Darkest Hour

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I’ve been trying to think when there was a historical drama I found as electrifying as Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour.” It may have been Stephen Spielberg’s “Munich,” which topped my 10-best list a dozen years ago. They are very different films, of course, and it could be that Wright’s boasts stellar accomplishments in more departments. While Gary Oldman’s phenomenal work as Winston Churchill had been heralded in advance, it is astonishingly equaled by the film’s achievements in direction, screenwriting, score and cinematography.

It’s a strange irony that the same patch of British history—a few days in the spring of 1940—has been treated in two big, Oscar-aimed 2017 movies (and even plays a role in a third film from earlier this year, “Their Finest”). In various ways, Wright’s film and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” are instructive companion pieces, with different aims that effectively orient them toward different audiences. “Dunkirk” imagines the evacuation of British troops under the onslaught of Nazi forces in a way that puts sensation over sense; it says nothing of the event’s historical context or import. Indeed, it could have been made with all action and no words, where “Darkest Hour” is all about words, words-as-action and this seminal event’s meaning to our world. It asks you to engage intellectually, not just viscerally.

But if it’s a history lesson, it’s one that plays like a tightly wound, pulse-pounding thriller. And why not: the decisions it depicts may have determined the fate of the world. The action takes place from May 8 to June 4, 1940 (the film regularly slams the dates at us in big block letters), and is framed by two important addresses in the House of Commons, the “Norway Debate” and Churchill’s rousing, epochal “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech. In between, Churchill becomes Prime Minister, because he’s the only member of his party acceptable to the opposition, and then rallies the country to fight Hitler when other politicians want to strike a deal with him.

Understanding the importance of this story’s events is not terribly easy now because it’s difficult to look at the world of 1940 as people did then. The Germans may have subjugated several European countries, but the coming slaughter of the continent’s Jews was still unsuspected, and Hitler was widely seen as a very effective authoritarian ruler (a quality that some non-Germans beset with dithering democrats frankly admired) rather than a murderous madman. Churchill’s virtue in this moment was to see the truth more clearly than others did, and to understand both the absolute necessity and the arduous difficulty of fighting the Nazi regime to the death.

The film’s title is entirely accurate. With the Germans threatening to obliterate Britain’s army prior to the Dunkirk evacuation (which is alluded to rather than shown here), and Churchill soon to hear Franklin Roosevelt decline to help the Brits due to the anti-interventionist sentiment in Congress, the United Kingdom was at a very dark and lonely place indeed. It’s no wonder that Churchill’s main opponents in this drama, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), encouraged having Mussolini negotiate a deal with Hitler that might have spared Britain from invasion and potential mass slaughter. Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), before being won over to Churchill’s viewpoint, was amenable to dealing with the devil.

The Winston Churchill we see here is no cartoon hero or plaster saint. As the recent, wretched “Churchill” (which was as roundly denounced by historians and Churchill experts as “Darkest Hour” has been praised) did, Wright’s film notes the dark stain on the leader’s public career that the battle of Gallipoli in World War I represented, but doesn’t make it a psychological millstone. “Darkest Hour” likewise frequently shows us its protagonist from the viewpoints of his acerbic though supportive wife, Clemmie (the brilliant Kristen Scott Thomas), and his young, endlessly put-upon secretary, Elizabeth (Lily James). Yet the freshness of this film’s portrayal begins with the dramatic sharpness and historical intelligence of Anthony McCarten’s script, which gives us a Churchill who is drawn into dynamic action by the looming shadow of Hitler’s evil.

After charting the perilous political waters, he must navigate to gain the support of his war cabinet, the film climaxes with a sublime invention: a scene in which Churchill, on the way to Parliament, bounds out of his traffic-bound limousine, hops on the Underground and listens to a car full of average Londoners voice their support for his war aims. As corny as this may sound, it’s an entirely appropriate way of registering the kind of popular backing, even affection, that Churchill enjoyed during wartime (he was voted out of office as soon as the war ended), and it works in part due to the spunky charm and thoroughgoing excellence of Gary Oldman’s performance, which deserves every award it will inevitably win.

A kindred excellence characterizes the striking collaboration between Joe Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who together give the film a very nuanced and engaging balance of light and shadow, eloquent movement and meditative stasis. For my money, Delbonnel’s work surpasses even “Dunkirk” to emerge as the best cinematography of the year so far. Wright’s team also benefits from the understated lyricism of Dario Marinelli’s score.

The events leading up to the charged drama we see in “Darkest Hour” have not been totally forgotten, of course. The name of Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor, will forever be associated with the term “appeasement,” which these days hardliners use at every opportunity to denounce attempts to negotiate with objectionable regimes and rulers. But Wright’s film indirectly makes the point that not every tinpot dictator is a Hitler nor is every posturing, hawkish politician a Churchill. Certain times and men are indeed exceptional, which is why a movie like “Darkest Hour” itself stands apart from more routine historical dramas.


The Man Who Invented Christmas

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Having seen pretty much all of the key cinematic depictions of the immortal Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol” over the years, I can honestly say that I could go the rest of my life without seeing another permutation of the tale. That feeling was again reinforced after watching “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a saccharine stab at a new holiday perennial that tries to fuse the classic Yuletide yarn with a “Shakespeare In Love”-style literary origin story and manages to let both of them down, not to mention a performance by Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge that deserves a much better showcase than the one provided here.

The year is 1843 and Dickens (Dan Stevens) is in a commercial slump—his previous three novels have found little favor with the buying public—and he is in need of money in order to help support himself, his loyal wife Catherine (Morfydd Clark), their four children (with a fifth on the way) and an expensive home renovation. While casting about for ideas for a new book, he takes inspiration from his new maid (Anna Murphy), whose literary tastes are of a somewhat lurid bent (she is a big “Varney the Vampire” fan), and who mentions to him a folk tale about mysterious spirits being revived at Christmastime. This sparks something in Dickens and he decides that he will write and self-publish his own holiday-themed ghost story in time for Christmas as a way of replenishing his coffers. There is one little hitch to this endeavor—Christmas is about six weeks away and to miss that immovable deadline would be disastrous.

This might seem to be an impossible task to pull off, especially since he will be attempting to work in a house filled with children, workmen and the unexpected presence of his cheerful but constantly broke father (Jonathan Pryce). Luckily for Dickens, everywhere he goes in London offers him some nugget that he channels into his work, ranging from a lame nephew to an ancient waiter at his club with the delightful name of Marley. The real burst of inspiration comes when Dickens happens upon the evening burial of a man attended only by his aging and apparently heartless business partner (Plummer), who immediately becomes the model for Scrooge himself, especially his constant uttering of “Humbug.” While trying to work the story out from the confines of his study, Dickens finds himself interacting with the characters he has created as he tries to work out what happens to them. The story soon becomes a race against time as Dickens tries to resolve the ending of the book (he seems very keen on Tiny Tim dying) and get the manuscript to the publisher in time before it is too late while at the same time confronting the still-lingering after-effects of his father’s lifetime of financial irresponsibility in the hopes of reconciling with him before it too is too late.

Based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Les Standiford, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” has been adapted by screenwriter Susan Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri into the kind of hard-sell holiday whimsy that may appeal to those who wish that more places would start playing Christmas carols before Halloween while at the same time driving others up the wall. The notion of watching Dickens create his most everlasting work sounds intriguing in theory but the execution here is more off-putting than delightful. Not particularly keen on nuance or subtlety, this is a film in which everything, especially Stevens’ decidedly manic take on Dickens, is pitched as broadly as possible. An even bigger problem with the film is the way in which it handles its presentation of the creative process. Granted, watching someone sitting at a table and scratching away with a pen while working out story problems does not exactly make for great cinema, but the solution to that obstacle—having him constantly pilfering characters, ideas and even chunks of dialogue from his forays into the real world—feels like a cheat and does an enormous disservice to one of literature’s great imaginations. “Shakespeare in Love” was not exactly a realistic depiction of the writing process either but it feels like cinema verite when compared to what is depicted here.

The one aspect of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” that does work well is the striking turn by Christopher Plummer as the film’s ersatz Scrooge. Of course, Plummer is one of those actors who seems virtually incapable of turning in a bad performance, but his work here is really strong. Scrooge is, of course, a role that seems tailor-made for hamming it up, but Plummer instead takes a quieter and more delicate approach that stands in marked contrast to the rest of the film, and is all the more effective as a result. He is acerbically funny in his interactions with his creator but also manages to inject a few moments of genuine pathos into the proceedings as well, a feat all the more considerable since he is playing an overtly fictional character. You know, I would like to partially walk back what I said earlier and state that if someone were inspired by this film to cast Plummer in a straightforward version of “A Christmas Carol,” I would actually be interested in seeing such a thing. Until then, we will have to make do with his appearance here, which stands out like a delightful sugar plum in the middle of an otherwise stale cake.


Brimstone & Glory

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Small towns live and die according to what seem like whims of fate. But just as every great fortune has its origin in a great crime, every small town that survives has a particular economic motor. Some are more interesting than others. The Mexican town of Tulpatec survives through pyrotechnics.

“Brimstone and Glory,” directed by Viktor Jakovleski and backed by some of the talents behind “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is a documentary about that town’s annual Pyrotechnics Festival, an event that, it seems, is prepared for year-round by its residents. The fireworks engineered in this place, north of Mexico City, aren’t Macy’s Fourth of July high-tech displays, precision engineered and digitally controlled. But they’re not crude either. One hallmark of the festival is the evening devoted to large sculptures of bulls, each one packed with explosives. The point of this display is to have the bull as a launching site for various light-and-sound spectacles while never burning or in any other way damaging the sculpture itself. It’s like creating a candy-dispensing piñata that remains whole. There’s a lot of ingenuity required.

And there’s a lot of danger involved. Injuries during these festivals are common. Town elders tend to be cheerful fellows who are missing an eye or a limp or several fingers. Young kids working on fireworks projects are praised for having “gunpowder in the blood.” The film doesn’t have to push hard on a thesis about how economy determines culture. The town is an organic demonstration of it.

There are religious roots to the festival. It’s dedicated to a Portuguese saint who, according to legend, rescued the patients of a burning hospital without suffering a single burn. The day-to-day life of the town is lived in constant proximity to deadly materials—large signs reading “Peligro” are everywhere. The scenes of the preparations of the explosives are fascinating, particularly because everything is so analog. Mortar and pestle are primary tools in mixing powders and dyes.

And once the big day arrives, the nimble cameras operated by Jakovleski and his team get some awesome visuals. This is a movie that repays being seen on a big reflective screen, one on which the image is projected rather than one from which the image emanates. Because the light that comes off of the screen is strong and fierce. It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time.

The mode of this short movie is naturalistic. There are interviews of people in voiceover, but not a lot of talking-head footage. The perspective is of an observer sauntering through the town and then thrust into the middle of a fearsome but exhilarating spectacle. “Brimstone and Glory” took three years to make. I think the filmmakers needed that time to come up with a result that seems so simple and straightforward, yet has such deep resonance. 



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“Coco” is the sprightly story of a young boy who wants to be a musician and somehow finds himself communing with talking skeletons in the land of the dead. Directed by Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3“) and veteran Pixar animator Adrian Molina, and drawing heavily on Mexican folklore and traditional designs, it has catchy music, a complex but comprehensible plot, and bits of domestic comedy and media satire. Most of the time the movie is a knockabout slapstick comedy with a “Back to the Future” feeling, staging grand action sequences and feeding audiences new plot information every few minutes, but of course, being a Pixar film, “Coco” is also building toward emotionally overwhelming moments, so stealthily that you may be surprised to find yourself wiping away a tear even though the studio has been using the sneak-attack playbook for decades.

The film’s hero, twelve-year old Miguel Riviera (voice by Anthony Gonzalez), lives in the small town of Santa Cecilia. He’s a goodhearted child who loves to play guitar and idolizes the greatest popular singer-songwriter of the 1920s and ’30s, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who was killed when a huge church bell fell on his head. But Miguel has to busk in secret because his family has banned its members from performing music ever since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left, abandoning his loved ones to selfishly pursue his dreams of stardom. At least that’s the official story passed down through the generations; it’ll be challenged as the film unfolds, not through a traditional detective story (although there’s a mystery element to “Coco”) but through an “Alice in Wonderland” journey to the Land of the Dead, which the hero accesses through the tomb of his ancestors. 

Family and legacy as expressed through storytelling and song: this is the deeper preoccupation of “Coco.” One of the most fascinating things about the movie is the way it builds its plot around members of Miguel’s family, living and dead, as they battle to determine the official narrative of Miguel’s great-great grandfather and what his disappearance from the narrative meant for the extended clan. The title character is the hero’s great-grandmother (Renee Victor), who was traumatized by her dad’s disappearance. In her old age, she has become a nearly silent presence, sitting in the corner and staring blankly ahead, as if hypnotized by a sweet, old film perpetually unreeling in her mind.

The machinations that get Miguel to the other side are too complicated to explain in a review, though they’re comprehensible as you watch the movie. Suffice to say that Miguel gets there, teams up with a melancholy goofball named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), and has to pose as one of the dead with the aid of skeletal facepaint, but that (like Marty McFly returning to the 1950s to make sure his mom ends up with his dad in “Future”) the longer Miguel stays on the other side, the more likely he is to end up actually dead.

I’m reluctant to describe the film’s plot in too much detail because, even though every twist seems obvious in retrospect, Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s script frames each one so that seems delightful and inevitable. Many of them are conveyed through a stolen family photograph that Miguel brings with him to the Land of the Dead. The deployment of the photo is a great example of how to tell a story through pictures, or more accurately, with a picture. Somebody’s face has been torn out; there’s a guitar that proves to be important later, and there are other ways in which visual information has been withheld from Miguel (and us) so that it can be revealed or restored when the time is right, completing and correcting an incomplete or distorted picture, and “picture.”

What’s freshest, though, is the tone and outlook of the film. “Coco” opened in Mexico a month before it opened in the USA and is already the highest grossing film of all time there. It assumes a non-American point-of-view on spirituality and culture—not in a touristy or “thought experiment” sort of way, but as if it were merely the latest product of an alternate universe Pixar Mexicano that has existed for just as long as the other one. The film’s stable of voice actors reads like a Who’s Who of Latin-American talent: the ensemble includes Edward James Olmos, Alfonso Arau, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Alanna Ubach and, in a small role, to my surprise and astonishment, playwright Octavio Solis, who was one of my teachers in high school back in Dallas. Michael Giacchino’s score is unsurprisingly excellent, as are the original songs—in particular, the future Oscar winner “Remember Me,” the greatest tear-eruption mechanism to accompany a Pixar release since the “Toy Story 2” centerpiece “When She Loved Me.”

Like most Pixar productions, this one is filled with homages to film history in general and animation history in particular. I was especially fond of the references to the dancing skeletons that seemed to pop up constantly in cartoon shorts from the 1930s. There’s a touch of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki in the film’s matter-of-fact depiction of the dead interacting with the living, as well as its portrayal of certain creatures, such as a goofy, goggle-eyed dog named Dante (modeled on Xoloitzcuintli, the national dog of Mexico) and a gigantic flying dragon-type beast with the personality of a plump old housecat.

Also notable are the film’s widescreen compositions, which put lots of characters in the same frame and shoot them from the waist up or from head-to-toe, in the manner of old musicals, or Hollywood comedies from the eighties like “9 to 5″ or “Tootsie.” The direction lets you appreciate how the characters interact with each other and with their environments and lets you decide what to look at. At first this approach seems counter-intuitive for a movie filled with fantastic creatures, structures and situations, but it ends up being effective for that very reason: it makes you feel as though you’re seeing a record of things that are actually happening, and it makes “Coco” feel gentle and unassuming even though it’s a big, brash, loud film.

I had some minor quibbles about “Coco” while I was watching it, but I can’t remember what they were. This film is a classic.


Call Me by Your Name

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Luca Guadagnino’s films are all about the transformative power of nature—the way it allows our true selves to shine through and inspires us to pursue our hidden passions. From the wild, windswept hills of “I Am Love” to the chic swimming pool of “A Bigger Splash,” Guadagnino vividly portrays the outside world as almost a character in itself—driving the storyline, urging the other characters to be bold, inviting us to feel as if we, too, are a part of this intoxicating atmosphere.

Never has this been more true than in “Call Me By Your Name,” a lush and vibrant masterpiece about first love set amid the warm, sunny skies, gentle breezes and charming, tree-lined roads of northern Italy. Guadagnino takes his time establishing this place and the players within it. He’s patient in his pacing, and you must be, as well. But really, what’s the rush? It’s the summer of 1983, and there’s nothing to do but read, play piano, ponder classic art and pluck peaches and apricots from the abundant fruit trees.

Within this garden of sensual delights, an unexpected yet life-changing romance blossoms between two young men who initially seem completely different on the surface.

17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is once again visiting his family’s summer home with his parents: his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an esteemed professor of Greco-Roman culture, and his mother (Amira Casar), a translator and gracious hostess. Elio has the gangly body of a boy but with an intellect and a quick wit beyond his years, and the worldliness his parents have fostered within him at least allows him to affect the façade of sophistication. But beneath the bravado, a gawky and self-conscious kid sometimes still emerges. By the end of the summer, that kid will be vanquished forever.

An American doctoral student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives for the annual internship Elio’s father offers. Oliver is everything Elio isn’t—or at least, that’s our primary perception of him. Tall, gorgeous and supremely confident, he is the archetypal all-American hunk. But as polite as he often can be, Oliver can also breeze out of a room with a glib, “Later,” making him even more of a tantalizing mystery.

Chalamet and Hammer have just ridiculous chemistry from the get-go, even though (or perhaps because) their characters are initially prickly toward each other: testing, pushing, feeling each other out, yet constantly worrying about what the other person thinks. They flirt by trying to one-up each other with knowledge of literature or classical music, but long before they ever have any physical contact, their electric connection is unmistakable. Lazy poolside chats are fraught with tension; spontaneous bike rides into town to run errands feel like nervous first dates.

Writer James Ivory’s generous, sensitive adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel reveals these characters and their ever-evolving dynamic in beautifully steady yet detailed fashion. And so when Elio and Oliver finally dare to reveal their true feelings for each other—a full hour into the film—the moment makes you hold your breath with its intimate power, and the emotions feel completely authentic and earned.   

The way Elio and Oliver peel away each other’s layers has both a sweetness and a giddy thrill to it, even though they feel they must keep their romance a secret from Elio’s parents. (Elio also has a kinda-sorta girlfriend in Marzia [Esther Garrel], a thoughtful, playful French teen who’s also in town for the summer.) One of the many impressive elements of Chalamet’s beautiful, complex performance is the effortless way he transitions between speaking in English, Italian and French, depending on whom Elio is with at the time. It gives him an air of maturity that’s otherwise still in development; eventually his massive character arc feels satisfying and true.

But Oliver’s evolution is just as crucial, and Hammer finds the tricky balance between the character’s swagger and his vulnerability as he gives himself over to this exciting affair. He’s flirty but tender—the couple’s love scenes are heartbreaking and intensely erotic all at once—and even though he’s the more experienced of the two, he can’t help but diving in headlong.

And yet, the most resonant part of “Call Me By Your Name” may not even be the romance itself, but rather the lingering sensation that it can’t last, which Guadagnino evokes through long takes and expert use of silence. A feeling of melancholy tinges everything, from the choice of a particular shirt to the taste of a perfectly ripe peach. And oh my, that peach scene—Guadagnino was wise when he took a chance and left it in from the novel. It really works, and it’s perhaps the ultimate example of how masterfully the director manipulates and enlivens all of our senses.

There’s a lushness to the visual beauty of this place, but it’s not so perfect as to be off-putting. Quite the opposite. Despite the director’s infamous eye for meticulous detail, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s 35mm images provide a tactile quality that heightens the sensations, makes them feel almost primal. We see the wind gently rustling through the trees, or streaks of sunlight hitting Elio’s dark curls through an open bedroom window, and while it’s all subtly sensual, an inescapable tension is building underneath.

Guadagnino establishes that raw, immediate energy from the very beginning through his use of music. The piano of contemporary classical composer John Adams’ intricate, insistent “Hallelujah Junction – 1st Movement” engages us during the elegant title sequence, while Sufjan Stevens’ plaintive, synthy “Visions of Gideon” during the film’s devastating final shot ends the film on an agonizingly sad note. (You’ll want to stay all the way through the closing credits—that long, last image is so transfixing. I seriously don’t know how Chalamet pulled it off, but there is serious craft on display here.)

In between is Guadagnino’s inspired use of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” an iconic ’80s New Wave tune you’ve probably heard a million times before but will never hear the same way again. The first time he plays it, it’s at an outdoor disco where Oliver feels so moved by the bouncy, percussive beat that he can’t help but jump around to it and get lost in the music, lacking all sense of self-consciousness. Watching this towering figure just go for it on the dance floor in his Converse high-tops is a moment of pure joy, but it’s also as if a dam has broken within Elio, being so close to someone who’s feeling so free. The second time he plays it, toward the end of Oliver and Elio’s journey, it feels like the soundtrack to a time capsule as it recaptures a moment of seemingly endless emotional possibility.

They know what they’ve found has to end—we know it has to end. But a beautiful monologue from the always excellent Stuhlbarg as Elio’s warmhearted and open-minded father softens the blow somewhat. It’s a perfectly calibrated scene in a film full of them, and it’s one of a million reasons why “Call Me By Your Name” is far and away the best movie of the year.



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“Mudbound” is all about perception. How it can foster empathy and engender contempt, sometimes in the same person. How it can cause one man to look at his land with life-affirming pride and another man to see that same plot as the kiss of death. How an act of wartime courage involving a red-tailed plane and a dark-skinned pilot can forever alter one’s opinion of a different race. And how a society can impose unfair, harmful and absurd restrictions on an entire group simply because those people are seen as inferior by the powers that be. The film invites us to observe its characters, to hear their inner voices, to see what they see and to challenge our own preconceived notions about race and gender.

This is a period piece that evokes the grand family epics of old Hollywood, most specifically George Stevens’ 1956 film “Giant.” Like George Stevens’ Oscar winner, “Mudbound” is based on a novel and concerns itself with two families living uneasily on the same land. Director Dee Rees masterfully executes her character study, filling the frame with visuals as big and powerful as the emotions she draws from her superb cast. This is melodrama of the highest order, which is a compliment, for melodrama is not a bad thing. It is part of some of the greatest works of art, and in the right hands, it can elicit an ennui-shattering response from the audience.

We will follow two families, the Jacksons, who are Black, and the McAllans, who are White. The McAllan patriarch, Henry (Jason Clarke) is forced to interact with the Jacksons after he is suckered into a deal to buy land that the seller does not legally own. Henry’s embarrassment is amplified by the taunting rants of his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) and the notion that he has to move into an area designated for a lower class of Whites than he believes himself to be. Henry is constantly reminded of his downgraded stature by the repeated appearances of Vera Atwood (Lucy Faust), a struggling, poor White woman whom he deludes himself into thinking is below his station. Vera is Henry’s ghost of Christmas Future, a reminder that he is one mistake away from her desperate existence. For these reasons, Henry despises the land where he resides.

By comparison, pastor Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) looks at his little plot of land as a gift from God, a blessing that actually elevates his stature from that of his ancestors who couldn’t own land at all. It may be a harsh, at times unforgiving piece of Earth, but he has some form of ownership, no matter how tenuous. Even though Henry has commandeered it mostly for himself, leaving Hap to sharecrop it for diminishing returns, Hap still finds joy, solace and meaning in his farm work. As a Black man in post-WWII America, Hap has become accustomed to making due with even the smallest scraps of good fortune, no matter how infuriating they may seem. Hap is an experienced veteran of the war with Jim Crow; he has bent his anger into a strong, almost impenetrable suit of stoic armor whose weak spots are known only by his loving wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige).

Henry also has a wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan). Through her story, we first become aware that “Mudbound” presents its characters in parallel sets of two. (Rachel Morrison’s cinematography also works in this fashion—notice how each family’s house is lit.) Laura’s partner in this arrangement is Florence, another mother who, like Laura, has the socially accepted role of subservience to her man. Both Florence and Laura buck this trend by disobeying their husbands. They also share a moment of grief that bonds them as only two mothers can bond. As the elder of the two, Florence exhibits a maternal instinct toward Laura.

Laura also gets the first of the film’s internal monologues, moments of voiceover that Rees wrote with Virgil Williams in the adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel. Most of the characters have soliloquys that allow us a temporarily omniscient point of view. They provide invaluable information in a fashion that is at times achingly poetic yet completely natural. Florence’s words are especially powerful, rendered by Blige in an excellent performance that mixes the stoicism of Gloria Foster in “Nothing But a Man” with the mischievous twinkle that occasionally popped into a young Cicely Tyson’s eye when her characters thought nobody was looking.

Florence and the rest of Hap’s family will be called upon several times to assist the McAllans. Henry’s demands are always delivered in a manner that on the surface sounds like a polite request, yet his tone of voice always stresses that saying no to a White man is not an option. Clarke delivers these lines in squirm-inducing fashion, though the level of discomfort depends on your perception—you may not feel it at all. And though it would appear that Henry has some regard for his counterpart, it becomes clear that he views Hap as too inferior to earn any empathy. Still, “Mudbound” doesn’t treat him as a standard-issue villain; his inner monologues and his interactions with Laura give him a complexity that allows us to understand his actions.

Part of that understanding comes from observing Pappy, a drunk who raised his sons to capitalize on the best White supremacy and privilege have to offer. Pappy has no internal monologues because he’s all surface. His inner voice would sound as racist, corrupt and disgusting as the things everyone hears him say out loud. Banks makes him more than just a one-note character; he’s genuinely menacing and scary enough to dissuade Henry from any sort of racial growth. Henry is bound to his father by guilt, taking him in even when Laura would rather have him burn in Hell, but Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) manages to escape long enough to have an unexpected change of heart as far as Black people are concerned. Unfortunately for Jamie, his escape was World War II.

Florence’s son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) also served in World War II, battling the Germans and becoming the lover of a German woman he met overseas. He returns to a country that not only refuses to thank him for his service, but also expects him to return to second-class citizenry once he’s back on U.S. soil. The fact that Ronsel is treated better in the enemy country than his own is not lost on us. It will be underlined twice in the film’s bittersweet ending. Ronsel’s scenes with the White townsfolk upon his return are an unsubtle reminder that the America we’re seeing in this film is the one that certain voters want to bring back into existence.

Jamie and Ronsel bond over their shared war experiences, though initially, Ronsel is skeptical and worried about Jamie’s intentions. Jamie tells him that a Tuskegee Airman saved his ass in a dogfight, and that changed his perspective on race. Their friendship is anchored by war stories and booze, of which Jamie drinks too much to drown out symptoms of his PTSD. Nobody understands this the way Ronsel does, but their relationship immediately casts a sense of dread over the film. This progressive partnership is a dangerous one, because Jamie’s a loose cannon and Ronsel is unwilling to go back to racist rules now that he’s had a taste of freedom. So when “Mudbound” becomes terrifyingly violent, we have been prepped for it. Rees handles this, and the subsequent vengeance that follows, with amazing restraint, keeping it from becoming exploitative without diminishing any of its shock value.

Though “Mudbound” presents most of its story and its characters in parallels of two, Ronsel is the one character who shares traits with other characters. Like Florence, he has both a charitable and a stubborn streak, which is evidenced in a wonderful scene where he buys her a bar of chocolate. When Florence intends to break it into pieces and give it to her other kids, Ronsel demands that she keep the entire thing for herself. Have a taste of your own freedom, just as I had for myself in the service, he seems to say to her. It’s a well-played small moment in a movie filled with them.

While the entire cast is superb, “Mudbound” belongs to Blige, Mitchell and Hedlund. Hedlund’s roguish performance is a loose, sexy throwback to Errol Flynn and James Dean—he would have been right at home in front of George Stevens’ camera or underscored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Blige is a revelation. And Mitchell deservingly earns the film’s last internal monologue, a quiet, bittersweet and moving meditation on choosing love over hate that proves that Ronsel is the film’s true hero.

I don’t know what Roger would have thought of “Mudbound.” But I do know that it supports his thesis that movies are machines that generate empathy. I believe that viewers of different races will find different entry points into the film, but everyone will come out at the end with their viewpoints challenged and perhaps enriched. Rees and company have crafted an unforgettable plea for empathy and justice. This is not an easy film, but it’s an essential one. 


Justice League

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For a film about a band of heroes trying to stop extraterrestrial demon-beasts from wiping out humanity, “Justice League” is light on its feet, sprinting through a super-group’s origin story in less than two hours, giving its ensemble lots to do, and mostly avoiding the self-importance that damaged previous entries in this franchise. (Aside from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, “Logan,” and a handful of other dark superhero films, excessive moping and brooding tends to be these projects’ undoing.) It’s unfortunate that the film was released on the heels of “Thor: Ragnarok,” another knockabout superhero adventure, because critically it will suffer in comparison, even though it chooses a different route toward a similar destination, overcoming daunting production hurdles in the process.

“Justice League” never matches the latter film in visual invention, though, and it has basic script problems that never get solved. One is figuring out how to balance the screen time of known quantities from previous entries, such as Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Superman (not a spoiler; Henry Cavill’s name is on the poster, folks), against another standard-issue, roaring-and-stomping bad guy (Ciaran Hinds’ Steppenwolf, leader of the Parademons) and three major new characters: The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). The plotline that brings the heroes together is the impending invasion of earth by Steppenwolf, who wants to recover and merge three magic boxes that will give him ultimate power and terraform the planet and blah-de-blah, who cares, seriously, it doesn’t matter.

All that being said, this is an ensemble adventure that’s nearly as satisfying (and humble in its aims) as the “Avengers” movies. Like the recent “Thor,” it seems to have figured out that a mega-budgeted superhero picture can be serious without carrying on as if humor, sentiment, and even color are inherently childish. “Justice League” splits the difference between Snyder’s kinetic, cruelly funny “Dawn of the Dead” remake and “Sucker Punch” and his more dour, depressive epics like “300,” “Man of Steel” and “BvS.” It’s the kind of movie where The Flash can serve as wide-eyed, often bumbling comic relief, much as Spider-Man did in the second half of “Captain America: Civil War,” and Batman can bust Aquaman’s chops for bringing a “pitchfork” (actually a trident) to a battle. But it’s also the kind of film where every member of the Justice League—plus Lois Lane and Diane Lane’s Martha Kent—can have a heartfelt “spotlight” moment in which they admit withdrawing from life or putting up a tough façade to cushion the pain of loss, and rest assured that the other characters, and the film itself, will take their anguish seriously. (There are hints that Steppenwolf is working through a version of this problem: part of his grudge against Earth comes from being publicly humiliated eons ago.)

The scenes of Lois and Clark’s reconciliation are brief but sensitively rendered. Almost as moving is the newfound reasonableness of Batman, a miserable loner who seems to have been shocked into sensitivity (at least as much sensitivity as Bruce Wayne is capable of) by the death of Superman, an event for which he assumes primary responsibility. There are moments where you wonder if he’s trying to build a team not just to save the planet but to give himself a circle of friends and a reason to check in with them every day. The greying, thickening Affleck is endearing here because he leans into his age, playing up the character’s more grievous injuries and making light of the fact that he’s not the Bat he used to be. 

The movie starts by hauling out clichéd elements, including a bleached-out color palette, a funeral in pouring rain, and a mopey, piano-driven version of a dark pop anthem (in this case, Sigrid’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”). But the BummerVision filmmaking proves to be an aesthetic setup for a worthy payoff: “Justice League” adds wit, invention, color and warmth as it goes along, a strategy befitting a story about characters (and a world) waking up from emotional sleep and learning to take risks and care again. The movie wears its big themes on its sleeves, or breastplates, expressing them via on-the-nose dialogue and brazenly metaphorical images, like the climactic shots of flowers blooming in vivid color and a stirring image of two Amazon warriors, representatives of a society that bears an unimaginable burden, bracing their shoulders against a closing stone door like sisters of Atlas. But that’s what films like this do, just as Westerns and zombie movies and other genre films did before them. “Justice League” is an honorable example of how to work in that mode with skill and a poker face. 

The inevitable return of Superman is powerful partly because Snyder and company established that his death plunged the world into a haze of despair, superstition, reactionary politics, and revolutionary-flavored violent crime. If the big blue marvel is, as “Batman v. Superman” suggested, something like a god, that means God is temporarily dead when our story begins (his allure smashed into pieces like that giant statue of Kal-El), and therefore can’t watch over us. God’s absence means the weaker, meaner, more opportunistic mortals and immortals feel emboldened to do their worst. These aspects of the film are so intriguing that one wishes that they’d been more fully developed, along with the allusions to rising religious fundamentalism and the straightforward equating of Steppenwolf to Satan, a creature of raw chaos and viciousness stepping into a power vacuum. (“Praise to the mother of horrors!” he roars.) But if the film is  a potluck stew of half-cooked notions, it’s at least a tasty one.

Although Ezra Miller’s Jeff Goldblum-like incarnation of the Flash is the most shameless crowd-pleaser, Wonder Woman hooks the film into a belt loop and walks away with it. “Justice League” mishandles the Amazons to give the movie an early jolt of high stakes drama, teases the idea that Batman and Wonder Woman will become a couple (but thankfully doesn’t pursue it), and lets Wonder Woman become an unofficial mommy to the rest of the Justice League, armored men whose competitiveness and wiseguy insults make them seem like overgrown boys, but her character isn’t purely reactive, and the filmmakers don’t sell her out. Wonder Woman’s decency, compassion and moral certitude deliver the same electric charge here that earlier generations got from watching Christopher Reeve play Superman/Clark Kent. Her goodness isn’t an act. It’s who she is.

It’s frustrating to see “Justice League” fail to get out of its own way, because whenever it does, it shrugs off the burdens of its famously troubled production and becomes special. An exact accounting of what went wrong is a matter for an investigative reporter, not a film reviewer, but one would assume that the filmmaking process wasn’t helped by the studio’s sudden, post-“Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” demand that the story add humor and camaraderie. Ditto the March, 2017 death of director Zack Snyder’s daughter, which put Joss Whedon, who’d already been hired for rewrites, in charge of post-production (including the CGI erasure of a mustache that Cavill grew after he thought the shoot had wrapped—a dubious technical triumph that results in some weird-looking close-ups). The extent of Whedon’s involvement in this rescue operation is anybody’s guess. Regardless, the end product is coherent: funny but rarely glib, serious but unpretentious, and better than it had any right to be.  


I Love You, Daddy

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By the time you read this review, Louis C.K.’s semi-satirical showbiz comedy “I Love You, Daddy” will have been consigned to the same pop culture memory hole that contains Jerry Lewis’ concentration camp drama “The Day the Clown Cried.” The official release date was November 17, 2017. Orchard Films pulled it from the release schedule this morning, November 10, 2017, a day after the New York Times published a story confirming previously unsourced rumors that, over the course of many years, C.K. had exposed himself to women. It’s as bad as you’ve heard. It was that bad even before the news broke. But the news makes the experience of seeing it, and thinking about it, even more unsettling. 

The allegations had been bubbling for years under the surface of the mainstream media, which isn’t fond of getting sued for libel. C.K. became a critical darling for his FX series “Louie,” a groundbreaking quasi-autobiographical comedy-drama. Many critics, myself included, decided—foolishly, in retrospect—to withhold judgment of his guilt or innocence of the allegations and treat the show’s scenarios as dramatic abstractions, like anything else you’d see on a TV series or in a movie. When you see this film—as some of you will, out of grim curiosity or historic interest—you might be as appalled as I was when I saw it a couple of weeks before its distributor pulled it from release and realized he’d been playing the entire world for a bunch of suckers.

If there’s one thing we know for sure about people who are accused of indecent exposure, it’s that the thrill of getting away with it is the true source of their power. In retrospect, much of “Louie” now plays like a dry run for what he’d do on the big screen with “I Love You, Daddy.” The show exposes its true self deftly enough that you aren’t sure you saw what you saw. This film leaves the raincoat open while its owner makes eye contact and dares you to deny what’s happening. My notes consist of a single sentence: “It’s like he’s rubbing it in our faces.”

It seems astonishingly brazen, under the circumstances, that of all the stories C.K. could have chosen to tell, he chose this one. “I Love You, Daddy” is about a Louis C.K.-like TV auteur, played by Louis C.K., who has an affair with the star of one of his TV shows (Rose Byrne), a woman he cast partly because he was sexually attracted to her. At the same time, his daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), a minor who just turned 17, is starting an affair with a sixty-something film director (John Malkovich) who is legendary for his skill and productivity but also notorious for making films about older men having affairs with much younger women and doing the same thing in real life. The film director is modeled, of course, on Woody Allen, one of C.K.’s heroes, a great American filmmaker who has also been accused of child molestation and who, point of fact, married his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s daughter, a few years after they began an affair under Farrow’s roof. (She was 19, he was about 50.)

The mere fact of this film’s existence sounds like the plot of a never-made episode of “Columbo,” the great TV series starring Peter Falk as a rumpled, working class detective. Columbo usually investigated murders by rich, powerful men so arrogant that they failed to realize that their guilt was obvious to Columbo. The detective’s favorite strategy was to flatter the arrogant rich guys into talking about how brilliant and accomplished and amazing they were, until they either let a damning detail slip or brazenly taunted Columbo with the painfully obvious fact that they did it. In a hypothetical “Columbo” episode about sex crimes, “I Love You, Daddy” would be the document that slapped the cuffs on Louis C.K.

For starters, this is a film that declares spiritual kinship between C.K. and Allen‚ a director whose best work is often much more (horrifyingly) honest about amorality than C.K. is here—maybe not what you’d call a great compliment to Allen, but whatever else you can say about him as a person or a film director, you can’t say he’s never warned us against sentimentalizing him. Consider “Husbands and Wives” and “Manhattan,” among other film starring Allen as a forty- or fifty-something man who can’t keep his hands off a teenager or twenty-something, and who either come to their senses at the last minute (“Husbands and Wives”) or spiral into sentimental delusions that the movie is happy to validate (“Manhattan”). Then consider “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point,” both of which hinge on the questionable assertion that any one of us is capable of the absolute worst behavior once we realize morality is merely a human construct and God isn’t watching us. (Quite a bit of projection on Allen’s part when you think about it.) The black and white photography, New York setting and lush orchestral score of “I Love You, Daddy” all evoke “Manhattan,” the go-to film that Allen’s detractors point to whenever they insist that he has to be guilty of the worst things a person could possibly say about him. 

The relationship between C.K.’s producer and Byrne’s leading lady is suffused in rationalization: it’s a casting couch-style arrangement in which each party blandly exploits the other: she turns on the charm and flattery the second she walks into his office and he invites and revels in it, as if to say, “This is how things get cast, it’s no big deal, everybody does it.” The relationship between the director and the hero’s daughter is likewise normalized; C.K. wrings anxious humor from the hero’s discomfort, but the movie ultimately swings around to the idea that at 17, she’s an adult who can make her own choices. The hero’s daughter makes her entrance in a string bikini, and halfway through there’s a scene where she goes bikini-shopping. The warmhearted father-daughter reconciliation near the end is so oblivious to the moral and ethical issues raised by the rest of the film, and so ignorant of how actual fathers and daughters talk to each other, that it manages to out-sick everything else that C.K. has shown us. This is not a film about individuals who have lost their moral compass, but a movie that lacks one, by a director who also lacks one but for many years did a convincing impression of a man who never lost sight of true north.

The lushness of the film’s setting—a world of star-studded, flashbulb-dotted premieres, parties in townhouses and mansions, midnight rides in helicopters and the like—recalls Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” maybe his most withering expression of contempt for his industry, his fans, the women in his life, and himself. The movie’s unblinking eye, combined with the lush music, strand the picture in a No Man’s Land between sentimentality and satire. It’s the place where “edgy” comedies like this settle when they want to simultaneously disturb viewers and make them wonder if there’s really something wrong or if they’re just misreading signals or assuming the worst. Watching the movie is like being in a situation where you worry that somebody’s manipulating you but you can’t be certain if you’re right. The little voice in the pit of your stomach tells you that something is wrong here, but when you start to articulate objections, the person who’s gotten you worried says, “Oh, no! That’s not what I meant. Everything’s fine. Have a drink! Here, I’ll make it for you.” Then he turns his back so you can’t see what he’s putting in the glass.

The half-star is for the cinematography and music. Nice raincoat.

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