The spirit of film noir lives on in Johnny Ma’s Old Stone, a downward spiral set in contemporary China. In the outline of the classic noir, a person makes one wrong move which sets in motion an inexorable series of disastrous events: Fred MacMurray sells a fishy insurance policy to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; Tom Neal picks up a good-looking hitchhiker in Detour. The bitter irony in Old Stone is that this particular spiral is set in motion when a man makes a right move—or at least a generous, unselfish one. His gesture, in trying to save someone’s life, brings down a rain of Biblical calamities.
Warren Beatty turns 80 next year, and he’s been talking about directing a film on Howard Hughes for decades. So we’re allowed to assume that Rules Don’t Apply might have the air of a grand opus about it, that it would wear the sobriety suitable to an Oscar-winning filmmaker and elder Hollywood royalty. And that assumption would be wrong. Because whatever else is going on with this movie, it’s quick, jokey, and lively as hell. At times it seems as daffy as the oddball billionaire depicted, but it generally has something thoughtful to say—when it comes to Hughesiana, it’s a more original project than the Scorsese/DiCaprio Aviator.
A United States where ignorance has the upper hand, where leaders revel in their bigotry, where average Americans taunt each other with proud, unfiltered fury. The year is 1958—what did you think I was referring to?—a time when Richard and Mildred Loving became criminals because of their marriage. They are the subjects of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of those historical films that come along to remind us of the distant past. And, sometimes, of the present.
Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, and their home state of Virginia had laws against interracial marriage (like 23 other states at the time). The Lovings were legally married in Washington, D.C., but by returning to their home in rural Virginia, they violated the state’s grandly named Racial Integrity Act. Years passed and the Lovings eventually enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union to take up their case.
Aquarius is large but intimate, political but personal; it’s frank in its ambition to explore The Way We Live Today, but also mysterious and elusive. I’ve seen few films this year more fascinating. The second feature by Brazilian writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighborhood Sounds), this movie clocks in at a leisurely 142 minutes—some urgent, some curiously relaxed.
We are in Recife, a city of beaches and history. Living in view of the beach is Clara, a writer now in her mid-60s. She comes from a comfortable background and is a widowed cancer survivor, her three children all in adulthood. Clara owns a condo in a gorgeous Art Deco building—the status of which will provide the movie’s backbone.
Clara is played, radiantly, by Sonia Braga, and this is an important part of watching Aquarius.
There are strong, original things in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and there are things that would fit in a cautionary ABC Afterschool Special. Sometimes the film’s style is muscular and striking, and sometimes it’s flat. But Jenkins got one thing right: He really knows how to build. By the time Moonlight reaches its third and final act (it’s explicitly divided into chapters), the film has gained power and a slow, steady momentum. The last few scenes consist of two people sorting out longstanding issues between them—and barely managing to do that—but the suspense is formidable.
We follow one troubled character from childhood to adulthood, so it’s one of those movies with three different actors—all haunting—playing the same role.
Kelly Reichardt’s films quietly creep up on plotlines, sniffing around the possibilities of storytelling before shifting away into a different kind of thing. In Meek’s Cutoff, a wagon train of pioneers is lost in the parched West; in Night Moves, a group of environmental saboteurs plans a bombing; in Wendy and Lucy, a traveler faces a transportation problem on the road to somewhere. None of these situations is allowed to come together in the usual kind of completion, which means you’re left with Reichardt’s wonderful way with actors and dialogue and a sense that we should be concentrating on gesture and intonation rather than plot.
I don’t want all movies to be like this, but I’m grateful for Reichardt’s talent for warping our movie expectations.
“Not all opinions are equal.” How good it is, in this our time of cultural lunacy, to have these words definitively spoken. The fact that the phrase is uttered in a not-especially-great film is perhaps disappointing, but you gotta start somewhere, and movies have been known to lead the cultural conversation. Even when they’re not great.
Denial is written by the esteemed David Hare and directed by the journeyman Mick Jackson, so you might be able to guess where it soars and where it staggers. Hare, the unsparing author of Plenty and Skylight, based the script on Deborah Lipstadt’s experience in the world of Holocaust deniers. Lipstadt is a New York-raised academic (she once taught at the University of Washington) who was sued for libel in British court in 1996 over her book Denying the Holocaust, which named English author David Irving as an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. The UK legal system mandated that Lipstadt had to establish that what she said was true—a situation that essentially put her legal team in the strange position of proving the Holocaust happened.
The provocation begins with the title, a kind of reverse cultural appropriation: Nate Parker’s Sundance smash takes its name from a famous film released 101 years ago. Not just any film, but a cinematic titan of its era:The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith’s mammoth Civil War film sold more tickets than any other movie, inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and caused enormous controversy as soon as it was released. The film is a synthesis of Griffith’s profound cinematic eloquence and some appallingly racist material, the latter having frequently dominated the conversation about Birth. Parker is reclaiming the title and adjusting film history. Fair enough, but if you’re going to reach that big, you’d better deliver.
The miracle of Sensurround was uncorked in 1974 as part of the gimmicky release of Earthquake. Universal Pictures wanted to add something extra to the glut of disaster pictures in the marketplace (this was the epoch of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), so Sensurround was born. Theaters added huge speakers, booming bass notes were embedded in the soundtrack, and the ads warned that the effect would be akin to an actual earthquake: “The management assumes no responsibility for the physical or emotional reactions of the individual viewer.” That sold a lot of tickets, and the walls really did shake. But Sensurround was used on only a handful of films before more sophisticated audio systems came into use.
Today, technical advancements make it possible for theaters to rumble and quake with deafening authority—many movie experiences are the equivalent of getting stuck in traffic in front of a car with its thumping subwoofers tuned to the “bleed” setting. Such a film is Deepwater Horizon, a throwback to the ’70s-era disaster flick. The cheesy come-on of Sensurround is nowhere to be seen here; the filmmakers have said the movie is meant as a sober tribute to the 11 workers killed in the oil-rig disaster in 2010. But Deepwater Horizon follows the Earthquake formula, and its sound effects spare nothing in pursuit of tooth-rattling.
The autumn movie calendar brings a handful of essential annual events to local screens—for instance, the Seattle Art Museum’s Film Noir series (kicking off Sept. 29) is the world’s longest-running showcase for noir, and SIFF presents its yearly French Cinema Now festival (also Sept. 29). An increasingly important mainstay is the Northwest Film Forum’s Local Sightings Film Festival. Launched in 1997, Local Sightings draws its roster from movies made throughout the Northwest, casting its net far enough to include Alaska and Montana as well as near-flung Canadian provinces.
The result is inevitably a mixed bag, but that’s part of the point. Some of the films are authentic finds, some are not ready for prime time. But all movies need air, and the festival provides a way to get these things onto a screen and exposed to audiences, where they can flourish or wither. Almost as important, Local Sightings surrounds a year’s worth of regional films with panels, workshops, and parties, all part of maintaining the we-can-do-this-here energy.
There are, I understand, people who can drive around a mesa in the American Southwest and come upon a vast, stunning expanse of pure Western landscape and not hear the music from The Magnificent Seven in their heads. Sad, but true. The catchiness and ubiquity of Elmer Bernstein’s thrumming music (which Marlboro licensed for their TV campaign peddling a manly, nicotine-loaded lifestyle) is so definitive it instantly summons up the Old West—or at least the cinematic version—in its first few beats. That music is the Western movie.
Bernstein’s score is amusingly hinted at during the remake of The Magnificent Seven, but you’ll have to wait until the end credits for a full nostalgic airing of the main theme. The original music is too heroic and unconflicted for a 21st-century Western, which Antoine Fuqua’s new film certainly is: Multicultural in its casting and pointedly political in its choice of bad guy, The Magnificent Seven is a 2016 movie all the way. In fits and starts, it also manages to be a pretty enjoyable Western.
For many years I have suffered from tinnitus, which is a great Edgar Allan Poe-ish word for “ringing in the ears.” (I know now we’re supposed to say we “live with” conditions and syndromes, but I suffer from mine, thanks anyway.) Having tinnitus creates an unreal soundscape; for me, along with various pulses and crackles, I often think I hear conversations or music happening somewhere. Or maybe there are conversations and music happening—who can tell, with all the noise going on?
In Alice Winocour’s Disorder, the protagonist Vincent suffers (really suffers) from much more than just tinnitus. This military veteran has PTSD and hearing loss, and his shaky nerves make it unlikely he’ll see active duty again. One thing that drew me into Winocour’s odd film is the sonic depiction of how Vincent hears the world: The soundtrack hums with high-frequency whirring and insectoid buzz, which is all the more maddening to Vincent because he often has to pay close attention to dangers that might be approaching.
The opening sequence of Sully is a nightmare: a damaged airplane crashes in New York City. The dreamer wakes and sits up in bed, panting in the dark. He turns his head slightly, and his eyes are softly illuminated by a little band of light. This is an old-movie technique that goes back to the silent days; it’s as simple as it is effective.
The old-fashioned touch indicates the preferred method of director Clint Eastwood, who has crafted an admirably trim, plain film out of a very square subject. Because Sully chronicles the 2009 Hudson River landing executed by US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by a white-haired Tom Hanks), the film requires one big sequence of digital spectacle: the six minutes of flying that took Sullenberger’s passenger jet from LaGuardia Airport to the surface of the Hudson on a freezing January day. (Two minutes into the flight, the plane’s engines were disabled by contact with a flock of geese.) But the majority of the movie is utterly unadorned—mostly shots of people walking and talking in nondescript hotels and generic conference rooms.
From the hamfisted title to the Victorian-era plot machinations, The Light Between Oceans has rich potential to be the kind of insane project that might possibly turn into something great. Consider the elements: Derek Cianfrance, the passionate indie filmmaker who helmed the frowning Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, adapts a 2012 novel by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. The story’s twists and turns might make a romance novelist hesitate, but Cianfrance embraces them like the bold swain on a paperback cover. He casts two exceptional actors and strands them together at a remote New Zealand lighthouse during the shoot, encouraging improvisation and identification with their roles (sure enough, the actors began a relationship that continues to this day). The whole endeavor is neither commercial nor hip. Surely something intriguing must come out of this stew?
The first laugh in Southside with You is a close-up of a cigarette in a man’s hand. We laugh because we know this movie is about the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, and we recognize this close-up as a droll joke about the 44th POTUS and his curiously stubborn—curious, that is, for someone famously in control—bad habit. The cigarette indeed belongs to the young law student Obama, seen here on a warm summer day in 1989 as he prepares to meet his co-worker (who’s also his superior) for an outing.
This early moment in Southside with You, and the assumption that the audience is in on the joke, indicates both the film’s strength and weakness. Nobody can experience this movie as merely a pleasant portrait of two young African-Americans on the town; we know who they are—or who they will be—and we see the film through that historical prism. The movie repeatedly confirms that the young Obamas were extremely smart, deeply committed people. It’s like an extended version of a convention video, crafted to please the faithful and maybe haul in a few uncommitteds.