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. 

     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.

     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.”

   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.

    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.