2016: Part 5

Deadpool. Directed by Tim Miller. Notes from December 30, 2016: Reviewing the long-awaited starring vehicle for one of Marvel Comics’ most loved creations, Deadpool, presents a conundrum: if you like the film too much, then you might sound like a delusional fan who has chosen to overlook or not even notice flaws, and if you fail to show respect and admiration for the film, then you are a critic who is considered “old” (in spirit if not in age), out of touch and worse. Which of my opinions will be accepted and which will be torpedoed?

I will say this: it is obvious that Ryan Reynolds is the only actor who could possibly play Wade Wilson/Deadpool. He’s a mercenary who is quick-witted and foulmouthed in equal measure, an unstoppable (literally, he’s immortal) antihero who fires one-liners off as rapidly as he does his bullets. As the opening credits state jokingly, the film contains the clichéd characters we have come to expect in a big-budget action movie, including a “hot chick” love interest (Morena Baccarin), a “comic relief” sidekick (T.J. Miller, whom I always adore), “a British villain” (Ed Skrein) and a “moody teen,” a member of the X-Men team known as Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). That these amusing labels are displayed while Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” plays sweetly on the soundtrack is one of the finest moments in the film, a great juxtaposition of sarcastic humor and an unironic love of corny pop music (later in the film, Wade Wilson reveals that he is a huge fan of Wham! and George Michael; his admission of profound fandom is now bittersweet after Michael’s recent passing). I wish that the rest of the film had lived up to the promise of that initial sequence.

At the risk of sounding like a 24-year-old fuddy-duddy, I don’t think that Deadpool’s R-rated language makes the comedy wildly funny for anyone except adolescents. I am not a person who considers curses puerile or offensive in cinematic storytelling, so I don’t carry some ancient bias with me in that regard, but if the bulk of Deadpool’s comedic impact is predicated on the idea that naughty words should make you giggle, then there is an unquestionable deficiency going on behind the scenes. I know, I know, I’m supposed to read the comics and I should understand how faithfully the film recreates Wade Wilson’s somewhat twisted sense of humor, but I can’t help feeling slighted. Where’s the value in hinting at the outset that stereotypes might be subverted, if said stereotypes remain unchanged in the film? Morena Baccarin’s character, Vanessa, serves no purpose in the plot other than to be the girlfriend whose life begins and ends with Wade, while Ed Skrein, as archvillain Ajax, whose sole existence relies on perpetrating acts of supreme evil so rote that they must have come out of a handbook. Sure, that’s fun to watch, but in the end, if you care more about the cool tunes on the soundtrack than about the characters, then what was the point?

P.S. The casting department deserves extra credit for getting Leslie Uggams to play Wade’s roommate, a blind and cranky senior citizen known as “Blind Al.”

Hail, Caesar!. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Notes from December 28, 2016: Like another film from 2016 that I recently saw, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! has an appealing visual style but the story rings hollow. Hail overflows with so many performers – some are famous, others are veteran character actors and a few are up-and-comers – that the narrative suffers. (Wes Anderson’s smash hit from two years ago, The Grand Budapest Hotel, stumbled because of the same problem.) In theory, a comedic period piece set in 1950s Hollywood that concerns an exhausted studio chief (Josh Brolin), a kidnapped movie star (George Clooney), a group of Communist screenwriters and studio players (Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson) with secrets that they don’t want the public to know would add up to brilliance. Instead you are left intensely disappointed that the story does not offer any surprises; the Coens do not provide the viewer with new commentary on the politics of that era, nor is there any emotional depth with which to connect to most of the characters. At times the film is reminiscent of another dramedy about the dark side of the American Dream, Pennies from Heaven (1981), especially in the scene where two of Hail’s main characters sing a few lines from “The Glory of Love,” a song which was featured in an elaborate musical number near the end of Pennies.

The only truly worthy performances in the Coens’ film belong to Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a young actor who has carved a niche for himself as a singing cowboy but who is abruptly thrust into the world of drawing room dramas, and Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz, the polite but frustrated director whose job it is to turn Hobie into a respectable leading man in a more critically-acclaimed branch of cinema. Ehrenreich and Fiennes share a scene depicting a hysterically funny elocution lesson. If only another wonderful cast member, Wayne Knight, had as much screen time to devote to the role of “Lurking Extra,” one of the two men who kidnap Clooney at the beginning of the film; evidently the Coens’ Hollywood, a Dream Factory at the height of its power, cannot fulfill every wish.

Lion. Directed by Garth Davis. Notes from December 30, 2016: For years I have asked myself why I cry so much during movies, even when I am viewing something that I do not consider a masterpiece. It was not until recently that I realized the answer: empathy. I empathize with characters’ situations to the point that if they experience an event that is sad or even traumatic, I feel those emotions so intensely that I weep, even if at the same time I recognize that the filmmaking is flawed. This is the case with Lion, a melodrama about family and racial identity which is designed to wrench as many tears as humanly possible from its audience. (I doubt that the Weinstein Company would have produced the film if it didn’t have the label “Oscar bait” written on it as boldly as if inked in Sharpie.) A five-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) when, while Guddu briefly leaves Saroo at a train station while he goes off to find work, Saroo boards an out-of-service train that departs the depot and transports the frightened boy to Calcutta, fifteen hundred miles from his Khandwa home. The rest of the first half of the film follows Saroo’s struggles to find an adult who can help him find his mother (Priyanka Bose), including a deceptively kind prostitute (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a sex trafficker (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and a sympathetic social worker (Deepti Naval) at a center for lost/abandoned children. The second, and more deeply histrionic, half of the film concerns Saroo’s adoption by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who want to give the boy a better life on Tasmania.

Abruptly fast-forwarding twenty years later, Saroo has grown up (now played by Dev Patel) and attends a college for hotel management, where he meets and falls in love with an American student, Lucy (Rooney Mara in the thankless role of “stock girlfriend,” zigzagging between acting as either a generically compassionate figure of support or a shrew who nags Saroo for being emotionally/physically distant). Saroo constantly questions his place in the world as an Australian man with a long-suppressed Indian heritage; he is haunted by dreams of his mother and Guddu, and the incredible pain of having been kept apart for decades. And so Saroo battles with himself over whether he should try to find his birth mother, fearing the effect that it will have on the Brierleys. (Saroo’s adoptive parents already have their hands full with another Indian son, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who has a long history of psychological/emotional problems and issues with substance abuse.) It takes an absurdly long time for Saroo to decide what to do, which might be true to life, but his inertia doesn’t make for compelling storytelling.

Saroo’s and Mrs. Brierley’s challenges as conflicted individuals give actors Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, as well as young Sunny Pawar (who continues to appear throughout the film in flashbacks) some excellent showcases, sure to earn them Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominations at the upcoming Oscar ceremony. And certainly the film is always gorgeous to look at, photographed in appropriately pretty but somber golden-brown tones by Greig Fraser (Bright Star, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher). But despite the fact that Garth Davis’s film is based on a true story – screenwriter Luke Davies has adapted his script from the real Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home – I cannot help wondering how many of the critics and viewers who praise Lion and its central child actor have never seen Satyajit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy (surely Subir Banerjee, young star of Pather Panchali (1955), set the gold standard for Indian films about the earliest years of boyhood) or Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), a devastating tale about a boy abandoned by his family, forced to join the circus to make money and then left to fend for himself on the streets of Mumbai without any means of locating his home. That Ray’s and Nair’s films are works of fiction should not minimize the impact of Davis’s Lion, but it is a little difficult to be wowed by the cinematic rendering of a story that is too similar to those of more powerful productions.

P.S. The film ends with a song by the queen of cheesy “inspirational” anthems, Sia. You could argue that this choice of artist has some connective tissue linking it to Lion since Sia is Australian, but it would have been so much nicer to hear music by an Indian performer; it would have solidified the notion that Saroo had returned to his roots.

Money Monster. Directed by Jodie Foster. Notes from December 31, 2016: Although I will fall short of meeting the goal for this year’s 52 Films by Women challenge (Money Monster is number forty-one for me), I decided that for my last Netflix DVD of 2016, I would give Jodie Foster’s latest directorial effort a try. Having seen her other three films – Little Man Tate (1991), Home for the Holidays (1995) and The Beaver (2011) – I knew that Money Monster would be vaguely enjoyable but not intellectually stimulating, the cinematic equivalent of a McChicken sandwich. The plot follows a disgruntled working-class New Yorker (British rising star Jack O’Connell, overshooting the mark on his Queens accent) who has just lost his life savings after a particular stock crashes, and therefore holds the Jim Cramer-esque money-management show host (George Clooney) – whom he considers responsible – hostage at gunpoint. All this happens live on the air, which is probably supposed to be exciting yet it feels tired from the get-go. Didn’t Network cover similar ground forty years ago? Haven’t films been commenting on the evils of corporate greed for decades? The presence of Julia Roberts as the TV show’s producer does not help matters either; like Clooney, Roberts contributes star power rather than brilliant acting to the film, a performance that may impress you with its mediocre but unwavering commitment to entertainment value (stars always know how to turn on the ol’ 10,000-watt smile, even in horrid situations), but which you never forget is acting that lacks depth. On the other hand, Lenny Venito did a pretty good job as Clooney’s cameraman, which just goes to show you how much more agreeable it can be sometimes to watch a talented character actor than most of the bright white-toothed megastars of Hollywood.

As one A.V. Club user comment put it best: “I adore Jodie Foster as an actor, but I have to admit, as a director she kind of fulfills the late film critic Pauline Kael’s comment of actors who direct Starting at the Top, so they didn’t learn how to direct a movie before they’re given a chance to.

“Usually When Actors Direct, they’re good working with actors (because they’re one themselves), love big juicy scenes the actors can sink their teeth into (because those are the kinds of scenes they love to play), are madly in love with tricky camera moves and editing (to make their movies look “cinematic”), and have a miserable sense of flow and pacing (because those get in the way of all that acting and the camera moves!). There’s also that desire to Save the World – from Those Other Bad Guys, Who Bear No Resemblance To Anybody Working on the Movie!

“It’s why most actors who turn movie directors work well on character pieces, but suck at action and suspense. There are exceptions, obviously – both Clint Eastwood and Jon Favreau seem to be able to direct films pretty well, and Jonathan Frakes and Lucy Liu have a pretty good grip on directing series television. But for every one of them, there are dozen of William Shatners or Robert De Niros, who might be okay directing theater but shouldn’t be let near a director’s chair on a film or television set.”

Weiner. Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. Notes from December 31, 2016: I spoke too soon when I thought that I was done with my year of watching films directed by women; I have just done a double feature of two films that actually worked quite well together: the recent documentary Weiner, about disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s bid for New York City mayor in 2013, and Doris Wishman’s Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962), a semi-documentary about the title star (a well-known burlesque queen in her day) deciding to abandon her career (here playing a slightly altered version of herself, an actress in presumably non-sexploitational films) in order to find peace in the paradise of a Florida nudist camp. Two different stories, both directed or co-directed by women, and yet they both present ways in which a celebrity can deal with attention-seekers, the obligations of fame and its accompanying pressures. Blaze Starr, or rather I should say the onscreen presentation of her, sought shelter from notoriety, while Anthony Weiner ran towards it again and again.

I cannot avoid feeling a level of connection – low though it might be at this point – with the saga of Anthony Weiner since he represented my district of Brooklyn and when I graduated from elementary school, I received the Anthony D. Weiner Award, which includes a commendation for “outstanding dedication to family.” Seriously, this happened.

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(It should be noted that Weiner did not show up at the ceremony. I was disappointed to shake a vice principal’s hand instead.)

The real star of Weiner is not the man himself but his wife, Huma Abedin. If there were an award for best acting in a nonfiction film, she would absolutely win. So much of the narrative is focused on her reactions to her husband, intense waves of frustration that emanate from her in scene after scene as new scandals keep breaking and she realizes that her husband has lied to her once more. Even though Weiner does not break ground cinematically – Chicken People and One More Time with Feeling were this year’s superior documentaries – the film is entertaining from start to finish and it tells a fascinating story about what it means for a man to be addicted to human interaction (not just as a public servant but also via the digital access granted by glowing screens) to the extent that it destroys his existing personal and professional relationships.

2016: Part 4

Anthropoid. Directed by Sean Ellis. Notes from December 22, 2016: Numerous critics raked Anthropoid over the coals this past summer, presumably because it is now considered near impossible to make a World War II-related thriller unless you have the panache of a Spielberg or a Tarantino. In truth, filmmaker Sean Ellis shows a great deal of potential here; despite having missed his previous featujares – Cashback (2006), The Broken (2008) and the highly praised Metro Manila (2013) – I suspect he has a long career ahead of him. Pulling triple duty as director, screenwriter and cinematographer, Ellis shows a definite flair for action sequences and getting good performances out of his cast. The second half is far superior to the first, but that’s to be expected in a film that you want to focus more on the war effort than on romantic subplots.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubis, a pair of Slovak and Czech soldiers respectively. They parachute into the Czech countryside and enter Prague with the task of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was third in the Nazi hierarchy’s command, behind only Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. This extraordinarily dangerous mission is carried out with the help of a number of Czech contacts, including “Uncle” Hajský (Toby Jones), Adolf Opálka (Harry Lloyd), Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski) and Marie Moravec and her son A’ta (Alena Mihulová and Bill Milner). Gabcík and Kubis are further assisted by two women posing as their girlfriends, Lenka (Anna Geislerová) and Marie (Charlotte Le Bon); naturally, each couple falls in love for real. These relationships threaten to drag the film into the realm of soggy melodrama, but once the day of the assassination plot arrives, the narrative really takes shape. (It helps that both Murphy and Dornan do well in their roles, especially noteworthy since Jamie Dornan must be trying extra hard to prove that he can be more than Christian Grey.) Once the film gets to the climactic scenes set in a church, Ellis displays some incredible subtleties of emotion in the midst of fast-paced, brutal warfare. There is a moment when, after having heard a particular gunshot ring out (I won’t explain the context), a single tear streams down Murphy’s face – it is a shot so painfully beautiful that I had to rewind the movie to experience it again.

In one of the DVD’s special features, Cillian Murphy described the film’s gut-wrenching conclusion through the lens of its impact on the outcome of the war: “It’s kind of like the movie has, sort of, two endings, do you know? There’s the one, tragedy, and then the one that is also tragic but in the greater scheme of things, it’s a victory. So it’s fascinating and it kind of stays with you, and again that’s another yardstick by which I measure movies. They shouldn’t be disposable. They should leave, like, a residue on your skin and on your psyche for a few days or a few weeks. That’s, to me, what cinema should be about.” I couldn’t agree more.

Captain Fantastic. Directed by Matt Ross. Notes from December 23, 2016: Written and directed by the great Matt Ross (he plays Hooli mastermind Gavin Belson on “Silicon Valley”), Captain Fantastic tells the engaging story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a man who has raised his six children (George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell) in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, somewhere in Washington. The kids’ mom, Leslie (Trin Miller), who has suffered from depression from years, commits suicide at the beginning of the film, a death which sets the rest of the film’s events in motion. Because Leslie dies in a city hospital, her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) take over plans for the funeral and try to keep “crazy hippie” Ben and his children away with threats of arrest over “child abuse.” (Besides being homeschooled in the wild, the kids spend their days “training” – vigorous exercise, rock climbing, hunting and skinning game, etc.) The film asks many questions of both the main characters and the viewers: who is right in this situation? Is Ben right to prepare his sons and daughters for being able to adapt to any situation that Mother Nature might throw at them, or are the grandparents right about wanting the kids to experience “normal” interactions in “civilized” society?

Ross handles these issues skillfully and elicits excellent performances from his actors. Naming the anticapitalist adult protagonist “Benjamin Cash” is a tad on the nose, but other than that screenwriting glitch, I really enjoyed Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of this dad who just wants to do right by his family. I was also impressed by the actors who played the six children, particularly George MacKay as eldest son Bo, Nicholas Hamilton as rebellious teenager Rellian and Charlie Shotwell as one of the youngest kids, inquisitive son Nai. Kudos also goes to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (he must be 2016′s MVP since he also photographed Elle and Jackie), who contributes top-notch work, particularly in the forest scenes. For all I know there could be other films this year that discuss Buddhism, the numerous achievements of Noam Chomsky (the Cash family celebrates his birthday in place of Christmas) and detailed analysis of the novel Lolita, but surely none of them does so as well as Captain Fantastic.

Jackie. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Notes from December 15, 2016: Does it matter whether an actor looks like the person he/she/they are portraying in a biopic? Except for the iconic haircut, Natalie Portman does not physically resemble Jackie Kennedy in the new film Jackie, but Portman’s performance is so intense and nuanced that she became the woman in every possible way; it is difficult to imagine any actress doing more remarkable work than her during this awards season. Jackie is a film about trying to understand the unthinkable – a First Lady who witnessed her husband’s gruesome assassination happen right in front of her, and who then had to figure out how to carry on with the whole world watching her – and attempting to simultaneously show a sliver of Jackie’s soul while also keeping her at a distance, a celebrity whom we will never truly know. Larraín allows us to walk in Jackie’s shoes and get inside her head while also viewing her from afar, half a century after the events in the film took place. Madeline Fontaine’s costumes, Stéphane Fontaine‘s cinematography and the production design, art direction and set decoration by Jean Rabasse, Halina Gebarowicz and Véronique Melery recreate the physical atmosphere of the early 1960s, but perhaps the film’s most vital asset is the music composed by Mica Levi, a moody and heavy set of minor tones not unlike Levi’s score for the sci-fi horror tale Under the Skin (2013) – a fitting connection since Jackie is, in its own way, a story of both horror and ghosts. If there is a film more emotionally devastating than Jackie in theaters right now, then I have yet to see it.

Keanu. Directed by Peter Atencio. Notes from December 24, 2016***: As a fan of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key since their days as cast members on “MADtv” and also for their work on their Comedy Central show “Key & Peele,” I was expecting big things from their first starring film vehicle as a team. Unfortunately Keanu falls flat most of the time, trying so hard to entertain us with its parodies of action movie tropes that the comedy is often deflated before impact. Peele plays a depressed artist/photographer whose outlook brightens after a kitten appears on his doorstep (and whom he immediately names Keanu – specifically because of the Hawaiian word for “cool breeze,” not the name of the actor.) It turns out that the feline belonged to a bunch of drug dealers who have just been murdered by a pair of assassins called the Allentown Brothers (also played by Key and Peele); when the killers ransack Peele’s house to steal the kitten, Peele and his straitlaced cousin (Key) spend their weekend in the company of gangsters, impersonating the Allentown Brothers in the hopes of getting Keanu back from another drug lord, Cheddar (Method Man).

Keanu doesn’t lack for action, but jokes about black and Latino cultural stereotypes can only go so far. The two inspired subplots are the scenes involving Will Forte as Jordan Peele’s cornrow-wearing pot dealer (at one point Forte pleads with a gunman to spare his life because “I know everything about hip-hop!”) and the running gag depicting Keegan-Michael Key’s character as a massive fan of George Michael; at one point Key experiences an amusing drug-induced fantasy during which he believes he is a part of Michael’s “Faith” music video, and also sees a vision of Keanu the kitten voiced by – you guessed it – Keanu Reeves. Just for those sequences, the film might be worth seeing, but otherwise you will be disappointed.

***This write-up was done before George Michael passed away. That doesn’t retroactively change my view of the film, however, since I already appreciated the scenes that incorporate his music.

Midnight Special. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Notes from December 26, 2016: As a huge fan of Jeff Nichols’ four other films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Loving), I had high expectations for the sci-fi drama Midnight Special. Alas, the film is easily the weakest of Nichols’ features, substituting his usual emphasis on strong, well-developed bonds between characters for bigger-budget, overambitious flashiness.

Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst play the parents of a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who has otherworldly powers that cause him to emit extreme amounts of white light from his eyes and hands. It is never explained how he obtained this ability or why he would have been born with it since as far as we know, he was indeed born to Dunst (rather than being found on a doorstep or in a cornfield like Superman). Sam Shepard appears briefly at the beginning of the film, playing Lieberher’s adopted father; Shepard runs a creepy religious cult and he is Dunst’s father, another unexplained yet important point since Dunst and Shannon apparently met when they were both involved with the cult – just how did Shepard get hold of Lieberher? Is Shepard actually the boy’s legal guardian? Nichols never gives us the details.

Midnight Special’s narrative focuses on a dangerous trek that Shannon, Dunst, Lieberher and Joel Edgerton (in an excellent performance as a childhood friend of Shannon’s) make to do something never fully explained. Shannon knows that Lieberher has to be brought someplace by a certain date, but when and how did Lieberher ascertain this knowledge? The film skirts particulars by requiring us to assume that Lieberher can do anything and learn anything just by being special and having an infinite reserve of alien faculties. As always, Jeff Nichols’ actors do fine work – also including Adam Driver as an FBI analyst, Bill Camp as a lackey who is willing to kill for Shepard and David Jensen as another of Shannon’s buddies, who ends up doing more harm than good – and Adam Stone, who has photographed every Nichols film, contributes his impeccable eye for framing and lighting to the cinematography. There are moments when the score by David Wingo (who has composed for all of Nichols’ films except Shotgun Stories) adds much-needed gravitas to the baffling plot, but technical elements cannot completely salvage a muddled story. Sometimes films work because of a je ne sais quoi that allows the filmmaker to express an enigmatic sense of beauty; consider Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) or Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984). If a film’s unanswered questions only confuse and irritate the viewer rather than provoke and illuminate, though, little can be done to improve the experience.

La Belle Michèle

Michèle Morgan, who passed away yesterday at age 96, was one of the great stars of French cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s. For some actresses (and their fans) it might have been enough just to be a beautiful presence onscreen, but Michèle was always much more than a pretty face. She had a remarkable ability to find the passionate depths of any character she was given, whether it was a beret-sporting gamine who casts her spell on an army deserter (Jean Gabin) in Marcel Carné’s proto-noir Port of Shadows (1938), a wide-eyed maid who falls in love with a valet (Jack Haley) in Tim Whelan’s musical comedy Higher and Higher (1943) or the kindhearted mistress of a butler (Ralph Richardson) accused of murdering his wife in Carol Reed’s drama/thriller The Fallen Idol (1948). Michèle knew when to play cool and assured and when to magnify the high-spirited, richly emotional aspects of a role; she owed some of her success to her exceptionally good looks, particularly her striking blue eyes, but the enduring truth of her appeal was in the way she could imbue the women she played with the intelligence and poise that only a genuinely gifted performer can possess.

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Three weeks ago I watched one of Michèle’s classic French films, Jean Grémillon’s Remorques (aka Stormy Waters) (1941), which is available via the Criterion Collection in the box set Eclipse Series 34: Jean Grémillon During the Occupation. In the film, Michèle plays a cynical young woman whose path crosses with that of an older sea captain (Jean Gabin) who rescues her from a ship stranded during a tempest. The two embark on an affair that ends, like all memorable French dramas must, in tragedy.

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Michèle’s finest scene in Remorques is at the end of the film, when Jean Gabin leaves their hotel room to return home and reunite with his dying wife. Michèle hands Gabin’s first officer a starfish that she found on the beach during one of the couple’s clandestine meetings. It is a quiet, tender moment made bittersweet by the tears in the corners of her eyes even as she insists on smiling through her sorrow – she knows that the romance has ended and that she will never see her beloved again.

Earlier, in September, I watched one of the few American films Michèle made in the 1940s, Joan of Paris (1942), a World War II espionage drama from RKO Pictures in which she plays a penniless Frenchwoman who helps an RAF aviator (Paul Henreid) and his comrades on their mission to get back to England after being shot down over Paris. At the time I saw the film, I was so struck by two particular scenes that I took many screenshots to capture those images; I have gathered some of them here to further pay tribute to Michèle. I implore you to seek out Joan of Paris, which is available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. Although the screenplay has a number of flaws and the film focuses more on action than on character development, the performances by Michèle, Paul Henreid, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar, a young Alan Ladd and John Abbott are well worth seeing.

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In the second half of the film, Michèle goes to a church to pray for Paul Henreid and his fellow aviators as they attempt to carry out their perilous escape plan. I am certain that director Robert Stevenson deliberately sought to evoke the intense close-ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterwork The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). There is a dazed, haunted look in Michèle’s face as she begs God to spare Henreid from the Nazi antagonists’ bloody wrath.

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At the film’s end, Michèle and a compassionate local priest (Thomas Mitchell) come to terms with the grim consequences of her assistance to the Allied fliers. Michèle walks toward the camera, solemn and trembling yet certain that she has done the right thing. Cinematographer Russell Metty observes the shifting planes of Michèle’s face, the different reactions made visible depending on the angles of light and shadow. This is a performance which the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther described in January 1942 as having “deep poignance and real nobility,” an evaluation which still rings true three-quarters of a century later.

I’ve Just Seen a Face

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Sometimes there are faces that are so incredible in close-ups and extreme close-ups that they are almost painful to witness. Cinema makes these visages become works of art, portraits encased in celluloid (or digital, depending on the director) museums where history is captured and stored at the rate of 24 frames per second. These are faces that transcend any theoretical limitations of the camera, the perceptions of the audience, maybe even the story being told – the character evolves into a new and different beast, in the most positive sense. When an actor displays this level of ability to breathe life and meaning into a role, far beyond whatever was suggested on the pages of the script, you will know without hesitation that you have encountered a transformative creation that is both magnificently constructed for the movie theater experience and is also, in a strange way, even more affecting, thought-provoking and real than reality.

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Natalie Portman’s depiction of Jackie Kennedy in the new Pablo Larraín film Jackie is one example of this phenomenon. Close-ups and extreme close-ups allow nowhere for the actor, or the audience, to hide. Portman has to be able to project every ounce of Jackie’s grief, fear, self-loathing and stubborn vanity when her face fills the frame, and moviegoers have to confront those images over and over. Larraín’s film achieves the unbelievable feat of simultaneously getting under the skin of a complex woman, digging into her soul during the most heartbreaking and traumatic week of her life, and also staying at a distance, allowing the character to shape the recollection of events being told to a reporter (Billy Crudup) a week after JFK’s assassination. Jackie reminds me of the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), the scripted documentary in which Nick Cave recounts five decades’ worth of memories and shows us the controlled version of his life that he wants us to see – sleeping, eating, typing lyrics in a house which isn’t his actual house; reciting monologues that explain his innermost emotions via voiceovers recorded in post-production. Objectivity does not exist when people decide how their truths are told and how facts are remembered.

At one point in the film, Portman’s Jackie murmurs, “I lost track somewhere. What was real? What was performance?” Who but Jackie Kennedy herself can say whether Natalie Portman’s performance is psychologically accurate? Perhaps Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim provide no concrete answers, either for Jackie (the character or the real person), for Portman as an actress or for us as the onlookers. The only certainty I have that Portman succeeded in her portrayal is a gut feeling, the awareness when the end credits began to roll that she had accomplished something that will continue to resonate with me, long after this Oscar season ends.

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2015: Part 11

City of Gold. Directed by Laura Gabbert. Notes from December 10, 2016: Should a critic be easier or harsher when assessing the merits of a documentary about a member of the same profession? Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chief food critic for the Los Angeles Times, is chronicled in this pleasant but underwhelming film by Laura Gabbert (Sunset Story, No Impact Man: The Documentary). The film presupposes that its audience either has no knowledge of the history of food criticism or no problem accepting the basic premise that Gold is a one-of-a-kind gastronomical observer of the human condition. Some of Gold’s forerunners make appearances, including Calvin Trillin and Ruth Reichl, but of course there are others whom Gabbert overlooks – two names that immediately come to mind are Nika Hazelton and Mimi Sheraton (fun fact: my mother sat next to Mimi at the recent alumni gathering for the 75th anniversary of Brooklyn’s Midwood High School; they spent about twenty minutes talking). Jonathan Gold has the advantages of being younger than those pioneering women and writing now in 2016, but the film focuses so claustrophobically on the subjective narrative that Gold is the first and only critic of his kind that Gabbert leaves no room for any other interpretation (or truth). In fact, the most interesting part of the film was when Gold, while being interviewed by a radio DJ for a “Favorite Songs” playlist, analyzed the history and meanings of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” giving me pause to wonder why Gold didn’t go in for music criticism instead.

The Dressmaker. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Notes from September 28, 2016: Having never seen any of filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse’s work before (although I have wanted to see Proof and How to Make an American Quilt for quite some time), I could only judge 1950s period piece The Dressmaker on its own merit. (I suppose that that is ideally how criticism is supposed to work anyway.) While Kate Winslet is fierce and fabulous as the couturier who returns to her small Australian hometown of Dungatar with revenge on her mind, and some of the other cast members also add to the local color (including Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Sacha Horler, Barry Otto, Alison Whyte and Kerry Fox), the film is a jumbled mess of genres and themes with a wildly uneven tone. There are gorgeous costumes designed by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson (I’m mad about this red dress that Kate Winslet wears and Sarah Snook’s Saturday night soirée gown) and Donald McAlpine’s cinematography includes some excellent images and framing, so I’m glad that I saw The Dressmaker on the big screen, but the film’s decision to veer crazily into intense melodrama toward the end is preposterous.

P.S. The two elderly, New York-accented women sitting behind me gave the critique of the year as the end credits rolled: “Did you like it? No, it’s the strangest thing I ever saw!”

P.P.S. For those who have seen the film: a bunch of people behind me (including the aforementioned women) couldn’t remember, or didn’t understand the word for, the grain involved in a crucial scene in the second half of the film. Are there really adults who have never heard of sorghum, or were they just particularly bad at understanding the Australian accent in this instance?

Hello, My Name Is Doris. Directed by Michael Showalter. Notes from December 12, 2016: I’ll say it upfront: Sally Field is an incredible actress. Even in a film that falls somewhat short of her boundless talent, Field is able to transcend scripting limitations and create a multilayered character who is more than just a bundle of quirks, cat-eye glasses and 60s-girl-group-style hair extensions. As Doris Miller, a senior citizen who works as an accountant for a trendy magazine and who falls in love with a new, much younger coworker in the office (Max Greenfield), Field hooks us from the first minute. Much of the film’s comedy emanates from cringe-inducing situations involving Doris’s weird characteristics and the awkwardness of scenarios revolving around her making a fake Facebook profile (there is a great scene in which Doris, drunk and sitting around in her bra, rants online while the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” plays on the soundtrack), hanging around electronica concerts and knitting circles in Williamsburg, attempting to befriend airheaded colleagues (Kumail Nanjiani, Natasha Lyonne, Rich Sommer) and visiting a therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) who tries to convince Doris, a lifelong hoarder, to clean and then move out of her recently deceased mother’s house. I was reminded of the older woman/younger man relationships in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – who says that age has anything to do with true love and beauty?

Some of the best scenes are the dramatic ones, however, like the two separate and highly emotional confrontations that Field has with her self-centered younger brother and his even more awful wife (Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey) and with her longtime best friend (Tyne Daly). Field won’t get an Oscar nomination for her performance, but when you watch her discover social media, dance to modern music, experience confusion over common communication gestures or interact with unusual celebrities in her inimitable fashion, you know with certainty that after more than half a century she is still one of the best players in the game.

Joy. Directed by David O. Russell. Notes from November 19, 2016: Mark me down as surprised: I remembered Joy getting mixed reviews when it came out last year, and my feelings toward David O. Russell regarding I Heart Huckabees (one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I have ever had), Silver Linings Playbook (which I initially liked, but it doesn’t hold up) and American Hustle (wildly overrated, except for Bradley Cooper’s character) are less than positive, but I actually ended up enjoying his latest effort. Finally I have seen a film that has built on the promise that we got from Jennifer Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone – not completely, mind you, but there’s no question that by focusing Joy entirely on Lawrence, rather than making her a co-lead or a supporting character, she has the opportunity to develop a character with considerable depth. (Let’s not speak of her anemic performances in the X-Men series, which I blame largely on the screenwriters and directors for offering Lawrence so little with which to work.) Critics have argued that Lawrence was too young to play title character Joy Mangano, a woman who turned a difficult middle-class existence as a divorced mother of two with endless bills and mortgages to pay off into success as the inventor of the Miracle Mop. This is true, but I still thought Lawrence did a good job of making Joy a character we can root for. Some of David O. Russell’s narrative interjections about feminism are too clichéd to be effective, but the pacing (which I thought was just fine, unlike other critics) and the supporting players – Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini (marvelously villainous), Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, cameos by Ken Howard and Paul Herman – keep things moving. Joy has not converted me to Hollywood’s supreme fandom of Jennifer Lawrence, but I’m definitely closer to approaching it now than I was before.

Sisters. Directed by Jason Moore. Notes from September 28, 2016: Fans of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would surely enjoy this comedy; all the other viewers… not so much. (My opinion lies somewhere in the middle.) Tina and Amy have a lot of fun as an irresponsible sister and a boring/do-gooder sister respectively, particularly since the film primarily revolves around a raucous farewell party at the old family home (which parents Dianne Wiest and James Brolin are selling), leading Amy and Tina to switch their usual behavioral roles. The bulk of the film’s humor arises from Amy’s increasingly inebriated attempts to connect to a potential boyfriend played by Ike Barinholtz (best described by one IMDb user as “cute in an attainable way, not a Ryan Gosling way”), who is luckily a pretty good match for her, both temperamentally and comedically. Additional good moments in the film come courtesy of Maya Rudolph, John Cena and John Leguizamo, who also attend the big bash, and Chris Parnell as the victim of Tina Fey’s terrible eyebrow-styling in her home salon at the beginning of the film. Sisters is not a great film, but there is an unmistakable charm in its being easily disposable entertainment, satisfying for at least the two hours when you are watching it.

The Illusion of Preference: Spectatorial Bias and the New Voyeurism in Modern Media

Pauline Kael once said that she abhorred the kind of “saphead objectivity” that so often permeated film critics’ ideas of how to write a review, opting instead to pepper her critiques with autobiographical anecdotes from her life and stories connected to the viewing experience of a particular film and its audience’s reactions. All of which begs the question: how objective can objectivity ever be? Who decided that that notion exists in the first place? Doesn’t everyone bring their own perceptions, desires and grievances to appreciation (or lack thereof) for a film?

The first example I can pinpoint is from January 2008, when I saw The Crucible (1996) on TV. Good gracious, what a horrid film (as I feel about all things Arthur Miller). Despite the mediocrity of the production, I found myself absolutely transfixed by Daniel Day-Lewis, whom I had never seen in a film before. Because this moment arrived in the midst of awards season, when Day-Lewis was winning a deluge of awards for There Will Be Blood (2007), I saw that film at a near-empty screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. More followed: My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, In the Name of the Father, The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Most of those titles were enjoyable but Ballad was deeply flawed, both in content and in form. Why does a spectator choose to keep watching a film, problematic as it may be, if not because of the bias attached to the love of an actor in it?

Continuing my teenage theme of romanticizing Brits with bright eyes, I developed a fixation on Ralph Fiennes after watching (of all things) Schindler’s List in my tenth grade global studies class in the spring months of that same year. (You can’t possibly loathe that uncomfortable truth more than I do; I’m still unsure how I was able to separate the actor’s unbelievably good looks from his character’s neverending onslaught of reprehensible actions without too much bother.) More healthy was the charm of Quiz Show, which paints Fiennes and all of the film’s actors in the golden light of ’50s-style retro cinematography. That infatuation was fun, but it also resulted in my watching a bunch of disappointing Ralph Fiennes movies. What a shame that I can’t ever reabsorb the two hours I lost while battling through the Fiennes-starring garbagefest known as The Constant Gardener.

Curiosity and obsession are two major vertebrae in the backbone of cinephilia, but how much are they supposed to factor into the job of film criticism? Lest you think me only concerned with theatrically-trained thespians (whew, what a phrase), this consideration is not restricted to critics/actors; A.O. Scott gave high marks to Laura Gabbert’s documentary City of Gold, a chronicle of Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s life and work which, for the record, I disliked. How much was Scott’s opinion of the film colored by the fact that it spins such a positive tale about someone working in the same profession? You never hear about the restaurants that Gold has trashed or lives he could have ruined with a single failing-score review.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. I really have to thank my brother for the latest and most cogent example, the subconscious implantation of a thought in my head that I didn’t even fully comprehend until a couple of weeks after it happened. In late November I found myself perusing the shelves of the Union Square Barnes & Noble, as I so often do, looking for the cheapest possible thrills in the sci-fi, horror and action/adventure sections. One title jumped out at me: Red Eye, a Wes Craven thriller from a decade ago. As a big fan of Craven’s work (I swear by the first two Scream movies as near-perfect horror/comedy hybrids), a growing admirer of Rachel McAdams and a devotee of silly but exciting B-movie thrillers, I figured Red Eye would be 85 minutes of deliciously absurd entertainment. And I was right, but the part of that viewing experience that really turned on a switch in my head was the performance by Cillian Murphy as the psychopathic villain terrorizing Rachel McAdams on her overnight flight from hell. Isn’t it strange for me to suddenly be hyperaware of an actor even though I have been watching him in films for years? Sort of like realizing that I’ve known another language for a long time but never before had a reason to speak it.

(It wasn’t until yesterday that I had my lightbulb moment: my brother had mentioned Cillian Murphy in passing while discussing different pop culture topics and the name must have stuck in my memory – et voilà, I was steered in the direction of Red Eye.)

Preoccupation with a pretty person: spectatorial bias in a nutshell. I could say that I chose to follow up Red Eye with 28 Days Later… (2002) and Sunshine (2007) because a) they were two Danny Boyle-directed films that I had never seen and b) they were two other genre flicks to easily get copies of, but they were also two of the most potent cases of actor objectification I could have asked for – Danny Boyle certainly did have a thing about extreme close-ups of Cillian Murphy’s eyes, didn’t he? (Then again Christopher Nolan felt that same fascination; he remarked in 2005, when interviewed for Batman Begins, that “I kept trying to invent excuses for him to take his glasses off in close-ups.”) 28 Days Later… is inundated with near-fetishistic imagery of Cillian Murphy’s body; there’s a symbolic purpose to our introduction to his character – awaking from a coma while lying naked on a hospital bed, simultaneously a rebirth into a newly zombified, post-apocalyptic world and a visual representation of vulnerability – but from what I have gathered in myriad reviews, apparently full-frontal nudity has the tendency to render untold numbers of viewers inarticulate regardless of context (says the woman currently writing her thesis on objectified bodies in ’60s sexploitation films, thank you very much).

I can’t claim to have any decent understanding of the other Danny Boyle film, Sunshine, but it certainly does have an overwhelming quantity of almost disturbingly flattering shots of Cillian Murphy, so those images fill in the gaps in your brain left by all the attempts to fathom the logic in Sunshine’s futuristic, interstellar story. Slow-motion turns, suffusions of brilliantly golden light fading into shadow – Tumblr users find a way to catalog every frame, like a new wave of digital librarians.

It’s a brave new world that we live in inside our glowing screens, where the nature of a person being a well-known actor means that potentially every image of the performer, whether posed for or not, can be framed in virtual photo albums on Tumblr and Pinterest, pictures uploaded to mainframes where they can be ogled by an infinite amount of consumers (and bloggers with an abundance of free time). At which point does a celebrity agree to the exchange that fame must transform their body into a spectacle that belongs to the universe? Or is it not supposed to be just a little bit weird that The Guardian once spun an interview with Cillian Murphy into a lengthy, kind-of-joking-but-kind-of-not paean to intensely blue eyes that might be “more famous than he is”? Should I not have cringed in secondhand embarrassment for the piece’s subject at the use of one of the goofiest words in the entirety of English, “peepers”?

The Internet has become our modern version of Rear Window, where fans, critics and those of us who own up to both labels can peer from a distance at the aesthetic pleasures of bright, shiny movie stars. No longer do you have to tape photos to bedroom walls that only you can see; Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and wherever else images are disseminated have made the Web into one giant bedroom for all the planet’s dedicated fanboys and fangirls. I often wonder if there is something too voyeuristic in the posting, saving and reblogging of images of real people; we study them like artworks in a massive online museum. Should I pay so much attention to the melting boundaries between objective (insofar as it can be) cinematic criticism and the clearly subjective adoration inherent in cinephilia, and how these deliberations shape my writing? Or have I merely proved myself capable of writing an excess of text without substance?

Maybe you, my spectator, can tell me.

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: December 2016

Director/producer/actress Katie Holmes (center) on the set of All We Had, 2015.

Here are twelve new movies due to be released in theaters this December, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

DECEMBER 2: Best and Most Beautiful Things (dir. Garrett Zevgetis) (DPs: Sarah Ginsburg and Jordan Salvatoriello)PBS Independent Lens synopsis: “In rural Maine, a quirky, charming, and determined young woman named Michelle Smith lives with her mother Julie. Legally blind and on the autism spectrum, Michelle has big dreams and proudly wears the badge of outcast. Searching for connection, Michelle explores love and empowerment outside the limits of ‘normal,’ including a provocative sexual awakening. Best and Most Beautiful Things tells Michelle’s joyful story of self-discovery as a celebration of outcasts everywhere.

“After receiving an extraordinary education at the Perkins School for the Blind, a world-famous institution outside Boston which was attended by the young Helen Keller, Michelle becomes isolated after graduation, spending hours and days alone in her room, struggling to envision her future. She attends an alumni weekend where a school administrator unexpectedly offers her the possibility of an animation internship in Los Angeles. While Michelle eagerly anticipates this dream opportunity, her family and teachers worry about real-world logistics and Michelle’s readiness to live independently on the other side of the country.

“Michelle passes time on the computer, feeding her interests and bold curiosity about the world beyond her walls. Online, she meets and falls in love with a young college student named Michael, and together they become involved in a local fetish role-playing community. Through her relationship with Michael and their adventures with kink and BDSM, Michelle experiences a burgeoning empowerment and finds the acceptance that has eluded her since her time at Perkins. Best and Most Beautiful Things gently reveals how all the most beautiful things, including love and sexuality, are not bound by disability.”

DECEMBER 2: First Lady of the Revolution (dir. Andrea Kalin)From the film’s official website: “While visiting an aunt and uncle in the exotic countryside of Costa Rica, a young Southern Belle from Alabama accepted a ride on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a charismatic local farmer. That ride would propel her into history.

First Lady of the Revolution is the remarkable story of Henrietta Boggs, who fell in love with a foreign land and the man destined to transform its identity. Her marriage to José ‘Don Pepe’ Figueres in 1941 led to a decade-long journey through activism, exile and political upheaval, and ultimately, lasting political reform.

First Lady of the Revolution is not only a depiction of the momentous struggle to shape Costa Rica’s democratic identity; it’s also a portrayal of how a courageous woman escaped the confines of a traditional, sheltered existence to expand her horizons into a new world, and live a life she never imagined.

DECEMBER 2: Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)Excerpt from Variety review by Guy Lodge: “Midway through Things to Come, Isabelle Huppert’s protagonist has a disconcerting encounter in a cinema, distracting her from Juliette Binoche’s own on-screen emotional uncertainty in Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 jewel, Certified Copy. It’s a cheeky move to so fleetingly cameo that level of perfection in one’s own work, but Mia Hansen-Love’s fifth — and possibly best — feature pulls it off with warmth and grace to spare. At once disarmingly simple in form and riddled with rivulets of complex feeling, this story of a middle-aged Parisienne philosophy professor rethinking an already much-examined life in the wake of unforeseen divorce emulates the best academics in making outwardly familiar ideas feel newly alive and immediate — and has an ideal human conduit in a wry, heartsore Huppert, further staking her claim as our greatest living actress with nary a hint of showing off. Following widespread distribution for the dazzling but younger-skewing Eden, the arthouse future for Hansen-Love’s latest is surely a bright one.

“Among the more minor losses endured by heavily burdened philosopher Nathalie (Huppert) in the course of Hansen-Love’s gently meandering narrative is one of pedagogical authority. As her favorite student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), grows into a writer and thinker of independent, often conflicting, agency, she’s both gratified and saddened that the path on which she placed him has diverged from hers; the student has become not the master, but merely his own man.

“Hansen-Love knows a thing or two about what we give and take from our teachers. Like her four previous films, Things to Come bears the delicate tonal imprint of her former mentor and now husband, Olivier Assayas — the wily presence of the great Edith Scob isn’t the only nod here to, in particular, Assayas’ Summer Hours. Yet the pic’s glinting aesthetic textures and searching philosophical preoccupations are quite plainly her own. As filmmakers, they share tastes and interests in the way lovers must do, as if they were mutually beloved songs. Hansen-Love’s sharply feminine and subtly feminist worldview, however, is marked by a guarded generational idealism and resistance to nostalgia that sets it richly apart from others in the current French canon; in Things to Come, her rotating sensibilities as intellectual, humanist and sensualist converge most satisfyingly.”

DECEMBER 2: Two Trains Runnin’ (dir. Samuel D. Pollard) (DP: Natalie Kingston)From the film’s official website:Two Trains Runnin’ is a feature-length documentary directed by acclaimed filmmaker Sam Pollard, narrated by Common, and featuring the music of Gary Clark Jr. The film pays tribute to a pioneering generation of musicians and cuts to the heart of our present moment, offering a crucial vantage from which to view the evolving dynamics of race in America.

“In June of 1964 hundreds of college students, eager to join the civil rights movement, traveled to Mississippi, starting what would be known as Freedom Summer. That same month, two groups of young men–made up of musicians, college students and record collectors–also traveled to Mississippi. Though neither group was aware of the other, each had come on the same errand: to find an old blues singer and coax him out of retirement. Thirty years before, Son House and Skip James had recorded some of the most memorable music of their era, but now they seemed lost to time.

“Finding them would not be easy. There were few clues to their whereabouts. It was not even known for certain if they were still alive.  And Mississippi, that summer, was a tense and violent place. With hundreds on their way to teach in freedom schools and work on voter registration, the Ku Klux Klan and police force of many towns vowed that Freedom Summer would not succeed. Churches were bombed, shotguns blasted into cars and homes. It was easy to mistake the young men looking for Son House and Skip James as activists. Finally, on June 21, 1964, these two campaigns collided in memorable and tragic fashion.

“In telling this remarkable story, Two Trains Runnin’ revisits an important moment when America’s cultural and political institutions were dramatically transformed. The movie is all the more pointed and relevant today, in an era of renewed attention on police brutality and voting rights.”

DECEMBER 9: All We Had (dir. Katie Holmes)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Genna Terranova: “Ruthie Carmichael (Stefania Owen) makes the best of bad circumstances, pulled along in the wake of the hard luck of her mother Rita (Katie Holmes). From escaping a bad boyfriend to their car breaking down on the road to going broke, they continually find themselves in search of stability. When their attempt at settling in a new town hits a stumbling block, and as the shine wears off of the kind strangers who supported them when they had first arrived, even Ruthie struggles to keep it together. Based on Annie Weatherwax’s 2014 novel, Katie Holmes’s feature directorial debut is a sensitive rendering of the Great Recession as told by people who were unprepared for the shortfall and could not have seen it coming. Owen and Holmes are perfectly matched as they explore a mother-daughter bond crashing against universal teenage themes: growing up under hardship, realizing the imperfections of parents and facing the many little dramas that overwhelm positivity and progress. Holmes finds in All We Had a stimulating and ultimately enriching coming-of-age drama about a resilient mother and daughter who find strength in each other.”

DECEMBER 9: Solitary (dir. Kristi Jacobson)Human Rights Watch Film Festival synopsis:Solitary tells the stories of several inmates sent to Red Onion State Prison, one of over 40 supermax prisons across the US, which holds inmates in eight-by-ten foot solitary confinement cells, 23 hours a day. Profoundly intimate, this immersive film weaves through prison corridors and cells, capturing the chilling sounds and haunting atmosphere of the prison. With unprecedented access, award-winning filmmaker Kristi Jacobson investigates an invisible part of the American justice system and tells the stories of people caught in the complex penal system – both inmates and correction officers – raising provocative questions about punishment in America today.”

DECEMBER 16: Collateral Beauty (dir. David Frankel) (DP: Maryse Alberti)Excerpt from Warner Bros. synopsis: “When a successful New York advertising executive suffers a great tragedy he retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.

Collateral Beauty features an all-star cast, including Will Smith (Suicide Squad, Concussion), Edward Norton (Birdman or [The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance]), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Michael Peña (The Martian), Naomie Harris (Spectre), Jacob Latimore (The Maze Runner), with Oscar winners Kate Winslet (The Reader, Steve Jobs) and Helen Mirren (The Queen, Trumbo).”

DECEMBER 25: Fences (dir. Denzel Washington) (DP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen)Excerpt from The Wrap review by Robert Abele: “It’s taken nearly 30 years for August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences to make it to movie screens since its roiling portrait of an embittered African-American mid-20th-century man exploded on Broadway in 1987. But if anybody was going to do it justice as a film, it’s Denzel Washington.

“The stage-trained megastar played Wilson’s Troy Maxson — former ballplayer, ex-con and struggling Pittsburgh garbageman — in a celebrated 2010 revival, and he’s now taken the reins behind and in front of the camera for a film adaptation that amounts to a great actor’s dedicated stewardship of the late dramatist’s considerable gifts. Can you tell it’s a play? Absolutely. Does that mean a damn thing? Not when the writing is this richly evocative, and the cast so often soars with it.

“It’s not just Washington in home-run form, but Viola Davis, too, as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose, a role she also played in the Washington-headlined production. Together they bring to vivid life the complexities and contradictions in an 18-year marriage built on a sense of duty neither realized was as fragile as it was. It’s a safe bet these in-the-moment powerhouses will be in plenty of accolade-centric conversations for the rest of the season.”

DECEMBER 25: Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi) (DP: Mandy Walker)Fox Movies synopsis:Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.”

DECEMBER 25: Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)New York Film Festival synopsis: “An audacious twist on the screwball comedy—here, the twosome is an aging-hippie prankster father and his corporate-ladder-climbing daughter—Toni Erdmann delivers art and entertainment in equal measure and charmed just about everyone who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Maren Ade’s dazzling script has just enough of a classical comedic structure to support 162 minutes of surprises big and small. Meanwhile, her direction is designed to liberate the actors as much as possible while the camera rolls, resulting in sublime performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, who leave the audience suspended between laughter and tears. A Sony Pictures Classics release.”

DECEMBER 30: Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer? (dir. Eve Marson)From the film’s official website: “Dr. William Hurwitz was a preeminent doctor sentenced to 25 years in prison for overprescribing painkillers. His story provides a window into the ethical dilemma of opioid prescriptions. Painkillers give doctors tremendous power to relieve pain, a primary goal of any physician, but this power begets trouble when the same drugs can lead to addiction, abuse and death.

“In 2016, painkiller abuse continues to skyrocket, the federal government has issued its first guidelines to control opioid prescriptions, and the investigation into Prince’s death only furthers finger-pointing at Big Pharma, doctors and addicts.

“There could not be a more critical time to spark discussion on the topic and call for careful thought and action.”

DECEMBER 30: Miss Violence (dir. Alexandros Avranas) (DP: Olympia Mytilinaiou)Excerpt of Starburst review by Martyn Conterio: “Ever since Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth wowed audiences back in 2009, Greek cinema has become the new Michael Haneke. Although Lanthimos and others have weaved into the fabric of their sometimes controversial work a certain absurdist humour, the award-winning second feature by Alexandros Avranas, Miss Violence, paints it black and black only.

“Angeliki (Chloe Bolota), on her 11th birthday, jumps out of an open window. She is smiling as she does so. The family appear sad and upset for five minutes and then carry on as if nothing untoward has happened. No questions are asked and no soul-searching undertaken. It’s like the poor girl has been erased from memory. But why?

“For a long time, and the film’s pace is pitched at glacial, Avranas feeds the viewer crumbs of information about the dynamics at work within the family unit. From the very first scene, even before the shocking act of Angeliki’s suicide, there’s something not quite right. Could it be the Leonard Cohen song, “Dance Me To The End of Love,” playing on the stereo system or the bland colour scheme of the home interior and costume design?

Miss Violence is an experimental mixture of thriller narrative (removed of all genre thrills), a horror movie and a detective story, complete with a series of revelations so astoundingly grim that the overall reaction, as the film draws to a close, is one of absolute devastation.”