A Day Late and [Several] Dollar[s] Short IV: Back to the Future

As is my wont from time to time, I [briefly] review movies. Not movies that are new, which the watching public may be eagerly awaiting information about, but usually movies that were new recently—and which I’ve finally gotten around to watching (most often on DVD, thanks to the local library).

For this go-’round, though, we’re hopping in the Wayback Machine to revisit a few movies that are not new at all, and others that, though new, focus on the past for their subject. The only thread holding these together is that I’ve watched them within the past few months. Those marked with an asterisk were re-watches. So, without further ado:

 

Gandhi-poster

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Ghandi
Often, movies that are universally acclaimed in a given awards season (or dare we say, deliberately crafted as “Oscar-bait”), do not age well. The 55th Academy awards (honoring films made in 1982) were all aglow with Richard Attenborough’s 3-hour, giant-budget, biopic of Mohandas K. Ghandi. It swept the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography), winning 8 awards in all. I decided to dig this one up and watch it based on reading a few books about India (specifically the independence movement) this year.

It’s a long movie, to be sure, and hagiographic, and a trifle preachy, but it does still hit all the right notes. Ben Kingsley as Ghandi deserved every bit of his Oscar (even beating out Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie). The pacing is remarkably quick and lightfooted for such a ponderous subject, and feels attuned to the humor and wit with which the Mahatma went about his calling. Mostly it works in that it doesn’t feel dated. Much of what Ghandi (or Kingsley’s version, at least) spoke about and fought for has surprising relevance today. As long as there are powerful people who ignore the poor and downtrodden, this movie will have a shelf life.

Shorter Ghandi: Ben Kingsley 4 Prez.

 

Capote_Poster

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Capote*
A dark and stormy movie if there was one. This 2005 biopic centers on a few-year period of author Truman Capote’s life during his fascination with and investigation of the 1959 Clutter killings in rural Kansas and subsequent publishing of his “nonfiction novel”, In Cold Blood, in 1966.

Far from a procedural drama about the writing of a book, the film maintains an intense focus on Truman’s conflicted motives about forging an increasingly close relationship with one of the murderers, while juxtaposing the quiet grief of Holcomb, Kansas with the glib self-promotion of the Manhattan literati. Art and life intertwine and dissociating them becomes nearly impossible. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pitch perfect (and was rewarded with a well-deserved acting Oscar), but none of the rest of the cast Catherine Keener (as Harper Lee), Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, and others, are phoning it in either.

Shorter Capote: There’s a dark side to life that only gets darker if you ignore it. Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman, we hardly knew thee.

 

Chappaquiddick_(film)

Courtesy Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Chappaquiddick
On the theme of biopics focused on a slice of a life as representative of the whole, it is hard to think of anyone more defined by the events of a few moments as Ted Kennedy—the only remaining son of a legendary family who had watched his older brothers die, young and violently, one by one, and followed in their footsteps in public life as much from compulsion as calling. He was expected to run for president, to complete the family legacy, when a car accident and a fear-driven response to shade the truth ultimately ended a dynasty.

In spite of a bit of slow pacing in spots, this film works well with a very capable ensemble cast, and focus on characters decisions as much as their actions. Remarkably, Kennedy here is revealed simultaneously as a cowardly lowlife and an oddly sympathetic character (in the face of his father’s roiling disappointment). For this achievement alone, this is worth a watch.

Shorter Chappaquiddick: Moments matter, and truth is often subject to power.

 

Thetreeoflifeposter

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Tree of Life
There are directors, there are auteurs, and then there is Terence Malick. His ambition is undeniable, but, for most audiences, a bridge too far for enjoyable cinema. His movies are so layered, so detailed, so allusive, that their meaning is elusive without lots of re-watching. Every frame is like a painting, every music choice (with a heavy emphasis on classics) carries a part of the story.

Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life is generally considered his magnum opus, and also one of his more financially successful ventures (#2 behind The Thin Red Line in terms of box office). Like a great novel by a Tolstoy or a Hugo, this film contains multitudes, taking a story that ostensibly takes place within a single family in a single neighborhood and expanding it to the universe itself. The family drama alone is luminous, unpacking so much mystery and beauty.

Shorter The Tree of Life: There is glory in the everyday, and a person doesn’t have to be spectacularly (or predictably?) broken to create tremendous trauma in others.

 

Cry_the_beloved_country_ver2

Courtesy Miramax Films

Cry, the Beloved Country*
I’m not generally fond of adaptations of literature into film. Novels and movies are just different media and each suited to different types of storytelling that don’t often overlap.  Sometimes they’re not half bad, and can get enough of a story across to spark viewers to go find the book, but even a good adaptation can take the timeless themes of a good novel and anchor them in a specific time due to the filmmaking styles that (consciously or unconsciously) mirror the zeitgeist.

This is the case with 1995’s Cry, the Beloved Country, based on Alan Paton’s 1946 novel of the same name about sorrow and injustice in a South Africa then on the verge of apartheid. The film earns a certain pathos simply from being one of the first major movies made in the country under the “new management” of Nelson Mandela. A strong cast of both Western (James Earl Jones, Richard Harris) and African (Tsholofelo Wechoemang) actors turn in powerful performances, and the story generally hues to the book’s narrative, though its contours are less nuanced and the production decisions (pacing, music, shot-shaping) do feel very 90s at this remove.

Shorter Cry, the Beloved Country: Faithful adaptation, but the book has aged better.

 

The_Social_Network_film_poster

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The Social Network
Hype is a dangerous thing for a filmmaker. It can build up movies that aren’t worth the attention, and suck attention away from good ones. In 2010, all they hype as awards-season approached was around David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, about the building of Facebook by then Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. The hue and cry when this new-school drama lost best picture to a very old school film (The King’s Speech) was a sight to behold.

Well, The King’s Speech is still endearing (if saccharine), but this movie seems a mess to me. Perhaps it is because none of the main characters are likable (not necessarily a problem) or remotely relatable (trust-fund kids suing other trust fund kids for IP and breach of contract isn’t exactly broad American culture). Perhaps it is because, in the intervening years, Facebook has managed to practically destroy civil discourse and undermine trust in society (well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but). Either way, it falls flat as a story for me.

Shorter The Social Network: Why did people rave about this movie?

 

Won't_You_Be_My_Neighbor_

Courtesy Focus Features

Won’t You Be My Neighbor
When I was a kid, television consisted of two pillars—Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street. One of these is still running and has spawned a multi-million dollar product licensing and merchandising empire that is, at best, a distraction from the ideals of childhood learning the show set out to deliver. The other feels today like it’s from another planet, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood notwithstanding.

The Fred Rogers that Morgan Neville displays in Won’t You Be My Neighbor is no quaint throwback, though, but a clear-eyed warrior for a better world—in particular, one in which children, no matter how young, are taken seriously as persons and given the courtesy of wrestling with hard realities and big ideas rather than being sentenced to second-class status and kept at bay with endless cartoons and video games. There is real educational and parenting meat here, but perhaps the biggest takeaway is that Fred Rogers really was Mr. Rogers. His on screen and off screen life weren’t so different as is too common in television, and his widow, children, and staff appear in the documentary to attest to this.

Shorter Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Mr. Rogers might have been an honest-to-goodness angel, or at least a humble saint.

 

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Solo: A Star Wars Story
At this point, it’s remarkable that any Star Wars fans remain. We’ve been bludgeoned by George Lucas with three ridiculous and unnecessary prequels and watched as Disney has cranked out new movies with lightning speed. We used to have to wait three years to be cruelly disappointed; now it happens annually. The most die-hard devotees can be forgiven for fatigue (though 2016’s Rogue One was worthwhile).

Even at all that, I had high hopes for Solo, based on three solid theses: 1) Ron Howard had ridden in on a white horse to rescue the troubled production, 2) Alden Ehrenreich (of Hail, Caesar! fame), Donald Glover, and Woody Harrelson, and 3) the fact that Han Solo was always the only truly human character in the original trilogy. Those hopes were, I’m sad to say, dashed by a glommed-together story that spends ridiculous amounts of time on forgettable side characters and “Mos Eisley Cantina” vibes (world-building based on gross-out CGI and costuming, vaguely sexualized aliens, and loud music) producers of recent Star Wars installments seem to think constitute the only fan draws. I’d watch another heist flick with Ehrenreich, Glover, and Harrelson any day, but they are drowned out by the clutter, never given a chance to shine.

Shorter Solo: Dear Disney, please stop destroying Star Wars by majoring on minors.

 

Templegrandin

Courtesy HBO

Temple Grandin*
Films about disability typically come loaded with moral high-horses and themes of empowerment designed to deify the victims of disability and leave viewers feeling abashed for their unnamed prejudices. To be fair, the way that persons with disabilities are often treated in our communities justifies no small measure of this treatment in popular culture as a counterweight. Where both the daily reality and the film world fail is in treating the disabled as fully-formed human beings worthy of our attention because of their inherent dignity.

Mick Jackson manages to craft an intensely human portrait of neurological disability through the life of livestock scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin. Relying on faithful storytelling, and a stellar cast (Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn), and some fun cinematic flourishes of his own design, Jackson paints a picture for the neuro-typical among us that makes autism, SPD, and the like seem less like curses and more like superpowers, if properly understood and channelled. Every time I re-watch this one, I find I learn something new about my own attitudes, habits, parenting, etc.

Shorter Temple Grandin: HBO (and television more generally) is doing the heavy lifting in the entertainment industry these days, pulling off what major studios won’t touch.

***UPDATE***

Mary_Poppins_Returns_(2018_film_poster)

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns
We took the kids to see this one on Christmas, with hopeful nostalgia welling up in equal measure to contemporary “children’s” film dread. I’ll let you guess which won by what follows.

Measuring up to one of my all-time favorite movies (and, I think, the greatest film ever produced by Walt Disney studios) was not going to be easy, but director Rob Marshall and co. didn’t really seem to give it much of a try—the cast is decent (The biggest shoes to fill here are, obviously, Julie Andrews’, but Emily Blunt’s Poppins is the film’s strongest link), the production values are OK, even the bones of the story aren’t awful (to be fair, some of the elements shoehorned into this story that work least well came directly from P. L. Travers’ books). What’s missing here is the soul. This sequel almost deliberately works to undo all the most important elements of the 1964 film. Moral lessons are swapped for look-inside-yourself drivel; honest reckoning with the difficulties of life takes a back seat to a contrived problem and pointless villain; taking children seriously as persons devolves to another recycled children-as-savior message.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda given so little space to be, well, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’d have rather seen the whole project handed over to him—a hip-hop Poppins’ set in East Ham with Idris Elba as Bert would’ve at least had some natural heart….

Shorter Mary Poppins Returns: Impractical and imperfect in so many ways. What postmodern dreck.

 

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short III: Newborn Edition

As is our custom, my wife and I go in fits and starts when it comes to movies. Life gets busy with multiple kids, and free time to give to feature-length movies at the end of tiring days gets slim. In other seasons, time gets more flexible, but energy wanes—such as Rachel’s recent pregnancy and our present late nights (and early mornings) with our newborn fourth daughter—and grabbing a DVD from the library or taking a month-long spin with Netflix starts to seem like the most one can accomplish of an evening.

As is my custom, here, in no particular order, are brief reviews of some of the films we’ve watched in recent months. Most are from the batch of 2017 releases that made it into the annual crush of awards nominations. A few are from years past, and one is from 2018.

Phantom Thread

Phantom_Thread
Courtesy Focus Features

Daniel Day-Lewis’s last collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson, the tooth-grittingly intense There Will Be Blood, is among the most impressive displays of acting in modern film. The plot of that film is almost irrelevant, absorbed into the supermassive roles filled by Day-Lewis and Paul Dano. With that in the rear-view mirror (albeit 10 years ago), I had high hopes for this one.

The story Anderson crafts here is similarly sparse, but whereas Blood fills the world entire with its characters, Thread shrinks the world until the small, self-absorbed characters can stride their petty domain (set in the fawning high fashion scene of postwar London) with seeming omnipotence. The key plot twist opens a way out of that world through a cruel, nearly murderous caprice that becomes a strange ritual for the central characters.

Shorter Phantom Thread: Beautiful to look at, and of interest for those trying  figure out how to love a prima donna, but overall somewhat forgettable.

Black Panther

Black_Panther_film_poster
Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

I don’t do superhero movies (except Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), but Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther became such a phenomenon that I gave in. The hype was not a mistake, and I couldn’t contain my enjoyment. I saw it twice, but several friends saw it 3, 4, or 5 times.

The story is intriguing. The characters, their histories, and their motivations are well-rounded and believable keeping a pace that lingers over the tender and the poignant while barreling forward with the energy we expect from action flicks. The social justice messaging is all the more powerful for being central to the plot. Hollywood learned quite a lesson about the power of offering a dignifying, culturally mainstream vision of themselves to marginalized groups (as of this writing, it is the 9th highest grossing film of all time).

Shorter Black Panther: Easily the most thoughtful, creative blockbuster in decades.

Darkest Hour

Darkest_Hour_poster
Courtesy Focus Features

World War II movies are a staple of cinema in a way that other wars never have completely attained. A combination of the timing (arriving in the midst of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”), the fact that so many top-tier actors and directors served in the military, and, and the emergence of so many larger-than-life characters on the world stage through battle heroics and political machination. Even now, as veterans of that struggle are rapidly fading from the scene, the collective imagination sees that fight as a fountainhead of stories of virtue and valor.

Winston Churchill, more than any other figure, is the avatar of the free world’s resistance to tyranny during the war. When an acclaimed director and beloved actor (Gary Oldman) team up to paint a new picture of Churchill, there will by hype, and Oldman, at least lives up to it—growling and cigar-chomping his way to an Oscar. Still, the film as a whole succumbs to poor pacing, self-importance, and some foolish historical gaffes that undercut its strengths.

Shorter Darkest Hour: This year’s version of the “one-man-show-does-not-a-story-make” vehicle.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Roman_J._Israel,_Esq.
Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Denzel Washington has enjoyed tremendous acting success over the years, and, with 2016’s Fences seems to have come into his own as a director as well. In other words, at this point in his career, he can do whatever he wants.

In some ways Roman J. Israel, Esq. feels a bit like a vanity project, with Washington cast as a long-suffering defense attorney who dreams of overturning  unjust sentencing practices in a civil rights suit. Rather than succumbing to preaching, though, the movie takes a sharp turn when Israel loses hope and gives into a grave temptation (essentially trading the moral high ground for cold, hard cash). This move almost redeems it from the failures of uneven pacing and a weak supporting cast.

Shorter Roman J. Israel, Esq.: A scruffy, can-do civil rights story that falls a bit short of its aspirations.

Coco

Coco_(2017_film)_poster

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

It’s been a while since I’ve seen, let alone appreciated, a Pixar movie (Inside Out was good, the last great one was Toy Story 3). That said, I was prepared to be disappointed by Coco. Far from being the simplistic, culturally-appropriative fare that has made Walt Disney, Co., a multibillion dollar gorilla, this one represents a return to Pixar’s pre-acquisition form.

If ever so slightly derivative (astute viewers will notice parallels [a nicer way to put it would be “allusions”] to Finding NemoMonsters, Inc., and even a bit of Back to the Future), the heart of this story is a powerful rebuke to the standard sage-kid-dumb-parents trope of so many children’s movies.

Shorter Coco: Even when they get a little lazy with the story, Pixar still brings the emotional heft.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk_Film_poster

Courtesy Warner Bros.

As mentioned above, I brake for Christopher Nolan films. The guy’s got a great eye, bringing old-school Hollywood camera magic to an age drunk with CGI and other whizbangery. When I heard he was working on a piece about one of the least appreciated events of WWII (though, it should be noted, that the aforementioned Darkest Hour covers a similar time period from the political, rather than the military side), I was ready to go. Somehow, though, I missed the theater run and had to add it to the video hopper.

No matter. It was still excellent (if less overwhelming on the small screen). Nolan uses silence, stoicism, and suspense to draw raw emotion from viewers, managing to convey the German attackers as more phantoms than men. The closing sequence alone is worth the whole movie.

 

Shorter Dunkirk: The most beautiful war film ever shot.

The Post

 

The_Post_(film)

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The Washington Post as a publishing entity is a fine paper, and its reputation for in-depth investigative journalism in the nation’s capital is well-earned. It’s even been amply celebrated in film—1976’s All the President’s Men immortalized Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s exposé of the Watergate scandal. The Post, covering the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers and the legal/financial drama to which that exposed publisher Katharine Graham, promised a strong “Woodstein” vibe, a reminder of what American Journalism can do for the age of “Fake News.”

What we got instead was only OK. Hanks is Hanks, Streep is Streep, and Spielberg keeps trucking in his self-appointed “historian-in-chief” role, but the movie’s awareness of its importance cut its sense of narrative and pacing, making it fall rather flat. Not bad, but it should’ve been better.

 

Shorter The Post: Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep are phoning it in, but we all keep watching anyway. Also, Absence of Malice continues to be my favorite newspaper movie.

All the Money in the World

All_the_Money_in_the_World

Courtesy TriStar Pictures

In 1973, the grandson of oil magnate J. Paul Getty (at the time, the richest man in the world) was kidnapped in Italy and held for a colossal ransom. The trouble was that Getty had been somewhat distanced from that side of the family since his son & daughter-in-law divorced, and he refused to pay, much to the confusion and consternation of the small-time mafiosi responsible.

This high drama lends itself to a nail-biting thriller in the capable hands of Ridley Scott. The movie was subject to its own drama during production, when disgraced star Kevin Spacey was replaced at the last minute with the legendary Christopher Plummer (Plummer shot all his replacement scenes in just 9 days, and the film still released on its scheduled date). I expected this to be entertaining and exciting, I was surprised to find it also to be a profound meditation on the dangers of money.

Shorter All the Money in the World: Generational wealth is a curse; Christopher Plummer is amazing.

The Martian

October_2_24_92_99_18.eps

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

While on a Ridley Scott high after All the Money in the World, I finally picked up 2015’s The Martian (which, with Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar, could almost have started an entire “rescuing Matt Damon from other planets” genre). Set in the near future, this story attempts to take interplanetary travel from the realm of Science Fiction and bring it down to daring plausibility. It’s well acted, well paced, and quite enjoyable overall.

And yet…the past three years have not been kind to this movie. It feels already like a relic from another epoch, filled with the scientific hubris and international-relations optimism of the Obama presidency. In the world of Brexit, Trump, Xi, and the rise of national/populist strongmen across Europe and Asia, the “science” of The Martian feels much more like fiction. The glory days of NASA are long gone, and there’s no sign of their return anytime soon.

Shorter The Martian: Way, way, to high on “Science”, but still well done.

Cinema Paradiso

CinemaParadiso
Courtesy Miramax Films

I can’t remember the last time I cried watching a movie (not counting Les Misérables—since I cried at the theater when I saw it on stage first). 1989’s Italian masterpiece Cinema Paradiso will do it to you, though. It’s got family drama, friendship, tragedy, Ennio Morricone music, and a full-blown heartstring-tugging, memory-lane finale. Bonus: this is on Netflix currently.

Watching this one, though, what struck me most is how unlikely it is that an American director would come up with a story like this. It’s so small, bounded by its Sicilian village setting, and yet it swells to fill the world entire. Fittingly for a movie about movies, it reminds us that they can and should be an artist’s tools for beauty and contemplation, not simply vehicles for commercial escapism or social messaging.

Shorter Cinema Paradiso: Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?

Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short II: Awards Edition

It’s become a tradition around our house to wait until long after awards season to actually watch any of the films up for Golden Globes or Academy Awards. By “tradition”, of course, I mean that a busy life with three kids and our general cheapskatiness dictates that we seldom go to the movies and are willing to politely wait until the library will share a DVD with us.

A parallel tradition (if, by “tradition”, I’m allowed to mean “I did it once”) is to briefly review these films once the haze of homemade popcorn (coconut oil will set you free) has settled. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and there’s more movies we haven’t yet managed to wheedle from the library stacks. With that in mind (and in no particular order) here goes nothing.

Hell or High Water

Hell_or_High_Water_film_poster

Courtesy Lionsgate Films

I’m a sucker for the bleak neo-Western (and the Western genre more generally). The grassy expanse of West Texas is a classic clean slate on which to draw the bright lines of a morality play. Even given the contemporary milieu of the story, the elements are all here: bank robbery, the conflicted anti-hero, the grizzled veteran lawman and his idealistic younger partner, the cold-eyed outlaw who can’t be trusted or reasoned with. Add to that a frustrating family drama and the backdrop of a crooked financial system and the mortgage crisis, and you should have a fine piece of work.

Like so many other Hollywood products, however, this movie falls prey to the temptation to be more “authentic” with excessive language and glorying a bit much in the violence and gore necessary to the narrative. At times, it felt like the director padded out the screenplay with these flourishes to fit the feature-length running time. Jeff Bridges earns his Oscar nod, but he doesn’t get enough screen time for us to know his character well. The last 15 minutes (essentially a lecture from Bridges’ character) almost make up for all this, but it seems overall a less than fully realized vision.

Shorter Hell or High Water: Lukewarm. Should’ve either been a tightly directed short or a longer, more complex study.

Fences

Fences_(film)

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play (for which he wrote a screenplay before his death in 2005) seems to have been tailor-made for Denzel Washington, but for Denzel in his 60s. He had to age into the role of Troy Maxson (who he portrayed in a 2010 broadway revival of the play), and he filled the director’s chair for this effort with just as much strength and nuance. Viola Davis’ embodiment of Troy’s wife, Rose, was rightly praised and certified by acting awards.

This emotionally charged story took so long to come to the screen because Wilson insisted that an African American direct it, and Washington’s touch was well worth the wait. Though emphatically a black story (with strong civil rights notes), the themes of family, sin, aspiration, frustration, love, and community lay claim to the universal human condition like all great literary works.

Shorter Fences: The true and better Death of a Salesman—more resonant with more of American life.

La La Land

La_La_Land_(film)

Courtesy Summit Entertainment

It had been conventional wisdom in Hollywood for quite some time that musical film as a genre was dead. And, aside, from the persistent presence of songs on screen in most animated flicks, the idea of people in a dramatic frame esoterically bursting into song was relegated back to Broadway. The success of 2012’s adaptation of Les Misérables and 2014’s Into the Woods (and the fact that a Broadway play—Hamilton—became 2015’s pop-culture sensation), it was perhaps inevitable that someone would come up with a good, original movie musical.

Damien Chazelle’s creative effort is lively, enjoyable, and (most importantly) the music sticks in your head. Though contemporary in setting, the pacing, framing, and set design feels like a more old-fashioned film. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone both do some good work, but overall, I found it did not quite live up to the hype. It falls flat, not because of the music or acting, but because the story falls prey to Hollywood’s love affair with itself. Still, it gets my recommendation because I want to see more in this vein getting produced.

Shorter La La Land: Good music, great ending, but impossible to take too seriously after Hail, Caesar!. Also, Loudon Wainwright III’s song, “Grey in LA“, provides a nice counterpoint.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence_Foster_Jenkins_(film)

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Now for the obligatory Meryl Streep vehicle of this year’s lot. This film is funny, and though tender and sad, mercifully does not take itself too seriously. Without spoiling too much of the plot, it involves the musical prowess of someone who cannot sing her way out of a paper sack, and some very sad marital issues.

Overall, it is a fun and finely produced piece, and the cast look like they had fun playing in it. Meryl Streep is always good. Hugh Grant plays, well, Hugh Grant (playboy-with-accent-and-charm), and Simon Helberg (of Big Bang Theory fame) has a wonderful turn as an aspiring classical pianist co-opted into Florence’s orbit. Not a great film, but a decent one.

Shorter Florence Foster Jenkins: Almost worth it just for Helberg’s facial expressions…

Silence

Silence_(2016_film)

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Portraying any form of Christianity on screen and avoiding ridicule or kitsch requires a directorial pirouette. Through his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, Martin Scorsese has pulled it off. Beyond that, he has crafted a beautiful, richly moving film, pitch perfect on nearly every front—acting, cinematography, pacing, etc. That it is loosely based on real people and real events in 17th century Japan gives it even more force.

The entire film is a gut punch, reminiscent of The Power and the Glory (and Endō’s work is often compared to Graham Greene’s), but without the antiheroic angst of the Whiskey Priest. The clerics of Silence are earnest and faithful, and the suffering they endure (and, perhaps, cause) is sustained and painful. Like the source material, it raises many questions that Christians living under persecution have faced since the first century. What is apostasy? Can the church be the church in secret? The highly visible nature of Catholicism accentuates these tensions, but there are lessons here for believers of all stripes. An incredible work of art.

Shorter Silence: Wow. Just Wow.

A Man Called Ove

A_Man_Called_Ove

Courtesy Nordisk Film

Foreign language films can be a bit daunting, but the effort to follow along is just as often rewarding. I read Fredrik Backman’s superb novel earlier this year, and was prepared (as most readers always are) to be let down by the film version.

Hannes Holm’s deft rendering was a pleasant surprise, keeping the tenor of the story just right, and managing to tell it in such a way that even those who haven’t read the book should be able to appreciate it. Rolf Lassgård as Ove and Bahar Pars as Parvaneh shine. Just like the novel, I found myself laughing and crying almost simultaneously. This is a story for our time. There is more to life than simply individuals and an administrative state, and the people we do not want to “bother” us (neighbors, co-workers, and those in need) are precisely the ones put in our path to save us from despair. Well done!

Shorter A Man Called Ove: Grumpy old men may not always be what they seem.

***UPDATE***

Arrival

Arrival,_Movie_Poster

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Science Fiction is, for most, an acquired taste. Were there more films made like Arrival, combining artistry and compelling stories with the mind-bending concepts of the genre, more moviegoers would likely acquire the taste. So much of recent sci-fi tends toward the grotesque, relying more on horror-film tropes than intelligent writing, or the outlandishly comedic. The transcendent themes of a movie like Arrival (based on “Story of Your Life”, a short story by Ted Chiang), remind us what a treasure the best of sci-fi can be.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner deliver top-shelf performances as a linguist and physicist tasked by the U.S. government with deciphering the purpose of alien visitors to earth who have come to in peace (or have they?). Along the ride we are treated to a plethora of questions about language, cognition, time, and human agency. This is well worth any serious movie-lover’s time.

Shorter Arrival: People will be talking about this film for a long time.