Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Silence

Martin Scorsese's Silence is a late-career triumph of depth and energy that doesn't feel like any American film I've seen in a very long time. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks from a 1960's novel by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, and the resulting film is ruminative but doesn't drag. Only a director with so much success behind him could get away with raising unanswerable questions the way Scorsese does here, and it's that daring that gives Silence much of its power. Two Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver, given much to do but still underused), arrive in the Japan of the 17th century seeking a priest named Ferreira (Liam Neeson) rumored to have abandoned the faith. Christianity is illegal in Japan but still practiced by believers in small villages. Those suspected of Christianity are forced to step on an image of Jesus Christ as a sign of their apostasy, and this very cinematic action creates an almost unbearable tension anytime one of the characters is asked to perform it.

Rodrigues and Garupe are welcomed by villagers but still forced to live like outlaws, hiding during the day and only saying mass after dark. Ferreira is elusive, only a rumor (when he finally arrives Neeson gives the kind of performance no one has asked him for in some time), and Rodrigues feels the lack of a larger divine presence as a test of his faith. It's useful to think about the set of principles for living that one might call "Christian" as something separate from the doctrine and dogma of "The Church" in Silence, and a question the film puts to the viewer is what The Church has to offer in real terms when people are being oppressed. When the local Governor (Issey Ogata) arrests a group of men who had sheltered Rodrigues and Garupe the two can only hide and watch in horror. The two are upset as men but ineffectual in their official role, and Silence frequently puts Rodrigues (who soon separates from Garupe) in the position of watching and being unable to act. It's an unusual state for the main character of a film to be in, but Andrew Garfield makes it work by giving Rodrigues a careful internal arc of doubt and regret. Garfield spends much of the film with a beard and long hair that's untied; it's worth noting how empty he looks when forced to appear clean shaven later on. The hair is just a clue to what's going on with the character: we're watching a man crumble from the inside when his lived experience comes into conflict with faith.

When Rodrigues is captured with another group of Japanese Christians he is kept in a separate cell and treated reasonably well. It's assumed he'll save his fellow prisoners by becoming an apostate, and Silence pauses to consider why he doesn't. There's an argument made that human vanity keeps one from living a Christian life, or in other words that Rodrigues needs to see himself as adhering to a doctrine to such a degree that it keeps him from a truly Christian action. This seems a very Eastern idea and Scorsese lets it ride, having great sympathy for the selfless Japanese Christians while trapping Rodrigues in the consequences of his own behavior. Martyrdom doesn't come easy in Silence. The complexity of the film is attested to by the fact that an audience of any degree of faith will find something in the work, from the constant faith of the villager Mokichi (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) to Rodrigues and his confusion at God's inaction. Scorsese can't answer all the questions raised by Silence and he doesn't have to. The film is a late work in the best sense, not a summing up but an asking of deeper questions. While Martin Scorsese will no doubt turn to more familiar stories in future projects he has done some of his best work here, creating a work of great richness that deserves deeper study.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

La La Land/Live by Night



Damien Chazelle's La La Land was written before the writer/director made the Oscar-winning Whiplash, and indeed La La Land has the markings of an early, youthful work in which emotion trumps ideas and what themes there are come at us in a loud, declamatory style. La La Land is the story of the love affair between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an actress and a musician who meet in Los Angeles and begin a relationship with each other after half the film is over. Both Mia and Sebastian are trying to ignore the fact that their dreams are headed for a reckoning. Mia, who by day serves coffee on a studio lot, is growing tired of auditions that lead nowhere while Sebastian can't sacrifice his ideals about jazz long enough to open the old-fashioned club he imagines. Yes, jazz. If you saw Whiplash you may remember that Chazelle's idea of becoming a true artist involves the mastery of old forms. We see Sebastian playing along to old records and dragging Mia to a club, but it isn't clear that he has much drive to make new music that deviates from a kind of 1950's-'60's idea of good jazz. In other words, Sebastian could have been played by Ken Burns.


La La Land is strangely conservative in its idea of how people become successful or influential in creative fields. Sebastian is challenged on his musical principles by a friend (John Legend) who hires him for a slick fusion project that becomes improbably successful. The argument that Legend's character makes is that being too devoted to the past makes it harder to change the future, and he's right. There is no chance that Sebastian will "save" jazz just by opening a club, and I'm not sure La La Land is really a "musical" just because its characters sometimes burst into song. The two large-scale opening numbers testify to the glory and possibility of Los Angeles; they have some energy but after that none of the songs feel necessary and neither Gosling nor Stone is confident enough in what they're doing to make them work on personality alone. Ryan Gosling is a particular disappointment if you enjoyed his work in The Big Short or The Nice Guys, because the framework of the film doesn't allow for the wicked comedy that Gosling is capable of. Emma Stone fares somewhat better and she's really what makes La La Land worth sitting through if anything does. There isn't anyone in movies I'd rather watch ironic-dance to a Flock of Seagulls song, and Mia is the more active of the two main characters. She writes a one-woman show for herself that no one comes to and she seems to at least have an idea of what she is and isn't capable of relative to the business she's in. Stone is just as tentative as Gosling in performing the songs though, and that tentative quality is matched by the songs themselves because they provide insight into the characters in only the most general terms.


The climax of La La Land is a dance sequence that imagines an alternate future for the characters. It's visually inventive and stylized in a way the rest of the film isn't, save for a number at the Griffith Observatory that would have been more delightful were it not an explicit Rebel Without a Cause homage. Even though I don't think La La Land works - it's paced much too slowly, for another thing - this final sequence demonstrates that Chazelle might have a musical in him if he can dream bigger and get other forms of music out of the way for a second. In other words, don't make a jazzical. La La Land looks set set to receive a number of awards in days to come, but like Sebastian's jazz it's only an imitation of something brighter.





Ben Affleck's dull Live by Night spends a great deal of time explaining how a thief named Joe Coughlin (Affleck) comes to be the enemy of an Irish gangster (Robert Glenister) and the ally of an Italian gangster (Remo Girone) in 1920's Boston. Most of the film - adapted by Affleck from a Dennis Lehane novel - actually takes place in Florida, where Joe becomes a rum kingpin as an agent of the Italian crime syndicate. The central idea at play is that Joe secretly wants to be punished for his crimes, but the script and Affleck's performance never really lets us into Joe's head to find out. (Affleck as Joe provides an on-the-nose narration.) When trouble comes it comes in the form of characters played by Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher, and Elle Fanning, who as a teenaged evangelist has one great scene of self-awareness. I don't know what to make of the fact these characters are all members of one family, but the plot winds on and actors like Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson, and Chris Messina (who seems to have based his performance on characters in older gangster movies) are introduced and then put on the sidelines. Gone Baby Gone, Affleck's first Lehane adaptation, suffered from plot issues but had energy and pace. Live by Night feels like a step backward; it's a musty museum piece that is never more than what's right in front of us.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Manchester by the Sea/Rogue One



Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a notebook of memory, grief, and loss that in lesser hands would descend into sentimental nonsense but in fact is a masterpiece of temper and modulation. Lonergan was a playwright before he turned to writing and directing films, and his command of structure and economy is on full display from the moment that Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, never better) descends in a hospital elevator to view the body of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lonergan cuts to a hospital scene from the brothers' past, the moment when Joe learns he suffers from congestive heart failure. In just a few moments we learn both what kind of man Joe was (Chandler gives him an essential kindness) and that the mouthy Lee isn't yet capable of understanding what the diagnosis means while Joe's wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) can't handle it at all. The roiling emotion on display is maintained throughout Manchester by the Sea, which follows Lee's unexpected assumption of the guardianship of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and Lee's own attempts to come to grips with the memories that Manchester evokes.

There is a big hook in Manchester by the Sea, one that yanks the film around a sharp bend and makes clear just why Lee is so anxious to get his nephew settled and get back to his unexceptional life as a janitor in Boston. Here Lonergan risks changing our empathy with Lee into judgment, but his attention to detail cuts short any sense of the film tipping into melodrama. We've seen the boisterous domestic life that Lee enjoys with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams in top form) and their children and in just one scene of the couple clowning around in their bedroom Lonergan conveys just how much love exists in the marriage. Michelle Williams creates a fully realized person in very little screen time. When we meet Randi again in the film's "present" her haircut in sharper and more chic but the same reserves of love remain just under the surface.

While Lonergan is engaged with deep emotions it must also be said how lively and funny Manchester by the Sea can feel at times, especially in the scenes between Lee and Patrick. Lucas Hedges, who was good as a brat in Moonrise Kingdom, is a very unactory performer and he's just the right person to play a 16-year old concerned with girls, bands, hockey, and finishing high school on his own terms. Patrick gives back as good as he gets in his exchanges with Lee, and the humor keeps the film's sadness from becoming overwhelming. Casey Affleck's performance as Lee will change how you think of him if you only know him from Good Will Hunting, that weird documentary with Joaquin Phoenix, or even his Oscar-nominated role in The Assassination of Jesse James..... Lee lives an empty life but not because it's all he can handle. The specificity of Affleck's performance reveals Lee as man very familiar with how the world works but unable to muster anything to fight it.

Manchester by the Sea is working at too high a level to offer its characters easy answers. Lonergan begins and ends the film on the water. The opening shot finds the brothers' boat out for a family fishing trip, with miles of Atlantic Ocean stretching out ahead. The final shot is tighter and offers only a little water in view. Our lives close in on us, Lonergan seems to say, but there's always something ahead.

Rogue One is a good action film and a pretty good Star Wars film too, though it's hard to watch without thinking about all the reports of tinkering involving cowriter Tony Gilroy. Gilroy supposedly oversaw reshoots and the question of what the film we were going to get looked like is one we'll probably never answer. Officially credited to director Gareth Edwards, Rogue One is the story of the stolen Death Star plans that we find Princess Leia with at the beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope. Felicity Jones brings unexpected swagger to the role of Jyn Erso, broken out of prison and tasked by the Rebels with gathering intelligence on the Empire's "Planet Killer". If you've watched trailers for Rogue One you know that Jyn has a specific motivation for joining the Rebel cause, and the storyline involving her father (Mads Mikkelsen) is the most conventional part of the film. Can no one in this world do anything that doesn't involve their father. There's a crew to accompany Jyn, including a soldier (Diego Luna) with a competing agenda and a blind swordsman (Donnie Yen, who brings physical grace previously unseen in the franchise) who is the closest thing going to a Jedi. Yen's character uses The Force as a sort of mantra, and though The Force is mentioned by many characters it here fails to register as an idea for the first time in the Star wars series. This is a film about soldiers and war and it culminates in an extended battle scene that brings Darth Vader into the action. The most significant Imperial character is named Orson Krennic, who is played by Ben Mendelsohn with a frustration that middle managers in all galaxies will identify with. Rogue One is a fun watch thanks to Jones and the action scenes, but it strains to connect to earlier films in a way I'm not sure it had to. There's world-building and then there is completism, and here there's trying to have it both ways.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Miss Sloane


Miss Sloane would like you to know that lobbying is a blood sport, a winner-take-all affair in which tactics trump ideas and those who make a difference are the ones most skilled at outflanking their opponents. We learn all this in almost so many words from Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a high-end Washington lobbyist who in the opening scenes is being advised to plead the Fifth before Congress by her lawyer. Sloane has run afoul of a Senate committee chaired by Ron Sperling (John Lithgow) for her actions while lobbying on behalf of the government of Indonesia. Are we really about to watch a political drama in which characters fight over palm oil?

Thankfully the answer is no. The hearing which bookends the movie is a function of Sloane's actions working in favor of a gun control bill. Sloane is first approached to work for the gun industry, but to the surprise of her boss (Sam Waterston) she leaves her job and takes her team to a smaller firm run by the idealistic Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). Schmidt's firm is working against great odds to pass the bill and for a time it looks as though Sloane's aggressive tactics might secure the 60 votes required to beat a filibuster in the Senate. The battle to get those votes is the bulk of Miss Sloane, but if you're hoping that battle involves a large tote board with names of Senators and people erasing numbers then you won't be disappointed.

It is always a pleasure to watch Jessica Chastain act, and as Elizabeth Sloane she is by turns indomitable and vulnerable in a way that's never less than arresting. It's a good thing that director John Madden was able to cast an actor as Elizabeth whose personality is so forceful, because the script by Jonathan Perera doesn't give much Chastain much of a character. Elizabeth is Type A and never seems to sleep - the movie gives her an addiction to amphetamines and then forgets about it - and her only personal interactions are regular appointments with an escort (Jake Lacy) who's a little too interested in learning about her career. We never know how Elizabeth got to this point in her life or career or what motivates her to do things like have a Senator followed by a parade float sized rat or out her colleague (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) on television as a survivor of gun violence. Miss Sloane contains a number of scenes in which someone asks Elizabeth "Why are you like this?", but we never really know.

One shouldn't go into Miss Sloane expecting a Sorkinesque political romp. Elizabeth shares a walk-and-talk with her assistant (Alison Pill) and some zippy byplay with a peer (Michael Stuhlbarg) when we first meet her, but Perera's script isn't taking place in a world where everyone operates with good intentions. The film is weirdly concerned with the place where ideals and tactics meet, and it seems to argue that Sloane's methods are justified by the fact that she believes in her cause. This belief makes her a "conviction lobbyist" in the film's parlance, while Waterston and Stuhlbarg's characters are merely paid flacks. The script is on the nose on this point, and Sloane's team repeatedly tells their new co-workers that sometimes it's necessary to get dirty to do some good. It all leads to a hearing room scene that's a tumble of revelations and witnesses, and we learn just why Sloane is so good at anticipating every variable. It all means much less than it might have. Jessica Chastain almost saves Miss Sloane from collapsing on itself, but this house of cards wasn't built to last.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Allied


Allied concerns a woman who may be masquerading as someone else, and the new film directed by Robert Zemeckis is indeed one type of story pretending to be another. The central action scene, in which Allied agents Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) assassinate the German ambassador to Morocco in 1942, comes early and is on full display in the trailer. The scene is the culmination of the first act of Steven Knight's script, in which Max and Marianne are thrown together in Casablanca; playing at being husband and wife turns to love and the couple go to London, marry, and have a daughter. (Again, this is all in the trailer.) Max learns a year later that Marianne may be a German spy. This is a promising setup, but it's also a smokescreen. Zemeckis and Knight aren't really telling a spy story. Max and Marianne love each other deeply, and Allied is in fact an investigation of whether their love will survive the chance that Marianne is a traitor.

For a film set in the world of espionage Allied contains remarkably little tradecraft after the story returns to London. Max, a Canadian military officer, has some kind of job working under a stodgy British commander (Jared Harris), but until Marianne's loyalty is called into question all we see him do is put on a uniform and joke around with colleagues. Marianne, who we're told is an agent of exceptional boldness, seems to lose all interest in work after becoming pregnant. If the problem with the not boring but still uninvolving Allied had to be summed up in a sentence then it is that it's a film about characters and not about people. Knight's script doesn't give his stars room to maneuver, and even their minor interactions are weighed down by plot implications. Brad Pitt is unaccountably stiff in the Casablanca scenes and then has little to do but fret and worry. It's a dull performance and the filmmakers seem to have misunderstood what we want from Pitt. It doesn't help Max has no one to talk to. Lizzy Caplan is badly miscast as Max's sister, barely concealing her lesbian affair in a way that doesn't seem quite right for the period.

The end of Allied is a flurry of activity. Max has caused one soldier's death by investigating Marianne against orders, and he risks more lives on an unlikely mission to occupied France. Allied wants to keep a revelation up its sleeve as long as possible and that means Marion Cotillard can only sit and wait, being a devoted wife and mother all the while. The filmmakers only seem interested in Max's point of view, and Marianne becomes a more passive character as Allied goes on. Given the setting and stars involved Allied should have been at a minimum much more fun, but this overthought film doesn't know what to do with its ration of promise.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Rules Don't Apply/Edge of Seventeen



Rules Don't Apply is reportedly a passion project of its writer/director/star Warren Beatty's, and indeed the film has the feel of something labored over and tinkered with. At one point in its development the film might have been a romance between Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver working for Hughes, and aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). At another it could have been a sort of farce about an aging and eccentric Hughes (Beatty, making up for in energy what he lacks in depth) running around the globe with Frank and fellow driver Levar (Matthew Broderick) following behind and putting out fires. The film we actually have shoves these two conceits together and winds up being both tonally inconsistent and emotionally flat. Ehrenreich and Collins have a good rhythm together in the early scenes; both Frank and Marla come from conservative backgrounds and are figuring out how to make their way in a world that doesn't share their values. Why is Marla in Hollywood? Beatty's script has her signed to an RKO contract but Marla herself says she's not an actress and is in fact only good at writing songs. There's a song called "Rules Don't Apply" within the film that Marla has written which is performed in almost back-to-back scenes for Frank and Hughes. The song has an aphrodisiac effect and ignites a major plot point which is only barely paid off at the end of the film. Lily Collins, who is very winning even though Marla has to speak mostly in declamatory paragraphs, is meanwhile shoved to the fringes of the story.

 Warren Beatty never decides what story he wanted to tell in Rules Don't Apply; there are good actors floating around all over the film but most of them have nothing of consequence to do. Annette Bening is funny and brittle as Marla's religious mother but Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Dabney Coleman, and Haley Bennett (among others) are on hand just to move the plot along. The film doesn't examine Hughes as more than a collection of tics - there's a mass of detail about financial dealings that is just an excuse for scenes of Hughes freaking out and talking about ice cream - and as a result a moment of reckoning at the end falls flat. But we do hear that damn song again.


  Edge of Seventeen, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, asks us to believe that high-school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) would only have one friend. I had a little trouble believing that Nadine wouldn't find another smart but disaffected student to bond with at her large suburban high school, but Nadine's growing self-awareness about her own situation makes the film work anyway. Nadine's friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) has just started dating Nadine's popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), and Nadine finds herself alone on the fringes once again. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderfully uningratiating here. Craig's script doesn't try to make us sympathize with Nadine, who sometimes can be a real jerk to her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and everyone else around her. The scenes between Nadine and her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) have a comic snap because both characters want to be doing something else. There may never have been a teacher in film who less wants to play the role of life coach than Harrelson's very funny Mr. Bruner. Craig doesn't resolve everything at the end, and that choice may be the biggest reason to keep an eye on this filmmaker. Nadine is given a window into a different life, and it's up to her to do the rest.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Moonlight



The word "normalize" has been much in play in our cultural conversation lately, whether in reference to gross personal behavior, extreme political views, or the idea that the way many of us get our news may have swayed a Presidential election. In this heightened context to normalize is a bad thing - but if the new film Moonlight helps normalize the idea of complicated black masculinity in cinema then it will have done us an incalculable service. Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney), is a gorgeous surprise and of the year's most vital American films. Jenkins breaks the story into three chapters, starting with the chance meeting of a Miami drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali in a star making performance) and young boy called Little (Alex Hibbert). There is a sense in which Little, and the man he will become, is the character we most need to see on screen in 2016 - a year when black Americans felt themselves under siege by civil institutions in a way they perhaps haven't for decades. Little, whose real name is Chiron, is on the run from bullies when we meet him and Juan offers him a meal and ride home with a quick stop to introduce Little to his warm girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Little's mother (Naomie Harris) isn't thrilled with Juan, especially when Juan catches her using drugs on the street. The rest of Moonlight is the struggle that these adults will have for Little's soul.

 This opening section of a Moonlight is a beautifully shot film about childhood. Jenkins keeps his camera at Little's level so that we perceive every sensation just as Little takes it in, from a first time at the beach with Juan to the menacing stares of other boys during a game of keep away. The way the boys look at Little isn't just a function of their horseplay; they perceive something in him that won't manifest itself until later. Little's mother perceives the same thing, and this contempt for his weakness combined with her descent into addiction makes home the least safe place in Little's life. Jump forward a few years and the teenager before us, now called Chiron again, is played by Ashton Sanders. Chiron's life is one of piercing loneliness: there are more bullies, and a mother lost to drugs, and no helpful adults. Ashton Sanders has marvelous, expressive eyes and he says more with them about what's in Chiron's heart than his few lines of dialogue ever could. Chiron's only connection is with his friend Kevin (played in this section by Jharrel Jerome). The sex act the two young men share is the moment in Moonlight when Chiron is most fully himself with another person, but Chiron also knows that it sets him apart from the loud, rough, "normal" teens who beat him up. Jenkins handles this moment with the same delicacy he displays throughout, avoiding any hint of sentiment of preachiness and viewing the moment for what it is: a fork in the road of a human life.

 In the final section of Moonlight Chiron is known as "Black" and is played by Trevante Rhodes. An act of violence has set Black on a course to end up like Juan just as Kevin (played here by Andre Holland) reenters Black's life with a phone call. Much is left unsaid in the long scene of Black and Kevin's reunion; there's an awkward mix of happiness, nervousness, and attraction that Jenkins wisely doesn't get in the way of. There is a wobbly moment where Black chooses words over actions where Rhodes is slightly stiff, but Jenkins doesn't make too much of it and is smart enough to know that an easy resolution to this story would ring false. The end of Moonlight brings Black to the doorstep of a richer and more complicated life, one that will have made the journey worth it.