Skip to content

Recent Movies: 20th Century Women; Paterson; The Salesman; Books: An American Tragedy

Recent Movies

20th Century Women

In Santa Barbara, California during the late 1970s, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is an unconventional single mother in her fifties raising a pre-teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a household that seems to contain a makeshift family which includes two single tenants (Great Gerwig and Billy Crudup) and a girl next door (Elle Fanning) who is two years older than Jamie.

It’s rather easy for the viewer to feel comfort around the folks in this commune-like home especially with Bening playing the head of the house. She exudes charm, warmth, and humour – especially in a scene when she is trying to understand the appeal of modern (at the time) punk rock music. The characters also bring us down memory lane when feminism was in its early stages. We see both the fascinating side of this movement and some of the absurd side.

[SPOILER ALERT] The decision to show what happened to each character’s future at the end might not have been necessary with the exception of Dorothea’s. The fate of the other characters seemed ordinary and conventional considering the unique experiences they shared in the 70s.  However, this might be the point. Perhaps, this was a way of expressing grief for a period (the 1970s in this case though it could also be appended with the 1960s) when self-exploration and self-expression were much more attainable than in the decades that followed with mega-greed and less economic freedom for the average person.

“20th Century Women” could have been cut by twenty minutes or so but it was a nostalgia journey well worth traveling.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


Paterson

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a local bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. The viewer witnesses a week in the life of Paterson including his domestic life with his common-law partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their dog; his work-life; and his social life in the evenings as he visits a local bar. He also expresses his creative side writing poetry.

The daily routine, especially the work days, have a similar pattern but they are never repetitious. Within the daily structure, there is always something new and different happening, The various characters are intriguing as well especially a hard-done-by co-worker and various dramas (some of them comical) that take place at the bar.

Most amazing is a plot twist that happens near the end. To most, such an event would be an annoyance in daily domestic life yet here, its context leaves a very strong emotional impact.

The directing by Jim Jarmusch is the movie’s main strength as he pays such kind attention to the daily life of people that might be considered average. Paterson is a soft-spoken introvert and Laura is very tender-hearted though sometimes in a naive way. Driver and Farahani each do a great job in bringing these characters to life. Jarmusch adds to the movie’s sweet charms by emphasizing the town’s beautiful old buildings and its nearby serene waterfalls.

A bonus, at least for folks like me: the main character refuses to own a mobile phone as he believes life was perfectly fine in the past without them. At least in fiction, it’s nice to know there’s someone else who feels this way.

RATING:   * * *


The Salesman

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a couple living in Tehran who work in theatre (currently performing in “Death of a Salesman”). In their newly acquired apartment, Rana is assaulted by a stranger and suffers post-traumatic stress. Emad vows revenge.

A major event in the movie’s first half takes place off-screen. This leaves the viewer in the position of judge rather than witness as we can only surmise events from what others have told. The movie’s first half is good though relatively plain. But, as the viewer learns later, it is a build-up to an unforgettable second half. This is a wonderful contrast to the many films where the opposite is true. When a movie’s second half is the better one, the viewer is given an unofficial extension of the movie as its impact continues well after the ending.

Director/writer Asghar Farhadi brings to “The Salesman” similar themes (and greatness) as he did with “A Separation” (2011) and “The Past” (2013). Among the various characters, we in the audience can understand why some would hate others but, by the end, we have compassion for every single one of them especially after we learn more information about the “villain”. In this way, Farhadi is not just a great storyteller but a fine humanitarian as well. By giving all viewpoints sincerely, he challenges viewers to not only do reconsider anger in our personal lives but possibly in how we look at the world as well. This is noble considering the current state of our world.

Hosseini and Alidoosti are quite good in their performances but the standout performance comes from Farid Sajjadi Hosseini as a character who enters the picture only in the second half and leaves the most impact in the movie.

Like “A Separation” and “The Past”, “The Salesman” is food for the soul and it confirms Farhadi as one of the best movie-makers in the 2010s.

RATING:   * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:  Screenplay by Asghar Farhadi


Books

“An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser

******  THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS  ******

Clyde Griffiths is a young ambitious man who grew up in a poor, religious family in Kansas City. Through various mishaps, he ends up working at a rich uncle’s factory in upstate New York. Once there, he becomes involved in a love triangle, firstly with Roberta Alden who is also from a poor family like Clyde (and also his subordinate at work) and later with Sondra Finchley, a glamorous socialite from a wealthy family. The love triangle leads to the tragedy of the book’s title.

“An American Tragedy” was written in 1925 and based on true events in the early 1900s. It was also the source for the 1951 film “A Place in the Sun” starring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Taylor.

One of the sidebars of the main story is a wicked social class structure and the attempts of many to climb further in the hierarchy no matter how futile it may seem. It even causes tension for those at the top as they seem obligated to keep their inner social circles as exclusive as possible. Those in the upper-class are also vulnerable as they could lose their status with the slightest association with a scandal even if they themselves have done no harm. This causes them to be as minimally helpful as possible to their relations and others who are less fortunate.

This exposure of class hierarchies is enhanced as the writing gets into the thoughts of all characters including their desires for a better social position.  It also includes thoughts of the despicable, spoiled brats who believe they are superior by luck of birth only. Another highlighted hierarchy is that of physical attractiveness. Clyde, Roberta, and Sondra are all very attractive but only Sondra has the extra advantage of being wealthy as well. She is also one of the very few rich characters who is also beautiful. Clyde happens to resemble his wealthy cousin Gilbert but Clyde, it turns out, is more attractive and taller – a fact that irks Gilbert.

In reading a book written over ninety years old, I expected challenges in the language but thankfully, there were few. The word ‘gay’ was frequently used but not in a way it would have been used in current times. Some expressions were easy to decipher even if not used today. The only time I had to use Google was to understand the term “four-flusher”. The writing is also, for its time, reasonably frank about sex but the word “abortion” was never written even though it was very clear that this was the main subject in a few successive chapters. Words like “procedure” and “help” were often used as substitutes. (This was also the case in the film version “A Place in the Sun”.) Discussions of religion were also quite interesting. At times, religious viewpoints seemed harshly judgmental but at other times, they seemed to be a welcome spiritual relief to the difficulties of living in a harsh world.

The book is divided into three sections. They include Clyde’s childhood and adolescence in Kansas City; his upward mobility in New York state – up to and including the tragedy of the title; and the fallout the follows the tragedy. The transitions between sections were brilliantly written. Each finished with a shocking cliffhanger and the following section began by introducing new and interesting characters well before bringing us back to the main one (Clyde).

At over eight-hundred and fifty pages, “An American Tragedy” certainly provides a great level of detail. For the most part, this works and works very well at that. One highlight is a scene in a death-row prison where a “newcomer” must witness, for the first time, a fellow prisoner walking down a hallway toward the electric chair. After the door is closed, the other prisoners know what is happening when the lights in their unit are getting dimmer. The only times that seemed long were the romance between Clyde and Roberta as well as the trial that takes place in the third section.

Speaking of the trial section, most of it is fascinating at its level of detail including the dirty politicking of both lawyers in how they used the case for personal purposes. The author also seemed to know what to include in detail and what to summarize. But nearing the end of this section, it seemed too long.

During the last part of the second section, the reader is dragged into the mind of someone planning a murder. It is here where Dreiser can be credited for an accuracy that goes to some very nasty places. This is apparent in the extreme discomfort of reading this section. On the one hand, we can be fascinated; on the other, we can hardly wait for it to end as we seem to be in the presence of an evil mind.

By the end, the reader is left with more than a few things to ponder. One character is widely considered by others to be a martyr by the end. The irony is that, had she not met such a tragic fate, she would likely have been considered a pariah by the same people for her life situation that lead to the tragedy. The main issue to ponder is whether another character was truly guilty of a crime. While there is some leeway to consider innocence, guilt seems to be the right verdict overall.

But most readers might come to a similar conclusion regarding another evil: class prejudice. Whether it be in the time and place of this great book, our current times in our “globalized economy” (pardon my language), and all times between, before, and after, “An American Tragedy” exposes the underbelly of this societal repugnance while giving us a damned good story as well.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Lion; Toni Erdmann; La La Land

Recent Movies

Lion

Based on a true story: In rural India in the 1980s, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a five year-old boy from a poor family. After being separated from his family in a bizarre incident, he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). During his adult life in Melbourne (portrayed by Dev Patel at this point), a flashback memory gives him the urge to find his birth family despite very difficult odds.

In the movie’s first section in India, director Garth Davis collaborates perfectly with young actor Pawar as they take the viewer down the memory lane of childhood. While Saroo’s plight is more severe than most of us have ever experienced, these early scenes can easily recall one’s own childhood experience of the vulnerability of being separate from loved ones and surrounded by strangers. In the portrayal of Saroo as a young boy, Pawar is easily loveable as he brings the perfect mix of innocence and vulnerability plus wisdom and courage beyond his years. It would be proven later that Saroo’s inner-strength was exceptional compared to other children who shared his fate.

Most of the movie’s second half has less impact than the earlier scenes. Patel’s performance is good enough but it has less depth than that of Pawar in the continuation of the main role. It’s like a relay race in which the first runner is way ahead in the race but when he passes the baton to the second runner, the team starts falling behind. It doesn’t help that Rooney Mara, who plays Saroo’s girlfriend, is equally lacking in depth. The scenes between Patel and Mara are the movie’s weakest moments.

But there are some blessings in the second half. Kidman lights up the screen every time she’s on it. Sadly though, like the Michelle Williams role in the recent “Manchester by the Sea”, Kidman’s role is too small.

The biggest saving grace for the second half is its final scene which is truly magical. There’s also a bonus in how the viewer learns how this movie got its title.

“Lion” can be placed in the same category of “Philomena” among rich films based on adopted children trying to find their biological families.

RATING:   * * * 1/2


Toni Erdmann

Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller) is a young German globalist consultant living in Bucharest, Romania. Her job is to assist large corporations to outsource jobs and reduce their labour costs. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is Ines’ father who is near retirement and concerned about how distant and workaholic his daughter has become. To relieve his distress, he “visits” her in Bucharest and plays pranks by showing up at Ines’ business functions dressed in a bizarre wig and claiming to be “Toni Erdmann, life coach”.

“Toni Erdmann” is yet another film where I liked the first half better than the second. The beginning section has many genuine moments of social awkwardness and it is candid about our modern times as it exposes the foils of workaholism and the deviousness of globalization. In a few scenes, director/writer Maren Ade cleverly juxtaposes the wealth of the globalist foreigners with the poor living circumstances of average Romanians. One scene amazes in showing how the poor can still be generous despite their circumstances.

The latter half is filled with buffoonery with occasional laughs (a bizarre birthday brunch was the highlight) but some of the comedy seems silly and inconsistent with the rest of the story. For example, how could “Toni” have shown up at Ines’ after-work events before she does without any indication she told him where she was going to be?

Huller gives a fine performance of a complex, inner-conflicted character. She portrays what could be called a villain: a despised, modern archetype – someone who advances her/his own career while casually destroying the livelihoods of others who are less well-off. Yet, she manages, with the help of Ade, to humanize the role without being apologetic for the career choice. The universal theme of “lost childhood” is also well portrayed here in Ines’ relationship with Winfried. We get glimpses that she used to be as prankish with him in her early years.

Overall, “Toni Erdmann” is a good film despite its flaws and its excessive length. Like the recent “Moonlight”, it is a highly acclaimed film that, for me, reaches much of its potential but not all of it.

 RATING:   * * *


La La Land

The main characters in this Los Angeles romantic musical are Mia (Emma Stone), a coffee-shop employee with dreams of being an actress; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who aspires to open his own club that plays jazz like it was played in the good old days.

At long last: a movie released during the 2016 awards season that actually lives up to the hype!

Early in the film, there are two superb group musical numbers. The numbers that follow are more low-key relating only to the main characters but they are still well performed and executed.

The stories of career struggle within the broader narrative are very believable. They include the hell of auditioning to people who are too busy plus the desire to maintain the purity of a great music genre (jazz) while too often being told it is “a dying art”.

Gosling takes a while to break into the role particularly where the singing is concerned but it’s not long before he fits into the part quite nicely. Stone is superb throughout the film. She is even spot-on as an actress giving mediocre auditions. She’s given a full range – and not just as a triple threat – and she fully lives up to the expectations especially during the song “Audition” near the end.

There is something uniquely enjoyable about Hollywood portraying itself. The movie also gives nods to great classic musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”, and “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” all the while being unique and standing out on its own. In addition, the set designs and photography add further to the film’s greatness.

The reference to “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” comes through strongly in the movie’s final number. This scene is probably the best scene of any movie in 2016. It leaves one with so many mixed emotions and extreme on either side. The production number is magnificent while its mood is melancholy.

The teaming of director/writer Damien Chazelle with musical composer Justin Hurwitz is one of the best matches since Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand in the 1960s.

RATING:   * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:

1)       Directing by Damien Chazelle

2)      Acting by Emma Stone

3)      Music by Justin Hurwitz

Recent Movies: Manchester by the Sea; Fantastic Beasts; The Red Turtle; Live Theatre: My Night with Reg

Recent Movies

Manchester by the Sea

Two parallel stories take place in this film: in the present, Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck) is a reserved janitor in a small Massachusetts town who must deal with tragic family news and travel to a nearby small town to help deal with the aftermath; in the other story, Lee’s past is told – a past in which he was married to Randi (Michelle Williams) and raising three small children.

In the beginning, it takes a while to get used to the fact that almost every character in this film is a potty-mouth. But once this hurdle is passed, it’s relatively easy to show an interest for these folks even if we don’t quite warm up to them. The screenplay by Kenneth Longergan (also the movie’s director) is quite clever in how it gradually reveals elements of the past and how they explain present circumstances.

It’s great to see Williams in a role that is rough-edged. So often, she has been typecast into mousy, quiet characters. Even if she plays such characters well, it’s great to see another side of her talent. Near the end, her talents are top-notch in a scene in which she makes amends for her past. She’s quite gripping here and it’s a shame she spends too little time on screen.

Affleck certainly does a fine job in his role as well but it’s difficult to see why his performance has dominated the awards season. As someone with a difficult past and dealing with a current tragedy, it’s easy to seen why his character is so restrained. Though there are occasional outburst moments, the role would have been more complete if there had been a scene of catharsis – like the previously mentioned one for Williams.

Like the recent “Moonlight”, “Manchester by the Sea” is a fine film but I personally find both films somewhat over-rated.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

In the 1920s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a wizard who arrives in New York City from Great Britain with the intention of travelling further to Arizona. He ends up getting mixed up with a would-be baker (Dan Folger), another wizard (Katherine Waterston), and strange events from somewhere in the magical community causing havoc on the city.

As this film was written by J.K. Rowling and directed by Peter Yates, much of the jollity of the Harry Potter series is repeated here. The visual effects are magnificent as is the set design and all else that help recreate another time and place long gone by mixed with the supernatural.

Occasionally, the story seemed incoherent and difficult to follow though it seemed easier to understand near its conclusion. Luckily, its light-heartedness, fine acting and able directing saved the film from falling to a mediocre level.

RATING: * * * (but just barely)


The Red Turtle

A man is deserted on a tropical island. He tries to leave it until the mysterious title character enters his life. “The Red Turtle” is an animated film co-produced by Japan, France, and Belgium.

With a mix of the supernatural and life’s simple joys and sad times, the effect of this movie is mesmerizing. The choice of no dialogue, with the rare exception of the shout of ‘hey’ was a very wise one. The characters’ facial expressions tell more than words ever could. The simplicity gives extra responsibility to the animators as well as the music compositions by Laurent Perez del Mar and they come through with flying colours.

The life moments in the movie’s second half are those with which most viewers can identify with a few exceptions. This is a wonderful contrast to so many other recent films that seem to require a university degree in film comprehension to just keep up. Instead, “The Red Turtle” has done what no other recent movie this season has done so far: it made me feel something. I almost wept at least twice.

Remarkable.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:   the animation team; plus the music by Laurent Perez del Mar


Live Theatre

“My Night with Reg” by Kevin Elyot at the Panasonic Theatre, Toronto

With three scenes taking place in a London flat in the 1980s, a group of gay friends converge during fun times and sad times.

There’s so much to praise in Elyot’s play. Let’s begin with the clever device of a frequently mentioned character who never actually appears but who has so strongly affected the lives of the others via infidelity and promiscuity. While this might make the story sound like heavy drama – and it is to a degree – it is told with such hilarity and wit that it also wins as a comedy. Jeff Miller and Martin Happer are particularly funny as, respectively, a sharp-tongued jet-setter and a no-nonsense bus driver.

After a scene has ended and the next one begun, there is also cleverness in the way the audience is brought up to speed with all that happened offstage during the transition – some events quite shocking and sad. To top it off, Elyot’s characters are rich and varied and not just in economic class. While some seem active and lucky in sexual encounters, others are less so in their appeal to manifest such “fun”. Yet it is also clear that the most sexually active aren’t necessarily happy.

With such a rich tapestry of characters and a superb blend of pathos with humour, “My Night with Reg” was a wonderful experience.

RATING:   * * * 1/2


Upcoming Movie Reviews:  Lion, Toni Erdmann, La La Land, 20th Century Women, Hidden Figures, Paterson, The Salesman, I Am Not Your Negro

Oscar Predictions 2017

Like all other past Oscar posts, here is a repeat of some notes before the predictions:

This is a summary of the result of other award institutions that have also presented awards thus far plus other recent Oscar trends.

 

For the predicted winners, the levels of strength are noted as follows:

(1)  unstoppable; pretty well a shoo-in

(2)  front-runner

(3)  ahead in the race but just barely

 

For the possible upsets, the levels of strength are as follows:

(4)  very strong possible upset

(5)  possible upset

(6)  long-shot / dark-horse

 

And the predictions:

Best Picture:  (2) La La Land; (5) Moonlight;  (6) Manchester by the Sea; Hidden Figures

Best Director:  (3) Damien Chazelle (La La Land); (4) Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Best Actress:  (2) Emma Stone (La La Land); (5) Isabelle Huppert (Elle); Natalie Portman (Jackie)

Best Actor:  (3) Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea); (4) Denzel Washington (Fences);  (6) Ryan Gosling (La La Land)

Best Supporting Actress:  (1) Viola Davis (Fences);  (6) Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea); Naomie Harris (Moonlight)

Best Supporting Actor:  (1) Mahereshala Ali (Moonlight):  (6) Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea); Dev Patel (Lion)

Best Original Screenplay:  (3) Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea);  (4) Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Best Adapted Screenplay:  (3) B. Jenkins / A. McCraney (Moonlight);  (4) Eric Heisserer (Arrival);  (6) Luke Davies (Lion)

Best Foreign Language Film:  (3) Toni Erdmann (Germany);  (4) The Salesman (Iran);  (6) all other nominees

Best Documentary:  (1) OJ: Made in America;  (6) 13th;  I Am Not Your Negro

Best Animated Feature:  (1) Zootopia;  (6) Finding Dory;  The Red Turtle

 

Recent Movies: Nocturnal Animals; Rogue One; Fences

Recent Movies

Nocturnal Animals

Three stories take place concurrently:  1)Susan (Amy Adams) is a well-off L.A. art gallery owner whose second marriage is in trouble. She receives a manuscript from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) which she reads; 2)  the manuscript story is played out in which a couple and their teenage daughter run into troublesome hooligans while traveling late at night in Texas; 3)  in flashback, the story is told of the courtship and marriage between Susan and Edward.

The opening credits are used against a backdrop that is an art gallery installation display. To put it as kindly as possible, this sequence can likely only be appreciated by lovers of modern art – or those who pretend to appreciate it for the sake of social-climbing. Otherwise, director Tom Ford has created a beautiful film with a cosmopolitan vibe with fabulous set designs and beautiful background music. He also uses clever techniques to switch between storylines.

The Texas story begins with the perfect amount of suspense and tension. The trouble is that it is so well orchestrated that it becomes unbearable to watch the torment imposed on the young family. Within this sequence, Michael Shannon gives a standout performance as a no-BS law enforcer with health problems. He seems gruff but his heart is in the right place.

There’s a rather funny brief scene in the first story in which an art gallery meeting is taking place. One young woman is dressed in a way that makes one wonder if the rich really do have taste; the same can be said about another’s choice in cosmetic surgery; a third one is addicted to modern technology in one of the worst ways imaginable, sadly resembling many people these days.

While bizarre and uncomfortable at times, “Nocturnal Animals” still comes off as a film with style and skill.

RATING (out of four stars):  * * *


Rogue One

In the Star Wars anthology series, taking place just before the very first film in 1977 (which was fourth in the actual series): Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is on a mission to disable a planet-destroying device (the Death Star) that is owned by the Galactic Empire – a device that her father was forced to create.

As could be expected, the set design and special effects are breathtaking. But in fairness, without such technical superiority, the film would be bland. The story and characters are not captivating enough and occasionally, there is too much happening for the average viewer (as opposed to a sci-fi-geek) to follow without getting confused and even bored at times.

There are many scenes in which front-line soldiers for the “bad guys” are killed off in droves with an attitude that is meant to be comical. This is an old gag that cheapens life for those that are considered to be ‘nobodys’. The filmmakers could do better than this in their action scenes instead of regurgitating old crowd-pleasing techniques that have worked in the past but are now outdated.

While there were fine scenes and excitement in the beginning, these virtues were not maintained throughout the remainder of the film. There is also a very questionable use of CGI to recreate actors as they looked a long time ago (but not in a galaxy far far away). While the technology is brilliant, such usage is more than questionable.

I made the mistake of thinking that this film was the follow-up to last year’s entertaining “The Force Awakens”. It didn’t follow that film in either sequence or in quality.

RATING:   * *


Fences

Based on the play by August Wilson: in 1950s Pittsburgh, the story centres on Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) and his family and friends. Troy is a troubled soul who believes life has given him a bad deal due to his race but his big breaks might have been missed due to other circumstances including his own misgivings. This causes a lot of family tension.

The effect of the scenes in this film vary: some are quite moving and engaging while others are too long. Troy has a troubled relationship with his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). At the film’s beginning, this conflict plus Troy’s inner conflict seem like promising material but during the film’s long run, both of these conflicts seem to flatten and go nowhere despite the length of time they have to resolve themselves. Such criticisms might justify a maximum rating of two-and-a-half stars. But there are enough virtues in this film to raise the rating. These include the other scenes two of which stand out.

The final scene is the perfect conclusion of all that has taken place before it. It’s quite moving and leaves a lump in the throat. The film’s greatest scene, however, takes place in the second half when Troy has a confrontation with his wife Rose (Viola Davis). Both of these experienced performers are at their peak and they play off each other superbly. If there were an award category for Best Scene in a Film, this one would certainly qualify as a nominee.

In addition to Washington and Davis, there are also fine performances from Adepo and Mykelti Williamson who plays Troy’s brother, a World War II veteran who was mentally damaged during the war.

RATING:   * * *


Upcoming Movie Reviews:  Manchester by the Sea, Fantastic Beasts, The Red Turtle, Lion, Toni Erdmann, La La Land, Hidden Figures, 20th Century Women, Paterson

Recent Movies: Jackie; Hacksaw Ridge; Julieta

Recent Movies

Jackie

Based on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman), this film portrays her response after the 1963 assassination of her husband John via an interview for Life magazine and flashbacks.

The movie’s first half is superb. The re-enactment of the most remembered moments during that period are chilling and even frightening in their authenticity. Portman (who is consistently solid throughout the film) is moving during an emotional outburst during the interview.

The second half is still good though less strong than the first. There are too many timelines happening simultaneously. While this is never confusing, this approach prevents the viewer from getting emotionally involved in what is happening. As soon as things build up, we are switched to another timeline. Among the more moving scenes in this half are those where Kennedy expresses a loss in faith with her priest.

While Portman is always riveting as the main character (she even impersonates Kennedy’s voice), the film spends too much time on her and her alone. A little more exposure of other characters might have added some necessary variety. One such character is Rose Kennedy, JFK’s mother. At the time of the tragedy, Rose would have been experiencing the enormous grief of outliving a child for the third time (she would experience it again five years later). In “Jackie”, she is seen only briefly as a mother-in-law with conflicting views of John’s burial. More depth could have been explored here.

Indeed, “Jackie” has its flaws but they are thankfully outnumbered by its riches. Director Pablo Larrain succeeds in creating a somber mood throughout the film aided by the haunting music of Mica Levi.

RATING (out of four stars): * * *


Hacksaw Ridge

Based on a true story: Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) was an American pacifist who served as an unarmed medic on the battlefields during World War II. The film tells of his struggle to serve as he wanted to and his very unusual status as a war hero.

Doss’s story as a conscientious objector is very unusual. In most cases, this situation was used to avoid military service entirely. In Doss’ case, he truly wanted to serve but without holding or using a weapon. The uniqueness of this story goes further in the rare situation of a main character being ostracized due to faith (Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist) and principle. The story is further enhanced in its exploration of World War I veterans (here displayed by Desmond’s father) who remain bitter from their war experiences and can’t stand the idea of their sons going through the same hell.

Garfield does a fine job in displaying the naïveté and innocence of a rural Virginia boy with ideals that seem hopeless at first but who truly knows better by the end. Other stand-out performances include those of Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s troubled father and Vince Vaughan as an over-the-top drill sergeant who’s rather funny with his insults.

The battle scenes in Okinawa, Japan are very well orchestrated by director Mel Gibson. But sadly, these scenes are so long and frequent that their horror can end up numbing the audience who are well aware of the accuracy of such a tragic part of history – not only for that war but those that followed and those happening now.

“Hacksaw Ridge” is a fine war film with a very different twist on the meaning of heroism.

RATING: * * *


Julieta

Based on three short stories in “Runaway” by Alice Munro: the title character is a resident of Madrid who is suddenly re-stimulated by the pain of having been estranged by her young adult daughter many years ago. In flashback, the viewer is brought to an earlier time when Julieta meets her daughter’s father and the events that happened later. In the current time, Julieta is played by Emma Suarez; in the earlier flashbacks, she is played by Adriana Ugarte.

As directed by Pedro Almodovar, this movie is touching in ways that are mysterious, sensuous, and passionate. It pays off like so many other beautiful and exotic European films of the past. With beautiful locations that include Madrid, the Galician coast, and the Pyrenees countryside (and lifestyles of people who end up in places like Portugal, Switzerland, Lake Como, and Milan), the movie allows us non-Europeans to temporarily live vicariously through characters with such good fortune – even if their lives are sad in other ways.

By the end, there are some loose ends that are mainly due to some one-dimensional villains whose motives remain unexplained. They include a busybody, mean-spirited housekeeper and an unethical leader of a “spiritual” retreat centre. However, the bigger stories feel complete by the end, leaving “Julieta” a very fulfilling experience. Suarez’s performance in this movie is definitely an asset.

RATING:   * * *


Upcoming Movie Reviews:  Nocturnal Animals; Rogue One; Fences; Manchester by the Sea; Fantastic Beasts; Lion; La La Land; Hidden Figures; The Red Turtle; Toni Erdmann

Recent Movies: Loving; Cameraperson; Neruda

Recent Movies

Loving

Based on a true story: In rural Virginia in 1958, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) are an inter-racial couple who live in a state where inter-racial marriages are illegal. They live through personal struggles while eventually getting legal help for their plight.

Director Jeff Nichols has created a fine film in that every scene has a certain edge – not just those including nasty law enforcers but even the day-to-day activities of the couple and their respective families. He is greatly assisted by Edgerton and Negga who not only give strong individual performances but they also share a great chemistry together. They are the essence of the film. Edgerton shows a quiet desperation in his face as he quietly goes about his business. Negga displays a dignity in her shyness and even shows a comical impishness in her enjoyment of media attention in the second half. Another fascination is that the two main players of this film are both introverts who are fully able to draw in the viewer – a rarity in a medium that is usually more fascinated with extroverts.

“Loving” is a fine film overall though it has more edge in its first half. The second half is easily comparable to other recent films (“Selma”, “The Butler”) involving U.S. civil rights battles in the 1960s. As the bar continues to get higher in this genre, it gets more difficult to surpass it. But “Loving” certainly meets it.

In the second half, there are occasional references to “the right to marriage” without being specific. It makes one wonder if the phrase is referring to another civil rights battle on marriage that would take place a half-century later.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


Cameraperson

Kirsten Johnson, an American cinematographer, directs this documentary using footage she has collected during the past thirty years.

This film’s most praiseworthy attribute is its uniqueness. In snippets that last only a few minutes, each little story (over twenty of them, many of them revisited during the film) say so much in such a short amount of time.

The subjects vary as well: the effects of ethnic cleansing and gang rapes in Bosnia, the troubles relating to Al-Qaeda, a heinous crime in small-town, Texas. Johnson also focuses on troublesome domestic situations in her home country including her mother’s fading health and mind.

While there seem to be many stories, they all seem to relate to a common theme of tragedy whether it be at the worldly or the personal level. Johnson has the great skill of giving the viewer just enough information to feel empathy but without being overwhelmed and numbed. In other words, she brings the viewer to her own deep level of humanity.

RATING:   * * *


Neruda

Part fact / part fiction:  based on the life of renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the film takes place in the 1940s when Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco) is a communist senator being hunted by a detective (Gael Garcia Bernal) as communism has just become illegal.

Director Pablo Narrain approaches his film with techniques that are very much like that of a poem – very appropriate considering the title character is a poet. Such techniques include dark rooms that are lit only with sunbeams streaking through windows, outdoor shots where the camera faces the sun which makes the actors into silhouettes, film-noir music, carefully crafted camera movements, voice-over narration by the main characters – all in very brief scenes.

With the deliberate choice of style over substance (though there is much substance), “Neruda” comes off as more a director’s film than one that highlights story and performances. This limited scope ends up having a limited result for a film that might have been more. But if the choice was to turn film into poetry, Narrain must be given credit for a successful venture.

RATING:   * * *


Upcoming movie reviews:  Jackie, Hacksaw Ridge, Julieta, Nocturnal Animals, Force One, Lion, La La Land, Hidden Figures