movie reviews January 2017

 

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Loving
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

What anyone remembers from U.S. history class of the civil rights case Loving v. Virginia is the aptness of the couple’s name. What’s been forgotten — or more likely never even mentioned — is that this case, which invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, took nine years to resolve and during most of that time Richard and Mildred Loving were forced to live outside the borders of their home state of Virginia, raising their children away from their extended families.

It’s this very real hardship that writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) focuses on in his latest release. At first glance, the subject seems unusual for Nichols, who has carved out a niche in independent film by crafting anxiety-inducing allegories in which threat comes from more ambiguous sources. For Nichols, who adapted the screenplay from an HBO documentary by Nancy Buirski, this is clearly first and foremost a love story, but ultimately it’s one that can’t be told without including the menacing forces that exerted their pressure on the marriage.

Of course it would be impossible for Nichols to tell this story without the benefit of a contemporary perspective. Yet, his narrative avoids the patronizing trap of looking back. In fact, Nichols’ approach to the screenplay is to stay true to the natural forward momentum of a couple first falling in love and then raising their family. In the absence of any righteous speeches that the audience would have no choice but to agree with and even one-dimensional villains (except for Martin Csokas as a particularly hateful sheriff), the story’s authenticity is affecting and heartfelt.

As a result, Nichols has given actors Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga a rare gift for their portrayals of Richard and Mildred Loving — they’re allowed to inhabit their characters and perform to the gold standard of storytelling; they show instead of tell. Both are up to the challenge, but Edgerton in particular is suited to the quiet performance. In one of the tensest scenes in the movie in which a friend proposes that Richard could just simply walk away, the creases in the Aussie’s expansive forehead reveal more about Richard Loving’s thoughts than any words he’d ever dare say.

Even when the unjust situation in which the Lovings are obliged to endure comes to the attention of ACLU lawyer (Nick Kroll), the film avoids devolving into a mere courtroom drama. Nichols deftly hints at less-than-heroic motives for the lawyer while still allowing the audience to root for the victory of a marriage that needs no fanfare or spectacle. Like Michael Shannon’s portrayal of the LIFE photographer skilled in catching his subjects in their natural positions, Nichols exposes them for who they are: genuine, certain, loving.  (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/25/17)


Split
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Around the turn of the century, on the strength of early films The Sixth Senseand Signs, young director M. Night Shyamalan was hailed by many as a cinematic wunderkind, his name quickly becoming synonymous with the supernatural, the mysterious (for some, the transcendent), and with the "twist" ending. By 2013, however, after big-budget flops such as The Last Airbender, his name had become more of a warning of dull, overblown, effects-laden wannabe blockbusters.

Made with low-budget horror production company Blumhouse, Split represents for Shyamalan, more than a return to form, but a return to making the sort of film that truly draws on his particular narrative and technical skills. The result is a wildly entertaining, unabashed B-movie.

The set-up is simple and familiar: three teen girls are chloroformed and carjacked while leaving a birthday party at a strip mall, waking up in an underground bunker at the mercy of Dennis (James McAvoy), an uptight germophobe who, it quickly becomes apparent, is just one of a couple of dozen personalities occupying the mind and body of Kevin, along with overbearing matriarch Patricia (in heels and skirt), affable gay designer Barry, and 9-year-old Hedwig, who warns the captives that a new personality, “The Beast," is due to emerge at any moment.

Split initially feels like tawdry exploitation fare as popular girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are promptly stripped of their clothing and spend the remainder of the film in bra and panties, alternating between simpering passivity and brief gestures of female empowerment. Yet brooding outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), at the party only through a pity-invite, somehow manages to remain quiet, carefully watching and waiting. Periodic flashbacks to a childhood camping trip begin to suggest the source of her self-control as well as a deep-seated connection to their captor.

A third plotline centers around psychologist Karen Fletcher (DePalma alumni Betty Buckley), who has been treating Kevin (although Barry usually shows up for appointments) for Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder) and theorizes that the shifts in personality brought on by DID may trigger physiological changes specific to each personality.

Although filled to the brim with a winding plot and preposterous theories, Split succeeds largely on the strength of its three central performances. McAvoy takes center stage, of course, and while his portrayal certainly won’t stand up as a clinical representation of DID, it’s deliriously entertaining watching him slide effortlessly from one persona to another, sometimes in a matter of seconds. McAvoy’s flamboyant performance is balanced by Anna Taylor-Joy’s restrained turn as Casey. As she did in last year’s The Witch, Taylor-Joy is able to employ every nuance of her face, especially those wide dark eyes, to reveal Casey's thoughts and emotions as she attempts first to understand, then to turn the tables on, their captor.

And Buckley’s appearance is no mere cameo. Besides giving voice to the theories that underpin Shyamalan’s themes of trauma, survival, and transformation, Buckley lends to Dr. Fletcher a warmth and reality that grounds what otherwise could have been a journey into camp for Mr. McAvoy.

Shyamalan makes good use of his trademark just-out-of-frame framing to sustain the suspense, but even the above ground scenes, such as the cat-and-mouse conversations between Kevin's sly Barry personality and Dr. Fletcher are teasingly fraught with tension. Below ground, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis keeps the symbolic subterranean labyrinth appropriately dingy and disorienting.

Viewers may disagree about whether the final act goes too far, whether DID is done a disservice by this portrayal, and whether the director's perspective on child abuse is reprehensible. Ultimately, though, this is classic Shyamalan: simultaneously serious and silly, artful and schlocky, thoughtful and glib. And this time around, like Mr. McAvoy and, indeed, the audience, he seems to be having a ball. PG-13 Rating: 4 stars (Posted on 01/25/17)


La La Land
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In his first film since 2014's critically acclaimed Whiplash, ambitious writer/director Damien Chazelle seems determined to leave a permanent mark on the film scene. And to that limited end, the movie-musical-nouveau La La Land, poised as it is to garner a number of major film award nominations, succeeds. As an actual production, however, the film fares less well, seldom rising above the level of pastiche, a well-meaning but often underwhelming celebration of the classic film musicals that inspired it.

Chazelle borrows the classic — or is that hackneyed? — big screen story of boy-meets-girl on the streets of Tinseltown, where both are struggling as they chase their dreams. Emma Stone plays Mia, a small town girl currently working as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot and responding to casting calls. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a pianist and staunch jazz purist reduced to plunking out simple renditions of holiday favorites at a bar and grill.

In true Hollywood fashion, they meet cute (actually, Chazelle repeats the trope two more times), at the end of the film's pre-credits production, a musical number amid a traffic jam on the L.A. Freeway. Mia is studying lines behind the wheel of her Prius as she waits for the traffic to move. When Seb, impatient in his huge ‘70s American-made convertible, honks, she flips him the bird, leaving no doubt that before long, these two will fall deeply in love.

The meeting, however, while ostensibly the main point of the scene, feels incidental to the over-the-top musical number that precedes it (“Another Day of Sun”), Like many other elements of La La Land, this opening number feels only nominally related to the story, expressing something that has already been expressed. Actually, contradicting what has already been expressed. Dozens of drivers, clearly frustrated at the beginning of the scene, suddenly erupt into incongruous celebration, dancing around, across, and over the gridlocked cars. Where's the exasperation? The road rage?

As much as anything, the scene seems intended to draw attention to the fact that, yes, Chazelle is directing a big production number. In a movie musical, an (ostensibly) outdated genre. In widescreen Cinemascope, just like in the old days. The dancing on display is coordinated at best, the multicolored sea of outfits as forced as the conspicuous multiculturalism on display, a multiculturalism not reflected in the actual cast (a not-so-celebrated element of the classic Hollywood musical).

Time and again throughout the film, Chazelle can hardly deliver a scene without providing the cinematic equivalent of a wink and a nod, drawing attention to the tropes and techniques he's appropriated instead of simply letting them work their magic.

And maybe that's why, despite its best efforts, much of La La Land feels somewhat magic-free.

With a couple of exceptions (most notably Stone's solo showcase “Audition (The Fools Who Dream”), the songs by Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are rather forgettable. Stone and Gosling make game attempts at singing, and while their dance numbers have been sufficiently simplified to prevent embarrassment, the two are clearly no Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds pairing. Is that an unfair standard? Not when the filmmaker consciously evokes such comparisons.

Where Stone and Gosling — and Chazelle's script — excel is in the small moments of real human contact; in other words, in those moments when Chazelle gives up the homage and focuses on his characters' emotions. Through a series of humiliating audition scenes, Stone's wide eyes silently display their soul-killing effect on Mia. The fights that inevitably arise as Mia and Seb's two roads begin to diverge also ring true, to the point that they feel somewhat out of place here.

Fortunately, Chazelle packs his strongest punch in the film's epilogue, a sequence that is heavily indebted to Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg yet rises beyond influences, adding poignancy not found in much of what precedes it. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 01/22/17)


Lion
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Lionbears the hallmarks of its Oscar aspirations: a true-life story, a child adrift in a big scary world, an against-all-odds-search for family and home, and a heart-warming reunion, as well as high-profile cast members Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara (Oscar nominee for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and 2015's Carol), and Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fame. Delivered in two distinct parts, the film, however, loses momentum in its second half, slipping into sentimental predictability.

Lion opens in 1986, introducing 5-year-old Saroo who lives in tiny Khandwa Village in India. His desperately poor single mother Kamla ekes out a subsistence living hauling rocks while Saroo tags along with older brother Gaddu as he attempts to scare up odd jobs. Separated from Gaddu on one of these trips, Saroo falls asleep in an empty train car, emerging some 1,600 kilometers away in Calcutta, where he is lost, alone, and unable to communicate (since Bengali, not his native Hindi, is spoken).

For several months, Saroo wanders the Calcutta backstreets — initially embraced by a gang of street kids, then taken in by a seemingly compassionate woman who turns out to have ulterior motives — until he is finally taken to the police, who, unable to understand him (and bewilderingly absent a translator), place him in an orphanage. Ultimately, this leads to a new life with an adoptive family in Tasmania.

The enthralling first half of Lion often feels like a Victorian novel as young Saroo navigates the urban terrain, encountering various members of the underclass. Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s (Zero Dark Thirty) consistent use of low camera placement recreates young Saroo’s perspective as he winds through the unfamiliar streets amid throngs of legs and feet. Most of all, this part of the movie owes its success to the charisma of child actor Sunny Pawar who effortlessly reflects the fear and hope that battle within young Saroo.

So successful are these early scenes, in fact, that it’s a bit of a let down when the story abruptly jumps ahead 20 years, moves to New Zealand, and replaces Pawar with the more familiar Dev Patel. Skipping the (presumably challenging) years of assimilation, writer Luke Davies and director Garth Davis drop us into Saroo’s life in New Zealand as a successful college student. Despite the love and support of adoptive parents John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman, sporting a scene-stealing red wig that deserves its own Razzie nomination), fragmented memories of his former life in India drive Saroo on an obsessive quest for his birth family.

Unfortunately, while a Victorian novel would require a hero’s journey away from his comfortable new digs into the great unknown, the Internet age requires only endless hours spent on the couch browsing Google Earth. And here is where the remainder of the movie strands us — on the couch watching the adult Saroo scowl and stare at computer screens as his concerned girlfriend (an entirely wasted Rooney Mara) looks on.

Not the stuff of gripping drama, but effective product placement.

Certainly, the experience of an adopted child, and the longing for a lost family and past, the good fortune and guilt generated by one’s newfound circumstances, is powerful stuff. Unfortunately, Davis never allows us insight into the adult Saroo’s experience, leaving us to endure endless scenes of Internet searches and mouse clicking.

Maybe Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, from which Lion’s screenplay was adapted, is too sprawling to be contained in a single film. Ultimately, Lion settles for two chronologically and thematically separate films, the second far less developed and engaging than the first. (PG-13)
Rating: 3 (Posted on 01/22/17)


Hidden Figures
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Hundreds of thousands of people have worked at NASA, sending people into space, so it’s a safe bet that some of the most engaging stories haven’t been told yet.

The new film Hidden Figures takes one small step in recognizing three important pioneers in space travel who have yet to be depicted in statues. At a time when segregation was still a fact of life in the United States, three black women — Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Kansas City native Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (KCK’s Janelle Monáe) — figured out how to get the Mercury astronauts into space and back home safely using technology was barely more advanced than a slide rule.

Their achievements seem even more formidable considering the fact that they were also burdened by Jim Crow standards that consistently hampered them in getting Alan Shepard, John Glenn (Glen Powell) and other Mercury astronauts out of earth’s atmosphere and back to the surface safely.

Johnson’s ability to compute in her head and on paper, what would now be done on a calculator or a phone app, draws the attention of NASA big shot Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Many of the white guys he was working for him don’t seem to be getting the results he needs to keep stingy congressmen from shutting down the program. Her prodigious skill doesn’t get her much respect, except from Glenn himself. On his fateful mission, he refuses to launch until he’s got Johnson’s numbers. If your life depended on safely getting to earth on reentry, you’d probably do the same.

She loses valuable time each day to use the “colored” ladies room because no such facilities exist in Harrison’s building. Her white male counterpart (Jim Parsons) sends out papers that have her calculations but don’t give her due credit, and someone has even had the gall to set up “separate-but-equal” coffee makers.

Vaughn supervises other calculators but doesn’t have the title or the paycheck to go with the responsibility. On the side she teaches herself the relatively new skill of computer programming even though the only books that teach it are in the “whites only” section of the library. Meanwhile, Mary Jackson wants to get accredited as an engineer but has to convince a judge to let her attend night classes that are exclusively available to pale dudes.

The racial injustice that occurs in Hidden Figures has no ethnic slurs or acts of violence. What does happen seems more insidious and stomach churning.

Co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi (Saint Vincent), who adapted Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, present a consistent sense of what George W. Bush once lamented as the “bigotry of soft expectations.” White supervisors simply assume Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson have neither the desire nor the aptitude for programs where their obvious skills are clearly needed. One wonders how much more these women could have accomplished if they didn’t have to run marathons every time nature called.

Costner’s Al Harrison is a composite character, but the veteran star nonetheless manages to make the frustrated bureaucrat seem real. His inadvertent work as a social reformer comes less from a prescient sense of decency than a single-minded drive to beat the Soviets in the space race. Like his overlords on Capitol Hill, he’s not eager to see taxpayer dollars go to waste to preserve social norms that give Moscow a head start. While Hidden Figures has a feel-good tone that would feel phony in most movies, Melfi loads the film with a knowing sense that the prejudices its heroines experienced in real life haven’t really gone away.

Henson, who plays the brash Cookie on “Empire,” is equally skilled at playing someone who has to keep her emotions in check. She and Spencer also project the resolve and intellect necessary to be believable as proto-geeks. Moonlighting musician Monáe has recorded a series of albums that are loaded with science fiction themes, so she’s a natural fit for Jackson because she’s played this sort of role in song already.

Much of the technology we use today (basically anything involving satellites) was developed to send people like the Glenn into orbit. Knowing about a few of the many people who brought him back home from orbit doesn’t make him any less heroic. One of NASA’s buildings is named after Johnson, and it’s great that people outside of the space program can know who she is as well. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/22/2017)

Haiku
Hidden Figures

The movie travels
into orbit presenting
invisible heroes.


Silence
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In his 50-plus year career Martin Scorsese has specialized in creating sequences that jolt and provoke his audiences (like the final gun battle in Taxi Driver, for example). Much of the power of his new offering Silence, however, comes from the fact that at age 74, he seems to have picked up on how to infer horrifying events and ideas instead of presenting them.

There are a couple of brief flashes where Scorsese reminds viewers that he was the guy who made GoodFellas and Casino, but for the most part, Silence is an engrossing if dour reminder that our most formidable enemies live without our own flesh.

Based on Japanese novelist Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, Silence deals with the challenge of defending one’s beliefs even there doesn’t seem to be any reason to do so. Set during turbulent 17th century Japan, the movie follows two young Portuguese Jesuits named Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) who travel to the islands to find out why their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has stopped sending letters to his superiors in Macau.


Ferreira mentored Rodrigues and Garupe, so his abrupt silence is potentially alarming. If any priest were to forcefully resist the Japanese government’s attempt to end Christianity in the nation, he would be the one. While church officials in Macau believe that Ferreira has abandoned the faith he once fervently preached, Rodrigues and Garupe believe he’d become a martyr before he’d step on a picture of Jesus as governors in Japan would demand.

As the only Roman Catholic priests in the country, Rodrigues and Garupe are wanted men. The authorities offer anyone who turns them in 300 pieces of silver, which is ten times the sum Judas got for betraying Jesus.

Nonetheless, the two are greeted like heroes in the villages where hidden Christians live. The people who practice the faith have becomes masters of subtlety, figuring out how to hide their inner lives from their persecutors with a craftiness that a CIA agent could never hope to achieve.

Having lived without trained priests for years, the faithful express a fervor that inspires and intimidates the Jesuits. In Portugal, being Catholic is standard operating procedure, but the Japanese flock sees their faith not as a set of principles but a reality as real as what they can see or touch. This makes them seemingly eager martyrs.

The authorities are so eager to remove Christianity from the islands that they’ve devised a series of slow, gruesome ways of torturing or killing anyone who refuses to renounce the faith. With the generous bounty offered for Rodrigues and Garupe, and the xenophobia of the current ruling class, it’s only a matter of time before Rodrigues and Garupe find themselves tested the way their parishioners have been.

Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks (who worked with the director on Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence) present the indignities and the violence the Shogun’s forces unleash on Christians with an astonishing amount of restraint.

The chief perpetrator of these atrocities is an aging samurai named Inoue (Issey Ogata). He can barely walk and has an almost buffoonish bearing that belies an almost incomprehensible ruthlessness. Because Rodrigues and Garupe’s predecessors sometimes leaped at the chance to become martyrs, Inoue instead punishes their congregants. Defending one’s faith doesn’t seem so heroic when others get scalding volcanic water pulled over them.

Inoue was a real tormentor of Christians, and the world-weary apostate Ferreira was also a genuine historic figure. Ogata and Neeson manage to make them seem like more than names in a textbook, and the fictional characters are intriguing as well. As Rodrigues, Garfield can be a commanding presence even when the Jesuit seems in over his head.

The film’s strongest performance comes from Yôsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, the priests’ not so faithful guide. He’s a fervent believer whose faith is almost as strong as his cowardice. His constant begging for redemption almost makes his treachery sympathetic.

Because the dilemmas the Jesuits face in Silence are so messy, the questions the film raises don’t go away after the closing credits run. That may explain why a book published in Japan in 1966 is still around and why Scorsese has been so persistent in getting it made. Like Scorsese, the late Endō was Catholic, so Silence presents both cultures with a familiarity that could frustrate writers too in love with their own era or background.

The director knows his material is intriguing on its own, so there aren’t as many Scorsese-isms in Silence as there are in its predecessors. There is a lot of voiceover (actually, a little too much), but the gorgeously rugged, fog shrouded Taiwanese landscapes (posing as the Land of the Rising Sun) are thankfully not interrupted with jump cuts.

In addition, Scorsese manipulates the quiet but rich soundtrack in a number of subtle ways. Yes, the film is called Silence in part because Rodrigues wonders if God’s unresponsiveness is a sign that He might not exist. There is a score by husband-and-wife composers Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge, who create eerie droning sounds that are almost imperceptible but that slowly draw viewers into the images they accompany.

As gorgeous as the soundtrack and Rodrigo Prieto’s (Argo) cinematography are, Silence would be a wasted effort if its ideas were dull and its heart was in the wrong place. Fortunately, Scorsese has adapted the surface and the soul of Endō’s Silence beautifully. (R) Rating 4.5 (Posted on 01/22/2017)


Haiku
Silence

Sometimes the greatest
sacrifice is to not die
for one’s given faith.


Live by Night
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Boston born writer/novelist Dennis Lehane has the inside track in Hollywood. Films such as Mystic River, The Drop and Shutter Island are adapted from his novels and short stories, attracting such heavyweight directors as Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese. Ben Affleck is the latest to adapt a Lehane creation, being the director, star and screenwriter for Live by Night.

Lehane reportedly had doubts about Affleck playing Joe Coughlin, the traumatized WW I veteran who vowed never again to “take orders” from anyone and embarks on a life of robbing banks while trying to avoid killing anyone. Coughlin, as Affleck attempts to project on screen, is sort of gangster with a heart, a guy who hates to kill, rather just do business but will kill anyone who gets in his way that refuses to heed his soft-spoken plea that sounds like, “Can’t we all just get along and make a boat load of money together?”

Affleck doesn’t pull it off, though maybe Lehane had better luck on the page with his novel (though I have not read it).

What we’re left with in this long film is the ongoing question of: Is Coughlin really a good guy having made bad choices because of what happened in the war? Or a bad guy trying to convince himself that he can have the good things — money, love, family, stability — that good guys can have if he just tries not to be bad all the time?

It’s never resolved leaving Live by Night a slightly unique gangster movie projecting an America at a certain time. Affleck, as he showed in Argo as director and star, can present a time and place that hides shortcomings in a story.

Live by Night starts off in a familiar place. The Irish and Italian gangs are battling it out for control of the liquor market in Boston during Prohibition. Coughlin tries to remain an independent crook but is pulled into the Irish mob under the leadership of Albert White (Robert Glenister). But Coughlin falls for Loretta (Elle Fanning), White’s moll, leading to Loretta’s betrayal and supposed death.

Coughlin then hooks up with the Italian mob while vowing death to White and ends up in Tampa to corner the rum trade for Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) who heads to Boston Italian mob. In Florida, Coughlin consolidates the business with help of the corrupt Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), saves the chief’s daughter Emma (Sienna Miller) from the evils of Los Angeles, plans on corrupting the Florida legislature in order to build a casino, battles an anti-gambling crusade led by Emma, wipes out the KKK in Tampa, gets revenge on White, kills Maso and his henchman, delves into the Cuban culture, falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana), leaves the business to sidekick Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) and settles into a domestic life as a dad and husband only to face tragedy.

About the only thing missing from Live by NIght is a plumbing problem from distilling the rum and the appearance of J. Edgar Hoover. But there are numerous killings, machine gun battles, running shootouts in classic cars and sex, making it all a true-to-form gangster flick. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 01/13/17)

 

 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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