Saturday, November 26, 2016

Warren Beatty's look at Hollywood

Beatty's performance as Howard Hughes proves engagingly nutty.
Friday morning's Hollywood Reporter offered the paper's box-office predictions for the Thanksgiving weekend. Not surprisingly, Moana, the animated feature from Disney, was leading a small pack of new releases. The Hollywood Reporter headline went on to note that Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply had bombed. Rules, the Reporter said, might earn $2 million from 2,382 runs for five days, that after grossing what the paper called a "scant" $285,000 on Thursday.

I don't particularly care about box-office receipts nor do I equate such numbers with artistic success, but the headline left me feeling a little sad because it felt like an era might have ended.

Beatty, who's now 79, always will be associated some very good and even great movies: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981) and Bugsy (1991). He directed two of those movies, Reds and Heaven Can Wait.

Beatty, who made his big-screen debut in 1961's Splendor in the Grass, hasn't been involved in a ton of movies, but he nonetheless epitomizes a certain kind of stardom, some of it having to do with his reputation as one of Hollywood's most prolific lovers. That was then. Beatty has been married to actress Annette Bening for 24 years. They have four children.

Scheduling conflicts forced me to miss screenings of Rules Don't Apply, which Beatty directed. The screenplay is credited to Beatty and writer Bo Goldman, whose work includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Shoot the Moon (1982), and Scent of a Woman (1992).

I finally caught up with the movie, although some of my anticipation had been dampened by the generally unenthusiastic reviews that greeted the movie last Wednesday.

I don't know if Beatty has given us a glimpse of the real Howard Hughes, but he certainly has assembled a strangely engaging performance as a reclusive egotist and world-class eccentric.

Beatty also can be very funny as a tycoon who hems and haws as his mind leaps from one task to another. As he anticipates his next move, Hughes seems to give the present moment only half of his attention.

Is Hughes crazy or canny? Some of the movie involves Hughes's struggle to retain ownership of TWA airlines and to protect himself from charges that he'd lost his mind.

Hughes's indifference to others comes across in almost benign fashion: He can seem so entirely oblivious to the effect he's having on others; his cruelty can seem almost inadvertent.

But the movie isn't only about Howard Hughes. It also focuses on an aspiring starlet (Lily Collins) who arrives in Hollywood with her religious mother (Annette Bening). Collins's Marla Mabrey has been summoned by Hughes for a screen test. A devout Baptist, Marla's golly-gee world view couldn't be further from Hughes's. Hughes's chauffeur (Alden Ehrenreich) becomes Marla's guide through a Hollywood wonderland -- although she seems determined enough not need anyone's help.

Matthew Broderick portrays Hughes's main attendant, a loyal fellow who works to fulfill Hughes's wishes -- which can shift within a matter of seconds. Banana nut ice cream, bought in great quantities, becomes an obsession -- until suddenly it's not.

Ehrenreich's Frank sticks with Hughes, partly because he's hoping Hughes will back him in a real estate venture and partly because he falls for Marla. Hughes forbids his employees from having relationships with his aspiring starlets.

Of course, the rules don't apply to Hughes: He takes advantage of innocent young Marla, although without much by way of malice and foresight. And of course, the he turns his employees into toadies whom he routinely humiliates.

The movie includes a variety of small performances from such notables as Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen and Ed Harris, but none of them really matter.

So what to conclude about Rules Don't Apply? Well, I'd see it for Beatty's performance, which might qualify as one of the great screen curiosities, revealing while simultaneously being shrouded in shadows of secrecy.

I certainly understand why many have called Rules Don't Apply a flop, but if you want to see what Beatty has done with Hughes's story, you may not care. Fair to say that Rules Don't Apply is not of this moment, but it may not be of any other moment, either.

At its best, the movie has a nutty, absurdist quality that suggests that the only mistake greater than participating in business and entertainment -- or the business of entertainment -- would be to take much about it at face value.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A shortage of suspense cripples 'Allied'

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard can't create a searing war-torn romance.

Director Robert Zemeckis's spy-movie romance, Allied, gets many of its genre gestures right but shortchanges an essential ingredient: smart, sustained suspense.

Working from a screenplay by the usually spot-on Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke), Zemeckis creates a star-driven vehicle that relies on the charisma and attractiveness of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.

That and lots of spiffy looking vintage cars of the 1940s.

This approach might have worked had Zemeckis not been saddled with two mismatched performances. Opting for restraint, Pitt comes off as detached and wooden. Cotillard shows more life, but the two actors are unable to create a duet that burns its way into Hollywood's pantheon of great romances.

Beginning in Casablanca (a bow to another movie about a war-torn romance), Allied throws Pitt's Max Vatan into contact with another undercover operative, Cotillard's Marianne Beausejour.

The two are supposed to pose as husband and wife so that they can attend a party at which a Nazi ambassador will be assassinated. So far, so good.

In a car in the desert -- in the middle of swirling sandstorm no less -- Max and Marianne have sex. What was supposed to be sham marriage turns real.

We expect trouble because the movie contains plenty of early dialogue in which Max warns about the dangers of emotional involvement in operations that require a high degree of focus.

The post-assassination story shifts to London, where Max and Marianne have taken up residence. A year after Casablanca, Marianne gives birth to a baby girl during a German blitz of London, perhaps setting a new standard for what it means to have a war baby.

Allied adds twists, but marches along without generating the requisite ripples of intrigue. I'd tell you more, but I'm going to avoid spoilers.

If you see Allied, think of what a director such as Alfred Hitchcock might have done with a similar scenario. Actually, you don't have to think about it: You can watch Hitchcock's Notorious.

Knight's screenplay offers little by way of supporting characters. Jared Harris plays Max's commanding officer; Simon McBurney portrays the aggressively insensitive intelligence offer; and Lizzy Caplan appears as Max's sister.

No fair telling more, but know that Allied's inability to spring to vivid life makes you wonder whether this kind of old-fashioned romance hasn't been milked dry.

Zemeckis (Flight and The Walk) is known for his ingenious use of special effects, but he might be off his game in this often low-key effort.

I can't say I believed a minute of Allied, but from its captivating opening shot (Pitt parachuting into the desert) to its misguided sentimental epilogue (I won't say more), the well-crafted Allied is dressed for a success it never really achieves.

Style can't save 'Nocturnal Animals'

Despite high style and self-conscious stabs at meaning, this one leaves a bad aftertaste.

Director Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals mixes the self-consciously stylish look of art-house cinema (or what some think of as art house cinema) with the substance of a trashy noir thriller. To borrow from the recent presidential campaign, the movie can be viewed as an attempt to go low and high at the same time.

The bulk of Ford's movie centers on Susan (Amy Adams), a Los Angeles art gallery owner who spends most of this overly determined effort either reading or remembering -- and doing very little actual living.

The movie begins with a piece of performance art at Susan's purportedly sophisticated gallery. Wearing only majorette hats and boots, some very heavy women are seen dancing. The piece demands that we look at bodies that normally would remain hidden.

Whether Ford intends this fleshy romp as ironic commentary about the hollowness of the current art scene remains unclear. Maybe it's a bit of visual snark about Hollywood's tyranny of thinness. Your guess is as good as mine.

The most vivid part of the movie involves Ford's presentation of the brutal, exploitative story that Susan spends most of the movie reading.

This story within a story begins when Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novelist she hasn't seen since she upended their marriage 19 years earlier.

Dedicated to her, the book tells the story of a West Texas incident in which a hapless husband (also Gyllenhaal), a wife and their teen-age daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) are harassed by redneck creeps on a lonely Texas highway. Mother and daughter don't fare well.

This part of the story eventually becomes a revenge tale in which Gyllenhaal's character joins forces with a local lawman (Michael Shannon) whose rasping cough turns out to be a case of terminal lung cancer.

Shannon's Bobby Andes urges the aggrieved husband toward vengeance, as the movie prattles on about whether Gyllenhaal's character has the stomach for taking matters into his own hands. Is he weak or is he a real man?

Other scenes immerse us in Susan's meaning-challenged life, an existence steeped in self-loathing -- albeit in upscale surroundings of a kind few of us ever actually encounter. Oh, how the rich do suffer.

Susan lives with her philandering second husband (Armie Hammer), a businessman who's going through a slump. He conveniently leaves LA for a trip to New York, which makes it possible for Susan to spend most of the movie reading in bed.

Ford's layered approach to narrative also charts the course of Susan's first marriage: Susan wants a life her aspiring novelist husband can't provide, thus proving that her mother (Laura Linney in cameo) was right to suggest that she find a stronger mate.

Shannon gives the movie's best performance, proving that he can be scary even when he's on the right side of the law.

Trapped in a purposeless world of art and glitz, Susan doesn't provide Adams with enough opportunity to vary her performance, and Gyllenhaal does what he can with dual roles, sweating through bouts of grief and existential desperation.

Ford (A Single Man) piles on the style as he traces noir gestures in the air, leaving little but a sour aftertaste as the movie dissolves into a muddled and disconcerting ether.

Getting close to natural life

In the documentary Seasons, directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud cast an amazing spell. Perrin and Cluzaud (Winged Migration) capture images of animals in their increasingly threatened habitats; they begin their story by introducing us to the way animals lived in prehistoric times and move forward to the present. The occasional appearance of humans -- in various stages of development -- proves a distraction, but Perrin and Cluzaud must have wanted to underscore their theme: Human encroachment on Europe's forests has not been without devastating consequences for the continent's wild life. Although we occasionally hear a narration (in French with English subtitles), the film is at its best when offering extreme close-ups of animals doing what they do -- which involves a lot of fighting, hunting and eating. Watching a pack of wolves bring down a wild boar and then fight among themselves for its meat adds brutal realism, although the directors aren't above using the cuteness of baby wolves and foxes to elicit sympathy. Perrin and Cluzaud -- who spent four years filming in Poland, Norway, Romania, Scotland and Holland -- create drama by peppering their film with mini-narratives, a predatory cat chasing a fawn, for example. In bringing us close to the animals of the forest, Seasons employs stunning photography to remind us that we might be living in a better world if we spent more time considering the fate of the planet's non-human inhabitants.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

J.K. Rowling unleashes 'Beasts'

This prequel to the Harry Potter series isn't as fantastic as one might have hoped.

The box-office numbers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them probably will be big. If ever there was a time when the country was primed for fantasy, this is it.

Wait. I take that back. When it comes to movies, our escape-hungry country always seems primed for fantasy.

So here comes J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame to hook us into another series of movies designed to transport us into a world of wands and wizards.

Rowling's new series -- yes, two more are in the offing -- takes place in 1926, long before Harry Potter was even born -- much less learning his trade at Hogwarts.

This prequel to the Harry Potter series follows the adventures of Newt Scamander, a wizard who's writing what will become one of Hogwarts standard texts.

Early on, Scamander heads to the US as part of his plan to save and preserve magical creatures of which you will see many.

But here -- as I see it -- is the rub: The movie is only half successful.

Fantastic Beasts, which stars Eddie Redmayne as Scamander, is rich in set design and special effects. The movie's faux but nonetheless impressive atmospherics evoke the sooty streets of Manhattan during the 1920s.

But Beasts is poor, perhaps even impoverished, when it comes to character development and propulsive storytelling.

For some, the movie's visual abundance will be sufficient reward. Strip away a strong dose of Potter affection, though, and what you're left with is a big, muddled movie in which Redmayne shuffles his way toward the next two movies.

Redmayne imbues the main character with a diffidence that makes you wonder whether the actor -- despite tousled hair and just the right look -- was fully able to connect with an ill-defined role.

As one expects, Rowling fills the screenplay with jargon. The American version of Muggles, for example, are called No-Majs (no magics), sadly deficient humans who simply get on with their lives.

Despite the movie's wizardly bias against normal folks, Scamander is open to keeping human company; he even acquires a human sidekick (Dan Folger), a portly, good-natured factory worker and aspiring baker who becomes involved in the story through a baggage mix-up.

Meanwhile, a supposedly do-gooder group led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) presents opposition to witches; an evil Wizard, Geller Grindelwald, looms; and Manhattan is ravaged by a mysterious, fog-like dark force that reduces buildings to rubble.

The rest of the cast includes Katharine Waterston, as Tina Goldstein, a wizard who's on the outs with the American magic establishments; Alison Sudol as Tina's sister Queenie, a strawberry blond who reads minds; Colin Farrell) as Percival Graves, an American wizard whose motives are obviously suspect.

Have I mentioned Credence (Ezra Miller), a mope of a young man who as been adopted by Mary Lou and who skulks his way through the movie?

Part Dickensian tale about a cruel woman who adopts children for her own purposes, part cartoonish display of creatures too numerous to count and part guide to the way the magical world functions on US shores, Fantastic Beasts struck me as an often charmless addition to the Rowling oeuvre. She wrote the screenplay.

Some of the creatures -- a kleptomaniacal Niffler that looks like a platypus and a reedy Bowtruckle that Scamander keeps in his jacket pocket -- provide fun, perhaps to mitigate the impact the movie's scarier creatures might have on younger children.

James Newton Howard's musical score works to make the movie seem more enchanted than director David Yates can make it.

Absent the built-in affection that helped carry the Harry Potter movies past their rough spots, Fantastic Beasts ultimately must stand on its own.

Sequels will follow. Let's hope that they're more engaging than this over-stuffed first edition. Consuming it, left me with a bad case of fantasy indigestion.

A middleweight's amazing comeback

Bleed for This tells a powerful story -- but doesn't always do it with distinction.

Boxing movies long have been a staple in Hollywood's repertoire with Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull still topping most lists of big-screen punch-outs.

Bleed for This, the story of Vinny Pazienza's amazing career in and out of the ring, stands as a medium grade, often dreary look at a man who sustained what should have been a career-ending, spinal-cord injury.

Instead of going down for the count after a devastating car wreck, Pazienza returned to win the middleweight title. His feat has been dubbed the greatest comeback in boxing history.

The minute you sit down to watch Bleed for This, which stars Miles Teller as the Rhode Island-bred "PazManian Devil," you know that the movie will end with videos showing the real man. Fair to say, surprise isn't the movie's strong suit.

In the hands of director Ben Younger (Boiler Room), Bleed for This revels in the working-class atmosphere that spawned Pazienza. The film takes place in a rough-and-tumble Italian American milieu with numerous scenes of Pazienza's family gathered around the dining room table, their Rhode Island accents thick enough to float in Narragansett Bay.

Younger offers a straightforward -- if condensed -- account of Pazienza's career, which certainly qualifies as a wonder of sorts.

After his injury, Pazienza was told he'd never fight again. Ignoring the diagnosis, he began training soon after his release from the hospital, an activity made more difficult by the halo that had been screwed into Pazienza's skull to hold his neck in place.

Two relationships bolster the story; one involves Pazienza's trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart with a dramatically receding hairline); the other centers on Vinny's father (Ciaran Hinds).

Hinds's performance has a kind of scowling rigidity that never entirely convinced me, but the movie tries to make its dramatic weight with a scene in which Hinds's Angelo Pazienza wonders whether he hasn't pushed his son too hard, and is, therefore, partly responsible for Vinny's plight.

Pazienza's relationship with Rooney doesn't have much by way of psychological subtext. The alcoholic Rooney helped Pazienza establish his career by encouraging him to move up two weight classes. Later, Rooney helped prepare Pazienza for a comeback that seemed impossible to everyone but the fallen fighter.

Teller doesn't have the physical bulk of the real fighter, but he gives the movie his all and the fight scenes are mostly convincing -- if cinematically routine.

Younger does a better job showing the physical pain involved in Pazienza's retraining. The most difficult scene to watch is one in which a doctor removes four screws from Pazienza's skull and drops them into a waiting receptacle. After three months, the halo was replaced by a neck brace.

Because the movie mostly celebrates Pazienza's determination, it doesn't waste much time counterpunching; i.e., considering the idea that a man who can't see any other role in life but that of a fighter might be tragically limited.

Pazienza's story obviously makes a strong subject for a movie, but Younger and company can't bring the movie to total victory -- either as a Rockyesque source of inspiration or as a Raging Bull-influenced hunk of tormented realism.

In fight-movie terms, I'd call it a draw.

The couple that changed the law

Loving tells the story of ordinary people deprived of justice because of race.

After the Obama presidency, it may be difficult for younger audiences to realize that it wasn't until 1967 that the Supreme Court set aside Virginia laws prohibiting interracial marriage such as the one that produced our 44th president.

In the new movie, Loving -- named for Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple at the heart of a groundbreaking case -- director Jeff Nichols works in a deliberately muted style that pushes away melodrama and allows us react to the movie with an appropriate sense of outrage and empathy.

Nichols wisely gives his movie an abiding quality of ordinariness as he tells the story of a white man (Joel Edgerton) and a black woman (Ruth Negga), two Virginians who, in 1958, skirted Virginia law by traveling to Washington, D.C. for their wedding.

After a brief foray back to their home state, the Lovings settled in Washington, D.C. as they searched for a less troubled life. In 1963, they decided to return to Virginia, and their problems re-surfaced.

Edgerton gives a quietly staunch performance. No crusader or civil rights champion, Richard is an average guy who loves his wife.

As the story develops, Negga's equally reticent Mildred develops more of a political consciousness, but Nichols's point is clear: In a more just society, we never would have heard anything about these two people.

Richard would have spent his time working, being a good father and tinkering with cars; Mildred might have been a typical '50s wife and mother.

Although Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) resists the temptation to turn the movie into thundering court room drama, we do meet the lawyers (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) who took on the case. They became involved when Robert Kennedy, to whom Mildred had written about her plight, referred the case to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Michael Shannon plays the Life Magazine photographer who took an iconic photo of the Lovings that helped bring them to national attention, but the Lovings mostly wanted to live freely (and anonymously) in Virginia. They wanted to be near their respective families, and Mildred didn't much like city life.

Throughout its legally and morally resonant story, Loving remains rooted in the lives of two people who clearly would have been happier had they been allowed to pursue the kind of lives that most of their fellow citizens were able to take for granted.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Does anyone here speak alien?

Arrival ponders how to speak with beings from another world..

Arrival has the courage to be a sci-fi movie about the mind-bending effects of language, a heady theme presented with a welcome avoidance of apocalyptic special-effects.

The movie's main character is a linguist who finds herself in the middle of a frantic effort to understand the language of aliens who have parked 12 oval-shaped, 1,500-foot high vehicles on various portions of the globe.

Taken from author Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, Arrival ponders the idea that language dominates perception. Fair enough, but what if we were encountering aliens? How would we grasp their written language if it were conveyed in odd looking symbols that resembled a cross between Christmas wreaths and an unidentified form of insect life?

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, the academic charged with solving this puzzle. When we meet Dr. Banks, she's mired in grief for a daughter who recently died of cancer.

On what seems to be a normal morning, Dr. Banks arrives at her class only to find it almost empty. It quickly becomes apparent that Dr. Banks's students -- like everyone else on the planet -- have become transfixed by the arrival of alien crafts, a boon to the 24/7 news cycle, as if it needed one in the age of Trump.

An army colonel (Forest Whitaker) soon shows up to enlist Dr. Banks's help in talking to the aliens. The major question: Why have they arrived?

Dr. Banks insists that she can't tell anything from the colonel's recording of alien sounds; she needs direct contact with the aliens if she's to make sense of their language.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Incendies) makes any number of smart choices, the most important of which involves early exposure to the aliens, octopus-like creatures referred to by earthlings as heptapods. Villeneuve seems less interested in how creatures from other worlds might look than in how we might talk to them.

To begin her work, Dr. Banks -- and others -- enter the craft and approach the aliens, who remain behind a transparent barrier. To reach the aliens, the anxious earthlings must walk through the vessel's tunnel-like approach where gravity goes topsy turvy. Eventually, the aliens emerge from a smokey haze.

The aliens communicate with deep sounds that evoke images of lonely whales or perhaps a wounded moose. They write by squirting inky figures from tentacles that splay and open like flowers. How exactly Dr. Banks determines how to read these figures isn't spelled out with much detail.

Effects aside, the movie depends heavily on Adams performance and on Villeneuve's willingness to avoid overstatement.

Adams gives Dr. Banks a sense of reserve that makes it clear that she's on a two-fold journey -- one having to do with communicating with the aliens; the other relating to coming to terms with grief. Accepting life means also accepting that all lives must end.

Dr. Banks works with a theoretical physicist (a subdued Jeremy Renner). Renner doesn't have much to do aside from occasionally asking Dr. Banks whether she's holding up under the strain of it all.

Jenner's Ian Donnelly doesn't know that Dr. Banks is having what are presented as unsettling flashbacks to moments she shared with her daughter; Villeneuve smartly hides the meaning of those flashbacks until the movie's intellectually trippy ending, which involves the way language influences our perception of time.

Simultaneously spectral and down-to-earth, Arrival casts a hypnotic spell, but that doesn't mean it achieves perfection.

In case the arrival of aliens on Earth weren't enough for one movie, the screenplay by Eric Heisserer adds a drearily familiar clash between scientists and the military.

A Chinese General (Tzi Ma) grows weary of trying to talk to the aliens and issues an ultimatum. Either leave in 24 hours or be attacked.

Can Dr. Banks discover the key to alien intentions before General Shang destroys the possibility for communication? Will the movie's resident CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) stop Dr. Banks from finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict?

At its best, Arrival does what only movies can accomplish; it transports us into a reality that feels strange, unfamiliar and urgently important.

But it also can deflate such feelings with plot elements that undermine the movie's interest in the nature of time, the power of language and the gap between intellectual knowledge and emotional realization.

Still, those elements are there, and they make Arrival sci-fi with a difference: It's at least trying to be smart.

Monday, November 7, 2016

An amusing appointment with 'Doctor Strange'

Like many of you, I've grown weary of movies derived from Marvel Comics. So when a choice presented itself last week -- see Dr. Strange, another movie from the Marvel machine, or Moonlight, a much-praised movie that lit up the fall festival circuit -- I chose Moonlight. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when, on a weekend catch-up mission, I saw Doctor Strange. Sporting an American accent, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character, an ultra-rational neurosurgeon who learns to submerge his ego by mastering the mystical ways of the East -- or least Marvel's idea of what such ways might be. Initially, Strange heads eastward in hopes of restoring damage done to his precious hands in a devastating automobile accident. In Kathmandu, Tilda Swinton's Ancient One gradually initiates Strange into the mysteries of her universe -- with help from her sidekick Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo. Cumberbatch nails Strange's arrogance and makes the doctor's transition to a superhero credible. An appealing Rachel McAdams signs on as a former colleague and love interest of Dr. Strange, and Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, the villain of the piece. The plot is mushy Marvel pap, but the fun of director Scott Derrickson's movie has less to do with story than with the special-effects show that Derrickson puts on: Inception-like inward collapses of buildings, odd intersections of reality and alternate realities, and Dr. Strange's cape, which seems to have a mind of its own. Just as important, the movie has a sense of playfulness that makes Dr. Strange feel reasonably fresh -- at least until the obligatory epilogue that comes at the conclusion of the end credits. So three cheers for Derrickson and his crew. They've defeated a ton of preposterous dialogue and a plot that could have encouraged indifference to create an enjoyable comic book movie.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A revealing search for identity

Tender and tough, Moonlight stays with you.

To understand Chiron, the main character in director Barry Jenkins's Moonlight, it might be helpful to understand what this young man -- shown at three different stages of his life and played by three different actors -- doesn't have.

No father guides Chiron; his crack-addicted, single mom offers no real parental support; no group of friends provides companionship; and no protector helps keep the neighborhood bullies at bay.

Such observations make Chiron sound like a sociological statistic, a black kid suffering the deprivations of an impoverished life in Miami's ironically named Liberty City. Although Chiron's deprivations constitute a valid and appropriate description, they don't go far enough.

The most important thing that Chiron lacks is a voice. What makes Jenkins's movie impressive are the ways in which he has coaxed the actors who play Chiron to be expressive without articulating the myriad contradictory feelings that whirl inside the character's head. Chiron seldom speaks.

You can (and probably should) spend time unpacking the various complex meanings in Jenkins's movie: the drug dealer who becomes a genuine father figure in Chiron's life but who, because he sells drugs to Chiron's mother, is pained by his own hypocrisy; Chiron's discovery of his gayness; or the multiplicity of causes leading to the violent explosion that criminalizes Chiron and redirects his life.

All of those things are worth discussing, but Chiron's voicelessness underlies everything worth thinking about in Moonlight.

And by voice, I don't mean only the act of speaking. I mean Chiron's ability to define an identity that's unshackled from environment and circumstance.

In the movie's first section, we meet the youngest version of Chiron, as played by Alex Hibbert. A slight kid who has been issued the nickname "Little," Chiron clearly is an outsider.

In this section, Chiron encounters Juan (a terrific Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes the boy under wing.

Born in Cuba, Juan sincerely cares about Chiron. Scenes in which he teaches Chiron to swim give Jenkins an opportunity to display a tender, lovely touch.

Not surprisingly, Juan's concerns land him in a territorial fight with Chiron's mother, a walking fury of woman portrayed by Naomie Harris.

When Chiron reaches his teen years, Ashton Sanders takes over the role. Of the three actors who portray Chiron, Sanders has the least physical resemblance to the others, but his acting leaves no doubt about the adolescent Chiron's connection to his boyhood self: his watchfulness, his ability to ask penetrating questions, his loneliness.

In this period, Chiron has his first sexual experience, and again tries to escape bullies. He hides from his tormentors until an irrepressible anger breaks through his muted surface.

Trevante Rhodes takes over the role when Chiron becomes an adult. By this time, Chiron has survived a stint in juvenile prison; he has bulked up, perhaps to armor himself against the world and against his own feelings. He's also living a life that mirrors the life lived by Juan.

I don't know if it's acting or physical resemblance or a combination of the two, but as this segment evolves, Rhodes reveals more and more traces of the Chiron we knew as a child.

Eventually, Chiron reconnects with a friend from childhood (Andre Holland), a reunion that leads to the movie's conclusion -- which feels like a well-earned respite from all the previous tensions, if not a triumphant moment of self-realization.

Whether you see Moonlight as a perfect movie or not, it's difficult to imagine that you won't be moved by the way Jenkins interprets and reimagines Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

It's not easy to make a movie in which the main character is less actor than one who's acted upon, less talker than one who is talked at, but Jenkins creates a richly realized world and moves us through it with insight and small moments of grace.

An honored soldier who refused to kill

Mel Gibson brings brutal violence to the story of a soldier who carried no weapon.

Anyone who as seen any of Mel Gibson's various directorial efforts should waste no time disputing Gibson's talent, even if it seems like another age when Gibson won his best-directing Oscar for Braveheart (1995).

Since then, Gibson's reputation has suffered a variety of blows, some having to do with the way he presented Jews in The Passion of the Christ and others stemming from a 2006 drunk-driving incident in which he went on an anti-Semitic rant.

Whether Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge becomes the director's moment of cultural redemption remains to be seen. But I can't deny that his movie -- particularly when it comes to its depiction of World War II fighting in the Pacific -- has rampant, chaotic power.

Gibson's Okinawa battle sequences look as if they might have been lifted from a horror movie, and should erase all doubt that war constitutes a form of lethal madness.

Gibson's camera shows that on the battlefield, human flesh can be shredded and bloodied in an instant. Men can be cut in half (literally) or set on fire by flame throwers. Corpses become nourishment for large rats.

War, we might judge, is the ultimate form of degradation: Its carnage reduces people to fear and flesh.

Well, almost ....

Gibson cannily puts the movie's violence to the service of a story about a man who refuses to kill. Hacksaw Ridge -- named for the 350-foot cliff that US soldiers scaled on Okinawa before engaging the enemy -- is a bio-pic about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).

Doss, a conscientious objector, insists on going into battle as a medic. He doesn't want to kill, but he also doesn't want to shirk what he sees as his duty to serve.

The early part of the film is both a corn-fed story and harsh melodrama about Doss's pre-war life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Doss grows up with an abusive, drunken father (Hugo Weaving) and a more protective mother (Rachel Griffiths).

When he hits his brother with a brick during a boyhood fistfight, young Doss realizes that he has the capacity to kill. The brother lives, but Doss undergoes an instant transformation: No matter what the circumstances, he won't kill.

Played with smiling innocence by Garfield, the adult Doss falls for a nurse (Teresa Palmer), the woman who eventually becomes his wife. Doss's refusal to kill is bolstered by his religion: He's a Seventh Day Adventist.

Cue the faith-based hosannas that may help create the audience for Hacksaw Ridge.

The movie tries to solidify its moral framework during Doss's stint in boot camp. His drill sergeant (an unexpected Vince Vaughn) and commanding officer (a subdued Sam Worthington) are rough on him, but also show compassion. They wonder why he just doesn't leave the service and go home. Doss's persistence puzzles them.

You needn't be a seer to predict that those who scorn Doss eventually will praise the courage that won him a Medal of Honor, the first awarded to a conscientious objector.

Doss certainly earned the award. When U.S. troops pull back to regroup, Doss is left alone atop Hacksaw Ridge. He persists in dragging soldier after soldier to safety. He improvises a harness that enables him to lower the soldiers to the bottom where they can receive medical attention. He saves 75 men in all.

No one should question Doss's heroism, but it's difficult for me not to think that the movie is riven with a contradiction it can't totally resolve: a commitment to the reality of violence makes us wonder whether Gibson is firing bullets while at the same time condemning the slaughter.

And although Doss does at one point help a Japanese soldier, there's little attempt -- as Clint Eastwood did in Letters From Iwo Jima -- to humanize a feared enemy.

Doss nestles a picture of his wife in a Bible she gives him before his induction into the army. It may be something Doss really did, but it's also a cornball, religious/romantic touch that says something about the movie's heart -- at least when it's not asking us to watch GI's being ripped to shreds.

There's talk that Gibson will receive an Oscar nomination as best-director for Hacksaw Ridge. If he does, it's the harrowing face he puts on war that will have earned him the nod.

I'm not sure, though, that we can tell whether Gibson's isn't as interested in the graphic carnage he portrays as he is in Doss's renunciation of all killing.

Twists and eroticism in this thriller

In the Handmaiden, director Park Chan-wook keeps us guessing about who's being conned.

If you're familiar with the work of Park Chan-wook, the South Korean director of movies such as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, you already know that perverse breezes waft through Park's work in ways that spur his considerable and often bizarre powers of invention.

At first blush, Park's latest -- The Handmaiden -- seems like the director's most conventional work to date, an elegant period piece set in Korea during the 1930s. Don't be fooled, treachery looms.

The story begins when a young woman named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) becomes a maid for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a woman whose strangely tormented upbringing rises to the surface as the movie's three-part, time-bending structure unfolds.

Enter Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a Korean con man. Korea was under Japanese rule in the 1930s, so it paid for Fujiwara to take a Japanese name and pose as a nobleman.

Fujiwara, who's after Lady Hideko's inheritance, makes Sook-hee a player in his attempted con. He wants to marry Lady Hideko.

Park divides the movie into three sections, each allowing us to understand more about the story as it's told from varying points of view.

As it turns out, Lady Hideko lives with her weird uncle. A book dealer specializing in exotic porn, Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) has imprisoned his niece on his estate -- a bizarre place that's divided into two distinct architectural styles: British Victorian and traditional Japanese. Take this bit of architectural schizophrenia as a bow to Fingersmith, the 2002 British novel by Sarah Waters on which the movie is based.

Twist upon twist unfolds as Park keeps us off guard about who's conning whom.

When the relationship between Lady Hideko and Sook-hee turns erotic, Park offers explicit depictions of their sexual encounters. I leave it to you to decide whether a mention of explicitly depicted and very spry lesbian sex constitutes a warning or an invitation.

Eventually, Park adds the expected violent flourishes, and, by the end, he tempers the movie's real perversity -- the way the characters attempt to exploit one another -- with as sweet a love story as a director such as Park can muster.

Despite the movie's often beautiful images and Park's deliberate pacing: The Handmaiden can't conceal the director's preoccupation with vengeance, lust, perversion and all around weirdness. Did I mention romance? Yes, that, too.

You're right to think that such disparate elements should be slamming against one another with all the grace of colliding garbage can lids. But Park's ability to fit conflicting ingredients into the movie's overall design results in a sly, seamless and exceptionally accomplished piece of work.