2016: Part 3

Arrival. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Notes from November 10, 2016: I had the opportunity to see Arrival in a screening at MoMA, the premiere of their annual “Contenders” series. Here’s the good: there are a number of genuinely tense and exciting scenes in Denis Villeneuve’s new sci-fi film, mostly the ones regarding the interactions between Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and the aliens. But the writing for Amy Adams’ character is paper-thin; she has no discernible personality, making her an almost completely blank slate except for her beyond-genius capabilities as a linguist that allow her to figure out the extraterrestrials’ vocabulary. If only we had a stronger sense of Adams’ character as a person aside from certain events in her life, it would be easier to connect to her and sympathize/empathize with her. It is not enough to see a protagonist deal with developments in the plot; we also have to perceive a noticeable effect on the character, much more than what we see for Adams in Arrival. She’s a great actress, capable of doing so much more with a character than whatever the script’s words mandate, but even she falls short here. Forest Whitaker, as the colonel who enlists Adams for communication with the aliens, is a generic authority figure whose only purposes are to scowl and question Adams’ decisions. On the plus side: Jeremy Renner does well with another severely underwritten role, injecting some much-needed levity as the scientist paired up with Adams to decipher the foreign entities’ language.

Every year we are given science films that are meant both to entertain and to provoke meaningful discussions about the intersection of humanity and universal, interspecial contact: 2012 had Prometheus, 2013 had Gravity, 2014 had Interstellar, 2015 had Ex Machina (as well as The Martian, although there were no aliens). Gravity was a thrilling experience in IMAX and the film gave a great lead role to Sandra Bullock, who carried the film almost entirely by herself and imbued her performance with both heartbreak and occasional humor; Ex Machina felt fresh and modern, with Alicia Vikander pushing boundaries in her performance as an android learning what it means to be human (or close to being one); Interstellar had some narrative issues here and there, but the acting was solid all around, it was another exciting IMAX encounter and the organ-centric score by Hans Zimmer is one of my favorite scores of the last decade, maybe even the 21st century so far. I should also mention Under the Skin (2013/2014) in this list; it was an independent film rather than a blockbuster or, in Ex Machina’s case, a more widely-seen indie, but Under the Skin is similarly concerned with the relationship between humans and nonhumans, and what happens when the different characters interact. (Plus Scarlett Johansson’s performance is brilliant and I think it’s the best work she has done, other than 2003′s Girl with a Pearl Earring.) This is all to say that Arrival did not surpass what any of those previous films achieved, either perfectly or imperfectly. Like Denis Villeneuve’s last film, Sicario, I am left feeling disappointed that a potentially interesting female protagonist in what we would traditionally call a “genre” film has been given short shrift.

Eddie the Eagle. Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Notes from December 2, 2016: Most inspirational, overcoming-the-odds sports films, from Rocky (1976) to Hoosiers (1986) to Rudy (1993), follow predictable formulas. Eddie the Eagle is no different, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is something inherently satisfying in watching an underdog rise above difficult circumstances and beat the more experienced competitor(s). That is exactly what ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards represents for us, as portrayed by lead actor Taron Egerton; Edwards’ evolution from a middle-class, bespectacled, socially awkward English kid with “dodgy knees” to a beloved Olympian at the Calgary ’88 Winter Games is enjoyable to watch, following all the expected beats but doing so with heart and humor. Egerton, who shot to fame last year as the James Bond-esque star of the action-comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service, does really good work as our plucky hero. He hasn’t made many films, but given his natural, likeable presence onscreen and his successes with Kingsman and Eddie, I anticipate bigger projects and greater prestige in Taron Egerton’s future.

Hugh Jackman does a nice job as Eddie’s coach, Bronson Peary, a former golden-boy athlete whose clichéd descent into drunken grumpiness is turned around by the shining redemption that Eddie’s Olympic journey offers. British character actor Tim McInnerny steals his scenes as the snooty head of the British Olympics committee (determined to prevent Eddie from participating in the games and therefore, he assumes, embarrassing the UK), while Keith Allen and Jo Hartley also do respectably as Eddie’s parents. Jim Broadbent and Christopher Walken also get in on the action, contributing cameos as a BBC commentator and Jackman’s former coach, respectively. Little in Eddie the Eagle will surprise you, but the film’s ensemble displays a collective spirit as warm as the sweaters that Eddie wears in the film’s many alpine climes.

How to Be Single. Directed by Christian Ditter. Notes from November 10, 2016: Full disclosure: I watched this film last night to take my mind off of the election. It filled a gap between 2:40 and 4:25 AM, allowing me to forget for a little while that the words “President-Elect Donald Trump” were about to become a real thing. As a result, my thoughts on the film are a scattered collection of notes. Take them for what they are:

  • Yet another movie where a young woman moves to NYC to “find herself.” Reminds me a lot of Lola Versus, especially the similarity in the endings. After seeing Dakota Johnson’s performances in Fifty Shades of Grey (exhibit A) and How to Be Single (exhibit B), maybe someone should write an essay titled “Dakota Johnson, Greta Gerwig and the Politics of Awkward Womanhood in 2010s Cinema.”
  • Just like in another bad rom-com from recent times, That Awkward Moment, NYC is a magical wonderland where the snow is always clean, there is no evidence of sociopolitical strife and none of the characters has a Noo Yawk accent since they all grew up somewhere else.
  • I freely admit that the scene with Leslie Mann and the baby was cute.
  • Alison Brie was less a character than a lesson for Anders Holm’s character. She’s a woman who obsesses over dating apps because her sole purpose in life (or at least in this plot) is to find a man; he’s the bartender who refuses to ever get into a relationship because he only cares about sex, not romance. Surprise, surprise – Holm falls for Brie but things don’t work out as he hopes. Must have been fun for Alison to play a living, breathing plot device!
  • Some of the lighting by the cinematographer, Christian Rein, was excellent. He’s German-born, so perhaps he has studied Fassbinder? (Is that too much to hope for?)
  • One of the songs in the end credits is by The Cairo Gang, and they once recorded a pretty good version of Rowland S. Howard’s “Shivers,” so that’s a +1 just for association’s sake.

Loving. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Notes from November 18, 2016: Loving is probably the best film I’ve seen this year, rivaled only (in the fiction/drama and biopic departments) by Star Trek Beyond and Florence Foster Jenkins and, in the documentary category, by Chicken People and One More Time with Feeling. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jeff Nichols is the best young American director of the past decade. From Shotgun Stories to Take Shelter to Mud to Loving (I have not yet seen Midnight Special, but I will ASAP), Nichols has proved that no other filmmaker of his generation has such an amazing track record for capturing the complicated and compelling nature of the human experience in small-town America, whether in the 50s/60s or our modern-day nation. The story of Richard and Mildred Loving is an incredible tale of love, determination and strength despite the systemic racism they faced and the oppression of their civil rights. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga do a beautiful job of portraying their characters, imbuing the Lovings with dignity and backbone as they quietly battle for the freedom to live and raise their family in peace. Plaudits also go to Terri Abney (Garnet Jeter, Mildred’s sister), Marton Csokas (the sheriff who repeatedly arrests the Lovings for violating Virginia state law), Bill Camp (the Lovings’ first lawyer), David Jensen (the Caroline County judge who forces the Lovings to leave Virginia at the beginning of the film), Nick Kroll and Jon Bass (the ACLU attorneys who bring the Loving v. Virginia case all the way to the Supreme Court) and Michael Shannon (in a wonderful cameo as Grey Villet, a LIFE magazine photographer who is sympathetic to the couple’s situation).

As with all of Jeff Nichols’ films, the cinematography is by Adam Stone, creating images of the actors and the landscape that will stay with you long after the film has ended. Rarely do I consider any up-and-coming director a true auteur – I don’t yet see that in the works of Tom McCarthy (good at directing actors but lacking a particular directorial style) or Denis Villeneuve (I have been disappointed by his two most recent films), for example – but in Loving and the three other Jeff Nichols films that I have seen, I see a specific point of view and the shaping of perhaps the most significant voice in American cinema today. I was lucky to see the film in a screening at MoMA, where Jeff Nichols and Joel Edgerton took part in a post-film conversation and Q&A; only two questions were taken from the audience, but each answer was so lengthy, detailed and thoughtful that us moviegoers were left with a lot to mull over. Joel Edgerton’s hope for the film’s viewership – that Loving’s message will reach the masses (which is to say, beyond the MoMA/NYC crowd) and encourage them to “go on the empathetic journey” with Richard and Mildred Loving and therefore gain a greater understanding of the human condition – is what has stayed with me most of all.

Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing. Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Notes from December 3, 2016: I’m sure that most, if not all, Americans remember the horrific bombing at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators, resulting in the deaths of four people (one of whom was a police officer) and injuries for over two hundred other civilians. The recentness of the attack does not diminish the importance of the need for this story to be told – terrorism and mass violence are obviously occurrences that continue to plague the US – but by cramming too many participants and perspectives into Marathon, directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg do their film an unquestionable disservice. We watch several survivors rebuild their lives with the aid of prosthetic limbs and physical therapy, including mother and daughter Celeste and Sydney Corcoran, spouses Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, and brothers Paul and J.P. Norden. It would have benefited the film to focus on only one of those pairs so that you don’t feel as though one story was more significant than another (the filmmakers certainly spend the most time on the medical and psychological struggles of Kensky and Downes), which I know that Stern and Sundberg could have done well since their documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) shone an incredible spotlight on only one subject. It also feels as though the forays into thriller territory (as the Tsarnaev brothers are apprehended) and courtroom drama (when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev goes on trial) are sequences from what should have been a separate film.

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