Review of POWER RANGERS

Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G. Directed by Dean Israelite. Rated PG-13. 124 minutes. 2017.

There is a solid start, as well as a firm foundation in its characters, to Power Rangers. That is a surprise for this adaptation of the goofy television series that has just recently entered its 24th season and is primarily known for the over-the-top brand of karate-infused acrobatics employed by the titular superheroes to defeat various, fantastical villains and monsters. In fact, director Dean Israelite and screenwriter John Gatins barely seem interested in introducing the Rangers of the title until the point at which its climax begins, and that ends up being a good decision. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because for a long time, it’s easy to rally behind these misfits-turned-heroes, thanks to genuine chemistry between the actors and a screenplay that considers how they must end up being Rangers.

The effect is a nice deviation from the beats of the plot that we expect, but it only lasts so long. Until that point, we are introduced to those eventual heroes. The first three meet in detention. Jason (Dacre Montgomery), the Red Ranger, is a disgraced football champion who got into trouble with the law after an incident involving a male bull that was confused for a female cow (Think about it) and an ensuing chase with police. Kimberly (Naomi Scott), the Pink Ranger, was involved with an unfortunate candid-photo incident that drove her to knock a tooth from her boyfriend’s mouth. Billy (RJ Cyler), the Blue Ranger, accidentally blew up his lunchbox. There is an amusing energy to the scenes between the heroes, who also ultimately include Zack (Ludi Lin), the Black Ranger, and Trini (Becky G.), the Yellow Ranger.

This is especially true after the driving narrative is established. The fivesome merge after an incident at a closed-off work site leads them to some glowing rocks and a collision with a train that unintentionally binds each of them to the color signified above. They meet Zordon (Bryan Cranston), a former Ranger who died burying the rocks in order to secure the destiny of five future warriors, and Alpha 5 (voice of Bill Hader), the remarkably annoying robot who has been waiting 65 million years for these warriors. It becomes clear that the warriors could technically have been any five people who stumbled across the glowing rocks, but whatever: They must save the universe from the clutches of Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a villainous villainess of villainy who is searching for some sort of other glowing rock thing that’s been hidden away in a Krispy Kreme location (seriously) and who has a leviathan made of gold as her main lackey.

The best scenes of the teenagers accepting their destinies as Rangers include the initial discoveries of their increased strength and speed, a training montage that might be a montage but seems more focused on the physical comedy of teenagers whose hormones are raging as much as their new powers, and a fireside chat in which we learn about some of the issues plaguing the kids (Zack’s mom is ill, Trini is currently questioning her sexuality, Billy is autistic, and Jason and Kimberly are suffering from the ennui of their dull existence in the town). The particulars of the plot held by Rita are hogwash whose conclusion has apparently been left to the inevitable sequel, and the build-up to the climactic action set piece, in which the characters don their suits for the first time, is so long that, when it comes, the visually ugly chaos that ensues is all but entirely anticlimactic. Power Rangers is intriguing enough to make one wonder where a series spent in the company of these characters might lead, but then it becomes a Power Rangers movie.

Review of MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI

Featuring the voices of Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Michel Vuillermoz, Paulin Jaccoud, and Veronique Montel. Directed by Claude Barras. Rated PG-13. 66 minutes. 2017.

My Life as a Zucchini is a film of solemnity and quirk, of sadness and strangeness, that makes a significant impression in spite or, perhaps, because of its short length. At barely more than an hour, the film covers a surprising terrain of emotions within complex, well-rounded characters who are not what one expects from an animated feature. We are accustomed to the broad strokes. Animated characters, especially those who are children, are inherently innocent unless the film goes out of its way to underline their evilness. Here is a film that doesn’t coast on such assurances. These are remarkably vulnerable children at the center of this narrative, of which there is a thin one that kind-of, sort-of frames the central action. They mean well, but their spirits are utterly decimated by life’s cruel twists of fate. If they hurt others, that is because they are a product of their environment.

This is a roundabout way of saying that our story begins with young Zucchini (voice of Gaspard Schlatter) accidentally killing his mother by slamming an attic door on her head and sending her tumbling back down the ladder. The mom (voice of Natacha Varga-Koutchoumov) was a verbally abusive drunk, but he didn’t mean to do her any harm. She’s his mom, at any rate, and the incident changes the boy’s mood. His name, of course, isn’t actually the vegetable, but it’s what his mom called him. He keeps (or reclaims) it, much as he packs one of the hundreds of beer cans that were littered on the floor of their home and which he used to build various structures in what increasingly feels like a previous life. They are souvenirs of that past existence, certainly not of happier times, but as a reminder of them and as a keepsake.

After the mother’s death, Zucchini is transferred to the care of the state, his father having not been in the picture for some time. The officer who handles his case, a kindly man named Raymond (voice of Michel Vuillermoz), finds himself identifying with the boy during his stint with a home for damaged children. The two correspond while Zucchini becomes accustomed to life with a makeshift family of troubled youngsters as his siblings and with the likes of Rosy (voice of Veronique Montel) and Mr. Paul (voice of Adrien Barazzone) as their parental units. It’s a state of limbo while better plans are made for the children, but one gets the feeling that such plans are rarely fulfilled for this lot. That isn’t, of course, a reflection upon the children themselves, who are an eccentric lot as prone to compassion for others as anyone else, but their situations have made them into ticking time bombs with an emotional charge.

A few of them exist in the background, but it’s a tribute to the screenplay (by Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro, and director Claude Barras, adapting the novel by Gilles Paris) that the few characteristic traits we receive are comprehensive ones. Ahmed’s (voice of Raul Ribera) mother was deported one day while the boy was at school, and he bursts from the structure asking if she’s returned every time a car door slams outside. Alice’s (voice of Estelle Hennard) father did “disgusting” things to her that have left her with a scar over her right eye and a tendency toward anxietal tics such as tapping her spoon or intentionally entangling herself in a jump rope. Simon’s (voice of Paulin Jaccoud) parents committed a crime that landed the both of them in jail and their son to the state support system.

They are characters defined by trauma, but the definition isn’t a simple one. That becomes plain upon the introduction of Camille (voice of Sixtine Murat), a new child at the institution. The girl witnessed her father commit suicide after killing her mother, and now her aunt (voice of Brigitte Rosset) verbally abuses and degrades her. The film’s final stretch, which involves an elaborate escape plan for Zucchini and Camille, with Simon’s initially reluctant help, is, on the face of it, an unnecessary addition of external conflict, but the effect is sneaky: The stakes for these characters extend far beyond the film’s story, and their escape from a life of waiting for a new destiny that seems unlikely to come is joyous to behold.

The film’s style contributes a lot to its effect, because such a sad story feels inherently oddball and, thus, absolutely right. The film is a stop-motion creation, featuring characters with unusual proportions, although Zucchini’s strangely sized and shaped head is the oddest of them all. There’s a cute factor to the animation here that is undeniable and attributable to the usual charm of seeing stop-motion in work. The story told with such a style would seem more apt for black-and-white live-action, so the rush of affection for its characters is heightened by such a representational shift. The oxymoron works in My Life as a Zucchini, which is uncommonly powerful for the animation medium, engrossing us in the lives of wounded characters and returning, to some of them, a bit of emotional agency. What a wonderful and sorrowful film this is.

Review of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated PG. 129 minutes. 2017.

The 1991 animated masterpiece, a Disney production that was the first of its kind to be nominated for Best Motion Picture at the Academy Awards, receives a live-action reimagining with Beauty and the Beast, which spends a lot of time reminding us of its originator and ends up doing it too well. There have been some cosmetic tweaks in the storytelling, some of them appreciated and others mostly innocuous, but one spends the duration wondering what the point to the whole enterprise is. It’s not a cynical thought, either, or at least it isn’t once one moves past the question to look at the creation that sparks it. Director Bill Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos are so enamored with the earlier feature that they’ve gone and essentially created a facsimile of the thing. Comparisons, pesky as they can be, are impossible to avoid in this case.

The story pretty much remains the same. The Beast (Dan Stevens, in a great performance of immense sadness and reluctant compassion) still becomes one after scoffing at the ragged woman who was actually an enchantress, although we receive some appreciated context into the prince he was before the curse was cast. The tragedy of the Beast, of course, is that he was less desirable as a prince than as a misunderstood brute, and this film does a solid job of capturing that sad truth about his character. Belle (Emma Watson), meanwhile, is still a farm girl and an enigma to townfolk who still think it unwise that a girl be a bookworm. She is still sought by Gaston (Luke Evans), the self-obsessed lout who wants her as his bride whatever the cost (Speaking of Gaston, he is still shadowed by LeFou, played by Josh Gad, who looks upon his friend with – let’s say – a little more fawning admiration than in the animated feature), and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline, boundlessly wonderful) is still considered the village madman.

During a horse ride, Maurice still stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, at which he is stunned to discover moving and speaking dishes, furniture, and decor. Trapped by the Beast in a holding cell, Maurice is still found by a frantic Belle, who offers herself up as a tribute for imprisonment in the place of her father. She is treated gruffly by the Beast but kindly by the animated inanimate objects that populate the castle. The candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and the carriage clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) are still the comic relief, the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and her teacup Chip (Nathan Mack) are still sources of sneaky wisdom, and the wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), the piano Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), and the feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are still pretty much background decoration. The designs of these characters are clever in the way the physiological features develop naturally from the designs of the objects, but the realism is also odd and slightly irksome in execution.

The other design elements, from the magnificent castle to the seamless visual effects to the emotive motion capture work on the Beast’s profile, are stunning to behold, but they tend to outshine everything else here. The bevy of old songs feel, with the exception of the title theme, obligatory (Lumiere’s dinner welcome of “Be Our Guest” falls especially flat as it becomes a lot of random visual noise with an orchestral arrangement that overpowers the lyrics), and the handful of new songs are simply interruptions that say what’s already been said. Unfortunately, this Beauty and the Beast only emulates the pleasures of its animated counterpart, bloating much of a simple story beyond the two-hour mark and removing much of the passion from the production. It’s a gorgeous but mechanical whisper of its true potential, never as before and rarely a surprise.

Review of A UNITED KINGDOM

 David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Vusi Kunene. Directed by Amma Asante. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes. 2017.

It is important, first and foremost, to remember that film is a visual medium. It’s an obvious point to make about an art form that forces its consumer to view a series of rapidly moving photographs, but it is also important to remind oneself that, when it comes to relaying a true story through such a medium, the result must not simply coast on the extraordinary nature of its specifics. This is the trap into which Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom falls, unfortunately, for here is a film whose makers seem to have believed that the story they were telling was of more importance than their telling of the story. Even the broad subject matter is fascinating for the previously uninformed, such as myself, who had no idea of the marriage between the heir to an African king and a salesman’s daughter from London.

The heir is Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, offering a fine performance that would make a good companion piece to the one he gave as Martin Luther King Jr.), and as his parents both died when he and his sister (Terry Pheto) were very young, Seretse is ready to take the throne of rule in the British protectorate of Bachuanaland (now known as Botswana) that was previously their grandfather’s. He is soon to return from London, where he has been completing his schooling, to assume his reign, but within the final months, he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), who, unlike Seretse, doesn’t come from great wealth and is white. Their courtship is quick, and when he is faced with a return to his country without the woman with whom he has fallen in love, he asks her to marry him, much to the disapproval of his uncle (Vusi Kunene) and her parents (Nicholas Lyndhurst and Anastasia Hille). She, of course, says yes.

The situation is, to put it lightly, complicated, as it also turns out that neither the African regime nor the British government is approving of this union, especially after it is consummated. For the African tribe of which Seretse is meant to be king, it is a question of tradition: The wife of a king is also their queen, and they understandably see the rule of a white queen as another power move from colonialist England. For the British government, it is a question of decency: Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the government’s liaison to South Africa, and Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton), a commissioner, can barely remain discreet about his smug prejudice, which is shared by many whites among the upper class. For Seretse and Ruth, it is a question of love: Theirs for each other is undying, even in the face of such discrimination and a game of proverbial chess between countries.

The problem is that screenwriter Guy Hibbert, adapting a book by Susan Williams, doesn’t offer much insight here beyond what is on the page. Seretse and Ruth have an appropriate sweetness as a couple (Pike is also solid as Ruth, especially in moments when she realizes she has entered situations beyond her control), but they remain cyphers when treated individually. They are defined entirely by their roles as subjects of a biographical picture whose intent seems to be hitting the beats of the story without much to-do. There are scenes of individual power, such a pair of speeches given by Seretse that prove both his worthiness of a position of leadership and Oyelowo’s skill at delivering them, but the whole of A United Kingdom is too broadly drawn to garner much response beyond the kind that one has to the story it tells.

Review of LAND OF MINE

Roland Moller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bokelmann, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard. Directed by Martin Zandvliet. Rated R. 100 minutes. 2017.

The men must scour the shore for landmines that their fellow soldiers laid down to trap the enemy. It is slow and grueling work, and the catch is that these are not actually men. Many of them are boys, these prisoners of war, and the hard men that lord over them care not a lick if they live or die. The sergeant says so, repeatedly, including after a bout of hunger in his workers and even when one of them catches ill, vomiting into the night and unable to stay awake for very long. The workers must use poles to prod the ground at intervals of roughly six inches, and the process to defuse the mines is simple in theory but unthinkably tense in practice. It’s a potentially hopeless life that is led by these young men in Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine, but the writer/director doesn’t wallow in it.

That’s an important achievement, because it means the characters are able to be and grow as characters, rather than needing to supply fodder for a message movie. This is, quite decisively and effectively, an anti-war polemic, but it doesn’t have the anger of the usual polemic. There are no blustering speeches raging against the System for sending these boys into a war they hardly understand. The situation is harrowing on its own terms, and it doesn’t need the burden of such acidic political statements. The realpolitik here is inherent in the story Zandvliet is telling, although the film does supply melodrama of a different kind by way of the story framing the situation. It loses some of its potency in those stretches, but that also matters less than it could have. The urgency is still present.

Some of the young men are essentially interchangeable, although a few of the interchangeable ones are afforded a personality trait (or, if they are lucky, two), such as one boy whose hands are so shaky we are never sure that he will survive. The job, after all, requires a steady hand. The ones who are not so interchangeable act as our entryway into the story. Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) wears a cross that reminds him a father whose fate he does not know, and he’s the one who readily stands up to their commanding officer on behalf of his brothers in arms. Helmut (Joel Basman) is the eldest and the makeshift leader of the young men, but his squirrelly attitude and conniving ways are a constant source of punishment for the whole group. There is a pair of twins, Ernst (Emil Belton) and Werner (Osker Belton), so one must only count the minutes until the pair are separated.

The commanding officer is Rasmussen (Roland Moller), and the focus on him is where the film occasionally stumbles. He begins with contempt for the boys, whom he sees as nothing more than another group of German soldiers worthy of death. “Better them than us,” says his own superior officer Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), and Rasmussen’s look of concession to the point says it all. That sense of murderous superiority shifts quite radically, albeit slowly, when deaths occur (The craftsmanship in showing us the aftermath of a mine explosion is effective and somber, even after we start to expect it by way of a cleverly framed shot) and especially when Jensen abuses his power to humiliate the boys. The film essentially becomes another drama about a stern teacher who learns to warm to his students, although Moller’s performance is good enough that it doesn’t hurt the picture too much.

And that’s especially true when everything else is as effective as it is. The emotion might push a bit too hard in such scenes as a silly game of soccer, scored to some flowery compositions, but it’s a stark outlook elsewhere. Every scene in which the prisoners much go forth with their mission to find and defuse landmines is rich with tension and unpredictability. No character is safe here, and the stark presentation of the violence at hand is utterly compelling. Also effective are performances that, every one of them, are convincing and precise. There is not a single actor here that makes a misstep. The sense of focus in Land of Mine is less assured, but the drama is in the pitiable nature of a war that forces boys to fight as men and, if not fight, die without dignity.

Review of KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. 2017.

I hesitate to call Kong: Skull Island a “good” movie, for it is also a movie of undeniable idiocy that contains an ensemble of characters who are really just cutout cardboard figures in the path of the ape of the surtitle. To embrace its simple pleasures, though, one must disconnect with one’s own expectations of seeing a movie with Kong in it, for this is not really a traditional King Kong movie. It uses the character popularized by the 1933, 1976, and 2005 pictures (and the various sequels they might or might not have spawned) as a springboard for an ensemble-driven action-comedy that, if the post-credits stinger is to be believed, wishes to insert the eighth wonder of the world into a new cinematic universe. Whether that franchise has legs remains to be seen, but it’s also immaterial to this film, which is just a lot of expository build-up to a string of action sequences.

The human characters matter approximately none, but we are still offered an eccentric cast of them, played by an eccentric troupe of actors. There is the expedition group that leads the charge of the main narrative engine: John Goodman as Bill Randa, who heads an ultra-secret government group that wants to explore the untapped terrain of a recently discovered island, Corey Hawkins as Houston Brooks, the college kid confronted by Randa because of his theory that the earth holds secrets, and Tian Jang as San, who just kind of exists to echo Brooks’s confidence in his theory. They confront a military colonel to green-light their expedition, which of course involves also green-lighting a military escort, a tracker who can guide them through the muck of the island, and a photographer to capture the journey for scientific and journalistic purposes.

The military escort is led by Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard, a soldier fighting in Da Nang who believes the U.S. has abandoned the war in Vietnam when President Richard Nixon calls it off. He’s grateful for one last mission, even one as seemingly trivial as an escort for a scientific study, and spends the rest of the movie apparently feeling he is still in combat with the human enemy. His men, who are mostly interchangeable, are still played by the personality-driven likes of Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, and Eugene Cordero. Tom Hiddleston is James Conrad, the tracker in question, and Brie Larson is Mason Weaver, a photojournalist who passes up the cover of a popular magazine to tag along on something historic.

That seems like a lot of introduction to characters that, this review claims, don’t matter, but that’s also all the introduction we get. They are cutout cardboard stand-ins for the audience, with the exception of John C. Reilly, who is boatloads of fun when he shows up as Hank Marlow, a WWII veteran who was marooned on the island of the subtitle before his deployment ended. The real story of the movie kicks in when they reach the island. They encounter Kong (whose movements are provided by Kebbell via motion-capture) immediately in a superbly mounted scene of controlled chaos in which Kong considers the helicopters in which they arrive to be nothing more than giant gnats. The beast isn’t so much a tragic one here, though, as a territorial one, even more so when the interfering humans awaken the creatures that reside underground: They are fearsome beasties – giant lizards with lots of teeth.

There are yet more monsters on this island, such as an inexplicable cross between a bison and a leviathan or a far less mysterious arachnid with bamboo legs. The spectacle here is enormous and infectious, with screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connelly keeping the tone light while director Jordan Vogt-Roberts approaches the genuinely berserk action violence with as much aplomb as anyone has recently. The film exists for the sole purpose of witnessing various evolutionary nightmares do battle and seeing foolish humans come between them. It’s all very inconsequential, frequently dumb-as-rocks, and almost exclusively successful in a way that requires one immediately discard one’s brain at the door, but Kong: Skull Island works, and it works because it knows it is all of these things. Sometimes, good-enough is good enough.

Review of LOGAN (2017):

Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant. Directed by James Mangold. Rated R. 137 minutes. 2017.

(This review was originally published at Joel on Film.)

The Logan of Logan is beat-down, bruised, and utterly, completely resigned to the fact that the world has no use for him anymore. The film that features him, the third solo venture for the superhero, takes on a similar attitude, although there shouldn’t be sense here of selling the film short. This is not a grim or oppressive movie, even if the cinematography is rugged and the tone is mournful. The terrific thing about the screenplay by Scott Frank, Michael Green, and director James Mangold (who directed another of the spin-offs featuring Wolverine and returns here with a far superior take) is that it exists entirely on the level. There isn’t any silliness here, other than the inherent kind that has spawned any of the comic books that inspired these characters.

Even that kind of silliness has been forcibly mutilated into something repellant this time, as the adventures shared by Logan, once known as Wolverine in happier times, have become the source of stories that will eventually become legend and then, no doubt, myth. They’ve even been given their own Dead Sea scrolls in the form of comic books, which Logan thumbs through with disbelief, coming upon the stories of the deaths of his old friends that have been re-worked into histrionics and spectacle in the frames of the graphic novels. His dismissal of them as tripe is a sort of roundabout commentary: If Logan was real, as this film undoubtedly treats him, then these scenes of destruction were tragic, not worthy of the distancing effect that drawing them into a comic book might have.

It’s 2029, and Logan, once (and, reportedly, never) again played by Hugh Jackman in his best performance as the character, is one of the last remaining mutants. An event, unstated but referred to in hushed, reverent tones, wiped the planet of the rest, but perhaps Logan’s ability to heal himself from quite literally any injury or affliction gave him a genetic immunity. Whatever the case, he has isolated himself and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), his old mentor and teacher who is now nearing three digits in age, along the Texas-Mexico border, guarded by an albinic mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) who can track other ones. Logan is now protective of his old protector, who has contracted a degenerative brain disease that, coupled with his telepathic abilities, has caused the government to categorize his brain as a weapon of mass destruction.

Logan, who has taken to driving around clients in a limousine that will inevitably be used as a getaway vehicle at some point, is implored by a stranger (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez) to protect a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) from forces who would kill the woman and kidnap the girl. A quick escape is necessary, and so Logan and Charles are to escort the girl to a safe zone in North Dakota, while shaking off the head of the facility organizing the abduction, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), and the henchman-in-charge (played by Boyd Holbrook, who nicely chews the scenery with his exaggerated Southern accent). It turns out, though, that Logan isn’t so special even now, as Laura exhibits many of his traits and the villains showcase their own weapon, which is another kind of callback to Logan’s past. Some of the material with these villains is a bit routine, but thankfully it’s window-dressing here.

The film is also the first to feature a treatment of Logan’s superpower as a genuinely threatening weapon of brute force, with his signature knuckle-blades slashing and dicing and stabbing with appropriately gruesome results. The action sequences hit with the requisite strength of Mangold’s considerate staging, which makes sense of movement and geography while glorying in the quick-cutting style that enhances Logan’s combative abilities. Every confrontation between Logan and Rice’s minions is swift and brutal and pile-drives most of the action sequences that dominate the PG-13 superhero landscape these days. Fortunately, there is more on the mind of the director and his fellow screenwriters in Logan, which has more on its mind than tedious plot. There’s a sense of weary tragedy here, and that’s more than enough to set this film apart from and above the same, old same-old.

Seven-Sentence Reviews, by Joel Copling: THE BAD LIEUTENANT – PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS (2009)

Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans hits like a bat out of hell. This is the physical ideation of complete madness, weaving a tale that surprises and delights even in the particulars. Nicolas Cage, in one of his great performances, stars as Terrence McDonagh, a coke-addicted police sergeant in New Orleans who injures his back after a pitiful play of weaselly chivalry toward an inmate in his prison. Soon, though, he’s on the case of a murdered family of African immigrants who seem to have met the wrong end of a drug deal gone horribly awry. There is only one witness, and the film observes, seemingly out of the tunnel of a drug haze, McDonagh’s morally and psychologically bankrupt method of solving the case. The supporting cast is deep, from Val Kilmer as McDonagh’s brutal partner, Xzibit as their chief person of interest, Eva Mendes as a hooker with a heart of gold, Brad Dourif as a bookie owed his due, and Michael Shannon in a small role as McDonagh’s aide in acquiring items of a particular kind of illegality. William M. Finklestein’s screenplay exists at a strange four-way intersection of comedy, tragedy, absurdity, and inconsequentiality, and all of its lurid excess is disarming.

badlieutenant

The Best 10 Movies of 2016, by Joel Copling

(This article was originally posted at Joel on Film.)

Taking inventory of a year in film is always a difficult prospect, but with 2016, I saw a very specific thematic constant forming: empathetic storytelling. Many among my top ten — and, indeed, beyond — were marvels of empathy, much needed in the year with that Presidential outcome and the political trash fire that proceeded and has succeeded it. I did not see everything, of course. That seems increasingly impossible as the number of high-profile gems rises. But I did see some stuff, and what follows was the best of it.

Moonlight

The best film of 2016 was this gem, following Miami-born Chiron from a boy (played by Alex Hibbert), who is raised by a crack-addict mother and the man who deals her the narcotics (Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali offer nuanced portrayals of these archetypes that transcend them) to a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) questioning his own sexuality in an environment that tells him he perhaps shouldn’t to a man (played by Trevante Rhodes) whose path in life is a form of imitative flattery toward the old father figure. All three of these performances are tremendous, as is the film’s marvelous empathy for its achingly human characters. Moonlight, with its shimmering cinematography (by James Laxton) and its quixotic editing (by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders) of a triptych, is a masterpiece of compassionate storytelling. No film in these twelve months resonated with me more completely, and none of the various displays of compassion spoke to me as fully, as this one.

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann could have gone so wrong in so many ways. The plot is thus: A woman named Ines (Sandra Huller), dealing with sexism (some of it casual, some of it sly) in the workplace, is cheered up by her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) after she returns home for her own birthday celebration. The method by which her father cheers her up is absurd: He dresses up in a suit, slaps on a wig of long, dark hair that is at great odds with the rest of his features, inserts fake teeth into his mouth, and introduces himself as the German ambassador. One could imagine that this premise is ready-made for Adam Sandler and his producer cronies, placing the woman’s degradation in the odd situation of being both the subject of ridicule and of the hypocrisy of calling out those who do the ridiculing and mangling the father’s antics into meaningless physical comedy. But writer/director Maren Ade is remarkably precise in her goals here, and the humanity on display throughout what might be a freak show is disarming.

Jackie

After her husband’s death, what will be Jacqueline Kennedy’s place in the world? This is the matter at the heart of Jackie, a film that contains a great well of emotion that builds by a finale that has no straight answer to such a question. Jackie may now be only the widow of a fallen President (the fourth and most recent of the handful that have been assassinated), but her dreams and aspirations — for the country right alongside her husband, for a family that had already seen tragedy in the form of children already gone, for the legacy of the House they inhabited as a monument and as a place of warmth in itself — ended with an assassin’s bullet on a chilly November day in 1963. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of this broken woman, her resilience astounding in the wake of trauma, is surely one of the year’s greatest screen achievements, and the film is an aesthetic wonder, too, with Stephane Fontaine’s granular cinematography and Mica Levi’s sweeping score.

Manchester by the Sea

A man has lost his brother and a son his father in Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating but entirely naturalistic new drama. My colleague Mark Dujsik called this film a “marvel of compassion,” and that sentiment rings true, especially in the writer/director’s examination of a shared past between Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler and his ex-wife Randi, played in a handful of scenes by Michelle Williams. Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died rather suddenly of heart disease, and Lee has now inherited the care of Joe’s son Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges (the highlight in one of the year’s strongest ensembles). Manchester by the Sea is not a film dominated by simple plotting or simplistic characters but by compassionate observation. All of these performances are convincing, not least Affleck, whose purest moments are when he must only emote without the aid of dialogue, and Michelle Williams, who devastates in particular the second time her ex-wife Randi and Lee meet. Jennifer Lame’s editing, meanwhile, is fascinating in the way it treats memory as an unwelcome guest upon the present consciousness.

La La Land

He’s an aspiring jazz club owner (played by Ryan Gosling in one of the year’s best performances) who wants to revive a dying genre, and she’s an aspiring actress (played by a radiant Emma Stone) who wants to be on the big screen. La La Land is about the dream deferred, and the way in which these two, who meet, fall in love, and change each other’s destiny, diverge from their path is at the heart of an exhilarating romantic comedy/drama that also happens to be a musical in the tradition of Astaire and Rogers. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, in his third film, stages those musical sequences with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross as flights of fancy even when the situation surrounding them is earthbound: a flight among a city of stars, a sung audition through which Stone’s Mia must act, a thrilling opening number set in the midst of traffic, a lovely dance on Mulholland Drive. One can joke that one must be a cynic to dislike the film, but is it, really, a joke?

Green Room

It seems that, even among its central fan base, Green Room has been widely misunderstood. This is a genre effort and not much more than that, they say, and just look at the premise for proof. And indeed one could sum up the premise as a headline easy to picture in one’s mind: “Members of Band Killed by White Supremacist Group.” Members of a band, played by Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, and the late Anton Yelchin in a career-best performance, are indeed targeted by members of a white supremacist movement, whose foremost leaders are played by an unnerving Patrick Stewart as a personification of casual evil and Macon Blair, terrific as his waffling, cowardly lieutenant. The carnage is savage and graphic (“No guns,” Stewart’s Darcy intones rather ominously) but intensely well-edited by Julia Bloch, and the whole thing is kept at a feverish pitch. One senses violence simmering down the generations, and look at what it’s come to. None of these characters is unintelligent, but cleverness has variations. This was a nightmarish game of cat and mouse.

Hidden Figures

Now here was an unexpected delight: A true story told with conviction, gentle humor, and wonderful performances. The film was about Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, a trio of African-American women (played phenomenally by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae) working as human computers for NASA in the 1960s, until Johnson’s proficiency with numbers helped to launch John Glenn and Apollo 11 into an orbital space excursion. The women each meet some element working against them: Generally speaking, systemic racism and its institutional consequences limit the information to which they can be privy, while specifically, supervisors and co-workers of each woman have their own personal prejudices, clearly read on their judgmental faces. Hidden Figures is deadly serious in its examination of this prejudice, but it’s also an entertainment and a rousing love letter to scientific progress.

The Handmaiden

One of the many delights of 2016 was discovering the storytelling prowess in a film like The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park’s deliriously enjoyable, 144-minute maze of shifting perspectives, sympathies, and points of view. It begins as the story of a young con artist named Sookee (Tae-ri Kim in an auspicious debut performance), who is asked to be handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim, perhaps the highlight of a strong ensemble), continues as various long cons raise their heads, and ends in a final act of such irresistible, hypnotic intrigue that it consistently amazes. The story surprises here were genuine surprises, too, not arbitrary twists that might belong to a lesser film about con artistry, and the film boasted the year’s finest exhibition of production design, featuring a central house with as many surprises in its construction as the narrative.

Krisha

Family gatherings are always stressful, but it’s unlikely any have ever had a strain on anyone like this particular Thanksgiving reunion has on Krisha, the long-lost aunt of the family in Krisha, a shattering examination of familial strain and anxiety from writer/director Trey Edward Shults in the feature debut of the year. Shults showcases shades of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick in ways that thankfully don’t feel imitative but as if he actually learned from his classes in film school how to utilize striking visual storytelling. He also incorporates reality-based and semi-autobiographical elements: Krisha Fairchild, Shults’s aunt in real life, plays the aunt of the character Shults plays in the film (also named Trey) in a devastatingly great performance, and Shults’s various real-life family members play Trey’s family, too. It’s a striking vision from an exciting new voice.

Silence

With his third religious epic, after 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997’s Kundun, co-writer/director Martin Scorsese brings his passion project to the screen, an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name about a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) called to search war-torn Japan of the 1640s for a third (played by Liam Neeson), who has renounced God and appropriated the life of a Japanese native. What they meet is the harshest resistance of the Christian faith that they have seen, a regime that beheads Christians by the thousands when they are not crucifying them. Silence is a troubling, sometimes frustrating, always mesmerizing venture from the legendary filmmaker, and in Garfield, we have found one of the great performances ever given in a Scorsese picture.

And here were ten more in no particular order, a next tier of films as fine as that above them:

Like so many of this year’s films, here was one set in the South, and the milieu is just one of the various things that American Honey, from director Andrea Arnold, accurately portrays. This one follows a young woman named Star, played in an auspicious debut performance by Sasha Lane, as she barely survives the backroads poverty of Texas and an abusive household and latches onto a group of nomadic magazine solicitors running a business scam and led by Riley Keough and Shia LaBeouf.

Lion, from director Garth Davis, contained a surprising burst of emotion and tension. If Manchester by the Sea was a portrait of a man’s difficulties in returning to the town in which he grew up, this was just as compassionately the flipside in that is about a young man’s desperation to return to a home from which he was lost in a seemingly random turn of events. Twenty-five years after disappearing as a boy, memories are stirred from deep within, and he must return home.

Hell or High Water, from director David Mackenzie, was a Neo-Western on the order of 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and while it wasn’t as thematically loaded or as jarringly nihilistic as the Coens’ masterpiece, it still featured great work by Chris Pine and Ben Foster as a pair of bumbling bank robbers looking to stick it to the banks that did them wrong and Jeff Bridges (in the year’s best performance) and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers on their trail.

Fences, from director Denzel Washington, adapted August Wilson’s play (which Washington revived for Broadway in 2010 with the cast that appears onscreen here) with literate fireworks and a healthy helping of deepest emotion. Washington himself stars as Troy Maxsen, the current patriarch of a family that has existed for some time under his deeply ethical, morally virtuous rule. The story then takes turns that strip the man of his values while building his character as a more complex one over 139 dazzling minutes.

Arrival, from director Denis Villeneuve, was the science-fiction effort that filmgoers needed in 2016 (a year plagued by miscommunication both unintentional and entirely intentional), featuring Amy Adams’s best performance in ages as a grieving mother and linguist asked to be the communication specialist when crafts carrying aliens descend upon Earth. The film then takes several narrative chances that resonate far beyond their puzzlebox nature before twisting upon itself with tragic consequences. It was hard removing this from the list above.

Sing Street, from director John Carney, was a wonderful romantic drama that used music as its entryway into the characters and their story — which is no surprise from Carney, who has a history with the art form that has driven his intentions as a storyteller. Here, it’s of a boy, a girl, and their shared, complex ideas about a future far away from the restrictive social norms of 1980s Ireland. The music was deliriously good, too.

Elle, from director Paul Verhoeven, was far more than the post-rape fantasy a cursory glance at its premise might suggest. Yes, Isabelle Huppert stars as a video-game designer whose agency as a woman is violated by a seemingly random home invasion that results in sexual assault, but the film is cannier than that in what it has to say about this situation, as (like The Handmaiden) the film shifts sympathies (Everyone — and I do mean everyone — is at some point worthy of our sympathy) as if it’s the easiest thing.

Other People, from director Chris Kelly, was the semi-autobiographical story of a young comedy writer (played by Jesse Plemons in a performance of great compassion) who has just exited a relationship with his boyfriend of several years and been sidelined by the cancer diagnosis of his ailing mother (played by a devastating Molly Shannon). The film then examines how the diagnosis and subsequent prognosis impact his focus on the rest of his life.

Midnight Special, from director Jeff Nichols, was something of an enigma in the early part of the year, but it was a forgotten gem — a science-fiction film more about characters than its genre, about a young boy (played by Jaeden Lieberher) being trucked across America by Joel Edgerton and Michael Shannon for reasons that are kept close to the vest by Nichols until a climax that might or might not answer the film’s pressing queries. This was more about the questions, though.

And Swiss Army Man, from directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, was the year’s most oddball delight, starring Paul Dano as a suicidal man stranded on an island and Daniel Radcliffe as the mostly-dead corpse that washes onto it. Bromance ensues as the corpse starts showing unmistakable signs of life, talking and farting and otherwise acting as a multi-purpose tool for Dano’s survival. That Kwan and Scheinert attempted this mixture of the absurd and the emotional was strange enough; that it worked is kind of a miracle.

MALCOLM X: A Review by Joel Copling

**** (out of ****)
Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo.
Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Lee and Arnold Perl, based on the book by Alex Haley and Malcolm X.
Rated R. 203 minutes. 1992.

Like Amadeus and Raging Bull a decade before it, and Ali and The Aviator a decade after, Spike Lee’s galvanizing Malcolm X is one of the great screen biographies (joining Nixon in that categories for a pair from the 1990s), never taking for granted the hero status of its polarizing figure, but examining his psychology and what made the man into the martyr. Superficially, the structure is not uncommon. We see his upbringing, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, to a father later probably killed by the Ku Klux Klan in a “streetcar accident” and a mother who loses her nerve as swiftly as she loses the ability to support Malcolm and his brothers. He later leads a life of drugs, pimping, gambling, and racketeering, before being imprisoned, partially for cavorting with white women while doing so. In prison and after, he becomes smitten with the teachings of Islam, in particular through the mentoring of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation Islam. Black supremacy, in the guise of black self-reliance, is the subject of the teachings, as Malcolm, who sheds his “slave” surname and replaces it with the letter “x,” learns that all white men are devil spawn. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, he becomes considerably less radically anti-white, though returning the African diaspora from the Americas, Europe, or anywhere else to their mother continent remains his message until his violent assassination, probably by Elijah Muhammad’s henchmen within the Nation of Islam,  with which he becomes increasingly disenfranchised over the course of his life. Here is that life, entirely and sprawling, portrayed in just less than three-and-a-half hours by Lee and co-screenwriter Arnold Perl (adapting Malcolm X’s own autobiography, co-written by Alex Haley, presumably after the man’s murder), who earn the gargantuan film’s every minute. We see this man live, breathe, fear, love, hate, doubt, firmly believe, and orate, and in an astonishing performance that ranks among the best in the movies, Denzel Washington captures the spirit, the controversy, and the humanity of this great man. Surrounding him is a superb supporting cast, each of whom I could name, but at the center is Washington’s disappearance into the role of any actor’s lifetime. It’s a performance of great courage in a film of great candor.