The end of a year brings a great many things, two of which loom large for me. First, it’s time to reflect on the past twelve months, and, on a personal level, 2016 can’t end soon enough. The New Year looms uncertainly as the nation embarks on the frightening adventure that is President Trump. And I have to do it without my four-legged best friend by my side.
I tend to turn to art for solace: to the vibrant unfolding of life on the stage and screen and to the inner life found in books. Ironically, most of the books I read have to do with death. Maybe that’s why I prefer classic mysteries, which make murder into a puzzle and find a way to restore some equanimity to life at the end. Now is a good time to turn to movies. It is the custom in the U.S. for Hollywood to unleash its “prestige” pictures at the end of the year – those they hope will be deemed worthy of consideration at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and other numerous awards ceremonies. This is when you will often find me at the local multiplex in the late morning/early afternoon, kettle corn and latte in hand, seeking inspiration and insight, laughter and tears in the dark. I’m like Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard or Mickey (Woody Allen) in Hannah and Her Sisters: films are both an escape from real life and a source of inspiration for all sorts of ideas and emotions we may be searching for.
This year I searched for consolation. And, remarkably, I have found some of it in a quartet of films, none of which offer obvious plot threads or pat happy endings. No, these films, to varying degrees, make you work a little harder, and, in all four cases, the effort rewards you.
Donald Trump was elected on November 8. I saw Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction film, Arrival, the following weekend. It is adapted from Ted Chiang’s short fiction, “Story of Your Life,” and frankly, I like that title better, although I understand why it was changed. Look at the tag line in the poster: “Why are they here?” Clearly the hook is meant to snag true science fiction fans, and I rather pity younger audience members who come in thinking they’re about to watch one of those movies about spacecraft hovering over our planet as our world’s leaders try to figure out whether the visitors’ intentions are good or harmful. I mean, that is what the film is about . . . but it’s about a whole lot more than that, too.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist who is brought in by the U.S. military to attempt to establish communication with the aliens – called heptapods – and learn their motives. Every major world power is trying to do the same thing with their own personal hovering spacecraft, and we wonder for a long time whether the rising tension between nations is all part of the aliens’ sinister plan or if we as a people are just too – oh, let me use the word “deplorable” – to grasp their intentions.
For a film about massive flying saucers covering the world, Arrival often feels muted and claustrophobic. This is not War of the Worlds or Independence Day. It begins small, with Louise recounting the memory of the life and death of her teenaged daughter. In fact, the film plays with the notions of time and memory from beginning to end. The set-up to the first meeting between human and alien is suitably suspenseful and loaded with just enough special effects. The aliens look interesting, and Louise almost immediately establishes a special rapport with them, clearly due to her success at deciphering what they have to say but also because of her capacity, as a woman and a mother, for understanding love and loss. She is aided by a physicist played by Jeremy Renner, and although they form a sort of bond that transcends their mission, for much of the story Louise is forced by circumstances and twists of plot to stand alone against a segment of Earth’s population that gets larger and larger as the film goes on.
Ultimately, the success of a film likes this probably lies in the ultimate motive of the aliens and how it plays out. Those of us cued in to these stories remember well why the Kanamits arrived in “To Serve Man,” the classic episode of The Twilight Zone, or what message Klaatu and his robot Gort had for Earth in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. Suffice it to say, I will not tell you what the heptapods are here for, except to say that they have the potential to change our planet forever. I would just like to say, after walking around for days, post-election, like a zombie, Arrival provides an ending that everyone, especially the President-elect and his cabinet, needs to see. (Maybe someone will explain it to the Donald . . . )
I assume that even people who do not live in this country heard the horrible things Trump said about folks during his campaign. If he said them just to get elected, so be it, but the baiting of racists worked for him, and now immigrants, Muslims, people of color, women, and LGBTQ citizens all stand frightened of the administration to come. This is the moment when seizing every opportunity to examine races and cultures other than my own becomes as much a responsibility as it is a pleasure. That’s what brought me to see Moonlight, a drama directed by Barry Jenkins, which has already been nominated for six Golden Globes and had better have a good showing when the Academy Award nominations are announced next February. Otherwise, it’ll prove that attempts to fix the system of voting for the Oscars have failed.
Told in three distinct “movements,” Moonlight chronicles the life of Chiron, an African-American boy who, as played by three amazing actors, grows up in the projects with his drug-addicted mother. (The young Chiron is known as “Little”, while the adult version goes by the name of “Black.”) It’s a story about parenting, about friendship, about sexuality, about what it means to be a black man, a gay man, a son, a friend, a lover . . . it’s about a lot, and providing you with a synopsis of how Chiron’s life plays out would rob you of too many of its pleasures. He has to endure lots of things, some of them brutal, but it’s the moments of hope, grace and love that happen to him that makes Chiron’s life so mesmerizing and wonderful to watch. That, and the glorious filmmaking that goes in to making this movie! The visual storytelling is poetic in its imagery. There is a scene on the beach in the moonlight that will stay with me for a long time.
Chiron is a character you root for from start to finish, and as his childhood gives way to an adulthood that holds little promise of his finding any tenderness, I found myself growing very tense. The fact that Jenkins imbues his hero’s finale with a sense of love and hope is a gift to us all.
I saw La La Land last week while in the throes of grief over the loss of my cat. It’s a sadness that continues through the holiday season, and the theatre didn’t make things easy for me with coming attractions for a drama about a man who loses his young daughter and searches for her spirit in heaven, a film about a dog who is repeatedly reincarnated in various breeds to different masters, and the trailer for A Monster Calls, the one about the boy who summons up a giant tree to deal with his grief over his cancer-stricken mother’s impending death.
I know, right?
I thought La La Land was the second film by director Damian Chazelle, whose last film Whiplash was my favorite movie of 2014. Turns out that Chazelle’s first movie is called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and it also trades on jazz music and tap dancing as an integral part of its storytelling. La La Land also scores big by pairing up (for the third time) Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, whom I loved so much, together and apart, in Crazy Stupid Love. In his latest film, Chazelle is inspired by the glorious Technicolor musicals of the 1940’s and 1950’s – films like An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain – as well as those intriguing French musicals from the 1960’s like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
It’s clear that Chazelle knows how to incorporate music and song into a screenplay to craft both a human love story and a valentine to the City of Angels. Marvelous cinematography, art design and editing assist him here, as does the clear chemistry between Stone and Gosling. When these two actors speak to each other, or when they are silent, or especially when they dance together, their connection is vibrant and magical. The ups and downs of their relationship with each other, even as she attempts to rise as an actress and he tries to escape selling out his skill as a jazz musician, are charted in a series of scenes and musical numbers bathed in glorious colors. It’s as telling that a straightforward argument between the couple over a home-cooked dinner is as mesmerizing as a fantasy pas de deux in a deserted planetarium. Through it all, we root for Mia and Sebastian to succeed as individuals and as a couple.
Yet for much of the film, the two things that sort of kept me from totally embracing the spirit of this film were, first, that the songs are just okay (with the exception of the haunting and lovely musical interlude that Sebastian plays in one form or another throughout the film, which first draws Mia to him) and second, that Gosling and Stone are expert at everything except singing. However, the film’s final sequence is so perfect that it makes up for this by illustrating how musicals tell stories (and, in particular, end them) in their own unique way. Watching this ending, any small misgivings I had felt earlier simply melted away. I can’t think of a good musical that doesn’t use its attributes to offer us a sense of hope, no matter how badly things go for its characters. Chino shoots Tony at the end of West Side Story, but the gangs lay aside their differences in the face of this tragedy, all to Leonard Bernstein’s glorious music. The Phantom of the Opera dies (maybe?); so does nearly every character in Les Miserables. But we walk out of the theatre with hearts full of hope that love survives and, in fact, conquers all. Like Whiplash, La La Land is a film I will view again and again, and Chazelle is a director whose career I will watch unfold with great pleasure.
Emboldened by a trio of films more somber, touched by unhappiness, and/or emotionally complex than anything I saw in 2015, I decided this morning (the day after Christmas, mind you) to dive right into the darkness and watch Manchester By the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, who will be nominated for Best Actor and should win. I had been warned by trailers, reviews and friends that the film was heavy going. And while a man who has just lost his cat can’t hope to compete with the losses suffered by Affleck’s Lee Chandler, a Massachusetts janitor whose pain is numbed by joyless labor, biting cold weather, and alcohol for reasons that unfold in measured doses, let’s just say I was primed to dive into this man’s pain. Affleck is extraordinary, as is every member of the cast. And before you go saying, “no thank you, I’d rather lie on a bed of nails,” let me just say that the film is rich with humor and so enlightening in its portrayal of a man’s life that any serious filmgoer would be foolish to miss it.
Lonergan’s fantastic screenplay begins with a montage of Lee at work, enduring the tedious chores demanded by difficult tenants in the four buildings he maintains for minimum wage and the barest of shelters during a bleak Massachusetts winter, before sending him back to his home town of Manchester, the scene of past tragedies, to deal with a fresh one. Much of the laughter comes from an engaging young actor named Lucas Hedges, who plays Lee’s nephew Patrick, saddled with Lee as a most ill-prepared new guardian. Patrick seems at first to handle life’s hardships with a resilience his uncle has lost, but looks can be deceiving. Their relationship never stoops to the maudlin or predictable. Manchester by the Sea trades on the small moments of real people, where funny things can happen in the midst of sorrow, and a tiny look or gesture can cause an emotional conflagration to erupt. The film chronicles the fact that, when we lose those we love, we sometimes mistakenly convince ourselves to never love again. It is a mistake we must correct if we are to survive, and this film brilliantly displays the struggle of a man who barely exists to find a way, almost despite himself, to start to live again.
These four films are excellent both as entertainment and as powerful depictions of life. Whether realistic or stylized in their depictions of people in crisis, they serve a deep-seated need for those of us who have been shattered in varying degrees by recent world events and personal tragedies. They remind us that a life truly lived means that darkness goes hand in hand with light, that loss and grief are intertwined with love and joy, and that people can endure and survive the darkness and even reignite the light within themselves.