Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

2016 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

(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, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

Lion: Based on a true story, Lion has a fairly simple plot, but it tells it extremely well, with strong performances by all the leads, lovely cinematography and a overall lyricism and intimacy to the storytelling. Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), growing up in extreme poverty in India, manages to get spectacularly lost and cannot find his way home to his mother, older brother and sister. He's street-smart enough to dodge some people who don't have his best wishes at heart, even if they pretend otherwise. Eventually he winds up in an orphanage, where he's adopted by a kind Tasmanian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Breirly (David Wenham). As a young adult, Saroo (Dev Patel) has eagerly assimilated as a Tasmanian and largely abandoned his Indian heritage, perhaps sharpened by shame over his brother by adoption, Mantosh (played by Divian Ladwa), who has some behavioral and perhaps developmental issues. Saroo is outgoing and likable, and joins a hotel hospitality training program, where he meets and hits it off with an American, Lucy (Rooney Mara), who becomes his girlfriend. Saroo gradually reveals more about his life and the circumstances surrounding his adoption. Lucy urges him to search for his birth family, but this causes significant strife between them and within Saroo; he's buried some deep pain about his birth family; he's given up hope of finding them; he feels that searching for them would be a betrayal of his adoptive parents, whom he loves dearly.

Dev Patel gives a strong performance as a conflicted Saroo, and if you've last seen him as the gangly hero of Slumdog Millionaire, it's striking to see how he's physically filled out and his considerable charisma. Saroo is quite likable and sympathetic overall, but he also deals with his angst poorly on occasion, providing some welcome complexity to the character. It's not so much that he's denying his origins; it's that he fought that battle for a long time and failed, and was trying to move on… but discovers his yearning is undeniable. Lion is some of the best work of Kidman's career, and a long, quiet monologue late in the film explaining her decision to adopt is particularly impressive for its subtlety and intimacy. Mara and Wenham are solid in supporting roles. The film might drag a bit in the second half, but Lion deserves credit for making us care about the characters and delivering some moving moments. Director Garth Davis had directed some commercials and television before, but this was his first feature, and it's a promising one.

Loving: This real-life story about the couple at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case is grounded by natural performances by the whole cast, most of all Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving. They’re an interracial couple who marry in DC in 1958 but return to their home in Virginia where their marriage is illegal. They live in a rural, racially integrated area, and none of their neighbors seem to mind the marriage, but law enforcement feels otherwise, and the couple's home is raided, with them jailed and continually threatened. After a few encounters with the law for the couple, Mildred eventually writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who suggested they contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which agrees to take their case. The problem, though, is that although the ACLU lawyers think they can win, challenging the law could mean that Richard and possibly Mildred as well could wind up in jail in the meantime, and they have several young children. Likewise, they're a private couple, and even though it would help their cause, it takes some doing to get them to agree to open their house to a Life photographer (played well by the reliable Michael Shannon). They want to win the case, but they're not eager to be martyrs and not always convinced publicity will help – it might just cause further backlash from Virginia authorities.

The greatest strength of Loving is the quiet decency and dignity of Richard and Mildred; they just want to live their lives unbothered. Although the film has a political subject, it's not a polemic; it tries and succeeds in telling a human story. Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols, who also directed Mud, once again shows he has a good feel for the rhythms of Southern rural life. The Lovings prefer country life to the city, and film scoring tends to be light in the rural scenes, with Nichols opting for nature sounds instead. Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland; Joel Edgerton is an Aussie; nonetheless, they're convincing both as Americans and a couple. Edgerton's a good fit for the taciturn, reserved but devoted Richard; Negga brings a natural grace to Mildred, who's the more optimistic of the two. Their scenes alone feel authentic and intimate, and we feel the violation when the outside world comes crashing in. It's hard not to sympathize with the couple and wonder why people can't just leave them the hell alone. Loving might be a bit slow for some people, but it's well-acted and quietly moving. (I thought it should have garnered more Oscar nominations.)

Moonlight: It's hard not to feel for scrawny elementary school kid Chiron (pronounced SHY-rohn), known as "Little," as he tries to evade a gang of school bullies in the film's opening. By chance, he's rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who along with his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe) show the reticent Little (Alex Hibbert) some kindness; he's not getting much at home from his often-abusive, addict mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Although Moonlight chronicles growing up poor, black and gay in Miami, it never really feels like an "issue" film; it just concentrates on telling Chiron's story. (An early scene when Little asks Juan what "faggot" means is striking, all the more so for Juan's thoughtful response.) Director Barry Jenkins wrote the screenplay based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue; the film has many autobiographical details from them both, and the storytelling feels personal and intimate. The film's broken into three parts – part I is "Little," part II is "Chiron," the teen years (with Chiron played by Ashton Sanders), and part III is "Black," the name Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes) picks for himself as a young adult. Chiron's best friend Kevin is likewise played by three actors (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland).

This is very much an indie film, with only a few known actors, but many strong performances from an almost all-black cast. As Chiron, both Hibbert and Sanders have big, expressive eyes, which work well given how quiet and even mournful the character is. (Teen Chiron has to deal with more pointed bullying; he does not live in a gay-friendly world.) As Juan, Mahershala Ali makes a compelling, complex father figure – he's genuinely kind to Chiron, but he's also a drug dealer – and thus morally somewhat responsible for the condition of Paula, Chiron's mom, even if Juan and his crew don't deal directly to her. As Paula, the British Naomie Harris delivers some primal, desperate and memorable scenes; her dialect feels a bit forced at first but settles down (she shot her scenes in just a few days due to foreigner-work laws). Janelle Monáe isn't asked to do that much as Teresa, but she's got a nice, natural feel, especially in the scenes with young Chiron/Little. Finally, André Holland is a standout as adult Kevin, giving a nuanced, subtle performance, and part III simply would not work without him. Moonlight has its flaws (more below), but it’s nonetheless easily one of the best films of the year and well worth seeking out.

Like many an indie film, Moonlight suffers from soft focus in several shots, luckily, these are the exception and mostly occur early on. Some of camerawork is strong, as and is the use of color in certain scenes. Director Jenkins lets source sound drop away and music take over during a Paula screaming scene; it's a great choice, and several other scenes demonstrate similar poetry. The biggest problem with the film is the leap from part II to part III, because major, glaring questions are left unanswered and aspects of Chiron/Black's life seem implausible without explanation. Meanwhile, in contrast to the other two younger actors playing Chiron, Trevante Rhodes has narrow eyes and a relatively stony, unexpressive face; this seems like an intentional casting choice by Jenkins, but means that André Holland essentially has to carry part III despite not being the main character. In a few moments we can see Chiron/Black churn, though, and these are quite effective. The film's final scenes also pay off with understated power, and you will remember them. Give Moonlight credit for making you feel something genuine. More below in the…

Fences: Denzel Washington directs and stars in this fine adaptation of one of the great 20th century plays, August Wilson's Fences. It's Pittsburgh in 1950s, and Troy Maxson (Washington) is a trash collector in his early 50s. He's a great raconteur who enjoys telling exaggerated tales with his coworker and good friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). He also loves to flirt with his long-time wife, Rose (Viola Davis), who can get slightly embarrassed but mostly appreciates it. Troy was a star in the Negro baseball leagues but major league integration came too late for him; consequently, he wants his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to stick to his job after school and not football, thinking that pursuing a sports career will only lead to disappointment. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy's adult son from a previous relationship, is a jazz musician who will stop by to borrow money. Troy's brother Gideon (Mykelti Williamson) recently moved out of the Maxson house; he has brain damage from a World War II injury, and is mostly gentle, but occasionally acts out and gets locked up. The play chronicles Troy's conflicts, some of his own making; Rose generally gives him sound counsel, but he doesn't always heed it.

Fences shares a number of similarities with Death of a Salesman, and although it's not as tight a play as Arthur Miller's classic, that's a high bar to reach. The work of late playwright August Wilson (who also wrote the screenplay) tends to feature vivid characters who spout great, long monologues actors would kill for, fantastic individual scenes, and a sprawling structure and long run time. Fences is one of his best works, and Wilson's adaptation and Washington's direction trim down the play at bit while keeping its essence. Washington opens up the locale a bit to let things breathe – rather than action taking place entirely on the front stoop of the house, it happens all over the house and in the back yard, plus around a little bit of the neighborhood. Location-wise, it might still feel a bit stagey, but the performances are well worth checking out. Washington has played Troy on stage before, and he delivers a superb performance – charismatic, charming, but also stubborn, unyielding and self-pitying. Henderson is solid as Bono, good-natured but willing to challenge Troy's more foolish moves; Williamson captures Gabe's gentleness in what can be a tough part – Gabe believes he's a fallen angel and the horn he carries will open the gates to heaven. (The very end of Wilson's plays can be melodramatic or otherwise over-the-top and problematic; Wilson and Washington handle things pretty nicely here.) The most impressive performance, though, comes from Viola Davis as Rose. Troy does right by her and also does her wrong; as a black woman in the 50s, her options are limited, and her fortunes are married to those of her husband. Wilson provides a juicy part, and Davis takes full advantage of it, demonstrating humor and small kindnesses, but also delivering a searing performance as a middle-aged woman facing bitterness with practicality and resolve. (Davis is always good, but this is probably her best work to date.) The scenes between Washington and Davis are dynamite, from their most tender, playful moments to their most contentious. Fans of Wilson or great acting should seek this one out.

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