5 Reviews @hammertonail: “The Ardennes,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Pet Fooled” + Criterion Blu-Rays of “One-Eyed Jacks” & “Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro”

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Here are five new posts of mine at Hammer to NailThe Ardennes, a Belgian crime drama that pits brother against brother; Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer?, a documentary about the battle over prescription pain medicine; Pet Fooled, a documentary about the dangers that lurk in your pet’s food; the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of actor Marlon Brando’s sole outing as a director, the 1961 Western One-Eyed Jacks, a great revenge tale that pits partner against partner; and the Criterion’s massive Blu-ray collection, “Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro,” which features director Guillermo del Toro’s CronosThe Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (his three Spanish-language films), each exploring different facets of the juncture of the real and the fantastic. Here are the links to the reviews:

Enjoy!

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Film Acting of 2016

What follows is a list of what I consider the best acting in films released in 2016. On December 31, 2016, I published my list of best (and worst) films of the year, and most actors in most of the narrative (fiction) films on my list turned in admirable performances. The same goes with directors. I see no need to publish a separate “best directors” list, since if the film is good, then I credit the director. A few actors and actresses in films which I did not put among my highest choices (but maybe as a runner-up, although one actor, Ralph Fiennes, was in a film nowhere near my Top 10) still made it onto this new list, since they were so mesmerizing and memorable, even if the film was less so.

Therefore, the actors and actresses listed, below – each with a clip of his/her performance (when available, and if none is available – or if the available clip is not very good – then I include a trailer or featurette, instead) – are the 5 per category (I stick with just 5, like the Academy, though this is sometimes difficult) whose work most stands out (for me) within the context of the film they’re in; those performances which most contribute to raising the quality of the movie. All movie titles are hyperlinked to my review (if such a review exists; if not, I have linked to the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page), and if you follow that link, you can learn more about the movie, itself, and (perhaps) my thoughts on what makes that actor’s performance so special in that movie.

In alphabetical order, by last name within each category, I give you:

BEST ACTRESS

Annette Bening, 20th Century Women

Betsy Brandt, Claire in Motion

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Ruth Negga, Loving

Emma Stone, La La Land

BEST ACTOR

Casey Affleck,* Manchester by the Sea

Joel Edgerton, Loving

Colin Farrell, The Lobster

Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington, Fences

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Viola Davis, Fences (should be Best Actress, but she is being pushed in this category, instead, so … the clip may have a thumbnail of Denzel Washington, but mostly features Viola Davis)

Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women

Lily Gladstone, Certain Women (Gladstone is the Native-American woman tending the ranch who is also in the scenes with Kristen Stewart, pictured below in the thumbnail, rather than Gladstone)

Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Rachel Weisz, The Lobster (this clip has a thumbnail of Colin Farrell, but features – and is narrated by – Rachel Weisz)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash

Ben Foster, Hell or High Water (this clip has a thumbnail of Chris Pine – also good – but features Ben Foster just as much)

Dev Patel, Lion (should be Best Actor, but he is being pushed in this category, instead, so …)

Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight

*As far as Casey Affleck goes, I am aware of the disturbing allegations of past sexual harassment, but include him here, anyway, since his performance should be judged separately from his behavior. That said, I will not be unhappy if any of the other people on this list win awards, instead of him.

If “A Monster Calls,” You Should Answer

Monster Calls

A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, 2016)

In his introduction to the 2011 book on which this movie is based, author Patrick Ness (The Chaos Walking series) pays tribute to the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007), who came up with the original idea for the novel but died before being able to do anything with that idea. So Ness, a fan of Dowd’s work, as well as a friend, took on the challenge, and the result was a deeply moving and heartfelt story about a boy’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s cancer. The film adaptation, from J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), while not quite as magical as the book – something about the visual concretization of the monster takes away from his appeal – mostly does justice to its message that the only way forward through pain and loss is to accept that they are part of life.

Conor (Lewis McDougall, quite fine here, though his only previous screen credit was in the dreadful Panlives with his divorced mom (Felicity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, good as always), his father having decamped to America a few years prior. He’s a lonely boy, invisible to his school peers, except for a trio of nasty bullies. Shy and withdrawn, he is “other.” Mostly, though, he is sad, troubled by a recurring nightmare of desolation, out of which he emerges every night in a cold sweat, his screams echoing in his ears. One night, as he awakes, there appears a monster (beautifully voiced by Liam Neeson, Silence), formed from the yew tree in the distance. That monster has come for Conor, but not to kill him; rather, he says it just wants to tell three stories. And so it goes. Out of their subsequent conversations over many nights springs a mystery that informs the affecting tapestry of this sorrowful, yet life-affirming, tale.

There’s more to the movie than that, however, especially once the mother’s condition worsens. Conor goes to live with his stiff and formal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, Chappie, a strong presence, even though she would be wise to avoid any attempts at an English accent), deals with a visit from his visiting father (Toby Kebbel, Ben-Hur, adequate) and fights back against those bullies. Compared to these real-life problems, what’s a monster? Indeed, that’s exactly the point: nothing is as frightening as the world at large, if we let it terrorize us, so best learn to struggle and triumph over one’s demons. Each story the monster tells Conor has this truth women into its narrative, so that, by the end, Conor is prepared for the worst.

Speaking of the stories, the animation in their sequences – hinted at in the lovely opening credits – is gorgeous. Even though I preferred conjuring the images in my own imagination when I read the book, if one must see someone else’s vision, then this is the way to go. Rendered as living watercolors, they drip, shimmer and splash across the screen in vivid color, a treat for the eyes. Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, adds a coda to his story – involving the origin of these watercolors – that I did not like, since it explains too much, but that doesn’t take away from the raw power of what the drawings represent. Despite its occasional flaws, then, the movie is still a worthy tribute to its source material, and a welcome addition to the canon of films that teach children how to grow up with dignity.

Enjoyable, if Simplistic, “Hidden Figures” Sheds Needed Light on Hidden History of NASA

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

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

Hidden Figures is the second feature from writer/director Theodore Melfi, who brought us St. Vincent in 2014. Where that film was a low-key, offbeat comedy starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts, this sophomore effort has a much larger agenda. Here, we right an historical wrong, looking back at the important – and overlooked – contributions that a group of three African-American women made to our nation’s space program. This film has star power, as well, with Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Taraji P. Henson (Think Like a Man Too) and singer Janelle Monáe, not to mention Kevin Costner (McFarland, USA), Kirsten Dunst (Fargo: Season 2) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight). Does it work as art and entertainment, as well as corrective history?

It sure does, even if, along the way, it simplifies the narrative (and the science) in the way that only Hollywood biopics can. We get broad beats and a clear three-act structure, the whole punctuated by a score that tells us when to feel what emotion, and at the end the good folks triumph. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, really, unless you like your history re-told with the complexity that is its due. To be fair, it’s not easy to compress a story this big in just a few hours and do justice to the intricacies of race, gender and science at its center. Still, Melfi has his heart in the right place, and as we saw in St. Vincent, he has an ear for good dialogue. He’s blessed with a stellar cast, and makes the most of them.

Based on the book of the same title, by Margot Lee Sheerly, (which profiled 4, and not 3, women), Hidden Figures follows the trials and tribulations of three math wizards – all women, all African-American – in the early 1960s as the United States was trying to beat the Soviet Union in the space race. The Russians got their first, so the next goal was to get to the moon before they did. For that, we needed all of our talented citizens, even those who had to drink from “colored” water fountains and use “colored” bathrooms. Yes, Virginia (which is actually where the film takes place), segregation was the still the law of the land in many places while we, in the ostensible “land of the free,” were trying to win the Cold War against our authoritarian (aka, not “free”) enemies across the pond. Melfi does a great job, simplicity and all, with his exposé of our hypocrisy. It’s too bad that he is less good on the math, making Henson’s Katherine – supposedly a great mathematical thinker – speak about her subject in ways designed to make a fifth grader understand. I get why he would do that – who among us average viewers is a genius – but it feels silly.

Barring that, however, this is solid entertainment, providing a showcase for three talented actresses and their supporting players. As recent events in our country have shown, even after 8 years with our first-ever African-American President, we still have far to go in terms of racial healing, we are still riven by race and gender. So watch Hidden Figures to see women of color who broke down the restrictive barriers of their time, and think about what lessons can be applied in the days, weeks and years ahead.

“Paterson” Celebrates the Magic of Our Ordinary World

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

Paterson

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Ever since his first theatrical feature, Stranger Than Paradise, in 1984 – which won the Caméra d’Or (Best First Feature) award at the Cannes Film Festival – American indie auteur Jim Jarmusch has accumulated a growing cult fan base. Following his debut, he continued to make off-beat, bone-dry dramedies like Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), Broken Flowers (2005) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), to name some of his better-known fiction works (he also directed the documentary Year of the Horse, about Neil Young, in 1997). The defining characteristic of all of these films has been the ironic stance that Jarmusch takes towards his subjects, viewing them through the prism of his quizzical view of the human animal. The gentle humor he mines from seemingly ordinary circumstances is a wonder, even if the sum total of the scenes in each film does not always a satisfying narrative make. He excels at sketch-based writing, if not dramatic arcs. Which is why Paterson, his latest, is such a welcome surprise. For one, the irony is largely absent; secondly, this is a complete story, start to finish, beautifully rendered (if still, occasionally, puzzling).

It’s also beautifully acted. Adam Driver (While We’re Young), as the titular character, who shares his name with the town – Paterson, New Jersey – in which he lives, delivers a performance of subtle variegation in which much is said with but a shrug or a laugh. Golshifteh Farahani (Rosewater), as Laura, his wife, is equally fine as a restless young woman who loves her husband (and he, her), yet suffers from the burden of her aimless small-town life. Paterson, at least, has a routine: he’s a bus driver and poet, observing the world from his front-seat perch as he composes odes to love and matchbooks (separately or together), finding inspiration in what to others might seem the daily grind of the mundane. We see the words of these verses on the screen, watching his process unfold. Time and again, we revisit the streets of Paterson, ever familiar, yet always different; the trick is to recognize the latter while never drowning in the former. Both Driver and Farahani draw us into this world of small stakes writ large, theirs a moving portrait of a living marriage, quirks and all.

It’s a good life, more or less, but is it enough? Every night, Paterson walks the dog to the local watering hole – another routine – where his outsider observations continue. A choice, to participate or remain apart, always hangs in the air. In that sense, the metaphor of the bus is perfect, much as was the taxi in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, as Paterson is often invisible to those around him, yet still very much present. Here, however, our hero does not harbor psychotic visions of martyrdom. Instead, he’s a contemplative soul; if saving the world is his calling, he will do so through art.

Jarmusch’s last movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, told the love story of two vampires struggling to live ordinary extraordinary lives. Paterson reverses this formula, pushing the fantastic below the surface as it presents two ordinary individuals whose lives become ever more extraordinary the more time we spend with them. Indeed, the repetition of routines is key to this revelation. That, and the constant motif of twins that runs through the film. We meet them everywhere, starting with Driver, himself – both the actor’s name, a description of the man he plays, as well as his character’s eponymous hometown – and then continuing through a succession of actual twins who pop up on the bus, on park benches, and even in the movie to which Paterson and Laura go on a Saturday night, after which he tells her that she and the actress therein “could be twins.” And on and on. Their appearance could mean nothing, or it could signal that there is magic in our world that we can choose to accept or ignore.

The role of the poet is to find that magic and make it concrete. William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) – from nearby Rutherford, NJ – who is mentioned frequently in the film (his name its own twin), wrote, from the late 1940s through the 1950s, an epic poem entitled Paterson, in which he explored the beauty that can emerge from a single place, if you know it well enough. And that’s what we have here: a visual tone poem that is Jarmusch’s paean to the charm of the quotidian. The film may not be for everyone, given its meandering pace and minimal plot, but there is loveliness to spare if one is willing to sit back and surrender to it. If there is one false note, for me, it comes at the end, when a Japanese tourist arrives and helps Paterson overcome a momentary depression; it is too suggestive of an outmoded idea of Orientalism that I wish Jarmusch had avoided. Beyond that, however, the film works as a powerful call to appreciate the enchantment of the ordinary world in front of us.