The Shape of Water (2017)


Sally Hawkins contemplates a potential Oscar nomination.

(2017) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

A bird may love a fish, the saying goes, but where would they live? Some romances, it is true, face greater obstacles than others.

Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a ratty apartment above a movie theater along with gay commercial artist Giles (Jenkins) who is as lonely as Eliza is. She works as a janitor at a top-secret government lab on the outskirts of Baltimore along with her friend Zelda (Spencer) who nags her about being habitually late to work.

Into the lab comes “the most valuable asset” that they’ve ever hosted; an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who was discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, worshiped as a god by the natives. Security director Richard Strickland (Shannon) sees the creature as a potential means of putting the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the space race which to this point in 1963 have been kicking America’s butt.

Strickland is under all kinds of pressure to deliver useful information but his scientists, particularly Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) are a bit hesitant to do the kind of research that Strickland is urging them to do – the kinds of things Dr. Mengele had no problem doing. Strickland becomes further enraged when, during a session when he is using an electric cattle prod on the creature, two of his fingers are cut off. Strickland, always what you might call tightly wound, suddenly finds himself wrapped even closer to absolutely losing it.

But Eliza is drawn to the creature; she finds it to be gentle and non-judgmental and like herself, unable to communicate verbally. The creature is drawn to her kindness – she feeds it hard-boiled eggs and plays jazz on a portable phonograph she smuggles in. However, it has come to the attention of Gen. Hoyt (Searcy) who is in charge of the project that the Russkies are aware of the creature and have designs on it themselves. Eliza overhears the plan – to vivisect the creature and learn as much as they can before the Russians either kidnap the creature or destroy it in such a way that the Americans can learn nothing.

Eliza decides that’s not going to happen and enlists the help of Giles in getting her help. Zelda is reluctantly drawn in and when Dr. Hoffstetler discovers what she’s up to, gives her tacit assistance. Eliza takes the creature home to live in her bathtub, waiting for the right time to release it into a canal that leads to the ocean and can lead the creature back home but the two have begun…umm, mating and saying goodbye is not going to be easy for either of them, particularly since neither one can speak.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-told stories of the year. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film, combined with a kind of classic Hollywood feel (there is a fantasy sequence in which Eliza finds voice and sings and dances with the creature which sounds hokey but when you see it you’ll understand how brilliant and how heartbreaking the sequence is). Add to that bits of horror and cold war-era spy thrillers and you have a movie that could have easily been a mess but in the hands of a great director – and make no mistake, that is exactly what Del Toro is – becomes a tour de force, a masterpiece in shades of green and blue.

Hawkins is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar nod for Best Actress this year and with good reason. She has to perform almost entirely with body language and facial expressions. She wears her emotions plain to see throughout, engaging in an impromptu tap dance when she’s feeling playful, or resting her head against a bus window when she is contemplative. She hunches over as a person who doesn’t want to be noticed does, as someone who has been ridiculed and disregarded her entire life does. I don’t pretend to understand the Academy’s mindset but if it were me, I’d just hand Hawkins the statuette right now and save everyone the bother but that’s just me.

The fantastic supporting cast doesn’t let Hawkins down either. Jones gets a complicated and believable costume to create his character; Jenkins shows his most compassionate and frazzled sides as Eliza’s quirky and often incompetent friend. Spencer gets a role on par with her Oscar-winning performance in The Help and Stuhlbarg who has an Oscar nomination under his belt already takes a giant leap forward in proving that wasn’t a fluke.

The production design is near perfect. The lighting and color scheme emphasizes shimmering greens and blues, giving the entire film a kind of underwater look even when the action takes place above the surface. The industrial look of the lab has almost an art deco look to it; the space age sheen of futuristic buildings recalling the 1965 World’s Fair are absent here. This lab is a dreary place where people go to do repetitive, dehumanizing tasks and lose just a little bit more of their souls every time they clock in. I think we’ve all had jobs like that.

There is an awful lot of sexuality and nudity in the film as the romantic relationship between Eliza and the amphibian becomes physical. While it is handled in my opinion with dignity and restraint, some might find even the hinting of interspecies sex to be completely beyond the pale. I can understand that, truly, but it would be a shame to cheat yourself out of one of the year’s best movies – if not THE best – because of a little fantasy sex.

Some might find the ending hokey but I took a different tack with it. Jenkins delivers bookending voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie; my take is that we are seeing events as Giles imagined they occurred; what really happened once the amphibian exits from view is up to conjecture and Giles admits as much. I kind of hope that’s what “really” happened to although life rarely has that kind of grace. Thank goodness that filmmakers like Del Toro do.

REASONS TO GO: Hawkins has a very good shot at an Oscar nomination. The story is touching and beautifully told. This is a godsend for the discerning moviegoer. Great supporting performances all around and wonderful set design enhance the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexuality may be more than some can handle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sexuality and nudity as well as some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Del Toro turned down Pacific Rim: Uprising to direct this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady in the Water
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Dark Tower

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Novitiate


Melissa Leo looks ready to rap someone on the knuckles with a ruler.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo, Denis O’Hare, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Chris Zylka, Ashley Bell, Rebecca Dayan, Chelsea Lopez, Marco St. John, Joseph Wilson, Jordan Price, Kamryn Boyd, Lucie Carroll, Lucy Hartselle, Carlee James, Adele Marie Pomerenke, Lisa Stewart. Directed by Maggie Betts

 

“Get thee to a nunnery” doesn’t have quite the same punch it once did. These days, Catholic nuns are women who feel a calling to serve God but minus the brutal discipline and somewhat arcane rules that once governed convents around the globe. One of the turning points in this evolution was the ecumenical council known as Vatican II which in its day revolutionized the Catholic church virtually overnight. Not everyone welcomed the changes that it brought, however.

Cathleen (Qualley) is a young woman who has been raised by her mother Nora (Nicholson) after her booze addled dad (Zylka) left which, in the 1950s and early 1960s was a much more unusual situation than it is now. She is not Catholic but when free schooling at a private Catholic school is offered, Nora – who is not religious in the least – takes it, hoping that it will give Cathleen a better education.

However, Cathleen finds the Catholic religion intriguing and feels that joining the novitiate is where her future lies – to become a bride of Christ. She joins the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, the convent headed up by a conservative old school Mother Superior (Leo) who takes her vows very seriously and expects her charges to do the same. All of their devotion is to be channeled towards God and Cathleen and her fellow postulates – the first stage of becoming a nun – are only too glad to comply.

The 18 fresh-faced dewy-eyed charges who are preparing to be symbolically married to Christ are trained by the flinty Mother Superior and the softer Sister Mary Grace (Agron) to be perfect wives to their husband-to-be because Christ deserves no less than perfection. This leads to terrifying sessions where the Mother Superior gathers the novitiates – who have graduated from the postulate rank to the second stage of becoming a full-fledged Sister – in a circle and orders them to confess their flaws that keep them from being perfect, reducing most of the girls to sobbing wrecks. Mary Grace is troubled by the brutal tactics of her Mother Superior and the two clash on a regular basis.

However, despite her mother’s disapproval Cathleen is determined to be the perfect bride of Christ and while that wins her the admiration of the Mother Superior, the discipline and self-starvation that Cathleen puts herself through begins to worry her fellow novitiates as she becomes dangerously thin.

To the film’s credit, it dispenses of the usual nun stereotypes that Hollywood generally utilizes; the Sister Mary Discipline knuckle rapping (although the Mother Superior at times comes close) or the singing nuns of The Sound of Music and The Singing Nun. Betts is cognizant that these postulates (and later, novitiates) are mostly teenage girls with all that implies; the girls are emotional ranging from ecstasy (celebrating like giddy brides after the ceremony that elevates them to novitiate status) to agony (falling apart when the stern Mother Superior gets in their face about minor rule infractions). These scenes tend to be the most memorable in the movie.

Much of the praise has to go to Leo, an Oscar winner who has a good shot at another nomination here for Best Supporting Actress; certainly this is one of the finest performances in a career chock full of them. When she reads the changes affecting her order wrought by Vatican II – including one that essentially demotes nuns to the same status as regular parishioners, giving them no standing within the church which, as the film notes at the end, would lead to more than 90,000 nuns renouncing their vows. Qualley, who most will know from her HBO series The Leftovers is also very strong and shows some confident screen presence. Agron from Glee also is impressive in a smaller role, but this even though the movie is about Sister Cathleen it is very much Leo’s performance that drives it.

The movie, a scoosh over two hours long, does drag in places, particularly during the middle. There is also a scene where Cathleen, desperate for intimacy and human contact, demands comfort from a fellow novitiate which leads to what feels like a prurient and unnecessary make-out session which felt like it didn’t need to be there.

The Catholic Legion of Decency has condemned the movie and I can understand why; the Roman Catholic church is portrayed as almost cult-like in places and devout Catholics may be uneasy watching this, although it should be kept in mind that the film takes place more than 50 years ago and things were a lot different in the Church and in her convents then than they are now.

Nonetheless this is a strong feature film debut for Betts and even though there are a couple of missteps and could have benefited from a little more trimming, she shows herself to be an exciting new voice in filmmaking at a time when Hollywood can use more powerful female directors – well, it always can but now more than ever.

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances here, particularly from Leo who takes it to the next level. Some of the scenes are extremely powerful. The filmmakers generally refrain from using stereotypes of nuns.
REASONS TO STAY: Some Catholics may have some issues with the film. The film runs a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, discussions of sexuality as well as brief nudity and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Doubt
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey


Life’s a beach.

(2017) Coming of Age (Ocean) Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, Valerie Rae Miller, Adele René, James Austin Kerr, John-Paul Lavoisier, Madison Iseman, Eric Henry, Samira Izadi, Kris Park, Shamar Sanders, Robert John Brewer, Nandini Minocha, James Liddell, Thomas Archer, Evelyn Lorena, Jessica Bues, Kathryn Jurbala. Directed by Terry Sanders

 

Growing up is no easy task. It never has been. Growing up in 1966, for example; kids had a lot on their plate. The Vietnam war was raging, sexual revolution was in full swing, drugs were becoming a thing, the atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets was a real worry and parents were becoming absorbed in their own issues, so much so that they didn’t have time to think about their kids who were floundering in the surf without a life preserver in sight.

Liza (Madison) is a sweet girl. She plays the cello in the school orchestra, and is interested in the social interests of the day – the war, racial injustice, and so on. Ever since her father inexplicably killed himself, she and her mother (Minter) have been distant. Mom is certain that Liza hates her; Liza doesn’t hate her mother so much as is puzzled by her. Liza’s been dating another sweet boy, Brett (Scully). Liza is also reaching her sexual awakening. She’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want to remain that way. Curious and forthright, she feels the need to ask her cello teacher (René) about her experiences with men. Of course, being an awkward 15-year-old, she phrases it this way – “You’ve slept with a lot of men, haven’t you?”

Unfortunately for Liza, her mother doesn’t approve of Brett and tries to set her up with an older guy who turns out to be a lot less nice than mom thinks. Mom’s horrible boyfriend (Lavoisier) also makes an attempt to “seduce” Liza although most would call it an attempted rape. Worst of all, Brett who ha been living with his aunt, has been summoned by his father to live with him in New York which will mean the end of his nascent relationship with Liza. Determined to be “his first,” she and Brett take a road trip on his Triumph motorcycle (another reason Mom is less than overjoyed about Liza’s taste in boys) up the California coast, meeting up with creepy hotel clerks, happy hippies and redneck bikers most of whom have designs on Liza.

Sanders won an Oscar producing a documentary; that’s to the good. To the bad, he’s an octogenarian trying to tell the story of a teenage girl’s sexual coming of age. I don’t think he got the memo that there are some stories to tell that old men probably don’t have a clue about. I’m not saying that only teenage girls can make movies about teen girls discovering their sexuality but I think it helps if the filmmaker was a teen girl at some point.

The micro budget for the film didn’t allow for a real immersion into 1966 so there are mainly inserts of news footage, anti-war handbills posted on walls and shots of areas of Los Angeles that haven’t changed much since that era. There are also a smattering of era jargon like “groovy” and “far out.”

The dialogue here is more than cringeworthy, it is basically unlistenable. Real human beings don’t talk like this. Real human beings never talked like this. It doesn’t help that the cast is obviously uncomfortable with the words they’re speaking as their delivery of said dialogue is mega-stiff, as if the actors know that the words they’re speaking are anything but authentic. I would feel for the cast except there is a real sense that none of them want to be there. The delivery is rushed, the body language between Brett and Liza is unconvincing and none of the performances stand out. From a writing standpoint it feels like a juvenile novel written by someone who can’t remember what it is to be young.

There are some sweet moments – as when Liza dances to the ad jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes, singing along with the catchy tune – and then sneering to Brett “We’ve come a long way baby. Now we can get cancer too.” It’s one of the better lines of dialogue although it may be anachronistic; I am not sure the surgeon general’s report on the link between cancer and cigarettes had come out by 1966. It may have but I can’t be bothered to look it up as I normally would; I don’t think enough of my readers are going to bother to see this. Needless to say, sweet moments like that are few and far between in the film.

The movie is a mess unfortunately. The cast is young and earnest and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by the film. There are plenty of good movies being made and hopefully some of them will find one to sink their teeth into; it’s truly hard to make a determination of underlying talent when a movie is so magnificently fouled up from a writing and directing standpoint. However, I have to say that this is extraordinarily hard to sit through and I feel as if I should get some sort of medal for doing so. Feel free to check it out if you have a masochistic streak in you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO GO: There is some sweetness in some of the scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is absolutely dreadful. The acting is stiff and unrealistic and the actors are obviously sending strongly worded emails to their managers about choosing better projects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a smattering of profanity, plenty of sexuality and a couple of scenes of attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title is taken from the 1929 George Gershwin song “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” the best-known version of which was performed by Al Jolson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

Hidden Figures


When all else fails - dance!

When all else fails – dance!

(2016) Biographical Drama (20th Century Fox) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause, Ken Strunk, Lidya Jewett, Donna Biscoe, Ariana Neal, Sanlyya Sidney, Zani Jones Mbayise. Directed by Theodore Melfi

 

Here in the United States we are justifiably proud of our space program. NASA has done some mind-blowing things when you consider our humble beginnings in the Space Race. Back in 1962, it wasn’t certain that we would succeed at all.

Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a math prodigy employed by NASA’s Virginia facility. So are her friends Mary Jackson (Monáe), an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) who is the de facto supervisor of the computer division – the group of mostly African American women who crunch numbers at the facility. The Space Race is in full bloom and even though NASA has gotten Alan Shepherd into space, they haven’t yet achieved orbit with an astronaut which is also something that the Soviet Union hasn’t been able to do either. John Glenn (Powell) is the candidate for the orbital mission, but the mathematics don’t exist yet to safely get Glenn into orbit and back to Earth again. Time is ticking as NASA has some intense political pressure on them to deliver.

In this office, most of that pressure falls on Jim Harrison (Costner) and his engineers, led by Paul Stafford (Parsons) and things aren’t going well. After some spectacular failures, Harrison needs someone to double check the math of the engineers and the prim and proper supervisor (Dunst) of the computer pool taps Vaughan to suggest someone and she in turn suggests Johnson.

She couldn’t have chosen better. Johnson is a legitimate genius, perhaps more so than the white male engineers and as she begins to clean up their efforts, she shows Harrison that she might be the one to invent a new form of mathematics that will get Glenn into orbit and home again without burning him to a cinder, or sending his spacecraft into a trajectory that takes it beyond where he can get home again.

At the time IBM was building its first supercomputers and installing one in Virginia had turned out to be a much more daunting task than they had at first envisioned. Vaughan, realizing that this computer will put her and the women of the computing division out of a job, learns programming on her own and helps get the system up and running. In the meantime, Jackson – ably assisting chief engineer Karl Zielinski (Krupa) needs to take classes to get her degree so she can progress further. Unfortunately, the only night courses she can take are being taught at a segregated high school which she can’t legally attend.

There are all sorts of petty humiliations associated with the segregation culture of its time; Johnson is forced to take long breaks to scurry the mile and a half to the nearest colored bathroom since she can’t use the whites only bathroom in her own building. She also is not allowed to drink from the same coffeepot as the others. The pressure of the job is keeping her away from her children and her new husband, a dashing Army officer (Ali) much longer than she would like. Will she crack under all this pressure?

One of the things that has irritated some critics about the film is that much of the segregation sequences are essentially manufactured. The bathroom incidents, for example happened to Jackson, not Johnson and while Vaughan became an essential computer programmer for NASA, her role in getting the computer installed was overstated here. However, keep in mind that this is a movie based on the experiences of actual people – it’s not a history lesson per se and is meant to be entertainment.

And as entertainment the film succeeds, largely on the back of the performances of its leads. Spencer has become in short order one of America’s finest actresses bar none; I can’t remember a recent film in which she’s given a subpar performance or failed to elevate. Here she is absolutely mesmerizing whenever she’s on screen; the power of her personality almost overwhelms the others.

Henson has a much more mousy character to portray but she makes her human and vulnerable rather than so smart we cannot relate to her. She is that, but she’s also got a ton of humanity as well – she gets frustrated with her situation but she has a lot of confidence that the future will be a better one. Henson has also climbed to the top echelon of actresses working and while Spencer has gotten more award acclaim, I don’t doubt that Henson is headed in that direction as well as she gets more leading roles on the big screen and the small.

Costner is a reliable performer who is transitioning into a bit of a character actor as well as a leading man still. He knows how to play grouchy with a heart of gold about as well as anybody and Harrison is all of that. Of course, this being a Hollywood production, there are elements of “decent white guy helping the cause of African-American freedom.” It’s a bit condescending but I suppose, forgivable; after all, there were plenty of decent white guys (and gals) who not only supported the civil rights movement but also fought on the front lines of it. Still, Melfi at least has the good sense to make sure the focus is on the trio of ladies where it should be.

The good thing about Hidden Figures is that it educates us about people who have been lost to history but shouldn’t have been and that is invaluable. Nearly as invaluable is that the movie leaves us with a good feeling as we exit the theater (or turn off our home video device when the time comes) and in times like these, it’s certainly about as important.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances from all three of the ladies include an Oscar-nominated one by Spencer. It’s a really uplifting film – literally.
REASONS TO STAY: Strays quite a bit from the actual history of these extraordinary women.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that was used as Dorothy Vaughan’s house has historical significance; the residence, in Atlanta, is where civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first met.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Split

Jackie (2016)


A White House isn't necessarily a home.

A White House isn’t necessarily a home.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Héléne Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Ralph Brown, David Caves, Penny Downie, Georgie Glen, Julie Judd. Directed by Pablo Larrain

 

One of the most iconic women of the 20th century was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. She epitomized elegance, grace, charm, culture and beauty in her era. To many, she epitomized the ideal of what a First Lady should be. Fiercely private, she rarely discussed her innermost feelings with anyone, even her most intimate confidantes. Riding in a motorcade in Dallas at her husband’s side, she would be the closest witness to one of the most singularly dramatic events of American history and yet she spoke very little about it after the fact.

This biopic mainly covers three separate events in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Portman); her 1961 televised taping of a personalized tour of the White House, for which she led an important restoration work; the assassination of her husband (Phillipson) and the events of the following week leading up to the funeral procession and an interview a week later with an unnamed journalist (Crudup) but who is mainly based on Theodore White of Life Magazine.

Portman nails her unique voice, a combination of New England patrician and breathy Marilyn Monroe sultriness. She portrays the First Lady as a woman knocked completely off-balance by the murder of her husband, and somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. During the taping of her show, she is urged by her assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) to smile which she does, somewhat shyly but she seems unsure of herself, as if she hasn’t quite memorized the lines she’s supposed to say. In the week following the assassination, she shows a hidden core of steel to Jack Valenti (Casella) who is LBJ’s (Lynch) chief of staff, as well as to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard).

She realizes her husband’s legacy will be incomplete and that if he is to have one, she will have to orchestrate it. It is she who comes up with the Camelot analogy, based on the hit musical of the time which she claimed her husband was quite fond of (and he may well have been – he never commented on it during his lifetime). While most believe that she made the reference off-handedly, the film (and writer Noel Oppenheim) suggest it was a deliberate attempt to give his presidency a mythic quality. If true, it certainly worked.

Portman is brilliant here; she is quite rightly considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar and a nomination is certainly a lock. She has to tackle a great number of emotions; grief, frustration, anger, fear, self-consciousness – and hold it all under that veneer of charm and civility that Jackie was known for. The First Lady we see here is vastly different than the one that history remembers. In all honesty, who’s to say this version is wrong?

Larrain gets the period right from the fashions to the attitude of the people living in it. The Presidency at the time is not something that is bartered to the highest bidder; it is a position of respect that is won by the will of the people. The Kennedy clan understood that quite well and Larrain also understands it. The Presidency was held in a higher regard back then.

We get a Jackie Kennedy here who is much more politically savvy than history gives her credit for; she knows exactly what the right thing to say is and she holds herself in a way that reflects positively on her husband more than on herself. It is forgotten now but while her husband was President Jackie was considered to be a bit of a spendthrift. Much of her standing was achieved after she was no longer First Lady, but then an assassination of one’s husband will do that.

I do have a bone to pick with the film and that is its score. While the music of Camelot is used liberally and well, the score penned by Mica Levi is often discordant and sounds like it belongs on a European suspense thriller rather than a biography of the widow of President Kennedy. When the music becomes intrusive, it takes the viewer out of the film and that’s exactly what this score does; it gets the viewer thinking about the music rather than the film as a whole. Larrain also jumps around quite a bit in the timeline, showing the movie mainly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It isn’t confusing so much as distracting and once again, the viewer is often taken out of the movie by being made aware that they are watching a movie. Good movies immerse their viewer and make them part of the experience and at times, this movie does. Then again, at times it does the opposite.

While this is essentially a biography, it is also very much conjecture. Most movies about the Kennedy assassination see it from the eyes of the President or from the witnesses; none to my knowledge have even attempted to view it through the First Lady’s perspective. I would imagine that largely is because we don’t know what the First Lady’s perspective was; she kept that well-hidden and knowing what I know about her, that isn’t surprising. I don’t know what she would have thought about this film but I suspect she would have been appalled by the rather graphic scene of her husband’s assassination and perhaps amused by what people thought she was thinking. I don’t know that Larrain and Oppenheim got it right; I suspect they got some of it right but we’ll never know. And perhaps that’s just as well; we need our myths to be inviolate. When Jackie, portrayed as a chain smoker here, icily tells the journalist “I don’t smoke,” when he wonders aloud what the public would think of her smoking, she’s making clear that she understands the need for mythological figures to be pure and that she has accepted her role as such.

Just as Lincoln, whose name is often bandied about in the film, belongs to the ages, so does John Kennedy – and Jackie as well. This is a strong film that your enjoyment of is going to depend a great deal on your opinion of the Kennedys to begin with. Some will be irritated that her carefully manicured persona is skewered here; others will be irritated that she is given a certain amount of sympathetic portrayal. In any case, anyone who loves great performances should make sure they see Portman’s work – it is truly worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: Portman gives a tour-de-force performance that is justifiably the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. The era and attitudes are captured nicely.
REASONS TO MISS: The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity and a scene of graphic violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Producer Darren Aronofsky (who at one time was set to direct this with Rachel Weisz in the title role) also directed Portman to her Oscar win for Black Swan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Manchester by the Sea

Loving


A loving couple.

A loving couple.

(2016) True Life Drama (Focus) Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, Jon Bass, Will Dalton, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Alano Miller, Winter Lee Holland, Bill Camp, Terri Abney, David Jensen, Michael Shannon, Matt Malloy, Jennifer Joyner, Quinn McPherson, Dalyn M. Cleckley, Brenan Young, D.L. Hopkins, Keith Tyree, Coley Campany. Directed by Jeff Nichols

 

At one time in our history, interracial marriages were illegal in a number of states of the union. Those who supported such laws often cited the Bible about how God never meant the races to intermix. This is living proof that the more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Richard Loving (Edgerton) is a hardworking construction worker in rural Virginia, a town called Central Point. He lays bricks to build homes. He also has fallen in love with Mildred Jeter (Negga), a woman of African descent. The feeling is mutual and he gets her pregnant. Richard is over the moon about this in his own stolid way; he proposes marriage and she accepts. However, in order to marry her, he’ll have to drive to Washington DC where interracial marriages are legal. The couple returns home to live with Mildred’s parents.

Five weeks after the ceremony, Sheriff Brooks (Csokas) and his deputies kick down their door and arrest the couple who had been sleeping soundly in their bed. Richard is bailed out but Mildred is kept several days as the obsequious county clerk refuses to allow anyone to bail her out until after the weekend. The couple engages a lawyer (Camp) who is acquainted with Judge Bazile (Jensen) who is hearing the case. He agrees to drop the charges – if the couple leaves the state of Virginia immediately and vow not to return for 25 years.

The Lovings are willing to comply but life in Washington DC (where they’re staying with a member of Mildred’s family) is a far cry from the peaceful rural life they loved. Homesick and without anywhere to turn, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General who refers the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union. The case is assigned to lawyer Bernie Cohen (Kroll) who knows that this could be a landmark case – but it will require much sacrifice on the part of the Loving family.

The case is an important one, one that was used as a precedent in striking down recently the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented same-sex marriages. There is certainly a modern parallel to be made here but director Jeff Nichols wisely chooses to play that aspect down. He seems to prefer making his point quietly and subtly.

There is no speechifying here, no grand courtroom arguments and no stirring orchestras highlighting moments of great sacrifice. Mostly, Nichols portrays Richard and Mildred as ordinary folks who just want to be left alone. They are thrust into the national spotlight somewhat unwillingly; they never set out to be civil rights symbols but they certainly had to be aware that they would become one. We aren’t privy to that side of them however; what we see is the couple going about their lives while coping with what had to be immense pressure.

Negga’s name has come up this awards season for Best Actress honors and she’s almost certain to get a nomination for the Oscar (although she will have an uphill battle against Natalie Portman’s performance In Jackie which is currently the odds on favorite to win the award) . It is Mildred’s film and mostly seen from her point of view. A shy and retiring sort, she is by necessity the spokesperson for the couple; Richard is so taciturn that he is almost surly. Negga plays Mildred with grace and dignity, and at no time does she ever give a hint of feeling sorry for herself, although Mildred had plenty of reason to.

Edgerton has much less dialogue to deliver although he has maybe the most emotional scene in the movie when he breaks down when things are looking their bleakest. Richard was not a very complicated man and certainly not a loquacious one; he just wants to be left alone, but he realizes that he can’t have the life he wants in the home he’s always known if something isn’t done and so he simply allows those who have the savvy and the education to get things done to guide his steps, although he clearly isn’t always happy about it.

The overall vibe is very low-key; there are few scenes that are loud and I don’t mean just in volume. Mostly Nichols keeps things quiet and simple. He resists the urge to portray the couple as heroic in the traditional sense; they were heroic simply by saying “we only want to love each other and build a life together.” They weren’t activists, they weren’t firebrands and Nichols prefers to stick to history here. Some might even call them dull.

But they were heroic nonetheless. Many thousands of people who have married outside of their race owe their freedom to do so to Richard and Mildred Loving. Both of them are deceased at this point so there’s no way to know what they thought of this portrayal of them; something tells me that had they lived to see this movie, they probably would have wondered what all the fuss is about. This is an outstanding movie that portrays the kind of people that I think should truly considered American heroes. Heroes don’t always run into burning buildings or run onto battlefields; sometimes a hero is the one who simply says “this isn’t right” and sees things through until real change occurs. The Lovings certainly did that.

REASONS TO SEE: A story with reverberations that make it timely even now. Understated but powerful performances from Negga and Edgerton elevate the film. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with a political message.
REASONS TO MISS: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Nichols, Edgerton and Shannon previously combined on Midnight Special.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Loving Story
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Allied

The Look of Silence


Hindsight rarely is 20/20.

Hindsight rarely is 20/20.

(2009) Documentary (Drafthouse) Adi Rukun, M.Y. Basrun, Amir Hasan, Inong, Kemat, Joshua Oppenheimer, Amit Siahaan, Ted Yates. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

 

One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen is The Act of Killing. A look at the death squads that murdered between half a million and a million people in Indonesia in 1965-6 as a brutal military junta (which is in power to this day) took over. In an effort to rid the country of “communists” (which was broadly defined to include ethnic Chinese and basically anyone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time) the government employed civilian thugs, often criminals and gangsters, to do their dirty work for them. The film allowed the men, who freely admit their deeds and are admired and venerated for them in Indonesia, to re-enact their atrocities which they do in the style of Hollywood b-movies of which they were all generally admirers.

The movie raised some questions, particularly after one of the most brutal of the death squad leaders has a sudden epiphany as to the horrible crimes he’d committed, as to whether men like that can be forgiven, whether there is any redemption for them and whether there are crimes so heinous that they simply can’t wipe the stain of them off of their souls.

The question in this follow-up film – not a sequel in the broad sense – has to do more with closure. We meet Adi Rukun, an optometrist whose older brother Ramli was murdered during the takeover; he is watching footage from The Act of Killing of his brother’s smiling murderers describing his murder. In his guise as an optometrist giving them eye tests, he confronts those men, often subtly asking them about their roles in the death squads and asks if they feel any remorse. The results are often stark and sometimes surprising.

We also meet Adi’s parents – a mother whose grief remains as intense 50 years later, and a father who has succumbed to dementia and is blind as well as deaf. He is cared for by Adi’s mother for the most part. It’s not a fate I would wish on anyone but considering what he lived through it might be a kinder one than that of his wife who remembers all of it.

When evil is institutionalized, fear becomes an everyday occurrence. Many of the people who appear in this film do so anonymously; after all, the perpetrators of these crimes are still in power as are their descendents. The closure most of the families of the victims need is likely not to be forthcoming in their lifetimes. Adi and his family were compelled to relocate after the movie came out. Reprisals are not unknown in Indonesia, even today.

Oppenheimer is a masterful documentarian and these two movies will go down as two of the best ever made. These are powerful films that are not for the faint of heart or more accurately, the faint of stomach. The descriptions of acts of atrocity are not only grim but they can be downright nausea-inducing. Nonetheless the two movies make for excellent bookends, looking at these atrocities from the points of view of the murderers and the survivors. I don’t know if Adi Rukun got the closure he wanted – he certainly got something from this venture but I don’t know if it helps him sleep any better. Either way, both movies are must-sees for any lovers of movies and for those who believe in social justice. Together, they will form an eye-opening experience that is absolutely going to be unforgettable for you.

WHY RENT THIS: There are powerful moments of revelation. The beautiful countryside juxtaposes with the brutal events that took place there. The observation of the whitewashing of history in the classrooms is bone chilling. Again we are reminded of man’s capacity for utterly inhuman actions.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The description of the killings can be gruesome and disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity as well as occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, it eventually lost out to Amy.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A session from the film’s screening at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, footage from the film’s Indonesian premiere as well as audience reactions to the film and an interview with Oppenheimer about various aspects of production, particularly how the movie (and its predecessor) came to be.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $153,616 on an unknown production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Act of Killing
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Raise Your Kids on Seltzer