Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq., Félicité, 1945, Darkest Hour, The Divine Order, No Stone Unturned, Machines, Gilbert, Wait for Your Laugh, Murder on the Orient Express, A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Call Me By Your Name

Roman J. Israel, Esq.



Darkest Hour

The Divine Order

No Stone Unturned



Wait for Your Laugh

Murder on the Orient Express

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Call Me By Your Name

In a mid-to-late November with several terrific titles (and only one true dog), one film stands above all.

Let's get the dog out of the way first. Dan Gilroy's "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is the most bizarre movie I've seen all year, and perhaps the most unappealing. The press kit calls it a "dramatic thriller," but almost nothing happens - until a climactic shooting conceived and filmed in a tone incongruous with the rest of the picture. I was shocked to learn Gilroy, the writer-director of 2014's brilliant "Nightcrawler," is responsible for this inert, squirm-in-your-seat slow two-hour death march. Denzel Washington, in his worst performance in recent years, plays the title attorney, the research-and-writing brains behind a Johnnie Cochran-type criminal defense attorney. When the big man croaks, sharpie Colin Farrell swoops in to buy the neighborhood firm out and lure Roman to his gleaming office in the DTLA sky. There follow some of the least convincing lawyer and law-firm scenes in cinematic memory, and an ethics-violating act by Roman wholly out of keeping with his character. But then again, there's not much to this character besides an endlessly disputatious personality and a bunch of half-mumbled jive about oppression and racial justice. ("You're insane," Farrell tells him at one point, and I concur; he reminds me of a crazy - and equally logorrheic - former file clerk.) The talented Carmen Ejogo is also wasted as a community organizer (and we're seeing the difference now between a community organizer economy and a self-made billionaire economy) whose scenes with Roman (a laughable meeting of activists, a queasy suggestion of romantic interest) are even less believable than the law stuff.

Thumbs down for Alain Gomis' Kinshasa-set "Félicité," with Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu as the heroine, a fiercely proud singer and single mother whose son has a motorbike accident that threatens his leg and who sets out to raise the money for his operation however she can. I appreciated the look at street life in the DRC, but Mputu never gives us a way into her character and, at over two hours, redundancy and boredom set in… Another no vote for Ferenc Török's "1945," a parable (that never feels like anything but) about a Hungarian village (that always feels like a stage set) preparing for the summer wedding of the town clerk, when who arrives at the train station but two Orthodox Jews bearing mysterious boxes dubiously labeled "Fragrances." Are they heirs of the village's deported Jews, back to claim the property taken from their loved ones under coercion? So everyone in town (too readily) assumes, but you'll see the moral coming a mule ride away… Gary Oldman is a fine actor, and may well win the Oscar for Joe Wright's Churchill-in-WWII picture "Darkest Hour," but it's the sort of performance for voters with simple minds (i.e., the vast majority). It fairly screams "I have not been honored before, and you will make it up to me now!" Screams is, as the late Brett Somers would say, the operative word - it's the showiest of showcase roles, filling the spaces between voluble bluster with look-at-me tics and grumbles. Wright, who is capable of exhilarating cinema (2011's "Hanna"), ought to have devoted more time to bringing the military tactics to life(though I'm now thoroughly Dunkirk-ed out) and less to obligatory denunciations of Herr Hitler or the lamentable scene in which Churchill takes the underground and asks a Benetton-ad carful of constituents (each speaking in turn) whether to fight or negotiate. The retrograde parts of Churchill's wife and typist are unworthy of, respectively, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James… As late as the early 70s, women did not have the right to vote everywhere in Switzerland. So I learned in Petra Biondina Volpe's feather-light issue comedy "The Divine Order," in which the women of one Alpine village go on strike, refusing to return home until enfranchised. There's nothing objectionable to this genial picture, but little that's challenging or resonant, either; Sibylle Brunner makes the strongest impression as the unfiltered matriarch of the movement… And the last mild discommendation goes to documentarian Alex Gibney's "No Stone Unturned," about the (intentionally?) unsolved murder of six men at a bar in Northern Ireland, shot from behind while watching Ireland in the World Cup during the height of The Troubles. The material is clearly deeply felt for Gibney, but it doesn't translate; he gets uncharacteristically sidetracked in minutiae and repetition and at one point my friend had to elbow me awake.

Three docs that do make the grade are Rahul Jain's "Powaqqatsi"-esque "Machines," a vivid descent and immersion in the bowels of a gigantic textile factory in Gujarat, India with the laborers who stack 12-hour shifts (sometimes back-to-back-to-back) to survive; Neil Berkley's up-close-and-personal Gilbert Gottfried bio "Gilbert," in which the comic's demons are laid bare (and featuring a few of the hilarious tsunami jokes that ended his gig as the Aflac spokesduck; e.g., "I asked my Japanese realtor whether there was a good school in the area. She said, "Not at the moment, but just wait.'"); and Jason Wise's "Wait for Your Laugh," a delightful tribute to the woman with the longest career in show business history, Rose Marie. The mildest of recs also for Kenneth Branagh's remake of "Murder on the Orient Express," in which Branagh unfortunately casts himself as Poirot and adds little new to the material, but which provides what its audience wants: pretty people in pretty places doing ugly things to one another.

Now we come to the good stuff. Sebastián Lelio showed promise with his major debut, 2014's winning "Gloria" (with Paulina Garcia). He delivers in spades with "A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)," a film of wit, sensitivity and Almodovar-esque style that marks Lelio as an important writer and director keenly attuned to the contemporary woman. The woman in this case is Marina, a trans woman played by the trans actress Daniela Vega (who appears in virtually every frame of the film and commands the screen). Marina is a singer and actress in love with an older businessman, Orlando. When Orlando takes ill in bed one night, Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he dies upon arrival. Rather than sympathy, Marina is met with the contempt of most of Orlando's family (expressed politely by some, at least initially, and brutally by others) and the suspicion of the seen-it-all sex crimes detective who doubts that Orlando's bruises resulted from a fall on a staircase. "You will not come to the wake, or the funeral," Orlando's ex tells Marina, while the detective refuses to step out for the police doctor's physical examination of her. Vega walks the tightrope throughout, never making Marina a doormat even as she reacts to continual attacks on her dignity with remarkable equanimity and, despite the raw emotions in play, only rarely shows the full force of which she is capable. Lelio's next film, "Disobedience," stars Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz and Alessandro Nivola, and opens in April. I can't wait.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges") got all the talent in his family. Brother John (the depraved "Calvary," the god-awful "War on Everyone") got none. Martin has given us his best work to date with "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," a witty and funny black comedy with Frances McDormand in a deservedly Oscar-buzzing performance as the bereaved mother of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered several months ago. She takes out the title ads, calling out the well-meaning and well-liked police chief (Woody Harrelson, showing range) for failing to identify the perpetrator. Mildred Hayes is a foul-mouthed (a bit too much so in some of McDonagh's more indulgent passages), steel-eyed force of nature with a singleness of purpose, and McDormand's best role since "Almost Famous." But the movie ends up belonging almost as much to Sam Rockwell's hapless Officer Dixon, an unreconstructed racist and loose cannon ("You cain't say nigger torturin' no more. You gotta say person of color torturin'") whose character undergoes a late reckoning that puts him and the movie in a becoming light. Peter Dinklage gets the best and funniest part of his film career, Lucas Hedges continues to deliver on his promise, and a word must be said about Sandy Martin as Officer Dixon's overbearing Momma, a deliciously amoral piece of trailer trash. As Margaret Bowman's waitress was to last year's four-star "Hell or High Water" ("What don't you want?"), Sandy Martin is to this richly conceived and filled-in ensemble gem.

We've saved the best for last: Luca Guadagnino's poignant and haunting "Call Me By Your Name," a story of first love lost and self found with a (huge star-making) lead performance by Timothée Chalamet that's fifty decibels softer than Oldman's in "Darkest Hour" yet infinitely truer, more penetrating and more memorable. He plays Elio Perlman, the insouciant son of a Classics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator (Amira Casar), who whiles away aimless Northern Italian days taking the air and reading widely in literature and philosophy. At night you can find him at the discotheque or making out among the fruit trees with his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel). Elio's parents express their affection for him without reservation, but extend him a long leash of trust. He answers for nothing and to no one.

Enter Oliver, Dad's tall, blandly handsome grad student (Armie Hammer, typecast), who'll spend the summer of '83 at the family's palazzo helping the prof with his project on Heraclitus. There's no outward friction between Oliver and Elio, though when Oliver's out of earshot, Elio ostentatiously ridicules his trademark American farewell: "Later." But of course, hate is not the opposite of love - indifference is - and indifferent to Oliver Elio is not. He's fond of Marzia, but Oliver kindles romantic and sexual feelings in him - first feelings - and that their object happens to be a man is not particularly remarkable to him or anyone else. Chalamet is fascinating to watch. As quiet and self-deprecating as Elio is, at any moment you don't know what physical movement he'll make or impulse he'll follow. He's no threat to anyone, but there's a feral quality to him. He's not a movie character waiting for his cues to act in scripted ways, but a (rather lovely) young man behaving with organically human unpredictability.

Elio's relationship with Oliver unfolds authentically, two steps forward, one step back. Though this is anything but an oppression-studies piece, even in the relatively liberated North, the men are (at least sometimes) careful with their PDA's. Oliver is clearly the teacher, Elio the apt pupil eager for lessons. (You have to see the adorably hopeless way he leans in for his first kiss with a man.) And of course Oliver has the benefit of experience and context; he knows what this relationship is in the scheme of his life in a way Elio can only learn the hard way.

Along, there are touchstones that will be recognizable to all gay men: the confusion of an unexpected physical touching; the clandestine "borrowing" of a love interest's shorts for, shall we say, private use; the pleasure of thinking and acting out transgressive thoughts (one of the joys we've lost in the rush to equality). Some of these moments elicit laughter that may be of a slightly different nature for the gays and straights in the audience.

But everyone can relate to the overwhelming feelings of first love, how joyful and perfect it feels in the moment - we two against the world - and how raw and piercing the pain that follows. Guadagnino's previous film was the first-rate "A Bigger Splash," a Mediterranean romantic roundelay among Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson. His approach to love is not to observe detachedly (though he makes perceptions as sensitive as any in memory) but to dive (swoon) in, savoring each sensation of sight and touch and taste and not shrinking from the heartbreak. He paints in thick, goopy strokes, using three times as much paint as the next guy; you can't touch his work without getting it all over you. Not normally my preferred style, but it works devastatingly well here.

Regular readers know how I feel about Armie Hammer. Never did I think he'd play a key part in the best picture of the year. But his limitations as an actor - which, to be fair, he pushes, especially as the film goes on - only give clarity to what "Call Me By Your Name" wants to be: not so much the greatest love story ever told, but above all a portrait of one young man coming of age, abandoning the protection of adolescence and giving himself over to the possibilities and perils of adulthood.

When summer ends and Oliver leaves, Elio's father confides that he knows about their "friendship" and not only supports Elio but envies him: "I never quite had what you had." The speech comes off almost embarrassingly progressive, but as delivered by Stuhlbarg it's exactly what this particular man would say. (I hope he'll receive Supporting Actor consideration.) That the two men then (erroneously) conclude Elio's mother probably doesn't know is a hilarious comment that escaped the rest of my audience.

In the last scene, after any remaining delusions have been shattered, Elio warms himself by a fire while life in the villa goes on around him. Guadagnino's camera stays on Chalamet, unflinching, through the closing credits. Through his tears, he laughs as recollections and realizations cross his mind. The words of Sufjan Stevens' eerily beautiful "Visions of Gideon" perfectly capture the act of remembrance: "I have loved you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video?" I've thought about the scene every day since I saw "Call Me By Your Name." What will become of this exquisite young man? The ache of not knowing - of leaving him forever at this moment - I haven't felt for a movie character since William Miller.

Here is the best performance of 2017 in the best film of 2017.

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