Lion

Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

Moonlight

Moonlight, Barry Jenkins

Alex Hibbert & Mahershala Ali

The holiday dry spell of movies worth watching is officially over. Lots of good films filling the theaters. I’m glad we caught Moonlight (trailer), written and directed by Barry Jenkins (III) before it faded, though maybe it will be around longer now with the Oscar Best Picture nomination. I’d seen the preview and came away asking myself, what the heck is this movie about?, instead of my usual, why did they give away so much of the story?!!

Immediately I was persuaded to see it, though, upon learning the play it’s based on was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose Brothers Size plays were so powerful on the McCarter Theatre stage a couple of seasons ago. (McCraney recently received the 2017 PEN America Literary Award for a mid-career playwright!) Whatever it was about, I knew it would be worth watching. Brian Tallerico for RogerEbert.com calls it “one of the essential American films of 2016.”

In some ways it reminds me of modern (30 under 30) fiction-writing. A bit of disjointedness and a big dose of grit are part of the package. We see protagonist Chiron (pronounced Shih-RONE) at age 10 or so (Alex Hibbert), as a high school student (Ashton Sanders) negotiating tricky teenage waters in a violent environment, and finally as a young adult (Trevante Rhodes), struggling with his sexuality. While he in some ways advances, becoming more physically powerful, if still emotionally fragile, his mother (Naomie Harris) succumbs to her addictions and her sentimentality. His one lifelong friend Kevin (André Holland) cannot be the lifeline he needs.

As Mara Reinstein says in US Weekly, the movie “touches on themes of race, sexuality and isolation in ways that are rarely depicted in cinema.” A late scene with the adult Chiron and his mother, says so little in words and so much in feeling that it feels like a documentary. It doesn’t seem like actors reading lines; it’s real people struggling to connect.

The actors playing Chiron at all three ages do a stellar job. Two actors recently in very different parts in Hidden Figures appear again here: Mahershala Ali as the young Chiron’s drug dealer mentor and Janelle Monáe as his girlfriend.

Various artistic touches distinguish this film, reminding you it is a deliberately created thing. Parts of it are filmed with such super-saturated tropical heat that the stills would be like artworks in themselves. McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami’s Liberty Square area, and the film carries the strength of their grip on its realities.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 88%.

EXTRA: The young Chiron and young Kevin (Jaden Piner) are both students of a gifted drama teacher at a Miami-area middle school, who encouraged her students to participate in the movie’s auditions, as described recently on public radio.

Tarell McCraney & I

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Octavia Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, & Janelle Monáe

It would be hard not to like this inspiring Ted Melfi movie (trailer) based on the true story of three women—three black women—overcoming early 1960s gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the super-white-male environment of NASA, just as Americans are struggling into space.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) were powerful role models for their, or any, age. Despite being relegated to the pool of “colored computers,” as the black female mathematicians were called, and despite their superb skills being barely recognized, they showed astonishing levels of patience and tenacity, as the story tells it.

At times, the movie feels like a deserved exercise in myth-making. Families are supportive, kids are perfect, home life is smooth. These women are almost too good. Their lives had to be more complicated than that. But those aspects of their stories are secondary to their achievements in the workplace, and that’s where the movie focuses.

With the recent passing of John Glenn (reportedly every bit as open and truly nice as on screen here), the early days of U.S. space program have disappeared into history. Today’s Americans either weren’t born yet or may have forgotten the fear that gripped the nation when Russia orbited the first satellite, when rocket after rocket blew up on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. When  our education system, at least temporarily, geared up for greater student achievement in math and science.

The pressure on NASA to succeed was enormous, and this is the environment in which these women worked and excelled. Despite their significant contributions five decades ago, something essential about the message has been lost. Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics, as did only 66 black women.

I liked this movie; I think the subject is great, and the broader recognition well deserved and too long delayed. The three women play their roles beautifully, as individuals, not symbols. While the subject was new and surprising, the film stakes no new emotional territory. More disappointing, fifty years on, the movie’s “feel-good” moment is quickly trumped by awareness of our society’s persistent racism and gender inequity. Perhaps the fact that this movie has been a top box office draw several weeks running, will help, but I’ve seen that movie before. See it for yourself, feel good, and then ask yourself, what next?

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences 94%.

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea, Casey AffleckCasey Affleck is remarkable as Lee Chandler, full to the brim with bottled-up pain, in this masterful drama (trailer), written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan. You don’t learn the source of his hostile and erratic behavior until a good way in, although multiple flashbacks to earlier, happier times with his older brother Joe and nephew Patrick show different sides of this character—never easy, perhaps, but not a hand grenade with the pin pulled.

The film opens with Lee tending his duties as the maintenance man—and first-line-of-defense against chaos—for four Quincy, Massachusetts, apartment buildings and living in a one-room basement flat in one of them. He has exiled himself from his home town of Manchester by the Sea and the seacoast life there, putting all of metro Boston in between him and his past. (MBTS sounds like the setting for a Victorian novel, but it’s located on Cape Ann, about halfway between Gloucester and Beverly, Mass.)

One wintry day—the weather in this movie is as frozen and blustery as Lee is—he receives a call that Joe has had another cardiac episode and heads north for Manchester. When he reaches the hospital, Joe has died, and he’s been given guardianship of the now teenage Patrick. Forms must be followed, arrangements made, and the funeral survived.

All this brings Lee abruptly into contact with his past. Being in Manchester isn’t easy—too many memories, too many people who know him, too many who remember. But he needs to look after his high school Lothario nephew Patrick, so he sticks it out. Says Matthew Lickona from the San Diego Reader, “It’s Affleck’s movie to quietly own as layer upon layer of Irish impassivity is stripped away from his visage until the unspeakable can be spoken.”

There were no cheap or cheesy moments in this layered tale, thanks to Lonergan’s superb writing. His people aren’t always easy to get along with. Their marriages don’t always work. Their kids aren’t perfect. Yet, there can be hidden strengths in relationships, and sometimes, some people do their best, even when the going is hard.

Top-notch performances all around. Besides Affleck, there are Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, Kyle Chandler as Joe, Gretchen Mol as Joe’s ex, Elise, and C. J. Wilson as the brothers’ stalwart friend George. Lucas Hedges is terrific as Patrick.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 96%; audiences: 82%.

Jackie

Jackie, Natalie PortmanChilean director Pablo Larraín has created a mesmerizing film (trailer) about 34-year-old former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the unimaginably painful three days between the assassination of our 35th President and the funeral she orchestrated for him. A chief virtue of the film is that, although it is deeply moving, it is free of typically sentimental Hollywood touches. For Americans who remember those days, the film will unearth many painful memories.

The film purports to recreate the interview between Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman)—caught as Rex Reed said “in the tragic headlights of history”—and an unnamed interviewer (Billy Crudup). In real life, the interviewer was prominent political journalist and historian Theodore H. White and, as in the movie, the interview took place only a week after the assassination for this issue of Life magazine. You can see his handwritten notes here.

Jackie appreciates the historical significance of her husband’s murder and is determined to give her husband his due. This is as much because she believes the office deserves it as it is to assure his legacy. She takes inspiration for the funeral from that of another assassinated leader, Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of her grief, she embarks on an exercise in myth-making in which the interviewer (again, as in real life) is complicit.

She has had her own accomplishments, of course. She has restored much of the White House with historical accuracy and invited cultural icons for performances there. Her aim, she says, was to make everything in the People’s House “the best” it could be. In the three compressed days before the funeral, it is sometimes as if she is moving underwater through an ocean of grief. Yet much is demanded of her: planning the funeral and selecting the burial site, celebrating her son’s birthday November 25, preparing to move out of the White House, and supporting her children.

Natalie Portman well captures Jackie’s breathy delivery and Peter Sarsgaard Robert Kennedy’s Boston accent. Both give excellent performances, allowing you to set aside differences in physical appearance. As a result, Caspar Phillipson, who bears such a striking resemblance to Jack Kennedy, is startling in his brief role.

Larrain assembled a strong supporting cast—principally, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s secretary, Nancy Tuckerman; Billy Crudup as the interviewer; John Hurt (whom I did not at recognize at all) as the priest called in to counsel the distraught widow; and Richard E. Grant as her design consultant.

Next November 22, it will be 55 years since the assassination, and still the loss of innocence, the loss of Camelot, haunts us. Though this idyllic association was inspired by Jackie and first popularized by White, it took root in Americans’ minds because it seemed so right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 73%.

La-La Land

La La Land

Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling dancing in La-La Land

Opening scene: stalled traffic. A Los Angeles freeway at the dreaded standstill. Every car blasting a different aural vibe. What next? Road rage? Coughing fits? Valium-popping? Instead, you get the voice of one driver, smooth as honey, singing loud and clear. She climbs out of her car and starts to dance. Soon everyone is out of their cars—singing, dancing, skateboarding on the Jersey barrier. In other words, once traffic starts again, you’re in for a different kind of movie ride!

That’s a joyful suspension of disbelief moment there, true to the conventions of the movie musical. West Side Story is the only movie I’ve ever seen multiple times in the theater, each time wishing, hoping, praying that when Chino appears at the end with his gun, he’d bring along some different outcome. I recall a youthful knucklehead dismissing the film as unrealistic. Yeah, right. You either go with it you don’t. In the case of La-La Land, I did and hope you will.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle has put together a film (trailer), in which each musical number grows organically from the action on-screen. The music is more than just pleasant, with some memorable tunes.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are excellent in the leads roles and effective songsters for the style of their numbers. The dancing seems mostly theirs too. And they really sell it. Two strivers want to make it in tinseltown—he as a jazz pianist, she as an actress. Will they reach their dreams? Will their relationship survive the journey?

It may be a ride you’ve taken before, but it’s a smooth one. And, according to Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, it’s “a filmmaking trifecta—it hooks the heart, the eye, and the mind” that he says is even better when viewed the second time around.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences, 89%.

Loving

loving, Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton

Ruth Negga & Joel Edgerton in Loving

The landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which ended state bans on interracial marriage is brought to life here, lovingly, (trailer). This fine film is from writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose script has been called subtle and “scrupulously intelligent.”

Hard though it may be to believe that miscegenation laws persisted more than a century after the Civil War, at the time the case was decided, 16 Southern states had such laws. Virginia’s law put Richard Loving and his wife, Mildred Jeter Loving—and their three children—at serious risk.

Richard and Mildred marry in Washington, D.C., knowing Virginia authorities would give them problems, and when they return home and are caught, their attorney advises them to plead guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They are given a suspended sentence contingent on a promise to leave Virginia and not return (together) for at least 25 years. If they are found together in the state, they’ll go to prison. The judge’s sentence effectively turns them into exiles in their own country.

Life in the District of Columbia is not easy or pleasant for two rural people. It is too crowded, too loud, too fast, and too dangerous for their children. But the Civil Rights movement is happening around them, and a letter Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy ends up in the hands of the American Civil Liberties Union, which takes on their case pro bono.

The decisions the Lovings make and why they make them are the meat of the movie. And while they don’t necessarily understand the machinations of the law and the courts or the strategies of their lawyers, their quiet courage is clear. As critic Mal Vincent wrote in the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, “In the end, when you think about the film’s ‘message,’ it is a very simple one. With so much hate in the world, should we suppress any effort to express love?”

With a strong supporting cast, Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred do a standout job in low-key, tender performances that never stray into sentimentality. Late in the day, Richard is asked whether there’s anything he wants to say to the Supreme Court Justices. He gives his lawyer a how can I make this any plainer? glance and says, “Yeah. Tell the judge I love my wife.” That’s all the Court—and the Virginia legislature, and the county sheriff, and anyone else—should need to know.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%; audiences, 79%

Certain Women

certain-women, Lily Gladstone

Lily Gladstone in Certain Women

You know from the movie previews and the rumblings from the multiplex’s adjacent theater that today’s movies are heavily weighted toward “action films.” Writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt could singlehandedly reverse that trend with Certain Women (trailer), which can most succinctly be described as an “inaction film.”

It’s kind of hard to get used to Reichardt’s pace, so you might watch this and think “Wha—?” Here, the drama is at the deep inside the characters, hidden from all views except the closest. And that’s what it gets from Reichardt—“a poet of silences and open spaces,” says A.O. Scott in the New York Times. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, the film is set in and around Livingston, Montana, and the views of the lonely snowswept plains are breathtaking.

The story is presented in three separate vignettes that barely intersect. In the first, Laura Dern plays Laura Wells, a lawyer trying to convince her persistent client (Jared Harris) that he can’t sue his former employer for on-the-job injuries because he already accepted a settlement. The client doesn’t believe it until a male lawyer tells him the same thing. She’s disappointed at many levels—with her clients, her career, her love life.

The middle vignette involves Gina (Michelle Williams), a married woman with a disaffected teenage daughter. She and her husband are building a new house, and she hopes to convince a slightly addled, elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonois) to sell them a pile of unused sandstone blocks in his front yard. Behind Gina’s bright smile, you can feel her irritation that the neighbor focuses his attention not on her request but on her husband, eliding the decision, and finally the husband sells her out. Even within the bosom of her family, it’s clear, she’s alone.

The dreamiest and most poignant sequence follows the young woman Jamie—beautifully underplayed by Lily Gladstone—on her daily routine, feeding and caring for a group of horses on a remote ranch. The repetitiveness of her tasks in the snowy, mountains in the distance, is mesmerizing. Her routine and her equilibrium are disturbed by a chance acquaintance with Beth, a harried young lawyer played by Kristen Stewart, overwhelmed by her own, very different grind. The extent of Jamie’s disturbance is painfully revealed in her quiet face, upon which “silent passion surges like an underground stream,” Scott says.

The acting is subtle and true, and Reichardt closely follows the dictum, “show, don’t tell.” Her characters don’t scream and rail and tell you what their issues are. You see it laid bare in front of you.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 91%; audiences 51%, a discrepancy that’s no surprise.

The Girl on the Train

girl-on-the-trainThis movie thriller (trailer) written by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Tate Taylor is based on Paula Hawkins’s runaway best-selling novel. Cognoscenti in the crime fiction world consider the book distinctly overrated, so an investment of two hours in the movie theater may be preferable to a dozen hours of reading. Maybe this was a bad choice. As Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com says, “The Girl on the Train is good trash. At least as a novel, it is. As a film, however, it’s not even that.”

The story is initially engaging, thanks primarily to excellent acting by Emily Blount as Rachel, the alcoholic protagonist. She knows her husband Tom had an affair and left their childless marriage primarily because of her drinking but seems to be spinning ever-further out of control, a vodka-in-the-water-bottle kind of drinker.

I’m not persuaded by critics who say the film withholds pertinent information, because it is mostly told from Rachel’s point of view. We see the world as she does—none too clearly—with a few scenes from the also-limited perspectives of the other two principal women.

Rachel commutes into the city every day from Westchester (London in the novel), and her train passes behind their former house. She can see him (played by Justin Theroux), his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby. She also sees the devoted neighbor couple (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), whose love seems perfect in these tantalizing glimpses. If her city job were real, exposing herself to hurt with this voyeurism might be torture. Since her job is imaginary, it’s pathological.

You will have guessed that the neighbor couple’s relationship is more complicated than Rachel apprehends, and when the woman turns up missing, Rachel’s obsessions and her hazy perceptions create havoc. It’s always fun to see Allison Janney, here as a police detective investigating the disappearance and trying to make sense of Rachel’s “evidence.”

Ultimately, the motivations that drive what turns out to be a six-sided story of love and lust, deceit and dangerous truth-telling are deeply clichéd, and there are a few too many close-ups of a befuddled Rachel. The Girl on the Train is a ride to nowhere terribly interesting.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 44%; audiences 56%.

Hell or High Water

Ben Foster & Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

Ben Foster & Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

This modern outlaw Western directed by David Mackenzie (trailer) is receiving high praise from critics. Like the faceless cattle barons and railroad tycoons memorialized in 1950s celluloid, today it’s the bankers who are handy villains bent on destroying the little guy. That’s true even if the modern cowboy rides a drilling rig.

Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively) team up to rob branches of the Texas Midland Bank, an institution that has drained the value from their late mother’s ranch and now (since corporations are officially people, I can anthropormorphize) sits rubbing its hands, waiting to foreclose. That would be a double catastrophe, because oil has been found on the land, and Toby is desperate to hang onto it so he can pass this valuable parcel to his kids. But he lacks the cash to save it. Thus, the robber scheme is hatched.

Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water

On the hunt for the robbers are two Texas Rangers—Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton is just weeks from retirement, and figures out the broad outlines of the plot. He just can’t quite put the pieces together. He rides his American/Indian/Mexican partner mercilessly, and you understand Parker’s stoicism in the face of these insults is part of the joke. He gets his own barbs in too. Early on, he asks Hamilton: “Are you going to do anything about these robberies, or just sit there and let Alzheimer’s take its course?”

Watching Hamilton and Parker is fun; watching the brothers is fun. They are real characters and they have real relationships here. For me, a big part of the fun is not knowing exactly what to expect, because the movie falls both within and outside the usual formulas. As Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Stephen Rea says, it’s “at once a tale of desperation in hard times and a keenly observed character study—or studies.” I’d give it 7 stars out of 10.

I had a little flutter when the lawmen referred to Lubbock (home of my grandparents) and Young County (my great-grandparents). The filming, however, was in New Mexico. Not the same at all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%, audiences 90%.