Saturday, December 17, 2016

Nocturnal Animals


Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) and novelist Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) were married while graduate students in New York City, but since things ended badly nearly twenty years ago, they have not been in touch. The intervening time has apparently provided Susan much of what she believed Edward could not give her, although in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS she shows no indications of living a more satisfying life. Susan enjoys professional success but appears to draw no fulfillment from it. Her marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer) is chilled. While they keep up appearances, they are also in financial distress.

Susan has long had a problem with insomnia, a condition which becomes more pronounced as she reads the manuscript Edward sends to her out of the blue. In his violent novel she envisions her ex as the protagonist, Tony, a sensitive husband and father who becomes obsessed with revenge after three scuzzy men abduct, rape, and kill his wife and daughter. In the story within the film, Tony gets assistance from Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a police detective who wants to see justice done whether it’s achieved within the law or not.

With the structure of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS writer-director Tom Ford intends for Susan to experience the lingering anger Edward has felt since the dissolution of their relationship. Art is one way to feel empathy for others, and the novel functions as Edward’s passive-aggressive vehicle for breaking through the hard exterior Susan has accreted. Susan slices her finger opening the package before even reading a page, metaphorically foreshadowing the sharp-edged nature of the novel therein. From the story within the film to the framing device and flashbacks Ford uses match cuts and others edits to connect Susan to the fictionalized and past versions of a man intent on making her understand the rage she stirred within him.

In Edward’s book, also called NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the inciting event results from his desire to defuse a situation in which he is essentially helpless. The men who drive Tony off the road and harass his family are not bound by the rules of civility. Knowing full well they intend to cross over and cause harm, the aggressors taunt him like playground bullies holding their fingers half an inch from their victims and feigning innocence by saying that they’re not touching them. In an extended and incredibly tense sequence the leader, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and his cohorts menace Tony, his wife, and daughter by sinisterly going through the motions of politeness before advancing to more hands-on terrorizing. Through his character Edward lays bare the vulnerability and lack of a choice he suffered from at Susan’s hands.

Shannon adds hard-bitten humor as Edward’s opposite, the manifestation of the kind of tough, practical man who can facilitate revenge without damaging his conscience. Abel Korzeniowski’s darkly romantic score steeps NOCTURNAL ANIMALS in film noir. While Susan didn’t set out to make Edward her sap, she ultimately treated him like a sensitive fool. His long postponed response produces an indirect confrontation that is no less emotionally savage for his means of delivering it. Ford executes quite the trick in having this overdue and brutal conversation take place like a thriller in which the principals share only a mental space.

Grade: B

Friday, December 16, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

The death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) prompts Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) to return to his hometown, but he intends to go back to Boston as soon as he can even though all that’s there for him is a handyman job. In MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, named after the town where he can hardly bear to be, Lee has funeral arrangements to tend to and, more importantly for the time being, needs to look after his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) as his mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) has not been in the picture for years.

To Lee’s surprise his brother made him Patrick’s trustee and guardian. Although he loves his nephew, it’s a responsibility that Lee does not want, at least if it means coming back to live in Manchester-by-the-Sea again. The place is burdened with memories of life before his divorce from Randi (Michelle Williams) and the looks and reactions from those who see him around. Patrick understandably resists the idea of being uprooted. Lee assumes the caretaker role in the meantime while trying to find a solution that will be satisfactory for both of them in the long run.

Heartbroken and despairing, Lee refuses to forgive himself for the tragedy in his life. It becomes clear that he had a valid reason for moving away, but in doing so he also separates himself from the family support system that he needs. His small and dim basement apartment suggests that he has done the closest thing to burying himself. If it wasn’t for Joe pushing him to purchase some furniture, his living arrangement would be as spartan as a cell, which is what Lee acts as if he deserves. Affleck does extraordinary work occupying a character who hates himself on a deep level yet is compelled to honor the obligations he feels he owes and those bestowed upon him. Lee’s pain is genuine, and he accepts it as his cross to bear rather than something for him to perform. By not seeking empathy in his portrayal, Affleck attracts it.

Grief runs through MANCHESTER BY THE SEA like a fault, something abrasive grinding away that is ever present yet unexpected when the energy from it explodes. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan explores the strain of life after death on the living with great sensitivity for how the sense of loss can emerge and how people deal with it. Grief can strike from encountering something innocuous or without any prompting whatsoever. It takes the form of outbursts and self-inflicted damage. The individualized nature of grief also means that there’s no single answer for easing it. Lee and Patrick’s interactions in the wake of Joe’s death are far from perfect, but there’s beauty in how they fumble their way through a difficult situation together.

Although MANCHESTER BY THE SEA can be profoundly sad, it features a fair share of humor. Lonergan recognizes that grieving isn’t constant wailing but pushing through the days and returning to routines. Laughter is a part of that, and the film finds a lot funny in the little ways people may try to distract from what makes them uncomfortable and the sarcasm that creeps into conversations.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA opens with Lee, Joe, and a young Patrick out fishing. Lee asks the kid who he’d pick to be with if he could only have his uncle or his dad with him on an island. It’s a warm scene with him teasing the boy when he naturally picks his father. As circumstances play out, neither Lee nor Patrick will really have a choice in the matter. The film closes with Lee and Patrick on that same boat. It’s not what either would want, but they’ll make the best of it that they can.

Grade: A

Thursday, December 15, 2016


MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins, 2016)

MOONLIGHT tells the story of Chiron through three stages of his life, each distinguished by the name he goes by. It begins with him in grade school referred to as Little (Alex Hibbert), a name thrust upon him by the other kids because of his small stature. Little tends to get picked on and not fight back. As the film begins, he outruns the other boys to hide in a boarded up apartment often used by drug users in the Miami neighborhood. Cuban drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds Little and decides to look out for him until the tight-lipped boy tells him where he lives so he can take him home. Little lives with his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), but Juan and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take an interest in the boy and become like secondary parents.

Little grows into the gawky Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a quiet teenager who still draws his share of abuse from classmates. It has long been apparent to others, especially his mother, that he is gay, even if Chiron is just gradually discovering his sexuality. Longtime friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is more assured in who he is and sees someone similar, if less confident, in Chiron, but the high school environment obstructs them being together in a way they both need.

Chiron develops into the bulked up Black (Trevante Rhodes), who looks the part of the drug dealer in Atlanta that he has become but remains the sensitive soul he’s always been. Out of the blue Black gets a call from Kevin (André Holland), who is working at a diner back home. Feeling the pull to see him again, Black drives back to Miami to reconnect.

The main character in MOONLIGHT is asked who he is, and that search for identity connects the three parts. Chiron first goes by that belittling nickname and then the birth name given by his often cruel mother. He adopts the name Black as an adult, but he doesn’t really have ownership of that tag as it was what Kevin started calling him when they were nine. At each stage he is known according to how others see him. He hasn’t really had a chance to assert his true nature, so the inner Chiron gets suppressed to conform to expectations or avoid drawing attention. Juan tells Little about a neighborhood woman who said that black boys look blue in the moonlight. The blueness extends to Chiron’s emotional composition.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins infuses MOONLIGHT with a sense of longing that gives Chiron’s maturation a tragic arc while it dangles the possibility of happiness. Juan, Teresa, Kevin, and, eventually, even Paula possess the potential for helping Chiron become actualized in a way that he’s not been able to do on his own, yet fear and passivity hold him back. The film’s superior final third swells with the nostalgia and restrained passion of Wong Kar-wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Black’s reunion with Kevin could break him free of the loneliness and uncertainty that has defined him. The question remains if he can finally submit to showing his genuine self and living like that.

MOONLIGHT boasts an outstanding ensemble. Jenkins elicits consistent performances across the three actors playing the central character so nine-year-old Little is visible through teenage Chiron and twentysomething Black. Ali humanizes what could have been a clichéd character into a complex individual who can see the damage his livelihood causes. He atones for it as he can by demonstrating love for Little. Jenkins makes smart choices in showing Juan living what passes for an ordinary life rather than the extravagant lifestyle that might be associated with a Miami drug dealer. In her brief time on screen Monáe makes an impact as the soft but firm mother figure Chiron needs while Harris uncovers the ugly and pitiable nature of a mother racked with too many of her own issues to support her son properly. Holland’s relaxed essence makes a lovely contrast with Rhodes’ tentativeness as they size up who the characters have grown into being. With MOONLIGHT Jenkins finds majesty in the search for self.

Grade: B+

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)

Smart and strong-willed seventeen-year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has always felt like an outsider at home and among her classmates. Her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is popular and can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of their parents. She never seems to see eye to eye with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick). Her father was one of the rare people who understand Nadine, so when he dies unexpectedly, she feels she’s lost her foundation. Now a high school junior in the comedy-drama THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, her longtime best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is virtually the only person who helps Nadine feel less alone.

This key relationship dissolves when Nadine discovers Krista being intimate with Darian. She considers it a betrayal of the highest order and thinks that demanding that Krista have nothing to do with her brother will right the wrong. To her surprise, Krista refuses to stop being involved with him, leading Nadine to cut off communication with the person she’s closest to. Now feeling more isolated than ever, Nadine reaches out to Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who has awkwardly shown interest in her. She also turns to her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), whose lunches she interrupts with her anxious chatter and a dramatic announcement that she’s going to kill herself.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig recognizes that people in general, and teenagers in particular, can get so obsessed with the stuff swirling inside their own heads that they fail to understand what others are dealing with and invite more of the problems on which they fixate. Nadine would likely deny that she’s a narcissist because she isn’t vain, but her self-absorption runs deep. She nurtures her aggrieved feelings and think they make her special, possibly even superior. Nadine clings to a limited and melodramatic worldview that is inward-looking to the point that she blinds herself to the misery she’s generating in her life and those around her. It’s apparent that she’s always been uncomfortable with herself and takes that out on others too.

Nadine is a complicated character, both self-hating and sharply funny, sometimes cruelly so. Steinfeld does a remarkable job of molding the self-involved teen into someone who can be exasperating without snuffing what’s inherently likable about her. She makes her into someone that can be empathized with yet never pitied. When she does something that embarrasses her or who she’s with, her actions evoke laughing and cringing. Nadine has a tendency to be her own worst enemy. Steinfeld doesn’t try to ingratiate herself for the audience’s benefit but inhabits Nadine’s naked neediness and confusion as the natural state of teenage existence.

To that end, Nadine’s interactions with Mr. Bruner go a long way in humanizing her and gaining perspective. To someone overhearing parts of their conversations in the hallway, the teacher’s sarcastic give-and-take with his emotional student might sound grossly insensitive. It’s funny and at least a little alarming when THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN opens with him brushing off her intention to commit suicide, but the more we come to know about how they talk to one another, the more his dry humor in serious conversations is how he’s able to signal that he cares without getting touchy-feely, which neither of them seem oriented toward being. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN doesn’t dismiss what Nadine is going through as a phase, but through Mr. Bruner it is capable of taking the long view to relate to her anxiety and know that in time she can get past it.

Grade: B+

Friday, December 02, 2016


ALLIED (Robert Zemeckis, 2016)

Canadian operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beauséjour (Marian Cotillard), a member of the French Resistance, pose as husband and wife in 1942 French Morocco for a mission to assassinate a German ambassador in ALLIED. Marianne has been busy befriending the Germans in Casablanca prior to Max’s arrival. The partners are previously unacquainted and know the danger of becoming close, but the intensity of their assignment and playing of their roles in a convincing manner leads to their relationship developing into something more personal than noble work for the cause.

Max and Marianne succeed at their bold task and survive, but rather than going their own ways, they decide to get married. Back in England Max gets approval for Marianne to join him there. Although World War II still wages on, they settle into a life together with a baby girl. Marianne trades intelligence work for being a wife and mother while Max continues to play a key role in the fight from London. After a year or so Max is called in thinking he’s going to be offered a promotion but instead is told that Marianne is suspected of being a German spy. He refuses to believe the accusation but grudgingly goes along with the operation to test her loyalty. Although he’s warned not to look into the question further, he desperately searches for answers that will ease his dismay.

The uncertainty of knowing who to trust and what to believe stand out as occupational hazards for secret agents. The design of ALLIED brings that to attention with sets and digital backgrounds that are convincing enough to seem like real settings and yet are also noticeable as constructed reality on a studio lot. This is not a matter of the special effects work not being up to par but a deliberate choice by director Robert Zemeckis to emphasize the thematic tension. The more deeply involved the viewer gets with the story, the more the illusion, or movie magic, takes hold that we can trust what is seen. Likewise, Max has greater difficulty separating what is authentic and what could be deception between him and Marianne as his commitment to believing in her innocence becomes more fervent.

Considering the filmmaker, this is an interesting twist in how he uses special effects. With films like THE WALK, FORREST GUMP, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and the trio of computer-animated features in this century’s first decade, Zemeckis has strived to make the trickery invisible, to make the fake seem realistic. ALLIED doesn’t disguise the technical wizardry involved but instead leaves room for the viewers’ brains to blur the separation between practical sets and environments that exist as ones and zeroes on a computer hard drive. In this regard, belief creates reality despite what may be visible to challenge it.

Steven Knight’s screenplay also uses the scenario to explore marriage and the truths two people invest in a relationship to keep it strong. Without the suggestion of Marianne’s activities, she and Max could likely go on living happily ever after, but the doubt introduced gnaws at him despite what he thinks he knows. It calls Max to dispute everything between them even as he desperately wants to trust her. Still, how much can anyone really know another person? As a wartime and psychological thriller, ALLIED finds that most vulnerable point and examines the fallout when it is exposed.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 01, 2016


MOANA (Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, and Chris Williams, 2016)

A tribe on an island in the Pacific has everything it needs in MOANA and thus lacks the impulse to explore what is beyond their home. For the teenage Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), this conservatism can be frustrating, as she has an adventurous soul. When the coconut harvests yield spoiled crops and fish vanish from the waters inside the reef, Moana’s suggestions to go outside their comfort zone are overruled by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison).

Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House), something of a free spirit herself, encourages Moana to follow her instincts. She sets her on a course to find the Polynesian demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and help him return the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess’ stone he stole. His theft, which he did to please humans, unleashed the darkness upon the world that is now causing the problems at home. With her own wits and the help of the ocean--her stupid pet rooster Heihei provides no assistance--Moana goes on her journey to save everything and everyone she loves.

MOANA fits safely within the Walt Disney animated musical tradition but makes enough variations on their princess movies to keep it from feeling stagnant. There’s no love interest around to sidetrack her from the matter at hand, and her animal sidekick is of negligible use. Johnson’s voice work as Maui and the gags with a mini version of the character tattooed on the buff demigod deliver much of MOANA’s humor. Despite his status in the universe, he’s often brought down to size by the film’s plucky heroine.

The South Pacific setting allows the animators to impress with the tropical landscapes, and as much of the film taking place on the ocean, they also get to showcase the latest and greatest in replicating water with computers. The songs by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Broadway superstar of the moment Lin-Manuel Miranda provide an injection of bright fun. Mancina and Miranda’s “Shiny”, performed by FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS’ Jemaine Clement as a treasure-hoarding crab, is a highlight, especially with the funny and nightmarish visual accompaniment.

While the animation dazzles, MOANA can feel a little too familiar to stand out from its numerous competitors. In this regard the slender tale may be hurt somewhat by its economy of characters. Other than the two primaries, the ocean itself probably has the most impactful presence.

Grade: B-