Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Technical and Artistic Film Work of 2016

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On Tuesday, January 24, the  Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the 2017 Oscar nominees. Three days later, I am finally getting around to finishing up my own lists of favorites from last year. I already posted my “best film” and “best acting” lists, so today’s post – about the (often) unsung artists and craftspeople who are essential to the filmmaking process – completes the triptych. Most of the time, the movie’s hyperlink will take you to my review, if one exists (and if not, I have a note explaining where the hyperlink takes you). I also hyperlink the artists’ names, as well (mostly to IMDb, but sometimes to their own personal websites), so you can see what other work they have produced over their careers. In the case of best score, I link to the movies’ soundtracks on Amazon or iTunes, as well.

For each category, I stick to 5 candidates, in alphabetical order. These are the films where I thought that the work in that particular area truly enhanced the quality of the movie. Enjoy, and feel free to leave comments after you look it over!

Best Screenplay (adapted and original, combined):

Best Cinematography:

Best Editing*:

[*2 of these are documentaries – Cameraperson and The Last Man on the Moon – which are among the hardest kinds of films to edit, given the huge amount of material to work with, from which one must, somehow, extract a coherent story.]

Best Production Design:

Best Visual Effects**:

[*Too many people to mention all, so I have simply hyperlinked, next to the title, to the movie’s crew page on IMDb page, where you can look at the multitude of people involved in the many visual-effects teams.]

Best Original Score***:

*plus The Lobster for best choice of previously composed music (particularly Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato)

A Beautiful Confection, “Julieta” is Lovely to Look At, Unsatisfying to Consume

Julieta

Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, 2016)

Beautifully designed and shot, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Julieta, starts out with a delicious frisson of mystery that quickly flattens into tedium. It’s a gorgeous, if inert, object, in other words, and if narrative cohesion and plot momentum are of little interest to you, then the movie has much to recommend it. If, however, one is looking for an example of Almodóvar’s often brilliant combination of visuals and innovative storytelling, better to go back and re-watch masterpieces such as VolverTalk to HerAll About My Mother, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to name just a few (but not the The Flower of My Secret, the structure and tone of which, such as they are, Julieta recalls).

The fault lies not with the two leads, Emma Suárez (The Mosquito Net) and Adriana Ugarte (Palm Trees in the Snow), both of whom continue in a long line of women who deliver moving performances for Almodóvar. He’s a great director of and for actresses, usually writing strong scenes that showcase their many talents. He does so here, as well, in sections, but the totality of the script is less than the sum of its parts. Despite their efforts, neither can make the material come to life beyond the power of their individual moments. Still, watching them at work is never less than a pleasure.

Each plays a different version of Julieta: Suárez the elder (meaning middle-aged); Ugarte the younger (meaning twenties). We first meet Suárez as she prepares to move from Spain to Portugal with her boyfriend. A chance encounter on the street with an old friend of her daughter’s makes her cancel these plans. As it turns, she hasn’t seen that daughter in years, and knows nothing of her life. Soon, she finds herself lost in a lengthy flashback (enter Ugarte), recalling a happy early marriage and motherhood before things took a tragic turn. Eventually – with occasional flash forwards – we work our way back to the present, where the various story threads are meant to coalesce into a satisfying conclusion. They do not. It’s all contrivance and no truth, an empty confection, lovely to look at but unsatisfying to consume.

Mostly Fools in This “Gold”

Gold

Gold (Stephen Gaghan, 2016)

It probably seemed like a good idea: take a real-life scandal, add stars, and the rest will follow. Let’s start with the first part. In the mid-1990s, a Canadian mining company, Bre-X, got involved in some shady dealings in Indonesia, striking gold but then running into serious ethical and financial problems shortly thereafter. This premise could definitely serve as the basis for a good morality tale, thriller, or both. If only the writer knew what s/he wanted to do with the material. And there’s the rub.

Part 2: the stars. We have Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar), Edgar Ramirez (Hands of Stone), Bryce Dallas Howard (Pete’s Dragon), Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) and a large cast of mostly lesser-known faces, each of which have turned in good and bad performances in their career. Most of them do a reasonable job of supporting what thin characterizations are given them (Ramirez being the standout, for me). And then there’s McConaughey.

Determined to make himself as physically repellent as possible, as if external ugliness represents internal miasma, McConaughey rages through the film like a rabid and mangy ferret, hair a patchy mess, always askew, and a flabby paunch where once were sculpted abs (don’t quote me, but there’s a good chance that belly is prosthetic). To top it off, someone decided that a fake tooth, bulging beyond the others, would serve the role well. Go figure. True, there seems to be cachet for beautiful people who ruin their good looks for a movie, but here it’s distracting, since McConaughey can’t seem to stop drawing our attention to the disguise.

It doesn’t help that he’s twitchy beyond measure. As Kenny Wells, son of a famous miner, in whose footsteps he longs to walk, he loses himself in drink and cigarettes while his long-suffering girlfriend, Kay (Howard), lends him hearth and home, as he not-so-patiently awaits the next big score. When a dream of a massive gold find sends him to Indonesia, he meets up with one Michael Acosta (Ramirez), an actual miner to Kenny’s poseur, and soon the two men are scouring the country’s untouched wilderness, where they do, indeed, discover gold. And that’s when things get complicated. Between corporate raiders (one of them played by Stoll) and the Indonesian military, they’re stuck. Maybe.

It’s all so murky and impenetrable that what narrative pleasures one might think awaits are lost in the morass of script and direction. Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) has a way neither with cameras nor actors, and the plot moves along at a snail’s pace until the final act, by which point we no longer care. There are occasional pleasures – most often occasioned by Ramirez – but they are few, indeed. McConaughey once starred in a dismal vehicle entitled Fool’s Gold. Take 2.

Rodricks, Reed and DeLibero on 2017 Oscar Nominations

Academy Awards 2016

Yesterday, 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 this year’s Oscar Nominations.

Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

In Marvelous “20th Century Women,” a Boy Becomes a Feminist

20th Century Women

20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

Halfway through 20th Century Women, I asked myself if the film would pass the Bechdel test, that (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek method of analyzing movies based on whether there are multiple female characters who talk about more than their relationships with men. Not even Alison Bechdel, herself, thinks we should evaluate works of art according to this sole criterion, but it can be helpful as a way to gain perspective on the many ways in which women are so often diminished on screen (and everywhere else). The new film from director Mike Mills (Beginners) has three strong female characters, yet each is defined in the story, at least initially, vis-à-vis her interaction with the teenage boy at the center of the narrative. Nevertheless, I would still call it a profoundly feminist movie, since it celebrates not only the achievements of these women, but also the boy’s appreciation of them as fully three-dimensional beings. His adolescent angst may drive the plot, but it’s the catalyst through which the women confront their own evolving lives.

As much celebration of Mills’ own mother as anything else, 20th Century Women is primarily a showcase for the wonderful Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) who plays Dorothea, born in 1924 (the story takes place in 1979) and divorced mother to 15-year-old Jamie (played by relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), whom she had when she was 40. They live in a ramshackle mansion in Santa Barbara, California, joined by tenants Abbie, a 24-year-old freelance photographer played by a pitch-perfect Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), and William, a 40-something handyman doing renovations on the place, played by an appealing Billy Crudup (Jackie), both of whom help give the place a friendly community vibe. Their makeshift family is completed by a neighborhood girl – two years older than Jamie – named Julie, played by the ever-talented Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon). After an accident sends Jamie to the hospital, Dorothea decides she may not be enough for him. She’s tried bringing William in as a strong male figure, but kind and sensitive as he is, there’s no chemistry there. So, instead, she asks Abbie and Julie to step in, proposing an arrangement where the three of them will, together, provide the support to Jamie that Dorothea feels he needs.

The experiment doesn’t go smoothly, but does provide many opportunities for gentle humor and reflection on the struggles of women – self-identified feminists and otherwise – at a crucial juncture in American history, just before the consumerism of the Reagan era took over the country’s ethos. We’re even treated to the final minute of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “Crisis of Confidence” speech to place us firmly in that era and its shifting socio-politico-cultural terrain. Indeed, time is of the very essence: peppered with stills and clips from throughout the last century, the movie is a meditation on both the passage of time and the varying speeds at which our lives go by, depending on the moment, as Mills manipulates the frame rate of interval scenes to accelerate the action. In addition, Dorothea, Abbie and Julie each represent a different stage of life, their birth dates given in clear title cards, and their biographies delivered in voiceover. Bening, Gerwig and Fanning work beautifully together, as they do with Zumon and Crudup. At times funny, at other times poignant, 20th Century Women is always engaging and rich in meaning, honoring both the women in its story and the actresses who play them.

“Silence” Is a Powerful, If Long, Elegy to Faith and Meaning

Silence

Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

Though possibly an hour too long, Martin Scorsese’s Silence – a monumental testament to the power and ravages of religious faith – is the director’s best work in years. Beautifully acted by Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Adam Driver (Paterson), Shin’ya Tsukamoto (Kotoko), Tadanobu Asano (Grasshopper), Yôsuke Kubozuka (Helter Skelter), Liam Neeson (A Monster Calls) and Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), among many others, the film is notable for its dramatic restraint, as if Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) had taken the title to heart. An adaptation of Japanese author Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, Silence tells the story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to Japan who have the grave misfortune to be alive in the early 17th century, when that country decided to close itself off to foreign influence, effectively banning all practicing Christians and those who would serve them and convert still more. Left on their own by the rulers back home, these priests struggle against impossible odds tending to their shattered flock. The real challenge is their own despair. In response to prayer, they hear only God’s silence. This is the ultimate test of belief.

Scorsese starts the movie with the gentle sound of birds under a black screen, before cutting immediately to silence. We then find ourselves on a sloping hill, a thick mist outlining armored figures like an homage to an Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) film. This is 1633, just as the anti-Christian purges begin. Neeson plays Father Ferreira, a gaunt hulk of a man who watches the crucifixions without any sense of how to prevent them. His weary voice narrates the massacre, the report of which reaches the head of his order (Hinds) in Lisbon, who reads aloud its contents to Fathers Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver), two younger priests trained by Ferreira. They determine to travel back to Japan to investigate, since no one has heard from Ferreira for years now (mail traveled slowly in that time), and simultaneously offer succor to persecuted believers. They eventually make it to their destination, via China, thanks to an alcoholic Japanese fisherman, Kichijiro (Kubozuka), who was once a Christian, but has now renounced the faith. Once in Japan, Rodrigues and Garrpe discover a village of secret believers, who take in the foreigners and hide them by day, worshipping by night. Eventually, however, the chief inquisitor (Tsukamoto) arrives, having heard rumors of new “padres” (as the priests are called by the locals), and both he and his interpreter (Asano) prove to be clever and ruthless antagonists. The weight of history is against our Jesuit friends. This will not end well.

And yet, unlike most other films by Scorsese, there will not be a lot of bloodshed (though there is one grisly beheading). Instead, the director focuses on the inner torture of these quiet souls, who fervently believe in what they preach and are unable to comprehend the Japanese authorities’ aggression. We know that Japan, in its own eyes, had very good reason to fear the encroachment of foreign (i.e., European) powers, given what was happening elsewhere in the world. It was not until the 19th century that the country opened its doors to the then-modern world, and though the Japanese were technologically backwards as a result of their previous isolation, they were also masters of their own political fate (as much as a feudal society can be), and not a colonial outpost. However one feels about the decision to expel the non-violent priests – whose religion was seen as a gateway to further foreign influence – there was a method to the madness. Unfortunately, despite the fact that these reasons are explained, at one point, by the film’s Japanese characters, there are still moments when Silence threatens to become like many another movie about Japanese internment-camp atrocities, such as Angelina Jolie’s recent Unbroken. We’ve seen that story a few too many times. Fortunately, however, Scorsese quickly moves beyond the clichés to examine the psychological toll of the torture on men who have professed to love God at all costs.

What is faith, and when is one prepared to die for it? Is one prepared to watch others die for one’s own beliefs? This is the true nature of the dilemma faced by Rodrigues, Garrpe and Ferreira. They are repeatedly asked to commit apostasy and deny their religion, and each faces the crisis in his own way. Some do, some don’t, some resist and then do. Endō, who based his novel on real-life accounts, explores in depth the limits of human physical and spiritual endurance. Perhaps Scorsese’s film is so long to test our own endurance, yet there is magnificent beauty throughout. Garfield, especially, whose character’s arc forms the main through line, holds the movie together with a performance of extreme sensitivity, ably supported by a very strong Driver and Neeson. Quiet and disciplined, they turn Silence into a plaintive meditation on sacrifice and survival that is an elegant elegy to our eternal search for meaning in this world.

“Patriots Day” Pays Effective Tribute to Boston in the Aftermath of Tragedy

[This review also posted on Film Festival Today, and here is that link.]

Patriots Day

Patriots Day (Peter Berg, 2016)

A taut procedural about the investigation following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombingPatriots Day, from director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), presents the facts of a case that we already know in an engaging manner that does justice to  both the story and the actual participants in the tragedy. Starring Mark Wahlberg (Ted 2), Kevin Bacon (X-Men: First Class), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and (sadly, wasted in a mostly symbolic part as Wahlberg’s wife) Michelle Monaghan (Fort Bliss), among many others in a large ensemble cast. The film moves along at a brisk pace from set-up to terrorist attack to manhunt, only occasionally faltering in its mission to entertain (usually when it resorts to swelling music and expositional speeches). As long as it sticks to the detective work and character study, it’s a solid thriller.

What I find particularly impressive in our current climate of increasing Islamophobia is the way in which Berg and his fellow screenwriters take the time to humanize the perpetrators, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No, they don’t excuse their behavior, nor delve too deeply into their motivations, but they do make them three-dimensional beings, which is all to the benefit of the movie. After all, real people did this, and very few of us are born killers, so why not explore the dynamic at play? Especially since subsequent research did, in fact, reveal that the elder Tamerlan was the one who pushed Dzhokhar into the crime. Here, the latter is shown to be just as much stoner as radical, not quite the jihadist his brothers wishes him to be. As played by Alex Wolff (Coming Through the Rye) – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual man – Dzhokhar is a most reluctant warrior, indeed, though he does his fair share of killing in the end. None of this careful characterization exonerates the villains; it just makes them flesh-and-blood bad guys, rather than ghouls.

But the movie truly belongs to the victims, witnesses and law-enforcement officers of Boston, who all come together to solve the mystery of who did what, none of which is clear in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Little by little, however, using footage from security cameras scattered around the city, the police and FBI hone in on “white hat” and “black hat,” as they dub the suspects, each of whom wears a baseball cap of that color. Two big decisions threaten to stall the investigation: whether to label it an act of terrorism, since that immediately raises the threat level; and whether or not to release the photos of the men they think did it. In both cases, the local FBI director (Bacon) worries that jumping the gun too soon could lead to even worse consequences. It’s fascinating to watch how the territorial and ideological disputes play out (just as it is to watch the arguments of the Tsarnaevs). As we know, our heroes eventually got their guys. What we may not know, however, is how much violence and chaos went down before that happened. Although I assume that Berg – as do all directors – exercises some dramatic license, there’s a hard-enough edge to his filmmaking that the action feels real, more docudrama than fiction, a sensation strengthened at the very end, when we see the actual people of the story over the end credits.  Overall, then, this is a worthy tribute to the folks in Boston who helped solve the case, and well worth watching.

“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Roxana Hadadi – on “Hidden Figures,” “Paterson” and Best Movies of 2016

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Roxana Hadadi, film critic for “Chesapeake Family”

Welcome to the third episode of the 2016-2017 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed. My guest this time was Roxana Hadadi, film critic for Chesapeake Family. We reviewed two new films – Hidden Figures and Paterson – and then discussed our respective favorite (and not-so-favorite) movies of 2016 (for my complete list, check out my blog entry from December 31).

In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the first and second episodes of this current season, plus all six from last year (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth), as well as the six episodes from my first season with Reel Talk (Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6). Enjoy!

The fantastic Dragon Digital Media team did their usual superlative job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. We’ll be back at the start of March with another episode, so stay tuned. Until then, have fun at the movies!

3 Recent “BmoreArt” Articles: Maryland Film Festival’s “Between the Screens” Event, Holiday Movie Guide, and “Wits End” Review

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In November, BmoreArt published my first-ever print article – an interview with famed local filmmaker John Waters – in its third print edition (which you can buy at this link). Since then, the magazine’s online site has published three more pieces of mine: an overview of a recent Maryland Film Festival event featuring filmmakers Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Lodge Kerrigan (Starz! Network’s The Girlfriend Experience) and Baltimore-based Matt Porterfield (Putty Hill); a guide to movies playing in our area at the end of December/start of January; and a brief review of a low-budget indie dramedy, Wits End, from local standup comedian Mike Finazzo. Here are links to all three articles:

Enjoy!