Sunday, March 26, 2017

Available for home viewing: Loving

Jeff Nichols’ Loving is that rare mainstream film that provokes frustration and rage without resorting to monologues or melodrama. The two people at the center of this period drama aren’t prone to long speeches. They’re quiet, conservative, almost shy folk who ended up at the center of one of the most important Supreme Court cases of the ‘60s by virtue of falling in love, getting married and having children. Nichols’ approach is careful, reserved and deeply considerate of the human story he’s trying to tell. There’s no sense of exploitation here — if anything, he’s almost too reverential in his unwillingness to show any flaws. One can sense a director’s understandable trepidation in telling the story of two private people whose life was made very public. What’s most important to Nichols’ vision is how much trust he has in his two leads, and what they give back to him in exchange for that trust.

In 1958 Virginia, a reserved mechanic and construction worker named Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) married his pregnant girlfriend Mildred (Ruth Negga). The two drove to Washington, D.C. to make their union official, and Richard bought an acre of land near Mildred’s family home on which he planned to build a house. They hoped that Richard’s mother would deliver their first child, and that they would live in peace in a beautiful, country setting.

In the middle of the night, all of that changed. Officers broke into their home, arresting both Richard and Mildred, stating that their marriage license was no good in Virginia and that they had violated anti-miscegenation laws that stated that mixed-race couples were a violation punishable by jail time. With the assistance of a local attorney (Bill Camp), the Lovings were released under one condition: they had to leave the state of Virginia and not return for 25 years. They had to leave their families, their land, the home that they wanted to build, and the future they had seen for themselves. As the world changed with the rise of the civil rights movement, an opportunity arose to use the Lovings' case to finally eliminate the racist laws still destroying lives in part of the country.

From the opening scenes, there’s a tactile, lived-in quality to Nichols’ filmmaking. People are always doing something with their hands — cleaning a kitchen, laying brick for a house, working on a car, etc. And there’s always something in the air, from the sound of crickets to the palpable heat of the Virginia summer. Nothing here feels like a backlot. The production design and direction is so beautifully detailed that people will take it for granted. The Loving home, the cars he works on, the jail cells in which they spend the night, etc. — every element has been carefully considered but not overly highlighted. It is a masterful example of how to use time and place in a film without drawing attention to it as so many award season movies tend to do. There’s nothing flashy here.

And that filmmaking aesthetic applies to the performances as well, two of the best acting turns you’ll see this year. Edgerton, long a fascinating actor, has never been better than he is here, especially as the weight of his situation almost looks like it’s physically pushing him down. His eyes are squinty, his posture bent from hard labor and the concern over the well-being of his wife and family. As the Loving case became more high-profile, Richard Loving had to live with constant fear and the realization that his family was arguably safer if he would just leave them. Rarely has the oppressive, every-minute-of-every-day atmosphere of the impact of racism been captured as it is here. It is like the dust in the air or the crickets at night — always there.

As phenomenal as Edgerton is here, it’s arguably Negga’s movie. It’s her eyes that I will remember, conveying so much inner monologue with just a downward glance or adoring look at her husband. There’s a scene in which Mildred gets some surprising and good news via a phone call and Nichols knows two things. One, he knows that he shouldn’t give Mildred an exclamation or a monologue. Two, he knows not to leave Negga’s face. Her eyes say so much more than dialogue possibly could in this situation. And that speaks to Nichols’ gifts as a filmmaker: one who understands how to use the tools at his disposal more than just writing expository dialogue. We see films every day in which people openly convey how they feel and what they want in ways that don’t reflect the human experience. And yet there’s more reflected about what it means to be a human being in Negga’s eyes than anything I’ve seen on film in a long time. It’s a complex, subtle, quiet performance that gains its power through its believability more than the showiness we’ve come to expect in films like this one.

Loving has few twists and turns. It is a rather straightforward drama, and therefore probably won’t be flashy enough for some viewers. And yet it feels urgent and current to today’s drama. Why do some films set a half-century ago feel like history lessons while others feel essential to not just the ‘60s but the ‘10s? Because there’s truth in the story of Richard and Mildred Loving. There’s something about people who just want to be allowed to start a family that is timeless and always will be. And it takes an incredibly talented trio of people in Nichols, Negga and Edgerton to convey that timelessness in a way that feels genuine. When Loving ends, one doesn’t feel like they spent time being manipulated by awards bait or melodrama. One appreciates a story well-told and having been allowed a brief, believable window into the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, two people who changed the country just by falling in love.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Available for home viewng: Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals employs one of the most inventive uses of neo noir tropes and techniques I have seen in recent years. Intense, insightful, and strangely powerful, Tom Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel, Tony and Susan, assumes an intelligent viewer. The movie isn’t afraid to ping-pong back and forth between past and present, between fiction and reality. It doesn’t worry that the viewer might get lost (believing that, if such a thing happens, they’ll catch up along the way).

After an unforgettable opening in which art gallery curator Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) offers a glimpse into what can only be described as "performance art", we’re plunged into the midst of an upper class marriage on the rocks. However, just as Susan’s relationship with her current spouse, Hutton (Armie Hammer), is crumbling, she is pulled back into the orbit of her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Finally, after many false starts, he has found the inspiration to finish a novel. He wants Susan, to whom it is dedicated, to have a chance to read "Nocturnal Animals" before its publication.

The book-within-the movie introduces us to Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal), who is on a road trip through the wide open spaces of Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and his teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). After becoming involved in a road rage-inspired game of cat-and-mouse, Tony’s car is forced off to the side with a flat tire. The family’s tormentors — three twenty-somethings whose consciences are nowhere to be found — start out with teasing and taunting before moving to darker actions.

During the course of its nearly two-hour running length, Nocturnal Animals repeatedly returns to this fictional story because it illustrates a critical aspect of how Edward finds closure. To explain where the protagonists are in the present, the film delves into the past, rummaging through scenes from Susan and Edward’s marriage — from the giddy, optimistic early days to the ultimate betrayal Susan commits at the end. "Nocturnal Animals" is Edward’s therapy and, after reading it, Susan hopes they can reconnect.

Nocturnal Animals’ first book-within-movie segment is harrowing — as taught and unnerving as any extended sequence in any recent horror movie or thriller. The three antagonists, as portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo, exude menace and the slow, torturous manner in which they prey on their victims enhances the level of tension. Although this is an enactment of events found in Edward’s novel, we’re initially unsure whether this is purely "fiction" or whether it’s a partially autobiographical reflection. After all, Edward and Tony are both played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher is made to look like an Amy Adams clone. That uncertainty, coupled with cuts to Susan’s reactions as she reaches key moments in the book, creates an ambiguity about whether this might have happened.

A series of flashbacks highlight the highs and lows of Susan and Edward’s relationship as it traverses the road from friendship to marriage to divorce. These jumbled memories are interleaved with Susan’s reading of "Nocturnal Animals," which turns into a meditation on what steps a victim can take when traditional justice fails. The film’s ending is a gut-punch and, as powerful and appropriate as it is, it will shock some viewers with its suddenness and bleakness.

Both leads are excellent. Amy Adams brings the sad introspection she evidences in Arrival to this performance. The characters of Susan and Dr. Louise Banks are similar in many ways — both are haunted by regrets and find their present circumstances to be intolerable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two parts. Although Edward isn’t fully fleshed out, Tony is a repository of guilt and anger. The characteristic that weds the two roles is that of a supposed "weakness" — some see this trait as a flaw of Edward’s and Edward, through his writing, ponders whether it’s a failing of Tony’s. Michael Shannon’s portrayal of the lawman supporting Tony’s desire for justice is small (at least in terms of screen time) but critical. Finally, Laura Linney’s scene-stealing cameo as Susan’s mother is a highlight.

As was true of Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, the fashion designer’s eye is evident in how every shot is framed. There are some gorgeous images, such as the one where a young Susan and Edward meet on a snowy New York street. There are audacious moments, such as the opening credits sequence where fully nude, corpulent women are shown dancing and posing. Although there are times when a visual director can become obsessed with the look of his film (to the detriment of the narrative), that’s not the case here. Ford’s aesthetic enhances the movie’s story and momentum.

Although the second half of Nocturnal Animals doesn’t rise to the level of the white-knuckle first 45 minutes, the production as a whole represents an effective melding of visceral and intellectual filmmaking. This movie leaves an impression that’s difficult to shake.

A toast to Daisy’s Saloon

I’ve spent a lot of time in San Juan. For four months back in 1966 I actually lived in a small town called Fajardo, a coastal community about an hour’s drive east of San Juan. I started a weekly newspaper there and it was printed in San Juan so I spent an average of two days a week in Puerto Rico’s capital.

Most of that time was spent in the area of town known as "Old San Juan." I didn’t make enough to stay in the tourist section, but even if I did I know I would have found Old San Juan more to my liking anyway. I never ran across a joint called Daisy’s Saloon in Old San Juan. That’s not to say it didn’t exist there or anywhere else in San Juan, or that the bar didn't spring up long after I moved from Puerto Rico to Bermuda. Actually, I prefer to think that Daisy’s Saloon doesn’t exist anywhere outside the poetic mind of Keith Greeninger.

Greeninger (in a classic understatement) is not among the most well known of singer-songwriters, especially around these parts. Here he may be remembered as someone who won the New Folk competition one year in the late 1990s at the Kerrville Folk Festival. He makes his home in Northern California and spends most of his public time touring the clubs, college campuses and folk festivals in that area, especially around Santa Cruz. In fact, I must admit I am not an avid collector or even semi-knowledgeable of Greeninger’s musical output. I do know, however, that this song about Daisy’s Saloon and Eddie and Marshal and Larry and the San Juan Bakery and Merle Haggard and the Mission Café absolutely haunts me and I mean that in a very positive way. Take a listen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Celebrating McDormand

I have been a huge Frances McDormand fan ever since 1984's Blood Simple, one of my favorite films of all-time. Her most famous role, of course, was as Sheriff Marge Gunderson in 1996's Fargo, a performance that earned her an Oscar for best actress. She has received three other Oscar nominations, for her brilliantly moving understated performance in 1988's Mississippi Burning, and then for Almost Famous (2000) and North Country (2004).

Other than her much lauded television appearance in 2014's Olive Kitteridge, and her overlooked job in Moonrise Kingdom in 2012, McDormand hasn’t done that much of late to get all that excited about. That might be about to change, however.

I’m not saying she’s a slam dunk for a best actress Oscar nomination for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Minnesota, but from the looks of the trailer below I think she certainly has to be in the running. She plays the mother of girl who was raped and murdered and after a couple of months, when she doesn’t see any progress made toward solving the case, she makes over three billboards leading into town with controversial messages criticizing the town’s respected police chief (played by Woody Harrelson).

Three Billboards began filming in Sylva, N.C., last May and is expected to be released through Fox Searchlight sometime in the fall. It is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who made another one of my favorite thrillers, In Bruges (2008).

Available for home viewing: Julieta

Orson Welles famously said that, in preparing to direct Citizen Kane, he studied the Old Masters: "John Ford, John Ford and John Ford." In the work of Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, an innovator who’s also a cinema-classicist, one can detect the influence of various masters, from Alfred Hitchcock to Douglas Sirk. But at this point we must also recognize another master associated with his oeuvre: Almodóvar himself.

Julieta, Almodóvar’s 20th feature and his best, in my view, since Volver a decade ago, is a film of such quietly assured mastery that it reminds you American cinema today has virtually no one comparable to him: an artist who exercises total control over his work, employs a filmic idiom derived largely from the lushest productions of classic Hollywood, and operates in a fictional realm of his own creation.

Granted, he’s no longer as fashionable as the post-modern provocateur of Matador, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Yet the mature mastery of Julieta exhibits a higher, more refined level of accomplishment than those films, as must be recognized by anyone who doesn’t confuse youthful insouciance with real artistry. Surely, any filmmaking teacher trying to instruct a class of young Orson Welleses today in the subtleties of film craft could find few models better than Julieta.

Like most Almodóvar films, this one centers on women. Its narrative premise can be simply stated: a woman faces the painful mystery of her long alienation from her daughter. But this is only the germ of a drama that grows steadily richer, more resonant and complex as the filmmaker elaborates it.

As usual for Almodóvar, the film opens with images that feel strikingly significant. We see folds of rich red fabric swaying against each other, almost like the bodies of lovers. What seems inscrutable, though, is soon revealed to be the gown of Julieta (Emma Suárez), a middle-aged, middle-class woman who soon takes a small sculpture and swathes it in bubble wrap. At home in her chicly minimalist Madrid apartment, she’s soon visited by the man in her life, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), who wants to discuss their upcoming vacation to Portugal. But this is a getaway that’s not to be.

That’s because her seemingly happy and settled life is suddenly derailed by a chance encounter. One day, she runs into a very fashionable young woman who says she has seen Julieta’s daughter at Lake Como and that she now has three kids. Stunned by this news, which signals that it’s been a long time since mom saw her progeny, Julieta falls into depression, finding her mind thrown back into the past.

Three decades earlier, Julieta (now Adriana Ugarte), an attractive and adventurous classics teacher, sets off on a nocturnal train trip that will change her life. When an older man tries to chat, she flees to the bar car, where she meets Xoan (Daniel Grao), a handsome young fisherman. The two make love that night, but something else happens: the man she first met commits suicide — creating a spark of guilt that will take other forms later in the story.

It’s a story that ranges over many years and various locales. When Julieta moves in with hunky Xoan in his pretty Galician seaside cottage, she finds life complicated by the proximity of a beautiful female artist friend of his (Inma Cuesta) and a Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma) who seems to resent anyone else’s happiness. Julieta and Xoan have a daughter, Antía, who has a happy childhood. But after family disruption propels a move to Madrid when the girl is a teen, an abyss begins to open between her and her mother.

A while later, Antía leaves home for a "retreat" in the Pyrenees, and when Julieta goes to pick her up, she’s told her daughter no longer wants to see her. She discovered her life "lacked a spiritual dimension" and has found something she missed: faith.

I must confess that I’ve been very up and down about Almodóvar’s films over the years, but one of the pleasures of following his work is seeing how he continues to evolve. No film is just like any other. Of this one, he has said in the film's press notes: "I’ve contained myself very much in the visual composition, in the austerity of the supporting characters. No one sings songs. Nor do I introduce scenes from other films to explain the characters. There isn’t the slightest trace of humor, or any mixing of genres, or so I believe. From the outset I had in mind that Julieta is a drama, not a melodrama, a genre to which I’m partial. A tough drama with a hint of mystery: someone who’s looking for someone without knowing why she left."

That gives a concise picture of some of the qualities that set Julieta apart from others of his films, but "austerity" shouldn’t be taken to mean that he’s gone all Bressonian us. There’s a luxuriance to both the storytelling and the visual manner of the film, but it’s a luxuriance without flamboyance or cheekiness. Almodóvar stages scenes economically and elegantly, in such a precise way that they could indeed be used as classroom examples. Along with cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu and editor José Salcedo, his collaborators include composer Alberto Iglesias, whose haunting score I think is the best I’ve heard in a movie this year.

The two actresses who play Julieta deserve commendation, both for their individual excellence and for the way that Almodóvar blends their performances. Honestly, when watching the film, I couldn’t be sure whether I was seeing two women or one transformed by makeup and special effects. That almost uncanny seamlessness is a marvel in itself.

Almodóvar’s script was based on three stories by Alice Munro, and for a while he considered making it in her native Canada. That he ended up back in Spain is of course altogether fitting. He may share Catholic roots with Hitchcock and Bresson, but this film’s concern with guilt, transference, fate, mystery and (more obliquely) faith connects intricately with his native culture as well as the ideas expressed in his previous films. Building on his previous work while also charting a new course, it is suffused with the casual confidence of an established master.

Monday, March 13, 2017

This week's home video releases

Elle ***½

Note: The release of this video was postponed until this date in order to capitalize on a possible Oscar win for Isabelle Huppert.

Perhaps only Paul Verhoeven would open a film mid-rape — the violent attack observed by an unimpressed green-eyed cat — and then follow up with a scene where Michèle, the rape victim, face puffy from the beating, picks up a phone and orders takeout, asking questions about the "holiday roll." She's not blasé about what happened. She's freaked out. She stuffs the dress she was wearing in the trash. She takes a bath, blood from her genital area staining the bubbles above. She does not call the police. Instead, she orders food. It's hard to picture this woman shedding a tear. Ever. The opening sequence of Elle is just the start of the demented and exhilarating experience that is this movie. Elle is a high-wire act without a net.

Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, adapted for the screen by David Birke (and then translated into French by Harold Manning),Elle is a maniacal and confident hybrid of various genres. It's a rape-revenge-ensemble-comedy-thriller-stalker mashup, if you can even picture that. But the film (with a couple of sick and twisted adjustments) is mostly reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and 40s, starring the shoulder-pad boss-bitches of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dominant dames like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, whose characters were put through wringers involving snake-in-the-grass boyfriends/husbands, ungrateful children, career treachery. You can picture Stanwyck stuffing her dress in the trash, lighting a cigarette and then ordering takeout after being raped in the middle of her living room. You can't imagine any of those women, or Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michèle, going to a support group or therapy. They'll gut it out on their own.

The film is crowded with characters. Michèle has a lot going on: a slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) who has an abusive pregnant girlfriend, an ex-husband (Charles Berling) now dating a young yoga teacher, a bored sex fling with a married man, an elderly Botox-ed mother (Judith Magre) carrying on an affair with a gigolo, a pressing project at work (she co-owns a video game company), a handsome married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom she stares at longingly from across the street, and a complex backstory not revealed until far into the film. This woman has too much to DO to fall apart after the rape. But then she starts getting creepy texts from the unknown rapist: he knows where she is, what she's wearing. It could be anyone. Every man she knows is a suspect. She buys pepper spray (and, on impulse, a small axe) to protect herself. She says at one point, "Nut jobs I can handle. My specialty." You believe her. Maybe somewhere she always expected something like this, that horror would reach out its tentacles to find her again.

Verhoeven unbalances the existing tension of the "whodunit" aspect of Elle by giving us some pretty obvious clues early on who probably did it. Verhoeven does not "bury the lede" because he's interested in things other than the plot cranking itself out to a "satisfying" conclusion. He’s interested in the psychology and behavior of this particular woman. His camera follows her everywhere, like a stalker, like a lover. As in life, whether we want to admit it or not, those lines are often blurred. Every interaction, not just sexual and political, contains small jostles for power, position, dominance. Who's the "top"? Who's the "bottom" in any given moment? There are competing objectives in every conversation, each side maneuvering to get what they want. Jostling for power comes in many different forms, playing out in romantic relationship, office dynamics, even in a conversation with a group of friends where you have something to say and everyone is too busy talking to give you "the floor." Elle is a dissertation on power dynamics.

Verhoeven's approach is, unsurprisingly, extremely provocative. Michèle is a woman in her early 50s, and her sexuality surges around inside her, seeking expression. It leads her into some pretty dark stuff. In real life, sex doesn't progress in a checklist of approved behaviors happening in the proper order. Sometimes people are drawn to danger, to risk. Rape fantasies are so common as to be mundane. The current view is that consent in sex is a cut-and-dry thing. Either you consent, or you don't. There is no doubt that the rape in Elle is horrifying. Verhoeven does not eroticize it. The rapist wipes the blood from Michele's vagina off of his hip bone as he gets up off of her. But later in the film, when Michèle does consent to sex, enthusiastically, watch how her lover is unnerved by a woman who wants it, who doesn't have to be talked into it. He's almost turned off by her sexual urgency. And that, ultimately, is the most cutting observation in Elle, and Verhoeven's aim is accurate and deadly. Men not knowing what to do with a woman who wants sex and knows how she wants it, men needing to be the "top," always, threatened by a woman taking the "top" role (not in sexual positions, but in attitude) … well. These issues have been with us from the beginning of time, and won't be solved overnight. But Elle is one of the smartest films about consent I've ever seen.

Huppert does not make even an unconscious bid for our sympathy. She never has, throughout her lengthy career and it is one of the things that distinguishes her from other actresses. Even very talented actresses want to make sure that we "understand" why the character does what she does. Huppert doesn't care. She's completely beyond those concerns. It's why she's so thrilling to watch and why she is in such rare company (Anna Magnani, Liv Ullmann, Gena Rowlands, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford — it's a short list). There's always some element of mystery left intact in Huppert's work. Huppert can be frighteningly blank (The Piano Teacher, La Cérémonie), she can be human and flawed (Amour, and the upcoming Things to Come). In Elle she gets to be funny, and it's such a joy to watch! It's effortless for her. She's funny in her line-readings ("Bimbos with big tits never worried me, but the girl who's read The Second Sex will chew you up …"), in her gestures and expressions. You cannot take your eyes off of her. Neither can Verhoeven. In a Q&A following the public screening at the New York Film Festival, Verhoeven reportedly described Huppert (also in attendance) as "unique in the world." She is.

Watching Elle feels like climbing Everest without an oxygen tank. The air is dizzyingly clear up there. And dangerous, too.

Fences ***
Fences is as faithful, impeccably acted and honestly felt a film adaptation of August Wilson's celebrated play as the late author could have possibly wished for. But whether a pristine representation of all the dramatic beats and emotional surges of a stage production actually makes for a riveting film in and of itself is another matter. Having both won Tony Awards for the excellent 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson's 1986 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis know their parts here backward and forward, and they, along with the rest of the fine cast, bat a thousand, hitting both the humorous and serious notes. But with this comes a sense that all the conflicts, jokes and meanings are being smacked right on the nose in vivid close-ups, with nothing left to suggestion, implication and interpretation.

One of the most individually successful installments of Wilson's celebrated "Pittsburgh Cycle," the 1950s-set Fences alludes not just literally to the barrier middle-aged Troy (Washington) forever procrastinates about building in the small backyard of his modest city home — but to the career and life obstacles he has never managed to surmount either as a baseball player, for which he blames racial restrictions, or in his messy personal life.

It's a play of poetically heightened realism, with amusing down-home chatter, soaring monologues, boisterous drunken riffs and blunt dramatic confrontations in which Troy bitterly and sometimes cruelly draws the lines between him and those closest to him.

These include his wife Rose (Davis), who loves him, knows all his moods and yet must stoically endure his erratic behavior; teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose school football career Troy cruelly thwarts by projecting his own sports disappointments onto him; Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy's mild-mannered 30-something son by a previous marriage, a jazz musician who still comes around asking for money; and younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose wartime head injuries have rendered him childlike.

Getting off easy among Troy's intimates is his old pal Bono (Stephen Henderson), and much of the early going is genially dominated by the pair's increasing high humor as they end their work week as garbagemen with Troy taking out his flask and launching into tall life tales. Rose, having heard it all before, busies herself in the kitchen and alternately resists and succumbs to her husband's wily way with words.

But modest as his station in life may be, it's of paramount importance to Troy that he be regarded as the cock of his particular walk, and a great deal of what he does and says is devoted to emphasizing this point. He may make a meager living, but he uses his slim economic advantage and lordly personality to exert a certain droit du seigneur over his immediate circle; "I'm the boss around here," he likes to remind the others. This is particularly hurtful to Cory, whose dreams his father so unreasonably thwarts, but is also demeaning to his wife and older son. Troy withholds from his loved ones almost as if by instinct, winning on points in the short term but losing in the long run due to what can only be called spiteful meanness.

In his third outing as a big-screen director (after Antwone Fisher in 2002 and The Great Debators in 2007), Washington opens up the play's action a bit, discreetly moving out onto the street for a stickball game, to a bar and into the city to get the characters out of the house once in a while. All the same, the film cannot shed constant reminders of its theatrical roots, nor of how different theatrical playwriting is from original screenwriting in this day and age. There were periods, especially through the 1950s and 1960s, when nearly every Broadway and London play of any artistic importance or commercial viability was adapted into a film, when audiences were accustomed to lengthy exchanges and monologues during which characters would basically speechify while being photographed. Now such transfers are a rarity — the last straight play to win a best picture Academy Award was Driving Miss Daisy 27 years ago, and perhaps the three most notable non-musical plays made into films in the past few years, August: Osage County, Carnage and Venus in Fur, went nowhere commercially.

Due to Fences' star power and innate qualities, this was not the case for this film, which offers enough dramatic meat, boisterous humor and lived-in performances to hook audiences of all stripes. But just one example of a device that proved acceptable onstage but plays awkwardly onscreen is that of Troy's brain-damaged brother, who wanders through multiple scenes with a bugle strung around his neck in the manner of any number of kindly "simpleton" characters that used to pop up in plays and literature. Of far more symbolic than dramatic use to the story, Gabriel's movements and utterances come off as awkward and pretentiously meaningful onscreen in a way that they did not onstage.

As carefully as Washington moves the action around the limited locations, the abundance of long speeches, high-pitched exchanges and emotional depth charges are unmistakably redolent of the stage rather than very closely related to the way films have been written in a very long time. It was perhaps the problem with the film Steve Jobs last year that it was written more like a play than a film, and the sense of excess speechifying and calculated waves of character revelation give the piece an increasingly laborious feel one expects and wants in the theater but that seems somehow alien onscreen.

Fences deals overtly with racial issues almost exclusively in connection with Troy's resentment over employment opportunities. Insisting that being black is what prevented him from becoming a big league baseball player, he then badmouths the black stars who made the grade in the majors. Of more relevance to his current life is his eventual success in breaking down an absurd racial barrier that has long prevented black trash collectors from moving up to become garbage truck drivers, which pays better. Small victory though it is (and it's related just anecdotally, not dramatized onscreen), this breakthrough would seem to represent Troy's most purely admirable accomplishment, especially in light of the big bombshell he drops later on.

Great in these roles onstage, Washington and Davis repeat the honors here, he with quicksilver shifts from ingratiating tall-tale-telling and humor to bulldog-like demands to his wife and offspring that he be treated like the boss king he fancies himself to be. Davis beautifully illuminates the ways in which Rose has learned to live with this man, to be quiet or cut him slack when it's not worth the effort of a fight, but to make it clear that she has lines she will not allow to be crossed. Despite his delusions and pride, she clearly still loves the guy, and the two make an entirely convincing long-term husband and wife.

Henderson is a joy as Troy's easygoing straight man, who indulges his old pal's every whim, joke and complaint, while Adepo well channels the tension and rebellious desires the athletic, straight-arrow son must suck up when his father lays down the law.

Production designer David Gropman and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen create a warmly appealing lived-in ambiance. Playwright Tony Kushner receives a prominent co-producer credit, reportedly for having done the pruning and shaping to bring the three-hour play down to a more screen-friendly length.

Passengers *½
Passengers is the tale of a lonely guy in space, the drama of an ethical conundrum, a love story featuring two of the hottest actors on the planet, and a turbulent sci-fi action-adventure — and for all of that, it manages to be not a very good movie. The two stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, are both intensely gifted and easy on the eyes, and the film takes off from a not-bad idea, but the setup is way better than the follow-through. The director, the Norwegian-born Morten Tyldum, made the accomplished WWII brainiac spy thriller The Imitation Game (2014), but he turns out to be the wrong filmmaker for an amorous space opera. You can see why when he stages a scene that’s supposed to take us out of this world, but doesn’t.

We’re on the Avalon, a corporate starship that’s shaped like a spidery double helix. The spacecraft, which is headed for a prefab interplanetary colony called Homestead II (in the future, it seems, off-world lands will become franchises for those tired of life on earth), is carrying 255 crew members and 5,000 volunteer passengers, all of whom are in a state of suspended animation and set to stay that way for 120 years. That’s how long the voyage will take. But two of the passengers get woken up early: Jim Preston (Pratt), a mechanical engineer who’s jostled to consciousness in his hibernation pod after the ship hits a meteor, and Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a journalist whom Jim deliberately rouses from her slumber so that he’ll have someone to keep him company.

The two have all the food, alcohol, and entertainment they could want; there’s a basketball court, a video dance floor, and an elegant if empty bar presided over by a red-jacketed android named Arthur, played by Michael Sheen like the chipper robot cousin of Lloyd the bartender in The Shining. But unless either Jim or Aurora manages to live another 90 years or so, this voyage is going to eat up the remainder of their existence, and they’ve got no one but each other to keep each other company. Since they happen to look like Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt (stranded in space, you could do worse), it starts to seem like things will work out.

They get to know each other and go on a "date," at which point Jim tells Aurora that he’d like to take her to a place that’s "the best show in town." He’s talking about a deep-space walk. The two don heavy-duty suits and, hanging by a tether, venture outside the ship, into the starry vastness, at which point you may flash back to other visions of flying human rapture — Christopher Reeve whisking Margot Kidder through the night sky in Superman, or George Clooney and Sandra Bullock (though they were just pesky colleagues) bobbing around in the awesome void of Gravity. In different ways, both those movies made your heart skip a beat. But in Passengers, the big romantic spacewalk is so perfunctory and visually rote that it’s about as stunning as a glimpse out the window of an airplane cruising over Cleveland. The scene is a harbinger of what’s to come, since the two actors spend the rest of the movie going through the motions of what turns out to be a flavorless and rather predictable fable.

Too bad! Because for its opening 45 minutes or so, Passengers is a reasonably cunning slice of commercial sci-fi, even as it overtly recycles the strategies of films like The Martian and Moon. When Jim first wakes up, he thinks the voyage of the Avalon is complete (the passengers are scheduled to come out of hibernation four months before the end of the journey). It doesn’t take long for him to realize, though, that something is amiss. He’s surrounded by chirpy holograms and talking food dispensers — but there’s no other live human.

The Avalon is like an abandoned cruise ship, and the movie serves up some witty tweaks of top-down corporate culture, like the way that Jim can’t order a first-rate cup of coffee (because he’s not a Gold Star passenger), or the fact that he can’t get through to anyone back on earth, because everything on the ship is programmed to stonewall you. (No information leaks out, even if your life depends on it.) The situation Jim finds himself in is a gnawing nightmare; it’s as if he’d been sentenced to die alone, in 50 years, of boredom. Pratt, beneath the jock sexiness, is a fine actor who lets his eyes dance with playful intent, and with a dash of panic. Jim tries to make a go of things, but after too many days of eating, drinking, and one-man hologram dance-offs, he enters his Jim Morrison-on-the-skids phase. The question is: Will he rouse a fellow passenger, 90 years before she’s scheduled to wake up, in order to save himself?

He knows that doing so is indefensible (it’s like playing God), but he also knows that if he doesn’t make the decision to screw someone else over, he’s going to go crazy. The way that Passengers forces Jim to weigh his choice, and puts the audience in his shoes, seems responsible enough. Yet that still doesn’t make it an infectious thing to build a movie around. Jim’s whole relationship with Aurora is based on a selfish and rather creepy act, as well as a lie (the implication that she woke up accidentally, the same way he did). He’s crafty about it, but we’re waiting for their romance to crash. Lawrence and Pratt match up nicely, because they’re such naturally responsive actors; they’re fast, with mutual radar. Lawrence, though a bit less vivid when she’s this blonde, gives Aurora a core of survivalist moxie. She will do what the circumstances demand. But can Jim keep his secret?

There’s only one place for Passengers to go, and once it gets there, Jon Spaihts’s script runs out of gas. Tyldun handles the dialogue almost as if he were doing a stage play, but he turns out to be a blah director of spectacle; he doesn’t make it dramatic. (He does create one cool image, though, of a swimming pool freed from gravity.) There isn’t much to Passengers besides its one thin situation, and there are moments when the film could almost be a very special episode of Star Trek, because Pratt, with his golden-boy smirk, has a Kirkian side, and the voyage they’re on is grandiose yet amorphous (like the Enterprise’s). The ship itself has a variety of chambers and communal spaces, but it all seems overly familiar and sterile. What’s lackluster about Passengers isn’t just that the movie is short on surprise, but that it’s like a castaway love story set in the world’s largest, emptiest shopping mall in space.

Collateral Beauty ½*
Collateral Beauty" should win some kind of award for Best Execution of a Truly Dreadful Concept. Chock-a-block with magnetic movie stars, and shot beautifully by talented cinematographer Maryse Alberti, all twinkling lights and Christmas in the city, it looks like an important and meaningful film. That's all smoke and mirrors. Stars and cinematography can't save the story, which is a misguided tale filled with armchair philosophizing and ultimately meaningless twists.

It feels as though screenwriter Allan Loeb thought up the term "collateral beauty," thought it was neat, and then reverse-engineered a story where the characters could say "collateral beauty" a lot. "Look for the collateral beauty," they say. Does that refer to Rogers's idea of looking for the helpers in a crisis? Not really, nope. It's a phrase that seems like something the teenage Wes Bentley from American Beauty would have invented while chasing a plastic bag down the street with a camcorder.

To even explain the premise feels like spoiling the movie, but, seriously, you gotta hear this. Will Smith plays Howard, "poet philosopher of product," or as we would say, an advertising executive, who gives inspiring but empty speeches to his staff demanding to know "what is your why?" and blabbing about the "three abstractions" of love, time and death. That's what advertising is all about, baby.

The death of his child sends him into a downward spiral, until he's nearly catatonic, leading a life of angry bicycling, extensive domino set ups, and letter writing to love, time and death. This regime is obviously not great for business, so his partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena) decide the best course of action is to shakedown his majority voting shares by proving he's mentally incompetent to make decisions. They hire a private eye (Ann Dowd), and the strangest theater company of all time, Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to pretend to be the three abstractions and confront Howard on the street. This plan, it's cockamamie.

The far more interesting movie would be the one that explains just how Brigitte and Raffi came to be in a theater company together, but alas, the plot skitters around as we watch Howard emerge from his fugue state. This "devastated and unstable" vibe is not Smith's best zone as an actor, so it begs the question why he still chooses these cheesy, quasi-uplifting, high-concept projects such as Seven Pounds or The Pursuit of Happyness every few years.

There's never any real definition of "collateral beauty," just some vague aphorisms that "we are all connected." But the movie, obsessed with its own twists and inane mysticism, essentially robs the meaning from that idea. If the film explored how strangers and loved ones managed to overcome emotional obstacles and learn things from each other, that would be poignant. Instead we have a demented tapestry of bizarre interactions and strange choices that results in a bigger picture that reveals absolutely nothing at all.

Perhaps the idea was this half-baked from the get-go, or maybe the film was edited within an inch of its life and lost all meaning. Whatever the case, for all of its faux-deep gesturing, Collateral Beauty is much more shallow nonsense than anything else.

This week’s other releases
Being 17 ***½ André Téchiné intuitively favors movement over chatter, and he directs his young actors toward intimate, yearning performances.
The Love Witch ***½ Anna Biller’s movie, like its heroine, presents a fascinating, perfectly composed, brightly colored surface. What’s underneath is marvelously dark, like love itself.
Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America **½ It may lack focus in its approach to its subject, but Davis’s compelling character and powerful message keep the viewer engaged.
Solace * The directorial pyrotechnics keep this film from "dragging" in a narrative sense; the very real boredom it nonetheless elicits is more existential.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Monday, March 6, 2017

This week's home video releases

Jackie ***½

Maybe this is what we need, toward the beginning of America’s "annus horribilis" — a really good cry. But Jackie, the bio-pic built around Jacqueline Kennedy’s days of grief, shock and utter horror following the murder of her husband, doesn’t let us off that easily. Star and Oscar nominee Natalie Portman brings everything the First Lady must have felt in those moments, days and months after JFK’s assassination, his shattered head falling into her lap that day in Dallas. There’s shock — "He had the most wonderful expression on his face." And revulsion — "There was blood, everywhere. I tried to hold his head together."

And then there’s the quiet fury of a mousy-voiced "silly debutante" imposing her will on her fiery brother-in-law, Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), the bluff new president, Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch of Zodiac) and indeed America. No, she will NOT change her pink Chanel suit, even though it’s covered in blood. "Let them SEE what they’ve done," she practically spits at Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant). Portman lets us feel the way Jackie’s loss utterly empties her life of meaning and purpose. But Chilean director Pablo Larrain (The Club) lets little John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg) provide the heart-wrenching release, just as he did back at that state funeral in 1963.

Larrain and screenwriter and Today show veteran Noah Oppenheim frame this story in the most blandly conventional way — in the form of an interview with "The Journalist" — Billy Crudup playing someone meant to be Life Magazine’s Theodore White. But writer, director and cast make the interview a brittle, biting piece of journalistic combat. He is there at her request, so she can "tell her story." He can sass her, try to bait and joke about her manipulations of her late husband’s image. She’s not having it. Demure or not, she knows how to put someone in his place. She still has control, final edit, and she’s not above reminding him of that any time something too personal or injurious to her image or her husband’s legacy. "Don’t think for ONE moment I’m going to let you print that," she hisses in that regal, dainty whisper of hers.

The film is built around confessions from the interview, and from post-assassination talks with Bobby, her de facto lady-in-waiting (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt). Jackie, who brought in a historian to help her restore the White House to its historic glory, has the presence of mind to bring him (Richard E. Grant) back when hastily planning a funeral. Don’t think Garfield or McKinley, she says. No, think Lincoln.

The script swallows the "Camelot" myth even as it casts a jaundiced eye on how Jackie cultivated it. And Portman captures the stunning solitude of a woman totally alone with the whole world assaying her grief, threatened from all sides. And she shows the steely resolve of a widow ready to play the widow card as she changes her mind about the scope of the funeral — intimate to epic. The best of those tussles? With LBJ aide and future Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti — struggling to be tactful, bordering on testy (as indeed LBJ supposedly was), helpless when Jackie defiantly demands a walking procession to the funeral through the gun-filled streets of a nation that just shot her husband with a mail-order rifle. Max Casella ably plays Valenti as wily, determined and every bit as brusque as his boss, but no match for the Widow Kennedy.

I love the way Larrain and his crew mimic grainy video and TV film footage of the era, filling in the background with TV reality as the young Dan Rather tells the nation the latest on the tragedy, Jackie flashes back to her famous White House Restoration tour for TV reporter Charles Collingwood (played by a look-alike, with the real Collingwood’s questions and interjections) and Lee Harvey Oswald is shot on live TV. Larrain went for a JFK look-alike as the president (Caspar Philipson, too short) and a great actor as his brother (Sarsgaard, too tall and making no effort to match the Kennedy twang). But the emotional distance and dramatic parameters of the story they chose to tell lift Jackie above similar films attempting to capture the tragedy of iconic beauties such as Princess Diana and Grace Kelly.

And Portman, holding the film together with the force of her gaze and the quiet of her whispers, holds us as well. She delivers an impersonation that punches through the cultivated veneer to show a real woman dealing with the unspeakable, struggling every second with the weight of tragedy and the expectations of history as she does. There was steel and calculation behind those sunglasses the world grew to mock, and a grace that went beyond fashion icon, priestess of high culture and the national monument to mourning we wanted her to be.

Moana ***½
Moana would have been enormously entertaining regardless of when it came out, but its arrival at this particular moment in history gives it an added sense of significance — as well as inspiration.

The latest musical extravaganza from Walt Disney Animation Studios follows the adventures of a young woman who finds her own voice and forges her own identity. She chooses to be a forward-thinking leader of her people on her own terms, rather than a stereotypical princess in need of rescue, which the film acknowledges in amusingly knowing fashion. She has both the wisdom to respect her people’s traditions and the bravery to blaze her own trail toward the future.

Moana is on the verge of becoming the first female chief in the proud history of her Polynesian tribe, shattering the glass ceiling under spectacular blue skies. Imagine that.

Sure, you could watch Moana for its dazzling visuals, catchy tunes, enjoyable performances, clever running gags and overall sense of fun. It’s all there, and — except for a few scary moments — it’ll delight viewers of all ages. But for some of us older folks, it’s hard to shake the feeling of wistful possibility in seeing a woman assume the leadership position for which she was destined.

It’s a must-see for girls and boys alike, though. And it features an astonishingly assured, auspicious debut from Auli’I Cravalho, a Hawaiian teenager showing chops and instincts well beyond her experience and years. In lending her voice to the title character, Cravalho radiates grace, great timing and an infectious energy. And the film from the veteran directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and a small army of writers gives her plenty of opportunity to shine both individually and as part of a large, colorful cast of characters.

None is larger than Dwayne Johnson as the muscled demigod Maui, with whom Moana must team up to return a magical stone to its resting place and right an ancient wrong that’s steadily plagued the Pacific islands ever since — including, most pressingly, her home. Being one of the most charismatic people on the planet, Johnson charms with all the swagger you’d expect, and he’s also capable of toying with his tough-guy image as we’ve seen over the years. (A running bit in which Maui’s mass of tattoos comes to life to comment on the action — and mock him — provides a consistently funny Greek chorus.) But Johnson doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to connect with more intimate, dramatic moments, and Moana allows him to show off that side of his talent, too.

The two enjoy plenty of highs and lows as they set out on the open ocean, learning to work together to navigate various obstacles and outsmart their foes. (If you’re thinking about watching this with very young children, a giant lava monster might seem frightening to them, but everything else is pretty darn delightful — including a pirate armada of evil coconuts who attack in a hilarious and thrilling sequence that’s straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote several of the songs that help propel the action, including Moana’s girl-power anthem, How Far I’ll Go, and Maui’s bouncy introductory tune, You’re Welcome. The former speaks to her yearning to break free and explore beyond the island’s reef, something her father (Temuera Morrison) and mother (Nicole Scherzinger) have urged her not to do for fear of the dangers that may await. While it (mercifully) lacks the same persistent earworm qualities of the ubiquitous Let It Go from Frozen, its message of female assertiveness makes it infinitely more worthwhile. Another major highlight is Shiny, a campy little ditty sung by Jemaine Clement as a conniving crab with a taste for all things glittering and gold; it’s hard to ignore the modern-day political figure he calls to mind, too.

The details in these production numbers are just decadent; the colors are a million shades of green blue, and the underwater creatures and settings have a wonderfully immersive, tactile quality. Maybe the movie goes for the easy, physical gag a few times too many, as is the case with Moana’s animal pal, a kooky, cross-eyed chicken named Heihei (voiced by Alan Tudyk) who accidentally tags along when she dares to set out on the high seas. But Moana — a strong, curvy girl and not your typical, stick-figure princess — is ready for any challenge that comes her way. Even a wacky sidekick.

This week’s other new releases
Notfilm ***½ A studious, rigorous and surprisingly tender documentary.
Tanna *** This movie is a tremendous accomplishment, especially considering that the cast had never seen a camera before — much less movies — yet still agreed to star in the drama. Their performances are as stunning as the setting, and that’s truly saying something.
Miss Hokusai *** In its ruminations on artistic tradition, creation and vision, this is something close to a minor masterpiece. In its other ideas, although less inspired, also resonate in significant ways.
The Brand New Testament *** While the ultra-clever first act stockpiles sufficient admiration from viewers to sustain the film, the bulk of it concerns itself with director Jaco Von Dormael ‘s most persistent preoccupation: the tug of war between fate and free will.
The Eyes of My Mother **½ Nicolas Pecse’s debut feature as writer-director is a patient, pitiless thriller. A macabre tale set in the rural South where random violence is the stuff of folk legend, and morbid bluegrass ballads.
I Am Michael ** While the performances are compelling, particularly James Franco’s, and the ideas battered around are worth grappling with, much of the storytelling is bogged down by extra details and exposition, and hampered by its unwillingness to take a position on the topic. An interesting story, but unfortunately, rather uninterestingly told.
Trespass Against Us ** Though thematically vague, thinly plotted and without a reliably sympathetic soul to cling to, the movie has a mutinous energy and an absurd, knockabout charm.
100 StreetsUnfortunately the movie’s parts are greater than the whole, forcing it to crash and burn after an absolutely ludicrous third act.
Incarnate * Incoherent mashup of previous demonized tyke films and unfailingly inept pseudo-science and the result is about as devoid of suspense, much less genuine horror, as this specific sub-genre can be.
Man Down ½* This is a bad film, but it’s made even worse by the taste it will leave in your mouth regarding its silly handling of a very serious issue.
Bad Kids of Crestview Academy ½* Animated comic book panels hint at an attempt at style, but bad camera work captures bad performances of bad dialogue.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Friday, March 3, 2017

Upon further review

I was ready to dismiss this film right off the bat simply because I'm no fan of remakes, sequels, prequels and general movie rip-offs. But lately, I've been hearing some very good word of mouth about this movie and I must admit I admire that director Jordon Vogt-Roberts has brought the film in at one hour and 55 minutes (1:18 if you include the closing credits), which is only 11 minutes longer than the great 1933 original, but 72 minutes shorter than Peter Jackson's bloated, self-indulgent remake. In an interview with the Miami Herald, the director was quoted as saying "I wanted to keep it short. Fargo was 95 minutes. I miss the days of brevity in film."

I've also heard the movie has a number of comedic touches, many of them the result of some improvising by John C. Reilly.

Variety's Owen Gleiberman says it's more like a Jurasssic Park movie than a King Kong spinoff, and, if viewed in that way, it's ten times superior to Jurassic World and actually on a par with Steven Spielberg's original. That's saying quite a bit. "Skull Island is more action-based and less ambitious than either of the 'King Kong' remakes: the snarky, overblown, justly reviled 1976 knockoff or Peter Jackson’s good but still not good enough 2005 retread,” Gleiberman writes.

I must admit, however, I do have some concern over whether the helicopter sequence is a homage or a ripoff of Apocalypse Now.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Another brick in the wall

Former Mexican President Vincente Fox tweeted his response to the line in Donald Trump's State of the Union address calling for "a great, great wall" to be erected on the Mexican border

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Of Shakespearian proportions

The greatest tragedy to ever befall this nation of ours is not that Donald Trump was elected president, but that Bernie Sanders wasn't.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Bill Paxton gone too soon

Bill Paxton was only 61 when he died mysteriously from what is being called "complications from surgery," whatever the hell that means. I’ve been told it involved a stroke he suffered following heart surgery. I wasn’t even aware of his death until Jennifer Anniston mentioned it last night, just prior to the "in memoriam" segment of the Academy Awards telecast. And, c’mon, the Academy had plenty of time to insert Paxton into that tribute. The fact that it didn’t is, in my mind, the biggest screw up since it failed to mention Farrah Fawcett in a similar tribute the year she died. I am more disturbed by this omission than I was about fumbling the announcement last night of the best picture winner.

Paxton was a much underrated actor, never nominated for an Academy Award. I consider his best performance in the equally under-appreciated A Simple Plan.

I also thought he was gave a flawless performance in One False Move, another film that is not as well known as it should be.

He did receive an Emmy nomination, however, for his performance in the miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, as well as three Golden Globe nominations for the television series Big Love on HBO. He was arguably best known, however, for the movies Twister, Apollo 13 and Titanic.

Paxton was born May 17, 1955 in Fort Worth Texas. He was in the crowd when President Kennedy left the Hotel Texas in the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. You can see him being hoisted on the shoulders of his mother in this picture which is contained in the archives of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas.

His family issued the following statement yesterday:

"It is with heavy hearts we share the news that Bill Paxton has passed away due to complications from surgery. A loving husband and father, Bill began his career in Hollywood working on films in the art department and went on to have an illustrious career spanning four decades as a beloved and prolific actor and filmmaker. Bill's passion for the arts was felt by all who knew him, and his warmth and tireless energy were undeniable. We ask to please respect the family's wish for privacy as they mourn the loss of their adored husband and father."

This week's DVD releases

Moonlight ****

Dramatic film has long been fascinated with issues of identity, but they’ve rarely been explored with the degree of eloquence and heartbreaking beauty as in Barry Jenkins’ masterful Moonlight, the best film of 2016 (which, it turns out, is not only my opinion but one shared by the Motion Picture Academy as well, whose voters also selected the film as last year’s best, an announcement embarrassingly made during last night’s Oscar ceremonies). Moonlight is a film that is both lyrical and deeply grounded in its character work, a balancing act that’s breathtaking to behold. It is one of those rare pieces of filmmaking that stays completely focused on its characters while also feeling like it’s dealing with universal themes about identity, sexuality, family, and, most of all, masculinity. And yet it's never preachy or moralizing. It is a movie in which deep, complex themes are reflected through character first and foremost. Jenkins’ film is confident in every single aspect of the way that a critic can use that word. Every performance, every shot choice, every piece of music, every lived-in setting — it’s one of those rare movies that just doesn’t take a wrong step, and climaxes in a scene not of CGI or twists but of dialogue that is one of the best single scenes in years.

The protagonist of Moonlight reflects the conflicted and fluid masculinity of young African-American men in the United States, even in just the way he’s presented. The film is divided into three chapters —"Little," "Chiron" and "Black" — the three names used to refer to the same person that we follow from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. He’s a boy and then a man who has trouble figuring out his place in the world, which is also articulated by the character being played by three separate, all-remarkable actors.

The film starts with Chiron as a boy, referred to by his bullies as "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert). We meet this youngster running, trying to hide in a boarded up apartment from the kids who want to beat him up. Little is found there by Juan (Mahershala Ali, doing career-best work), a local drug dealer. Juan takes the kid out to eat, even bringing him back to his place, where he meets his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Little could use this makeshift family. His dad is gone and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) happens to be one of Juan’s best clients. Juan becomes something of a father figure, but that might make this relationship sound more predictable than it is. Juan sees something good in Chiron and wants to help this quiet boy, even as he provides the product that’s ruining his home life.

The film jumps to Chiron as a teenager, dealing with more intense bullying and questions about sexuality. These are the years in which everyone claims to be sleeping around and a young man like Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) struggles to find himself, especially now that all semblance of a normal home life is gone. He literally has nothing, and it takes kindness from his friend Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome at this age) to bring him comfort. But even that is turned in a time, place and age in which compassion is sorely lacking, when young men believe that violence is the answer to what will make them feel better or allow them to fit in.

Finally, we meet Chiron as a young adult, played with remarkable subtlety by Trevante Rhodes. Kevin (now played by André Holland of The Knick) reaches out to a very-different Chiron, and the film’s themes coalesce in a surprisingly emotionally resonant way without monologues or heavy-handed melodrama. In a sense, Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a boy often overlooked by society, that little kid not cool enough to hang with the bigger ones and without the support of a family to keep him from simply disappearing into the night.

The trio of performances that make up Chiron from Hibbert/Sanders/Rhodes are perfectly calibrated by Jenkins, who directs them to feel not like imitations of each other but express growth. We can see the sad eyes of Chiron as a boy reflected in Chiron as a man. Moonlight could have easily felt episodic, especially with three actors playing the same character, but it’s stunning how much it never falters in that regard. Jenkins’ work with his ensemble creates consistency from chapter to chapter, even as the cast changes as often as it does. Jenkins also draws great turns from Harris and Ali, playing two of the most influential people in Chiron’s life.

Jenkins and his technical team shoot Miami in a way that we don’t often see, using their setting brilliantly, especially the way that the water and the beach around it can feel like a break from the troubles of the real world. But Moonlight is a film about faces. Chiron’s eyes say so much that this young man has not been taught how to express. He is young, black, gay, poor, and largely friendless — the kind of person who feels like he could literally vanish from being so unseen by the world. During one of the film’s many memorable dialogue exchanges (written by Jenkins, adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney), Chiron speaks of crying so much in his life that he feels like he could simply turn to liquid and roll into the ocean.

While there’s memorable dialogue in Moonlight, it’s what’s unsaid that really resonates. It’s the look of a morally complex father figure when a child asks him why other kids call him a bad word. It’s a nervous glance between two young men who know something is a little different about their relationship but society has given them no words to express it. And it’s in the final scenes of the film — in which Jenkins knows he’s laid the groundwork, trusts his actors and allows the emotions of what’s unsaid to provide the dramatic thrust — that Moonlight makes its greatest impact. Jenkins deeply understands that it is human connection that forms us, that changes our trajectory and makes us who we are.

Doctor Strange ***

Strange comic book fans, rejoice! Your hero has finally made it into the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse and with that comes the potential of reboots aplenty. The shenanigans we saw in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies and the X-Men series may now lie ahead for the Main Marvel Line. Future implications aside, however, Doctor Strange tells a standard tale with just enough cleverness to keep the viewer interested. It is, in superhero parlance, an "origin story" and, as with all episodes falling into that category, it is saddled with a number of obligatory elements.

Because the movie is tasked with telling us how the main character (played with panache by Benedict Sherlock Cumberbatch) becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts, the movie has limited flexibility to do other things. The villain, Kaecilius with the purple eyeshadow (Mads Mikkelsen), is not terribly intimidating. He looks more like a glam rocker than a bringer of darkness. Of greater interest is Kaecilius’ cosmic boss, Dormammu (Cumberbatch again, doing double duty as he did in The Hobbit trilogy), whose special effects-intensive appearance suggests how Marvel might consider rendering Galactus (if they ever get the rights back from Fox). Dormammu doesn’t have a lot of screen time but his confrontation with Strange allows the narrative to try something new (at least insofar as superhero/supervillain confrontations go).

Doctor Strange opens with the introduction of the brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, whose professional skills make him one of the most desired doctors in New York City but whose interpersonal skills (or lack thereof) turn a lot of people off. One evening, while driving his car too fast and paying too little attention to the road ahead, he becomes the victim of a brutal crash. He survives but his hands are shredded. The nerve damage guarantees that he’ll never practice medicine again. Desperate for any strand of hope, he travels to a monastery in Nepal where he trains under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), learning how to bend reality, control time, and create alternate universes. This is all in preparation for the showdown with Kaecilius and Dormammu, which comprises the final act.

This is a highly special effects-intensive feature. There are times when the visuals are dazzling and dizzying but there’s also a sense that we’re watching something created on a computer as opposed to a genuine bending of reality. Possibly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, these scenes also recall the "unreality" of the inside-the-computer realm from the TRON films. They also contribute to one of the most inventive chase scenes in recent motion picture memory in which characters appear to be fleeing through a landscape designed by M.C. Escher, with recursive paths that double back on themselves and where the laws of physics no longer hold sway.

One of the reasons why Doctor Strange works is the respect brought to the pulpy material by a cadre of distinguished actors. How about an Oscar winner and three nominees? None of them show up in Marlon Superman Brando or Anthony Odin Hopkins mode just to pick up a paycheck. They are invested in their roles, especially Benedict Cumberbatch who’s light years better here than as faux Khan in Star Trek into Darkness. The only one who disappoints is Rachel McAdams and that’s because the script doesn’t give her anything substantial to do.

All of the visual razzle-dazzle needs a great score to keep pace but, sadly, Michael Giacchino’s efforts aren’t up to snuff. The music sounds like a slightly reworked version of what he turned in for 2009’s Star Trek. The similarities are so striking that I half-expected someone to start intoning "Space, the final frontier…" It’s jarring to be watching one movie and hear music that’s familiar from another one.

For those who care to play along at home, Doctor Strange posits some ideas about the intersection between magic and futuristic science. Many of the concepts about multiple dimensions and time travel are offshoots of current scientific theory and the film makes a case for the idea that any advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic. Is Doctor Stranger a Sorcerer Supreme or has he merely mastered quantum mechanics on a practical level?

Apparently, Derrickson has a deep and abiding love for the character of Doctor Strange and it shows in his treatment. Although this falls far from the 2016 superhero pinnacle established by Deadpool, it’s a significant step up from the two Warner/DC debacles and even Captain America: Civil War. The film understands when it’s necessary to get serious but also contains comedic bits that aren’t forced or artificial. The Avengers are referenced, but they are mostly absent from the movie, allowing Doctor Strange to evolve without their interference. Finally, although the comic book tropes are all in place, the acting, tone, and visual effects keep them from becoming tedious. This is yet another solid building block in the foundation to Marvel’s ever-expanding superhero fortress.

Allied **½
Robert Zemeckis has a vastly diverse slate of motion pictures to his credit, but it’s not unfair to associate him with a certain technological fixation on stunt-gizmo cinema. In nearly 40 years of directing, he has implanted cartoons in the real world (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), inserted actors into newsreels (Forrest Gump), become the rubbery bard of motion capture (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol), and used death-defying effects to place audiences on a wire strung between the towers of the World Trade Center (The Walk). Once in a while, though, Zemeckis makes a film that reminds you what a terrific director he can be when he works the old-fashioned way, staging unadorned human drama without the safety net of cutting-edge visual flimflam.

Allied, starring Brad Pitt as a Canadian intelligence officer and Marion Cotillard as a French Resistance fighter who team up for a mission during World War II (and, of course, fall in love), is a high-style romantic espionage thriller that feels like it could have been made in the ’40s (at least, if Ingrid Bergman had been allowed to say the word "f—"). It’s a movie full of Nazis and chandeliers and prop planes and hidden passion. That may strike some viewers as a slightly stodgy turnoff — a fetishization of the past — but Zemeckis, working from a script by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, the amusing and underrated Burnt), is alive to what’s great about old movies: the supple, nearly invisible craft that allows scenes to throb with emotional suspense. Allied isn’t based on a true story; it’s a flagrantly movie-ish concoction. But like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, it’s been made with a so-old-it’s-new classicism that is executed with enough flair to lure viewers in.

How old-fashioned is Allied? It’s so old-fashioned that the film’s entire first section is set in Casablanca — and yes, it’s a Casablanca reminiscent of that Casablanca, a place of "exotic" intrigue and danger that looks, at times, like it’s flaunting the fact that it’s a movie set. In the opening scene, Max (Pitt) parachutes into the dimpled orange dunes of the Moroccan desert, then wanders into the shadowy white-walled maze of a city. Once there, he has to pretend to be the husband of Marianne (Cotillard), who has been hanging out in nightclubs, getting cozy with the chi-chi collaborationist associates of the Vichy government. The lighting is luxe, and so are the clothes — dresses that drape with goddessy perfection, neckties that look like works of art. When Max first shows up in front of Marianne’s friends, the two cuddle like the most intimate of lovebirds even though they’ve never met: a good set-up. Back at their apartment, she tells him her credo: "I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works." She also opens the top buttons of her blouse to test him. If he lunges for her, it’s a sign that he lacks the control necessary to execute the mission.

This is all, of course, the film’s elaborate way to generate some steam heat, and it works. Pitt and Cotillard connect, because there’s a matching toughness to their sensuality. Cotillard acts with a leonine cunning, just the kind of thing that can disarm a seen-it-all conquistador like Pitt. Marianne teases Max, who’s from Quebec, about his lousy Parisian accent (it’s not just teasing, since that could be enough to get them killed), but the viewer has a different reaction: Watching Brad Pitt speak French is a little like seeing a dog stand on its hind legs — more impressive than whether he does it well is the fact that he does it at all.

Max and Marianne belong together because they’re movie-star beautiful, and because these spies share a debonair awareness of what’s happening in any room. Their assignment involves wrangling an invitation to a party thrown by the German ambassador, and the scene where they nail down the invite is full of succulent deception. The party is even better. Zemeckis keeps us in the dark about what, exactly, the mission is, and then it’s revealed: a fiery catharsis that seals their love. How could it not? The couple that does cool explosive wartime Bondian stuff together stays together.

Zemeckis, utilizing the inner glow of Don Burgess’ cinematography, stages this episode with a smoothly framed precision — a fusion of action and feeling — that catches you up. Yet it’s all a big pedestal for the film’s second half, which is set in a London suburb, where Max and Marianne, now married with a child, are doing the closest thing they can to living a cozy domestic life together after the wind-down of the Blitz.

It would be a major spoiler to reveal what happens next, so let’s just say this: It’s possible that Marianne is not who Max thought she was. It’s up to Max to ferret out the truth, and he does it with the doggedness, passion, and unruffled trickery of someone whose very existence depends on knowing the answer. At times, the situation is broadly reminiscent of an earlier Pitt film, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but that jokey Brangelina thriller was top-heavy with meta-gossip subtext; that’s what sold the movie. Pitt’s current tabloid role as a disgruntled divorcing dad may not do much to help the fortunes of Allied, but the way that he and Cotillard dance warily around each other creates a far more suggestive vision of marriage as a kind of daily spy zone.

Allied is tense and absorbing, yet the film’s climactic act somehow falls short. Zemeckis and company don’t make any obvious missteps, but the movie, in trying to reach out and tug on our heartstrings, goes soft regarding what the Marianne we’re presented with would choose to do. (It could, and should, have gone darker.) You believe that she loves Max, but there’s another side to her devotion that washes away far too easily. The result is that Allied inspires most of the old-movie reactions it’s going for except one: It never makes you swoon.

Rules Don’t Apply **
Warren Beatty isn’t very interested in Howard Hughes, the man. He announces as much with an opening credit for his Hughes comedy, Rules Don’t Apply. "Never check an interesting fact," he quotes Hughes as saying. Did he actually say that? Who knows? But the rest of Rules Don’t Apply is such balderdash, played for comic effect, that we have to buy into that and forget everything we know about Hughes. The dates, names, incidents and accidents of his legend are so thoroughly jumbled that remembering Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is actually a hindrance.

Beatty, who plays Hughes in the picture, tries to give us a movie as wildly eccentric and asymmetrical as the man himself. He’s concocted a random romantic farce that isn’t romantic or particularly farcical. But random? Yeah. Two hours and nine minutes — Beatty still commands final cut — and at the end, you remember you had to take Grandpa’s Towncar keys away at about the same age (79).

The aim is more towards Melvin and Howard than The Aviator or the Tommy Lee Jones TV movie The Amazing Howard Hughes. Co-screenwriter Bo Goldman wrote Melvin and Howard, and he helps Beatty try to find the Hughes of myth — brilliant, mercurial, veering from lucid to loony and flirting with "rich pervert" the whole time. In mashing up events from the 1940s to the 1970s, framing the entire movie in Hughes’ famous early 1970s phone press conference debunking Clifford Irving’s hoax biography of him — and dating that press conference "1964" and changing Irving’s name — Beatty puts the viewer off balance in much the same way Hughes keeps his various aides, assistants, business associates and limo drivers wrong-footed.

One of the latter is Frank Forbes, played with a trademark earnest dullness by Alden Ehrenreich, who underwhelmed in Hail, Caesar! and Blue Jasmine and Stoker. He’s a nice Christian lad from Fresno charged with picking up aspiring starlet Marla Mabrey and her mom from the airport and delivering them to their new home. It’s a showplace over-looking Los Angeles from high on a hill, with The Hollywood Bowl just below. Marla, a virginal Christian from Front Royal, Va., has been picked for a screen test for Mr. Hughes, labeled "The King of Hollywood" even though this is 1958 and his last mark on the movies was made a dozen years before.

"Stella Starlight" is the supposed name of the movie Marla is up for. But as she is driven to ballet classes, acting classes and the like by Frank, she realizes the mysterious Mr. Hughes has filled dozens of houses with young women (Haley Bennett among them) just like her. And as the days turn to weeks, Marla (Lily Collins) doesn’t meet Hughes, doesn’t get her screen test. Her mother (Annette Bening) loses patience. Marla finds herself making an awful lot of eye contact with Frank, which is "against the rules." Hughes hires religious, mostly-married drivers to control his starlets. They’re not allowed to fraternize, date or seduce the young women, as veteran driver Levar (Matthew Broderick) keeps reminding Frank.

When we finally meet Hughes, the first impression is hardly impressive. Handsome? Sure. Aged? Quite. He’s also quite deaf and perfectly daft, a shy man who treats Marla to a TV dinner. Half-known to Frank and Marla, the increasingly reclusive Hughes is fighting for his fortune and freedom against TWA airline investors, bankers and the government. Every crisis of his public life — a plane crash, the Spruce Goose, Congressional testimony, drug addiction threats of consignment to a mental hospital and an urgent need to marry — is packed into a whirlwind year or so of his life.

Collins makes a perky church girl — "Blessed Savior!" is her favorite expletive — whom Hollywood and Hughes will corrupt. Frank is meant to be Marla’s knight in shining armor, whom she might betray once she’s seen the bright lights of the Big City. But the young couple set off no sparks, and the older pairing — ancient lech and virginal daisy — is just creepy. Nobody makes us feel anything in this burlesque of history and botch-job of a romance.

Broderick, plays a 50ish bounder who wouldn’t mind bedding Marla himself. and cameos by everyone from Alec Baldwin and Steve Coogan to Candice Bergen (more that a cameo, she’s Hughes’ secretary) and Ed Harris remind us that Beatty still commands an audience, at least among his AARP peers. Beatty plays the guy very close to himself — rambling, incomplete thoughts, stammered out bits of brilliance and wit wrapped in layers of dizziness. Madness manifests itself in the paranoia of a man who has bugged hotel rooms and insulates himself from the world with legions of do-my-bidding assistants. He repeats himself repeatedly — in memos, and memorably, in his threat to clear his name in front of Congress or go into exile. "I’d leave this country, and never come back. I’d leave this country, and never come back. I’d LEAVE this country, and NEVER come back. I’d leave this country and never COME BACK." There are shades of Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait and even Bulworth in the performance. They just don’t add up to much more than a goofy sketch, a caricature.

The dialogue is light, but rarely quotable, largely due to Beatty’s disjointed line-readings. And the picture fits together so clumsily that no satisfactory tone emerges, relationships don’t gel and the story loses any sense of "arc." Sure, Rules Don’t Apply to this movie, but all we’re left with is the odd warm and wonderful scene. Marla has waited so long to meet the man that she blurts out her thanks, her dreams, her suggestions and her pleas for advice in a single breathless minute-and-a-half long sentence. Hughes, probably not wearing his hearing aid, devours his TV dinner peas — oblivious — until he starts rambling about TV dinners in the middle of her frantic monologue. Marla sings a song, Rules Don’t Apply, of her own invention — charming first Frank and later Hughes with her voice, her innocence and her first-time-ever drunkenness. Frank finally meets his boss, shows off his own business savvy and tries to keep the perpetually distracted Hughes focused long enough to hear his real estate investment pitch as they eat late night hamburgers on a dock where the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ massive wooden transport seaplane, is parked. The general incoherence cripples the film, but those random scenes give it enough sparkle to make it worth enduring. But worth remembering? Sorry, The Aviator and for that matter Melvin and Howard have it all over Rules Don’t Apply in that regard.

This week’s other new releases
Kate Plays Christine *** There’s an emotional dimension to this movie — an empathy linking an actor to the human headline she’s dressing up as — that’s nearly abstracted into oblivion by the film’s neurotic self-examination.
London Road *** This enchantingly strange movie couldn’t possibly be called naturalistic, but at times it feels somewhat disappointingly normalized.
Chronic **½ While the movie is a depressing sit, it’s a sobering window into the self-sacrifice and psychological strain of the caregiver, as well as a provocative contribution to the ongoing debate about humane assisted suicide.
Wheeler ** Viewers who don’t mind the lack of dramatic tension may appreciate Stephen Dorff’s credible take on his modest, gentlemanly character.
All We HadThe best thing about this movie is Katie Holmes’s stormy portrayal of a desperate, foolishly trusting woman who rushes from man to man seeking security, only to find herself used and betrayed while her daughter looks on with increasing dismay.
Shut In ½* In this achingly inept thriller, you will see Naomi Watts do what she can to sell a plot of such preposterousness that derisory laughter started welling up inside me barely 20 minutes in.
Contract to Kill (no stars) Laughably inept on every technical level and representing the sort of badness that falls far short of being campy fun.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal