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.

     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.

     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.   

      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.

     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.”



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