Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bland on land; better at sea

In the rescue film The Finest Hours, it's the storm that stars.

In 1952, a small Coast Guard team attempted to rescue members of the crew of an oil tanker that had been sheared in half during a vicious winter storm off the Cape Cod coast.

This story of heroism and high seas adventure makes a natural movie subject, and for the most part, Disney's The Finest Hours gives it decent enough treatment. Moreover, the fact that the story may be unfamiliar to most audiences adds a bit of freshness.

It's also true that The Finest Hours can tend toward blandness whenever the crew of a small boat isn't battling the ferocious waves of a nor-easter as it tries, in what seems to a doomed mission, to make its way out of a harbor and into storm-tossed seas.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webber, a by-the-book member of the Coast Guard, which -- in the movie -- seems like a cottage industry staffed by locals who know the potentially treacherous Atlantic coastal waters.

Pine goes for all-American, cereal-box steadiness, and, achieves it, perhaps the point of boredom.

The rest of his three-man crew are mostly treated as props along for a February ride that -- if nothing else -- leaves you feeling chilled to the bone.

Ben Foster, an actor capable of high intensity, is pretty much wasted as one of the crew's members, and Eric Bana, with a southern accent, doesn't do much to distinguish himself as the Coast Guard station's commander. He's clearly ignorant about New England waters, but insists on having his way.

The fate of the ship that's under duress lies in the hands of a boiler-room engineer, Casey Affleck's Ray Sybert. After the ship -- The Pendleton, by name -- breaks apart, the stoic Sybert must convince his comrades that their best opportunity for survival rests on running the ship aground.

Sybert's shipmates don't trust him, and some argue that everyone should take to the lifeboats, a move that would bring about instant death in impossibly rough waters.

Affleck is not an easy actor to cast; here, his quiet brooding turns him into the movie's least routine character. Eventually Sybert figures out a way to maneuver what's left of the ship toward a shoal.

Holliday Grainger turns up as Miriam, a love interest for Pine's Bernie. She cajoles him into an engagement for which he professes not to be ready, and then spends the rest of the movie worrying that he'll be lost conducting a rescue mission that the town's craggy older residents believe is ill-advised.

Director Craig Gillespie too often leaves the high seas to follow Miriam's efforts to discover what's happening to her fiancé.

But in a way, none of what I've just said matters all that much because images of half of a four-story ship tossing in the seas or of a 36-foot boat trying to make it out of the harbor to find the lost vessel are what count the most.

The movie's ocean sequences are good enough to make The Finest Hours an acceptable -- if not great -- piece of January entertainment.

A footnote: I got no extra kick from the 3D presentation; The CGI storm was enough to hold my interest.

Charlotte Rampling in a subtle role

45 Years looks at a couple whose marriage is unsettled by a strange piece of news.

Your marriage is approaching the 45-year mark. You assume that there isn't much about your spouse that you don't know. You're living in the placid region where issues have been settled or, at minimum, productively ignored.

You are reasonably content.

And I say "reasonably" only because you're not an idiot, and you know that complete contentment lies beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.

And then...

Something happens that makes you wonder how right you've been about your partner. This unsettlement may not arrive in the form of a huge revelation, but it's enough to upset a carefully built balance. Think of it as a crack in the foundation, worrisome because it's likely to grow.

In the case of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), the main characters in the British movie, 45 Years, the news that upsets the apple cart of their childless marriage arrives in the form of a letter. It seems the body of one of Geoff's former girlfriends, lost on an Alpine ski trip they shared more than 45 years ago, has been found in tact, preserved in the mountain ice.

From that point on, life changes, most particularly for Kate, who's in the midst of planning the couple's 45th anniversary party.

Kate isn't exactly jealous; it's more that she's baffled, concerned about her ability to peer into her husband's heart. And what if it turns out that she was Plan B, the woman Geoff accepted after he lost the woman he really loved?

To make this quiet drama work as well as it does requires actors who can operate in the subtlest of modes. For that, director Andrew Haigh has chosen well.

Rampling, who has been nominated for a best-actress Oscar, gives a fine, reflective performance as a woman who knows how to maintain composure while her insides are in turmoil. Almost entirely reliant on nuance and suggestion, Rampling's performance qualifies as one of her best.

Courtney upholds the male end of the bargain as a character who mostly keeps his inner life to himself. A retired manager at a local factory, Geoff begins looking at slides of his former girlfriend that he has kept in the attic. He also renews his smoking habit.

The movie, which culminates with the anniversary party, ostensibly tells the story of a couple, but 45 Years really focuses on Kate, and it leaves us to ponder how exactly she's going to continue with the rest of her life now that her relationship has been thrown into an unsettling new light.

A movie star meets his demon

Mojave is the kind of failed movie that offers occasional glimpses of what might have been, most of them concentrated in Oscar Isaac's impressively inflated performance as Jack, a dangerous loner who encounters a dispirited movie star (Garrett Hedlund) who has taken a solitary trip to the desert. Headland's character seems to be engaged in a metaphoric pity party: He wants to escape the pressures of fame that have plagued him since his teen years. Jack may quote Shakespeare, but he comes on like a demon sent to taunt Hedlund's Thomas. In a line that sounds more like it derives from a term paper than a living character, Jack tells Thomas he's into "motiveless malignity." After a pivotal incident, Thomas returns to LA, but we know that Jack won't be far behind, and that he'll bring violence with him. It's possible to view Jack as more a figment of Thomas' imagination than a real character. After all, Thomas has been living an unreal celebrity life for years. Writer/director William Monahan, who wrote the screenplay for The Departed, can't quite balance this screenplay's contempt for Hollywood with elements of film noir and silly bursts of intellectualism. Whatever is intended, Mojave proves only intermittently arresting.

Maggie Smith is the 'Lady in the Van'

The story of a homeless woman and the playwright who helped ... er ... tolerated her.

Homeless and a bit hostile, Mary Shepherd became a fixture in the London neighborhood where she parked her decaying van. Vagrant that she was, the feisty Shepherd eventually was allowed to park her van in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennett.

Amazingly, both Shepherd and the van remained in Bennett's driveway for 15 years. She sometimes popped into Bennett's home to use the bathroom. She became a part of his life -- albeit in frequently frustrating ways.

The Lady in the Van tells Shepherd's story, which in 1999 became the subject of a Bennett-written play starring Maggie Smith. On screen, Smith reprises her role as a woman of demonstrative opinions and slovenly personal habits.

Alternately exasperated and caring, Bennett (played here by Alex Jennings) tolerates Shepherd's presence long past the point where most of us would have found a way to move her somewhere else.

Director Nicholas Hytner, who directed The Madness of King George, which Bennett also wrote, sometimes shows us two versions of Bennett, both played by Jennings. One Bennett represents the writer; the other, a man trying to handle life's ordinary burdens. Not surprisingly, they argue.

If any actress knows how turn a line of dialogue into an ego-piercing dart, it's Smith, and the material gives her ample opportunity to emphasize the spikiest parts of Shepherd's personality.

Additional plot currents appear: During Shepherd's 15-year-residence in Bennett's driveway, the playwright's mother slipped into the fog of dementia. Bennett seems to pay more attention to Shepherd than to his own mother.

I could have done without references to Shepherd's decreasing bowel control, but, even in rags, Smith remains her estimable acting self.

That self has a reliable candor, as well as a capacity to touch us. At one point in her life, Shepherd was a budding concert pianist. Smith makes us aware that something valuable has been lost in a life that has veered off the tracks.

It may not be more anecdotal than epic, but Lady in the Van should be welcomed for giving Smith an opportunity to add another memorable character to an already substantial portfolio.

Plenty of creativity in 2016 Oscar shorts

One of the few things I consistently enjoy about the Academy Awards is the spotlight, however fleeting, Oscar shines on short films, still one of the most creative outlets for aspiring and even established filmmakers.

Although it's impossible for me to describe and analyze all 15 entries, I'll make this generalization: Much of what you'll see will leave you with more to talk about than many of the features you've probably paid good money to watch throughout the year.

If longer films sometimes seem short on substance, the same can't be said about the live action shorts that have found their way onto Oscar's shortlist.

Ave Maria, for example, mixes humor and heft in a 15-minute look at the culture clash that results when the car of a family of Israeli settlers breaks down outside a West Bank convent as the Sabbath approaches.

-- Day One takes on us on an unsettling journey when a new translator, an Afghan-American woman, joins US troops searching for terrorists in Afghanistan. Authenticity seems guaranteed: The movie's director, Henry Hughes, served two combat tours in Afghanistan.

-- The German entry, Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be Okay) deals with a desperate, divorced father who's trying to cling to a relationship with his eight-year-old daughter.

-- Shok tells the emotionally affecting story of the remembered friendship between two boys during the Kosovo war.

-- Although most of the shorts take place against a backdrop of war or turmoil, Stutterer (the UK and Ireland) charts the inner journey of a stuttering young man who has been involved an on-line relationship with a young woman. He faces a deep crisis of confidence when she suggests that they meet in person.

The animated shorts can be sorrowful and poignant (Bear Story from Chile) or artistically ambitious (Prologue, which takes place during the Spartan-Athenian wars). They also can be culturally significant: Sanjay Patel's Super Team introduces us to an Indian-American boy who's caught up in the conflict between American popular culture and his family's Hindu background.

The Russian entry, We Can't Live Without Cosmos revolves around the unbreakable bond between two cosmonauts.

Not surprisingly the documentaries are equally good -- and in some cases better that their fictional counterparts.

-- Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman team for an usual entry. Employing hand-drawn cells, Last Day of Freedom focuses on the heart-rending story of Bill Babbitt, a man who turns his mentally disturbed brother over to the police when he suspects that his brother has committed a terrible crime. Personal and provocative, the documentary also manages to speak to broader social issues, including the plight of veterans. We hear Bill's voice, but see only drawings of the story he's telling.

-- Chau, Beyond the Lines, from filmmakers Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck, tells the story of a 16-year-old Vietnamese boy born severely disabled after his mother was exposed to agent orange. Chau dreams of becoming an artist and fashion designer. There's no direct critique of the US for its use of Agent Orange, but the point proves inescapable as we realize that the effects of this toxic defoliant are still being felt in Vietnam.

-- Body Team 12 (David Darg and Bryn Mooser) takes us to Monrovia, Liberia, for a look at the work of Garai Sumo, the only woman on a team devoted to collecting the bodies of those that have died from Ebola.

-- Claude Lanzmann: Specters of the Shoah from filmmaker Adam Benzine is built around interviews with Lanzmann, who recalls the 12-year struggle to complete Shoah, a 9 1/2 hour documentary that's arguably the most important Holocaust film ever made. Unlike this illuminating short, Shoah never was nominated for an Oscar.

-- In A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness , director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy introduces us to 18-year-old Saba, a young Pakistani woman whose father and uncle disfigured her face in a botched honor killing. Saba made the mistake of marrying a man who didn't meet her father and uncle's standards.

Obviously, each of these films could (and should) lead to lengthy conversations, and all of them demonstrate just how much filmmakers can accomplish in when working in the short form.

*In Denver, shorts packages -- including animation and live action -- will be playing at the Mayan. The documentary shorts will be available in two packages at the Sie Film Center.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

No splash from predictable '5th Wave'

In what appears to be another hunt for franchise gold, The Fifth Wave is now reading across the nation's multiplexes. A big-screen adaptation of a 2013 novel by Rick Yancey, 5th Wave stars Chloe Grace Moretz as Cassie Sullivan, a high school student whose normal life is disrupted when an ominous alien spaceship appears above her Ohio hometown. Dull, predictable and, at times, laughable, The Fifth Wave turns Cassie into a quasi-action figure after she loses her parents; she's also put in a position where she must rescue her younger brother (Zackary Arthur) from soldiers who say (wink! wink!) that they're members of the US Army. Liev Schreiber portrays the commander who leads these supposedly helpful troops. Cassie eventually receives assistance from a hunky young man (Alex Roe), who learns about the girlish crush she once had on high school footballer Ben Parish (Nick Robinson). Just about every character seems to have been cut from typical YA cloth, and even the aliens are strictly off-the-rack: They're able to assume human form. Only Maika Monroe's Ringer brings any edge to the proceedings. She's a young woman who can out-tough any young man. Director J Blakeson occasionally allows the movie to fall into soporific lulls, and I wouldn't call it fun to see a perpetually troubled-looking Moretz running around with a semi-automatic weapon. Add a few medium-grade effects sequences depicting alien-induced catastrophes, and you wind up with a movie that may offer something to young fans of the novel and little for anyone else.

'Ip Man 3' has just enough kick

Sometimes, you enjoy a movie for no other reason than it's just what you need at a certain moment. Never mind why, but that's the approach I took with Ip Man 3, the third installment in a story about real-life martial artist Ip Man, the mentor who nurtured the skills of the great Bruce Lee. Much of the acting is wooden or even laughably broad, and Donnie Yen, who plays Ip Man, isn't the most expressive of performers. To its credit, though, Ip Man 3 makes little effort to disguise the fact that it's a by-the-numbers martial arts movie -- and it includes work by Mike Tyson, who rumbles into the movie like a special effect. Look, no one is going to confuse Mike Tyson with a great actor, but the former heavyweight champ adds physical menace to Ip Man 3 as Frank, a "foreign devil" who has become a boss in 1959 Hong Kong. And with all apologies to the "art" in martial arts, t a confrontation between a slugging Tyson and a supple Yen offers amusing kicks. As directed by Wilson Yip, the story turns Ip Man into a resolute protector. In one of the movie's less probable twists, Ip Man fights to preserve an elementary school that the mob wants to take over. The story eventually leads to a face-off between Ip Man and another skilled Wing Chun master, Zhang Jin. I wouldn't rank Ip Man 3 as a martial-arts leader, but choreographer Yuen Woo-ping delivers enough bracing fights to keep the movie's motor running. Lynn Hung manages to give a real performance as Ip Man's wife, but you'll have to duck to avoid the sentiment that embraces her character when Ip Man 3 tries to jerk some last minute tears. Still, with this sort of movie, you take what you can get, and there's enough here to keep all but the most demanding fans happy.

A colorful, creative Brazilian import

Brazil's Boy and The World is one of five films nominated for an Oscar as best animated feature.

No one will accuse the Brazilian animated film Boy and the World of lacking color. Director Ale Abreu brings a simple, stick-figure style to drawings that can become so dizzyingly complex they elicit "wow" responses. Aubreu's story focuses on a rural boy who sets out to find his father, a man driven from farm life by the need to find work in the city. During his travels, the boy witnesses the dislocating ills that accompany population shifts. The movie makes sober points, but in ways that can be both poignant and fanciful. Abreu and his team give us views of cities and factories that are at once ominous and alluring. Inside Out remains the front runner for this year's Oscar, but it stands in stark contrast to Boy and The World. Pixar's Inside Out imaginatively looks inward, as it deals with the way personalities develop. Boy and the World looks outward, illustrating the ways in which a boy discovers a world that's not entirely hospitable, but nonetheless amazing. Don't worry about subtitles. When the characters speak, they mumble incomprehensibly. Perhaps that's because there's no need for words in this visual treat of a movie.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

'Spotlight' wins Critics' Choice Award

The Critics' Choice Awards of the Broadcast Film Critics Association were announced in a televised broadcast from Santa Monica Sunday night, perhaps providing hints about where Oscar is headed. I'm a voting member of the BFCA, which -- as you'll see -- recognizes more categories than Oscar. The BFCA, for example, makes room for comedies, sci-fi and horror, ensemble acting and outstanding young performers.

Here are this year's winners:

Picture: Spotlight
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Actress: Brie Larson, Room
Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Original screenplay: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Adapted screenplay: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, The Big Short
Animated feature: Inside Out
Foreign language feature: Son of Saul
Documentary feature: Amy
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
Score: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Acting ensemble, Spotlight
Comedy: The Big Short
Actor, comedy: Christian Bale, The Big Short
Actress, comedy: Amy Schumer, Trainwreck
Young actor/actress: Jacob Tremblay , Room
Sci-Fi/Horror: Ex Machina
Action movie: Mad Max: Fury Road
Actor in an action movie: Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road
Actress in an action movie: Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
Production design: Colin Gibson, Mad Max: Fury Road
Editing: Margaret Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road
Costume design: Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road
Hair & makeup: Mad Max: Fury Road
Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road
Song: See You Again, Furious 7*

Thursday, January 14, 2016

'Ride Along 2' quickly crashes

Kevin Hart and Ice Cube reunite for a second helping bickering buddies.

A sequel to the 2014 hit, Ride Along 2 arrives at a time when Oscar nominated movies are still clogging theaters, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens continues to keep the turnstiles spinning. It's as if the movies haven't yet recovered from last year's hangover.

So it's hardly surprising that Ride Along 2 reflects Hollywood's unstoppable tendency to re-wrap ingredients that led to previous success. This second helping does little more than add a bit of Miami glitz to a formula that wasn't especially inspired to begin with.

As fans of the series already know, Kevin Hart's Ben Barber is a bumbling dope. Ben, a wannabe cop in the first movie, now has a job as a uniformed police officer in Atlanta. He's also poised to marry Angela (Tika Sumpter), a woman whose brother James (Ice Cube) is a hard-boiled Atlanta detective.

You know the drill. Ben does dumb things; Ice Cube's James tells Ben that he has done dumb things. Hart revs his comic engine; Ice Cube scowls.

An especially lame story finds James traveling to Miami to help find a hacker (Ken Jeong). Eager to prove his worth, Ben wants to tag along. A reluctant James agrees, hoping once and for all to prove that Ben hasn't got the right stuff to be a detective.

Showing about as many facial expressions as the frozen-faced Ice Cube, a stiff Olivia Munn portrays a Miami detective who rounds out the law enforcement side of the equation.

Benjamin Bratt plays a less-than-frightening drug lord who corrupts public officials. He, too, is after Jeong's character.

Whether you find Ride Along 2 to be laugh-packed depends on how funny you find Hart. He's energetic, and likable enough, but there's not enough fresh humor in Ride Along 2 to compensate for the numbing amount of gunplay or a particularly gross scene in which Ben is forced to pick hair-covered nachos out of a trashcan and eat them.

Director Tim Story, who made the first movie, as well as the much better Ice Cube comedy, Barbershop, makes Ride Along 2 seem less ragged than it actually is by sprinkling it with female bodies and high-gloss shots of Miami.

Look, I've got nothing against dumb comedies and obviously, Hollywood doesn't either, but even dumb comedies need more by way of novelty than Ride Along 2 manages to muster.

The misery of an alienated puppet

Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa makes the ordinary seem odd.

In Anomalisa, directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson immerse us in an environment so insistently ordinary, it almost becomes banal.

Almost everything about Anomalisa has the feel of dreary mundanity: an airplane's interior, the back seat of a taxi cab, a hotel room that's indistinguishable from thousands of other hotel rooms, and a hotel bar that's depressingly generic.

Enter Michael, an expert in customer service who has traveled from Los Angeles to Cincinnati to give a talk about how those who communicate with customers via the phone can improve their work. As the author of How May I Help You Help Them -- a bible in the field of customer relations -- Michael seems well-qualified for the job.

It doesn't take long before we realize that Michael is a spiritually exhausted British transplant. Mired in a marriage that no longer sparks his interest, Michael has a young son he'd rather not talk to when he calls home. His wife ignores his objections, and puts the boy on the phone. Rather desperately, he calls the kid "slugger."

Oops. I forgot something important. Did I mention that Michael is a puppet and that everything in Anomalisa results from stop-action animation that Kaufman and Johnson filmed with scale models? Michael (and the rest of the puppet characters) look as if they're wearing masks; visible seams make it appear as if their faces are composed of replaceable modular part.

More than half of Kaufman's achievement involves making puppets into credible characters. Puppetry gives the movie -- derived from a play that Kaufman wrote -- a strangely insulated air, as if everything we're watching has been hermetically sealed inside a diorama.

Kaufman's characters feel real and unreal at the same time, a feeling that's reinforced when the movie veers off into one of Michael's dreams.

No one should be surprised that Kaufman, who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and who directed Synecdoche, New York, includes touches that don't always add up, that he presents an explicit puppet sex scene (yes, it works) or that all the film's characters, aside from Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), are voiced by Tom Noonan.

There's a point to that, I suppose. For Michael, everyone speaks in the same voice; the world has become one lengthy smorgasbord of undifferentiated boredom.

After a disastrous meeting with a former girlfriend, Michael discovers Lisa. He considers Lisa an anomaly; she seems alive in a way that can't be squelched either by the hotel's airless monotony or the existential mush of Michael's life. He concocts an exotic name for her, Anomalisa, part anomaly and part Lisa. Ergo, the movie's title.

Lisa has a scarred face, and she hides the scar by drooping her hair over it. She badly needs an affirming experience, but she's not defenseless. She seems able to handle a sexual encounter with Michael, even if it doesn't go beyond a one-night stand. She'll take what she can get.

In Lisa's world of lowered expectations, Michael qualifies as a celebrity. She's flattered by Michael's attentions, particularly when he chooses her over her traveling companion, a woman who's equally eager to sleep with this customer-relations genius.

For his part, Michael says he's fascinated by Lisa's voice, the only one in the movie that doesn't sound like every other voice. At one point, Lisa sings a song for Michael, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," and the moment hovers in a limbo between poignant and pathetic.

At other times, Michael seems ridiculously out-of-touch with reality. He stops at a shop that sells sex toys, a place recommended by a taxi driver who wrongly assumed that Michael was just another businessman looking for some on-the-road thrills.

Anomalisa serves up an odd mixture of the bland and the idiosyncratic, but what to make of it? Are we supposed to identify with Michael, abhor his selfishness or take him as a representative of some generalized male malaise?

I'm not sure, but Kaufman condemns Michael to the depressing existence of a man whose life is going nowhere and who seems to have succeeded only in spreading his misery.

Kaufman is a bona fide talent, but it's up to you to decide whether you want to become the company that Michael's misery loves.

The Oscars again. Are you thrilled?

Weird morning, awakening to the depressing news that actor Alan Rickman had died at the age of 69. This, at the same time that the celebratory announcement of this year's Oscar nominations was making its way across the world, complete with the instantaneous carping that always accompanies any of the Academy's decisions.

Try as it might to re-establish its relevance, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can't seem to avoid antagonizing substantial numbers of people both in and out of the industry. Every year, produces a snarkfest.

We begin with diversity. As nearly every Oscar commentator already has pointed out, all of this year's acting nominees are white.

What? No recognition for Straight Outta Compton, director F. Gary Gray's widely praised look at the emergence of NWA and Hip Hop culture?

And there were other deserving possibilities: Idris Elba and Abraham Attah, from Beasts of No Nation, easily could have received nominations in the best supporting actor and best actor categories.

Michael B. Jordan's name had been mentioned as a best actor possibility. Jordan's 28, and I'm sure we'll be hearing more from this powerful, young actor who made a big impression in Creed. His time will come.

Meanwhile, Sylvester Stallone was nominated for best supporting actor for his reprise portrayal of Rocky Balboa in Creed. I never thought I'd feel an affectionate nostalgia for Stallone or Rocky, but the world keeps getting stranger as I get older. I'm happy for Stallone.

If the lesbian love story Carol received so much critical adoration, how was it left off the Academy's best picture list? Todd Haynes, the movie's director, also was snubbed.

This annoyed many critics, but it's also true that Carol, for all its virtues, is a trifle boring.

The Revenant, a raw and brutal action movie that's meant to be taken seriously, and Mad Max: Fury Road, a raw and brutal action movie that's not meant to be taken too seriously, got the most nominations.

The Revenant gathered a total of 12 nominations; Mad Max earned 10.

Suffering and brutality evidently are big this year.

Tom Hardy received a best supporting actor nomination for The Revenant. Hardy was as impressively scary as the CGI bear that attacked DiCaprio, but his best work of last year was in the British gangster movie Legend, in which he played both of the notorious Kray brothers.

Didn't see it? Don't worry. Nobody else did, either.

The Academy liked The Martian, which won nominations that included best picture and best actor (Matt Damon), but found no room for the movie's director, Ridley Scott, among the five best director nominees.

Maybe Room director Lenny Abrahamsson, who was nominated, squeezed Scott off the list.

Oh well, Scott and Steven Spielberg can get a drink together on Oscar night; Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) wasn't nominated either.

Remember Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Is it on the best-picture list? Nope.

Artistically, I have no argument with that, but why not recognize a movie that has been generally well-received by critics and which also has made a ton of money? Star Wars gave the Academy a chance to show that it's not entirely out-of-synch with the mass audience.

Michael Keaton must be asking himself what he has to do to get some Oscar love. For my money, his work in Spotlight was more memorable than that of Mark Ruffalo, also of Spotlight, who was nominated in the best supporting actor category.

I'm a little sympathetic to the Academy in this regard, though. It's always difficult to pick a single performance out of a fine ensemble.

Worse was the snub of Johnny Depp, who shook off all my Pirates of the Caribbean contempt with his portrayal of James "Whitey" Bulger in Black Mass.

But Black Mass didn't get much critical love (unfairly, I think), and Depp suffered for it.

Still, if you take the position that Depp was ignored because Black Mass didn't rally enthusiasm, how do you explain Jennifer Lawrence's nomination for best actress for her work in Joy?

The movie wasn't embraced by critics and doesn't seem to knocking audiences off their feet, but that didn't stop Lawrence, who was terrific in a disappointing movie, from getting her fourth Oscar nomination.

Will Smith, who gave a strong and highly concentrated performance as Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussion, also may have suffered because his movie received mixed reviews. No best-actor nomination for Smith, who did a near-perfect Nigerian accent.

If I were measuring performance against performance: I'd say that Smith was more deserving than Matt Damon, who was nominated for best actor in The Martian. That doesn't mean I didn't like Damon's work, I'm just saying.

Oh why rattle on about Oscar? Truth be told, I'm planning to approach this year's Academy Awards with a balanced mixture of indifference and curiosity.

Will I be rending my garments and gnashing my teeth if Brooklyn takes best picture over Spotlight or if Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) beats front runner Leonardo DiCaprio for best actor? Will my pulse quicken if Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) emerges as an upset winner in the best actress category?

No, I'm going to keep an even keel, and I'm also going to try to curtail any more Oscar snark -- at least until the broadcast and perhaps even then.

With Chris Rock hosting this year's Oscar telecast (Feb. 28); I'm counting on him to do the job for all of us.*

*A word about Rickman: How sad to lose an actor who elevated enunciation to the level high art, an increasingly rare skill.
And, for a complete list of Oscar nominations, click here.

Can free-spirited women be tamed?

Mustang looks at five young sisters in a small Turkish town.

Director Deniz Gamze Erguven's sets Mustang -- a tale of female rebellion against a society steeped in patriarchal tradition -- in a village far from sophisticated Istanbul. Hold your assumptions, though: Mustang is more than a scream against obvious inequality.

Erguven's movie also qualifies as a celebration of five young women who light up the screen in ways that keep them from becoming pawns in a political statement. The movie makes its point, but never loses sight of the individual spirits that animate these women.

Mustang opens with a scene in which the girls are playing with local boys at a beach. They seem carefree and unselfconscious about their bodies. Their freedom won't last.

Because their parents are deceased, the girls have been raised by their grandmother and a tradition-bound uncle who's only interested in what he regards as propriety.

Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pecan) thinks the girls have disgraced themselves by cavorting in the water with boys -- even though they've only been involved in innocent play and perhaps a bit of flirting.

Unswayed by reason, Uncle Erol decides that the girls must be locked in the house lest they further shame the family. He adds bars to the windows and disconnects all the phones. He makes the girls wear drab clothing, even though they've been denied contact with the outside world.

What begins as a lark of a movie becomes a story about house arrest as the sisters are deprived of just about everything that might nourish their souls.

Uncle Erol eventually decides that the best way to deal with his spirited nieces is to marry them off as quickly as possible. More indignities follow, including checks on the girls' virginity.

Grandma (Nihau Kolas) seems sympathetic to her granddaughters, but she's powerless to resist tyrannical Uncle Erol.

Erguven provides enough balance to keep the movie from becoming a screed, and Mustang ultimately focuses on what two of the unmarried sisters are willing to do to keep their spirits from being broken.

An appealing young cast gives the movie a sense of sustained and authentic life, even as Erguven -- born in Ankara and raised in France -- explores the necessary defiance of young women who refuse to be shackled by the rules of a culture that demands submission.*

Mustang, a French submission, is one of five films nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Raw, brutal 'Revenant' proves riveting

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man locked in a ferocious battle for survival.

After a brief prologue, The Revenant immerses us in a fierce battle that takes place in a forest bathed in eerie light. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like the way director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's camera captures an Arikara Indian attack on a white hunting party.

Instantly, Inarritu -- with an amazingly able assist from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity and The Tree of Life) -- throws us off balance. Inarritu's images are shockingly realistic, yet his movie almost feels as if it's taking place in an alien world where the natural environment alternates between beauty and cold indifference.

I've read that Inarritu (Birdman and Babel) did most of his filming at dawn or dusk, times when the light feels chilled and elusive. His decision paid off.

There's not much build-up to the movie's opening bloodbath, but that may be fitting: The Revenant isn't about pauses and reflection; it's a heart-pounding story of one man's attempt to survive the frontier in the 1830s.

In what surely was a physically grueling experience, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, the tracker who tries to plot a course that will save the small group of men who survive the movie's opening attack. These surviving hunters are being led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), a man who struggles to remain even-handed in what increasingly looks like a blood-thirsty slaughterhouse.

DiCaprio's Glass spans two worlds. He's a white man who was married to a Pawnee woman who was killed by white soldiers. He has a half-Pawnee, teen-age son (Forrest Goodluck) to whom he's entirely devoted.

If you've read anything about The Revenant, you already know that one of the movie's most shocking scenes occurs when a bear attacks Glass. Making use of convincing CGI, Inarritu presents a harrowing assault in which Glass is so severely mauled, we expect him to die on the spot.

The word "revenant" means one who has returned from the dead, and the term never has been more aptly applied than to the character DiCaprio portrays in this bloody, physical and obviously demanding performance.

As The Revenant progresses, it becomes clear that Glass again and again will be tested.

If you're looking for survival strategies, you could do worse than multiple viewings of Inarritu's adventure. The Revenant offers lessons in how to catch and eat raw fish or cauterize a severe wound.

In another of its memorably gory scenes, Glass removes the entrails from a newly dead horse so that he can crawl into the animal's carcass, using what's left of its warmth to preserve himself from the cold. His emergence from the animal after a blizzard stands as one of Glass' many symbolic rebirths.

Not only does Glass face natural obstacles; he also must deal with a human enemy. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) believes in money and survival; he tries to convince his companion, Bridger (Will Poulter), that they should put the wounded Glass -- reunited with the other hunters after the bear attack -- out of his misery. So long as Glass remains alive, he only can slow the party down. They must drag him over rough terrain on a litter made of wood.

Speaking with a frontier accent that sounds like a cross between a garbage compactor and Tommy Lee Jones, Hardy again loses himself in a role, so much so that it may take you a while even to realize he's in the movie. Nothing about The Revenant dissuaded me from thinking of Hardy as one of the best screen actors working today.

Working from a screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Inarritu that's partly based on a novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant forces Glass into one life threatening situation after another, each presented in convincing enough fashion to make the movie a stomach-tightening ordeal.

Late-picture attempts to add an ethical dimension to the movie's revenge plot (I haven't talked about it much to avoid spoilers) aren't especially convincing, and at two and a half hours, Glass probably faces one challenge too many.

But The Revenant provides Inarritu with an opportunity to present a view of the frontier as a place of nearly unrelieved brutality and looming death, all augmented by Lubezki's brilliant cinematography.

If Inarritu was trying to give his movie mythic status, I don't believe he succeeds. In some ways, The Revenant is a glorified action movie, its scenery coated with ice and snow and brimming with forest mystery. But there's no denying that The Revenant feels as if it's taking place in a frozen expanse where both Glass and an audience are effectively put through a merciless wringer.

Lament it if you will, but that's part of what we've come to regard as entertainment.

'Court' : A window into life in India

Some movies are meant be watched; other movies are slowly absorbed into consciousness, intravenous drips of reality that seep into our minds. Court, an Indian movie that takes place in Mumbai has a feeling of fly-on-the-wall authenticity that sometimes makes it feel like a documentary. Writer/director Chaitanya Tamhane's slowly evolving film focuses on the lives of a variety of people involved in what turns out to be an apparently endless court proceeding. Tamhane begins the movie, his first, by introducing us to a 65-year-old folk singer (Vira Sathidar) with a flair for protest, angry expressions against the prevailing order. In a nearly absurd twist, the folksinger is accused of abetting the suicide of a sewer worker with a supposedly incendiary song. The song doesn't exist, and the case against the folk singer is so flimsy and so obviously motivated by political concerns and caste prejudice that it's difficult to believe that any judge wouldn't toss it aside in minutes. As the case unfolds, the defendant significantly disappears, and we get glimpses into the lives of the defense and prosecuting attorneys (Vivek Gomber and Geetanjali Kulkarni) and, ultimately, the judge (Pradeep Joshi). To say that Tamhane works in a slow and deliberate manner is to understate the matter. Tamhane holds shots even after characters have left the frame, and he almost never moves his camera. By so doing, he refuses to allow any character to dominate; no one transcends his or her surroundings. The defense attorney argues with his parents at lunch. The prosecutor talks about shopping on a bus. Although the stakes are high for the defendant, everything in Court is grounded in the quotidian rhythms of daily life. Don't expect to see a dramatic or melodramatic climax a la Perry Mason; Court drifts through the lives of its characters without italicizing the injustices or the cultural conflicts that Tamhane so assiduously chronicles. Obviously, a movie such as Court requires patience, but Tamhane rewards that patience by allowing us to drift along with the characters, to feel what it's like to be part of their environment. By the end, we realize that although we haven't watched a conventional drama, much has been revealed. To borrow a phrase from a David Bowie song, Court is moviemaking at the speed of life, providing you still remember how life felt when moving at less than 100 miles an hour.