Thursday, December 29, 2016

Where migrants land and life goes on

A documentary immerses us in life on Lampedusa, an island gateway to Europe for many who are fleeing Africa and the Middle East.
In making the documentary Fire at Sea, director Gianfranco Rosi gambled big. Rather than inundate us with a straightforward account of harrowing problems faced by the thousands of migrants who have tried to reach the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, he has created an intimate portrait of life in a place where the settled and uprooted share a strange co-existence.

Dispensing with both narration and musical accompaniment, Rosi mixes images of desperate immigrants who have dared to cross the Mediterranean with views of daily life on an island that doesn't seem to have vaulted into the 21st Century.

Title cards at the film's opening tells us that in the past 20 years, 400,000 migrants have landed on Lampedusa. An estimated 15,000 people have died attempting the crossing, often having begun their journeys in Tunisia.

If the film has a main character, the job falls to Samuele Pucillo, a 12-year-old who lives a with his fisherman father. Samuele hunts with a sling shot. He spends a day on his father's boat and gets seasick. He's treated by the local optometrist for a lazy left eye. He listens to his grandmother's stories about World War II. He struggles with reading at school.

None of this sounds amped up or italicized, but that's the point. Rosi has a fondness for quotidian detail; maybe that's why he includes a scene in which a woman smooths the coverlets of what must be the most meticulously made bed in all of Europe.

Rosi also shows us the plight of immigrants for whom Lampedusa has become a stepping stone en route to other European destinations. Some of the immigrants -- all from tormented points of departure in Africa and the Middle East -- are greeted by islanders wearing protective suits and masks. We see a rescue attempt, and also hear an alarmed voyager begging for help from a radio operator.

A late-picture sequence involving a rescue from a small, overcrowded boat opens the door to what we learn has been a typically nightmarish voyage.

To make his film, Rosi lived on Lampedusa for a year. He also served as his own camera operator, an approach that allowed him to give the film a sense of unhurried familiarity few films achieve -- whether he's observing Samuele trying to explain his shortage of breath to the local doctor, watching immigrants play soccer or recording the triumphant rap of an immigrant from Nigeria.

The doctor, by the way, seems to embody the attitude of the locals, a blend of patience and sad empathy. The residents of Lampedusa have been living with this human influx for a long time; they know the drill and have seen the heartbreak.

In a way, Rosi tries to bring the simple authenticity of Italian Neorealism to a complex 21st century issue. But Fire at Sea doesn't insult us by ending with a call to action. It's as if Rosi has told us "This is life in Lampedusa. See it. Live with it. Allow it to seep into your consciousness. Decide what to make of it."

Monday, December 26, 2016

My 10 best movies of the year

It's always tempting to sum up the year in movies with a single word: "bad" or "good." Of course, every movie year includes abundant examples of both, and no 10-best list can -- or should -- be taken as the ultimate statement about anything. For me, the point of making such a list is to remember the year and honor the films that offered me stimulation, provocation and pleasure.

Of course, no list can be inclusive: I had fun at a movie such as Dr. Strange, but you won't find it among my absolute favorites. Same goes for parts of Sausage Party, a ribald bit of animation.

I also suffered through plenty of movies, but there's no need to rehash the year's disappointments here.

Looking forward isn't easy. Movies don't develop instantly, and it will be a while before we know how the Trump years influence what we're watching.

In the meantime, I offer my list in hopes that you'll make your own, and with a wish that you and yours enjoy a happy and healthy 2017.

1. Moonlight

Watching a young black man struggle to find his voice at three different stages of his life proved both instructive and stirring. Chiron, the movie's main character, doesn't say much, but director Barry Jenkins brings insight and small moments of grace to a story that's tough and tender in equal measure.

2. Manchester by the Sea

Director Kenneth Lonergan obtains a great performance from Casey Affleck as a young man carrying a tremendous burden of guilt and shame. At the same time, Longergan finds humor in characters who are deeply embedded in their Massachusetts milieu. A profoundly sad movie about how one man deals (or doesn't) with an unbearable past.

3. Arrival

Director Denis Villeneuve had the courage to make a sci-fi movie about the mind-bending effects of language, a heady theme presented with a welcome lack of apocalyptic special effects -- amazing considering that the movie involves the arrival of aliens on Earth. Amy Adams gives a fine performance as a linguist who needs to learn a whole new system of communicating.

4. The Handmaiden

Korean director Park Chan-wook's elegant masterwork, like some of his previous movies (Old Boy and Lady Vengeance) benefits from the perverse breezes that waft through the story in ways that spur Park's considerable imagination. This beautiful period piece takes place in Korea in the 1930s, but the sensibility is all Park's. The story kicks off when a con man hires a young woman to become the maid of an heiress. He hopes to steal her inheritance. The rest should be discovered in a theater.

5. The Fits

An 11-year-old (Royalty Hightower) at a Cincinnati recreation center attempts to choose between the world of boxing and the world of competitive drill. Director Anna Rose Holmer's movie mixes ambiguity and specificity in ways that prove haunting. Holmer brings a distinctive and welcome new voice to the movie scene.

6. 13th, OJ: Made in America and I'm Not Your Negro

OK, so I'm cheating by putting three movies together in a contrived attempt to stick to the 10-movie limit. I suppose I could have made a list of the year's 12 best movies, but I decided to put these three powerful documentaries together because each has something to important to say about issues pertaining to race. Moreover, each tells a story that should be viewed as quintessentially American.
Director Ava DuVernay's 13th exposes racial inequality by examining the nation's prison system. In O.J.: Made in America director Ezra Edelman proves that we didn't know everything about one of the world's most publicized murder trials. Edelman widens our perspective about the significance of what in 1995 was called "the trial of the century." Samuel L. Jackson narrates I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary that helps revivify author James Baldwin's indispensable voice by looking at a book that Baldwin never finished; he planned to examine the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

7. Our Little Sister

Director Hirokazu Koreeda's lovely little movie about three sisters who take in their half sister after their father dies. A quiet, life-affirming style puts Our Little Sister in the company of other deeply human movies.

8. Tower

A powerhouse documentary that employs rotoscope animation to take us back to the day in August of 1966 when Charles Whitman shot up the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. Director Keith Maitland focuses on Whitman's victims -- then and now. I can't think of a movie in which rifle fire felt more vivid and real. Tower takes a sharp and necessary turn away from the kind of movie violence where bullets are plentiful, but their impact hardly registers.

9. Embrace of the Serpent

Colombian director Ciro Guerra takes us into the Amazon where he posits that white, western civilization can be terminally exploitative. Rich and unsettling, Embrace of the Serpent covers two different trips into the jungle to show the life that's being trampled by rampant colonialism. You may not agree with the thesis, but you should find the movie riveting.

10. Eye in the Sky

Released early in the year and largely neglected, this thriller featured powerful performances by Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman and allowed director Gavin Hood to make a gut-wrenching thriller about moral conflicts in the age of drone warfare.

Honorable mentions: Morris From America, Toni Erdmann, Hell or High Water and Fences.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Theatrical power drives 'Fences'

Denzel Washington directs August Wilson's powerful family drama.

Anger and irony always have informed Denzel Washington's best work, and in his adaptation of August Wilson's play Fences, Washington finds a character that's equal to his taunting, incisive intelligence and his unwavering commitment to finding the dramatic truth of every character he plays.

Washington played the role of illiterate garbage man Troy Maxson in a 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson's 1983 play that also teamed him with Viola Davis, who again joins Washington to play Troy's long-suffering and sometimes indulgent wife. Davis's Rose has lived with Troy long enough be wise to his wiles: A former baseball player, ex-convict and a deeply opinionated man, Troy's a definite handful.

Set in Pittsburgh in 1957, the movie provides a context for understanding Troy. He was a good baseball player whose career peaked before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color line. He says he played with men so good, Robinson couldn't even have made the same team as them. He's an embittered man who can serve up a sharp, piercing grin -- the kind of smile that cuts as much as it warms.

Fair to say that Fences, which Washington also directed and which takes place mostly in the backyard of the Maxson family home, survives as a play on film, but that doesn't mean that its great theatrical moments are in any way muted.

Both Washington and Davis scale their performances somewhere between stage and screen, and in his role a director, Washington clearly keeps allegiance with the rapid-fire exchanges in Wilson's text.

The movie's economical opening shows Troy riding the back of a garbage truck with his co-worker and pal Bono (Stephen Henderson). Troy and Bono empty garbage cans along the route. We get a quick glimpse of the white man who's driving the truck. That's pretty much all we need to know about the racial hierarchy of the Pittsburgh sanitation department in the 1950s, although the subject does come up later.

Visual flourishes aside, Washington allows the power of the performances to carry the day, obtaining fine work from a supporting cast that includes Russell Hornsby as Troy's musician son from a previous marriage, and Mykeleti Williamson as a World War II veteran who suffered brain damage as a result of his war wounds. Williamson's Gabriel wanders the neighborhood, a trumpet tied around his neck with a frayed piece of rope. He's the movie's holy fool.

But the film's key male relationship involves 53-year-old Troy and his younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Cory is a high school football star with college potential. Troy holds the young man back, insisting that he step into a dutiful but limited role as a worker. Learn a trade, Tory insists.

Put another way, Troy wants his son to become him, a desire that's partly selfish but also fueled by Troy's certainty, honed by experience, that sooner or later, the white world will betray an ambitious black man.

Fences fits into the best tradition of American family drama, a story about characters who carry the burden of their personalities as well as of their times and who sometimes suffer from a potent merger of the two.

For all of Troy's cruelty, the movie gives him the integrity of his convictions, and what I carried from the theater was a sense of the indelible rage that Washington breathed into Troy and the ability of his beleaguered wife to match it and go beyond it to a place of acceptance.

Despite some cinematic stiffness, Fences emerges as a movie with a love of the characters who populate it and a deep understanding of what they all must do to survive. Both in front of the camera and behind it, Washington has made a powerful piece of work.

A harrowing childhood journey

Another movie based on a true story, Lion can be heartbreaking, but it also can lag.

In a way, Lion risks setting itself up for failure -- or at least for a major letdown.

I say this because the movie's opening act is so compelling that I wondered whether director Garth Davis would be able to sustain its harrowing trajectory. In the early going, Lion feels as if it's en route to becoming a classic movie about an endangered boy, something on the order of the great Brazilian film, Pixote -- if a little less harsh.

Working from a true story, Davis introduces us to five-year-old Saroo (a wonderful Sunny Pawar), a poor Indian boy who's separated from his family after he falls asleep on a decommissioned train. Saroo winds up in Calcutta where his life takes on a Dickensian flavor: He's homeless and defenseless.

Saroo is too young to explain himself to strangers who live 1,600 miles from where his journey began. His difficulties are further complicated by his inability to speak Bengali. He speaks only Hindi.

Even a helpful gesture from a kind stranger works against him. One such bit of help lands poor Saroo in a children's home where cruelty and abuse are the orders of the day.

Cute without being cloying, Pawar anchors this part of the movie -- along with Davis's terrific use of the Indian countryside and the squalid depravations of Calcutta. Watching a totally confused and frightened five year old trying to negotiate the teeming crowds at Calcutta's railways station makes for heartbreaking viewing.

The movie makes a major shift after its Indian sequences. As the result of a charitable intervention, Saroo is sent to Australia where he's adopted by two well-meaning and loving parents, convincingly played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. After about a year, Saroo's new parents adopt another Indian boy who has a more difficult time adjusting to life in Tasmania and who's played as a young adult by Divian Ladwa.

The movie's second half deals with Saroo as a young man portrayed by Dev Patel. At this point, what had been a terrific movie becomes a merely good one with the story turning its attention to Saroo's increasing desire to discover his roots. He begins having flashbacks to the early years of his childhood in India, which include memories of his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and the mother (Priyanka Bose) he adored and who adored him.

Bharate's Guddu has some responsibility for the way in which Saroo becomes lost, adding another level of poignancy.

During Saroo's period of self-discovery, he turns to the Internet to try to determine precisely where he came from. He stops paying attention to his girlfriend (a superfluous Rooney Mara), and shuts out his parents, refusing to tell them what he's doing. Patel conveys Saroo's torment, but this portion of the movie drags and also misses opportunities to develop additional scenes that might better have dramatized Saroo's struggle as a person suffering from spiritual homelessness.

None of this is to say that you should avoid Lion, which has a payoff that's designed to jerk real tears. And toward the end, Davis does a skillful job of blending Saroo's childhood memories with his adult quest.

Put in terms that risk a bit of reductionism, I'll conclude with this: Lion's Indian segments are a four-star knockout; the rest ... well ... give it three stars.

Xmas? Time for another crude comedy

Maybe Robert De Niro was busy. That's the best explanation I could come up with for why Brian Cranston -- of Breaking Bad fame -- finds himself playing a father who's trying to protect his daughter (Zoey Deutch) from becoming engaged to a crude jerk (James Franco) in Why Him? , a comedy that turns out to be a Meet the Parents wannabe. In this variation on a formulaic theme, Franco's character not only is inappropriately crass, but he's also a video game inventor who's filthy rich. Cranston's Ned Fleming travels from Michigan with his wife (Megan Mullally) and son (Griffin Gluck) to spend Christmas with their daughter, a student at Stanford. During the visit, they're supposed to meet the daughter's new boyfriend. Dad is surprised to learn that Deutch's Stephanie is spending most of her time at the ostentatiously high-tech home of Franco's Laird Mayhew. Jokes about molecular cuisine at Laird's ultra-modern manse are half funny, and Keegan-Michael Key scores intermittently as Laird's personal assistant. One of the central jokes puts Cranston's character on an electronic toilet, which -- at least for me -- proved emblematic of a comedy that pretty much flushed taste (not to mention anything resembling common sense) down the drain. The heavily tatted Laird is another variation on a total doofus from Franco, a character whose dominant trait seems to be idiocy. A preview audience found all of this funnier than I did. But there's something amiss when the best you can say about a big-screen Christmas comedy is that it's slightly better than the abysmal Christmas Office Party.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A woman who defies easy explanation

Isabelle Huppert gives a masterfully self-possessed performance in director Paul Verhoeven's Elle.

From the outset, it's clear that Elle has little interest in characters who behave in recognizable ways.

In the movie's opening scene, for example, a woman is raped in her home by a masked intruder as her apparently indifferent cat looks on. Once her assailant has left, the woman neither calls the police nor completely unravels. She collects herself, and goes about her business.

Two things may help explain this oddly unexpected behavior. First, the woman is being played by Isabelle Huppert, an actress who seldom allows herself a predictable beat. Secondly, Elle is the work of director Paul Verhoeven, whose filmography has ranged from Dutch art house favorites of yore (Soldiers of Orange and Spetters) to whopping Hollywood commercial fair such as RoboCop and Basic Instinct.

I can't say that Elle made a great deal of sense to me, but I agree with those who find fascination in Huppert's uncanny self-possession.

Nearly everything that takes place in Elle goes against the grain of normal assumption. When Huppert's Michelle, who owns a video-game company with her partner Anna (Anne Consigny) evaluates a game the company is in the process of developing, she insists that it must have orgasmic payoff. She wants to satisfy her audience, and isn't about to let rape put her off her business game.

Based on a novel by Philippe Djian, the plot is cluttered with relationships. Michelle's sleeping with Anna's husband (Christian Berkel), a man who treats their sexual liaisons with arrogance and entitlement. Michele's mother (Judith Magre) pays a hunky young man for sex, and then decides to marry him. Michele's ex-husband (Charles Berling) is a failed writer who has taken up with a younger woman (Vimala Pons), but still seems dependent on Michelle. Michele's dim bulb of a son (Jonas Bloquet) works at a fast-food outlet, and lives with a pregnant young woman (Alice Isaaz) who couldn't be more obnoxious and who eventually gives birth to a child that clearly was sired by someone other than Bloquet's character.

A Christmas party attended by most of the characters I've discussed in the preceding paragraph tilts the movie toward satire and helps introduce yet another character, a stock broker named Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Patrick and his ultra-religious wife (Virginie Efira) live across the street from Michelle.

Attracted to the hunky Patrick, Michelle plays footsie with him at Christmas dinner. Earlier, she had masturbated while observing Patrick through a large pair of binoculars as he and his wife put up a Christmas display, a creche composed of life-sized figures.

I haven't mentioned a backstory about a heinous crime, but there's no need. No more can be revealed about the plot without offering spoilers, but Elle generates curiosity in the way it mixes bizarre sexual gamesmanship and bruising violence for what, in the final analysis, may be a strained critique of bourgeois pieties.

Whatever you make of Elle, you'll probably agree with the critical consensus that Huppert -- considering her work here and in the earlier Things to Come -- has given two of the year's most intriguing performances.

In Elle, she comes across as an uncompromising force of a woman who dares you to explain her behavior -- and knows that you'll probably fail.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A lightweight space voyage

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play characters who find each other in the depths of space.

A major corporation has developed technology that's able to ferry people through space in a state of hibernation until they reach a new planet called Homestead 2. By the time they arrive at a place that's free of Earth's deterioration and crowding, they'll have been in a state of suspended animation for 120 years.

One hundred and twenty years of watching people sleep isn't exactly a promising movie possibility, so as we watch the new sci-fi romance, Passengers, we quickly learn that one of the ship's 5,000 passengers, a mechanic played by Chris Pratt, has awakened up from hibernation. Of course, there's catch.

Pratt's Jim discovers that a malfunction has brought him back to life. The rest of the crew and the passengers are still hibernating. To make matters worse, Jim has been jarred awake some 90 years before the ship is scheduled to arrive at its destination. He's doomed to spend the rest of his life alone while traveling to a destination he'll never reach.

Cue the panic. Cue the loneliness. Cue Pratt growing an unruly beard to show us that time is passing, and that Jim is losing his grip.

Jim tries to think his way out of his problem, but can't. Instead, he avails himself of some of the spaceship's amenities: a basketball court, a very cool swimming pool with a transparent bubble at its end, and a well-stocked bar tended by a witty and perpetually pleasant android named Arthur (Michael Sheen).

All of this has the makings of a dark space opera with existential overtones, but unfortunately the movie has other things in mind, namely romance and jeopardy.

After spending a year going crazy, Jim decides to take matters into his own hands. He'll wake up one of the other passengers, a beautiful woman whose background he learns from the ship's records.

Enter Jennifer Lawrence as a journalist whose major ambition was to find a great story.

Romance arises and ... well ... I won't say too much more about what happens. Let's just note that the on-and-off romance between Jim and his newly awakened companion feels more contrived than emotionally grounded.

Director Morton Tyldum (The Imitation Game) has some major toys at his disposal -- aside form Lawrence and Pratt. The movie's spacecraft (Avalon by name) is full of long corridors leading to a grand concourse where the 5,000 passengers are supposed to mingle once they've been awakened from their space slumbers.

The great awakening is supposed to happen four months before landing.

Watching Pratt and Lawrence adjusting to the fact that they're alone in space creates some interest, even if questions arise about how such a sophisticated vessel could have no backup for what might be its most important function: sustained hibernation.

OK, so credibility doesn't much matter during moments such as the ones in which Lawrence puts on her bathing suit and goes for a swim in Avalon's amazing pool or when Pratt dresses like a janitor and uses his mechanical skills to build things or when one or the other of them engages Arthur in banter.

Of course, at some point, Lawrence's Aurora will learn that she didn't wake up by accident, but was condemned to live and die on this ship by the man she's falling for. Then what?

All I'll say is that the movie doesn't condemn us to 89 years of hostility, but contrives to find ways to put the entire mission in jeopardy as it stumbles its way toward a conclusion.

Perhaps because they could think of no place else to go, screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Dr. Strange, Prometheus) and his cohorts introduce another character, a ship's officer played by Laurence Fishburne. His hibernation chamber malfunctioned, too, which means even bigger problems loom.

A laughable finale doesn't help to give this foundering space voyage the lift that it needed, and the movie delivers its message -- enjoy what you have rather than looking forward to where you're going -- with no more eloquence than you'd expect if such a statement were to fall out of fortune cookie.

Passengers doesn't stint on eye candy (both human and technical), but its enjoyable moments suggest that somewhere in the Avalon's 120-year journey, a smarter script might have found time to play with some of the bigger questions inherent in the movie's premise.

But like Jim and Aurora, Passengers is stranded in a world full of cooked up plot points and, at key times, a lack of gravity. One-hundred and twenty years of space flight presents a challenge for any writer, but this crew would have done well to pack some heavier thematic baggage for the ride.

Logic murdered in 'Assassin's Creed'

Big name cast takes a shot at a movie version of a video game.

I suppose these days nothing should surprise us, but I must admit that I was taken aback to learn that Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson all appear in Assassin's Creed, a movie derived from a video game about which I happily confess total ignorance.

Plotted to the max, Assassin's Creed revolves around a long-standing rivalry between The Assassins and The Knights Templar, opposing groups that vie for possession of the Apple of Eden, a gizmo that contains the genetic DNA code for free will.

Under the guise of promoting world peace, the Knights plan to use the apple to control mankind.

Divided between two time periods -- the present and 15th Century Spain -- the story begins by introducing us to Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a murderer sentenced to die by lethal injection. Lynch receives his punishment, but instead of drifting into oblivion, he mysteriously (perhaps even incomprehensibly) wakes up in a strange Spanish facility run by Abstergo Industries, which is presided over by Irons' Rikkin.

Rikkin's daughter Sofia (Cotillard) takes charge of connecting Lynch to a machine she invented. It causes him to explore his genetic roots by living as his 15th Century Assassin ancestor, Aguilar.

The Assassins, by the way, are an amoral group that pledges to use darkness to preserve the light. They'll protect the Apple of Eden by any means necessary.

And, yes, this is another movie that takes on conspiratorial airs, one more shadowy projection of the idea that somewhere unknown to us ordinary folks, the real drama unfolds.

There's a point to Cal's time travel: By becoming his 15th Century ancestor, Cal will be able to tell his industrial captors (a front for the Templars) where to find the coveted apple.

Forays into the past give director Justin Kurzel, who directed Fassbender and Cotillard in a screen version of Macbeth, an opportunity to pour on the action; the Spanish segments involve blurry battles in which the Assassins engage the Knights who are trying to wrest the apple from its owner at the time, Sultan Muhammad.

At this point, Cal acquires a female sidekick (Ariane Labed), who helps him kick butt. He also leaps off tall buildings, which -- I've read -- is a bow to the video game.

The movie's complicated conventions (often spelled out in mind-numbing expository dialogue) make it difficult to care what happens.

Some of Kurzel's imagery is strange enough to command interest, a gathering of 15th century clerics at which two Assassins are to be burned at the stake, for example. Moreover, Kurzel knows how to create menacing moods.

It occurred to me that the movie might be more fun as a cascading series of shadowy images, providing the actor's never opened their mouths.

The actors, however, do speak, treating the material as seriously as if they were doing Shakespeare, which -- come to think of it -- would have been a far better use of everyone's time.

It takes a while, but 'Sing' connects

I'm not going belabor Sing, a commercially potent bit of family entertainment with a decent amount of humor to carry it past its dull spots. This animated romp centers on a show-biz loving koala bear named Buster Moon (voice by Matthew McConaughey) who needs to raise money to save his beloved theater. To achieve his goal, Buster decides to sponsor a singing contest. As the result of a misprint, the winners think they'll receive $100,000. Poor Buster. He intended to award only a $1,000 prize. The plot makes room for a teeming cast of anthropomorphic animals such as a rat who croons like Sinatra (Seth MacFarlane) and a very shy elephant (Tori Kelly) who eventually unleashes a potent rendition of Leonard Coen's Hallelujah. Scarlett Johansson voices a porcupine punk rocker. We also meet a singing pig (Reese Witherspoon) who tries to juggle motherhood and a stage career, no easy task because she has 25 piglet kids. Then there's the gorilla (Aaron Egerton) who abandons his criminal father's ways to pursue a career on stage, but still longs for Dad's approval. There are more animals, but I think you get the idea. Sing makes use of many already popular tunes before arriving at a finale that pretty much rescues the whole enterprise. Director Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow) and his team don't offer animated perfection, but Sing ought to give Moana some competition for holiday viewing in a season that's running short on fun fare.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Music and romance in 'La La Land'

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in an attempt to breathe new life into the Hollywood musical.

I liked it, OK? Now, let me tell you why the much-praised La La Land didn't totally lift my spirits, change my mood or otherwise transport me to heights heretofore unattained in the history of human movie watching. And, no, I'm not talking about some post-election funk that prohibits me from enjoying anything.

For me La La Land is a bit of an oddity, a movie I enjoyed (some of it immensely) and also quibbled with (often).

Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) opens the movie with a dance number staged on an LA freeway exit that sets a snappy pace that defines the movie in its earliest going. Scenes feel carbonated, as if they're about to bubble off the screen.

The single-shot camera work of the movie's opening proves fun in a razzle-dazzle sort of way, but if you look at other elements (the music and the dancing), you may be slightly less impressed. La La Land feasts on candy-colored imagery and an unashamed reckoning with its musical predecessors.

La La Land centers on a romance between aspiring artists -- one a jazz-obsessed pianist (Ryan Gosling), the other an actress (Emma Stone) who has yet to make her mark in Hollywood.

Watching Gosling and Stone do a Rogers/Astaire-like number on a deserted street overlooking the city's lights proves a bit of a strain. They're both trying their best, but I've seen Fred Astaire and ... well ... you know how the rest of the sentence goes.

Of the two stars, Gosling seems the least likely to turn up in a musical. He's playing a character who dreams of restoring a jazz club in Los Angeles, and he's written a song for piano that becomes one of the movie's major motifs. Sorry to say, the tune sounds trite when compared to Gosling's character's purported heroes: Bird, Coltrane, et. al.

Eventually, Gosling's Sebastian is presented with the opportunity to join a successful band led by former pal Keith (John Legend), a musician who embraces a youthful audience and thinks that Sebastian's devotion to jazz might be a bit pointless.

By this time, Gosling's Sebastian and Stone's Mia are a couple; she urges him to join Keith's touring show, but in the end, regrets having encouraged him. She thinks Sebastian has sold out his art, and betrayed his avidity. Who's left to defend the purity of jazz?

Stone's Mia faces her own struggle. She finds herself humiliated at audition after audition, familiar scenes handled with aplomb by Chazelle. Sebastian encourages Mia to write a play, and stage it as a one-woman show. She does. No one comes. She heads back to her home in Nevada, but eventually achieves her dream, and becomes a star.

Will the romance between Mia and Sebastian survive all this career angst?

While pondering that question, you'll find trace elements of Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, Vincent Minnelli and Jacques Demy. But even if you don't catch the references, you'll get the feeling that Chazelle wants to meld old-fashioned movie magic with an upbeat sensibility that can play to contemporary audiences.

The stars of the movie are production designer David Wasco, art director Austin Gorg and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, whose work affords considerable pleasure in quiet sequences in which Stone's Mia simply walks down a dimly lit street or in a fantasy sequence set at Los Angeles's Griffith Observatory, which you'll recognize as a centerpiece location in Nicholas Rey's Rebel Without a Cause.

Chazelle uses the observatory's planetarium for the movie's most fanciful and charming sequence, which offers a helping of gossamer enchantment that can't help but make you smile.

Don't be surprised if Stone wins the best actress Oscar for her work here. To the extent that the movie has a true beating heart, it emanates from Stone, who has been given a showcase musical number -- a song that she pulls off with more conviction than vocal talent.

The movie's bittersweet ending isn't entirely satisfying, but we have La La Land, and it's possible to like it without totally surrendering to all of its carefully concocted charms.

The ordeal of an iconic First Lady

Natalie Portman stars in director Pablo Larrain's Jackie

The day of President Kennedy's funeral, I and several college pals were positioned directly across from the White House. We'd driven from New Jersey to arrive in DC in time for the somber spectacle. We saw the horse-drawn caisson that carried the president's flag-draped coffin. We heard the hollow sound of hoofs on concrete as the caisson rolled past. We heard the Navy band playing Chopin's inexorably grim funeral march. We saw the riderless horse, a backward boot in its stirrup.

We also saw dignitaries pouring out of the White House, where the funeral procession had traveled after leaving the Capitol: Jacqueline Kennedy, Bobby and Teddy, of course. But I most remember the diminutive Haile Selassie of Ethiopia walking next to the towering Charles de Gaulle, one of the world's great physical mismatches.

The deep sadness and magisterial pomp of the moment was so incredible, none of it felt real.

Somehow we sensed that the nation not only was burying a president, but its belief in a reality protected from extremes. From that moment on, we knew we could discount nothing.

All of that came flooding back to me while watching director Pablo Larrain's Jackie, a movie in which Natalie Portman plays the First Lady whose brave and composed public presence told the rest of us how we were supposed to respond to the unthinkable demise of a president we viewed as invincible and robust.

Larrain uses his camera to turn Jackie into a floating, near spectral presence while at the same time trying to make her as real as the presidential blood that spotted her pink Chanel suit, the one she wore with a pillbox hat. There's a near ethereal quality to Portman's performance, the sense of a woman in the midst of shock, grief and the isolation that came not only from losing a husband, but from living inside the Kennedy mythology.

The movie begins in Dallas and carries through to the state funeral that Jackie planned. Its story is built around a shop-worn contrivance. A journalist (Billy Crudup) travels to Hyannis Port, Mass. to interview Mrs. Kennedy at the Kennedy compound. I couldn't make sense out of Crudup's performance, which seems to lack a great deal of compassion for Mrs. Kennedy and which seems out of synch with the way the country responded to the events of November, 1963.

Mrs. Kennedy tells Crudup's character her version of the events surrounding the assassination. She sometimes reacts in revealing ways that she insists must be kept out of print. She's doing her duty to protect what she knew would become a legend.

The movie makes reference to a famous 1962 televised tour that Jackie gave of the White House in which she sounded doll-like and light-headed. It may help younger audiences to know that comedians used to make fun of Jackie's voice.

Larrain has gone to great lengths to replicate the interior of the White House; he certainly succeeds in creating a credible environment.

Alas, not all of the casting functions in the same way. John Carroll Lynch looks nothing like Lyndon Johnson. Peter Sarsgaard is even less convincing as Robert F. Kennedy. We see glimpses of JFK, who's played by Danish actor Caspar Phillipson.

These missteps are important because for the movie consistently to work, we must believe we're watching real people -- not half-cooked, shadow-play representations.

If there's a point here, it has to do with the notion that during the Kennedy days, the White House was regarded as a modern Camelot, a place where art was respected and people comported themselves with dignity and grace. It was the grandest of illusions, and Jacqueline Kennedy helped to create and sustain it.

There's unquestionable allure in getting behind the scenes -- in seeing a partly speculative account of what led to the moment when I found myself across from the White House.

But it's not always clear what Larrain is after: He gives us a scene in which Jackie meets with a priest (John Hurt), who advises her that the big questions with which she's grappling may be unanswerable. You also may feel you're watching what happens when a heretofore supporting player suddenly finds herself thrust into a central role in a very public drama.

At times, it also feels as if the movie is about the weight of emptiness inside Camelot after the king has died.

Jackie may be about all those things: I suppose Larrain wants us to think that Jackie knew that Camelot was an illusion but somehow managed to believe in it anyway.

Death, love -- and a waste of time

A strong cast can't make anything credible out of weepy Collateral Beauty.
Burdened by a whopping contrivance, Collateral Beauty -- a movie that wants to talk about unbearable grief and the need for human connection -- resembles a luxury passenger liner that sinks soon after leaving the dock.

The luxury reference has to do with the presence of an A-list cast featuring Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley. They're all fine actors, but Collateral Beauty blows the opportunity for great ensemble work by putting the cast into one credibility-challenging or maudlin scene after another.

The story might be viewed as a fable grounded in what may have been intended as a plausible reality, the world of New York advertising.

Smith plays Howard, a hot-shot advertising executive who loses his six-year-old daughter to a rare form of cancer. Mired in grief, Howard completely shuts down. Not surprisingly, his near-catatonic state threatens the life of the agency he founded with his partner (Norton).

The plot's big twist arrives when Norton and two of his colleagues (Winslet and Michael Pena) decide to hire a trio of actors (Mirren, Knightley and Jacob Latimore) to visit the dejected Howard as the embodiment of three abstractions: Death, Love and Time.

Why Death, Love and Time? In the movie's prologue, Howard tells his staff that these are the vital ingredients in selling products. Moreover, since the death of his daughter, Howard has been writing and mailing letters addressed to Death, Love and Time. The letters give voice to Howard's anger at the way all three have betrayed him.

Howard's colleagues have two objectives: They want to save Howard from his depression, and they also want to have him declared incompetent. They'll then be able to sell the company, of which Howard is the majority owner, to an eager buyer.

To achieve their goal, this trio of ad execs also hires a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to photograph Howard talking to Death, Love and Time; the execs then will have these figures digitally removed so that it looks as if Howard is ranting to himself.

When it's not focusing on Howard, the movie doles out other forms of pain. Winslet's character wonders whether she hasn't sacrificed the chance to have a family by spending too much time at the office. Pena's character deals with a recurrence of a long-dormant cancer, and Norton's Whit worries about fixing the screwed-up relationship he has with his young daughter. She won't talk to him because he cheated on her mom.

Putting all of these fine actors into one movie must have seemed like a casting bonanza to director David Frankel (Hope Springs and The Devil Wears Prada). Too bad Allan Loeb's screenplay doesn't play to the cast's strengths: It falls to young Latimore to give the movie's most (and perhaps only) compelling performance.

If all of these actors weren't enough, the movie adds Naomi Harris as a woman who leads a group of parents who've lost children.

The drama comes to a head on Christmas Eve making Collateral Beauty an offering for the season that's intended to mix laughs, tears and greeting card wisdom. Who knows? It might have worked had Frank Capra tried it during the 1930s.

Today, Collateral Damage looks precisely like what it is: a concept that never develops into a real or convincing movie.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The story of a great actor

There never was a movie star quite like Toshiro Mifune, still best known for the work he did with director Akira Kurosawa in movies such as Roshomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo. In the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai, director Steven Okazaki takes us through Mifune's amazing career, reminding us of the greatness of Mifune's collaboration with Kurosawa and giving us insights into a filmography that spanned more than 40 years. Okazaki provides a historical view of the samurai film which, in Kurosawa's hands, transcended the confines of a well-worn genre. Okazaki interviews one of Mifune's sons and many of the now-aging actors who worked with him. He supplements those interviews with news footage from various periods in Mifune's post-war life, particularly the moment when movies constituted a war-ravaged Japan's only form of entertainment. An actor of irrepressible energy, Mifune commanded the screen like few others. He had both the rugged humor and unabashed wildness of a weed grown from the earth's rawest soil, but also could reflect a mighty stillness. Not all of Mifune's work -- particularly in his later years -- lived up to the standard he established with Kurosawa, but the history of cinema is inconceivable without him. Mifune died in 1997 at the age of 77. By now, just about every film buff knows that the Kurosawa/Mifune films were powerful influences on filmmakers such as George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, but they stand by themselves as classics of 20th Century cinema. Okazaki's documentary reminds of why.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

War? What's it good for? A 'Star Wars' movie that pits rebels against the Death Star

Rogue One may stand alone, but it doesn't stand above the best Star Wars movies.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes place at a time when The Empire, imperial source of all evil, is in the process of constructing a Death Star, a weapon so powerful it can destroy entire planets.

As familiar as that may sound, Rogue One turns out to be a slightly different kind of Star Wars adventure. Production notes for the movie describe it as a stand-alone effort -- albeit one that's meant to fit into the Star Wars universe.

Led by director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters), the Disney team takes us on a less-than-epic tour of a darkly hued Star Wars world. We meet a ragtag group of rebels that fights the massive Empire, but the movie mostly takes the twinkle out of Star Wars' eyes, opting instead for a battle-heavy extravaganza with stunt-and-grunt impact.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a young woman whose father was a scientist who tried to hide from the Empire but later was captured and forced to work on the Death Star. When the movie opens, Jyn and her father (Mads Mikkelsen) are living in isolation on a remote planet.

Troops from the Empire swoop in, kill Jyn's mom and take Dad prisoner. Jyn escapes, and grows into a young woman who's recruited by rebels.

Cinematographer Grieg Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher) seems to prefer dark imagery that often obscures the actors, which isn't altogether bad considering that Jones's performance feels a bit muted. She's the latest version of a female protagonist who can handle herself -- and others.

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) leads the rebel mission which is supposed to locate Jyn's father. Neither Cassian nor Jyn initially wants anything to do with the other; it's not providing anything by way of spoilers to say that their relationship evolves -- although it doesn't ignite much by way of sparks.

The other characters include Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind monk who knows how to use The Force. Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) serves as Chirrut's less well-kempt pal.

Other characters include the morally ambivalent Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), and K-2SO, a long-armed droid voiced by Alan Tudyk with 3-CPO intonations. K-2SO comes closest to giving the movie a big of comic spin. It tells you something about this massive enterprise that the character with the most humor is a droid.

The opening of the movie does a bit of confusing planet hopping, before explaining the role that's being played by an oxygen-snorting character portrayed by Forest Whitaker.

You'll also see brief appearances from Darth Vader, but the evil Empire mostly falls under the leadership of Krennic, who appears in a white cape and is played by the always menacing Ben Mendelsohn.

Alien creatures also appear, but this time, few are played for laughs.

I always get a bit lost in Star Wars jargon, so forgive me if I'm wrong in saying the planet Jedha is where much of the movie's explosive urban warfare takes place. A climactic battle is set on Scarif, a planet with beaches and palm trees that give the movie a war-in-the-Pacific flavor.

By the end, Edwards pretty much turns Rogue One into an action blur (on the ground and in space), an interminable battle in which, among other things, space ships and space stations ram into one another with brute force, but without much by way of the rousing thrills.

References to predecessor movies let us know that we are, indeed, in the Star Wars universe, and Rogue One definitely benefits from the association. I'm not sure how it would fare as separate hunk of sci-fi. Probably not so well.

Edwards evidently wanted a bit of war-movie verisimilitude to characterize this journey into the Star Wars universe. That doesn't mean there's no zap and pow to the battles, but it makes you wonder whether the filmmakers have had a memory lapse. Isn't Star Wars supposed to be a fantasy -- telling but still a fantasy?

Oh well, the Star Wars canon is vast, and more movies are planned. But for all its huffing and puffing, this one only intermittently feels like a full-blown helping of deep-space fun.

One thing you can bet on: Devotees don't much care what critics think and will spend lots of time hashing this one out among themselves. If you've grown past that point in your life, I wouldn't say Rogue One, though hardly a bad movie, offers sufficient reason not to get on with other business.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

'La La Land' tops Critics' Choice Awards

I told you the nominees; now let me share the winners of this year's Critics' Choice awards of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

The 22nd edition of the awards was held last night (Sunday) in Los Angeles. The BFCA, of which I'm a voting member, has made its statement, which already is being seen as early validation for La La Land as this year's top Oscar contender. La La Land led Sunday's field, taking eight Critics' Choice Awards.

So, here are this year's winners, shown in bold face and appearing at the top of the list of nominees in each category.

Best Picture
La La Land
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Manchester by the Sea

Best Actor
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Tom Hanks, Sully
Denzel Washington, Fences

Best Actress
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Amy Adams, Arrival
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Emma Stone, La La Land

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Best Director
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Denzel Washington, Fences

Best Original Screenplay (A tie)
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (WINNER – TIE)
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Yorgos Lanthimos/Efthimis Filippou, The Lobster
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water

Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
Luke Davies, Lion
Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals
Todd Komarnicki, Sully
Allison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures
August Wilson, Fences

Best Cinematography
Linus Sandgren, La La Land
Stéphane Fontaine, Jackie
James Laxton, Moonlight
Seamus McGarvey, Nocturnal Animals
Bradford Young, Arrival

Best Production Design
La La Land, David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Arrival, Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte/André Valade
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Stuart Craig/James Hambridge, Anna Pinnock
Jackie, Jean Rabasse, Véronique Melery
Live by Night, Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh

Best Editing
Tom Cross, La La Land
John Gilbert, Hacksaw Ridge
Blu Murray, Sully
Nat Sanders/Joi McMillon, Moonlight
Joe Walker, Arrival

Best Costume Design
Madeline Fontaine, Jackie
Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Consolata Boyle, Florence Foster Jenkins
Joanna Johnston, Allied
Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, Love & Friendship
Mary Zophres, La La Land

Best Hair & Make-up
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hacksaw Ridge
Star Trek Beyond

Best Visual Effects
The Jungle Book
A Monster Calls
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Foreign Language Film
The Handmaiden
The Salesman
Toni Erdmann

Best Animated Feature
Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Red Turtle

Best Song
City of Stars, La La Land
Audition (The Fools Who Dream), La La Land
Can’t Stop the Feeling, Trolls
Drive It Like You Stole It, Sing Street
How Far I’ll Go, Moana
The Rules Don’t Apply, Rules Don’t Apply

Best Score
Justin Hurwitz, La La Land
Nicholas Britell, Moonlight
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival
Micachu, Jackie
Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka, Lion

Best Acting Ensemble
20th Century Women
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
Manchester by the Sea

Best Action Movie
Hacksaw Ridge
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Jason Bourne

Best Actor in an Action Movie
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange
Matt Damon, Jason Bourne
Chris Evans, Captain America: Civil War
Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool

Best Actress in an Action Movie
Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad
Gal Gadot, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Scarlett Johansson, Captain America: Civil War
Tilda Swinton, Doctor Strange

Best Comedy
Central Intelligence
Don’t Think Twice
The Edge of Seventeen
Hail, Caesar!
The Nice Guys

Best Actor in a Comedy
Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Dwayne Johnson, Central Intelligence
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Best Actress in a Comedy
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship
Sally Field, Hello, My Name Is Doris
Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters
Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen

Best Sci-fi or Horror Movie
10 Cloverfield Lane
Doctor Strange
Don’t Breathe
Star Trek Beyond
The Witch

Best Young Actor or Actress
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Alex R. Hibbert, Moonlight
Lewis MacDougall, A Monster Calls
Madina Nalwanga, Queen of Katwe
Sunny Pawar, Lion
Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen

Friday, December 9, 2016

A ruthless lobbyist takes on guns

Miss Sloane has hold of a strong topic, but squanders credibility.

Senate hearings, sex, a ruthless lobbyist and a vicious political fight over gun control.

Those are some of the ingredients that could have turned Miss Sloane into a butt-kicking political drama if only the movie had been able to pass the credibility test.

Jessica Chastain portrays Liz Sloane, a fast-talking, fast-thinking lobbyist who boosts her energy with a steady stream of pill-popping breaks. Let's put it this way: Sloane doesn't visit bathrooms simply to take care of bodily needs.

The movie opens with the apparently discredited Sloane testifying before a committee led by a reproachful senator (John Lithgow) who makes little attempt to conceal his disdain for her. As she faces a volley of questions, Sloane repeatedly takes the Fifth -- until anger gets the best of her, and she tells the committee what she really thinks.

She's doomed -- or is she?

The drama, which tells its story in flashbacks from that committee hearing, centers on gun control legislation. Early on, we learn that Sloane works for a top-ranked lobbying firm where she's earned a reputation as a perpetual winner.

The head of the agency (Sam Waterston) expects Sloane to help the firm win the business of a gun advocacy group that wants her to create a program designed to sway women to its cause.

Because she believes in background checks, Sloane balks. Not only that, but she goes to work for the other side.

How busy is Liz? Sloane periodically hooks up with a male escort named Forde (Jake Lacy). We're supposed to believe that an attractive, ambitious woman is so eager to avoid compromising personal ties that she's willing to pay for sex. What? This amazingly talented lobbyist, a woman who can't be out-calculated, isn't skillful enough to play bedroom games?

Jonathan Perera's screenplay alternates fast-paced, civics-lesson dialogue with plot twists that strain credibility.

Somewhere in my notes, I wrote that watching Miss Sloane was a bit like watching bad Aaron Sorkin -- or at least second-rate Sorkin.

It's hardly surprising that even when she's fighting for a righteous cause, Sloane remains ruthless. She's still willing to play dirty, in one instance throwing a subordinate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) under the bus to boost her chances of winning.

As directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Miss Sloane suggests that something in Sloane's childhood may have helped turn her into the fastest rat in the rat race. We never learn what that might be.

Miss Sloane barrels along with a sense of faux urgency, right up until an ending that brings incredulity to a head-scratching crescendo.

Chastain is gifted enough to carry this kind of movie, but for a drama such as Miss Sloane to work, we must believe that it understands who really pulls the levers of national power.

Suffice it to say, in the political reality that dawned on Nov. 8, that may prove an uphill battle for even the most intrepid of screenwriters.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A professor loses her moorings

Isabelle Huppert portrays a philosophy professor whose life hits a bad patch.

She teaches philosophy, and has a stable marriage. Her two kids may not be following in her academic footsteps, but she loves them. Her former students think fondly of her. She's written books that have been well-received by her colleagues.

So what precisely does Nathalie Chazeaux have to complain about?

Ostensibly, nothing -- aside from the deep existential questions that occupy us all and may prove a bit more vexing for students of philosophy.

But in director Mia Hansen-Love's Things to Come, Nathalie undergoes a series of life-transforming events. Her stolid husband -- also a philosophy teacher -- announces he's "met someone." He's leaving her for another woman. Nathalie's publisher says that a seminal textbook she has written has gone stale. A former student (Roman Kolinka) should be following in her footsteps, but seems more interested in dropping out of academia to make cheese in the countryside. He's still reads philosophy; it's academia that has lost its allure.

You might think that Hansen-Love has served up a French version of the woman-on-the-verge-of-nervous-breakdown scenario. You'd be wrong -- partly because Hansen-Love wisely underplays her hand and partly because of Isabelle Huppert's intriguing performance as Nathalie.

Few actresses are as good as Huppert at keeping us off guard; she doesn't tip her hand about her character's thoughts. Don't be fooled, though, her character is thinking -- perhaps all the time.

Nathalie doesn't indulge in emotional outbursts, but that doesn't mean that she isn't capable of resolve. She's firm with her ex-husband (Andrew Marcon). She refuses to maintain any part of their marital facade. Why not go to the summer house they shared for many years? Why overdramatize, he asks? She's not about to pretend that nothing has happened.

Nathalie may not overdramatize, but she certainly internalizes. And she's clearly dealing with heavy weather, including the constant demands of an aging mother (Edith Scob), a woman whose beauty once made her the center of attention. Mom can't (or won't) adjust to the moment in life when she's fading from the scene.

Don't look for Huppert to go off the rails when the whiz-kids at her publishing house insist that her books be revised to include eye-catching graphics. But that doesn't mean you won't see Nathalie judging the abject superficiality of marketing minds that threaten to turn the book business into a joke.

Hansen-Love's approach may remind you of a filmmaker such as Eric Rohmer. I say that because Things To Come isn't a film about characters who are doing momentous things; it's a film about how these characters live -- with Huppert serving as our guide.

Nathalie's world may not be unbearably painful; but it's not satisfying, either. And that's a problem she'll carry into the future, the uncertainty of an acutely intelligent woman who'll probably stumble again as her life evolves.

A party you've attended before

Ever since the Hangover movies pushed the gross-out envelope to the breaking point, comedies have been trying to ascend ever higher rungs on the ladder of crudeness. So, it's hardly a surprise that Office Christmas Party -- a holiday formula job -- goes for gross-out gold. No stranger to lame comedies, Jason Bateman plays a computer exec who works at the Chicago branch of a computer company whose ruthless CEO (Jennifer Aniston) wants to impose massive layoffs. The CEO's brother (T.J. Miller) runs the company's Chicago branch as if it were an especially genial frat house. It falls to Miller's Clay and Bateman's Josh to find enough business to stave off a total shutdown. To accomplish their mission, they invite a potential major client (Courtney B. Vance) to the company Christmas party. Predictably, the party gets out of hand as directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory) try to jam a raft of supporting players (Rob Corddry, Kate McKinnon and more) into the preposterously overstated mayhem. Olivia Munn has a larger role as a computer whiz and love interest for Bateman's character. I won't bore you (or myself) with a recital of the tasteless gags you'll find in Office Christmas Party -- from prostitution to cocaine to a pimp (Jillian Bell) with a personality disorder. The movie's employees work for a company called Zenotek Data Storage Systems, which made me wonder whether someone (the Russians?) hadn't hacked most of the laughs out of this collection of comic missteps. Only McKinnon, as the flatulent head of human services, brought a smile to my face, which most of the time was either in full or partial grimace.

Horror that's expressive -- and weird

It doesn't take long to realize why the artfully eerie Eyes of My Mother caused a bit of a stir at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. In many ways, Eyes of My Mother qualifies as a festival programmer's dream, a artfully made black-and-white debut film that takes place in an isolated farmhouse, site of lots of homegrown weirdness. Divided into three parts, this 76-minute hunk of horror focuses on various stages in the life of Francisca (played as a young woman by Kika Magalhaes, a woman who lives with the macabre. It's probably best that you don't know a lot about the movie before you see it, but I will tell you that director Nicolas Pesce introduces twists that are not for the squeamish. I say this even though the worst of the movie's psychologically twisted violence takes place off camera. If I tell you that in the early going, Francisca's mother (Diana Agostini) removes an eye from the severed head of a cow that she's deposited on her kitchen table, you'll get the idea. It's part of one of Mom's home-style lesson on vision. Creepy to the max, The Eyes of My Mother includes murder and torture -- all presented in an atmosphere that has been designed to immerse us in Francisca's impossibly isolated existence. I guess I'd sum things up this way: Pesce has the skills to unsettle, but he's applied them in a way that may appeal only to a narrow slice of even the audience for horror.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Living with an unbearable past

An outstanding Casey Affleck stars in Manchester by the Sea, a sad story about guilt and loss.

We're lucky that Kenneth Longergan makes movies.

I say that not because Lonergan's films (You Can Count on Me, Margaret and now Manchester by the Sea) qualify as cinematic wonders. Lonergan's work as a writer/director won't stir you with its visual brilliance or sweep you away with its epic scale. But that's precisely why Lonergan's character-driven work must be valued: He's one of a handful of contemporary filmmakers who make movies about real people -- non-glamorous, everyday folks who are engaged in life-defining struggles.

On its surface, Manchester by the Sea (the title sounds like you might find it atop a resort brochure) is an entirely conventional movie. An emotionally wounded man returns to his hometown after the death of his older brother. Gradually, he establishes a relationship with his teen-age nephew.

In most movies, that relationship would provide the movie's protagonist with a road to redemption. Our hero would reaffirm his belief in life, and we'd leave the theater feeling better about him and maybe about ourselves.

But Lonergan isn't interested in supporting anyone's fantasies. He knows that life doesn't always produce happily-ever-afters and that some wounds remain too raw ever to scar over. Those wounds may also be connected to a kind of integrity that refuses (perhaps for good reasons) to relinquish a horrible pain.

In Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan introduces us to Lee (Casey Affleck), a brooding, angry man who works as a janitor at a Boston apartment complex. Early on, Lee receives a phone call telling him that his brother (Kyle Chandler in flashback) is dying. Lee returns to his hometown of Manchester, Mass., and discovers that his brother has died, and he has been appointed guardian of Patrick, his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges).

Returning to the place he once called home, Lee is flooded with memories, some involving his brother and some involving his former wife (Michelle Williams). Seen in flashbacks, these moments from past arrive in the movie with the suddenness of uninvited guests. We also learn that Patrick's alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) abandoned her family.

We know from the outset that unspeakable tragedy haunts Lee. I won't tell you what it is. You don't need to be aware of the movie's big reveal to understand that Lee's life is mired in hopelessness. Angry eruptions lead to fistfights in bars. Half the time, his gaze is downcast. He has imprisoned himself in an inescapable jail, where the bars are made of guilt and shame.

I don't want to say much more about the plot, but you should know that every performance in Manchester by the Sea feels authentic, as does the environment that Lonergan creates.

This environment and Lonergan's commitment to it allows him to add humor -- even in his depiction of the tormented Lee. The banter between Lee and his nephew can be funny in the way of two guys jockeying for position.

There's much to discover here: The relationship between Lee and his late brother; Patrick's relationship with girls; the marriages of men and women who can't always conquer their demons; the inability of Patrick to connect with his apparently reformed mother.

Much has been written about the scene in which Lee meets his former wife in the streets. Yes, it's a tearjerker. Yes, it leaves you shaken. Yes, it hurts.

But there's another scene in which Lee tells Patrick about his inability to put the past behind him that's equally heartbreaking.

In its overall effect, Manchester by the Sea is a sad movie, but its sadness stems from careful depiction of the movie's characters and their experiences. Lonergan trusts us enough not to betray either, which is precisely why his film proves so memorable.

A powerful look at a shooting on campus

The documentary, Tower, takes us back to the day in 1966 when a lone gunman shot up the University of Texas.

In many American movies, the sound of gunfire has been exaggerated to the point of meaninglessness. Sitting through one violent set piece after another has numbed us to real-life impact of bullets.

This is not the case with the powerful new documentary Tower, which deals with the events of Aug. 1, 1966, a day on which former Marine Charles Whitman ascended the tower that overlooks a spacious concrete mall at the University of Texas. From his perch, Whitman began picking off students.

Before an Austin police officer killed Whitman, he had shot 49 people, killing 16 of them.

Director Keith Maitland's approach to the events of that August day involves rotoscope animation, archival footage and interviews with some of the people who lived through Whitman's attack. The resultant movie stands as one of the year's most powerful efforts.

Perhaps that sounds unlikely. How could a partially animated film, even one in which Whitman's victims discuss what happened to them, be so effective?

There are two reasons, I believe: The testimony of survivors (read by actors) and the sound of rifle shots echoing across the mall. Personal accounts of what happened that day are revealing and moving. Hearing shots echo across the mall enables us to feel the terror associated with every bullet -- not to mention the pain and shock of those who witnessed Whitman's slaughter.

And for once, the focus isn't on the shooter: Whitman receives virtually no attention. This approach makes sense because, at the time, the victims had no idea who was shooting at them. All they knew was that the unthinkable suddenly had become real.

We meet news reporters, police officers, and students -- all of whom were living through a scorching but uneventful day until Whitman opened fire.

The story of Claire Wilson stands out. The 18-year-old Wilson was shot while walking across the mall with her boyfriend. She was five months pregnant. Her boyfriend was killed, but Wilson survived while lying on the concrete on a 100-degree day. Her baby died in her womb.

It took an hour and a half before anyone ventured to help her -- and that leads us to an important realization: When terror strikes, people respond with a mixture of heroism and hesitation.

Tower offers no judgement about any of this: We understand that anyone who might have ventured out onto that mall to help Wilson instantly would become a target for Whitman.

Still, one young woman approached Wilson and played dead on the concrete. She bolstered Wilson's spirits. Eventually, a young man risked his life to help with the rescue.

The film also reminds us that events that we tend to view as discreet never really end -- certainly not for those who were involved. The emotional wounds of that horrific day in Texas run deep.

Credit Maitland with achieving something that few films ever accomplish: He makes us feel violence, not just observe it. He also makes us aware of the lingering agonies of those who remain to talk about it.

The events that are depicted in the movie took place half a century ago, yet Maitland keeps them as vivid as if they were happening now. That makes Tower not only impactful, but essential.

Nominations for Critics' Choice awards

Sick of voting and nominations? Me, too. But if you're a movie lover, you're probably bracing for more. We'll see a raft of year-end critics' awards, the Golden Globes and ultimately, Oscar. The Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations were announced Thursday. The winners will be announced at the Critics' Choice gala, which will be broadcast on A&E at 8 p.m. (ET) on Dec. 11.

Arrival and Moonlight led the BFCA field with 10 nominations each, followed by Manchester by the Sea, which earned eight nominations.

I'm a voting member of the BFCA. Each year, I offer the complete list of Association nominations as a way for you (and me) to begin gearing up for a year-end review.

You'll note that there's no category for best documentary. The BFCA already presented its award for best documentary to Ava DuVernay's 13th, a probing examination of race and America's prison system.

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Joel Edgerton – Loving
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Tom Hanks – Sully
Denzel Washington – Fences

Amy Adams – Arrival
Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land

Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel – Lion
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

Viola Davis – Fences
Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Janelle Monáe – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Alex R. Hibbert – Moonlight
Lewis MacDougall – A Monster Calls
Madina Nalwanga – Queen of Katwe
Sunny Pawar - Lion
Hailee Steinfeld – The Edge of Seventeen

20th Century Women
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
Manchester by the Sea

Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
David Mackenzie – Hell or High Water
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
Denzel Washington – Fences

Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Barry Jenkins - Moonlight
Yorgos Lanthimos/Efthimis Filippou – The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Jeff Nichols – Loving
Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water

Luke Davies – Lion
Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals
Eric Heisserer – Arrival
Todd Komarnicki – Sully
Allison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures
August Wilson – Fences

Stéphane Fontaine – Jackie
James Laxton – Moonlight
Seamus McGarvey – Nocturnal Animals
Linus Sandgren – La La Land
Bradford Young – Arrival

Arrival – Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte/André Valade
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Stuart Craig/James Hambidge, Anna Pinnock
Jackie – Jean Rabasse, Véronique Melery
La La Land – David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Live by Night – Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh

Tom Cross – La La Land
John Gilbert – Hacksaw Ridge
Blu Murray – Sully
Nat Sanders/Joi McMillon - Moonlight
Joe Walker – Arrival

Colleen Atwood – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Consolata Boyle – Florence Foster Jenkins
Madeline Fontaine – Jackie
Joanna Johnston – Allied
Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh – Love & Friendship
Mary Zophres – La La Land

Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hacksaw Ridge
Star Trek Beyond

A Monster Calls
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Jungle Book

Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Red Turtle

Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Hacksaw Ridge
Jason Bourne

Benedict Cumberbatch – Doctor Strange
Matt Damon – Jason Bourne
Chris Evans – Captain America: Civil War
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool

Gal Gadot – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Scarlett Johansson – Captain America: Civil War
Margot Robbie – Suicide Squad
Tilda Swinton – Doctor Strange

Central Intelligence
Don’t Think Twice
The Edge of Seventeen
Hail, Caesar!
The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys
Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins
Dwayne Johnson – Central Intelligence
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool

Kate Beckinsale – Love & Friendship
Sally Field – Hello, My Name Is Doris
Kate McKinnon – Ghostbusters
Hailee Steinfeld – The Edge of Seventeen
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

10 Cloverfield Lane
Doctor Strange
Don’t Breathe
Star Trek Beyond
The Witch

The Handmaiden
The Salesman
Toni Erdmann

Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land
Can’t Stop the Feeling – Trolls
City of Stars – La La Land
Drive It Like You Stole It – Sing Street
How Far I’ll Go - Moana
The Rules Don’t Apply – Rules Don’t Apply

Nicholas Britell – Moonlight
Jóhann Jóhannsson – Arrival
Justin Hurwitz – La La Land
Micachu – Jackie
Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka – Lion