The Marvelous Brie Larson — #7

Welcome to the seventh and final edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series that has revolved around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. All good things have to come to an end, and as spotty as the posts have been I hope you’ve enjoyed the selections I’ve chosen throughout the year.

Brief recap of the feature: the posts weren’t very consistent and overall it seems I went 7-of-12 on the year (2 action movies; 2 comedies; 3 dramatic comedies) which kind of feels under-accomplish-y and lame. At the same time that’s an average of just above 50% and considering I haven’t yet filled an entire calendar year with roles from any actor I’ve featured so far (even though that’s the whole idea . . .) maybe I should be a glass half-full kinda guy on this.

Besides, looking back on roles I coulda/shoulda/woulda gone with, I’m actually fairly confident I covered the hits. The Glass Castle (2017) and this year’s Just Mercy, both of which reunite Larson with her Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, are two notable oversights. Most of what I haven’t gotten to though seem to be bit parts in movies I don’t remember much about or at all (i.e. she was in Trainwreck?).

Which brings us to this month, where I’ve literally saved the best for last. Lucky #7 finds Brie Larson in top form in Room, this powerful and quietly devastating drama about a mother and son held captive in a backyard shed for years. Director Lenny Abrahamson adapts his sixth feature from the highly praised 2010 novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue.

Brie Larson as Joy Newsome/”Ma” in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Drama/thriller

Premise: Held captive for 7 years in an enclosed space, a woman and her young son finally gain their freedom, allowing the boy to experience the outside world for the first time.

Accolades: Academy and Golden Globe awards — Best Actress

Character Background: Technically speaking Room is told through the perspective of seven-year-old Jack, played with incredible nuance and maturity by Jacob Tremblay in what proved a stunning break-out role for an actor yet to celebrate their tenth birthday (in fact Tremblay was about the same age as his character). His naivety undoubtedly makes Room such a powerful and heartbreaking experience, but you can’t talk about the movie without mentioning “Ma” and the role she plays in Jack’s venturing out into the big, wide world.

I can’t speak to how the character is in the book but Larson’s Joy/”Ma” is something of a wonder. She’s incredibly resolute and stoic, for years keeping her despair locked inside while providing pretty much everything for Jack a loving mother would with much more in the way of space and comfort. That is until “Ma” concocts a bold plan and Room breaks both into bigger, open spaces and into a devastating second half. You would think the part spent in captivity would be the toughest stretch to watch but it’s in the second half road-to-recovery — and all that that entails, emotionally, physically (haircuts, anyone?) and especially psychologically — where I had a hard time dealing. I attribute my discomfort to Larson’s powerful portrayal of the all-encompassing, long-lasting effects of PTSD. She’s at her very best in this movie. As she convalesces at her parents’ home she also unravels, burdened both by guilt — not helped by her own father (played by William H. Macy) refusing to acknowledge the “bastard child” — and her son’s confusion and anger. Room is a movie that shows how challenging the road to recovery can be, and yet for as unrelentingly bleak and difficult as it is to watch it also provides a beautiful tribute to a mother-son bond. This is a unique circumstance that proves the kind of storms unconditional love is built to withstand.

Marvel at this Scene: 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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The Marvelous Brie Larson — #3

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

I have been looking forward to March, not so much because of my undying allegiance to the Marvel brand but rather to Brie Larson. This is the month where she takes the next step, going from an indie darling to a mainstream commodity. Because superhero movies are the only movies that seem to matter anymore, getting the lead in a new Marvel movie seems to this armchair critic a kind of validation of one’s hard work and talent: You’ve officially arrived. You ARE Marvel-worthy.

But with great publicity comes great controversy, and by now we are all aware of the furor surrounding Captain Marvel and its star. Reading/listening to all the ways in which her comments have been misconstrued has been infuriating to say the least, and while the push for greater diversity in the movies and in the press covering them is certainly a discussion worth having (it was a sobering moment learning that 78% of the current critical landscape skews white male) I fear going in that direction is invariably going to turn into a rant. Besides, to focus on the negatives would be to completely lose sight of what this feature is about — celebrating the strengths and unique qualities of the performer in question.

And there is no denying that there is much to celebrate here. Captain Marvel, flying defiantly in the face of all those who were adamant a female-led superhero film just won’t sell, has racked up an impressive $900 million in global box office receipts. Bigger numbers geeks than I will tell you with greater confidence how the film probably won’t crack the billion-dollar mark, but let’s not turn a nose up at 900 mill.

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/adventure/sci-fi

Premise: Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Character Background: Carol Susan Jane Danvers hails from a distant world known as Hala, the galactic capital of an alien race called the Kree. In comics lore, Carol isn’t actually the original incarnation of Captain Marvel. That distinction belongs to her super-powered colleague (and at one point love interest) Mar-Vell, who was originally conceived as a Kree Imperial Officer sent to spy on Earth and, under the guise of Dr. Walter Lawson, took note of our technological developments as we readied ourselves for space exploration and in the process of sympathizing with the humans, met and fell in love with a certain American Air Force Pilot, one Carol Danvers. Famously the Captain Marvel brand has endured a long and convoluted history and Marvel Studios takes advantage, dispensing with the romance and macho heroics. As the story used to go, it was Mar-Vell who saved Carol both from an envious Yon-Rogg in pursuit and from a powerful blast from some crazy Kree machine but due to their physical proximity to each other at the time of the explosion Carol’s DNA got infused with that of Mar-Vell, rendering her half-human, half-Kree, and 100% badass. The film, however, gives the character more agency, depicting her “transformation” as a direct result of her own actions, when she shoots the energy core that powers her light-speed-capable jet to keep the tech out of the hands of Yon-Rogg. Because she essentially inhales the Space Stone she becomes super-powerful, but in the exchange also loses her memory. The film then becomes about her working backward to discover where she’s really from and what side she’s on in this overarching Kree/Skrull war.

Brie Larson, a refreshing new face in this familiar superheroic collage, trained for nine months to prepare for the physical aspects of the role, learning judo, boxing and wrestling . . . and throwing in the occasional push-a-5,000-pound vehicle for 60 seconds for good measure. She said of the lengthy preparation: “I got super-strong. It wasn’t enough to just put the costume on and play pretend strength, I wanted to be actually strong.”

Of course, the physical abilities are just one aspect of the character — and they are significant, suggesting she may well be the key in defeating the terrible Thanos in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. But her film arc is just as much about her emotional growth and her psychological state. In flashbacks we see how a parade of men have routinely discounted her as being some kind of “Not Enough” — she’s not strong enough, fast enough, doesn’t smile enough. And damn it anyway, she endures, standing back up and pushing on, turning a deaf ear to the jeers. Brie Larson describes Carol as “probably the most dynamic character I’ve ever played. I’ve had to go through every possible emotion with her. That’s what I want: I want to see complicated female characters.”

Marvel at this Scene:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dqeEZJvFuiE

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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Wind River

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Wind River is a haunting little crime thriller that creeps into your soul and nestles there. It’s brought to you by the writer of Sicario and last year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, which may tell you everything you need to know about this movie, based on true events about a tracker working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services who teams up with a rookie FBI agent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a young Native American woman.

The journeyman actor-turned-screenwriter trades the scorching temperatures of the southern U.S. for the bitter chill of wintry Wyoming. Tumbleweeds for evergreens; cowboy hats for furry down jackets. The harsh terrain changes but Sheridan, who has proven his worth in a very limited amount of time, fortunately does not. He remains committed to the same gritty, humanistic perspective that has helped identify him as among the most powerful emergent voices in Hollywood.

As we have come to be spoiled by the writer-director, certain things are givens: impeccable acting, complex morality, sympathetic tonality. Wind River operates most apparently as a straightforward police procedural but that’s just the part of the iceberg that’s visible. What the screenplay hides beneath the surface is where the film is at its most affecting, not just as a deeply nuanced exploration of personal grief but as damning evidence of the marginalization of Native Americans.

Wind River tells a story about fictional people; however, as a title card at the end of the film suggests, this could be the story of any one of the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who have disappeared from Indian reservations across the country. As of today, it is not known how many Native American women go missing or what even becomes of them, as they remain the only demographic for which the U.S. Department of Justice does not compile that data.

While Kelsey Asbille as the victim — a teenaged resident named Natalie — provides a face to these unknowns, Jeremy Renner proves once again to be a major comfort. He injects warmth into an environment characterized by precisely the opposite. His Cory Lambert has earned the trust and respect of many of the residents of Wind River, a plot of land in central-western Wyoming home to members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Cory’s dedicated years to protecting them and their livestock from the predatory animals that roam this yawning expanse of pillowy hills and knife-edge ridges. Of course, he has done this at the expense of his own family, a familiar but still effective flaw of character that grafts perfectly with the film’s thematic explorations.

Cory’s commitment to the community deepens when FBI Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up on the scene, determined to take control of what appears to her to be a sexual assault case. Her woeful unpreparedness for the conditions, though initially played off as broadly humorous, ultimately proves to be the first of many obstacles that will truly test her resolve. Gender dynamics come into play as Banner has something to prove as an outsider in this world. Olsen plays her hand perfectly, her sizable ego soon humbled by taking bullets in subzero temperatures and by listening to the stories of the people who call this frozen hell home.

Renner is reliable and Olsen makes for interesting company, but you cannot overlook Gil Birmingham, who re-teams with Sheridan after playing the butt of every Jeff Bridges joke in Hell or High Water. That’s in stark contrast to his brief but dramatically hefty role here, in which he portrays the victim’s father as a man consumed by grief. An early scene in which Banner is cringingly unaware of her aggressive style confesses to the delicate nature of her assignment. It’s a traumatic moment, with Birmingham’s not-so-quiet sobbing memorably given privacy by remaining just out of shot.

The locals call Wind River the “land of you’re on your own.” That’s a harsh lesson for Banner to have to take back with her to Las Vegas, but for everyone else it’s just a fact of life. As a boy who grew up on a ranch before his family lost it to the economic downturn of the 1990s, Sheridan has a pretty firm grasp on man’s relationship with mother nature and how tenuous a relationship it is. That manifests powerfully here as well, but Wind River evolves into something much more personal and even profound than a tale of survival. That old Darwinian theory is a byproduct of the story, but it’s not the story.

Wind River is about being found, being recognized. Being heard. And the heavy sigh in which the film ends echoes back decades of silence. The kind of silence that kills, by madness or by wolf, by pulmonary edema or just plain-old ignorance.

Recommendation: Taylor Sheridan rewards viewers once again with an absorbing, emotionally stirring and deeply disturbing crime drama based on real events. Both a tribute to the untold number of victims as well as a culture that has had indignity upon indignity heaped upon it since the appearance of Anglo-American settlers, Wind River feels especially timely if you take into consideration recent headlines, such as those involving the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their continued battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just . . it hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor comes up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, ‘I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. Your daughter’s gone. Now the good news: as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, you’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?’ He said, ‘that’s what not accepting this will rob from you.’ If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain. Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

King Jack

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Felix Thompson

Directed by: Felix Thompson

Writer-director Felix Thompson’s first feature King Jack is a prickly little 81-minute production that shuffles through a nameless, shambling suburban block somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Rather than offering anything in the way of a traditional narrative, it provides a window into the life of a young boy who must contend with neighborhood bullies, summer school and his annoying younger cousin.

Low-key, meditative drama ponders the nature of fate and consequence in small-town America, swamps of socioeconomic stagnation that give rise to trouble-seeking behavior and juvenile delinquency. Thompson’s fascinated in this teen with idle hands named Jack (Charlie Plummer), first seen spraying graffiti on a neighbor’s garage. His home life is far from ideal, what with an absentee father, an oblivious mother (Erin Davie), and an older brother Tom (Christian Madsen) who calls him ‘Scab.’

It’s not just at home where Jack faces conflict. Because his brother was something of a jock back in his high school days, nicknames like ‘Scab’ and ‘King Jack’ have become a part of the language throughout a community where high schoolers never really move on. Thugs like Shane (Danny Flaherty) are intent on perpetuating that tradition. It’s their rite of passage, an inheritance of “duty” not that dissimilar to what you see in popular gangster movies. With Tom having moved on, and now floundering in the real world as a mechanic with a gambling problem, the baton has been passed.

An element of survivalism pervades and is underpinned by gritty solemnity, a toughness that helps King Jack divorce from other troubled teen-centric indies. Events take place over the course of only one weekend, and yet a large chunk of the story finds its beleaguered protagonist wandering the streets rather than hanging around at home. Jack is something of a curiosity. He tries, like most sane people, to avoid confrontation but unlike the majority he also doesn’t do many things to endear himself to others — the way he treats his cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) as a prime example.

King Jack may be slight but its realism is potent. If you find the film speaking to memories of where you grew up it may even be poignant. Flaherty’s performance in particular is outstanding, a damning indictment of the futility of resorting to violence in order to deal with your own internal pain. But it’s Plummer toward whom I was constantly drawn, a solid young actor who plays both the victim and the instigator — often to heartbreaking effect.

Recommendation: King Jack probably won’t do much for those who seek closure and finality in their movies but it’s a solid little coming-of-age drama whose events are effectively and often provocatively depicted. King Jack also operates as a powerful anti-bullying PSA and I’d actually recommend it more strongly on that basis rather than on the merits of its cast and up-and-coming writer/director. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “Leave me alone. You’re not my friend. So don’t try to act like it.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Lion

lion-movie-poster

Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Luke Davies

Directed by: Garth Davis

Lion operates on behalf of non-profit organizations across the globe endeavoring to end the epidemic of child homelessness in developing nations. It is an earnest, emotionally charged exploration of a life less ordinary, simultaneously a delicate and powerful epic that should give hope to others who find themselves similarly mourning the disappearance of a loved one.

This is the story of Saroo Brierley who became separated from his biological mother in Khandwa when he boarded and fell asleep on an empty train that took him nearly a thousand miles across the Indian continent. After months of surviving on the streets of Kolkata — sleeping under anything that fended off downpours and dodging bearded kidnappers — Saroo was taken in by a shelter for lost and missing children before being moved into the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption. Saroo’s fortunes changed when the Brierleys, a middle-class Australian family, took him under their wing and showed him a new life in Hobart, the capital city of the Aussie isle of Tasmania. Twenty-five years later — and this is the part where you might just assume Australian director Garth Davis’ feature debut has finally succumbed to Hollywood formula — mother and son would be reunited.

When you break it down into its three distinctive movements, Lion (adapted from Saroo’s memoir A Long Way Home, published in 2015) really explores two miraculous happenings. His entire adult life may be considered a miracle in itself, but one of the film’s greatest achievements is the way it develops its perspective. It’s a rocky road we start off on to be sure and the obstacles come one after another, at an overwhelming rate. Too young to realize his entire life has effectively changed over the course of a nap, Saroo (portrayed by Sunny Pawar in a breathtaking debut performance) wanders around with wide eyes and tussled hair, calling his brother’s name until he eventually doesn’t have the energy anymore and becomes silenced by his helplessness, adrift in a sea of simultaneous possibility and impossibility.

Lion moves into its second half gracefully as we meet the Brierleys, a kind-hearted couple whose intentions are unquestionably pure. David Wenham plays John and Nicole Kidman plays wife Sue. We want to love them just for being, let alone the fact they rescue Saroo from fates unknown. This family in no time at all burrows deeply into your heart. Kidman made a believer out of me as the loving mother. Sue makes it clear she and her husband picked the boy because they loved him, not out of some sense of guilt or obligation. The Brierleys later adopt a second child, the more volatile and aggressive Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav/Divian Ladwa) whose background isn’t elucidated but as we watch him engage in self-destructive acts as a youngster and continue to alienate himself from his new family as he matures, once more we are reminded that Saroo is one of the lucky ones.

At least he is given the chance to mature into a well-balanced, amiable young adult — though no amount of positive reinforcement can stop him feeling burdened by the mystery of his childhood. No amount of love from his adoptive parents can rid him of this kind of emotional baggage. Even ambitions for a career in hospitality/hotel management aren’t enough to make him feel confident about himself as a person. Dev Patel, in a potentially career best performance, portrays Saroo as a kite without its tether. Despite being surrounded by the hustle and bustle of campus life, he looks as lost as he was as a child fending for himself on the streets. It is in Lion‘s final third where we watch a carefully constructed façade starting to crumble, threatening the future he is considering sharing with fellow student Lucy (Rooney Mara).

Lion is a curio in the sense that it uses product placement as a significant plot device — Google Earth as Saroo’s second savior. The popular geobrowser became instrumental in his quest to (re)discover his roots and here it plays just as crucial a role in the narrative as any human being. Saroo is informed about the program at a party he attends while studying in Melbourne, where he opens up to Lucy and some other close friends about his past. That conversation proves catalytic for Saroo’s own slide into self-destruction as he begins shunning friends, coworkers and even his adoptive parents and begins obsessing to an unhealthy degree about retracing his steps. A friend attempts dissuasion by telling him it would take a lifetime to search through all of the train stations in India. Lucy challenges him to face the reality of making it back there only to find nothing.

Lion is at its weakest when it delves into this phase of self-exile, meanwhile Saroo’s interactions with Lucy feel collectively more like a dalliance than a serious thing. But the movie never reduces the emotional weight or contrives Saroo’s journey such that we struggle to believe what we’re being shown. The whole enterprise rings authentic, and the film saves the biggest gut-punch for last. It’s the kind of ending the cynical have been conditioned not to trust. Lion isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve, nor should it be. This is an incredible true story that could empower thousands of others who are similarly bereaved to keep hope alive. Lion is a hugely life-affirming film you do not want to miss, especially if your faith in humanity has started to wane as of late.

4-0Recommendation: Exceptional, heartfelt performances complement a too-good-to-be-true story about determination, hope and familial love.  The film impresses even more considering it is Garth Davis’ first foray into feature filmmaking. Lion is profound, not so much because of the way it makes you feel but because this is what really happened. An enriching, inspiring cinematic experience. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Do you have any idea what it’s like, how every day my real brother screams my name?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Fences

fences-movie-poster

Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater] 

Written by: August Wilson

Directed by: Denzel Washington

In 1987 American playwright August Wilson won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his 1950s Pittsburgh-set drama Fences. It employed James Earl Jones as a surly 53-year-old garbage man who led the audience down a dark path littered with heartbreaking revelations about the black experience in a racially divided America. In 2010 Denzel Washington helped to revive Wilson’s work, and after a 13-week engagement the effort proved worthwhile, picking up ten Tony nominations and winning three. Six years later the action superstar has decided to transfer the material to the silver screen.

Washington’s reverence for the original is so apparent if you are like me you can only assume the production does its source material justice. I mean, how does it not? If anything there’s an overcommitment to facsimile. Fences isn’t very cinematic, despite strong efforts from a promotional campaign to make it so. But static, relatively uninventive camerawork and minimalist settings are not enough to take Fences down. The film features one of the year’s most impressive tandems of performances, realized through a series of meaty monologues that pierce at the heart and soul of a thoroughly broken man and his family.

The story is about a garbage man named Troy Maxson (Washington reprising the role he played in 2010) who struggles to reconcile his present with his past. Though he eventually becomes Pittsburgh’s first black garbage truck driver Troy is bitterly disappointed in the way his life has turned out — his failure to realize his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player lying at the heart of his existential crisis. Troy experienced some success as a prominent player in the Negro leagues, but with the passing of time and the social climate of the country being as it was, nothing came of it. World-weary and prideful to a fault, Troy refuses to watch his sons go down the same path he did. He attempts to instill in them not so much the fear of God but the fear of consequences of one’s own lack of personal responsibility.

In a period where opportunities for whites are in far greater abundance than those for blacks, Troy believes his sons need to support themselves with “real jobs,” rather than pursue what he views as pipe dreams. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his eldest son from a previous marriage, aspires to be a musician but he seems to rely more on his girlfriend’s income to get by. One day he believes he’ll make enough to support himself. But at the age of 34 Troy can’t stand seeing him show up at the house on his payday ‘begging for hand-outs.’ On principal, he refuses to lend his son $10. Boy does that get awkward.

Washington’s performance dominates the narrative and arguably to a fault. A fault that, I’m not sure if humorously but certainly oddly, mirrors Troy’s fundamentally domineering nature that renders him as a character with whom others in the story often clash. The Denzel-favoring dialogue can be an endurance test at first but it helps that the writing is so poignant and perpetually working to shed light on many aspects that made this period in American history so turbulent. It also helps that Denzel is a revelation, the cantankerous Troy Maxson perhaps the zenith of an impressive career featuring Frank Lucas, Detective Alonzo Harris and the estranged father of Jesus Shuttlesworth himself.

As icy as his relationship is with Lyons, the film chiefly preoccupies itself with the tension that exists between Troy and his younger and more physically gifted son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who claims he has college recruits interested in offering him a scholarship to play football. Troy won’t let Cory play out of a combination of jealousy and similar concerns over the legitimacy of such a career. Coaxed by a few too many sips from a cheap bottle of some godawfuliquor, fears of his son actually finding the success that eluded him chip away at a slowly crumbling man. But the more sobering reality of the racial prejudices of the day are what convince Troy his son will never play. Either way, he’s not signing any forms he is handed. Meanwhile his wife doesn’t understand why the kid can’t have some fun and try to lead a normal life.

Though she’s half the chatty Cathy her co-star is, Viola Davis is no less Denzel’s equal as she offers an understated but full-bodied interpretation of Rose Maxson, a woman similarly jaded by life having had to sacrifice personal goals so she could make life work with this man. She’s hardly bitter about it; she loves Troy deeply. In the wake of a heartbreaking revelation, Davis emotes with stunning sincerity as she reminds us of her humanity, what the difficult choices she had to make have meant to her. It’s a reaction made all the more powerful given her extraordinary composure as she witnesses the increasing hostility between her husband and their growing children. When she’s not being playing the part of peacemaker she’s providing them the love her husband refuses to.

It should be noted several of the performers beyond the two leads who took the stage in 2010 have reprised their roles here. They’re also extremely effective in more limited capacities. They include Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, a longtime friend and coworker of Troy’s who enjoys a good swig every now and then while listening to one of Troy’s many tall tales about wrestling the Grim Reaper into submission when he outlasted a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a youngster, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-scarred younger brother Gabriel.

Self-contained, talky sociopolitical drama is very much a play caught on camera with several theatrical accouterments on display. The stage manifests as the backyard of the Maxson family, a cramped space nestled deep within a financially struggling African-American community. It is here where we are dealt some of the film’s heaviest blows as wars of words erupt as the film’s “action scenes,” if you will. A baseball tied to a tree and a bat become props whose significance (and versatility) evolve and become more integral to the story. Music is almost entirely absent, save for a few melancholic interjections from composer Marcelo Zarvos. And like with plays, we come to see the people; intimate sets with a reserved production design allows the actors to take center stage.

Purists might argue it’s just not the same as watching thespians in the flesh. They might liken this experience to listening to old jazz records on an iPhone. Even if what I just watched was simply a play filmed on an expensive camera, if this is the only way I’ll ever be able to see August Wilson’s brutally honest work, I’m not sure how much I would feel like I had lost out. I was constantly engrossed.

ten-dolla

4-5Recommendation: Dramatic showcase for the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis — heck, for everyone involved honestly — proves a welcome new addition to the steadily growing oeuvre of some of Hollywood’s most prominent black actors. Fences rewards patient viewers with an intensely dialogue-driven journey into the heart and soul of an African-American father and family living during a shameful chapter in American history. Worth the two hours if you are a fan of talky pictures. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked that out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Manchester By the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Kenneth Lonergan

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

A good movie offers escapism. A better movie makes us think. But some of the best movies don’t necessarily allow us the luxury of escape. They challenge us to face the world that actually includes us, holding a mirror up to our own realities and daring us to keep looking closer. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is one such movie, a stunningly perceptive drama that’s not only technically impressive but emotionally heavy-hitting as well. Despite almost unrelenting bleakness, it just well may be the year’s most relatable movie.

The titular town is not much more than a small port, a few fishing boats and about as many red lights; a crusty blue-collar town clinging to the Massachusetts coast hardened by more than just brutal winters. It doesn’t announce itself as a happening place, but for one man who once called this harbor home, everything that ever mattered to him happened here. In this most unexpected of places we will, through a series of devastating revelations, be reminded of a few brutal truths about the human experience.

The film pairs its creaky, rundown setting with subtle (but powerful) performances to effect an intentionally mundane aesthetic. It tells of a man named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who reluctantly becomes his nephew’s guardian when the boy’s father (Lee’s brother Joe who is, confusingly enough, portrayed by Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly. The premise may seem simple at first but it is pregnant with complexity and nuance. Lee leads a spectacularly unspectacular life in Boston, making minimum wage as a custodian for an apartment block. It’s perhaps not the most ideal line of work for someone trying to avoid people at all costs, but it’s pretty darn close. Aloof in the extreme and prone to violent outbursts, Lee is not a protagonist we immediately embrace. He’s actually kind of a jackass: spurning women’s advances and getting into bar fights because someone gives him the wrong look.

But there’s a method to the madness. Working from a screenplay he originally intended to be his sole contribution to the production, Lonergan steadily reveals layers to a character in a protracted emotional crisis. Flashbacks play a crucial role in the process. Lee is first evaluated as a worker, as a pee-on to the average white-collar Bostonian. A series of interactions Lee tries not to have with his clients — tenants whose lights have broken, whose toilets have clogged, whose bathtubs need sealant and whose goodwill is eroded by the man’s social awkwardness — gives us the impression Lee kinda just hates his job. But the bitterness runs a bit deeper than that. He seems to have a genuine disdain for the human race.

Manchester By the Sea uses flashbacks both as a gateway to the past and as our exclusive access into the mind of a thoroughly depressed individual. The cutaways occur incredibly naturally, manifesting as a sort of internal response to external stress. A visit with the lawyer to get his brother’s affairs in order proves to be a particularly sensitive trigger. What to do with the family boat, the house and other possessions, funeral arrangements — the whole headache rekindles feelings he would rather not have. This moment sends us on a trip down memory lane and into the drama’s darkest moments. What Lee has apparently been coping with for years — what ultimately drove a wedge between him and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) — proves bitterly poignant.

On the other side of this flashback we view Lee as a different person. Not that our empathy is garnered in one fell swoop, but looking back, if we were to point to a specific moment when our perception started to evolve, it undoubtedly is this epiphany. It is here where we start to view his world through a much darker, cloudier lens. Back in his hometown and daunted by new, unexpected responsibilities — most notably looking after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) — Lee is also left with little choice but to confront his demons and try to stake a new path forward. But is he really up to the task? How would we deal with all of this?

Manchester By the Sea evokes its strongest emotional and psychological responses from its characters. The narrative certainly stimulates the mind, but the people are what appeal to the heart. Affleck plays a man who seems tailor-made for the actor’s unusual real-life persona. His controversial behavior in his private life (at least as of late) makes the transition into playing an emotionally unstable anti-hero a less surprising one. Gossip is pretty useless really, but is it not ironic Affleck has allowed a few of his own character defects to become things for public consumption in the run-up to the release of a film featuring a severely flawed character? Gossip is also useless because I am only assuming he’s fired his publicist. He’s probably done that in spite of claims that he “doesn’t care about fame.”

And this is stupid because all of this is just padding my word count. As is this.

Before my ADHD gets the better of me, other names are certainly deserving of what remains of this page space. Hedges and Williams in particular make strong cases for Oscars consideration. The former introduces a compelling new dynamic and the perfect foil for Lee’s anti-socialite. Popular in school, on the hockey team, a member of a garage band and currently juggling two girlfriends, Patrick is the antithesis of his uncle. He makes an effort to connect with others. Aspects of his personality and his attitude are going to feel familiar, but this is far from the archetypal teenage annoyance. Williams, in a limited but unforgettable supporting role as the estranged ex-wife, mines emotional depths equal to her co-star who is given ten times the amount of screen time. That’s not to detract from what Affleck has accomplished. Quite simply the actress achieves something here that’s difficult to put into words.

Manchester By the Sea uses one man and his struggle to speak to the melancholy pervading the lives of millions. The language of the film is pain, so even if the specifics don’t speak to your experience the rollercoaster of emotions, the undulating waves of uncertainty and despair surely will. And yet, for all the sadness in which it trades, Lonergan’s magnum opus finds room for genuinely affecting humor. Hedges often supplies welcomed doses of sarcasm to offset Affleck’s perpetually sullen demeanor. And it is surely welcomed, for if it weren’t for the laughs perhaps it all would have been too much. The best films know when enough is enough.

casey-affleck-and-kyle-chandler-in-manchester-by-the-sea

5-0Recommendation: Powerfully performed and confidently directed, Manchester By the Sea may on the surface seem like a certain kind of crowd-pleaser — perhaps more the critic-circle variety — but I’d like to think the film’s technical merits and the minutiae of the performances are what has drawn a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story’s ability to make you empathize is worth recommending to anyone who appreciates a good story about “normal people.” This is a potent, vital film about the human experience and a testament to the indiscriminate yet seemingly random cruelties that life presents. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Moonlight

moonlight-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

naomi-harris-in-moonlight

5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Room

'Room' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Emma Donoghue

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

How does one begin to describe a film like Room? Do I write a poem? Do I send Lenny Abrahamson a letter saying ‘thanks?’ Do I wax lyrical about the emotional highs and lows only a film about a mother and son being isolated in a garden shed for years can provide?

Nah, not really. I’m not feeling any of that. What I do feel is that I’ve had the life force sucked out of me after watching this, the big screen adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel. If this is meant to be uplifting, it’s uplifting in the way One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was uplifting.

What I see in Room is an indictment of humanity; we are an unapologetically ugly species. I see relentless psychological torment, a young woman’s life pointlessly sent off the rails after she helped a man “and his dog” one fateful night. I see suffering not just in the moment but in the aftermath of a highly improbable escape from confinement.

Lenny Abrahamson devotes roughly half the running time inside a shed in the backyard of some nondescript home in suburban USA. This is where we first meet the characters, going about their day, interacting with each other and finding creative ways to pass the time. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) says hello to all of the inanimate objects he’s surrounded by upon awakening. Repressed anger be damned, ‘Ma’ (a never better Brie Larson) is going to make sure her son celebrates his fifth birthday properly.

Life is a certain way for these people. It doesn’t take much time or effort to realize it’s neither healthy nor normal. But after some psychological ingenuity on the part of Ma, life shall prove to be even more difficult on the outside. Indeed, there will be a transition, not just for the characters but for how we are able to invest in the performances. Given the novelist is also the screenwriter here, is it safe to assume the book is just as dull and arduous in the second half?

‘Room,’ as Jack calls it, is compelling in a morbid kind of way. Maybe all I need to say about this is Sean Bridgers. Given so little to do, the man effects a thoroughly despicable human being, an archetypal abuser who probably blames the economy for his being such a shit-bag. However he’s in the frame so infrequently he can’t take all the credit. In fact he’s pretty incidental compared to the weight of Larson and Tremblay’s performances.

If you’ve heard the word already, it is true: these are some breathtaking performances. Were it not for the depth of Larson’s commitment to pretending to be Tremblay’s mother, Room would be unwatchable. It is such a thoroughly depressing film, tracing the trajectory of that commitment as the pair are faced with an entirely new set of challenges. The real world is both exciting and maddening. Jack is the ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark room. At nine years old, the Canadian youngster is a revelation.

He informs the film’s deeply introspective narrative, professing his interpretation of the world around him. His descriptions give the film a jolt of inspiration; it’s better when Tremblay talks to us. When he’s not we’re like the psychologist who finds their first major breakthrough with a patient who’s generally been unwilling to talk about a past trauma. Those breakthroughs happen all too infrequently though, and we’re left with the difficult task of telling the patient that everything is going to be okay. We promise.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 4.36.39 PM

Recommendation: Room proves an acting showcase for its young stars. And honestly, it is a credit to those efforts that I have reacted, perhaps to a great many’s surprise, somewhat unfavorably. That a film inspires an emotional reaction at all is one of the highest praises you can give a film. While recognizing Room‘s brilliance, it’s still ultimately not something I’d ever care to sit through again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “There’s so much of ‘place’ in the world. There’s less time because the time has to be spread extra thin over all the places, like butter. So all the persons say ‘Hurry up! Let’s get going! Pick up the pace! Finish up now!’ Ma was in a hurry to go ‘boing’ up to Heaven, but she forgot me. Dumbo Ma! So the aliens threw her back down. CRASH! And broke her.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com