Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

2016 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

Arrival: Arrival is surprisingly good sci-fi, thanks to strong source material (the Nebula-winning novella "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang), a cool aesthetic for the aliens and their language, solid direction from Denis Villeneuve, and a superb, affecting performance by Amy Adams. Aliens have arrived in 12 monolith-like craft distributed around the Earth. Communication hasn't gone well, and successful waves of experts in a variety of fields have been recruited and later fired. Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker), a distrustful man wary of sharing information with the other 11 sites (especially the Chinese one), nonetheless recruits linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Before she heads off to meet the aliens, we see Banks living a life of joy but eventual heartbreak and isolation, spending time with a young daughter who succumbs to a rare and fatal disease. Banks and Donnelly are eventually allowed contact with the aliens in their ship; the aliens have seven limbs and thus are dubbed "heptapods"; Donnelly dubs the two they interact with Abbott and Costello. Banks, who is razor-sharp, eventually determines that the aliens do not perceive existence (especially time) as humans do, and slowly starts to develop a method of communication. As she starts to understand the heptapods more and more, Banks' own sense of time and reality becomes less fixed and more fluid. But the U.S. and Chinese militaries are treating the research more as an arms race than a cultural opportunity, and interpret an ambiguous message as a threat.

The heptapods look like giant squid, but the sparse, black stone spaceship with illuminated mist makes for an interesting aesthetic. The alien's ink writings are most reminiscent visually of Zen circles drawn with a brush in ink or paint; given the heptapods approach to existence, it's an inspired choice thematically as well as aesthetically. The script is often sharp – not only will Banks tell an old story about the origin of the word "kangaroo" to make a point, she'll also comment later (correctly) that it isn't true. Renner's quite good as Donnelly – he seems to enjoy playing a non-action role for a change – and has nice chemistry with Adams as Banks, which proves crucial. The military folks seem overly belligerent and stupid, which is disappointing if plausible in the current day. The film hinges on Adams and her performance, though. She's convincing in her dedication, courage and sense of wonder as Dr. Banks, but also in her joy and devastation as a human being; she grounds the entire film emotionally. Much of the best sci-fi uses some unusual situation to explore an aspect of the human condition; Arrival does that powerfully and somewhat unexpectedly in a way that respects its audience. (I'd say it achieves what Interstellar tried and failed to do.)
(SPOILERS)

Manchester by the Sea: This is a well-crafted film with great performances, and it has its moments of humor, but be warned it's a grim one – it's a story about coping with extreme tragedy. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who works as a handyman in the greater Boston area, is shocked to learn that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died relatively young in Manchester by the Sea, where he ran a fishing boat. Lee is furthermore stunned that Joe has named Lee the guardian of Joe's teenaged son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is taciturn at best, but often surly and withdrawn; he tries to live his life with some kind of honor, but is impatient and blunt when dealing with tenants and has a habit of picking fights in bars. Patrick can't understand why Lee is so averse to spending time in Manchester by the Sea, where Lee used to live. Patrick's also not keen on moving to Boston as Lee wishes, because Patrick has strong ties in Manchester. For a while, it looks like Patrick living with his mom, Elise (Gretchen Mol), who’s getting remarried to the straight-laced Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick) might be an option, but nothing goes easily for Patrick nor Lee. Gradually, we learn more about Lee's past life in flashbacks and through interactions in the present day, mostly focusing on his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). One of the film's most potent scenes stems from a chance encounter they have (that unfortunately was revealed too much in late ads for the film).

This is fine work by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (who has a cameo as usual), but I much prefer his earlier film, the superb You Can Count on Me. He definitely captures the whole repressed, New England, Irish Catholic milieu, but that doesn’t always make for pleasant company. Manchester by the Sea is essentially a character study of a man forced to deal with tragedy far beyond his capacity to handle. He picks fights to bury his grief and rejects intimacy because it'll only bring pain. What makes Lee somewhat admirable is his growing realization of his own inadequacies or wounds and his desire to do what's best for his nephew, Patrick. Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of the year, at times moving and memorable, but not easy viewing.

La La Land: This is a fun movie that became overhyped and then received undue backlash. (It's an unfortunate pattern that recurs during awards season.) La La Landis a musical set in Los Angeles centered on a young couple struggling to make it – Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) as an actress, and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) as a jazz pianist. Stone and Gosling showed they had great chemistry in 2011's Crazy Stupid Love (it's the sixth film reviewed here), and they're entertaining again in this outing. As "Seb," Gosling gets some funny lines, which he delivers well: "I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I'll hit back. It's a classic rope-a-dope." Stone is always a charming firecracker – most of all in the early courtship stages when the two supposedly hate each other and she's taunting Seb. Neither Stone or Gosling is great at singing nor dancing (although they trained intensively), which is meant to be part of the film's charm. I found La La Land most interesting as a relationship film – Mia and Seb are good for each other in many ways, but making it in show biz is hard, and they don't always navigate the rough spots as a couple well. Writer-director Damien Chazelle offers some memorable scenes and makes good use of L.A. locales, including a flying, fantasy dance at Griffith Observatory and an extended musical fantasy sequence reminiscent of Singin' in the Rain or An American in Paris. The music doesn't stack up to the best musicals, but the featured songs fit the characters well ("City of Stars" and "The Fools Who Dream"). La La Land has its problems, though. The opening scene is a song and dance number set during a traffic jam (and filmed mostly with a single long take), which is a great and funny concept, but the opening actress' lip-synching to playback is off and other performers are likewise shaky. I found it quite off-putting and a bad sign, and it took me a while to warm to the film (your mileage may vary). La La Land won an Oscar for cinematography, and some of the camerawork is great, but the lighting is noticeably subpar in several scenes (Mia's apartment with other young women, for example). La La Land is quite enjoyable taken for what it is – a off-beat musical about a young, struggling, show biz couple – and less compelling if taken for something more – a definitive portrait of Los Angeles or show business.

Silence: Martin Scorsese's films are always worth a look, and this adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel had been a long-time passion project for him. It's the 17th century, and Jesuit priests have entered Japan, making converts but also receiving harsh treatment including torture and death from the Japanese authorities. Word has arrived in the West that Portuguese missionary Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith under torture. Two of his pupils, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), refuse to believe it, and volunteer to look for him, despite the considerable risks. Their guide is a drunken exile they meet in China, Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), who winds up being a complex character, full of contradictions. The priests are sheltered by a village of convert Christians, where they lead religious services and hear confessions, but they must stay hidden. The occasional inspections and trials by Japanese authorities searching for secret Christians are harsh and sometimes fatal. The faith of the Japanese Christians – and certainly Rodrigues and Garupe – is severely tested, physically and mentally.

Silence probably holds added resonance for the religiously devout, especially Catholics, but it works for all viewers as a depiction of faith and intolerance. This isn't easy viewing, though; the story involves significant cruelty. Rodrigues, our main character, is kind and sincere; he's the type of priest who preaches salvation, not damnation, and truly believes he can convince someone else given time, even his most hostile questioners. He's definitely somewhat naïve, but his resolve and generosity are admirable. It's a difficult role, especially given the torture scenes, and Andrew Garfield gives an excellent performance. It's hard not to think that the suffering imposed on him is unnecessary; some of the Japanese authorities don't just want obedience, they want utter and absolute mental submission. Scorsese largely avoids flashy filmmaking in Silence, only really using a single bravura camera move; he opts for a restrained, dignified approach, which seems to work well. This is Scorsese's third explicitly spiritual film – I would rate The Last Temptation of Christ his best, but I've only seen Kundun once, and Silence is a solid entry. (Side note: It took me a few minutes to place Yoshi Oida, who does a fine job playing Ichizo – he's also a stage actor, and I've seen perform Beckett.)

The Salesman: Writer-director Asgar Farhadi's latest film centers on a young Iranian couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), starring in a production of Arthur Miller's play, Death of Salesman. When their apartment building starts to crumble, they're forced to find other lodgings, and their friend and fellow actor Babak (Babak Karimi) tells them about a good apartment available relatively cheap. The catch is that the last tenant, a woman, was a bit wild and has left a locked closet of her stuff behind. One night, Emad returns home late and discovers blood; he finds Rana at the hospital; she's been assaulted. Rana's understandably traumatized and Emad tries to help, to little avail. He seeks revenge, but he's stymied trying to find information. Although a popular teacher at school, Emad's work and his performance in the play both begin to suffer, as does his relationship with Rana. Emad eventually starts to make some progress tracking down Rana's assailant, but the film offers a number of surprising developments. Rana initially supports justice, but increasingly has reservations about what revenge is doing to Emad and their relationship.

Farhadi previously made the excellent, Oscar-winning film, A Separation (2011; the second film reviewed here), as well as The Past (2013; reviewed here). In all his films, he has a knack for plunging his characters into morally complex situations and slowly revealing new information that makes us reassess what we think we know. Of those three films, I'd still rate A Separation as the best and The Salesman last. I also didn't think including Death of a Salesman added that much to the film, although scenes dealing with the state censors are culturally interesting and Farhadi points to shared themes of humiliation and crumbing relationships. Nonetheless, The Salesman offers good performances, complexity and some surprising – and genuinely interesting – plot developments (whereas lesser writers offer mere gimmicks).

HiddenFigures: Hollywood tells a great untold story, that of the black female mathematicians, "computers," who were crucial to NASA's efforts during the early years of the space program in the 50s and 60s. We focus on a trio: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Johnson is the main character, but all of them get good scenes, and the three support each other and are often inseparable as they battle both sexism and racism. Although they face deliberate prejudice, especially Johnson, one of the film's strengths is how it depicts unconscious, reflexive discrimination (embodied by characters played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst). This is dramatized by poor Johnson running (in heels) back and forth to the only "colored" women's bathroom in a building a good ten minutes from her work office, until her boss, Al Harris (a composite character player Kevin Costner) finally asks why she's missing for long stretches of time. Hidden Figures takes some liberties with accuracy to deliver some crowd-pleasing moments, and some scenes are hokey, predictable or unlikely (one public outburst in particular). Nevertheless, the core story is true and fascinating, Taraji P. Henson is always good, and she and the filmmakers make the many scenes with her doing complicated math on the fly captivating cinema. Mahershala Ali has a small role (he and Janelle Monáe were also in Moonlight), and Glenn Powell is memorable as astronaut John Glenn. Smithsonian, History vs. Hollywood and Wikipedia have more on the accuracy of the film (including the truth of those bathroom scenes and John Glenn's words), but you'll want to catch this movie.

Captain America: Civil War: The previous Captain America film, The Winter Soldier (reviewed here), is one of the best superhero films ever made. Civil War understandably falls short of that high mark, but not by much; it was easily the best serious superhero movie of the year. The Avengers do-gooding inadvertently leads to disaster, leading the United Nations to debate putting a council in charge of the superhero team. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) supports the move, remembering his role in creating supervillain Ultron; Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is not keen on the idea. The other Avengers are split. Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has resurfaced, and there's evidence implicating him in the assassination of King T'Chaka of Wakanda. The king's son, T'Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), seeks justice. Rogers isn't buying that Bucky is still evil, though, and digs further, uncovering more about a mysterious figure who turns out to be Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). The main selling point of the movie is seeing two teams of superheroes fight, and those scenes are well-staged, with plenty of inventive tactics from the characters and good character moments created by the filmmakers. Adding Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to all the Avengers heroes (I won't name them all) feels a bit forced, but the actors do a nice job. Introducing T'Challa/the Black Panther begins by feeling similarly contrived (he has a solo movie coming out later), but the script allows T'Challa much more complexity than a standard revenge plot, and the versatile Boseman is impressive as usual. The key relationship is between Captain America and Iron Man, though, and Evans and Downey deliver, selling us on both their friendship and its strain, and all the shifts between. This is a superhero flick with good action but also more depth and complexity than usual; we're reminded multiple times of how violence has consequences, even when wielded by supposed good guys for supposedly good causes.

Rogue One: The first Star Wars movie not to be a numbered episode winds up being pretty good, as it tells the tale of how the plans for the Death Star were obtained and why the fully operational battle station had a fatal, exploitable flaw. Anchoring a strong cast is the dependable Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. She's the daughter of Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant scientist forced to work on the Death Star by high-ranking science officer, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who seems to care somewhat for his former colleague Galen but much more for the Empire and his own ambitions. Galen's built in a vulnerability, however, and arranges to smuggle out the news to the Rebels via an Empire pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The problem is, Bodhi's being held by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a veteran fighter for the Rebels, but also an extremist who's at the very least paranoid and possibly completely crazy. Saw Gerrera raised Jyn after Galen was essentially kidnapped by the Empire, though, so the Rebel Alliance thinks she can get through to him. Jyn is reluctant, but the Rebels sprung her from jail and can offer her freedom, so she sets out with morally dubious Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO, who's a master of unintentional dark comedy by being blunt (he's wonderfully voiced by Alan Tudyk). The trio travel to Gerrara's hideout near Jedha, a holy city that houses the kyber crystals used in lightsabers and that the Empire needs for the Death Star. Along the way they pick up Force-sensitive blind martial artist monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Grand Moff Tarkin is played by Guy Henry, with visual effects making him look like the late Peter Cushing, who played the character in Stars Wars: A New Hope. (It was done with the blessing of Cushing's family, and it works pretty well, fooling some audience members, although the filmmakers were wise to keep Tarkin in darkly lit scenes).

Rogue One is a much darker story overall than the most recent episode, VII, The Force Awakens (although that features a notable death; it's reviewed here). I liked that many of the Rogue One characters were weary, desperate and more morally grey than many other supposed good guys in the franchise. They undertake a tough, important mission and know they may not succeed and may not all survive – if any of them do. The film has its flaws, though. Some lines sound hokey, given the grimness otherwise ("Rebellions are built on hope" in particular). Character names aren't well-established – blink and you can miss Chirrut and Baze's names. The Empire apparently has never considered that a droid could be reprogrammed and has very lax computer security. Darth Vader gets a bravura scene near the end, but strangely, even though he's still voiced by James Earl Jones, he doesn't carry as much screen presence as in the earlier films when played by David Prowse and others. (Some of this is due to camera angles, but not all.) Overall, Rogue One is one of the most successful retcons in memory, although not flawless – the very end makes Leia's interactions with Vader at the start of A New Hope ludicrous. Still, I enjoyed this more than The Force Awakens. (Personal note: I saw the film the day after Carrie Fisher died. Her simulated appearance had an extra punch.)

Deadpool: The conceit for comic book character Deadpool is that, like DC's Ambush Bug, he's aware he's in a comic book and can break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience (or the comic book/movie creators). The same holds true for the movie version of Deadpool, which is a tremendous lot of fun, especially the hilarious opening credit sequence, which is both self-referential and brutally self-skewering. Accomplished smartass Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast as Wade Wilson/Deadpool, a mercenary who falls for an unusually understanding woman, Vaneesa (Morena Baccarin). Unfortunately, he's struck down with a rare and fatal disease, and seeks out an experimental and dangerous treatment from a mysterious recruiter and his tough guy colleague, Ajax (Ed Skrein). The treatment succeeds after a fashion – Wilson heals and even regenerates from almost any injury – but delivers some nasty side effects, including disfigurement. Deadpool sets out to find a cure and reconnect with Vanessa, who believes him dead. This is definitely an "R" film and not for kids. It's quite entertaining, but the violence tends to be intentionally over-the-top and the film's sense of humor is often raunchy and boundary-pushing. What makes the movie have some more depth, though, is that for all his wisecracks, the disfigured Wade/Deadpool genuinely loves Vanessa and longs to reunite, but fears her reaction. The supporting cast is fun, most of all Leslie Uggams as Deadpool's blind, semi-recovering junkie roommate. (Reynolds was cast as Deadpool before in a pretty bad film, Wolverine: Origins, the 13th film reviewed here. Reynolds hasn't been shy about knocking it, and this outing provides significant redemption.)

Hail, Caesar!:
"Squint! Squint at the grandeur! It's blinding!"

This isn't the best Coen brothers movie by a long shot, but it's an awful lot of fun, especially for film buffs. Studio executive and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is confronted by a crazy host of problems and wades in with a consummate mix of diplomacy, practicality and bravado. The biggest headache is a missing leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), star of a Jesus-and-the-Romans epic. But Mannix must also contend with DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Ester-Williams-type star with a squeaky-clean image who's anything but in real life. Prestige director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) isn't happy that singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has been horribly miscast in his high society film. The screenwriters are trouble as usual. And competitive Hedda-Hopper-like gossip columnists Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (identical twins both played by Tilda Swinton) are pressuring Mannix for scoops and threatening to print an old scandal.

The actors are obviously having a blast, and several scenes are gems on their own. A scene with an increasingly pained Laurentz trying to get the earnest-but-hopeless Hobie Doyle to deliver a line correctly is hilarious and was used as a standalone trailer. Ehrenreich is charismatic and extremely likable, because as Hobie Doyle, he's in way over his head but humble, kind and sincere. (He'll probably do well cast as Han Solo.) Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum also have memorable roles, and Michael Gambon provides some narration. For added fun, costume designer Mary Zophres tracked down the exact shade of orangish-red from Spartacus for the Roman soldier costumes and also used Ben Hur as inspiration. Some of the visual effects intentionally mimic those of the depicted era, including rear-screen projection. Hail, Caesar! may ultimately be a trifle, but it's an entertaining one.

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