December 30, 2016

The Best Movies of the Year, 2016 Edition

2016 was horrible in ways we never dreamed it could be. But in the midst of all the chaos and sadness and terror that was this year, there were the movies, offering us brief respites from the insanity. With that in mind, I want to recognize what may have been my favorite performance of the year: Kathryn Hahn’s crazy, all-bets-are-off turn in the otherwise mediocre comedy Bad Moms. Hahn’s delightful energy was the stick of dynamite that both Bad Moms and 2016 needed. Just seeing Hahn in the above photograph makes me giggly, and for a moment, it's as if this year never even happened. Unfortunately, it did. But hopefully Kathryn Hahn will keep making movies, and a year that produced films like Moonlight can’t be all bad.

So now, here are my ten favorite films of 2016:

10b. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!—Who would have guessed that a film about college dudes hanging out could be so charming and endearing? Writer-director Richard Linklater makes his dudes human, and invites us to laugh at their worst qualities without ever turning mean-spiritied. It’s a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, set four years later (1980), that feels authentic and rich. 

10a. THE WAILING—A chilling, funny, ambiguous horror film from South Korean director Na Hong-jin, about a plague of mass murder being visited upon a small town. A film that never ceases to surprise with its many layers.

9. THE MEDDLER—Susan Sarandon gives a great performance as a mom who can’t accept that her grown-up daughter (Rose Byrne) no longer needs her, until she does. A film that moves in all kinds of unexpected directions. Directed by Lorene Scafaria. 

8. DE PALMA—Filmmaker Brian De Palma gabs about his movies for 100 minutes. It’s a master class from a great if arrogant filmmaker, and anybody who loves movies should see it. Directed by Noah Baumbach. 

7. LITTLE MEN—Ira Sachs’ film about the friendship of two boys, which is jeopardized when their parents become embroiled in a real estate dispute. Charming and funny and heartbreaking. 

6. LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP—Jane Austen at her smartest and sharpest, distilled by director Whit Stillman, a modern-day Austen if ever there was one, and featuring delicious performances from Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. 

5. ARRIVAL—A somber yet beautiful alien encounter movie, starring Amy Adams as a linguist, recovering from personal tragedy, who’s enlisted to help US military officials decipher the language of an alien race. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. 

4. A BIGGER SPLASH—A movie about four volatile people spending too much time in each other’s company, set on the beautiful Italian island of Pantelleria, and featuring a captivating, mostly non-verbal performance from Tilda Swinton as a singer who’s lost her voice. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. 

3. LA LA LAND—Director Damien Chazelle’s ode to Hollywood musicals, and to Los Angeles, has its problems, but there’s no denying its enchanting hold over you.

2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA—Kenneth Lonergan unfolds yet another heartbreaking but often darkly funny family story for us, featuring powerful performances from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and newcomer Lucas Hedges.

1. MOONLIGHT—Barry Jenkins’ hauntingly beautiful story of Chiron, a gay black man growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami. 

Honorable Mentions: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Hell or High Water, Sing Street, The Edge of Seventeen, and American Honey.

December 29, 2016

Sleeping Beauty Ethics

If you could start your life over on a new planet, even if it meant going into hibernation and sleeping through 120 years to do so, would you? That’s the premise of Passengers, a new science fiction thriller which borrows from classics of the genre but reduces everything to the basics: a big, expensive ship, some pretty advanced robots, two humans in love, and a race against time. But instead of fighting aliens or evil corporations, they’re fighting technology, and not a malicious technology, but a malfunctioning technology. In reducing the science fiction drama to such a simply structured story, Passengers does what few of its ilk remember to do: it breathes. This is a movie that allows us to soak in the peculiar, mind-bending grandeur of being alone in outer space. But the film has a much bigger problem: its creepy Sleeping-Beauty ethics. (More on that later.)

That sense of the vastness of space permeates the great sci-fi movies, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and Alien: the power of these films lies in their ability to make us feel like we’re there, partaking in the trippy mysteries of the cosmos. So often, contemporary movies are afraid to invoke such feelings of awe and mystery. Instead, they hurl shiny, fast-moving images at us like we’re infants, easily entertained and just as easily bored, always subduable under the tyranny of the next, shinier, newer object. But Passengers has the patience to linger, and so we spend a lot of time alone with Jim Preston, the mechanic-hero played by Chris Pratt, and the first of the passengers to be wrested from hibernation. 

Jim comes off as a loner, someone predestined to leave Earth behind and spend the rest of his life alone on a spacecraft. He’s supposed to be the kind of guy nobody will miss, but of course, the movie must then convince us that he’s utterly missable, especially to Aurora, the fellow passenger (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who, while asleep, catches his eye (in a none-too-subtle reference to the “Sleeping Beauty” tale). When Jim watches her video interview, which he unearths through the passenger log, he's smitten. (Loneliness is a factor, but then again, she is being played by Jennifer Lawrence.) 

We see Aurora, a writer, explain her reason for leaving everything behind for a new, unknown planet being colonized by earthlings. She will travel 120 years, observe and write about this exciting new colony, and then return to earth in another century, having aged nary a year. It’s the story no other journalist will have, assuming journalism still exists in 250 years. (I’d be afraid that the world as we know it will have completely died out by then.) 

This greatest-scoop-ever is a clever gimmick to tempt a smart young woman into an otherwise ridiculous scenario. And these characters aren’t particularly well-developed. Aurora utters writerly pap such as, “I think we tell each other stories to know we’re not alone.” And Jim, when he realizes his predicament, telegraphs it for us: “I woke up too soon!” It sounds almost like the smarmy little kid in Home Alone who declares, “I made my family disappear,” only minus the smirking. 

Much like Jack Nicholson's character holed up in that big spooky hotel in The Shining, Jim cannot handle the isolation. (He's alone for over a year, and grows out his beard so that he resembles Kurt Russell in The Thing). The movie smartly revels in the knave-like scumminess of Jim's decision to wake Aurora, condemning her to his own fate and stealing her life, just so he won't be alone anymore. But then the movie goes out of its way to defend Jim, to endorse his love for her as somehow truer than the horribleness of this betrayal, and moreover, it tries to convince Aurora that she ought to surrender to love. Sleeping Beauty, rescued by this modern-day prince, ought to be grateful. She's awake, after all. 

Passengers would have been a terrific movie if not for this troubling development. Perhaps director Morten Tyldum fancies himself a romantic, although the scenario he and screenwriter Jon Spaights provide us is more on the level of Overboard, that 1987 romantic comedy where Kurt Russell convinces the amnesia-afflicted Goldie Hawn that she’s his wife and the mother of his unruly brood of boys, all for revenge. (I do love Overboard, but it's a problematic movie.) Ah, the timeless theme of men ruining the lives of women for their own gain; and the women, they may put up a good fight at first, but these movies always wear them down in the end. Surrender is inevitable. 

So, if you turn off your ethics, Passengers is an entertaining secondhand science fiction movie, bolstered by the presence of two of our most appealing young stars. And it’s effective and well-made, too. That’s the shame of it, that a movie can get so much right technically but proffer such disturbing views of the world. 

With Laurence Fishburne, giving the film some class as one of the briefly revived crew members, and Michael Sheen, giving the film some levity as the charming bartender-robot.

December 22, 2016

Elation and Fatigue in "La La Land"

The new musical La La Land, from Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of 2014’s Whiplash, is this year’s answer to The Artist. It’s a throwback to Old Hollywood, steeped in nostalgia. Musicals are so rare these days that many viewers may think of them as artifacts from a forgotten age, which they kind of are, and even when a musical does surface occasionally, it’s often of the self-conscious variety. As entertaining as La La Land is (and I’m placing it on my ten best of the year because I had such a good time at it), there’s something artificial about it, something artificial beyond the fact that it’s a musical and beyond the fact that it’s set in Hollywood. La La Land may be the cinematic equivalent to a day trip to DisneyLand: You’ve made the drive, paid the fare, and you’ve assured yourself you’re going to like it; and everything about the place—the sets, the characters, the costumes, the music, the rides—is practically screaming, “Love this, why don’tcha?” La La Land is charming to be sure, but if you think about it too much, it could fall apart. 

In the opening musical number, hundreds of motorists, stuck in a traffic jam on the 10, jump out of their cars and erupt into a cheerful, upbeat song about the L.A. sunshine, and it’s clear that these are all would-be showbiz people, who’ve packed up their belongings and moved to Los Angeles, or some suburban area on the outskirts of Los Angeles, hoping to fulfill their dreams. That’s where Chazelle’s millennial roots are showing. Singin’ in the Rain focused on silent-film-era Hollywood insiders having to prove themselves anew as the movies were making sound for the first time; in La La Land, they're all outsiders, constantly preening and rehearsing and marketing and networking themselves, because you never know what studio suit might be at that party, or which audition might be the one that garners a callback, or which bit part on a television series could lead to something more. La La Land is about possibilities in a world inundated with possibilities and choices, which is the reason that the romance between its stars, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, must be tinged with uncertainty. In La La Land, your dreams represent trade-offs. Maybe it’s a depressing sign of our modern cynicism, but if the movie let them have it all, it would feel like a cheat. 

The greatest thing about La La Land isn’t its musical numbers but its wistful musical tone, which is upbeat on the outside and melancholy on the inside: there’s a lovely, lachrymose theme that Ryan Gosling—who plays the struggling jazz pianist Sebastian—keeps picking away at on the piano, and it’s so entrancing and beautifully maudlin that it draws Mia (Emma Stone) into the piano bar where he’s performing, and that’s how they (sort of) meet. Indeed, La La Land experiences its emotions most fully in these songs (even when the emotions are canned, like in "Another Day of Sun"). And the songs aren’t particularly memorable or grand (although I’ve had "Another Day" stuck in my head all week); but they feel familiar and they have life in them, even if that life is distilled in a recycled and repackaged and shrewdly calculated form. 

That's where the film’s artificiality works for it: this is a secondhand musical, so we know the language, and Chazelle knows that he doesn't have to spell the emotional beats of the film out for us. He can focus instead on wooing us with the music and the gorgeous visuals, and the chemistry between Gosling and Stone, actors who play off each other marvelously, who convey tenderness or uncertainty or that over-the-moon feeling you get at the beginning of a romance, with just their eyes, or in the way Gosling flirtatiously pretends not to be into Stone, or the way Stone lets him woo her, fully knowing what he's up to. 

They’re lovers who don’t know they’re in love yet, and the pleasure is in watching how it will unfold. (Chazelle does keep us wondering if it will last, as dreams turn into opportunities that threaten to keep them apart.) In that big traffic sequence at the beginning, Sebastian honks at Mia because she’s distracted by her phone and isn’t paying attention to the road; she flips him off as he whizzes past her; later, in the piano bar, he breezes past her again, just as she tells him how beautiful his playing is. It's not until they meet a third time, at one of those apparently standard (and insufferable) industry parties, that sparks fly. As they’re walking to their cars in the purple-blue twilight, Gosling coos (his voice low like Dean Martin's but timid like Ricky Nelson's when they sing together in Rio Bravo) and Stone purrs in response (her voice is light and airy, but it grows). We could never fall in love with each other, they think, and the song lies, “what a waste of a wonderful night.” That’s the kind of lie we paid for, because we know it’s going to be proven false in about three seconds, when even the song happily loses its convictions.

Ryan Gosling, who’s started to grow on me as an actor (see his terrifically funny performance in The Nice Guys), has always displayed a certain indifference that to me alienates him from the audience. He embodies the blasé indifference of a Method actor, like James Dean but without Dean’s ambiguous persona, or like Brando without his electric energy. But in La La Land, Gosling’s subdued, hipsterish aversion to displaying emotion works to his advantage. It makes his eventual success seem almost inevitable, and it makes us less annoyed with his stubborn resistance to new ideas, if only because we don't take him seriously. (He’s a jazz traditionalist, wooed briefly into John Legend’s character’s band where he’s forced to play synthesizers and attend obnoxious photo shoots, and play the part of an L.A. music product.)

And there’s something flat in Gosling’s voice when he waxes on about the excitement of making your own art, without compromise. Does he even believe what he's saying? Or is it so obvious and assured for him, that he doesn't need to say it with conviction? Gosling's just as artificial as the movie. Fortunately, Emma Stone is never anything but genuine. Stone is the one we’re invested in: she’s clearly magnificently talented, but will any one of those agents or executives notice? Mia has attended one too many humiliating auditions, where rude, distracted studio execs stare blankly into their phones while she works herself into an emotionally wrenching state, showing off her acting chops to nobody. (As if anyone could ignore her.) And when Stone bats those big eyes of hers, it’s as though she’s Cupid, lassoing our hearts to the heart of this movie. We really ought to know better, but it’s like going to an amusement park: the elation and the fatigue become blurred sooner or later. 

December 21, 2016

Spare us, Kirk Cameron.

Recently, I hate-watched parts of Kirk Cameron’s 2014 “film” Saving Christmas (which you can find in full on Youtube). To call it a film would be somewhat misleading. It’s more of a treatise, in which Cameron, sitting by a crackling fire and donning a bright-red sweater, waxes sentimental about all the reasons he loves Christmas: “the fire, the lights, the presents, the carols and hymns, the children, the tree, even the hot chocolate!” 

Based on the title, you would think that Cameron is saving Christmas from the atheists and the liberals, who, according to many fundamentalist Christians, are trying to destroy Christmas. Cameron vaguely refers to these folks as one of the two “camps” trying to harsh his Christmas mellow, but he doesn’t use specifics, which frees him from the burden of supplying facts for his thesis that Christmas is under attack. But Cameron’s real target for this “film” is Christians who dislike the commercial elements of the holiday season (basically all the elements). 

In the movie, Cameron’s angry brother-in-law, subtly named “Christian,” is portrayed as a real Grinch because he dislikes how Christmas has been co-opted by pagan rituals and Capitalism. Kirk finds Christian hiding in the garage because Christian’s wife is throwing a Christmas party, and he just can’t handle all those people not getting Christmas right. Cameron proceeds to mansplain to Christian that he’s wrong: the tree is a symbol of Jesus’s death on the cross, and the giving of gifts a symbol of Jesus’s body being wrapped in cloths, and Santa Claus was actually a Christian who gave stuff to the poor and needy. No pagan shit here!

Saving Christmas dramatizes the thing I hate most about Christmas: the pressure to be happy, placed on us by arrogant, myopic blowhards like Kirk Cameron, who have wrapped their two favorite religions—Christianity and Capitalism—into one big dogma they can then valiantly “save” from non-existent threats. (I forgot Americanism, their other religion, which I guess turns it into a trinitarian dogma.) 

When religious entities like Liberty University (who helped fund this piece of shit) tell us that Christmas is under attack, and then tell us that consumerism is totally fine, and here’s a biblical justification for it, I want to reject their religion altogether. If these people are right about things, I don’t want to spend eternity with them. That sounds like hell to me. 

December 19, 2016

De Palma gabs, an Irish high school band apes Duran Duran, and a 1960s witch casts a Technicolor spell on the 21st century (and other reviews).

Below are short reviews of movies I never got around to writing about. 

De Palma. Legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables) sits down and gabs for 100 minutes about his career: the early days of the 1960s, making anti-establishment films and working with De Niro, the 70s, when he was at his peak as a filmmaker and working alongside Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and others during the most exciting period in American films, the shift his career took in the 80s, including some of his biggest successes (e.g. The Untouchables) and most humiliating disappointments (The Bonfire of the Vanities). De Palma also talks about other directors, including Hitchcock, a major influence on his work, and gives us a sense of how a director can truly be an artist, or how the corporate nature of Hollywood can destroy a director’s vision. Of course, it’s all coming from De Palma himself, a man who’s honest but not a little arrogant (a character trait we expect from great Hollywood directors). I’d love to see a sequel with actors, producers, writers, and crew members discussing De Palma. This movie’s a delight for any film lover, and you can rent it on iTunes.

Florence Foster Jenkins. Meryl Streep, playing the insane, syphilitic Florence (a woman who thought she could sing, and since she was rich and crazy, was allowed to), warbles and croons her way to Carnegie Hall. We could almost suspect that Darling Streep was making fun of herself, if it weren’t for the fact that she treats even this role like a dissertation. She’s done her homework, studied the most accurate and realistic way to be a terrible singer and a happy loon. Somehow, a studied performance of this kind rings false, and Florence Foster Jenkins isn’t good, but isn’t bad enough to be really amusing as a failure. It’s just Streep being artfully ridiculous, and suddenly, Ricki and the Flash doesn’t seem all that bad. 

The Handmaiden. Park Chan-Wook’s mesmerizingly produced but cold adaptation of Fingersmith, the trendy neo-Victorian thriller by Sarah Waters. The cinema police have declared it a masterpiece, because it is beautifully made, with many exciting shots and an elaborate and impressive production design by Seong-hie Ryu. But as beautifully hip as The Handmaiden is, the film never grabbed me. The story involves an impoverished girl named Sook-hee who becomes embroiled in a scheming young cad’s plot to marry a naive rich girl for her money. But there are plot twists upon plot twists, as there are in Waters’ novel. (The film is mostly faithful, except of course that it updates the setting from 19th-century London to early 20th century Japan). But Waters’ writing has always turned me off: she’s aping the Victorian style in a calculated way, and imposing her modern-day literary sensibility (one I find mostly unreadable) on the sensation fiction that was popular at the time, much of which was delightfully disposable. But with Waters, every word is steeped in meaning, like tea that’s become impossible to drink. The Handmaiden makes the same mistake: every object has been deified, and we’re suddenly not lost in a movie but trapped in a museum, with a numbing feeling that we’re supposed to be having a good time. 

The Love Witch. Anna Biller’s throwback to 1960s B movies and Technicolor (it was filmed on 35mm), laced with a little psychedelic occultism and some kind of anti-feminist feminism, in which Samantha Robinson plays Elaine, a self-described witch who’s got a yen for men, but can’t seem to keep them alive. It’s those love potions she keeps making in her witchy bachelorette pad in a big, gabled Victorian house that looks like the one Mary Richards lived in, if Mary Richards had been a spell-casting nymphomaniac. (And who knows what Mary did on her off-days.) When the film opens, we see Samantha driving in her convertible along the Pacific Coast highway, and it feels like an old movie just blew us a kiss from Cinema Heaven. The Love Witch goes on for two full hours, which is too long (the movies it imitates were all like an hour and some change), but it’s a canny, fun, strange, at times hilarious movie about women consumed with their need to be loved. When Elaine and her boyfriend—a strapping detective named Griff—are walking in the woods and stumble across some kind of traveling Medieval circus run by Elaine’s occultist friends, I’m reminded that we should never lose hope in the movies if somewhere, Anna Biller can make a movie as deliriously nutty as this one. 

Sing Street. John Carney, director of the 2007 musical Once, offers another music-obsessed film, in which a group of high school boys form a band called ‘Sing Street’ (named after their oppressive Catholic secondary school). It’s set in the 1980s in the wake of MTV, and Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who’s never really been interested in making music (unlike his older brother Brendan, a has-been college-dropout, played with heart by Jack Reynor), takes a liking for a beautiful young model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). (This movie, incidentally, is the first time I've seen a defense of MTV as the purveyor of a new art form, the music video, rather than the death knell of rock 'n' roll.) The band is his attempt to impress her. But when he teams up with Eamon (Mark McKenna), a musical prodigy who wears big glasses like John Lennon, the band becomes more than just an after-thought. Sing Street has its flaws (when the boys seek out the only black kid in their school because they assume he’s musical, they’re right, and they welcome him into the band, but the movie never fleshes out his character, which makes their tokenism John Carney’s tokenism). But what I love about Sing Street is its exuberant love of its characters and its reminder of why people first fall in love with the creative process: it’s a way to express our rage at the world. And who could resist a movie that channels its rage into something as charming and fun as this?

Too Late. A disappointing L.A. noir starring John Hawkes as a private eye looking for a missing girl. The film plays around with time and narrative, acting like a Modernist novel, and reveals its big plot points early and then shows us how those things happened. Writer-director Dennis Huack shows some promise as a filmmaker: he clearly has a vision and a desire to subvert genres, but he’s maybe too influenced by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and other “hip” filmmakers, and less attuned to what makes a film noir really work. The fragments of meaning and truth Huack gives us in Too Late seem less important when the movie’s soap-opera-like plot comes fully into the light, and suddenly, “playing around with narrative” feels less like a literary device and more like an amateurish gimmick.

December 10, 2016

"Nocturnal Animals": A cautionary tale about the dangers of marrying bad writers

At first, Nocturnal Animals feels like a riff on movie thrillers: It’s set in Los Angeles, where Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, the owner of a hip (and bankrupt) L.A. art gallery, and the opening sequence features various, nude, obese middle-aged and elderly women, dancing and flaunting their jiggly bodies with audacious confidence: Edith Massey on the outside and Marilyn Monroe on the inside. (Edith Massey was the snaggletoothed, ditzy, delightfully mad older woman who appeared in many of John Waters’ early films, including Pink Flamingos and Polyester). During the show’s after-party, Susan makes conversation, spilling her guts (about her frustrated marriage) to a funky-looking artist-friend, whose big curly hair and long, flowing dress and big earrings seem pickled in the 1970s: she looks like the kind of gaudy woman who’d end up stabbing someone to death in a Dario Argento horror film. There are shades of Brian De Palma, and even whispers of that delightfully awful 1994 film Color of Night, the worst erotic thriller ever made (one that is incredibly watchable in all its glorious badness). 

These impressions might spell a derivative but lewdly entertaining movie, especially in the hands of writer-director Tom Ford, who first worked as a production designer and whose eye for beauty is so keen in the not-entirely-successful but gorgeous 2009 film A Single Man. But Nocturnal Animals makes a number of disappointing structural blunders. Much of the film dramatizes the novel Susan is reading, a manuscript she receives from her ex-husband, Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Susan’s marriage ended badly, because she cheated on Edward (with her current husband, played by Armie Hammer), and the movie emits a grim energy, as though this novel, which is violent and disturbing and clearly borrows from Edward’s past with Susan, is some kind of revenge fantasy. (He even dedicated it to her.)

The novel and its dramatization are nasty and unappealing to Susan, and to us. The story involves a family being accosted by three psychopaths in an isolated part of Texas in the dead of night. The husband, Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), is left for dead, his wife and daughter are raped and murdered, and the killers vanish without a trace, until a dogged, lung cancer-afflicted investigator (Michael Shannon), helps Tony track them down. 

Because she has nothing to do but read a book, Susan's only active participation in the story must occur in flashbacks, where we see Susan and Edward, once childhood friends, falling in love, against the will of Susan’s Southern-belle mama, played by Laura Linney, with her hair all poofed up and a delightful Blanche Devereaux-esque accent that I could listen to for days. (Tom Ford clearly has an affinity for brassy, bossy women, yet Linney’s character gets minimal screen time, and Susan Morrow is practically a blank.) Mama didn’t approve of Edward because he was poor and sensitive, but Susan married him anyway, and now, everything her mother said would happen has happened: “The things you love about him now are the things you will hate about him in a few years,” she says softly, her threatening prophecy steeped in matronly tenderness. 

When a movie makes its main character passive, it better have a darn good reason. Jimmy Stewart, confined to a wheelchair in Rear Window, turns into a neighborhood snoop, out of boredom, and when he witnesses a murder, enlists his girlfriend Grace Kelly and his physical therapist Thelma Ritter to help him prove it. Thus, Alfred Hitchcock made Stewart’s character active by proxy. But Nocturnal Animals doesn’t know what to do with Amy Adams’ character. There’s nothing compelling about Susan, which makes her passiveness all the more dull. Thus, for Susan, everything hinges on the narrative revealed to us in flashbacks, but those aren’t compelling either. She essentially becomes unhappy with her current husband, and ditches him for another one. 

And so Nocturnal Animals alternates between blandness and nastiness. Laura Linney’s performance, as well as the performances of Shannon and of Aaron-Taylor Johnson (as one of the killers), give the film some vitality, but it’s not enough to save the film from its own bad plot. The final scene, when Susan goes to meet Edward for dinner and he stands her up, should be an emotionally powerful moment. But Susan hasn’t been enough of a cold bitch to warrant our hate, and she’s not sympathetic enough for us to care about her. Moreover, Susan’s judgment has really gone downhill: She criticized Edward’s writing when they were together, but now she raves about this crappy novel in an email she sends him. Then again, she agreed to meet with Edward for drinks in the first place, another sign that her judgment is not to be trusted. Anyone who dedicates a novel like this to you, should be avoided at all costs. 

December 09, 2016

"Manchester by the Sea" is the feel-sad movie of the year.

With Manchester by the Sea, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan returns as the master of the sad family drama, although after you watch a Kenneth Lonergan movie, you start to wonder if there’s any other kind. What sets Lonergan apart from so many other filmmakers is his deep commitment to the moral failings of his characters. We want them to wake up, to change their lives for the better, to say “I’m sorry” and “I love you”, but so many of them “just can’t beat it,” as Lee, the main character in Manchester, finally admits. 

Lonergan’s directing debut, You Can Count on Me, was the gem of 2000, a supposedly bad year for movies, that featured wonderful, heartfelt, and delightfully nutty performances from Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as a dysfunctional brother and sister coming to terms with the tragic deaths of their parents—when they were small children—and so many other things that have happened to them in the subsequent twenty years of their lives. Manchester By the Sea likewise hinges on several tragedies, one of them in the present (the death of Lee’s brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler in flashback), and one from the past, rearing its head like a specter and consuming Lee apparently for good.

As Lee, Casey Affleck gives a heartbreaking performance. In an early scene, he’s drinking at a bar and erupts in anger at two strangers, because they're staring at him. The chip on Lee's shoulder weighs him down, and anger is the only emotion he can produce; it wells up uncontrollably and spills out into the lives of everyone around him. But we get the impression Lee’s always been sort of an asshole, even before all the funerals that have left him emotionally dead. He’s a gruff, tough, wise-talking blue-collar boy from Manchester, Massachusetts, and when he’s called back to his hometown (now he’s a handyman living in Quincy, just outside Boston) because of Joe’s unexpected death, everyone knows him, and quite a few people mutter under their breath, “that was him. Lee Chandler.” 

The film revolves around the relationship between Lee and his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, giving a funny, salty, and sharp performance). Lee reluctantly assumes guardianship over his nephew, and the two of them eke out some kind of existence, although Lee keeps threatening to move them back to Boston, despite the fact that Patrick’s life—his two girlfriends, his athletics, his rock band, and his dad’s boat, which has been left to him—are all there in Manchester.

But there’s too much life in Manchester for Lee, or too much death, rather. As the two of them drive to a neighboring town to arrange Joe’s memorial, they pass a graveyard, and Lee remarks to Patrick, “there’s no funeral home in Manchester, but the cemetery’s here.” Manchester itself becomes a monument to Lee’s grief, and to the life he once had with his children and his ex-wife Randi (played by Michelle Williams, whose performance is so good she even wrings a few tears out of Affleck’s hardened Lee). 

And even though Manchester by the Sea is sure to squeeze the moisture out of its audience by the gallon, the film isn’t just a somber tearjerker. Lonergan is too invested in the humanity of his characters to leave out humor, even at its darkest, like when, in a flashback, a doctor tells Joe he has congestive heart failure. “It’s a bad disease,” the doctor says, trying to be honest and sounding too glib; “What’s a good disease?” Joe asks, and Joe’s wife, Elise, storms out of the hospital room, unable to laugh at such a frightening moment. Patrick, though grieving his father's death, doesn't stop being a teenage boy: his multiple attempted conquests with one of his girlfriends comes to mind, or the moments when he scolds his uncle for being socially awkward, or when, during Joe’s funeral, we can hear the vibrations of Patrick’s cell phone from a text he’s receiving, layered under the classical piece that scores the entire sequence. 

Lonergan masterfully curates the music for certain dramatic sections of the film, including the afore-mentioned funeral, during which Lee and Patrick greet numerous guests, among them Randi, who's remarried and expecting another child. Just about any dialogue Lonergan might invent would probably be trite or at the very least repetitive; the music in these scenes (he uses Handel, Massenet, Albinoni, and Poulenc) speaks something truer than words, on an emotionally true level that deepens our own response, letting these composers' music fill in the emotional beats: such juxtapositions could easily veer toward the self-important or the histrionic, but Lonergan knows the line of tragedy and comedy and he and his actors walk it with an astonishing finesse. And in the process, the film becomes all the more personal to the viewer. These characters don't do what we expect them to in movies; they do what they do, because they've become as human as anyone we know in real life. That's what makes the hurt so good. 

Indeed, Manchester by the Sea will tear out your heart and put it back and stitch you up. It won’t tell you it loves you, but it will love you in its own way, perhaps with its remarkable mixture of brutal honesty and tenderness. There’s no better film to see during the Christmas season, when the pressure to be happy is unbearable, and you need a beautifully made, perfectly structured feel-sad movie to keep you company. I loved it. 

With Gretchen Mol, C. J. Wilson, Matthew Broderick, Kara Hayward, and Erica McDermott.

December 05, 2016

"Allied" may be a calculating WW2-era romance, but it's hard to care when the film is so marvelously effective.

Allied, a World War II-era romantic thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as spies from Canada and France, is a film with a split personality. In the first third or so, Allied plays like a conventional adventure-romance, something akin to Casablanca—and indeed the movie makes obvious references to the great Bergman and Bogart love story, such as the fact that it’s set in Casablanca in 1942. But then the film shifts in tone, becoming something darker and more somber for our spy-heroes, after fate twists their fake romance into a real one, and questions of nationality and loyalty become blurred in the name of love.

The movie opens with a hell of a shot: Brad Pitt, as Max Vatan, a Canadian spy working for British intelligence, parachuting onto the Moroccan desert. Pitt knows how to make an entrance, and the scene feels like something out of a James Bond. Upon arriving in Casablanca, Max quickly finds Marianne (Cotillard), who’s lunching with some French and German friends, all of them Nazi sympathizers. Marianne introduces Max as her husband, a character for whom Marianne has already amassed an array of details, even taking the time to furnish a wardrobe for him. Max is happy to play along, even beyond the typical calls of the job. That night, on the roof of their apartment, Marianne kisses Max, and the act of playing at love ignites the real thing. Of course, their mission also fuels their passion: Nothing binds two people together quite like assassinating a Nazi ambassador: Allied accepts the premise of every Bond movie that espionage is an aphrodisiac.

But Allied isn’t a James Bond movie. Director Robert Zemeckis, working from a script by Stephen Knight, goes for our emotional jugular, an act which is both cruel and satisfying. As a protegé of Steven Spielberg (who in his early career especially could transmute pop into art that moves us), Zemeckis instinctively wants to give us an emotionally big thriller, and the movie goes down some dark passages to fulfill that desire. Zemeckis lunges for significance with big themes and big emotions. You may feel like you're being manipulated, and yet, that may be half the fun.

Brad Pitt's performance jostles between effective and insufficient. At times he lacks the equipment to handle the emotional ups and downs of Max Vatan's life. However, at 53, Pitt is in terrific shape, and he's still convincing when he brandishes a machine gun or pilots an airplane or punches somebody's lights out. And to Brad Pitt's credit, he doesn't resort to histrionics, as though he were forcing himself into a more emotional performance, when a scene turns dark. Instead he turns stoic, like a pillar of marble. And maybe that's the right instinct of a star who knows his strengths and his weaknesses.

And then there's Marion Cotillard, dark and brooding, who also evokes that Old Hollywood star quality, and who has a vivid, almost palpable spark of life inside her. Cotillard commands our attention with those dark eyes and red lips and her somberly romantic expression: She can appear tragic even when she isn’t; she's alluring, deceptive, mysterious, like a modern-day Ingrid Bergman, so how could anyone--including Brad Pitt--resist her? In a sense, Pitt belongs in the first version of this movie, the one that keeps the tragedy of the war at an arm’s length; Cotillard, we sense, has been living inside the other movie all along, waiting for the tables to turn.

But the two work marvelously well together, fortunately, and even if Robert Zemeckis is a calculating director, meticulously assembling all the right elements, his stars twist the material back into something with heart. Zemeckis smartly knows that we must care about them in order to care about this movie. His calculations pay off, too, when the relationship between Max and Marianne collides into worldwide conflicts, like in a tense party scene at their home in suburban London, in which the city is besieged by a Nazi blitz, and a German fighter plane turns into an infernal torpedo and descends right toward their house. Never has the blitz felt more terrifying to someone who wasn't alive when it actually happened. And if Allied is calculating and cruel, it's also magnificently entertaining and, in the end, sobering.

With Jared Harris, Matthew Goode, Lizzy Caplan, Anton Lesser, August Diehl, Simon McBurney, and Camille Cottin.