The Spin’s Cinema Rewind: 2016

Outside of the theaters, 2016 was one of the most tumultuous years around the globe, especially politically with Brexit and a US presidential election that saw “the virulent madness” prophesied in 1976’s Network come to a red-hot orange, roiling, boiling head. The greatest of films often speak to the times in which they were made, and 2016 saw tumult of the artistic kind in cinema mirroring (whether intentionally or not) what had been bubbling up in society for years. If it proved anything, it’s that art is 50% the artist’s intent, and 50% the lens with which the audience views it through. Artists and audiences alike brought heavy baggage into the theaters, and we witnessed some potential masterpieces.

For me, the year’s most memorable film, Arrival, allowed the audience to breathe a collective sigh of relief at just the right time and showed us life is still worth living even when we know how (potentially horrifically) it will end.  The lovely and melancholy musical La La Land arrived at the tail end of the year to remind us it’s still okay to dream big, even when those dreams don’t always play out how we originally hoped (hope is not a strategy…but hard work is). The masterful character study Moonlight showed humanity and beauty can still be found even in the most dire of circumstances, and the search for one’s true self is a continuing journey. The true-story Loving uncovered the most sturdy bricks for building a compassionate society are quiet dignity, grace, and steady determination to fight for what’s right. Then there was the neo-western Hell or High Water, which tapped into some of the same economic rage a certain political campaign did, and showed presciently that sometimes “what don’t ya want?” is what you accidentally bring upon yourself.

My Top Ten picks for 2016 have been chosen with some initial thoughts and links to my full reviews below: Continue reading

I’ve Got a Part You Will Kill in La La Land

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“Betty, I’ve got a part…you will kill,” casting director Linney James (Rita Taggart) tells naive ingenue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s self-described “love story in the city of dreams”, the seminal classic, Mulholland Drive.

Fifteen years later, Damien Chazelle has delivered the greatest “love story in the city of dreams” since Mulholland Drive with his swooning, joyous and melancholy musical La La Land…and he’s left the greatest part for us. In his story, we get to play the audience. And, boy, in this year of pop cultural celebrity deaths that has 1980’s children in nostalgia tinted tears and a political wasteland that hath wroth His Orange Emperor, man…we are so PERFECT for this part! We are gonna kill it! And we are going to love La La Land with its toe-tapping musical themes and heart-ringing ballads forever echoing in our collective unconscious to be passed down from generation to generation like our communal love for flickering wonders in the dark and dreams writ large on a silver screen. It’s possibly the defining fluff piece of our times, and it is beautiful.

Like Mulholland Drive, La La Land weaves an archetypal tapestry of dreamers falling in love and getting swept up in the pulse and vibrations of Los Angeles. Here we have struggling actress Mia (almond-eyed, red-haired, fair-skinned, cute-as-a-button and sassy as all get-out Emma Stone in the type of role you wonder if a young actress could ever out-shine) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at the top of his Gos Game) breaking out into song (hell, and why shouldn’t they?) and literally dancing on air (a feeling anybody who has fallen in love can relate to). Like Lynch’s film, there are moments where you will drift away into the most rapturous of reveries (the opening “drivers-stuck-on-the-LA-freeway-breaking-out-into-song” bit perfectly disembodied, transportive and tone-setting), fall in love, laugh, perhaps cry, and wonder along with our big-eyed dreamers.

Where Chazelle takes the film from beautiful fluff to art is his insistence on not resting on the musical norms while at the same time exploiting them for all their worth. Each wondrously choreographed dance number is breathtakingly dreamlike, both eschewing what we expect (and I normally loathe) in musicals while adhering to the genre’s most universal and transportive tropes. Chazelle employes lyricists who tell the story through the songs, not just put on a show…while the set designers, costumers and choreographers put on one hell of a show.   Continue reading

The Specter of Past Relationships in Nocturnal Animals

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*SPOILER ALERT – READ WITH CAUTION*

(Read With Caution could’ve been an alternate title to the film, by the way…)

Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has been ridiculously advertised as a schizophrenic film within a film that anyone watching any of the tonally different trailers would be hard pressed to tell you what the devil the thing is about. But one almost wonders if the strange advertising is all part of the Ford game? Look at Jake Gyllenhaal’s tipsy smirk plastered across your IMDB homepage…oh…and look…he’s taking a blue-eyed gander at the even bluer-eyed Amy Adams, all red tresses and smiles…America’s sweethearts. It’s all so fake. And all so wrong. Like much of the film. But also so symbolic. And borderline brilliant when it’s not absurd.

Ford’s opening credits of obese women doing some post-modern Burlesque (ah, what an art show!) will put some off with its Lynchian inspired weirdness (and there’s more sick touches interspersed throughout the film)…but it serves a purpose if you wisely invest in the film until the very end. It’s just one of many tricks the director pulls off here…like inserting a go-for-broke performance from…you guessed it…the ubiquitous – and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times –  always amazing, Michael Shannon, into the film within the film on what seems like a total lark.

Nocturnal Animals is really much more straightforward than any encapsulated description of its plot would lead you to believe. Or is it? Simply put, it’s a psychological thriller about reading. In a grander sense, it’s about how the viewer (or reader) brings their own emotional baggage to viewing art. In a bizarrely humanist bent, it’s also an infinitely sad testament to the spectre past relationships and traumatic break-ups cast upon one’s ensuing life.

In the film (based on a novel by Austin Wright), a teetering-on-depression art gallerista named Susan (Adams, so delightfully complex and subverting all her norms in what is her second great performance this year after Arrival) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal, who somehow both under-acts and overacts, Edward’s tottering emotions always subject to Susan’s sometimes melodramatic interpretations of his writing) that he has mysteriously dedicated to her. Continue reading

Changing the World Brick by Brick in Loving

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In Caroline County Virginia in 1958, an oridinary white man (Joel Edgerton) shows an ordinary black woman (Ruth Negga) the plot of farmland upon which he wishes to build them a house and then asks for her hand in marriage. It all seems so sweet and pedestrian and normal. He drag races cars when not building houses while she preps family meals and squeals with her sister over her coming nuptials. But it was anything but normal…in fact, their relationship was against the law in their own home state where both their families had lived and died alongside each other for years. After stealing away to Washington D. C. to get married, the couple are arrested in their bedroom upon returning to their peaceful Virginia homestead where the state refuses to leave them in peace.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who has become the premier chronicler of the American South for his cinematic generation, crafts a script that highlights the quiet, simple dignity of Richard and Mildred Loving while showing the casually insidious everyday acceptance of institutionalized racism. “You should’ve known better,” the law tells Richard. There’s no physical violence against the couple, but a threat of being torn apart emotionally hangs over them like a pall. Yet there are no histrionics over the Lovings’ predicament, no highfalutin ideals to which they subscribe, only a sense of what is decent and true. They love each other. It’s that simple. And they deserve to build a home and family just as much as anyone else. Both Edgerton and Negga transmit the feelings left unsaid through the nuances of their body language and facial expressions…both of them delivering master classes in subtlety and repressed emotions that come pouring out of their eyes. Always dignified…never wanting the spotlight. Continue reading

Who Did You Expect in Moonlight?

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In Miami, a lonely, bullied child named Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is taken under the wing of drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, Oscar-worthy) while his own mother (Naomi Harris, also Oscar-worthy) succumbs to addiction. It sounds like the perfect recipe for a bombastic melodramatic Lee Daniels opera. But in the hands of writer-director Barry Jenkins, it’s anything but. We visit with this character Chiron at two other pivotal points in his life (played by Ashton Sanders as a teenager and Trevante Rhodes as an adult) each rife with their own emotional spectacle as he comes to terms with his identity as an African-American, as a homosexual, and as a human being struggling through this thing we called life.

The culmination of Barry Jenkins’ three-act coming-of-age tale is two childhood friends standing quietly in a living room after having not seen each other for over a decade. Kevin (whose interesting evolution we’ve also watched from the periphery) says to our protagonist, “You’re not who I expected.” To which our protagonist says, “Who did you expect?”

Every step of the way, be it in the subtle nuances of direction and framing, or the sometimes jarring yet exquisite use of lighting, or the poignant and careful choices of music (Mozart and pop songs mixed with Nicholas Britell’s fantastic original score), Jenkins’ quiet, steady, thoughtful film challenges the viewer’s expectations.   Continue reading

What Don’t Ya Want in Hell or High Water?

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Saucy old-lady and scene-stealer Margaret Bowen makes the menu options at T-Bone’s diner pretty dang clear to Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges (just. one. case. from. retirement) and Gil Birmingham (long time sufferer of Bridges’ playfully racist jokes and sagely gristle). Everyone gets a T-bone steak and a potato, and you either don’t want the corn or you don’t want the green beans. And you gotta ask yourself throughout the film…what don’t the characters want? Bridges doesn’t want to go down in a blaze of glory…right? The bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine – the good one, and Ben Foster – the bad one) don’t want to hurt anybody…right? Nobody in West Texas wants to use their concealed gun, it’s just for protection…right? Well, maybe wrong…and when everybody has hurt feelings, a trigger finger and is armed, there’s bound to be blood…eventually.

The “innocent” bystander women get some of the best lines in Taylor Sheridan’s sharp screenplay. Character actress favorite Dale Dickey, upon being asked if the bank robbers were black or white, pointedly responds, “You mean their skin color or their souls?” Another sassy waitress (Katy Mixon) who took to flirtin’ with one of our dastardly handsome brothers while the other robbed the bank across the street pitches a fit when the Rangers try to take her $200 tip as evidence. “That’ll pay half my mortgage!” Thank you very much!

And it’s those mortgages that are the root of the evils in David Mackenzie’s Neo-Western Hell or High Water. In fact, I would argue that the Texas Midlands Bank makes one of the greatest recent on-screen villains. Continue reading

Netflix Oddities with Cemetery of Splendor and The Invitation

It’s the dog days of summer and the perfect time of the year to hibernate in the cave of air conditioning and explore the stranger side of Netflix. Two weird films deserve special notice.

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What is there to say about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor?  I would say you don’t want to go into a Weerasethakul film cold, but one of his somnambulist odes needs to be your first, so why not this? In a rural hospital for injured and comatose soldiers, an elder nurse (Jenjira Pongpas, also from the director’s masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) muses on nationalism and the world both seen and unseen. There she befriends a psychic who claims to speak to the comatose soldiers and delivers messages to loved ones (a wife calmly demands to know the whereabouts of her husband’s alleged mistress). Meanwhile, long dead kings wage battles with the soldiers in their dreams…a story told by two young women claiming to be the physical manifestations of the goddesses to whom the nurse delivers offerings. All of this might sound a bit fantastic, but it’s all presented matter-of-factly as mundane discussions about relationships and everyday life intertwine effortlessly with talk of spooky splendors. Continue reading

Well, He’s No Solomon…in Love & Friendship

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Mild-mannered, well-groomed, high-stakes, period-piece social satire reigns supreme in Whit Stillman’s sharp film adaptation of a “lost” and incomplete Jane Austen novella.  Austen simply titled it after her conniving, widowed but still lively anti-heroine Lady Susan (played with perfectly vivacious high-brow snark by Kate Beckinsale), but Stillman plays on Austen’s “Blank & Blank” template and renames it Love & Friendship.  The title itself a rouse, much like the import of debutante season in Stillman’s Metropolitan.

As in the most superior of Austen or Stillman works, high society types are on display in all of their entertaining mannerisms and foibles.  The two authors separated by centuries seem a perfect marriage, as humor both scathing and dry, bites and blows across the posh manners, country estates and London townhouses where Susan plots to find both her and her daughter (Morfydd Clark) rich husbands to secure their futures.  Never do the characters seem aware of their preposterousness, as if all of life is a parlor game, and their scruples (or lack thereof) never are challenged even as gossip and innuendos challenge their lot and plot. Continue reading

We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things in Midnight Special

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*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

“We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things”

It’s a potent line spoken by Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a lost soul of a man who recently reunited with his childhood best friend, Roy (Michael Shannon, perfectly run-down but not out, as always) and now finds himself in a fine mess, waxing about the nature of people and the world with Sarah (a quietly fervid Kirsten Dunst) in a hotel room hoping that Roy (who “believes in something” Sarah’s fatalist romanticizes) makes it back from wherever he just went with his and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), a sick little boy with special powers wanted by the cult from which he came and the US government.  They’ve got to get the kid to a very specific place for a very specific reason (to fulfill a destiny?), but they don’t know what or why that is.

Everyone in the film ends up believing in Alton’s powers, but all have their own perverted take.  The cult sees him as their chosen one, the government as a weapon.  Early on in the film Lucas and Roy hide out with Alton at an ex-cult member’s house (played with perfectly subverted creepiness by David Jensen).  In the middle of the night, the whole house shakes and Roy and Lucas run into Alton’s bedroom where Jensen’s character is doing “that eye thing” with the child – perhaps a creative veil meant to symbolize child abuse at the hands of the religious?  Later in the film after Lucas and Sarah’s conversation about belief, Roy duct-tapes a Kevlar vest to Alton’s small frame (for his protection, of course) which eerily echoes the images of child suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chests (they, too, fulfilling a destiny).  Yes, indeed, we got people dying (and killing) everyday believing in things.  This kind of subtext is becoming Jeff Nichol’s trademark, and where his writing and directing is able to build tension and elicit primal emotional responses from his audience.

In this way, Nichols masterfully uses the science fiction genre as a vehicle to explore modern-day societal fears.  Continue reading

I Spy in the Sky an Eye on the Moral Ambiguity of Modern Warfare

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*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

How quickly can things escalate?  How much bureaucratic red-tape, coordination with allies and “referring-up” (where the political ramifications are cynically weighed with the moral implications) needs to happen before a decision can be made?  What is the human price of preemptive strikes against known terrorists?  These are the questions weighing heavily in the razor-sharp new thriller, Eye in the Sky.

Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who commands a drone squad surveying Kenya and other spots in the horn of Africa, wakes up one day to find three of the top ten terrorists on the East African most wanted list have gathered in a suburban home in the middle of a militia occupied neighborhood.  The original orders from higher up (led by a Alan Rickman in one of his final roles) were to survey and capture (one of the terrorists is a British citizen), but that’s too dangerous with the militiamen around.  When a bug-drone confirms they are preparing suicide vests inside, Powell pounds the drums to kill.  But when an innocent girl selling bread in the market area outside the house enters the kill zone, things get even more complicated and everyone (and I mean everyone…at one point the British Foreign Minister is rung-up while he’s on the toilet with food poisoning in Singapore) must weigh in before the strike can be executed. Continue reading