Friday, December 30, 2016



JACKIE          B+                  
USA  Chile  France  (99 mi)  2016                 Official site

Don’t let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.

Camelot, sung by Richard Burton, words and music by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederik Loewe, 1960, "Camelot" w/ Richard Burton - YouTube (2:31)

While Pablo Larraín has been a lauded and perhaps overrated filmmaker, where his two recent films No (2011) and The Club (El Club) (2015) have been controversial and provocative, yet they have failed to deliver on the artistic promise expected from critically acclaimed filmmaking, where one questioned whether greatness lies within him.  Surprisingly, and perhaps uniquely, this ruminating biopic on Jackie Kennedy in the four days following the assassination of her husband in November 1963 is a superb piece of filmmaking, among the better films seen all year, the director’s first venture in the English language, where perhaps this is the first time all the pieces fit together, starting with a towering performance from Natalie Portman, arguably the best in her career, following brilliant work with Terrence Malick in Knight of Cups (2015) where her brief but elevated performance was among the film’s high points, a creatively insightful script written by Noah Oppenheim, told in a fragmented manner, highlighting all the interior moments kept away from the cameras and never seen or imagined before, beautifully edited by Sebastián Sepúlveda in what is arguably the best edited film of the year, all held together by a bombastic musical score written by Mica Levi that superbly adds a somber, funereal flourish, yet also expansive symphonic reach that adds an experimental, avant garde element to the film.  On top of that, the cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine is exquisite, beautifully combining the external and interior moods that were haunting the First Lady, where the film reaches into the depths of the moment, perhaps only as film can examine, retracing one of the most historic moments in American history.  The film is framed by a Life magazine interview taking place a week afterwards by Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) at the vast but empty Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, where Mrs. Kennedy makes it clear she’ll be controlling what gets printed, scrutinizing the reporter’s notes, amusingly offering stories that she later indicates is not for public record, resulting in a surprisingly poignant essay ("For President Kennedy: An Epilogue," by Theodore H. White, Life, 6 ...) that continues to resonate to this day based on its historic impact, as the First Lady was the first to elegantly frame President John F. Kennedy’s legacy, beautifully reaching a chord desperately needed by a country reeling at the time, establishing the myth that will forever be associated with her husband, often referred to as the Camelot era.

Previously the best characterization of Jackie Kennedy came from actress Parker Posey in the outrageously delightful The House of Yes (1997), a film that superimposes her own fictitious images over Jackie Kennedy’s infamous tour of the White House, A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy - YouTube (57:37) before delving into one of the sickest bits of satire ever conceived on film.  Now we have Natalie Portman showing a different side of the First Lady, brushing up on history, asking for historical expertise on Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, then designing her own husband’s funeral in a similar fashion, insisting upon the same specifics.  During a period when women’s rights and opinions were largely ignored, it’s amazing to think that Jackie Kennedy’s elaborately historic funeral plans for JFK were implemented right down to the last detail, while at the same time her profound dignity on display during a moment of national trauma remains one of the treasured moments in American history, where she personified grace under pressure.  Legendary Greek actress Irene Papas noticeably channeled her behavior in the Costa-Gavras political suspense thriller Z (1969), winner of the Best Foreign Film, when right-wing generals along with a police chief staged an assassination of her husband to gain political power in Greece.  This film is a look behind the scenes at the private moments where her mood vacillated between unspeakable strength and a crippling anguish, becoming a powerful, yet intimate portrait of a very public grief.  Portman is outstanding in the role, literally owning the picture from start to finish, capturing a wounded soul rising to the occasion with a tempered intelligence, displaying a previously unseen confidence and depth of character, elevating to new heights in her career as she literally treads new ground, imagining how the First Lady might have handled tricky situations, relying upon the help of the President’s brother Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and her personal assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig).  Additionally the film is an undeniable technical achievement, from the brilliant cinematography to the mournful musical score that is completely in sync with the changing moods, yet the art direction by Jean Rabasse couldn’t feel more precisely accurate, taking us inside the White House, including the upstairs bedrooms where the public has always been excluded.

The delicacy of the situation occurs after a new President is sworn in, looking forward to running the country, but continually forced to look backwards as well for the last vestiges remaining of old business.  It’s here that Portman literally provides new territory, as we’ve never had a look at the First Lady behind the scenes, where she’s not seen as some meek, grieving widow, but an authoritative figure barking out instructions for people to follow, where she is an undeniable Lady Macbethian force to be reckoned with.  At the same time, she is the one who must tell the news to their two small children, Caroline and John Jr., that their father won’t be coming home anymore, where she goes to great lengths to include them openly in the family affairs while at the same time protecting them.  Moving back and forth in fragmented storytelling, the film offers a highly personalized window into something we’ve never seen before, and does so with an extraordinary complexity, where we hear her question herself in voiceover whether her decision for such a public funeral was for her husband or more for herself.  As we relive the traumatic moments of the assassination, a few rare moments stand out, like wiping the blood from her face aboard Air Force One after it happened, or tearfully cleaning herself up afterwards before crawling into bed, and later wandering in a sedated daze, going from room to room in the White House while listening to the title song from the musical Camelot, exposing her privacy in a place she so proudly helped restore, recalling her elegant tour of the White House that doubled as a history lesson, but now she would be forced to leave, where there is pressure by the new administration to move into their new quarters.  While she is emotionally shattered by the experience, agonizing over decisions to be made, she is ever mindful of her husband’s legacy, taking great care to help frame it in a positive light, where we get a glimpse of her dignity, intelligence, and heartbreak all at once.  One of the more intriguing devices is the use of an Irish Catholic priest, Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) as the First Lady’s personal confidante, literally walking her through the funeral in anguished reflection before his burial, discussing her rage and philosophical doubts, including a startling revelation of her husband’s infidelities, often viewed in close-ups, where their long walks together add a previously unexplored spiritual dimension that hovers over the occasion, adding unique personal insight to the event.  Perhaps the most remarkable quality, however, is the emotional vividness of the film, where we’re able to see the piercing vulnerability of the First Lady during a time of great emotional sorrow, yet also her steely resolve as she strives to find a way out of the emotional labyrinth she finds herself stuck behind, where it’s a surprise to find a Chilean director explore what is quintessentially an American story with such relevance and artistic insight.    

Thursday, December 29, 2016


FENCES           B+    
USA  (138 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Denzel Washington           Official Site

Like being hit with a ton of bricks, this film has an awesome power, yet the agonizing truth is the protagonists are stuck in a period of history where the most they could hope for would leave them standing still, as there was no possibility whatsoever of progress being made in black America.   That is the economic reality from which this film was spawned, where few understood this as well as playwright August Wilson, where this is the only one of his plays that he ever wrote a screenplay for before his death in 2005.  First, a word about playwright August Wilson, who is to the black community what Eugene O’Neill may be to the whites, both Pulitzer Prize winners who are known as gifted writers of dialogue, among the greatest ever, where Wilson’s poetic language chronicling the black experience in America is actually described as “music.”  Having never formally studied theater, Wilson credits the blues, specifically Bessie Smith’s rendition of “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine,” Bessie Smith - Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine YouTube (3:22) as a defining moment in his life, as it made him recognize the poetry in the everyday language of black America, providing the inspiration and freedom to use that language in his own writing.  Wilson is best known for his unprecedented cycle of 10 plays, known as the Century Cycle, one set for each decade, that chronicle the black experience in the 20th century.  Chicago’s Goodman Theatre was the first theater in the world to produce the entire 10-play cycle, spanning from 1986 to 2007, where two of the productions were world premieres.  All but one take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an economically depressed neighborhood where Wilson was born in 1945 and spent his youth.  Fences was originally a 1983 play, winning the first of two Pulitzer Prizes for the author, the other being The Piano Lesson (1990), which was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1995, where the play opened on Broadway in 1987 winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Actor (James Earl Jones) and Best Featured Actress (Mary Alice), returning in 2010 where it won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Actress (Viola Davis).  In a deal with HBO, Denzel Washington is bringing all ten of August Wilson’s plays to the screen, releasing one per year, where he will be the executive producer for them all, though this first venture is with Paramount, with Washington acting, directing, and producing, bringing over most of the Broadway cast and crew already familiar with the work, where five of the six featured characters originally appeared on stage. 

Set in a working class district of Pittsburgh in the 1950’s, the timing of the work is appropriate, as most white Americans have nostalgic recollections of the 50’s, including Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, Sputnik and the Space Race, Las Vegas, the Rat Pack, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the advent of television, including a nostalgic tribute to the decade with the Fonz and Happy Days (1974 – 83), with seven of ten Republicans today fondly preferring America as it was in the 50’s, remembering it as an era of prosperity and good schools, living in the safety of the suburbs where there were no problems to speak of and the American Dream was still alive and well.  Black Americans have an entirely different view, as they remained segregated by a separate and unequal society unable to earn a living wage, as they were unable to live or eat or go to school with whites, attend the same church, or even the same hospitals, requiring separate bathrooms and accommodations, where nearly 100 years after the Civil War, blacks remained legally discriminated against on every front, forced to live in shabbier sections of town where life expectancy was considerably lower while forced to take the jobs whites didn’t want.  It is in the heart of this racial and economic discrepancy that August Wilson sets his story, a conversational chamber drama that showcases the larger-than-life personality of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a 53-year old garbage collector who struggles to financially make ends meet, living pay check by pay check, arriving home with his friend and work partner Bono (Stephen Henderson), both chattering away while pulling from a shared pint of vodka, feeling upbeat and hopeful, as it’s Friday, the end of the week, and more importantly it’s payday.  Troy’s character speaks nearly uninterrupted for the opening twenty minutes of the film, where we quickly learn he dominates his household with an iron fist, where his natural charm is drowned out by his bitterness, enraged that he’s routinely passed over by less qualified whites on his job, remaining haunted by lost dreams, where he was once a promising ballplayer in the Negro Leagues with hopes of playing major league baseball, but his career was derailed by racial prejudice and a prison sentence until time simply passed him by and he was too old to play.  While he still has the braggadocio of an athlete, claiming he was better than today’s black ballplayers and seen a hundred men play ball better than Jackie Robinson, Bono cuts through the myriad of self-delusions with the sarcastic quip, “I know you got some Uncle Remus in your blood.” 

Troy’s vacillating moods comprise the rhythm of the film, with various characters jumping in and out of the picture, including his long-suffering wife of eighteen years, Rose (Viola Davis), who chimes in when he’s stretched the truth too far with his embellishments, but the humorous mood turns on a dime to one of righteous anger when his grown son arrives, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a jazz player who barely scrapes by, asking to borrow money, which is met with unending contempt for his habit of always arriving on payday.  It’s Rose that eventually gives him the money while reminding Troy that college recruiters are arriving for his younger son’s next high school football game, where Cory (Jovan Adepo) might be offered a scholarship.  But Troy dismisses his son’s chances, reminding him that whites won’t let him into their game, so he may as well look elsewhere to earn a living.  His own failed experience taints the view of his son’s existing possibilities, actually undermining his son’s chances once the opportunity arises by refusing to sign the permission slip allowing recruiters into his home, denying his chance to go to college, which only exacerbates the hostility and anger Cory feels towards him, thinking it’s only jealousy because he might be a better athlete than his father was.  These relentless mood shifts of lost hope and broken dreams recur throughout, leading to an intense examination of the harsh realities of their lives, which doesn’t get any better, becoming a deep-seeded, psychological examination of systematic despair, where the fence he intends to build, supposedly to keep others out, is actually a suffocating experience locking them in at the same time, becoming a metaphor for all the obstacles placed in their path, like how to survive on the other side of the fence, as blacks are routinely excluded from white neighborhoods, with racism so ingrained into society, causing blacks to have to learn to play by a different set of unspoken rules that exist only for them.  That is the underlying moral dilemma of the film. 

Troy has a mentally damaged younger brother with a metal plate in his head, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose brain was damaged by shrapnel while serving as a soldier in World War II.  We learn that Troy bought the house he lives in by taking the money that was Gabriel’s compensation for his injury, while Gabriel rents a room somewhere and wanders the streets aimlessly, seemingly rootless and homeless, the kind of person people walk past on the street without giving him a second thought.  Plagued by guilt, yet bordering on the supernatural, Troy believes he’s gotten such a raw deal in life that he’s actually fought with the Devil just to survive, becoming a ghostly presence bogging him down, eating away at him, where we learn to appreciate what he’s overcome, but at the same time despise the meanness and domineering attitudes that come with it, as the hard-headedness and lack of sympathy that he displays towards others feels punishing, especially when it’s aimed at Rose, who is among the more selfless creatures on earth, yet the two get down into the muck in a knock-down, drag-out fight that is as emotionally wrenching a scene as anything seen all year, with Troy’s hypocrisy exposed, where Rose finally stands up to him and refuses to budge, setting the stage for even darker misfortunes that lie ahead.  In one of the more hauntingly beautiful moments, expressed with unimaginable tenderness, women dressed all in white lay their hands on Rose in an attempt to heal her damaged spirit.  Despite Troy being the center of attention, almost to the point of distraction, a living Sisyphus forever charged with pushing that ball over the mountain, only to have to do it all over again, and then again on into perpetuity, it’s Rose who is the heart and soul of the film, where Viola Davis is a revelation in the role, offering her greatest performance in what is ultimately a fitting tribute to all black women, becoming the maternal symbol of grace that miraculously holds broken families together during the harshest times, defying unimaginable odds, much like they did during slavery times.