La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s resuscitation of the movie musical sets out to demonstrate a basic tenet of cinema: love fades, but lives on in music. Ryan Gosling’s struggling jazz pianist Sebastian, therefore, is privileged over Emma Stone’s Mia, who just wants to be a movie star. The scene in which Sebastian jazz-splains music to Mia is inadvertently the most realistic in the movie. Llewyn Davis got his ass kicked for that kind of behavior, but in La La Land only hearts get broken.
Chazelle makes sure we can see Gosling and Stone in full when they dance, right away proving he’s a better director than Baz Luhrmann or Rob Marshall. But when Sebastian complains about the dumbness of a tapas restaurant that’s also a samba club, Chazelle sets up a problem for his film that lesser directors spare themselves in their egregiousness. He raises the question of why people love crap, then answers it by making the kind of crap people love.
Never does the film allow that maybe people can like both a-ha and Thelonious Monk, or that there’s a time and a place for everything. That is a hard-won sentiment, but it’s in great supply in American musicals of the 1950s, where frivolity and maturity play on a soundstage more level than this one. Here, the director is happy, but his characters are not. The post-classic French musicals that do away with singers and dancers (A Woman Is a Woman) or emphasize melancholy and failed romance against a backdrop of societal drabness (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) serve as models for La La Land. Their use seems academic, befitting a director running for Student Council President of the Movies.
Florence Foster Jenkins
Several of the films nominated for Oscars in 2017 are already earnest relics of the Obama era. Not Florence Foster Jenkins, which takes on unexpected resonance now that Donald Trump is President. Florence (Meryl Streep) is a talentless rich lady and syphilitic weirdo who wants to be an opera diva. The obvious truth of her condition must be ignored by her various courtiers, whose careers depend on her largesse. Her fans, a curious mix of soldiers and snobs, embrace her because her terrible singing provides lulz, while establishment luminaries, like the conductor Arturo Toscanini, humor her while lining up for checks. How does she keep this act going? “One word: authenticity!”
Or, as her cheating husband (Hugh Grant) explains to a reporter he tries to bribe, “Isn’t it the truth that a lot of hurt people are having some fun?” It is unclear if the film’s director, Stephen Frears, saw Florence Foster Jenkins’s aristocratic farce as a lighter, uptown version of A Face in the Crowd’s native fascism, or why anyone thought that was needed. After her exposure in the press, Florence’s angelic deathbed redemption furthers her self-deception into the cardboard heaven she sought in reality. Her dementia ends in the music of the spheres, hurting no one. It’s a cheesy, gentle apotheosis with no repercussions outside her little world.
The alien invasion tale in Arrival is a calming parable of breakthrough to opaque beings we can befriend so they won’t destroy us—an allegory for dealing with men. It’s a reverie dreamed by a wake-and-bake mommy-blogger as she contemplates the rings made by her coffee cup on the morning paper and thinks about the spider sculptures of Louise Bourgeois. Fantasies about her husband leaving her and her child dying bubble to the surface as the day slips by, visions of freedom and solitude.
As in several films made last year, the protagonist is a woman who works as a translator: Amy Adams, named Louise, maybe after the sculptor whose “Maman” resembles the movie’s aliens. As a sci-fi drama about international cooperation and defusing violence, Arrival values thinking over ray guns, renegotiating the terms of battle between sensitive eggheads and macho soldiers typical of alien invasion films. Adams’s super-translator shouts in Mandarin to convince the Chinese military she can see through time now that the aliens have revealed its secrets to her, an outburst and a plot twist that make sense if you’re high and caffeinated.
Google Earth has finally made a movie, which only seems surprising at first, because while it’s hard to believe this story actually happened, it’s easy to believe this film was made. Helicopter shots and god’s-eye views define this true story of a boy in India who gets lost in a train station, is adopted by Nicole Kidman, and grows up to be Dev Patel. Watching him search Google Earth for his hometown is boring, but it posits the West as a place where people look into computers all day, while in the developing world people carry rocks for a living. This stark distinction would not pass muster in a film made by UNICEF. The contrast is introduced when little Saroo meets his new Australian mother in his new home. Kidman, playing someone in the 1980s, looks like a porcelain doll and waves her non-rock-carrying fingers at a television set in the living room. “Television . . . pictures,” she explains to Saroo, enticing him into the world of screens that will one day allow his story be told in a movie. A final scene could have shown pirated DVDs of Lion for sale in the streets of his long-lost village.
Richard and Mildred Loving were the couple in the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which finally overturned state laws against interracial marriage. They are portrayed in this film with kindness and dignity by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, who continue the recent trend of imported actors portraying Southerners in American films. Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed Loving, saturates the film with longing for a rural America where a couple can build their own house and don’t need a phone, where the State won’t nose around and interfere, and where there is no racism and no politics—where the only law is natural. In this pastoral idyll, Richard and Mildred are Adam and Eve, until they are expelled from their garden by racist sheriffs and county judges.
The couple’s last name plays into the film’s metaphorical significance as a story about genuine commitment beset by injustice. Exiled to Washington, DC after they are asked to choose between the State of Virginia or divorce, Richard and Mildred long to return to their rural paradise. Under Nichols’s direction, the film achieves the simplicity and perfection of certain silent films that pitted city life against country life as lovers were separated and reunited. Edgerton’s Richard barely speaks under his blond crew cut, changing expression as little as possible. Negga, who has eyes that convey so much thought and meaning, gazes with the intensity of Lillian Gish. As this couple seems to reinhabit a cinema that doesn’t need dialogue, one in which the racism of Griffith is vanquished by love, so does Nichols’s film seem to reinhabit the rural America of the late 1950s and ‘60s, an analog America the movies inhabit like a shell.
Hidden Figures has a sexy title that the film downplays in favor of pure math and basic domesticity, so maybe it’s fitting to point out that the IBM 7090 was first turned on by a black woman. The progression from analog to digital provides an important subtext in Hidden Figures, also set in Virginia in the same time period as Loving. As Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan teaches herself Fortran in the back of the bus, she also has to confront automation and figure out how to make it work for her and the other women on her staff of math geniuses, the “colored computers” who do calculations for NASA as it gears up to put John Glenn into space.
Theodore Melfi’s film takes the opposite tack from Nichols’s. This is an all-star feel-good movie about American ingenuity, in love with the future, stocked with hit music on the soundtrack and titles on-screen that tell us where we are. The film makes room for everyone in its cast. Taraji P. Henson, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, and Janelle Monáe each get plenty to do, whether they are pure and good or shifty professionalized racists. Old-pro Kevin Costner chips in, desegregating the restrooms at NASA, a smaller triumph than John Glenn’s space flight but one that sped the US in the race to the moon.
Hidden Figures lacks the self-seriousness and concern with special effects of recent space arias like Gravity and The Martian, proving that history and human society are more entertaining than the lives of lonely astronauts divorced from social context, who talk to themselves on another planet or float alone in space. The future in Hidden Figures is in our past, but it unrolls a blueprint to get back there.
A third movie set in Virginia (and Okinawa), Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge concerns itself with justice only to show how ideals and beliefs can be used to transform people into killing machines. In Gibson’s worldview, that combination is the pinnacle of human achievement. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a real hero, a conscientious objector who enlists in World War II and finds himself in a rifle unit. Doss signed up to be a medic, refusing to carry a gun, and after enduring several rounds of bullying by Vince Vaughn (his sergeant) and a court-martial trial, which he wins, he’s shipped to Japan with his brigade. There he rescues dozens of his wounded comrades, hefting them one at a time across gory terrain and lowering them down a cliffside by rope, under fire by the Japanese infantry the whole time.
Gibson bathes this spectacular battle in viscera, concentrating on literal blood and soil, with a lot of literal guts strewn everywhere. Rats chew dead bodies in tunnels, a human eye looks out from the mud, half of another corpse shields a soldier from enemy fire as he charges. The actors are plastic army men come to life, here to mouth the clichés of 1940s World War II movies—this is Gibson’s La La Land. Vaughn, while climbing the cliff at Okinawa as blood rains down on his men, points out to them that “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy,” a phrase I somehow doubt drill sergeants shouted in battle in 1945. After Garfield’s Jesus figure spends half the movie telling the higher-ups he’s not crazy and that he really does believe killing is wrong, he announces, “I never claimed to be sane.” That must be how Mel Gibson gets things done, too.
Hell or High Water
This bank robbery movie opens with signs dotting the West Texas landscape that say things like 3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us, establishing Hell or High Water as the only Oscar-nominated film that grappled with Trump’s America as the train wreck approached. Right up to its unsatisfying, to-be-continued ending, the film’s lugubrious quality marks it as an example of grievance cinema, art-directed for a new era of violent self-pity, economic decline, and racial appropriation.
Hell or High Water indulges its white characters on both sides of the law in fantasies that their pain is the same as that of the minor characters who are Native American. One of the bank robber brothers (Ben Foster) confronts a Comanche gambler at an Indian casino, getting in his face to inform him they are the same, and Jeff Bridges’s Texas Ranger confronts a sunrise wrapped in a blanket, the film’s big chief. When Foster kills Bridges’s Native American deputy (Gil Birmingham), it’s up to viewers to decide whether the film means to indict this kind of posturing or not. The bank robbers and Bridges face two different kinds of disenfranchisement, but the film’s analysis of American history favors deadly confrontation as the best way to save the farm, or buy it.
Denzel Washington directs and stars in this film adaptation of August Wilson’s play, opening it up to real locations in Pittsburgh without marring its essential qualities as a stage drama. His performance and direction are generous and sensitive, allowing plenty of room for the actors in smaller parts (Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby) to dig into their characters. Washington’s portrayal of Troy does not shy away from the character’s bitterness or his unfairness to his son and wife (Jovan Adepo and Viola Davis), and he doesn’t make himself look bad in a false, movie-star way. He looks bad because he has embraced Troy’s decline. The film unfolds in the limited spaces of the Maxsons’ backyard and house, crowding Troy, who is lonely and death-haunted despite the love of his family and his best friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson).
Wilson’s evocation of the limitations imposed on the black working class offers a remedy to too much La La Land. If Washington holds his thumb down on the scale, it’s to emphasize the downer aspects of serious American theater against the relentless optimism of fake unhappy endings.
Viggo Mortensen, in all his indie glory but also somehow bordering on Jeff Daniels, plays a survivalist family man and self-described Maoist in Captain Fantastic. Living off the grid in an Oregon forest with his many children, he has taught his kids to hunt with bows and arrows and knives, to revere science and Nabokov, and to speak proper English. If they break into Esperanto to talk behind his back, he scolds them for it. He wants them to “contribute to making a better world” away from the horror of malls, McMansions, and video games, but after their mother commits suicide, this modern Swiss Family Robinson has to re-enter modern life in all its bland stupidity. Here is a film not afraid to point out that many of the people you encounter after leaving the woods are fat.
Mortensen’s wife (Trin Miller), who has been away from the family, hospitalized for bipolar disorder, is seen only in dreams, flashbacks, and photos. It’s enjoyable the way Matthew Ross’s screenplay and direction try to denaturalize ordinary American life as it’s lived in the suburbs, but nothing everyone hasn’t thought a million times before. To provide mainstream balance, Ross tempers Mortensen’s nobility by presenting him as a danger to his family, a radical who hasn’t really thought things through.
What becomes the most interesting thing about Captain Fantastic by the end is the absence of Mrs. Fantastic, his wife and the mother of all these kids. She gets two funerals in the film, one traditional, at the insistence of her wealthy parents, and one presided over by Mortensen after he and the kids dig her up and cremate her. They flush her ashes down a toilet (her idea) then hold an oceanside ceremony at which they group-sing her favorite song, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” a music choice that constitutes a shock ending if ever there was one. In the film’s coda, a newly responsible Mortensen has become both mother and father to his brood, emancipated into domesticity on a chicken farm.
The first truly Trumpist film of its era, this disgusting and absurd neo-noir, by the fashion designer Tom Ford, flaunts its malice and misogyny, presenting them as criticism of the art world and its hangers-on. Ford cribs from David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and Sam Peckinpah as if no one has ever seen films by any of them before and he’s doing the audience a favor. A notorious recovering Botox addict, he inserts a meaningless close-up of a society lady’s surgically altered face into a conversation, just to drive home how much better he is than the people who have made him rich. The obese nude women presented as art objects in the film’s opening gallery scenes are used as props and dismissed, a bunch of performers duped into freak-show self-empowerment.
Since most of the film is concerned with brutal rape and murder, Ford’s animosity to Amy Adams’s character in Nocturnal Animals is all the more repellent when the film flirts with exposing her as a rape victim in the story within the story. Instead, we learn she just broke Jake Gyllenhaal’s heart when she aborted their child while having an affair with another man. The tables have turned, however, and now Adams’s new husband is cheating on her. This handsome, empty-souled dimwit (Armie Hammer) gets off the hook pretty easy here compared to everyone else. Gyllenhaal, a sad-sack novelist, needles Adams by sending her galleys of his new book, a spiteful tome Ford seems to think redeems him as an artist and a man. “Who are the real animals?” Ford asks, which is a stupid question that probably occurred to him at a dinner party like the one in the film. The lengthy sub-Antonioni ending makes Amy Adams pathetic and unattractive despite the rich trappings of her wardrobe and makeup (more irony), while Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as the main hillbilly rapist, has a perfect haircut throughout the film. The difference exposes Ford’s sympathies, if you can call them that.