Rodricks, Reed and DeLibero on the 70th Anniversary of “The Best Years of Our Lives”

Best Years of Our Lives

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the lovely and groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946 to wide critical and box-office success, eventually winning 7 Academy Awards (plus one special Honorary Award), including Best Picture. Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

2 Pieces @hammertonail: Review of “Woman on Fire” + Interview with Director Otto Bell of “The Eagle Huntress”

woman-on-fire-and-eagle-huntress

In the past weeks, Hammer to Nail posted a couple of pieces of mine: a review of Woman on Fire, a documentary about the first openly trans firefighter in New York City; and my interview with director Otto Bell, who made The Eagle Huntress, about the first female eagle hunter in Mongolia. Here are the links to each post:

Enjoy!

“Manchester by the Sea” Is a Moving (and Messy) Meditation on Redemption

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Manchester by the Sea is only the third feature film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, whose first, You Can Count on Me, released a full 16 years ago, was a near-perfect study of a dysfunctional family that helped launch the career of Mark Ruffalo (and featured a fine performance from Laura Linney, as well). Lonergan ran into serious post-production difficulties (i.e., studio interference) on his sophomore effort, Margaret, which took 8 years, start to finish, to make it to the screen (and with only a limited release, at that). Now, however, he is back with a movie that should, at the very least, regain him some lost momentum; it is certainly on many Oscar-buzz lists, a position that is mostly well-deserved (though allegations of sexual harassment against its star may derail these award chances). And though I may not find it flawless – befitting its profoundly human theme, it’s often messy, for better and for worse – it is nevertheless an extraordinarily moving treatment of an almost unbearable subject, tragic and funny in equal parts. For a film this sad to also offer up genuine laughs is a testament to both Lonergan’s powers as a storyteller and to his extremely talented cast.

Leading the ensemble is Casey Affleck (Out of the Furnace) as Lee Chandler, a man we first meet on a boat somewhere off the coast of Massachusetts, joking with his young nephew while the boy’s father (Lee’s brother, Joe), pilots the craft. It’s a happy, light-hearted moment, in sharp contrast to the Lee we see next, post-title sequence, who works as a handyman in an apartment complex in Quincy (a little over 10 miles south of Boston). Gone is the bluster, replaced by resignation, slumped shoulders and dead eyes. Still, something burns inside of him, as we discover when he goes out at night to a bar, gets drunk, and picks a fight. What has happened to torture him in this way? And what is the chronological relationship of the opening to the present, if present it is? One of the beauties of Lonergan’s presentation of the narrative is how fluidly we travel back and forth in time, gently gathering additional story details that improve our understanding of Lee’s condition, until the big reveal that explains all. Affleck is simply magnificent in the role, alternating between the cocky man he once was and the inchoate zombie he has become, impressive in his behavioral virtuosity.

Before we uncover the secret at the heart of the tragedy, however, there is an initial misfortune, almost as sad, that drives the plot. That brother from the boat, Joe (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now), collapses from a bad heart, leaving his son, Patrick (now 16), in need of a guardian. His will stipulates that it be Lee (Patrick’s mother, an alcoholic, moved away years earlier), which comes as a surprise to the designee. No further plot spoilers here, but the rest of the film sees Lee struggle to overcome the very real demons of his past while balancing the new, unsought responsibilities of a parent. As his nephew, Lucas Hedges (Kill the Messenger) matches Affleck beat for beat, and it is in their sweet, sometimes antagonistic, rapport, that the movie offers the greatest hope for Lee’s healing. There’s a lot to overcome, however.

Affleck and Hedges are not alone, by far. Michelle Williams (Certain Women), as Lee’s estranged ex-wife, brings her usual deep commitment to the part. There is a scene towards the end of the film, between the former spouses, set on a windy street while Williams’ baby from her second marriage lies in the carriage she pushes, that will break your heart, if it hasn’t been broken already. Beyond specific movies, if one could nominate moments within movies for Oscars, I would choose that one. Chandler, in flashback, is also strong as Joe; both Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire), as Joe’s ex-wife, and Matthew Broderick (The Producers), as her deeply religious new man, liven up their few on-screen bits, as well. Even more so, the film is populated by a rich cast of lesser-known talents who complement the leads in foreground and background, both.

If the film has a weakness, for me, it’s in the score, which features far too great a use of well-known classical music pieces, including Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor (previously heard in films like GallipoliDragonslayer and Flashdance, among far too many others) and a few selections from Handel’s Messiah, as well. For those inclined to notice sound-synchronization issues, there are a few moments where the lips of a character in the front of an over-the-shoulder shot do not quite match the dialogue, since that sound is clearly taken from the close-up to which we subsequently cut. In addition, a few scenes feel oddly truncated and unmotivated, as if Lonergan were trimming away the fat and had inadvertently struck the bone. Still, these are, overall, small quibbles, since what remains is an overwhelmingly intense meditation on the power, and limitations, of redemption, beautiful even in (and maybe because of) its untidiness, a metaphor for our sometimes-vain attempts to make sense out of the chaos of living.

Mostly Entertaining “The Duelist” Is a Revenge Tale with a Russian Twist

Дуэлянт

The Duelist (“Дуэлянт”) (Aleksey Mizgirev, 2016)

A very silly, if often dramatically effective, confection of a 19th-century period thriller, the new Russian movie The Duelist gives us the violent action promised by its title embedded in a story of revenge that takes its cue from the adventures of the great French author Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo). Best when it avoids excess sentimentality, the movie starts out especially well with a series of duels in which a mysterious nobleman, Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov, Stalingrad) hires himself out to those who wish to avenge their honor without putting themselves at risk. A dead shot, he wins every time, carefully following the proper dueling code (the film even opens with a series of on-screen titles that explain parts of those guidelines) to avoid prosecution. As a mercenary, he is viewed with contempt by those whom he serves; as a man possessed, he doesn’t care. Something drives him to kill. Rest assured that the reason is revealed in the second act.

Mostly well acted – Fyodorov is compelling, as is Vladimir Mashkov (The Thief) as his eventual nemesis – and made with high production value, The Duelist only really falters in its final section, where the hero’s will is tested by his love for a noblewoman in peril. Their emoting feels out of place in the otherwise stark narrative, and their sex scene (bordering on rape) – in a carriage, in broad daylight, blinds not drawn, with gratuitous nudity, in the middle of St. Petersburg! – is possibly the most ridiculous thing in the film. Fortunately, romantic melodrama and all, the ending is still satisfying, even if derivative of most tales of revenge that have come before. Be forewarned that it is a very bloody affair, however, so be prepared to look away if the sight of red nauseates you.

It’s nice to see that such enjoyable frivolities can come out of a nation most cinematically associated with the weighty films of Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, and others. There are no grand metaphysics here, just a series of (sometimes overwrought) plot threads in service of a rollicking good time. Speaking of all the blood, one big difference from The Duelist‘s earlier Soviet cousins is its near obsession with the idea of nobility as defined by one’s DNA (which in this film they just call “blood”). Russia’s Revolution of 1917 may have led to the death of the Tsars and execution or expulsion of its aristocrats, but 100 years later, some folks seems to want to romanticize the lost past. Perhaps it’s all part of Vladimir Putin’s to make Russia great again. Whatever its larger cultural agenda, if any, The Duelist is a lot of fun, until it’s not (but then it’s fun again). See it as I did, with zero expectations, and you’ll enjoy it even more.

“Nocturnal Animals” Suffocates Us in Its Constrictive Embrace

Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)

Until just recently, it would have been hard to imagine seeing a film that would make Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon seem like a subtle and moderate take on the conflict between art and passion. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man), however, has managed just that, creating an overdetermined, overplotted and overwrought melodrama that leaves no room for audience interpretation, every beat micromanaged within a letter of its scripted sentence. For those who enjoy the claustrophobia of an MRI machine, run to the cinema, where Ford’s miserable effort at storytelling (based on the novel Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright) awaits to enfold you in its constrictive embrace.

Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Susan, an established establisment artist whose grotesque work we meet before her. In an opening sequence that is actually quite beautiful in a Lynchian (as in David Lynch) way, Ford gives us obese women, naked and writhing to  an unheard rhythm (we hear only the strings of the soundtrack), joyfully wriggling their pounds of flesh. Sadly, this expression of freedom – which, it turns out, is a video projection that serves as backdrop to Susan’s new exhibit – is the last one we will see (or feel) in the film, for what follows is a stultifying series of scenes of ennui punctuated by deeply horrifying violence that make this film one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences of the year. Susan, it seems, has built her success on the foundation of one egregious sin, committed years ago, and now that shameful act returns to haunt her. Cue music.

Past history arrives in the form of a manuscript, written by Susan’s ex-husband Edward, entitled Nocturnal Animals. He has dedicated it to her, and the rest of the movie alternates between dramatic reenactments of the book’s plot, Susan’s reaction to it, and flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s relationship. After her rupture with Edward, Susan remarried, to Hutton (Armie Hammer, The Birth of a Nation), creating a life of opulence we glimpse in the sleek surfaces of a house in the Hollywood Hills. Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal, Demolition) moved back to his native Texas, where he has been teaching English and, apparently, wallowing in despair and hatred, all of which he pours into his repulsive novel of murder and retribution. Unluckily for us, we are treated to his unvarnished rage as we watch the plot unfold. Fortunately, the story within the story features a very fine Michael Shannon (Elvis & Nixon) as a detective helping Gyllenhaal (who plays the main character within that story, as well) track down those who have wronged him. I’ll take whatever small pleasures I can fine.

Individual elements are not without merit, but the overall whole is simultaneously repellant and ridiculous. The murderous violence – and there is plenty of it – is excessive, even if we ultimately understand the roots of Edward’s anger (at which point the obviousness of the conceit makes the entire affair even more egregious). Adams, a terrific actress, does her best, but she is as hampered by the script as are we. Gyllenhaal fares a little better – he is given more to do – but it’s really Shannon (an actor I have not always admired) who takes his part and spins it into rough treasure. If only we could isolate his scenes from the rest, we’d then have a relatively watchable thriller. Instead, we just have this mess.

In “Moana,” Disney Offers a Powerful and Delightful Fantasy of Female Derring-Do

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Moana

Moana (Ron Clements/Don Hall/John Musker/Chris Williams, 2016)

Moana, the 56th animated feature from the Walt Disney Company, gives us a ravishing musical confection about a young Polynesian woman who must journey far and wide to save not only her people, but the world, battling monsters and demons along the way. The United States of America may not yet be ready for a female leader, but apparently our prime purveyor of coming-of-age fables has no problems shattering the proverbial glass ceiling (here, made of salt water and lava), and has been doing so for quite some time (albeit with minimal personal agency for its earlier princesses). What makes this particular version of a teenager seeking her place in life particularly fresh and engaging is its beautiful visual design, snappy songs (co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame) and winning cast. Who knew that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Central Intelligence) could sing?

Johnson voices Maui, a disgraced demigod whose actions in the film’s prologue – stealing the heart of the goddess Te Fiti – begin a slow process of ocean decay that, as the main story begins, has finally brought blight to the island where our heroine, the titular Moana, is but a child. All is good, at first, and the lovely baby – daughter of the chief – frolics in the sand and waves, oblivious of dangers to come. In a blissful moment, she rescues a young sea turtle on its way from nest to surf, and as she does so, the ocean chooses her for greatness by offering her the lost heart of Te Fiti. Which she promptly drops. She is, after all, at that point but a toddler. And so the film goes, mixing profundity with charming humor and crisp performances.

Speaking of charm, Johnson has it to spare. But he’s not alone: newcomer Auli’i Carvalho, as the adolescent Moana, matches him beat for beat. Along for the ride are other actors of Polynesian or Maori descent, including Paula House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) as Moana’s beloved grandmother and, most notably, a hilarious Jermaine Clement (People Places Things) as a villainous giant crab with a taste for bling. Indeed, the film acts as a gentle corrective to movies past – among them, Disney’s own – that have too often cast white actors in non-European roles (even the otherwise innovative Kubo and the Two Strings came under fire for whitewashing its main characters). Positive and empowering racial and gender politics aside, though, this is a film that deserves to be seen on its many wonderful merits as joyous storytelling, above all else.

I was especially a fan of the gorgeous animation – in 3D for those who choose to see it that way – of both landscapes, seascapes, humans and creatures. The scene where Moana and Maui first meet, in which Johnson struts and sings his stuff, is filled with a wildly imaginative mix of 3D and 2D images within the frame that shows a delightful new level of visual sophistication. Maui, himself, is a work of art, his body covered in tattoos that shift and slide across his body. There are also adorable animal sidekicks, and even a cute army of vicious sentient coconuts that are as funny as they are deadly. As Moana struggles against internal doubt and external foes, with a reluctant Maui as guide and helpmate, we journey alongside her, basking in the giddy glow of a tale well told. Disney has given us a wonderful Thanksgiving present, to be savored by all. I’ll take seconds (and maybe thirds), please!

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” Is Charming, If Very Messy, Fun

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016)

Published in 2001, after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – the fourth volume in the parent series of the Harry Potter universe – had already come out, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a slim, mock textbook on magical creatures ostensibly written by a specialist in that subject named Newt Scamander. It is a guide to a little-known part of author J.K. Rowling’s richly textured world of witches and wizards, and as such is a delightful compendium of esoterica that offers scrumptious tidbits for casual fans and Potter aficionados, alike. What it is not is a story, or even a template for a story, so the fact that Rowling has borrowed Scamander’s title for her first-ever screenplay provides little clue for what might await the viewer, other than the titular creatures. And they are there, prominently featured in this new film brought to us by the studio (Warner Bros.) that made all previous Potter films and the director (David Yates) who directed the final four (starting with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).

Rowling and Yates start out by giving us what we want, which is good magical fun and adventure, but if I mention the movie’s pedigree, it is to emphasize how much the enterprise feels brand-oriented, cramming in so many details of new-series set-up as to overwhelm both beasts and story. In fact, the beasts, themselves, are almost superfluous. Instead, we get yet a new battle between forces of dark magic and forces of good, embodied by one evil wizard named Grindelwald and one super-nice-guy bloke named … Newt Scamander. I won’t divulge any major plot spoilers by revealing the identity of the villain, who remains hidden in plain sight for most of the movie, but unless you are one extremely inattentive audience member, you’ll know who he is from the moment he appears on screen. Still, there are surprises in store, so even as we realize that we’re merely watching the launch of a new franchise, we marvel at how well the effort entertains.

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) plays Scamander as a charmingly distracted academic, whom we first meet upon his arrival in New York of the mid-1920s. He’s in possession of a special suitcase from which emerge knockings and groans (and a claw), but which he makes Muggle-proof with the flick of a switch. It turns out he has misplaced one of the creatures he collects, and soon makes his way to a bank where the lost soul – an unbearably cute cross between a platypus and a magpie – is busy stealing gold. His use of magic on a Muggle (called a “No-Maj” – pronounced “no-madge” – in America) draws the attention of a local inspector, Tina Goldstein (a very fine Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice), and what should have been a simple extraction mission quickly blows up into a major flash point between ordinary humans and wizards. Add a dash of malicious intent (courtesy of he who shall be named, i.e., Grindelwald), and it’s a wonder that there’s anything left standing in New York by the end. It’s engaging enough, as these things go, but burdened with too many subplots. Yes, there will be sequels, but perhaps the one story would have been enough here. After all, we came for the beasts.

Many of these creatures are wonderfully designed – as is the Big Apple of yore – though I was disappointed that the one scene where we see them all in one place suffers from a certain visual artificiality, as if the green screen had not been properly keyed out. In an otherwise technically superb production, this was a glaring failing. And though one of them does end up playing an important role in the climax, they still feel shoehorned into the clash between the main protagonists. Fortunately, those characters are portrayed by actors who know what they’re doing: in addition to Redmayne and Waterston, we also have Samantha Morton (The Messenger), Colin Farrell (The Lobster), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Dan Fogler (Don Peyote) and musician-turned-actress Alison Sudol, among others. It’s an appealing cast, game for anything (Fogler, as a hapless No-Maj swept up in the mayhem, especially) and when Rowling remembers to keep the script moving jauntily forward, they shine. 

One major problem with the movie, however, that refused to leave me in peace, was its central conceit of the self-imposed restraint that wizards and witches must show in order to hide from us regular folk. In the Harry Potter books and stories, with their emphasis more squarely on the lives and customs of the magical world, the clash of civilizations was not so foregrounded. Here, given that those with wands can more or less do whatever they want, with no discernible reciprocal weapon on the part of ordinary humans, why – as Grindelwald asks – would they feel the need to hide? Yes, we hear tell of ancient witch burnings, but given what we see of the overwhelming superiority of those witches in this story, how could that actually be a viable threat? Rowling fails to make a compelling case for the division of worlds. Perhaps she will in the next film, or the one after that. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, however, there are a few too many loose threads for it to be more than a diverting set-up for revelations to come.

Delightful “Edge of Seventeen” Breathes New Life into Teen Comedy

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)

A delightfully offbeat coming-of-age tale, The Edge of Seventeen gives us Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as Nadine, a surly teenage girl whose first words of the movie are a declaration of suicidal intent. To whom does she make this horrific confession? Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), one of her teachers (as it turns out, her favorite), who looks at her from behind his desk, slouched in midday fatigue, his weary eyes unmoved. His response is to crack a joke at her expense and complain that Nadine never lets him eat his lunch in peace. Either he (and, by extension, the movie) is extremely insensitive, or he has her number, knowing just what kind of pushback is appropriate to kick Nadine out of the melancholy of adolescent despair. Something in the crinkle of his brow gives away the game: they’ve been here before, these two. It may all work itself out.

As it turns out, that opening interaction sets the tone of the film, which sees Nadine careen from crisis to worsening crisis, alienating those who would love her if she would only give them the chance. She lives at home with mom (Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer) and big brother Darian (Blake Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!!), and more or less hates them both. It’s a good thing she has best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson, The Young Kieslowski) to break up the depressive repetition of high-school mundanities. The film presents the history of her bleak (as she sees it) life in a snappy montage of misadventures that works in tonal opposition to Nadine’s gloomy voiceover. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig – whose first feature this is – proves herself extremely adept at balancing respect for the very real challenges of the teenage years with a bubbly recognition that we’ve all been here before and that, surely, somehow, it will all end well.

Which it does, but in ways both familiar and unexpected. The joy of this movie is how Craig breathes new life into a cinematically commonplace narrative. Seinfeld is a large part of the reason, delivering a charming and winning performance that makes Nadine infinitely appealing even when she is cruel. Harrelson is equally perfect as the cynical teacher, who may not, in fact, be as jaded as we initially think. Sedgwick, Jenner and Richardson are also very watchable, but it is perhaps Hayden Szeto (The Unbidden), both endearing and very funny as Erwin, the lovesick student ignored by Nadine, who steals the show. Overall, then, The Edge of Seventeen is a near-perfect teen comedy that announces a bold new directorial talent and is a wonderful antidote to the poison in our collective system after the rancorous election season. A must-see for all.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” Stumbles Mid-Field

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee, 2016)

Ang Lee has made many fine films, some of them great. Among the latter, I would count both Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi; among the former, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and SensibilityThe Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He has also had one unmitigated misfire: 2003’s Hulk (no “The,” just “Hulk”), which stands alone as that rare film by Lee that was both box-office and critical flop, failing to make back its production budget domestically (though it recouped the loss when we add in international sales), and receiving a general, if neither uniform nor unanimous, drubbing from movie reviewers around the globe. Nobody’s perfect.

Now comes Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 book. The original source material is both frustrating and deeply satisfying: frustrating because its rambling structure frequently meanders beyond its story; satisfying because it is a much-needed critique of our society’s hypocrisy when it comes to war. Billy is a young man more or less impressed into the U.S. Army after an act of vandalism, who returns home on a Thanksgiving-week victory tour after he and the members of his unit win a battle over Iraqi insurgents. Videotaped by an embedded Fox News crew, this victory is used by the Bush Administration (the book takes place in the mid-2000s) to increase public support for the war. And so the boys of Bravo Squad are fêted and dined on a cross-country trip which ends in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, during a Cowboys-Bears football game. The entire present-day plot of the novel takes place before, during and after that game, interspersed with flashbacks to the war and Billy’s life before the war. What passes for narrative allows author Fountain to set up encounter after encounter where the general words of support and encouragement spoken to the soldiers by the public are revealed as hollow. Mass consumption is all Americans think about.

Lee’s film is very much like the book in structure, albeit simplified. All the major characters remain, and the central question of the novel – should Billy stay in the army or turn deserter, as his sister implores – is the same. This is all for the good, since the book raises important issues, but also bad, since the time we spend in the stadium is distinctly undramatic. Indeed, it may be even less engaging than similar scenes in the book, since the cast of young actors who play the soldiers are not up to the challenge of shouldering the weight of the story. Sadly, chief among those who fall short is Billy Lynn, himself, portrayed by newcomer Joe Alwyn. He is not alone, however. When your movie’s biggest emotional scenes are given to Vin Diesel (Riddick), a fine performer in the right kind of flick but not exactly a powerhouse of a thespian, you know you have a problem. Perhaps the only actor who acquits herself honorably is Kristen Stewart (Certain Women), as the sister encouraging Billy to quit. Even veteran Steve Martin (It’s Complicated) fares poorly as what passes for the movie’s unctuous villain. Fellow comic Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) comes across only slightly better, while Garrett Hedlund, as Billy’s commander, can’t get past his shtick from last year’s Pan.

Leaving the actors aside, however, the real problem with the film is the way it is shot. Although most of us will never be able to see the movie in its native 120 frames-per-second format (I only saw the 24fps version), we are still subjected to a roving camera that never quite seems to find its subject, crossing the 180-degree line at will, disrupting our sense of perspective. When that camera does stop, the actors often turn to it and break the fourth wall, looking directly into the lens for no discernible aesthetic reason. It’s odd and off-putting, and when combined with mannered performances it pushes us out of the story. My guess is that the choice to use the high frame rate was made to create the effect of a live sports event, using the stadium setting as inspiration, to heighten the emotional content. The other disruptions were most likely intended to shake us out of our own complacency as viewers. I get it, but it’s neither pleasant nor effective. Whether or not 120fps would achieve a better result is a judgement to be reserved for the lucky few who catch the movie in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The rest of us just get the muddled remains.