV actor in Germany) who travels to Bucharest to keep an eye on his fortysomething daughter, a rather reluctant executive.
      After the visit ends badly, he continues to stalk her—donning a shaggy wig and a comically outsized set of false teeth and calling himself “Toni Erdmann.” There is nothing normal about this man, except his concern for his daughter and his attempts to spice up her stressful, rather dismal life, as he keeps popping up at the most unexpected places. (Often, at spots where he would have no way of knowing that she would be there at the time.)
     More interesting than Toni’s embarrassingly inappropriate behavior is Ines’ (Sandra Hüller) reaction to it all; she has clearly experienced this absurdity all her life and is nearly unaffected by it. She just shrugs him off, even after moments that would have spurred most to explode in anger or worse. Hüller’s performance is something to behold as she displays a cool exterior despite her lack of social skills or much in the way of professional confidence.
    I can’t say I really enjoyed “Toni Erdmann,” despite some hilarious set pieces and outstanding acting. The father came off as more irritating bore than clever prankster to me and, after near three hours of his jackassery, I lost interest in the film’s broader messages.
     If you appreciate the brilliant social satires of Luis Bunuel—among his masterpieces are “The Exterminating Angel” (1962), “Belle de Jour” (1967), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)—you’ll find this film cut from the same absurdist cloth. Writer-director Maren Ade, in just her third feature film, shows a keen insight into the small, but biting indignities life keeps throwing at us and how important humor is in maintaining sanity. 
     Believe it or not, an American remake may be in the works with (drum roll please…) Jack Nicholson, who hasn’t appeared in a film in seven years, as the title character. I have grave doubts that the remake will ever actually happen, but it’d be the perfect role for Nicholson, even if he’s about 20 years too old.


LOGAN (2017)
     Needless to say, I’ve never been a fan of the “X-Men” movies. Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by the quality of actors this franchise has attracted over the past 18 years and 10 films.
   Though I’ve only seen the first one and the prequel film, “X-Men: First Class” it’s clear from what’s implied in “Logan” that things have not been going well for the mutant community.
    Logan (Hugh Jackman), née the Wolverine, now works as a limo driver living in a deserted desert outpost where he and Caliban (Stephen Merchant) care for the dying Professor X (Patrick Stewart). But this quiet hideaway is soon upended when government agents seeking a young mutant track Logan.
     The young girl they are after turns out to be one of the many who were created in an experimental lab using DNA from the original group. All this sends Logan, Stewart and the seeming mute girl (Dafne Keen) on the road with the murderous government thugs, led by a slimy Richard E. Grant, in pursuit.
     Keen is convincingly feral as an otherwise reserved, petite grade school girl who has the deadly powers of the Wolverine, as is Jackman, a modern version of the burned out old West gunman (at one point “Shane” is showing on TV) who has little left in the tank but becomes determined to protect the child.
   But the performance of the film belongs to Stewart, the wise, guiding light who bonds with the girl in his waning days. In his older years, he’s 76, Stewart has acquired a gravitas that has quietly enhanced his screen presence (on stage, he toured in 2013 with Ian McKellen in “Waiting for Godot”). In “Logan,” his performance reminded me of the great John Gielgud, who continued to act, convincingly, into his 90s. Stewart’s performances should be remembered come Oscar nomination time next February.
    I wasn’t totally shocked that “Logan” was more introspective than the usual comic book fare as it was directed by James Mangold. Beyond working with Jackman on “The Wolverine” (2013), he has made the intense coming-of-age film “Girl, Interrupted” (1999) and two smart, entertaining films about reluctant heroes, “Walk the Line” (2005) and “3:10 to Yuma” (2007). “Logan” joins that group.
  
    
THE FOUNDER  (2016)
    The story of Ray Kroc turning the McDonald brothers’ San Bernardino, Calif., hamburger stand into the most successful restaurant in the world overflows with dramatic possibilities.
    And I can’t think of an actor better suited to play the master marketer than the rubbery-faced, natural salesman Michael Keaton.
    Sadly, this film overcooks every aspect of the legendary tale, leaping from broad comedy to back-stabbing melodrama and domestic distress without warning. The film never finds its center, never figures out how it wants to portray Kroc: business genius, arrogant narcissist, unstoppable go-getter, heartless schemer, acolyte for American values. He seemed to be all of these to varying degrees.
      The shapeless, tin-eared script, Keaton’s scenery-chewy performance and too many scenes that drag on long after the point has been made turn “The Founder” into a rather joyless experience.
      The oft-told legend begins when Kroc, selling milkshake machines, visits the popular burger joint run by Dick and Mac McDonald. Not long after, he begins pushing them to franchise their innovative “fast food.”
      Over dinner, the brothers explain (and we see in flashback) how they devised their food process, the first in the film’s plodding scene that play like a promotion video rather than a feature film.
      After signing a very restrictive contract, Kroc starts building in the Chicago area, recruiting mostly ambitious, hungry young people, to run the different outlets. With success comes the inevitable conflicts with Dick and Mac, amusingly portrayed by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, whose cautiousness drives Kroc crazy.
       The film’s most awkward scenes are between Krok and his unhappy first wife Ethel (Laura Dern), featuring the most stilted dialogue and acting these two usually superb actors have ever delivered; they come off as complete strangers.
       The film’s biggest hole is its utter failure to properly explaining how Kroc goes from near bankruptcy (and losing his home) to suddenly having the money to buy the properties that the franchise stores sit on and then becoming a millionaire.
     Director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel want you to like Kroc…until they don’t. In the last 20 minutes of the film, “The Founder” makes the case that Kroc is the epitome of the callous backstabbing American businessman, who would thoughtless throw a partner, co-worker, wife aside to better his bottom line. I like that storyline but the director and Keaton never find a way to incorporate that trait into their Kroc even as they show him working various underhanded deals.
       Hancock tried to pull off a similar-themed idea with “Saving Mr. Banks” and a two-sided portrayal of Walt Disney; it worked because we saw the mogul through the eyes and ears of another character (writer P.L. Travers). The McDonald brothers serve that role in “The Founder,” but are always overshadowed by the charismatic Kroc/Keaton.
     Bottom line: Skip the movie and spend the money on a Big Mac and fries.


RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)
     In a few short minutes, Warren Beatty forever altered his legacy by hemming and hawing before handing to Faye Dunaway the card that should have shown the winner of 2016’s Best Picture Oscar.
    Everyone is familiar with the chaotic situation that followed and the aftermath that mostly absolved the 80-year-old movie legend. Yet if Beatty had acted like he’s been on the Oscar stage since he was 25 and not like a fresh-faced newcomer, he would have just turned to Jimmy Kimmel and asked for the correct envelope. Beatty has probably opened more than a dozen Oscar envelopes in the past 50 years (this was his third best picture presentation; in fact, has anyone given out more Oscars in Academy history?) Yet he acted more like the dementia-addled Howard Hughes than an award-show veteran.
    Just as clumsy as the Oscar presentation is Beatty latest, and long-delayed  Hughes film project, “Rules Don’t Apply.”
   The film popped up rather unceremoniously on the end-of-the-year calendar after a 15-year sabbatical that most fans assumed was retirement. His most recent appearance was in the flop “Town and Country,” which gave no indication that his creative juices were still flowing. And it had been 18 years since he directed the wild, original satire “Bulworth.”
      Beatty originally floated the idea of a Hughes bio-pic in the 1980s. But in the intervening years, both Hughes and Beatty have becomes forgotten figures to most of the movie audience. Yet the one-time movie star was clearly determined to complete the project.
    It’s not awful, but it’s a minor effort in a directing career that has produced “Heaven Can Wait, “Reds,” “Dick Tracy” and “Bulworth,” in addition to his star-producer efforts, “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Shampoo” and “Bugsy.”  While Beatty’s Hughes is a supporting character who doesn’t make an appearance until nearly halfway through the film, he’s the most believable character in the picture.
    Despite a pedestrian screenplay (by Beatty and Bo Goldman, who back in the 1980s wrote an excellent Howard Hughes film, “Melvin and Howard”), Beatty captures the social-inept, paranoid and downright cuckoo Hughes, along with the slivers of his genius that occasionally cut through the fog.
    Set in the 1950s, when Hughes ran RKO Pictures and was best known for collecting debutants in hopes of finding the next movie bombshell. (He was as obsessed with the construction of brassieres as he was with airplanes.)
   The main plot focuses on Marla (Lily Collins, daughter of pop star Phil Collins), a strict, Baptist girl just in from the Midwest (with her mother played by Beatty’s wife Annette Bening), sitting around waiting for her RKO screen test and her driver Frank (Adam Ehrenreich), who immediate falls for her.
      There’s nothing interesting about this part of the film, which dominates the first hour. It’s so lethargic that I felt like shouting at the screen to urge the actors on; it plays like a first reading. Like his Oscar appearance, director Beatty doesn’t seem capable of taking control.
    The last 40 minutes or so of the film focuses on Hughes helter skelter lifestyle as he moves from city to city to avoid what he perceives as a plot to have him institutionalized. This is somewhat more intriguing, as is Hughes’ inevitable relationship with Marla.
     I think Beatty could have delivered a first-rate performance under a strong director guidance—few actors in film history have exuded the on-screen charisma as Beatty; he’s not a great actor, never has been, but he’s been at the center of more great American films than almost anyone of his generation. Maybe if he had attempted this film 20 years ago, it would have been among his best. In 2016, it’s rather pointless.
     Though many movie fans will inevitable link Beatty with “La La Land” more than any of his own films, for those who treasure the cinema of the 1960s, 70s and, at least some of the 80s, he remains a Hollywood icon—one of its legendary lotharios and the rare actor to also make his mark as a producer and director.










Saturday, February 25, 2017

Best of 2016




  Films
  1  Manchester by the Sea
  2  Silence
  3  Arrival
  4  Jackie
  5  Indignation
  6  Hell or High Water
  7  The Comedian
  8  Miss Sloane
  9  Fences
10  Sully

11  Paterson
12  The Birth of a Nation
13  Hacksaw Ridge
14  Nocturnal Animals
15  Lion
16  Moonlight
17  20th Century Women
18  Lobster
19  Jason Bourne
20  Café Society


 Directors

 1  Martin Scorsese, Silence
 2  Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
 3  Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
 4  Pablo Larrain, Jackie
 5  David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water


  Actors

  1  Denzel Washington, Fences
  2  Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
  3  Andrew Garfield, Silence
  4  Robert De Niro, The Comedian
  5  Jake Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals



  Actresses

  1  Amy Adams, Arrival
  2  Natalie Portman, Jackie
  3  Viola Davis, Fences
  4  Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
  5  Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins


  Supporting Actors

  1  Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
  2  Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
  3  Issei Ogata, Silence
  4  Stellan Skarsgard, Our Kind of Traitor
  5  Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water


  Supporting Actresses

  1  Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
  2  Naomie Harris, Moonlight
  3  Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
  4  Edie Falco, The Comedian
  5  Linda Emond, Indignation


  Screenwriters

  1  Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

  2  Eric Heisserer, Arrival
  3  Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks, Silence
  4  James Schamus, Indignation
  5  August Wilson, Fences


  Cinematography

  1  Rodrigo Prieto, Silence
  2  Bradford Young, Arrival
  3  Stephane Fontaine, Jackie
  4  Tom Stern, Sully
  5  Linus Sandgren, La La Land



 


Monday, February 20, 2017

January-February 2017



SILENCE  (2016)
    Faith rarely serves as the centerpiece of a major American film, but it has always played an important part in Martin Scorsese’s career. Starting with his breakthrough film “Mean Streets,” this master filmmaker has directly explored religion in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “Kundun” (1997) and “Living in the Material World” (2011), his documentary on George Harrison. But it has informed nearly every film and character he’s created in the past 40 years.
      His new film, based on a novel by Shusaku Endo, follows a pair of Portuguese priests’ search for their mentor in 17th Century Japan, while offering a thorough and intellectualized query into what faith in God means. Ultimately, these men of God must reconcile the silence from above with the flesh-and-blood horrors of a cruel, inhuman world.
       Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), both looking as if they had just suffered seven years of protein deficiency, find their unwavering devotion tested as they seek out secret enclaves of Christians along the coast of Japan. What they find are Japanese who have given up all comforts of a normal life and the safety of conformity so they can follow Catholicism.
    While they continue their journey to find the mysterious Father Ferreira (a Kurtz-like figure), the situation become more dire as the chief inquisitor (Issei Ogata, in the performance of the film) ramps up his pursuit and torture of Christians. The debates about faith between Rodrigues and the inquisitor are where Scorsese (who adapted the book with his longtime collaborator Jay Cocks) dig deep into what it means to be a Christian and to what lengths one will go to prove that faith.
     Scorsese’s cinematic dissertation is long and painful but there’s never any doubt that a master is at work—in fact, two masters; Rodrigo Prieto’s stunning cinematograph (the film’s only Oscar nomination) captures the gloomy, oppressive tone of the film, while still capturing the natural beauty of the country before development (with Taiwan standing in for ancient Japan).
      Garfield, who previous to 2016 seemed to me an unsubstantial actor, proves himself a worthy messenger of the film’s somber, complex message, offering an emotional, thoughtful performance as the young priest who can’t imagine ever questioning his devotion to God. Both his Rodrigues and his war hero in “Hacksaw Ridge” rank among the year’s best performances.
    Driver has the less showy role, but just being in both a Scorsese and Jarmusch film in the same year is a rare achievement.
    Ogata’s clever but ruthless inquisitor manages to make this government oppressor more than a monster. Also giving an entertaining performance (the film isn’t all hopelessness) is Tabanobu Asano as the priests’ untrustworthy interpreter.
     In every frame the hand of Scorsese dominates: “Silence” is clearly the work of a man who has struggled with his beliefs; an artist who has lived astride the secular and the spiritual, informing this intensely grave story with the kind of introspection few American films even attept.
       I’m not a spiritual person in any way, but when Father Marty speaks, I listen.


THE COMEDIAN (2016)
     Not only is this new film—it opened briefly for Academy consideration in December but was ignored by voters—the funniest movie of 2016, but gives one of the cinema’s acting titans his best starring role in 20 years.
     Under the expert direction of veteran Taylor Hackford, whose films range from the Oscar-winning bio “Ray” to “An Officer and Gentleman,” Robert De Niro plays Jackie Burke, a standup on the downside of his career as he nears 70, living off the memories of a hit (and clearly awful) TV comedy a couple decades ago.
     Then it gets worse. At a gig he doesn’t even want to be at (emceed by comedy legend Jimmie Walker) in a club in the New York suburb of Hicksville, he encounters a pair of obnoxious customers bent on hijacking his act. Seriously, in Hicksville. The terminally pissed-off Jackie will have none of it; he uses the microphone on the guy’s head and earns six months in county lockup.
      After he’s released, the film chronicles his struggles to get back in the game, including begging money from his deli-owning brother (a perfect Danny Devito) and courting a much-younger woman, Harmony (Leslie Mann), he meets during community service at a soup kitchen.
    Some of the best moments are the sarcastic bickering between Jackie and his spunky manager (the always impressive Edie Falco) as she tries to resurrect his career in spite of his unpredictable nature. At one point she asks him “Are you going to take the job or be an asshole?”  “Can’t I do both?” he replies.
     The centerpiece of the film comes when Jackie takes Harmony to the upscale Jewish wedding of his lesbian niece, offering a ribald, hilarious and touching “good luck” speech that sends his sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) into a fit.
     What makes this picture so enjoyable is the unpretentious, almost documentary style that Hackford maintains even as the film goes way too far to find a “happy” ending. The script, not always on point but workable, was penned by an interesting collection of scribes: veteran film producer Art Linson, comedian Jeff Ross, awards-show scripter Lewis Friedman and Richard LaGravenese, one of Hollywood top screenwriters.
      In addition, the New York street atmosphere, and the many scenes of Jackie and real-life comedies in the Comedy Cellar, along with a very cool jazz score by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, makes Big Apple nightlife come alive. There are also a couple of memorable scenes inside the Friars Club, the nexus of the world of comedy, including a hilarious elevator ride with Jackie and Billy Crystal and a riotous roast of a comedy legend (played by Cloris Leachman).
     I really don’t understand why this film was so easily dismissed by critics and Oscar voters—if Meryl Street earns nominations for every role, De Niro certain deserves one for this late-career gem.
     The ensemble is as good as any film this year. Along with the actors mentioned above, there’s Harvey Keitel as Harmony’s controlling father, a fan of Jackie, but shocked his daughter is interested in him; Charles Grodin (another old co-star of De Niro’s) as the pompous president of the Friars who despises Jackie; and the ageless Lois Smith (actually 86), who plays a feisty nursing home patient.
     And then are all the real life comedians, bringing biting reality to the story, including Bret Butler, Nick Di Paolo, Sheng Wong and Jessica Kirson, whose banter from the stage when Jackie walks into the club with Harmony captures the best of the art of standup. (For those who are offended by typical standup routines, stay clear of this film; it contains more dick jokes than the entire catalog of Judd Apatow films.)
     De Niro, the hardest working old man in movies, has made 17 films in the past five years, but most aren’t worth the plastic the DVD is pressed on (“Silver Lining Playbook” is the exception). But I’m certainly glad he keeps trying; maybe he has a few more performances like “The Comedian” in him before he retires. 


PATERSON  (2016)
    In the world of filmmaking there have been few consistent over the past 30 years: Woody Allen’s annual slice of life, Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performances and the inscrutable movies of iconoclast Jim Jarmusch.
      No filmmaker, not even Allen, has remained so steadfast in his style and tone as Jarmusch has since his breakthrough 1984 film, “Stranger Than Paradise” (still his best movie) through the next 10 pictures. Even when his films fall flat, it feels reassuring that the quirky Jarmsuch is out there seeking answers to the world’s unanswerable questions.
     His latest will not be of interest to anyone who isn’t a Jarmusch aficionado. But that’s fine; there are more than enough of us to keep him going. The droll wit and offbeat, elliptic conversation, all trademarks of the writer-director, are here. 
     Adam Driver, a perfect match for this filmmaker (he could pass as the son of John Lurie from “Stranger Than Paradise”) plays a bus driver named Paterson living in Paterson, New Jersey—part of an unexplained twin motif—who also writes poetry. He’s inspired by another Paterson native: 20th Century poet, and town doctor, William Carlos Williams.
      The film shows a week of Paterson life, one day pretty much the same as the next. He wakes up about 6:30 a.m., in bed with his spacey live-in girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani), walks to the bus depot, drives a city bus all day and then returns home to Laura, a self-styled designer who fancies only black and white (like Jarmusch’s early films). Paterson finishes each evening by walking Marvin, a bad tempered English bulldog, ending the walk at the corner tavern.
    Jarmusch, in his inevitable way, films this series of events seven times, with little variation, yet, in the details the writer-director manages to indentify the simple pleasures and foolish dreams that keep us going day after day after day. The soothing, almost healing, properties of art—here it’s Paterson’s touching poetry—is celebrated with quiet persistence.
      Jarmusch saves his most poignant and dramatic moments for the scenes in the bar, frequented, except for Paterson, exclusively by African-Americans. The dive is presided over by chess-obsessed owner Doc (veteran character actor Barry Shabaka Henley), who like Paterson, is obsessed with the city’s history and its famous sons. That lineup includes film comic Lou Costello, boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, writer Nelson Algren, founding father Alexander Hamilton, baseball player Larry Doby and poets Allen Ginsberg and the aforementioned Williams.  
       “Paterson,” like so many of Jarmusch’s movies, reveals a world filled with people who don’t look, act or talk like they’ve just walked over from Central Casting or have ever been inside a Starbucks. His people aren’t rushing through life; they are carefully taking it all in, even when it takes them a bit out of their way.


HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)
     It has taken Mel Gibson five films and 20 years to find the project that perfectly matched his both directing skills and affinity for blood and guts. And even with this Oscar-nominated picture, he doesn’t find his métier until the midway point.
     The first half tells the “true” story (original stories in Hollywood have become risky business) of Desmond Doss, who grows up in the rural Virginia under the thumb of a violent, demanding father (Hugo Weaving). But the son’s hard-nosed attitude changes after he nearly kills his brother during a front yard scrap.
     As an adult (played by Andrew Garfield), Doss seems rather aimless (but a devoted Seventh-day Aventist) until he meets his soul mate Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and they date and eventually marry.
     This prologue-type material drags on forever, filmed like a dull TV movie and never rising above the most clichéd homilies. I was struggling to stay awake.
     But then World War II breaks out. Desmond, following his brother, joins up—even though he’s a pacifist who wants nothing to do with guns. It’s a bit confusing how he ends up at basic training before anyone deals with his refusal to even hold a rifle.
      Not surprisingly, the army brass wants nothing to do with him, seeing his presence as both damaging to moral and a danger on the battlefield (even in his chosen role of a medic).
      He’s forced to defend himself in military court, just barely managing to remain a part of the army. This middle section serves as the intellectual center of the film, as it explores his unique thinking: holding firm to his pacifist beliefs while determined to serve his country.
     By the time the film reaches the battlefield, the characters of the platoon, led by Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn, in his most interesting role) are clearly defined, especially in their relationship with Desmond. Together, they face the nearly impossible task of pushing the Japanese off Okinawa.
   The heroics in the film’s last act are over-the-top (despite being true) but Gibson brings an unrelenting, visceral tone to the scenes that carry it through even Desmond’s most unbelievable actions. This director has never shied away from showing physical trauma (see the Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto”) and it serves him well in the battlefront scenes—the gruesome deaths offer a strong anti-war statement, even if that isn’t Gibson’s intent. The lack of battlefield reality is what makes most war films from the 1940s and ‘50s feel like propaganda—they are literally bloodless.
     That Gibson and his picture both scored Oscar nominations is more than a little surprising, as he has been persona non grata in Hollywood since his series of anti-Semitic rants, starting in 2006 when he was arrested for driving under the influence.
      The film’s nominations show that, for the most part, art and money (mostly money) still reign supreme in the movie business. Even if no one in town will take lunch with you, your picture may still get an Oscar nomination.   
  

LION (2016)
      While the plot of this best picture Oscar nominee is as old as Dickens (think “Oliver Twist” meets “Great Expectations”), outstanding direction, script and acting overcome its predictability and the usually insurmountable hurdle of being “based on real events.”
      British actor Dev Patel, Hollywood’s designated Indian (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) finally is cast in a mature role, playing the adult version of Saroo, who, as a child, boards the wrong train near his west Indian village and ends up on the other side of the country. Completely confused and unable to even communicate well enough to get home, he ends up living on the streets.
       He survives a series of misadventures before being adopted by a Tasmanian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), growing up far from, and with little memory of, his birthplace.
       Then, on the cusp of a career in hotel management and in a caring relationship with a fellow student (Rooney Mara), he becomes obsessed with finding his birth family.      
      Unlike most “searching for roots” films, “Lion” shows the process to be difficult and the conflicting emotions debilitating. The script, by Saroo Brierley (both the character and the real man) and Luke Davies is based on Brierley’s book, and Patel’s fine performance not only examines the inner struggle of Saroo, but the limits to his hope to find closure for his lost childhood.
      Kidman gives a solid performance as his adoptive mother, though I’m not sure it merited an Oscar nod; I’m even more confused how Patel landed in the supporting actor category. (The Academy allows the studios to decide what category an actor can be considered for.) He is the film’s lead.
      Australian TV and commercial director Garth Davis impresses in his first feature film, turning what could have played like a sappy television movie into one of the best films of 2016.   
  

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)
      In many ways, this film says more about the racial prejudice that black Americans faced in the 1960s—a century after the Civil War ended slavery—than more obviously political films like “Selma,” “The Butler” or “Talk to Me.”
     By depicting smart, professional black women working at a high-profile federal agency, NASA, facing daily indignities and disrespect, the film confronts the stark reality for African Americans in that era. Their knowledge and judgment is regularly questioned because of the color of their skin .
        Director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder (from the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly) focus on three women, Katharine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae), friends, who in different ways, are fighting for recognition of their talents as they contribute to the efforts to put an American in space.
      Katharine’s astonishing mathematical skills earns her a spot among the group of otherwise white males trying to determine the perfect trajectory that will send the rocket into orbit around the Earth. But between her calculations she has to run halfway across the complex to use the “colored only” bathroom—a sequence that is repeated once too often, needlessly turning them into comic moments.
      Meanwhile Mary is trying to become an engineer at a school that doesn’t allow blacks and Dorothy, the chief of the “colored computers,” just wants to be acknowledged for the supervisor job she does.
       All three give first-rate performances and Spencer’s Oscar nomination is well deserved, but the film is more worthy of an Emmy Award than best picture. The script spits out one clichéd scene after another; it’s the performances—and the knowledge that it’s based on real women—that give the movie its sense of importance.
     It doesn’t help that, in trying to show Katharine’s life outside of work, the film provides a too-perfect suitor (Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight”) and a fairy-book romance.
    Like too many contemporary Hollywood films, “Hidden Figures” glows like a Hallmark TV movie, with flat, uncinematic storytelling and a complete lack of organic dialogue. The movie presents plenty of teachable moments, and should be seen, just don’t look for the kind of film you’d expect to find among the best picture nominees.


2016 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
     Understanding how and why a film ends up with an Academy Award nomination has grown as baffling as the time-space continuum. The voters love for “La La Land” leaves me dazed and confused, yet the year’s biggest head-scratcher is why Amy Adams, an Academy favorite, was ignored for her career-best performance in “Arrival.”
     While eight of the nine best picture nominees will probably make my Top 20 (you know which one won’t), I was surprising by the exclusion of “Silence” (see above) and “Sully,” another superbly crafted, old-fashioned movie by ageless Clint Eastwood. Fine work from these two legends deserved recognition in one of the major categories. 
      Of course, I’ll grit my teeth and watch the coronation of “La La Land.” (You know you’re old when the “In Memoriam” segment is the highlight of the show.) Meanwhile, here are the real best pictures of the year. (The rest of my Top 20 and acting selections will be posted on the website later this month):

 1  Manchester by the Sea  (Kenneth Lonergan)
 2  Silence  (Martin Scorsese)
 3  Arrival  (Denis Villeneuve)
 4  Jackie  (Pablo Larrain)
 5  Indignation  (James Schamus)
 6  Hell or High Water  (Davis Mackenzie)
 7  The Comedian  (Taylor Hackford)
 8  Miss Sloane  (John Madden)
 9  Fences  (Denzel Washington)
10 Sully  (Clint Eastwood)

     Just missing my Top 10 is Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” the controversial “The Birth of a Nation” and, Mel Gibson’s best film, “Hacksaw Ridge.”


   
                     



    


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.