Quick thoughts on the Golden Globe Awards

Meryl Streep is one of our greatest actresses, and I have the utmost respect for her talents. In my mind, she is one of a small handful of genius actors. It makes me ache to see her fall into the usual trap of feeling that she has to use a platform created by her talents to speak her political mind—no matter what she said. Just accept the award graciously, Meryl, and compliment your other actor friends. You’re just feeding the all-too-common idea that filmmakers are entitled rich people who are above the rest of the hoi polloi and need to be taught the higher perspectives. And no, it wasn’t brave to say what nearly everyone else in the echo chamber–I mean the room—already believes. And I also think Donald Trump’s tweet response was think-skinned, defensive, childish and completely wrong on every level.

I was grateful to see a few women dressed modestly. For a group that supposedly would view themselves as opposed to the exploitation of women, it’s remarkable how many women present themselves wearing tight and/or cleavage-revealing outfits. The irony is dizzying.

The loss of what was expected to be Mahershala Ali’s supporting actor award for Moonlight to Aaron Taylor-Johnson for Nocturnal Animals was completely unexpected.

Not sure if Tom Hiddleston’s award for “The Night Manager” was deserved. But Hugh Laurie’s award for the same show certainly wasn’t. It belonged to Sterling K. Brown for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” Perhaps the British background of these two actors was the deciding factor for these “foreign press” members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. All these performances were good. It’s just that Brown’s was excellent.

Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig (go, Rochester!) had by far the best and funniest presentation of the evening. It was a master class of comedy and timing.

The seven awards for La La Land were a record. Not only did the film win the most Golden Globes in history, but it won in every category in which it was nominated. But these awards are probably not necessarily going to be the predictor of this year’s Academy Awards. La La Land was the obvious choice in the comedy/musical category. How could that be compared fairly to Manchester by the Sea or Moonlight? Apples and oranges. It may be that we have a revisit to the films from 1951, when the vote between dark and serious films—A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun—may have split the vote and given the top award to the musical An American in Paris.

The Best Actress/Drama award to French legend Isabelle Huppert may be a bellwether of a shift away from Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. Or, again, it may be the “foreign press” aspect again, though there has been talk for months that Huppert deserves the award. She will certainly be nominated.

Casey Affleck deserves the Best Actor/Drama award, and he’ll win the Oscar. Sorry, Ryan G. Not your year, so be content with the Golden Globe and be glad they divide the Best Acting awards.

Viola Davis’ award for Fences signals her receiving the Oscar this year for the same performance.

Damien Chazelle, winner of Best Screenplay and Director for La La Land and just shy of 32 years of age, is now officially Hollywood’s new wunderkind. Whiplash wasn’t a fluke, but a sign of what was to come.

Can’t argue with the two awards for The Crown. Well worth the visit.

Best Miniseries or TV Film and Best Actress for Sarah Paulson for “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” might have been the most deserved awards of the evening.

Mel Gibson has officially made his comeback with Hacksaw Ridge.

Sophia Vergara is a lovely woman, but she looked and acted rather ridiculous.

I can’t comment on the many awards for relatively new television shows, as I can’t begin to keep up with them. And I wonder how many voters can….

The chiropractors in the Los Angeles area were likely quite busy today with all the patting on one’s back that went on last night. Can we please just rein it in and stick to filmmaking and gratitude?

Lastly, the Golden Globes only recently have scaled the walls of respectability. Their history is as a compromised small group of easily influenced Eurocentric voters. Their present isn’t a whole lot different.

 

 

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La La Land

I haven’t seen Moonlight yet (I live in Rochester, New York, not a major city, and it takes awhile for films to get here at times), but La La Land may well be the best film of the year. It’s not perfect, but it reaches higher, and succeeds more, than any other film I’ve seen this year except perhaps Manchester by the Sea.

Director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has done the near-impossible. He’s not just created a musical, but he’s created a modern cinematic context where anyone but the most cynical can accept the conceits of the classic musical—that folks can sing and dance in the real world, occasionally being joined by others, and of course, with lots of orchestral background. No one has tried that, at least with this level of success, in years.

Its numbers are dazzling at times (a word I use precisely), especially the first number that obliterates the viewer’s skepticism by virtue of the number’s audacity and demonstration of talent and cinematic artistry. And Chazelle tries to dazzle several other times, and usually succeeds. He does it with camera movement, pacing, editing, lighting, and color. He quotes so many classic Hollywood and French musicals that I lost count, or just happily gave up trying and let myself just enjoy the whole experience. There are nods to Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, many a Vincente Minnelli film, especially An American in Paris (there is lots of “Minnelli red”), The Red Balloon, the non-musicals Rebel Without a Cause and Casablanca, and the entire Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers canon—for starters.

But a viewer doesn’t have to have any background to enjoy the film, as Chazelle has successfully reinvented every element of the musical so that it resonates today; knowing what he might be quoting or paying homage to is simply an added layer of enjoyment. He opens the film with a classic musical approach that brings in singers and dancers over a large physical space—in this case a stretch of Los Angeles road—then approaches most other numbers differently. Lovers express their emotions. An audition that prompts a personal story leads into a song. There are “what if?” reveries. And there are more realistic songs performed as songs within the context of the film by Ryan Gosling, who plays a jazz pianist, and John Legend, who plays a compromised version of himself.

The casting is just about perfect. Gosling and Emma Stone, the female lead, each has a strong screen presence on their own, and an insane chemistry between them. (This is their third film, after the popular Crazy, Stupid, Love and the far-less-popular Gangster Squad.) Their easy-going connection makes every scene believable, every action acceptable.

Neither is what would be called a serious singer or dancer, though they can each carry at tune, and Stone especially has some good moments, especially in “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” near the end of the film. Considering that Gosling was with Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears as part of The Mickey Mouse Club in their youth, I expected a slightly higher level of expertise in song and dance. But their level of talent works here in unexpected ways.

I generally bemoan the use of “actors who sing” making film musicals with challenging or beautiful music. Perhaps the most egregious example in recent years has been Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which featured two very good actors—Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter—who could carry a tune, but not the beauty of the songs they sang. Having heard the stage version, I was aware of the exquisite tones and harmonies I was missing, even as the performers acted their parts well.

La La Land could have had that discrepancy, except that the film itself is about dreams, and the work in reaching for them. Chazelle has taken the American musical (and its French homages) and reconstituted it as a kind of dream itself that one can only reach for, and quote, and attempt to fit oneself into. Gosling’s and Stone’s characters are striving, and they’re reaching for something, and their falling short of Gene Kelly, Judy Garland or Astaire/Rogers actually works for the film. In their singing and dancing, they are fitting themselves into the dream, and their “good enough” quality adds to their honoring of the dream they’re aspiring to. There were moments where the key Gosling was singing in was too low, but then Stone comes in with a harmony and you realize that anything in a higher key wouldn’t sound right for her. Another thing the “good enough” musical performances do is keep this soaring film grounded in the reality of its characters. Gosling shouldn’t be Howard Keel, and Stone shouldn’t be Kathryn Grayson. Those lovely voices would wrench the viewer right out of the film and the world Chazelle has so meticulously created, and would have snapped the suspension of our disbelief, a situation so challenging to create and sustain.

For Gosling, there has to be a creative tension between how directly the film shows him playing the piano. As a serious pianist myself, I’m often in pain by how older film try to portray piano playing. Classic choices have been not to show the hands at all, and to try and simulate the movement of hands and shoulders from a distance; that’s been done relatively well and unbelievably badly. Or…sometimes the actor learns the notes and plays as close an approximation as possible. That’s the case here, and Gosling deserves all the props for his hard work. But the playing he’s doing is complex jazz, ornamented with difficult runs up and down the keyboard. He does his best, and it’s good, but the decision to show his hands isn’t always successful. Perhaps it takes a pianist to see it, but it’s clear that what he’s seeming to play is often not what we’re hearing. (But he fooled a piano-playing friend of mine, so perhaps I’m in the tiny minority, and after all, who cares?)

Another reason the film and its wildly different musical approaches succeed is that there is a strong central theme about following one’s dreams—a theme handled with respect and an acknowledgement of the struggles and sacrifices that often need to be made. Unlike other films with this theme, however, there is no judgment on those pursuing those dreams. There are real losses when there is a dream to gain, and the film doesn’t back away from this—another element that grounds the film in a certain realism. There is no “we can have it all” that we find in the most naively romantic musicals of the past. Not every relationship lives “happily ever after,” and the film recognizes the reality of that.

Aside from the theme, Chazelle also tends to use a common musical trope, only in a slightly more cynical way. Classic musical numbers have often ended with an interruption (“Shall We Dance?” from The King and I) or a shared experience—often a laugh—that brings us back into the story. Musical numbers here don’t tend to end while in the midst of a flight of fancy (and Chazelle flies pretty high), but in down-to-earth disappointments, frustrating realities, or crude communications. We’re brought right back into the real world of the film and its characters, and the numbers and their dazzle or whimsy are hermetically sealed off, preventing the non-musical world of the film from being compromised.

The songs too are varied and catch the ear. A few will live on beyond the film, and even with the rest, you will leave the theater with one or more of them in your head.

There is much more that could be said and analyzed in La La Land, and I may do that in a future entry. I certainly intend to see the film again and try to see what I know I must have missed the first time around.

The more sociological and political among us might point to this moment as one where our country needs the optimism and joy found in this film. That might be true, and I will leave to others to evaluate it in that context. From a purely filmic viewpoint, it can be said that Chazelle has accomplished a reinvention of the American musical while still paying homage to its past, being simultaneously nostalgic yet without a whiff of staleness. Yes, it’s a good story, told well, with solid acting—all those things. But Chazelle has shown us what can be done with this genre, and how to take nearly every element of a classic musical and make it work in a modern context. Yes, it will be studied for years. But don’t let that bother you. Just go out and enjoy it.

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Rogue One: My Experience

Note: I usually write serious analyses of the films I see. Not so much here.

I’m pretty sure I saw Rogue One. My two sons who don’t live around here, their spouses, and their combined seven children have all been staying with me and my wife over the holidays. My older son wanted to take some of his six children with him to see the film while he was visiting. After being told the show we wanted was sold out, we went the Fandango route and were able to get enough tickets, even if we were spread out a little in the theater.

I remember sitting down in the newly installed lounge chair that is far too comfortable, and can be made even more comfortable with the push of a button. There was a grandson to the left of me, a granddaughter to the right of me, and a can of soda that was being passed back and forth between them. I remember the film starting, and thinking that I had better start paying attention.

Full disclosure: I am not a Star Wars nerd. I don’t understand the intricacy of the Star Wars universe, its denizens, and its conflicts. I don’t hate or resist Star Wars. I just don’t get into it. I’ve seen all the films, and enjoyed The Force Awakens as a well-made action film with some good moments of comedy. Saw it twice, in fact.

So most of the references to place and circumstance went over my inattentive head. My well-versed seven-year-old grandson let me know that this planet was important because, etc. I just smiled, and lovingly thanked him for the info. I will confess that the general fatigue of so many guests, a cozy chair and a lack of intense interest often made my eyelids rather heavy. I had to keep mentally slapping my face, reminding myself that this was an action movie I should be paying close attention to.

In terms of story, the film apparently makes a good connection to A New Hope. It does explain well why the Death Star had a weakness, an explanation which is plausible and which fills in a rather large hole of logic in the series. Darth Vader arrives with the right amount of cleverness and pomposity, yet I shed no nerd tears upon his arrival, and in fact didn’t even experience a frisson of fan delight.

My most artistic child had pointed out to me that Felicity Jones was guilty of what I often complained I liked least about Jim Carrey’s early dramatic roles—that it was obvious to me that he always knew where the camera was, and that was something I found distracting. I didn’t notice that so much as I noticed that she was often poised in the frame, presented in a rather timeless “I am Star Wars Women, Hear Me Roar” fashion for us to admire.

A few times, I got confused as to who was who, and where are we, and what exactly is going on? That might have been the fatigue, those blasted lounge chairs, the passing soda, or another granddaughter who occasionally escaped from her parents to come down and walk back and forth in front of her siblings and grandfather.

I usually don’t pay attention much to special effects in that 1) I am not a nerd, and 2) they are usually all of a piece throughout a film—either great, OK, or cheesy. What I did notice, though, was funny and made me think of the comments made about The Social Network. In that film, the presentation of the Winklevoss twins was accomplished with an incredible set of effects. But the fake breath when the actors were outside speaking in the cold looked unreal. Here in Rogue One, the spaceships, explosions and otherworldly settings seemed real. But the breaking glass near the end (when the principals are working to get the essential information) looked fake. And then, that was that horrible effect at the end.

There were so many ways to get that shot right, and pretty much one way to get it wrong, and the latter way was chosen. The frontal facial shot of Princess Leia was god-awful. Now Carrie Fisher had died the day before I saw the film, and Debbie Reynolds had already passed, but I didn’t know it yet. So Carrie alone was on my mind, and I knew that the info in the film had to get into Leia’s hands. This could have added some tender poignancy to the last shot. Instead, we viewers were treated to a simulation of Leia’s face that did no one’s reputation or memory any good. It was like running a flawless marathon and then slipping over a banana peel near the finish line.

There are, however, a few thematic elements that lifted the film. (Spoiler alert). One was the issue of sacrifice for a larger cause, and the film rose above a mere action film several times when showing those sacrifices. And our human need for connection, especially during moments of pressure or loss, was perhaps never better pictured than the last action of Jyn (Jones) and Cassian (Diego Luna). Their brave embrace in the face of their end may well be the thing I remember most about the film.

My ticket stub, my grandchildren’s witness, and a few fleeting memories told me I did see Rogue One. Yet even so, one day later, it all fell out of my head.

I think I may have to see it again…

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Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a deeply moving, occasionally wrenching, and extraordinary film. It’s a unique mixture of realism and formalism, in combinations one doesn’t usually find. It also features some of the best acting of the year, including a performance by Casey Affleck that, if he doesn’t blow it with his behavior, is guaranteed to win him a well-deserved Oscar.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (who has directed only Margaret, released in 2011, and 2000’s You Can Count on Me), the film takes the struggles of a Boston janitor and turns it into art. The story itself could have been the stuff of melodrama: (spoiler alert) disaffected, hard-drinking janitor loses his brother and “inherits” his teenage nephew, a proposition that neither embraces. Other films may well have worked toward that touching moment when they each accept their circumstances and each other, and the viewer reaches for a Kleenex. This is not that film, and the film doesn’t end up there, or go anywhere near there.

To say much more would ruin the joy of discovery, but Lee Chandler (Affleck) has his own demons and rough past, which comes to us in pieces. He also has an ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn, Blue Valentine) in another brilliant performance. While the story goes back and forth, and branches out in several different directions, the heart of the story is the relationship between Lee and his nephew, played in a star-making performance by Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel).

The script has been receiving deserved acclaim. The structure of the film is anything but straightforward, but is clear and emotionally true. The dialogue, is as the case with Lonergan, is so realistic, so unnervingly natural at times, that it puts the artificiality of others films into strong relief. The conversations, the tensions, the awkwardness of real life is on display throughout the film, in nearly every scene.

Lonergan’s camerawork is mostly direct and honest and unassuming. But his editing rhythms are not. He’ll often bring the viewer into a flashback and then out again before we’re even aware of it. He also holds his beats of his shots a little longer—and some a lot longer—than “normal” films, which has the tendency of drawing us into the physical place of the film or the emotional territory he’s exploring.

Even more daring, and unusual, is his use of music. It’s neither “on the car radio” music or background music, but an addition of music over images. Some of the music is classical, some not, some familiar, some not so much. But it transports these scenes to another dimension, and lifts the film during those scenes. The story of the trials and tribulations of ordinary “folk,” in this case, Boston-area workers who also love the sea, is often handled by filmmakers with a touch of condescension, or at least distance. Lonergan’s use of music raises the challenges and emotions of these “ordinary people” into something elevated and exquisite. It’s something that could be badly and wrongly copied, and let’s hope that others who don’t know what they are doing and how stay away from the idea.

Then there are the performances. For those of us paying attention to him, Casey Affleck was the under-recognized brother of a moderately talented actor who turned into a good director. Casey was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2007’s, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a respected work with this respected performance noticed by all 12 people that saw the film. For those who haven’t noticed his work over the years, this is a startling and unexpected performance. For the rest of us, it’s merely stunning and one of the best performances of recent years by anyone. Lee is a broken, deeply conflicted and emotionally bound man nearly destroyed by circumstances that is thrown into a new circumstance that puts social, relational and emotional demands on him that he can barely handle. Watching Affleck navigate these moments—some tender, some awkward, some bursting with anger—is a joy to experience. Rarely has there been a recent performance that is so full of painful internal life and is so masterfully modulated by the actor. Some of the great moments are simply Affleck, standing there silent and withdrawn, emoting as powerfully as those actors that love chewing the furniture. Unless he throws the Oscar away through Russell Crowe-like behavior that likely cost that actor the Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, he is a lock in that category.

Williams has a much smaller role, but has nearly as powerful an effect on the viewer as Affleck. Her scene on the sidewalk with Affleck toward the end of the film is one of the best-acted, most heartbreaking scene of two broken people trying to communicate. It’s a scene full of regret, love, unspeakable pain, and a near-complete inability to connect.

Hedges, as the nephew, is getting a great deal of attention, and his performance has the challenge of holding his own against the powerhouse performance by Affleck. This he manages to do, even if he isn’t quite as excellent as others are declaring, especially in his “losing it” scene, which reaches for the stars and only hits the moon. Still, it’s disturbing on some levels that his characterization of a “normal” teenager rings so true. (It’s been a while since I was raising teenagers, and it’s probably more accurate a portrayal than I’d prefer to be aware of.)

The film’s not perfect, but the imperfections are few. There is a fight scene that seems unmotivated. And then there is, sigh, the religious aspect. There is a scene of some minor but important characters (including a surprise casting choice) who are simply described as “Christian,” in this case, meaning religious, and presented as different from the traditional nominal Catholics that are the main characters. And as so often happens in Hollywood, the “Christian” characters’ faith is worn more on the outside than on the inside. There is also the common mistake of throwing in some aspects of classical Catholicism, traditional Protestantism, and evangelicalism in a strange combination that no one practices, but that it seems to represent modern believing Christians to filmmakers. Between the pictures on the wall, the praying, and the behavior, I wasn’t sure what these folks believed. In a film that is so specific about place, employment, behavior and relationships, it’s a misstep and aberration.

But aside from this common mistake, Manchester by the Sea is a powerful, touching, and occasionally devastating film. It’s easily one of the most original mainstream films this year, and Casey Affleck is, at least for the moment, the best Affleck in film.

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Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s film about the bravery of World War II medic Desmond Doss during the Battle of Okinawa, is an extraordinary film and a massive Rorschach test. This is Gibson’s return to directing after his monumental success with The Passion of the Christ and his next film, the bloody and controversial Apocalypto, released a full decade ago. It’s doubtful you’ll read any review or analysis of the film that isn’t somehow informed by the writer’s personal view of Gibson, his politics and his outbursts.

But as for the film itself…. This is a marvelously crafted, violent film in the model of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, but with a broader range of sensibilities, emotions, and gore. While Eastwood can make a film with a single focus and tone throughout, Gibson prefers to run the gamut of looks and tones, which in this case, serves the goals of the film rather well.

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was a real-life person of serious Christian faith–in his case, a Seventh-Day Adventist and pacifist. Gibson, as shown in The Passion of the Christ and here with Hacksaw Ridge, is able to present personal faith clearly and intelligently, and without irony or condescension. Outside of “Christian films,” most of which come nowhere near the level of craftsmanship here, that is a rarity in films. (More on that later.)

The film gives place to his beliefs, and while not endorsing them, at least acknowledges that this man believes what he believes, and those beliefs are a determining aspect of his thoughts and actions. What is especially refreshing and lifelike are the “What about…” questions that come in serious conversations with Doss about his personal faith. The script, as Casablanca’s script allows us to learn more about Rick (Bogart) through his many conversations in the early part of the film, brings forth the most logical questions that a commanding officer or fellow serviceman might have for a man like Doss. For some questions, Doss has answers that are well expressed. To other questions, he doesn’t have an answer. We don’t get a calm, otherworldly, slightly disconnected smile accompanied by angelic choruses, and neither do we have the proud intellectual putting the religious rube in his place. We have a real person who really believes, and can express it clearly.

Many have noted that there are two films here, or at least two distinct parts. The first is perhaps a little too sun-dappled and idyllic. Doss’ childhood was difficult, as his father was an angry alcoholic who wasn’t above physical abuse. But the tone of the first half, while not completely Andy Hardy, might have a bit too much warmth and honeyed at times. Gibson was obviously going for contrast, however, as the second part—Doss’ time in the military—goes from difficult to rough to tough to shockingly violent and gory.

Doss’ early days with his fellow servicemen is the rough to tough part. His refusal to pick up a gun creates all kinds of reactions, judgments and confusion, but this portion of the film helps establish and ultimately clarify the character’s focused convictions. He wants to be a medic, and he wants to save as many lives as he can in the service of this country. The strange thing, to his fellow servicemen and the officers, is that he really means it—all of it.

Once we get to the site of Doss’ greatest expression of bravery—at Hacksaw Ridge—we descend into hell. (There is even a shot of Doss moving from foreground to background through fire and smoke, and is one of cinema’s best visual analogies for choosing to go to hell to save others.) The entire long sequence makes the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan look like The Hunger Games. We as viewers experience the chaos, the brutality, and the intensity of a violent battle, and the carnage is relentless and brutal. There is a line in films where the visualization of an experience no longer supports but actually distracts from the viewer’s experience of it. Whether or not the shooting and slaughter pulls one in or pulls one out is a personal experience, and individual viewers may differ wildly on the effect of those images and sounds on their experience. Either way, the sequence is harrowing and intense, and a fitting background for the beauty of faith and self-sacrifice that Doss demonstrates.

Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Amazing Spider-Man), between this film and Scorsese’s upcoming Silence, has run himself through the ringer these past couple of years with two physically and emotionally demanding performances. Once a rather sweet and even “cute” presence in his films, he has graduated into manhood here with a solid, physical yet soulful performance. His eyes are as expressive as those of Claire Foy in this year’s Netflix series The Crown, which seemed to set a new standard for acting behind the eyes. Garfield gives an actor’s complete performance, from the silent to the action-filled, from the soft to the loud. There is a great deal of weight a film like this puts on its lead’s shoulders, and Garfield shoulders the burden fully.

Side note: Other countries often (rightly) complain when an American gets a role that “ought” to go to that country’s actor or actress (I’m thinking all the way back to Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 Pandora’s Box). Here it’s the opposite case. Aussie Gibson is telling an American story with Garfield (British mother), playing a man with Hugo Weaving (born in Nigeria of British parents, and spent much of his youth in Australia) as father, and Aussie Rachel Griffiths playing his mother. Once in the service, his captain is played by Brit Sam Worthington, and his closest enemy that turns into his friend is played by Aussie Luke Bracey. Even Doss’ girlfriend, a younger version of Rachel McAdams known as Teresa Palmer, is Australian. Were there no Americans available (he asked with tongue firmly in cheek)?

Hacksaw Ridge will likely be remembered for its central performance and incredibly visceral battle scenes. But perhaps its greatest achievement aside from its directorial skill and artistry is its unblinking and clear-eyed representation of faith on the screen. The reason for the more traditional false or distorted presentation of faith in cinema is that there isn’t a place in the minds and hearts and worldviews of many creatives in the film industry where true, un-hypocritical, non-psychotic faith can find a home, be understood, and therefore, be represented. In far too many films, faith is judged, not understood, and certainly not honored. To too many, religious faith can only be legalism, hypocrisy, or an expression of psychosis. (It can be exhausting for a person of faith to see real belief in God be so misrepresented time and again.) There is clearly some real animosity toward faith on the part of some, but generally, it’s just that a person’s worldview often can’t allow for its legitimacy in either their world or in the world they’re working to put on screen.

Lastly, the person of Mel Gibson will long be a factor in how people—and critics—view the film. It’s impossible to deny the talent behind the camera here, no matter what one’s view on either faith or violence or the director. But for a long time, this will be seen through the lens of the man who drunkenly spouted anti-Semitic rantings and who clearly has personal issues that erupt from time to time. If he were of another political persuasion or had no religion, those rantings would—rightly or wrongly—likely be long forgiven and long forgotten. Yet, still, in the art world, talent finally wins. And while most folks writing about this film in the future will see it, in time, for what it is—his well done, moving, complex, comeback film.

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Allied

Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, Cast Away) has created an unusual semi-old-fashioned war and romance film in Allied. Unfortunately, most of its early press had to do with its stars—Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard—and their non-existent romance that then had nothing to do with Brangelina’s demise. That’s unfortunate not because Allied is a great film, but because such irrelevant distractions tend to overshadow the issue of whether or not the film is even good.

It is good. And no more than that. It’s Casablanca crossed with television’s “The Americans,” with (spoiler alert) a smidge of Se7en. It can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a classically made, yet generally realistic, film in an old “movie-movie” style, or if its aim is to be a riff on those old films themselves. Zemeckis is sometimes more evocative than telling, and the world he’s created here hangs somewhere between studio-style dramatic and a glossy imitation that threatens to put costume and set design above the story itself. It’s beautiful to look at, and not only because of its two stars. Every radio, truck, chair, suit, dress and glass reminds us that we in the war years (think Mad Men over in wartime London).

Zemeckis is especially good with set pieces, and the film is chock full of them, though they thankfully don’t pull themselves apart from the rest of the film. Action sequences are clear, tense and believable. The sequence where a shot-down plane (in the middle of the London blitz) moves from being the occasion for cheer to becoming a life-threatening crash event (landing who knows where) is a highlight. It’s both a rarity and a sign of the film’s strength that these moments infuse the film with drama and energy rather than function as exciting standalone (and stand apart) sequences.

One thing that doesn’t work is the attempt to “update” the wartime story with so-called modern touches. It’s hard to tell if the F-bombs should be part and parcel of this story (since they’re not generally found in such logical places as battle scenes and activities with a bunch of drunken servicemen). There is also a shoe-horned lesbian relationship that is unrealistic only in its presentation; it’s “out and proud” and so fully and nonchalantly accepted by apparently everyone around them accepted that I thought I was in a time warp. It’s too much of a stretch to think that this relationship and the presence and use of cocaine wouldn’t at least be a tad controversial during the war years—or even commented on. If Zemeckis is simply doing a modern riff on studio-era wartime films, these flourishes might be considered his modern take on the world of the time. If he’s working to recreate the real world of World War II, then he or the script writer are imposing things that take the thinking viewer out of that world.

Of course, aside from the slick and glossy production elements, the film stands or falls on its two huge stars (again reminiscent of Casablanca). Pitt is a character actor with the face and physique of a leading man, and he often seems uncomfortable being the dramatic male lead in a way that actors such as his friend George Clooney do not. He seems to gravitate toward the edges of edgy characters and seems a little ill at ease here as he works to locate his inner leading man. (He also doesn’t sound like anyone who has grown up speaking, or even hearing, French; his accent is softly but strongly American.)

Marion Cotillard, one of the best actresses in the world, is something else altogether. It almost seems as she were trying to bring her brilliance down to Pitt’s level in the way that Gene Kelly brought down and adjusted his dance style to lesser dancers such as Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds. She is effortlessly good, but not in a way that signals to us that she is better than the film she’s currently acting in. (Take a look at her performances in La Vie en Rose and Two Days, One Night to see her reach heights that transcend those admittedly well-made films.) Perhaps her greatest feat here is meeting both Pitt and the film itself on their own level and working with them there.

In a world of noise and adolescent sensibilities, it is refreshing to enjoy an “adult” film that moves at a less than frenetic pace, that tackles issues that are serious, and keeps one guessing until near the end. Allied is too evocative to be as gripping as it could be. But with all its contradictions and confusions, it’s solid enough to be worth watching.

The best part of the film (another spoiler alert): the almost unnoticeable visual trick they play with the title credit.

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Arrival

When I experienced Arrival, I couldn’t help but think of the last line of “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot: “Not with a bang but a whimper.” While the plot—worldwide alien visitation and the struggle to communicate—sounds like many another action film or thriller, Arrival is muted, almost always pulling back and only allowing its punchy twist to emerge softly and almost delicately.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (probably best known for Sicario and Incendies), the film recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sixth Sense, Close Encounters of the Third KindInterstellar and Inception, but has little of the energy of those films. That’s not a criticism, just a description. Arrival is slow, beautiful, and conceptual. The photography is cool and elegant in a sci-fi Nancy Meyers way. Probably the strongest film element is the editing, which is deft and quietly whip-smart.

What the film does well is to integrate the personal story with the alien experience. The two elements aren’t balanced as much as they are each allowed to come to the fore when necessary, and the film ends up with a surprising focus on the human element. To say too much more in that regard would be to rob the viewer of the experience.

There are (spoilers ahead) a couple of glaring weaknesses, especially in a film reaching for originality and going full bore into the end-of-the-world questions that arise with most films dealing with the “Why are they here?” questions. One is the difficulty of trying to communicate with them, which is the entire reason for our lead character’s involvement. If spaceships can manage a dozen arrivals around the earth, why haven’t they figured out how to communicate with us?

Secondly, there is a rather tiresome display of machismo on the part of world leaders that seems to yank the viewer back to the 1950s in similar alien invasion films. I just didn’t buy the idea of countries wanting to attack the aliens when they so clearly had the upper hand technologically, and common sense dictated a different course.

The casting is key to the experience of the film as a whole, as this is essentially a two-person film. The main character is played by Amy Adams, a lovely presence and talented actress. Jeremy Renner, another talented actor, plays the other lead. As in a Hitchcock film, though, the main characters are simply part of the cool, recessive palette of the film. Neither Adams nor Renner is a strong lead in terms of a visceral film experience, and it can be argued that neither of them has demonstrated an ability to carry a film. I kept thinking of what a different and perhaps more relatable film it might have been with someone like Jessica Chastain in the lead. Chastain punches through the screen in all her roles, and would have owned the film in a way that the filmmakers may well not have wanted. The leads’ performances are solid, even touching at times, but they fade into the film as a whole, perhaps so as not to touch the heart or the nerves in the film’s quest to touch your mind.

Finally, the film seems like one that could have/should have been a short feature in the La Jetée category, as shorter films sometimes raise simple questions or make a simple statement that is meant to reside in the gut or the brain. Arrival raises legitimate questions about the human experience and relationships in a way that has nothing to do with aliens. But those questions come with the climax of the film, and in the context of a “save the earth” plotline that, after nearly two hours, tends to overshadow the power of its existential concerns.

Too, the film’s “exploration” of those concerns is a journey the viewer can only take in memory, once having seen the film. The Sixth Sense was similar in that regard, but was so emotionally engaging that it fairly demanded a quick re-viewing of the film. Arrival’s very coolness and muted pace, coloring and performances make the film’s climax—and its attendant discussable issues—soft, conceptual, and ephemeral. The twist is earned and the issues are well worth exploring. Ultimately, the film ends not with a bang, but a soft, sweet , but still enjoyable, whimper.

Arrival

 

When I experienced “Arrival,” I couldn’t help but think of the last line of “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot: “Not with a bang but a whimper.” While the plot—worldwide alien visitation and the struggle to communicate—sounds like many another action film or thriller, Arrival is muted, almost always pulling back and only allowing its punchy twist to emerge softly and almost delicately.

 

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (probably best known for Sicario and Incendies), the film recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sixth Sense, Interstellar and Inception, but has little of the energy of those films. That’s not a criticism, just a description. Arrival is slow, beautiful, and conceptual. The photography is cool and elegant in a sci-fi Nancy Meyers way. Probably the strongest film element is the editing, which is deft and quietly whip-smart.

 

What the film does well is to integrate the personal story with the alien experience. The two elements aren’t balanced as much as they are each allowed to come to the fore when necessary, and the film ends up with a surprising focus on the human element. To say too much more in that regard would be to rob the viewer of the experience.

 

There are (spoiler alerts ahead) a couple of glaring weaknesses, especially in a film reaching for originality and going full bore into the end-of-the-world questions that arise with most films dealing with the “Why are they here?” questions. One is the difficulty of trying to communicate with them, which is the entire reason for our lead character’s involvement. If spaceships can manage a dozen arrivals around the earth, why haven’t they figured out how to communicate with us?

 

Secondly, there is a rather tiresome display of machismo on the part of world leaders that seems to yank the viewer back to the 1950s in similar alien invasion films. I just didn’t buy the idea of countries wanting to attack the aliens when they so clearly had the upper hand technologically, and common sense dictated a different course.

 

The casting is key to the experience of the film as a whole, as this is essentially a two-person film. The main character is played by Amy Adams, a lovely presence and talented actress. Jeremy Renner, another talented actor, plays the other lead. As in a Hitchcock film, though, the main characters are simply part of the cool, recessive palette of the film. Neither Adams nor Renner is a strong lead in terms of a visceral film experience, and it can be argued that neither of them has demonstrated an ability to carry a film. I kept thinking of what a different and perhaps more relatable film it might have been with someone like Jessica Chastain in the lead. Chastain punches through the screen in all her roles, and would have owned the film in a way that the filmmakers may well not have wanted. The leads’ performances are solid, even touching at times, but they fade into the film as a whole, perhaps so as not to touch the heart or the nerves in the film’s quest to touch your mind.

 

Finally, the film seems like one that could have/should have been a short feature in the La Jetée category, as shorter films sometimes raise simple questions or make a simple statement that is meant to reside in the gut or the brain. Arrival raises legitimate questions about the human experience and relationships in a way that has nothing to do with aliens. But those questions come with the climax of the film, and in the context of a “save the earth” plotline that, after nearly two hours, tends to overshadow the power of its existential concerns.

 

Too, the film’s “exploration” of those concerns is a journey the viewer can only take in memory, once having seen the film. The Sixth Sense was similar in that regard, but was so emotionally engaging that it fairly demanded a quick re-viewing of the film. Arrival’s very coolness and muted pace, coloring and performances make the film’s climax—and its attendant discussable issues—soft, conceptual, and ephemeral. The twist is earned and the issues are well worth exploring. Ultimately, the film ends not with a bang, but a soft, sweet , but still enjoyable, whimper.

Posted in Film Reviews, Newer films | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment