Loving (2016)

Never in a rush to get to its well-known conclusion, Jeff Nichols’s Loving builds to a serene but emotionally devastating final scene capping this story about an unassuming couple’s historic Supreme Court battle.

LovingUSA
4*

Director:
Jeff Nichols

Screenwriter:
Jeff Nichols

Director of Photography:
Adam Stone

Running time: 120 minutes

In the opening scene, she tells him she is pregnant. This is the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1958, and they are not yet married, but the news visibly tugs at his heart. These two rarely show any emotion beyond a look of love or fear, but their feelings for each other are never a mystery.

They are Richard and Mildred, and their marriage defied Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law. After spending years raising their children and waiting for the issue to wind its way through the justice system, they finally saw it reach the United States Supreme Court, which would go on to decide the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia in their favour.

Richard being white and Mildred being black, they were allowed to get married in the District of Columbia, which had never enacted any laws against interracial marriages. However, upon returning home to their town in northeast Virginia, they were arrested for unlawfully co-habitating in violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Director Jeff Nichols gives subtle hints to the notion that many whites in power at the time saw Richard and Mildred as two people engaging in abominable activity, and that Richard was somehow tarnishing his own race. This idea was commonplace at the time, and one need look no further than the laws in the Southern states at the time, which only prohibited whites from marrying other races but had no problem with non-white races marrying each other.

But despite all the legal restrictions on their love, the couple, portrayed in the film by (non-Americans) Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, keeps their heads down and does their best to make a good home for their children. After a judge rules that they are not allowed to be in Virginia at the same time for the next 25 years, they move to a small apartment in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighbourhood. Richard works on construction projects, while his wife takes care of the growing family at home.

But Mildred misses her family back home and the wide open spaces of rural Virginia where she wants her boys and girl to run around without fear of getting run over by a car or being assaulted by a random stranger in the street. Inspired by the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, she writes a letter to Robert Kennedy, at the time serving as the country’s attorney general, asking for help with their situation. Surprisingly, she gets a phone call from a lawyer at the ACLU who figures this case could ultimately lead to a nationwide repeal of anti-miscegenation laws.

There are only a few points on which the film commits a serious lapse in judgement. Cast in the role of the lawyer, Bernard S. Cohen, is comedian Nick Kroll, who, even in the most somber of circumstances, appears to be on the verge of bursting out laughing. His first appearance in the film is also played for laughs, but Kroll’s brand of comedy, which usually involves him staring awkwardly at someone when his character is in an uncomfortable situation, is the wrong fit for this story and alienates the viewer. This performance is particularly grating given the subdued emotional tone projected by the two leads.

Nichols makes another miscalculation during oral argument at the Supreme Court. While he decides not to show the faces of the justices, he does use the original audio from Chief Justice Earl Warren’s introduction of the case to remind us of the real-world provenance of the story. And yet, he uses Kroll and his voice, as well as Jon Bass, who plays fellow attorney Philip Hirschkop, to address the justices. Had Nichols used the original audio, this scene would have played much better for numerous reasons, not least of which is that Kroll’s performance consistently seeks to convey farce instead of solemnity.

Another moment that appears to belong to a different film results from parallel editing that seeks to heighten the tension in the cheapest of ways: by alternating between tension at work (a heavy bag of cement drops from a great height) and the seemingly carefree adventures of boys running through the neighbourhood streets. The violent climax of the scene is no surprise but wholly unbecoming of Loving‘s generally restrained approach to telling its story.

On the whole, however, the film’s various components – long as they sometimes take to come into view – all fit very tightly together to tell this historic tale of quiet resistance against entrenched injustice. The story of an unassuming couple just seeking to be accepted for being what and feeling how their surname says is told with compassion and focus. And by the time we reach the peaceful final scene and its promise of a future rooted in the soil of Virginia, it is near impossible to keep the tears from flowing.

The Butler (2013)

Real-life story of White House butler struggles to make us connect with historic moments.

The ButlerUSA
2.5*

Director:
Lee Daniels

Screenwriter:
Danny Strong

Director of Photography:
Andrew Dunn

Running time: 130 minutes

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served as butler in the White House in the second half of the 20th century, and the landmark events he witnessed with almost unfettered access to the corridors of power.

Opening on a cotton plantation in the 1920s, we see the young Cecil’s mother being dragged to a shed by the white landowner, and as she screams and the many workers around pretend not to hear anything, for fear of retribution, we cringe. The film certainly evokes some powerful moments from the tainted history of the United States, but we also cringe because the roles of the landowner, the young Cecil and his mother all seem so incredibly simplistic and wholly lacking in complexity.

Luckily, Vanessa Redgrave shows up. She stars as the landowner’s mother, and while she is an old white woman with obvious power to wield over her slaves, she leaves the dirty business to her son. Meanwhile, she attends to the needs of the young Cecil, who – his mother having become emotionally unstable after the rape and his father having been shot because he (more or less tacitly) condemned the treatment of his wife – is turned into a servant in the mansion.

Redgrave’s appearance is brief but satisfying, as we plainly see her being slightly conflicted by devotion to the boy’s well-being while also conscious of the as yet unbridgeable divide between them because of the colour of their skin.

The rest of the film, however, is a terrible let-down. Instead of focusing on Gaines’ emotional and intellectual journey from a plantation to the White House, from the South to Washington, D.C, the film flashes through many pivotal moments in the nation’s history without showing how they affect his way of thinking, leaving us to believe he is unaffected by the societal tremors that shake the country, the result of Selma, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers and the presidents of the United States.

The tension could have been an interesting one: Gaines (played as an adult by Forest Whitaker) is a man who wants to provide for his family, and he has a genuine skill, namely to serve and to serve well, but is he betraying his own people, many of whom are dying in Alabama and Mississippi and across the country as they stand up against intolerance?

Like Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, in Gosford Park, he knows when the president will be hungry, and he knows when the president will be tired, perhaps even before the presidents knows it himself. But he learned a long time ago that he is a black man in a white house, and that he was not hired to contribute or interfere with politics.

His son, who goes to school in the Deep South around the time of the civil rights revolution, has a very different idea, and he is constantly at odds with his father’s apparent passivity in the face of continued injustice. But given how little we actually see of a movement toward racial equality on the side of the presidency, with the possible exception of Kennedy (even Lyndon B. Johnson’s role is downplayed), we cannot understand why Gaines sticks up for his white masters with such foolhardy narrow-mindedness. He may be frustrated with his son’s tactics, but why do we get the feeling he pooh-poohs the strategy, too? Gaines never offers an alternative to his son’s idea to be a Freedom Rider or to sit at a lunch counter where only whites are served.

It cannot be overstated how simple the film is, how predictable every single scene is, or how little we learn about the slow march toward full equality (underlined by the inevitable scenes with Barack Obama’s 2008 election at the end of the film), particularly the painfully slow awakening of Gaines’ own civil rights conscience. Daniels’ attempts to get us closer to the character by having him speak to us throughout are unsuccessful and on the contrary become rather irritating.

The Butler’s screenplay surely presented producers with an easy opportunity to tell a story that was rather uninteresting but whose context of inequality between the races is still valid today despite the Obama epilogue. James Marsden is charming and clearly inquisitive as John F. Kennedy, Jane Fonda is delicious as Nancy Reagan (although a large swath of the United States is bound to be furious with this casting decision), and Gaines’ son Louis is visibly tortured by what he sees as his duty to fight for equality even though his father is serving some of the cream of the political hypocrites.

The insight into Gaines’ character is minimal, as he seems to be isolated from the tides of history breaking on his doorstep for most of the duration of the film. Given that director Lee Daniels is both black and gay, we frankly would have expected him to tell a story about persecution with much more intimacy and understanding instead of merely reciting the vague outlines of history that skim over decades of important events without pausing to take in their meaning and significance.

The Butler is a crude depiction of U.S. history and actually diminishes the many landmark achievements of its civil rights heroes.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Caught between the Scylla of returning to face a tragic past and the Charybdis of living a frustrating present, Lee Chandler assesses the path forward in Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply affecting Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the SeaUSA
4*

Director:
Kenneth Lonergan
Screenwriter:
Kenneth Lonergan
Director of Photography:
Jody Lee Lipes

Running time: 135 minutes

In his third cinematic meditation on loss, Kenneth Lonergan boldly interweaves two parts of storyline with devastating effect to create a rich tapestry of events in the past that explain, insofar as it is possible to explain flesh-and-blood people, the sombre emotional mood in the present. Manchester by the Sea is in no hurry to unpack all the emotional baggage. But the deliberate rhythm helps the viewer to digest the immensity of the trauma that stretches many years of heartache and to comprehend, if not always empathise with, the central character and his stunted reactions to the world around him.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor whose face shows little sign of life. He is currently living in Quincy, a city that falls under the Greater Boston area in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the film’s early scenes, we learn about as much about him as we will until the halfway mark. He fixes the plumbing in a few apartment blocks but has no social compass to guide him in conversations with the tenants. He barely interacts with the people around him. He goes to bars to drink and not to pick up women. And more often than not, he ends the night by getting into a fight with a total stranger.

But throughout this dour introduction, we hold on to the relatively optimistic opening scene, in which Lee, his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), are out on a boat. Joe is steering, while Lee is horsing around with his nephew, playfully comparing himself with his Joe and being a happy-go-lucky uncle.

But there is something eery about that opening scene. Besides the lack of any close-ups of the action and the characters, the boat, advancing as it does, looks almost static because the camera is moving at exactly the same speed. Our mind tells us there is movement, but the boat’s immutable composition dead in the centre of the frame makes us question our eyes. This is the perfect shot to kick off a film whose power lies in its gradual disclosure of the distinction between immediate and remembered events. Films, even those depicting events long ago, create an illusion of immediacy with the greatest of ease. Without any visual or audio markers to the contrary, the viewer is most likely to assume that any scene takes place in the film’s “present”, but with this shot Lonergan tips his hand, reinforcing both the artistry and the authenticity of the film.

We soon learn that this opening scene is set in the past. It is a memory. A few scenes (and many years) later, Lee learns that Joe has just passed away from congestive heart failure. He sets off to the hospital in the seaside town of Manchester by the Sea, where his awkward interactions with people he seemingly knows rather well immediately draw our attention. And then we get another flashback, set a few years earlier in the same hospital, when Joe learned his time on Earth would be much shorter than he had expected.

There will be many more flashbacks throughout the film. Some will seem happy; others will be devastating. At times, they appear to be traces of simpler times. At other times, they bring back hidden pain and sadness with the force of a sledgehammer. In retrospect, they are all tinged with sincere humanity but also an overwhelming melancholia.

For nearly half the film, Lonergan holds his narrative cards close to his chest. Lee learns his brother’s will designates him as guardian of the teenage Patrick. Lee, who views Manchester with a heavy heart because of all the death it has wrought on his family, wants no part in being Patrick’s caretaker father and has no desire to stay longer in town than necessary. The director gradually reveals the immense tragedy at the core of Lee’s character not as a stream but as a trickle that slowly brings to light the reasons for the present-day misery. But even the presentation has layers to it, and Lonergan’s film is nothing if not an onion that keeps peeling, continuously bringing the characters and the viewer closer to tears.

Halfway through the film, Kenneth Lonergan makes one absolutely inexcusable mistake: He injects himself into his film in the wrong way. Lonergan has had cameos in all of his films to date. In his début feature, the sublime You Can Count on Me, which might just be one of the best films of the past few decades, he starred as a priest, a role in which his deadpan discussion of fornication with a member of his congregation was one of many simultaneously serious and deeply comical highlights. In Margaret, he makes three short appearances at the other end of a telephone line as the lead character’s father. Displaying an awkwardness unmatched by any of his other roles, Lonergan’s trio of scenes traces the decline of a relationship but are overindulgent.

In Manchester by the Sea, the director shows up as a bystander on the street who loudly questions Lee’s parenting skills. This moment is harmless enough, but when Lonergan leaves, a separate shot shows the camera momentarily following him – an anonymous, peripheral character who never shows up again – before a cut back to Lee and his nephew, Patrick. This reeks of narcissism at best and incompetence at worst.

Although more bold than Margaret, this 135-minute examination of the way in which tragedy’s tentacles continue to leech happiness from the present is not a challenging film to watch and inspires little desire to be watched a second time. Lonergan deserves ample praise for making his flashbacks so unobtrusive and for tying them so firmly – yet initially inconspicuously – to the present-day narrative.

Time does not heal all wounds. We don’t forget the worst things that have befallen us. But while we mourn, the world is changing. And when we suddenly allow ourselves to open our eyes, perhaps the new configuration of people and relationships might just appear slightly more manageable.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

An unusually serious film from director Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy from start to finish.

Grand Budapest HotelUSA
4*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriter:
Wes Anderson

Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 100 minutes

The Grand Budapest Hotel, besides being a much more serious film than we’re used to seeing from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), makes many a direct play for the hearts of Central and East Europeans.

With its mixture of exquisite period detail, albeit slightly exaggerated, overt references to historical turning points in the region and a typically “Wesandersonian” presentation of the story as visibly but immersively fictional, the film is almost certain to be well received both behind the former Iron Curtain and around the world.

In 1985, an elderly gentleman looks straight into the camera and starts telling us a story that takes us back, first to 1968, and then to 1932, as the rise and fall of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious establishment somewhere in the Republic of Zubrowka, is displayed in all its alternately decrepit and extravagant excess.

The abovementioned Zubrowka, obviously named after one of the best vodkas I have ever tasted, Poland’s bison-grass infused Żubrówka, is almost as difficult to place as The Simpsons’ city of Springfield. The opening scene, set in a cemetery in the fictional city of Lutz, obviously refers to the Polish city of Łódź, and yet the name of the hotel refers to Hungary, although it is located in the “Sudetenwalt,” or Sudeten Forest, which suggests pre–World War II Czechoslovakia, or thereabouts.

The doubly encased storytelling mechanism (the man in 1985, a nameless author, shares with us how he came to meet the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa, in 1968, who told him the story – one that dates to 1932 – of how he came to possess the grand establishment) is further framed by the very first scene, in which someone opens a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, neatly divided into chapters. Also, the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel is not life-size but rather immediately recognisable as a small, detailed model; many other tricks that sometimes bring to mind Anderson’s work on the stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox continue to make it clear this is a tale enriched by reality rather than one seeking to emulate it.

While Mr. Moustafa is the proprietor in 1968, played by the wonderful F. Murray Abraham (who recently had an equally short but deeply satisfying role in Inside Llewyn Davis), he is but a teenage boy – first name Zero – in the story taking place in 1932, when he starts his work as a lobby boy, in service of the hotel’s famous concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Monsieur Gustave personally tends to every need of his guests, and often those needs require him to spend some time in their private rooms, especially if they are blond.

Monsieur Gustave is great fun, soaked as he is in his L’Air de Panache perfume. Although fastidious to the point of being obsessive, he also has a big heart, and while he has his doubts about Zero’s qualifications to carry out his duties, he quickly warms to the boy and teaches him everything he knows. He also protects him with his life, and his magnanimity, or even friendship, is rewarded when he is locked up after being framed for the murder of a former hotel guest, Madame Desgoffe und Taxis, simply known as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, enchanting as ever, even as she plays an 84-year-old woman).

The film presents itself as strictly removed from reality, but the traces of history are recognisable and remain potent despite being altered. The Nazi lightning symbol of the “SS” has been modified to appear as “ZZ” in this film, and the delicious pastries are provided by a fancy bakery called Mendl’s, very likely drawing its inspiration from the Austrian producer of gourmet foods, Julius Meinl. Sometimes, not unlike the approach taken by Joe Wright in his film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the lighting changes to indicate a shift in tone, done in such a way as to bring it closer to the theater (in other words, overt performance), and eschews any attempt to give the film an air of grittiness.

And yet, as Anderson has proved so often in the past, his characters can still elicit emotions in us even though they belong to a world so obviously different from our own. Friendship and family are two key themes in the films of the director, and here, too, despite the countless cameos (many well-known actors each appear only in a single scene, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban) and the film’s many moments of whimsy, it ends with a sudden rush of emotions as we come to realise how beautifully The Grand Budapest Hotel and its characters fit together, how much they have been through and how much we have enjoyed their adventures, notwithstanding the unspoken Nazi and communist uprisings that we can read between lines.

This film brims with creativity and ingenuity, as even a ride in a funicular or a bobsled can turn into something unforgettable (for the latter, think of the game of “hotbox” in The Fantastic Mr. Fox rather than bobsledding at the Winter Games). The emotions are also there, very competently handled by Anderson, whose direction of the young Tony Revolori, as Zero, elicits a performance that is flawlessly part of the film. There is also one of the most unusual escapes from prison you will have ever seen on film and a handful of small pans that produce, as Anderson learned so well in The Darjeeling Limited, moments of visual bathos that are as hilarious as they are unexpected.

A very different kettle of fish compared with his other films, this is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most subdued film to date, but he deftly handles the balance between the comical and the dramatic, yielding a work of beauty, comedy and mystery that is every bit as enchanting, funny and ultimately moving as some of his best films.

Whiplash (2016)

In the exquisite Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s second feature, we catch a glimpse of a young drummer’s blood, sweat and tears on the way to greatness.

WhiplashUSA
4.5*

Director:
Damien Chazelle

Screenwriter:
Damien Chazelle
Director of Photography:
Sharone Meir

Running time: 105 minutes

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery of a craft. But in Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating and at times unnerving second feature film, Whiplash, we see that sometimes all a budding professional needs is a teacher from hell. Enter J.K. Simmons, clad in black and ready to rumble.

Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a diabolical conductor whose presence at the elite Shaffer Conservatory sends chills down the spines of his students as much as his colleagues. He does not suffer fools gladly. He expects only the best, often more, and when he thinks his band is not taking the music, their performance or their skills as seriously as he does, he can quickly start spewing a tirade comprising ever-more-complex concatenations of obscenity-laden expressions: Think of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and then turn it up to 11. In the film’s attention-grabbing opening scene, Fletcher’s eye catches the talent of a young jazz drummer, but while he deigns to speak to the boy, it is immediately obvious he is not there for small talk, and when he decides the tempo is not to his liking, he leaves as abruptly as he appeared.

The young student is called Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), but even though he appears in every single scene in the film, we don’t learn his name until a handful of scenes into the story. By contrast, Fletcher’s ominous presence hangs over the school and all its students like the Sword of Damocles, and we cannot ignore him. It often happens that he flips at the drop of a baton from smiling and patient to sociopathic tyrant. We see him have a near hysterical outburst early on when he hears the instrument of someone in his band is out of tune, dissolving the culprit to tears with insults about his intellect, his talent and his weight. In the very next scene, he whispers playfully, intimately to Neimann, teasing personal information from him, before knocking him down to size five minutes later in a very public way.

Chazelle has fashioned not only a riveting study of a young man’s struggle as a musician and the tough decisions he has to make if he is to have a chance at success, but also a visually stunning piece of filmmaking that weds rich colors and beautiful lighting with dynamic editing. One scene also appeared in the eponymous short film that first showcased his talents at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction, and it is to Chazelle’s credit that there is equally palpable, overbearing tension in both versions.

Neimann remains inscrutable for a large part of the film. We see him spending time watching Rififi at the movies with his father, a high-school English teacher who wants his son to be happy but also wants him to have greater certainty of stability on the horizon. They are still close, but when the authoritative (and authoritarian) Fletcher takes an interest in Neimann’s talents, even when he treats him like dirt and hurls homophobic, anti-Semitic and many other kinds of slurs at him, the boy is ready to take almost any psychological abuse in order to reach the top. When he matter-of-factly dumps his girlfriend because he can’t foresee a future that has space for both his music and her, we get a queasy feeling he might be willing to risk everything in the name of being a drummer worthy of Fletcher’s faint praise.

The rehearsal room at the school is the setting for blood, sweat and tears – all of which Neimann spills at one point or another on his way to focusing on his craft with dedication that requires equal measures narcissism and lunacy, and in this regard at least Fletcher serves as a role model. The feared conductor doesn’t just put his students through their paces. No, that would be too easy. He puts them through a meat grinder, but those who survive the initial hazing are still not safe but only as good as their last chord.

For all its commitment and focus, the story does veer off the rails into far less credible territory in its final moments. The climactic scene is staged with great passion and a sense of showmanship for the director that is entirely effective, but there are numerous things that don’t make much sense in retrospect. Regardless of its credibility, however, the tension and the terror the situation elicits in the viewer are so acute that some might find the material difficult to watch. And although he is only 19 years old, Neimann seems terribly naïve and is always surprised when his mentor abuses him over and over again.

Be careful what you wish for, Chazelle suggests. No pain, no gain. He strikes a wonderful balance between tragedy and comedy, even in his visuals: The opening scenes are filled with push-ins that are simultaneously hilarious by virtue of their sheer quantity and creepy because we don’t know whether they represent a looming danger.

Simmons plays one of the most unforgettable bullies in recent memory, a truly odious disciplinarian who feels no regret and believes he is doing the world a service by pushing people to their limits. When his perceived sadism dovetails with the masochism of a student willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his art, that may very well be where a master is born, but signing a contract with the devil has its downsides. The impressionable Neimann is proud of his bruises, because he thinks it makes him stronger and more resistant on his path to greatness, but whether he will ever get there remains an open question.

But there can be no question that Whiplash is evidence of a great talent. Despite a weak narrative in the final act, the film is captivating as it traces the claustrophobia of a young man’s determined struggle to prove himself. The 29-year-old Chazelle doesn’t have much to worry about: He has already proved he is a force to be reckoned with.

The Ides of March (2011)

Never before has the second-oldest profession seemed quite as dull as it does in George Clooney’s The Ides of March.

ides-of-marchUSA
2*

Director:
George Clooney

Screenwriters:
George Clooney

Beau Willimon
Grant Heslov
Director of Photography:
Phedon Papamichael

Running time: 100 minutes

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is an adaptation of Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon that focuses on a fictitious Democratic primary in the battleground state of Ohio.

The plot sees Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris running for the office of president of the United States. He has his campaign staff convinced he will be the next great hope for the nation, the one to “take the country back” – a phrase so hackneyed yet used with surprising regularity, and with even more suprising success, by political hopefuls – and he is neck-and-neck with his main Democratic contender, Senator Ted Pullman. When the race reaches the Buckeye State, it’s make-or-break time.

Although the genre of political films is varied, a lack of action is usually a bad thing, and so it is here. There are brief snippets of Morris’s interaction with potential voters along the way, a question or two during a debate or a town hall session, but by and large his positions and his personality remain a mystery to us.

Keeping in mind the title’s obvious, ominous reference to the fall of Julius Caesar (“Beware, the Ides of March!”), we wait for the storm to break over the head of the powerful Governor Morris. But instead of focusing on him, the film introduces his campaign team, headed by two top strategists: Paul Zara, the veteran campaign staffer and long-time supporter, and Stephen Meyers, the bright-eyed media whiz kid.

As expected in a film based on a play, the performances are all exquisitely modulated – in this case, to fit the dark mood of the narrative – and the actors sparkle in their restricted capacity. For Ryan Gosling, who plays Stephen, it’s a case of having nothing to do, but doing it rather well, while it is unfortunate that Paul Giamatti, who plays Pullman’s campaign manager, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as his counterpart on the Morris campaign, get equally little screen time.

The characters have a lot of potential, but in the end each has only one big confrontational scene, providing us with a mere taste of what could have been, had Clooney worried less about his gloomy display case and more about the exhibit itself.

There is nothing wrong with a decision to focus on the campaign staffers rather than the candidate they represent: In The War Room, a documentary that traces Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the White House, his strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos provided long stretches of electric energy and entertainment. By contrast, Clooney’s film feels positively catatonic.

The first half of the film, a full hour, is mere setup of Morris’s political ambitions and his firm shot at the nomination. There is much talk of delegates, primaries and endorsements, but little is of any immediate consequence, and, for much of the film, save an all-too-brief interlude with his wife in a limousine, we only see fragments of the man.

This setup is tepid, and it is easy to lose interest until the revelation, finally, that Morris has been misbehaving with an intern. This discovery leads to major disillusionment on the part of Meyers and an expectation on our side that the film might stake out Lewinsky territory. It doesn’t, and things quickly take a turn for the melodramatic.

By that stage, many in the audience will have fallen asleep. The dialogue is much more directed at a political pundit than the average viewer looking for entertainment at the cinema, and for almost anyone unfamiliar with the American political system, the film may at times seem decidedly foreign. Considering the offhand allusions to donkeys and elephants, talk about primaries and constant references to K Street, the dialogue would likely be too difficult to follow at important moments.

The Ides of March suggests voters will ultimately be let down by their candidate, which is not exactly a novel insight. Clooney, taking up the roles of politician in front of the camera and filmmaker behind it, lets down the viewers by making a film that is much less engaging than political races in the real world.

The Revenant (2015)

After an attack by a bear leaves him fighting for his life, a 19th-century trapper marches on alone through the snow to face another foe.

The RevenantUSA
4*

Director:
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Screenwriters:
Mark L. Smith
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki

Running time: 155 minutes

Few things are more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose. Interesting, then, that the first act of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, set in the sub-zero temperatures of a 19th-century winter, crystallises both of these, and it does so in the most visually memorable way possible.

With snow covering a stunning landscape nearly untouched by white society, the image we have of this part of the Louisiana Territory is one of ravishing beauty hiding terror in the form of roaming bears and bison and a number of Native American tribes, some of whom are at war with each other. In the midst of all of this, an all-male hunting party is exploring the land when it is attacked and almost entirely decimated first by an arrow-wielding indigenous tribe and then by a grizzly bear protecting its cubs. The man who suffers the brunt of the latter attack is the bearded Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is traveling with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Glass is mauled to pieces but remains alive, and that is where the story really kicks in.

The film is based on real events that took place in 1823 in the northwestern part of present-day South Dakota, when Glass, having sustained staggering injuries during the attack, was buried in haste and left for dead before he made his way back through the wilderness and rejoined his company. As is to be expected, The Revenant (which means “the one who comes back”) compresses the original timeline, but it also focuses in great detail on the interior life of Glass as he fights his own mortality and deep scars, both physical and spiritual, to make it to the end.

Using numerous dream sequences and quite a few moments in limbo between dream and reality, the director imbues his main character with notions of tradition, introspection and survival that are subtle and do not require big action scenes. That is not to say that the film eschews such scenes, and the first act contains a major battle between the Americans and the Arikara tribe, presented with both flair and nuance by the finest director of photography at work in the industry today, Emmanuel Lubezki.

Building on and vastly surpassing the camera work on his and Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which was restricted almost entirely to a single location, Lubezki uses his camera here with the kind of Midas touch we saw in Children of Men, or a less pretentious Panic Room, lensed by Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Many of his takes are very mobile and last much longer than takes tend to do in major commercial films (the production budget on The Revenant was $135 million).

As a result, we get scenes in which we see the characters’ movements captured without changes of shots or visible editing, but the scale can vary from the intimate — Glass hides behind a rock in the river as the camera smoothly glides above the surface of the water towards and around him to give us his point of view both directly and indirectly — to the epic: Glass’s company is attacked, and after a significant amount of action, Glass shoots an Arikara tribesman who has been hiding high up in a tree. The man falls to the ground, where he is brutally and bluntly attacked by a white man with the butt of a rifle. The camera rushes over to them, when an arrow hits the man in the face. He keels over, and the camera rises up to meet an Indian on horseback, whom the camera promptly pursues at his level. All of this in a single, seemingly unbroken take.

The scene is simply extraordinary, but the level of action will blind many to the talent behind the scenes to succeed in bringing the images to life in this exact way.

While the action can be gruesome and in-your-face — during the bear attack, the grizzly sow gets so close to us her breath briefly fogs up the lens — much of the film slowly brings into focus the headspace of its central character, and Iñárritu uses both sound (the soundtrack fades in and out at some points) and image to get us to experience life in Glass’s skin, a task that is far from easy.

We understand early on why Glass wants to make it back to his men, but the idea of revenge stays with us a full two hours after that, thanks to subtle reminders in the screenplay in the form of a disgruntled, wide-eyed trapper, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, in peak form), who only looks out for himself and will do anything to get his way, and the story of a tribesman, Elk Dog, who is looking for his daughter and who we sense would kill to get her back.

First and foremost, the film is about revenge and survival, but there are solid hints about the need for something transcendent to give meaning to the brutal, untamed wilderness of the Wild West, which consists not only of cowboys riding across wide open spaces and past sandstones buttes but also of trappers in parkas trudging through thick forest foliage and past sharp granite cliffs.

Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, whose aspect ratio was 2.76:1, Iñárritu’s film is only being screened at 2.35:1. And yet, the scenery practically begs the eyes to tell the head to move from side to side and drink in all the frigid beauty, albeit underpinned with simmering fury and overcast with menacing danger.

We do not always understand how Glass manages to find the way home, and the contemplative scenes that ring with the soft elocution of the Pawnee language may be tedious to some in the audience, but in the end, there is no escaping the director’s master stroke of enfolding his crude scenes of violence and endurance in a softer sheen of humanity. Even a particularly grisly scene with a horse, more or less plagiarised from the Icelandic Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss) by Benedikt Erlingsson, or the depiction of a bison stampede in the dead of night, has a calm about it that we do not expect.

While it could have made fuller characters out of its Native Americans, who do not rise above mere symbols of mysticism, the film is a master class for those seeking to tell stories about determination and perseverance. It is beautiful and unforgettable, and Iñárritu’s struggle to make it was well worth the toil.

Moonlight (2016)

In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, three fragments of a life make up a fragmented whole that is beautiful to look at but remains opaque to the end.

USA
3*

Director:
Barry Jenkins

Screenwriter:
Barry Jenkins

Director of Photography:
James Laxton

Running time: 110 minutes

Despite the fat, the muscle and the facial hair they put on over time to create a facade of machismo or of adulthood, many a man is still the same scared little boy inside he was when he was growing up. This is about as deep as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight goes, unfortunately, and while this observation is a constant theme throughout the film and comes through in various ways, there is less to this widely praised coming-of-age film than one might have hoped for.

Moonlight is a three-part story depicting the life of a sensitive young man, Chiron, who is prone to bullying and grows up in a single-parent household in Miami. In the three parts, which sketch his life as a boy, as a teenager and finally as a young man, Chiron is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), all of whom bring sensitivity and a slight awkwardness to the role.

But the film’s most potent portrayal easily lies in the first part, and Jenkins seems to ackowledge as much in the opening shot: Juan (Mahershala Ali), a calm Afro-Cuban drug dealer in his late-30s, leaves his car to cross the street and speak to Terrence, an 18-year-old boy who works this street of the rundown Liberty Square neighbourhood for him. Terrence has clearly had his fill of drugs already and appears slightly dazed, but while he fidgets out of nervousness or fearfulness, Juan lazily puffs on his cigarette and asks him how his mom is doing. All the while, the camera drifts around them in an unbroken take, clearly suggesting that Juan is a bringer of peace and tranquility, an idea quickly made vivid when he sees and then saves Chiron, who is being chased by a group of bullies.

This initial encounter between the drug dealer and the taciturn boy, whose mother depends on drugs and makes money spending her nights in the bedroom, is unexpected, but Juan’s care is soon complemented by the evident compassion that his girlfriend, Teresa, has for the boy. This concern for Chiron’s well-being, which obviously helps him on his way to becoming an adult, is most pronounced in a beautifully written yet highly improbable scene in which Juan and Teresa explain, with the greatest tact imaginable, the meaning and implication of the word “faggot”, a word Chiron’s own mother used to dress him down: “‘Faggot’ is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Although the intent is admirable, this moment set around the dinner table of a low-income drug dealer in the 1980s is wholly improbable – wishful thinking in a story that in all other respects clearly strives for realism.

Moonlight‘s most glaring fault is also its most appealing aspect for a wide audience: It tackles the issue of homosexuality very gingerly by using only one incident in each of the three parts to remind us that Chiron is gay; if not for these all too fleeting moments, we might have completely overlooked his struggle. The film includes only one sexual act, and it is shot from far away so as not to offend the non-converted. In this regard, the climax is particularly vexing because a nearly 20-minute build-up does not get the dramatic release we expect (and seek). Instead, it fizzles out entirely, and we’re left with nothing more than a very unsatisfying head-on-the-shoulder moment of intimacy.

The spectre of Juan, who only appears in the first part, hangs over the entire film, and in the final act, upon seeing how buff Chiron has become, dealing drugs and sporting the same gold grills as his late father figure, this moment of recognition hits the viewer with a pang of compassion. However much he seeks to emulate his hero, however, we quickly learn that inside the muscled body an emotionally insecure is still hiding, unwilling to engage intimately with those closest to him.

Except for the dialogue, which is so authentically rooted in lower-income Miami that is not always easy to follow, the film is immediately accessible thanks to its focus on a single character who ages in front of our eyes, albeit not as seamlessly as in the equally superficial Boyhood. Jenkins’s soundtrack raises the beauty and the grit into the artistic thanks to the inclusion of the Laudate Dominum movement from Mozart’s gorgeous classical piece “Vesperae solennes de confessore” and – at a pivotal moment – Caetano Veloso’s performance of “Cucurrucucú paloma”, best known from its appearance on the soundtrack of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella).

In the end, the film belongs to the actors, who emote and elicit our empathy thanks to their faces, their silences, their hesitation and their humanity. Surprisingly, one of the best-known players, Naomi Harris, who stars as Chiron’s drug-dependent mother, Paula, is the only one whose acting veers into over-the-top hystrionics as she momentarily portrays a character we’ve seen all too often before from characters who are drug addicts.

Moonlight is a well-intentioned, meticulously shot film whose rich colours and sense of place unfortunately never translate into sustained action or robust character development. Chiron gazes without interacting, is diffident to a fault and (except for mimicking Juan) shows little appetite for opening himself up to new experiences. This reticence ultimately leads to precious little progress and produces a film that merely pretends to be complex but is nothing of the sort.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Another Tom Ford film, another drama set mostly inside a character’s head, but this time, the passion the director showed in  A Single Man is lacking and has been replaced by recurring removals of reading glasses.

Nocturnal AnimalsUSA
3*

Director:
Tom Ford

Screenwriter:
Tom Ford

Director of Photography:
Seamus McGarvey

Running time: 120 minutes

Once again probing the mental world of his main character, as he did with equally sumptuous visuals in A Single Man, Tom Ford follows up his much acclaimed début feature with another intimate psychological work, titled Nocturnal Animals. Taking a stab at metanarration, Ford evokes fear and anxiety in the viewer rather than any serious empathy for the characters, but instead of being emotionally engaging, this thriller is curiously superficial.

Opening at an exhibition with gorgeously composed full-frontal videos of corpulent elderly women dancing like cheerleaders in slow motion, the film quickly establishes the artistic surroundings of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the gallery owner. She seems melancholy and unfulfilled despite the show’s indisputable success and would later call it “junk, total junk”. (As a sidenote, I would encourage filmmakers to steer away from such descriptions of art in their films, as it makes the reviewer’s job of finding a pithy label for the relevant film way too easy.) Late at night, she returns to her carefully curated mansion with clean lines full of grey and black in the Hollywood Hills. Shortly after her car pulls in and the gate closes behind her, a dark-brown classic Mercedes pulls up.

The following morning, her butler shows her a package that has been delivered overnight. It is an as yet unpublished manuscript that shares its title with the film and is written by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years. From this point on, with her dapper husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), away on business in New York City and making little effort to keep it a secret he is cheating on her, Susan immerses herself in the novel, which is ominously dedicated to her.

In the very first shot depicting the action of the novel, we see the same dark-brown classic Mercedes, which is an easy but effective way of signalling to us that this tale is going to be rooted in Susan’s world; more specifically, the story is artistically autobiographical for its writer, Edward. The main character, Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is leaving on holiday for West Texas with his wife and daughter, but on the way there, they are pulled off the road by a gang of young men who seem to be drunk but are likely just slightly psychotic.

Calling to mind the stunningly intense beginning of Andrew Neel’s Goat, Nocturnal Animals presents a scene of emotionally taxing (although at times too lengthy and repetitive) action that demonstrates how Tony’s timidity and desire to avoid conflict eventually results in a reluctance to be aggressive in protecting his family, a hesitation that quickly leads to tragedy. The point of contact between the two very different films, however, is the similarity in people’s reactions to this event: In both films, we feel with the intimidated victim as he is bullied or coerced into doing something he doesn’t want to, although the assailants never use a physical weapon of any kind. And in both films, people told of the altercation react with surprise that the victim did not fight back.

Gyllenhaal embodies a character we can wholly relate to despite his evident fear and confusion about the inexplicable violence committed against him and his family and his uncertainty about whether and how he should retaliate. This is something Tony Hastings struggles with until the climax, and even then he is far from comfortable acting in a way that makes logical sense but goes against everything he believes in.

It should be obvious from this short description that the story-within-a-story set in Texas is far more interesting than its shallow Los Angeles counterpart, despite Ford’s flimsy attempts at creating interlocking visual transitions, which for the most part compare very badly with those in a similarly themed film such as Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. In Daldry’s film, the point of the transitions were often to connect characters in ways that were immediately recognisable, with every shared tick creating a bond between people in a purely cinematic fashion. It made the viewer privy to private but revealing moments and left her feeling empowered in a way that is unconventional but wholly within the domain of the cinema.

Ford’s film, by contrast, while dutifully producing a disparate smattering of transitions (bright red lights, similar surroundings, an L-cut) in an attempt to bridge the chasm between the two worlds, is far less sure of itself. It half-heartedly suggests points of contact, but the traces are few and far between and would demand repeat viewings to unpack, if they even exist, thus making immediate enjoyment all but impossible.

Often, the cut is simple, but it always returns to the same laughable image: a shaken Susan on her sofa with the manuscript in her lap, removing her thick-framed glasses as a way to calm herself and return her to her immediate surroundings. Amy Adams is a wonderful actress, but the over-repeated earnestness loses its initial power and quickly devolves into a caricature of earnestness.

Ford manages to tie things up rather neatly with the climax in the hypodiegesis, although the diegesis, which is also split up into a past (read: flashbacks) and a present, is a different matter altogether. The final scene of Nocturnal Animals is truly a missed opportunity, as a melancholy wait replaces what could have been a forceful punch in the gut: What if Edward had shown up but was played by someone other than Jake Gyllenhaal?

Arrival (2016)

Arrival makes its mark with an ingenious use of the concept of time and a curious portrayal of aliens, but the soppiness of a central relationship is this work’s major flaw.

ArrivalUSA
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Eric Heisserer

Director of Photography:
Bradford Young

Running time: 115 minutes

Despite its ever more sentimental bent and its simplistic good guy/bad guy dynamics, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction film Arrival is a cleverly constructed tale of first contact between humans and aliens and has a satisfying twist at its core.

The twist has to do with time, and more specifically with viewing events not in bits and pieces advancing from A to B to C, from one day to the next, but as an all-encompassing whole seen all at once. In this way, the domino effect is no longer at play, and cause and effect disappear into a new space-time continuum that until now had been illustrated the best by the “Cause and Effect” episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, which depicts the shaping of the present thanks to future events being anticipated through contact with the past.

The film’s emotion-laden opening sequence, which introduces us to single mother and renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), quickly moves from one beat to the next as her baby daughter grows up and turns into a teenager before suddenly falling ill and dying of a rare illness. This episode is firmly in our heads not only because it kicks the narrative into gear but also because Villeneuve returns to it again and again and again throughout the rest of the film. But while Banks’s recollection of these moments is perceived as melancholy memories, something else is happening, and we have to recalibrate our sense of time in a clever way.

The idea of viewing a story – never mind one’s own life – as a whole rather than in its constituent parts is an intimidating proposition, but such an approach is central to communication (and action) in Arrival, because the aliens that arrive in their gigantic grey shell-shaped pods and touch down in a desolate expanse of land in Montana communicate in precisely this way.

Their signs consist not of distinct words but of circular signs that convey a complete overview of both meaning and feeling and can range from the basic to the hypercomplex. And for Banks to understand their message, her brain needs to start thinking about life in such a way, too, affirming the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language also transforms our perception of life itself. Thus, by acquiring a language that sees the beginning and the end rolled up into one, she starts seeing her own life that way as well, including events she is yet to experience.

Of course, she needs a foil in the shape of research partner and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Renner’s part is woefully underdeveloped, however. Beyond wanting to jump straight into asking the aliens about Fibonacci numbers without understanding that mathematics is not a particularly useful language for basic communication, he appears not to do all that much except support Banks on her surprisingly successful English as a Foreign Intergalactic Language course with the aliens. These two are sent by the government to ascertain the purpose of the visit by the aliens, which have landed at 12 spots on the globe but remained hidden inside their shell-shaped spacecrafts.

Villeneuve, whose film has traces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, particularly in the scoring by master composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom he also collaborated on Sicario, uses Steven Spielberg’s well-known technique (from Close Encounters but most famously from Jaws) of delaying a major introduction. The aliens themselves (which, unlike in most other films, are not particularly anthropoid but look very much like the spider in Villeneuve’s Enemy, albeit with seven instead of eight legs, thus earning them the label “heptapods”) are almost never completely visible.

But more generally, the director does not do justice to the intelligence of his story. He beats the relationship between Banks and her daughter to death with too many inserts while failing to convey Banks’s perception of the frequency of these images. But with the exception of a life-changing, humanity-saving flash-forward in the final act, an exception that proves the rule, he doesn’t cast his net any farther to provide other interesting examples of using consciousness about time past, present and future in an unexpected way.

Villeneuve, who captured the suspense in Sicario so well, is surprisingly inept when it comes to creating tension, and he creates a Hunt for Red October moment by having the camera point straight at a team member who will betray them all. And he does this not once but multiple times. In fact, it is much more blatant than the infamous introduction to the cook (later revealed to be a traitor) in John McTiernan’s 1990 film.

The film has some beautiful moments, including the already mentioned flash forward during the climax, as well as a voiceover delivered by Renner to explain the heptapods, much like he is narrating a documentary about them years into the future. But its presentation of the global collaboration and suspicion between the groups trying to investigate the aliens is incredibly stilted, and when we hear that the Sudan is planning to attack the aliens, it is difficult not to burst out laughing.

The sentimentality in Arrival may be a bit much to stomach, and there are simply too many inserts with Banks and her daughter, but the flexibility of time and the way in which it is made visible in the film bring us another perspective that might just trickle down into other science-fiction films in the future.