Thursday, December 8, 2016

Manchester by the Sea and Nocturnal Animals

                                        Grief Times Two (or Much More)

                                                      Review by Ken Burke        

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
           Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
A hard-working but quick-tempered young guy is making a living as an apartment-complex maintenance man near Boston when he receives news that his brother has died; he rushes northward to Manchester, MA to see what help he can provide for his nephew only to be shocked at being named the teenager’s guardian, a role that neither of them wants to occur.
                                            Nocturnal Beasts (Tom Ford)
An LA art gallery owner faces both financial troubles and marital breakdown when she receives the proof of a novel from her ex-husband whom she broke up with years ago because of her declining faith in his talent; much of this film is taken up with a visualization of his grim, violent book in which there are clear allusions to the real-life ex-spouses which unnerves her.

What Happens: By chance, I saw the 2 films under critique in this posting just a couple of days apart, noticed some structural and emotive similarities between them, then decided to swirl them together into 1 of my occasional combo-reviews.  However, much as I hope you ever-faithful-readers always abide by my Spoiler Alert above, if you don’t want details from my renowned-far-flung-analyses until you see the subject-at-hand for yourself that warning becomes ever-more-important with these films because of critical plot points that are revealed through impactful-flashbacks as their separate mysteries deepen on screen; thus, I’m giving you another opportunity to not spoil your experience of 2 of the best 2016 offerings (both of which have already won some awards with other nominations pending so I certainly encourage you to see both of them if you haven’t already done so) if you’d rather not learn too much yet by laying out the foundational events of each narrative in my 1st subtopic under this main What Happens heading but saving the critical reveals for the other 2 subtopics within this section of the review.  With these further forewarnings in place, I’ll now proceed to the details, of which you can consume as much as you wish whenever.

Plot Flow in Present Day: I’ll start on the East Coast because I saw Manchester by the Sea (the name of the actual town where this sad fictional story is set uses hyphens, although people in the area as well as all the characters in this film just say “Manchester” when referring to it—and don’t be fooled from this title that that is some sort of cheesy travelogue even though filming was done right in the actual Massachusetts coastal area, furthering the authenticity of the tale) last Friday night, followed by Nocturnal Animals on Sunday.  Both stories offer powerful, penetrating elements of emotional intensity, but I’d say that Manchester …’s a bit subtler in presenting the gnawing-grief of the main characters, which doesn’t ultimately make it any less intense when the 2 are compared.  In Manchester … we get frigid New England at its annual worst with freezing, snow-covered days that illustrate the burden of our chief protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck)—a maintenance man working in a down-scale-apartment complex in Boston (the suburb of Quincy, specifically) who deals with the daily grind of shoveling snow, hauling trash to the outside bin, putting up with cranky-complaints from the cabin-fevered-residents—and provides an important plot point later on for our other most-notable-character, Lee’s nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), only son of Lee’s older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler).  Lee’s a hard-working, mostly-decent guy, but at times his rising temper gets the best of him, as with a situation where foul-mouthed-tenant Mrs. Olsen (Missy Yager) pushes him too far so she gets retaliatory-profanity in return (leading to a funny scene in the manager’s office where Lee’s told to apologize as these men are surrounded by the ultimate-rat’s-nest of stacks of paper that engulf the room) or a scene in a bar where Lee gets so annoyed by a couple of guys looking at him that he questions them about it, followed by a sudden punch that starts a fight these locals are likely far too used to.

 The set-up in … Animals couldn’t be more different—except that the main character there, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), like Lee, has an ex-spouse—but unlike him she’s living on the much warmer, southern California West Coast, is remarried (for about 19 years), has a teenage daughter (who's seemingly in college, as Susan calls her one night where the girl answers in her bedroom with a guy asleep next to her, so I know she’s not living with either parent nor likely has such separate living [or even parent-approved-sleeping] accommodations if she’s still in high school [or maybe that’s just jealously talking as such an option was inconceivable for me in 1966]), and appears to the outside world to be on the cutting-edge of success with her trendy Los Angeles art gallery (which we’re slowly—along with slo-mo-visuals—introduced to during the opening credits, accompanied by images of very obese women dancing while mostly nude except for white boots, hats, and the occasional enhancements of white gloves, epaulets, a baton, or sparkers, followed by gallery wide-shots that show these images on vertical video screens while the actual dancers are lying, mostly face-down [still nude], on low pedestals).  In reality, despite her lavish home overlooking the LA basin, Susan’s gallery’s in financial trouble; her husband’s (Hutton [Armie Hammer]) career (whatever it is) doesn’t sound very solvent either as he has no time to attend her opening, rushing off to NYC to finalize a deal intended to restore their stability (however, a phone call she makes to him as he’s on the way to his hotel room gives us just enough suspicion that the woman he’s in the elevator with in these early-morning-hours isn’t a business contact)In the midst of all this Nocturnal ... misery (taking place, appropriately enough, so far in night scenes, as opposed to the mostly daylight ones of Manchester …), her life’s changed by the arrival of the final proof of a book, Nocturnal Animals, from ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), dedicated to Susan, with a note thanking her for the inspiration to write it.

 Lee’s life in Quincy takes a major turn as well when he gets a phone call that sends him on a hasty trip toward his home town of Manchester, where his immediate destination is a nearby hospital to meet old friend George (C.J. Wilson)—caretaker of the Chandler family fishing boat, the Claudia Marie, lovingly-named for Lee’s deceased mother (his father, Stan [Tom Kemp], is gone by now as well)—to verify the death of Joe from heart problems.  Lee’s next stop is to pass on this tragic news to Patrick, leading to these long-familiar-relatives getting re-acquainted after a 2-year-absence since Lee moved away from his hometown to seek his “fortunes” elsewhere when he now finds that Pat’s very rooted in Manchester, as a member of his high-school hockey team, band, and a garage-band (pretty awful) of his own, in which the singer, Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), is one of the teen’s girlfriends (although no sex with her yet like he has with his other girlfriend, Silvie [Kara Hayward], who even slept over at Pat’s home with Joe’s tolerance—again, not my experience; Joe was also divorced, from ex-wife Karen [Ellie Teeves], an alcoholic Joe considered dangerous to their son’s upbringing).  The really-impactful news, though, is that Joe’s will names Lee as Pat’s guardian, which neither of them is excited about, Lee because he doesn’t feel up to the responsibility (yet there are no other relatives to turn to as Lee’s uncle moved away to Minnesota), Pat because he doesn’t want to leave his life behind for a move to Quincy so tension quickly builds, especially with Lee not allowing Silvie to spend the night in the family home anymore (although he does attempt to help Pat finally get a chance to slip off with Sandy by trying to keep her pesky mother, Jill [Heather Burns], occupied, but his inability to make conversation results in Mom’s usual knocking on Sandy’s bedroom door, so any hope of copulation-opportunity will just have to wait, just like the more impactful-details of this story which will soon arrive in my next subsection, What Happens).  

 Until then, though, be aware that another issue of anguish for Pat is the sickening feeling he has about his father’s body being kept frozen in the morgue until the ground thaws in the spring for a proper burial; when frozen food falls out of his refrigerator one night, Pat has a panic attack from the ongoing stress, finally confessing to Lee how much this odd situation bothers him with his father being treated like a slab of meat from the butcher shop.  As we get into the latter scenes of this film we begin to get the full sense of Pat’s accumulating-loses, not just the physical departure of his father but also the estrangement from his mother, a woman’s who now changed so much in the opposite direction that he still can’t connect with her even when she reaches out to do so, leaving him only with an uncle whose awful (although accidental) crime must also weigh on the kid, even though he’s one of the few in the film’s Manchester locale to not revive the memory.

 Meanwhile, back in LA, with nothing else in her life to distract from her insomnia (Edward used to call Susan a “nocturnal animal” because of her spotty-sleeping-habits, adding further irony to this film as it progresses in its revelations of the multiple-uses of this term) while quietly heartbroken that she’s got evidence about Hutton's affair, Susan begins to read Edward’s book which comes alive seemingly both in her mind and on our screen as a tragic story about a Texas family traveling through the largely-deserted (and desert-like) western extreme of the state one night where there’s no one around and nothing much to see (I did this myself once decades ago with a former girlfriend as we drove non-stop from L.A. to Austin over about a 24-hour-period, deciding that we’d rather get through this barren country at night than find a motel and have to look at all that emptiness for hours the next day), until they come upon a couple of cars hogging both lanes of the highway.  All should have gone well as the father, Tony Hastings (pointedly also played by Gyllenhaal), honks for the left-lane-car to move over so he can pass; however, as they go by, snarky-teenage-daughter India (Ellie Bamber) shoots the finger at the receding cars which promptly catch up with speeding-away-Tony, bump him so he runs off the road with a flat tire, then has to deal with swaggering Turk (Robert Aramayo), Lou (Karl Glusman), and scary-as-hell-Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who begins an immediate collection of harassments and mind-games with Tony, wife Laura (Isla Fisher), and India (who tries to call for help but there’s no phone service in this God-forsaken-part of the state).  Initially, Ray and his boys offer to change the tire, then drive to the next town to report the “accident,” but after Tony’s car is road-worthy 2 of these maniacs drive away in it with the women while Tony’s forced to follow in Lou’s car, who goes down a dirt side-road then pushes Tony out to fend for himself.  By the next morning, he’s walked to a house where he calls the police, ultimately finding Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) assigned to his case.

 There’s much more to this film-within-a-film, but briefly Tony and Bobby find the nude, dead bodies of Laura and India; a year later a robbery leads to Lou being captured, Turk killed in the process.  Bobby and Tony capture Ray (in a stark scene where he’s sitting naked on a toilet outside his trailer) but he’s freed for lack of evidence; Bobby, unconcerned about legal procedure because he’s dying of lung cancer, arrests drunken Ray one night, brings him and Lou to his remote home, gives Tony an opportunity to shoot them but Tony’s hesitant, Ray escapes, Bobby kills Lou in cold blood; shortly thereafter Tony finds Ray in the shack where he raped Laura and India before killing them, with a final confrontation that leaves Ray dead of gunshots, Tony blinded by Ray hitting him in the head with an iron rod, Tony dying as he stumbles around sightless, accidently shooting himself.

Revelations Through Flashbacks: Situations have been bad enough for the Chandlers in Manchester … in the present day, but this film (like the other one) is peppered with short-to-longer-flashbacks that almost interact with aspects of the present, revealing the reason for Lee’s constant knee-jerk-hostility.  These earlier-chronological-scenes begin with the opening credits where we see Uncle Lee teasing much-younger-Patrick (Ben O’Brien) about being a better caretaker for him than Papa Joe, then a scene in the hospital just a few years back where Joe learns his tragic fate that he has congenital heart failure which will eventually kill him (we also meet Lee’s ex-wife, Randi [Michelle Williams], who had a hair-trigger-temper even when Lee didn’t, or at least can be quite irritable as we see in another past scene where she’s sick in bed while pregnant with their 2nd child even though Lee’s still trying his best to be amorous with her).  When next we get insight into these earlier lives of Lee and Randi, she’s chasing a bunch of his drinking buddies out of their home at 2am because their noise might wake the kids; Lee begrudgingly complies but before settling down for some early-morning-TV he walks 20 min. to a convenience store to buy more beer (at least he knows he’s too drunk to drive) but when he returns the house is aflame from a fireplace log that rolled onto the living-room-floor (he forget to put up the screen).  Firefighters are on the scene, with Randi rescued although in shock; however, there’s no way to save the kids so we simply see their covered bodies being removed after daybreak; Lee’s so despondent back at the police station he grabs a cop’s gun and tries to kill himself except the weapon’s not loaded, so now we have a clear answer why Lee’s now divorced while carrying around enough remorse, self-hatred, and despair to keep his life in constant turmoil.  
Likewise, with Susan in Nocturnal …, we also have key plot information presented to us in bits of flashback, beginning with a scene were she and Ed accidently meet again in NYC where she’s in grad school and he’s still trying to find his command of becoming a novelist (they were former lovers at Austin’s U. of Texas, with him in literature, her in art [my alma mater as well for most of 1966-1976, in art as an undergrad, then radio-TV-film for the M.A., communication for the Ph.D.]; however, she lost confidence in her own creativity so I assume she changed her focus to arts management [that fear happened with me too; that's why I shifted gears for grad work to find a more stable career]); soon they’re married but bickering as he chides her to pursue her own visions rather than managing the dreams of others while she’s losing respect for him because she’s critical of his unsuccessful writing, making him defensive.  We know they’re at the breaking point when he finally tells her that she’s starting to resemble her mother (an ultimate insult, based on an earlier flashback between Susan and Mom Anne Sutton [Laura Linney] where overbearing-older-woman warns reactive-daughter away from Edward in that he’s “weak” and won’t be able to provide the material luxuries that she’ll someday realize she truly desires).  Flashbacks also allow us to see how Susan began to move away emotionally from Edward toward Hutton who accompanied her to the abortion clinic where she made the decision to rid herself of what would have been Edward’s child without telling him about it, only to find him standing in the rain in front of their car as they started to leave after the procedure.  She acknowledges in present day that she did a horrible thing to him all those years ago (giving enough time for her daughter to have come along, then grow to young adulthood via Hutton’s paternity), so what she finds in his novel is both disturbing to her in content about the dead women as well as illuminating to her in terms of his finally-manifested-writing-ability.

What We’re Left With: 
The flashbacks used in Manchester … are more frequent, better helping us understand the various tensions and tragedies within the oft-blighted Chandler family, but once we realize the horrid situation behind Lee’s careless destructive act we easily see why he demonstrates acts of self-loathing, insecurity about his ability to care for others, and failure in finding any work at all in hometown Manchester as an alternative to Patrick having to move to the Boston area (in such a small place his well-known-grotesque-legacy prevents anyone from wanting to hire him).  However, he begins to see that the pull of the past has its limits in scenes that deal with both ex-wives in this gut-churning-story.  When Pat’s mother, Karen (Ellie Teeves), attempts to make contact with her son after Joe’s death, Lee won’t even pass on the message but eventually, after another confrontation with his nephew, drives Pat over to her house for a lunch meeting with Karen and fiancée Jeffery (Matthew Broderick) where the son finds his mother is on the wagon, a devout Christian (with a big portrait of Jesus on her wall), and a tense presence that sends him scurrying away as soon as possible.  Then, in an even-more-tension-filled-encounter, Randi runs into Lee in their town one day, expresses her sorrow for how she treated him after the deaths of their children, tells him she still loves him (even though she’s remarried), then essentially begs for his forgiveness which he can’t enunciate, not so much because he carries animosity toward her but more because he’s just dead inside where that whole terrible tragedy’s concerned so he quickly excuses himself to leave her with no closure to their situation.

 He does make an effort toward Patrick, though, first setting up a situation at the Chandler home for the kid to finally have time alone with Sandy, then making a mutual arrangement with George to adopt Pat so he can stay in Manchester until high-school-graduation, then do what he wants with his life (possibly involving the fishing boat, which gets its needed new motor when Lee sells off Joe’s hunting rifles) as Lee heads back to Boston for a new job starting in July (time has moved along here, as the spring thaw finally allows the opportunity to give Joe’s body its long-delayed-burial, which the entire extended family attends).  Things don’t work out nearly so well for Susan in Nocturnal … though, because after finishing Edward’s novel she decides to respond to his accompanying note about them maybe getting together for dinner to ease their own history of long-suppressed-wounds.  She replies by email, he answers saying name the time and place, she makes a reservation at a fancy restaurant, but we leave her lonely (and likely financially-distraught in that little salvation’s likely from Hutton, no matter what business deal he may actually have been working on in NYC) and sad upon final fadeout.  However, in case you don’t think that my rendering of … Animals’ plot and resolutions is adequate, I can point you to 2 links where you can find much more if you like from a couple of guys really devoted to this film: (1) a 9:29 impassioned analysis of the opening and closing scenes; (2) an even longer version (10:12) of similar interpolations (which delves further into the film as a whole, from a man with an even stronger accent than the previous one [although, with my ongoing Texas drawl I shouldn’t complain about how anyone else sounds], but there are English subtitles if you need them [just click on the little CC box on the bottom right 
of the video screen], although a few words don’t get conveyed correctly—it gets comical at times, as these real-time-transcriptions tend to do—but you’ll still get the context of what he’s saying).

So What? Both Manchester … and Nocturnal … are cleverly-engaging in the manner by which they draw us into their mysteries.  In the former, minor characters become aware of Lee, saying “The Lee Chandler?,” giving us reason early on to wonder what’s so significant about this bottled-up-guy who won’t even take the hint of getting acquainted with a woman who accidently spills beer on him in that battleground-bar early on but then takes upon himself to pick a fight for no good purpose until we realize how consumed with shame he is; in the latter, Susan’s gallery associate is surprised to learn she was once married to someone other than Hutton, then with the flashbacks of her earlier-rekindled-romance and its deterioration (verifying her mother’s warning) we learn why she’d be sickened by the 2 murders in Edward’s novel yet it remains ambiguous almost to the end as to why she’d want to reconcile with him (Given the implication that the dead wife and daughter are allusions to the aborted fetus as well as to her—Is this a veiled threat?  Does he mean to do her harm?) unless she’s feeling the same sort of guilt as Randi in Manchester …, hoping to somehow fix the sins of the past while the ex-husbands in both cases are either incapable or unwilling to revisit the scenes of their despair, just as each of these worthy-of-Oscar-nomination-directors also seem hesitant to push themselves forward until the time is right, with Lonergan having only 2 features to his credit (You Can Count on Me [2000], Margaret [2011]) prior to Manchester …while Ford’s done only 1 previously (A Single Man [2009]), but if these offerings are indicative of what they’re capable of then all we can do is hope for more-frequent-projects from both of them (with scriptwriting talent to boot—Lonergan’s written all of his directorial efforts [an Oscar nomination for … Count on Me], Ford adapted both of his screenplays from novels, hopefully to be recognized for this current one).

 Given the different levels of brutality within these stories—Manchester …’s a soul-crushing-event for Lee and Brandi in their separate ways, alienating themselves from themselves as well as each other, which Michelle Williams has to convey in just a few scenes but she does it so effectively that she might find that a new Best Supporting Actress nomination could easily join her 3 previous Oscar nods (for Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee, 2005; which also featured Jake Gyllenhaal, himself nominated for Best Supporting Actor then] as a Supporting Actress, Blue Valentine [Derek Cianfrance, 2010] and My Week with Marilyn [Simon Curtis, 2011; review in our December 15, 2011posting—our 2nd ever; not the best graphic layout but all of the usual verbiage you’ve come to lovingly expect {haven’t you?}] as Best Actress), a category she’s already won this year from the New York Film Critics Circle (who also factored in her work in Certain Women [Kelly Reichardt; review in our November 17, 2016 posting]); Nocturnal …’s most devastating events come within Edward’s novel but what actually occurred between him and Susan was ego-shattering in its own way—it feels  appropriate that Manchester … softens its flashback-horror with an overall-low-key-approach, including the use of soul-soothing symphonic or opera music on the soundtrack while … Animals(an appropriate shortening in this context) style is aggressive in its novel-comes-alive-segments (with ever-wracking-anxiety building from the early moments of the highway-hooligans-encounter by use of quick-cutting, intensifying music) used as a contrast against Susan’s monochromatic home and work environments, punctuated with violence-themed-artwork, the simplest being a painting in her huge gallery of the stark word “REVENGE” (or the one above of someone being shot), a reference to what the Nocturnal Animals novel seems to be about, from the perspectives of both Tony and his author, giving us (and Susan?) reason to wonder how she’s supposed to interpret the novel's dead wife (especially when portrayed [in Susan’s mind’s eye?] by Fisher, who bears a notable appearance to Adams, just as Gyllenhaal embodies Tony on screen to us [and her?]).

 With the 3 Nocturnal … narratives (Susan in the present, Edward’s book, the various flashbacks) constantly interwoven through quick cuts from one reality to another (providing us with a meta-exploration on the subtle contrast of intensification in art of what we often experience as surface lifelessness in our world, with the novel’s events ghastly even to the point of over-dramatization as contrasted to Susan’s “actual” life grinding to a deadend-halt, even as this is all part of a film itself removed from the normally-mundane-existences of most of us in the audience) we have a successful use of a mysterious, threatening tone (some compare it to Alfred Hitchcock, but I see it more like an unlikely-collaboration between Michelangelo Antonioni [who also does an intriguing exploration of image structuring as part of the structured-imagery of Blow-Up, 1966* {photo above}] and Brian De Palma [with his career of grisly images]) where humor has no entry, unlike Manchester … which is funny for some brief moments, such as Lee’s bungling attempts to talk to Jill while Patrick and Sandy are desperately trying to work in a quickie before Mom gets bored/cautiously-curious again, then comes a knockin’ as usual.

*I don’t mean to get all academic on you, but if you’d like to explore that topic in some depth I can refer you to a journal article co-written by me and my great Mills College colleague Mario Cavallari (recently deceased), which you can download from this site.  However, if your Spanish is as poor as mine, then you can copy and paste the direct Spanish quotes (that Mario used from the Julio Cortázar original short story that the Blow-Up film was adapted from) onto translation boxes at this Google site to turn these quotes into English (or a wide variety of other languages if you prefer).

Bottom Line Final Comments: In a review I did this year (don’t remember the specific one, not about to read back through all of them to find out) I made the somewhat-snarky-comment that you can tell a film’s had difficulty getting made when it took a lot of production companies to finance it (the corollary to this observation is such esoteric fare often has as hard a time drawing an audience if it plays in a small cluster of theaters); however, in the case of Manchester by the Sea there are at least 6 production/distribution entities involved but the buzz has been quite strong ever since it started piling up awards and nominations from a wide variety of professional and critics' groups, with the reviewer-consensus-sites of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic presenting their overwhelming levels of praise (97% positive reviews at the former, an extremely-rare 95% score at the latter; more details in the Related Links section below)—although the box-office-response is still struggling with only about $4.3 million in domestic (U.S.-Canada) sales so far after 3 weeks in release but it’s spreading to more theaters on strong word-of-mouth so the income might soon increase (especially as more of those awards contests are decided).  Unfortunately (from my own perspective, but maybe not from a lot of those who find our other film to be either too disturbing or convoluted) Nocturnal …’s not even doing that well after the same amount of time on domestic screens, taking in a mere $2.7 million so far, a declining number with its theater count stalling at a paltry 127, so my hopes of seeing this effectively-disturbing-film do well with Oscar nominations is waning as the final onslaught of big-ticket-contenders rolls out during this month and the next. 

 Although, Amy Adams’ well-reviewed-Nocturnal ... role may help boost her chances of a Best Actress nom for the far-more-successful Arrival (Dennis Villeneuve; review in our November 17, 2016 posting)—a film I’m not nearly as enchanted with as most everyone else seems to be—while Manchester …’s Casey Affleck’s already racing ahead of others in his category considerations, with other yet-to-be-seen-contenders likely closing the door on Gyllenhaal’s chances, so if Oscar’s going to be kind to … Animals it seems most likely at this point it will be to Shannon for Supporting Actor, Ford for Adapted Screenplay, and/or Seamus McGarvey for Cinematography (for his great west Texas sunrise desert landscapes plus LA urban landscapes of city vistas, nighttime freeways).

 Such failure to recognize magnificent achievement doesn’t deter me, though, from awarding Nocturnal Animals my rarely-given-prize of 4½ stars, which I’ve done only 3 times before in my 4 years of posting reviews on this blog (The Master [Paul Thomas Anderson; review in our September 27, 2012 posting], 12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen; review in our November 14, 2013 posting], plus 
Spotlight [Tom McCarthy; review in our November 19, 2015 posting]—the Academy agreed with me on the latter 2 excellent films, giving out 9 and 6 noms respectively for each of them, then 3 Oscars for … Slave, 2 for Spotlight; although we didn’t sync up as much for The Master which got 3 noms, no wins), with my fondness for the disturbing aspects of The Master being the most like my admiration for the similarly-offputting Nocturnal Animals as I’m likely to be standing alone embracing this unconventional work while most of the award-givers will likely be clustering elsewhere, although I can’t say yet (as with my other 4½-star-recipients) if I’ll choose Nocturnal … as my best of the year because of the other highly-regarded-possibilities still out there that I haven’t seen yet, primarily La La Land (Damien Chazelle), Fences (Denzel Washington), Jackie (Pablo Larrain), Silence (Martin Scorsese), and Lion (Garth Davis)—you can look, if you like, in the Related Links section below for the Metacritic site for updated tallies on who’s getting what (with Moonlight [Barry Jenkins; review in our November 10, 2016 posting] recently taking the LA critics’ Best Picture win even as their NYC counterparts chose La La Land for that honor).  Yet, even with my invested-response to Nocturnal … I still have high respect for the heartfelt family dramas being worked out in so many different directions in Manchester …, a terrific film very likely to find itself in serious competition for many honors (which I support), even as I wish that Nocturnal ... had better options for more glory, but I'm sure its filmmakers will be ever-so-content with my lauded laurels.

 To put all of this into final perspective with my usual Musical Metaphor (to give another angle into the insights/viewing experiences/human understandings associated with this posting’s films under review), I’ll go with “Hurt,” the Johnny Cash version (from his 2002 American IV: The Man Comes Around album) at (although written by Trent Reznor for his 1994 Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral) a video which won some awards as did Cash’s audio recording, although he changed an original lyric from “crown of shit” to “crown of thorns” to reflect his end-of-life-Christian-beliefs (Cash’s video came out in early 2003; he died that September), not seeing himself as some equivalent to Jesus as a savior, just someone in a great state of suffering who has to “hurt myself … To see if I still feel,” which seems to be Lee’s modus operandi in his bar fights, just as Susan’s “sweetest friend … Goes away in the end … Full of broken thoughts [she] can’t repair.”  I sense that both of them wish they “could start again A million miles away,” but all they can do is move forward on the road already taken, trying their best to not fall off into the ditch of further despair.  These aren’t easy films to watch, making them all the more valuable in a time of holiday diversion from an honest look back on the year’s many painful events* (including a horrible fire here in an Oakland warehouse which recently took the lives of dozens of people at a musical event happening in a dilapidated structure primed for tragedy but still giving shelter to artists not able to afford our constantly-rising-local-rents, driven by the glut of newly-minted-tech-industry-millionaires bringing gentrification all over the San Francisco Bay Area).

*One last comment on Nocturnal Animals: I saw it at the marvelous Vine Cinema & Alehouse in Livermore, CA (no payola for me [damn it!], just a plug for a wonderful place to watch films) where some of the cinematic harshness of this exceptional film was mellowed out by drinking a tasty porter while watching it; I’d recommend the same option if available to you viewing circumstances.

 And, one last item overall, I’m proud to say that Google statistics shows me today that for the 1st time ever our Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark blog site has topped the 25,000 unique-hits-mark within the last month so I thank all of you who’ve been reading what we (well, me; someday Pat Craig will also give us his thoughts, I’m sure of it) send out for regular global consumption (for now, USA readership is back on top—with 2,326 hits in the previous weekbut Russia’s gaining again with 2,100 as France has become a distance 3rd at 541, with other countries far below those [mostly in Europe, plus Canada] in the top 10, although some weeks we also get such places as Australia, Brazil, China, India, and the Philippines)Your feedback, of any sort, is always welcome.
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*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2016’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 26, 2017 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2016 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times as well as the frequent differences between 2016’s award-winners and box-office-successes (that you might want to monitor here), but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others (despite diverging results), especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out their ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

Here’s more information about Manchester by the Sea: (33:58 interview with director-screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan and actors Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges but the audio quality is at times very low on the folks from the film but fine on the interviewer; who in the hell engineers some of  these Q &A sessions? [In that sound engineer's defense, though, at other times the speakers don't hold their pics nearly close enough to their mouths when making their comments.])

Here’s more information about Nocturnal Animals: (32:36 interview with director Tom Ford and actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Aaron Taylor-Johnson)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Loving, Allied, and The Edge of Seventeen

                             Identities: Imposed, Constructed, and In Flux

                                                        Reviews by Ken Burke
 Now that we’re fully into awards-nomination-consideration-season there are more films playing I’d like to see than I can keep up with so bear with me as I try to get to all of the most potent of them as best I can, although—as with this posting—at times all I can do is see what’s playing very locally rather than making the much longer trek to where the more exotic examples take up residence.

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                             Loving (Jeff Nichols)
In 1958 a White man and a Black woman in Virginia marry in nearby Washington, D.C. given that such an act is illegal in their home state, although they see no reason to abide by such a law; after they’re arrested their sentences are suspended provided they move out of state for at least 25 years which they find to be intolerable so the monumental appeal begins.
What Happens: Back in 1958 in Caroline County, Virginia, a White, quiet-but-determined-bricklayer, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), follows through on his affection for a Black woman, Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), he’s grown up around (his father had a Black employer; he and his mother live in what seems to be a rural Black community where he fittingly drives around in a black and white Ford)—who’s now gotten pregnant by him—by deciding to marry her even though such an action’s illegal in their state.  So, with minimal support from her family (her father, Theoliver Jeter [Christopher Mann], accepts it but her sister Garnet [Terri Abney] is bitterly opposed because of the social stigma sure to come down on the Jeters as well as the personal harassment that Mildred will face) and a noncommittal-attitude from Richard’s mother, Lola (Sharon Blackwood)—at least until later, as I note below in this review—the committed couple drives to nearby Washington, D.C. where such nuptials are allowed.  Back home, though, even though the newlyweds live quietly away from their larger community someone informs the sheriff about this illegal marriage (based on the Old South's cruel maintenance of so-called "anti-miscegenation" laws) so they’re both arrested in stormtrooper-like-action one night (with no regard for their wedding license because it doesn’t transfer legitimacy into VA, where even the children of such a union have no inheritance rights because they’re considered to be illegitimate); Richard’s soon out on bail but Mildred stays locked up where he can’t even visit her for a few more days because he’s not allowed to post bail for her (someone in her family must do so but even then they have to wait until the judge is available).

 Local Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) tries to convince Richard that this marriage has no validity nor chance of stability in their community but his warning is to no avail as this decent workingman finds a local lawyer who manages to work out a deal with Judge Leon Bazile (David Jensen) that the couple's mutual 1-year-prison-sentences will be suspended if they both leave the state for at least 25 years. Sadly, they move to D.C. where Richard finds work and Mildred’s baby’s on the way but she wants to return home to VA for the delivery; they sneak back at night so that midwife Lola can help deliver the child.  Whoever that local snitch is must be vigilant, though, because the sheriff’s soon back for another arrest, with that same (now angry) lawyer taking concocted-blame for their return, which allows them to go free back to D.C.  As more kids are born in the coming years, they don’t really care for this urban area as a home but Mildred—inspired by seeing Civil Rights actions on TV news—writes to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help with their situation.  He refers it to the American Civil Liberties Union, leading to the Lovings (a properly ironic name, noted from the beginning of their long saga in the annals of the actual events that inspire this film) being visited by attorney Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) along with his associate, Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass).  However, their plan for Richard and Mildred to blatantly return
to VA in order for them to be arrested once again to set in motion an appeal of their original conviction is flatly turned down by Richard who wants what he sees as common-sense-justice (“I love my wife.”) rather than a protracted, public legal battle. The attorneys finally convince the Lovings to slip back to VA, taking over an old farm house in King and Queen County while the appeal goes forward (denied locally, then on to the VA Supreme Court) while the case gets some useful notoriety in Life magazine, supported by some family-friendly-shots from photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon).  Eventually—1967—the rejected-case’s appeal reaches the Supreme Court where the decision is to not only nullify VA’s anti-miscegenation laws but all such still remaining in the states of the Old South and a few of their neighbors.  Mildred and her family are jubilant (they’ve all come to embrace Richard by now, accepting his sincere love for his wife and children, respectful that he was willing to sneak her back home for that long-ago-childbirth), Richard’s his usual stoic self, now busy with building the home he promised Mildred back in 1958 on some land he bought near where they both grew up.  Ending graphics just before the credits tell us that she lived in this house until her death in 2008 but sadly he was killed by a drunk driver in a 1975 car accident, just a few years after their victory.

So What? Once again this year we find that Hollywood’s gone to the well of “based on actual events” to offer us a repackaging of history for a tale “stranger than fiction” (that last phrase is from me; I’ve yet to see it used in a film’s opening graphic statement but it's become a frequent trope in a seemingly-endless-line of movie reviews), although Loving hasn’t yet generated (at least that I’m aware of) the kind of revisionist reaction that’s come out against such fare as we've seen in Free State of Jones (Gary Ross; review in our July 7, 2016 posting), Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears; review in our August 31, 2016 posting), Sully (Clint Eastwood; review in our September 15, 2016 posting), Snowden (Oliver Stone; review in our September 22, 2016 posting), or, most especially, The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker; review in our October 27, 2016 posting)—I'll note that others don’t seem to be as bothered as I am by a similar twisting of the historical record for dramatic impact in the story of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date shown in Southside with You (Richard Tanne; review in our September 1, 2016 posting) but, as with these others, I see its accuracy questions as equally undermining the major dramatic arc of this First Couple narrative.  Loving, however, seems to have stayed true to the kind of people that Richard and Mildred Loving were as well as how events (and actions from outside forces) altered their lives, along with any other interracial couple* who’s come after them once the legal decision for their appeal finally rid the U.S. of these racist laws (although it took some time for the 16 individual states impacted by this ruling to finally clear these restrictions off their books—South Carolina got around to it in 1998, Alabama 
brought the needed end in 2000) while 26 others had purged themselves of such segregation prior to 1967 (some of these laws went beyond Black-White marriage to also forbid Whites, in various cases, from marrying Asians, Native Americans, East Indians, Filipinos, and/or Native Hawaiians—while others just bluntly said “all non-whites”), with only 8 of our 50 states never passing such awful restrictions on human conduct to begin with.  

*This is a term I hesitate to use because, following biology, human beings are all of just 1 “race” or specific species, despite our surface-appearance-differences, which are more like the distinct breeds in domesticated dogs and cats than true "racial" distinctions, so that tiny Chihuahuas and mighty Great Danes all belong to the family Canis lupus familiaris just as common Domestic Shorthair and elegant Persian cats are all Felis catus under their various fur coats; however, the use of “race” to divide various human ethnicities from each other is such an ingrained-sociopolitical-term that it's clumsier to keep explaining its inaccuracy than to just use it, just like so often with the outdated-diminutive-implications of a word like “actress” for a female thespian even though “actor” should be gender-inclusive (and is beginning to be used that way more so in reviews I've seen, except where established awards categories are concerned).

 Certainly, time was on the side of the Lovings in terms of the historical era they lived in when actions such as the Supreme Court’s outlawing of “separate but equal” structures in the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, along with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the follow-up 1965 Voting Rights Act, helped put this long-standing-injustice in place for removal even though it had long been unconstitutional, from at least those post-Civil War civial-rights-changes such as the now-often-legally-cited-clauses about “due process” and “equal protection” in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, but de facto segregation was just so institutionalized in our society that it was difficult to eradicate, especially in the Old South attitudes of Texas that I grew up in where Hispanics were tolerated (as long as they focused more on their White than their Native or Latin American heritages [Asians were rarities for me except those few running Chinese restaurants]) more so than Blacks but it was always clear who ruled the roost.  While our current society is far from post-racial, there are certainly more areas of integration and tolerance today than when I was younger and the Lovings were being persecuted so it’s important that we periodically be reminded of the difficulties faced by anyone who challenged whatever the dominant paradigm of the times might have been, as today’s clamorings for “freedom” are often more about nostalgia for White (and male) supremacy than for inclusive acceptance for all citizens (and those trying to meet the requirements to become such).

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: From now into February we’re constantly going to see prizes given to some of the 2016-released-films from the various critics’ and professional media organizations, including Moonlight (Barry Jenkins; review in our November 10, 2016 posting) getting the NYC Gotham Independent Award for best feature (and some other areas), Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan; not yet available for Two Guys in the Dark review) chosen as Best Film (and some other areas) by the National Board of Review*, with Loving already being noted as a contender for Oscar’s Best Picture award by Entertainment Weekly and many others.  At this point—with a lot of releases still set to grace the screens in my area—I’d have to agree with that attitude toward the simple-yet-powerful-impact of Loving (although other contenders at this point for my choices for Oscar’s 10 nominees for Best Picture would include Knight of Cups [Terrence Malick; review in our March 24, 2016 posting], The Lobster [Yorgos Lanthimos; review in our June 9, 2016 posting], The Innocents [Anne Fontaine; review in our July 13, 2016 posting], Indignation [James Schamus; review in our August 11, 2016 posting], Hell or High Water [David Mackenzie; review in our August 26, 2016 posting—possibly my favorite so far], and Moonlight [my other current year's-top-contender]).  The usual suspects (to borrow an allusion from the conclusion of Allied, reviewed below) at Rotten Tomatoes have offered 90% positive reviews for Loving while the folks surveyed at Metacritic give it a 79% cumulative score (which is generally high for them, although of films we’ve mutually reviewed this year they top that with Hell or High Water [88%] and Moonlight [an astounding 99%]), which adds greatly to its prestige if not its box-office-success (just a bit over $4 million in domestic receipts after a month in release but now starting to open wider as its momentum and word-of-mouth-respect builds up).

*You can track various awards nominations at this Metacritic site; in the past they’ve also tracked various critics’ Top 10 lists, but I haven’t been able to find anything like that so far for 2016 releases.

 While watching this film I found myself consistently impressed with Loving’s low-key-approach that constantly emphasized Richard’s sincere love for Mildred but his reluctance to literally make a federal case out of their situation, hoping that their ACLU lawyers could speak directly to his local judge to overturn the state’s legal objection to their marriage, while she was able—from her quiet-but-escalating-determination-stance as an invested-observer of what was currently happening in the nationwide Civil Rights movement while their own personal situation continued to fester—to make the initial move that ultimately would provide stability for their marriage in the location where they wanted to live and raise their children while also destroying the barriers that had kept couples like them from being able to publicly, legally, permanently declare their mutual love despite the barbaric thinking that still tries today to isolate people based on nothing more than physical characteristics and historical ancestry.There’s nothing bombastic nor inflammatory about the presentation of this significant historical situation (although Richard gets his share of dismissive looks from both White and Black characters—along with some co-worker-harassment—as the story progresses, with even his mother telling him it was a mistake to marry Mildred, although it comes 
across as an after-the-fact-concern about the ruckus they’ve caused rather than any rejection of her daughter-in-law simply because of who she is); it's just a straightforward account of 2 people who are deeply committed to each other wanting to live together, where they’ve grown up, around other family members rather than be forced into an unfamiliar location as the result of oppressive laws, with Bernie and Phil more energetic about pursuing the appeal while the Lovings are simply trying to lay low, doing their best to avoid trouble.

*Leon Bazile, the Lovings’ trial judge, offered this justification for denying their right to marry: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.  And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.  The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”  Fortunately, that kind of warped logic (and poor anthropology) helped undermine Virginia’s position in this matter when the Supreme Court Justices made their unanimous decision in overturning such oppressive laws in their Loving v. Virginia ruling.

 Loving moves along at what might seem like a languid motion, but this is how the legal system often works with years consumed by the snail’s pace of appeals while the involved plaintiffs or defendants just have to go on with their lives as if everything’s still normal despite there being little of that as those involved languish in jail or try to avoid becoming a news item to prevent further attention to their fragile lives or additional prison time if they’re still being accused of breaking local laws.  The Lovings’ long-sought-victory comes quietly as well, as Mildred gets a phone call with the good news but she can hardly express her elated feelings at that point any more than Richard’s been able to throughout this narrative, as he’s a man of direct action rather than explanations or discussions.  This restrained, subtle approach works wonders for Loving, as it underscores how all these unassuming country folks wanted was to live largely in seclusion, taking comfort in each other and their children rather than disrupting local mores.  That they had to participate in a Constitutional challenge in order to achieve these personal needs is just a fact of the larger society that was long set up to deny them certain essential human rights (as the Court determined), conveyed successfully in this film where the understated presence of the principals (and the principles of justice they embodied) is what remains with us after the screening concludes, how these people grew up together, found a human connection that many in their larger society wanted to prevent, continued to pursue what they felt were basic needs (including Mildred wanting to come home to have her baby, despite the “no return” aspect of their sentence-suspension), ultimately achieved what they needed for themselves even as they struck down the remaining barriers for others like them across the South and Midwest.

 Loving is an understated cinematic delight (with Edgerton and Negga solid enough in their roles to deserve awards consideration) that helps us remember what a short trip it’s been for the U.S.A. to finally start purging itself of lifetimes of formalized-injustices, with hopes that we don’t sabotage that progress in the name of Trump-led-returns to a cruel understanding of American “greatness.”

 In celebration of the Lovings’ determination to find ways to live their lives as they intended (just as most everyone else in their codified-
“racial”-community was free to do) I’ve chosen as my Musical Metaphor, to reflect on my experience of this film through a different artistic medium, the sung-vow of “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” (on the 1967 United album) from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell at com/watch?v=IC5PL0X Imjw, in possibly the oddest setting for a music video I’ve ever seen (it looks like an empty amusement park, with a pay-phone right behind them—I wonder if younger viewers even know what this device is), although, unlike the Metaphors I’m offering in reviews below this one has to be understood for its symbolic notations where the singers are pledging their love even though they’ve separated for some reason, with assurances that if there’s a need to reconnect there’s no barrier that can prevent it even though with Richard and Mildred they’ve never been separated physically (except in their individual jail cells at the start of the ordeal, followed by a court order for him to stay away from her which he violates by sneaking back to their home at night) but it’s clear that if either one is “ever in trouble” the other will “be there on the double,” to provide whatever comfort/aid is needed “Some way, some how,” which is what sustained them for 9 years from initial arrest to final vindication.  Given the significant change in personal-fulfillment-opportunities (finally extended to same-sex-marriage in June 2015 by the U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision) that their case brought about, the drama this time is in the history itself rather than what was felt by some other filmmakers to be needed-additions to better enhance the various 2016 history-based-films that I cited at the start of the So What? section above (most of which I didn't need to see nearly as much as I did this one)Loving’s straightforward-yet-impactful and should be on your 2016 must-see-list.
Short Takes
 As part of my ongoing-effort to keep these multiple-item-postings to more manageable length (for your reading pleasure as well as a few extra hours of sleep for me) I’m forcing myself to actually be brief in these Short Takes comments by starting with the plot resolutions, filling in only necessary explanatory details, so I now repeat my Spoiler Alert warning after which you’re on your own.
                                                       Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
During the early days of WW II a French-Canadian man and a French woman work as spies in Morocco, posing as a married couple, to pull off the assassination of Germany’s ambassador; after that mission’s accomplished they find that true love has enveloped them so they’re now in London, married with a baby, when suspicion arises that she’s a Nazi spy.
 OK, the secret’s now out in this one that Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) really is a German spy who took on the identity of a secretly-deceased-Frenchwoman-Resistance-fighter due to a physical resemblance which allowed her to maintain her ruse, even as she and Canadian aviator/ intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) turned a reception for Casablanca’s German Ambassador into a bloodbath with machine guns they’d hidden under a table (turns out that Hitler had problems with this guy so the German high command was all too eager to get rid of him anyway).  However, pseudo-Marianne really is deeply in love with Max, whom she’s been married to for a bit over a year, after she was allowed to join him in London following the successful accomplishment of their grim-disruptive-mission in French Morocco.  Once the Brits suspect her being a double-agent, Max flies solo into German-occupied France one night on a clandestine-munitions-delivery in order to show her photo to a man who could verify her identity.  After an unplanned escape from a German patrol (who happened to show up at the local jail, where Max’s drunk contact was being held)—leaving even more of the invaders dead in the darkened streetMax flies home, confronts his wife with new evidence leading to the admission of her true identity but she swears she'll truly throw in her lot with him and their baby, Anna, so after Max quickly kills her 2 local-undercover-contacts he attempts to steal a military plane to fly them to a secret new life.  However, the plane won’t start; base soldiers are on their way as Marianne shoots herself to prevent Max from being executing for aiding the enemy, so he gets credit for the kill along with the responsibility of raising Anna which seems to be successful in the fade-out-shot with voiceover reading of a final letter from Mom to her daughter.

 Talent abounds in Allied, both behind and in front of the camera (the acting by both leads is quite-pleasingly-effective but with Cotillard especially; Lizzy Caplan as Max’s lesbian sister’s also solid in a minor role), with the tension-building-situation at the end played well because we truly don’t know what to expect until Marianne admits that she can’t play the required “La Marseillaise“ on the piano as her counterpart could (and did once to irritate a gathering of occupying Germans, providing echoes of a notably-similar-scene in Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1943], along with the seeming-parallel of an ending-airplane-escape, until this new plot takes a different turn; for that matter, there are also echoes of Mr. and Mrs. Smith [Doug Liman, 2005] with the lover-assassins, although this time they have to build up to marriage but are already in league with whom they’re going to kill—plus a further extra-textual-twist of Pitt once again seeing his actual marriage fall apart after making a movie with a co-star not his wife, although it’s not clear this time there was an actual affair between him and Cotillard as there was with Angelina Jolie in that earlier-cinematic-situation)—although their escape seems doomed because it would tarnish his hero image if he runs off with a dangerous enemy agent—while some of that opening-desert-cinematography as Max parachutes in to meet his contact is stunning, just as the blitz-bombing-scenes of London are impactful. However, the whole effect here, for me at least (and the Tomato 
Tossers/Metacritiquers aren’t so jazzed about it either with respective positive scores of 62%, 60%; more details in the Related Links below), is just run-of-the-mill-action (but with crisp production values), a major plot shift that’s not really all that engaging, and a love story that sure catches fire quickly back in the desert (although their sex scene in a car being covered by a sandstorm as the camera swirls around inside of their vehicle yields something that borders on either erotic or absurd but fun to watch nevertheless).*  As for my chosen Musical Metaphor, I’ll go with The Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret” (from the 1963 UK EMI Please Please Me album or the 1964 USA Vee-Jay Records’ Introducing … The Beatles album) at watch?v=yDK-n9cCfk8 (which sadly enough is done by a tribute band because I can’t find any version of it done by the actual Fab Four, as a lot of their material I've formerly seen on YouTube has disappeared now that their music’s available on iTunes [smells like corporate-collusion to me]), a song referencing both Marianne’s devious-double-cross as well as her unplanned-but-sincere passion for her compromised-husband who faces death for treason if he doesn’t kill this concealed-enemy-operative himself (both reminding us that all’s fair in love and war and that the storied Allied procedures of WW II weren’t always as noble as they’re so often shown in movies—look up the ghastly-destructions of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki if you need to), so “listen” indeed, because with these characters their lives depend on what they hear and how they then respond.

*For a defense of what he’s attempting with Allied, you might want to read this interview with director Zemeckis (who should be familiar to you from such work as Back to the Future trilogy [1985, 1989, 1990], Who Framed Roger Rabbit [1988] Forrest Gump [1994], Cast Away [2000], The Polar Express [2004], The Walk [2015; review in our October 22, 2015 posting for this last one]).
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)
A high-school junior feels her life is a miserable mess as she has only one friend, her Dad died several years ago, she constantly feuds with her mother who lavishes all her attention on the girl’s slightly-older-brother, then to top it off the friend gets a crush on the brother; all this comes after an opening scene where she threatens suicide, yet it all plays out as a comedy.
 The ultimate plot reveal here is that not only does our protagonist not commit suicide (that would make for a much darker comedy than what’s presented in … Seventeen) but she also ends up with all of her problems suddenly on the back burner after just 1 bad night where everything previously shown seems to fall apart for her: Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) finally begins to understand how pressured her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), has felt about trying to raise 2 kids without the help of husband Tom (Eric Keenleyside) just as Mom accepts that her daughter’s old enough to be making some independent decisions about what direction her life will follow; brother Darian (Blake Jenner) finally vents his frustration to Nadine about having to take on the unwanted responsibility of keeping fragile Mom on track, a constant burden to him even as Mona keeps seeing him as her “perfect” child compared to his depressive, scattershot sister (a problem that goes back years given that Dad was always the one to cheer up Nadine so she’s horribly lost without him); Nadine sees that her brother and her only friend (since 2nd-grade), Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), are truly in love so she accepts their connection despite her previous problem with Krista showing interest in a guy that Nadine despises because of his looks, popularity, and seeming-bond with her only (usually estranged) parent; Nadine also finally accepts the attention she’s been getting from eager-but-shy-classmate Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto)—a rich but lonely Korean-American-kid living in a mansion by himself with his parents away for 3 months—attending the screening of his animation film (vaguely about her previous rejection of him), then joining in with his circle of friends; finally, Nadine’s only adult confidant, American history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), is shown to not just be a bored, cynical man (for 1 class lesson he simply walks out, leaving his students to watch Young Mr. Lincoln [John Ford, 1939]) but one who has a happy home life with his loving wife and baby son.

 Much praise has come to this movie (RT gives it a whopping 94% positive reviews, MC’s a bit more in my frame of mind with a 77% score; if you like, you'll find more details in the Related Links below), especially for its sharp script, which I will admit might just win some consideration for Best Original Screenplay nominations (depending on what else emerges in the next month, but, then, comedies often don’t make much impact in that area—despite Woody Allen having 16 Oscar nominations and 3 wins in this category), although these well-constructed individual lines are put in service of a story that, to me, is far short of the impact of Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007; an Original Screenplay Oscar winner itself) to which … Seventeen’s been frequently-compared in terms of audacious situations (although it certainly earns its R rating with real-life-teen-language, Krista’s easy sexual sleepovers with Darian [even when Momma Mona’s home], Nadine’s ill-conceived-text to hunky-but-previously-disinterested Nick [Alexander Calvert] where her overly-explicit-hook-up-offers lead him to quickly drive her to a secluded spot later that night [maybe her sudden rejections of his right-off-the-bat-advances are intended to teach boys the “no means no” lesson but they also give girls confusing-encouragement to make such offers, assuming they can cool down their hot guy with conversation when all he wants is penetration], along with a casual scene in a yogurt shop showing Nadine just sitting on the restroom toilet as if urination makes for great cinema [although it is refreshing to see movie characters actually eat a casual snack or need to relieve themselves once in awhile, something you won’t find in Loving or Allied]).  The seemingly-built-in-natural-audience among the strong demographic of adolescent moviegoers hasn’t yet 
responded all that well either with only about $10.2 million in domestic (U.S-Canada) revenue after 2 weeks in release (against a cautiously-small-$9-million-budget, some of which I hope was heavily augmented by Coca-Cola given the frequent, obvious product placements).  As much as I greatly enjoyed several scenes in … Seventeen, especially the verbal jousting between Nadine and Mr. Bruner (I admit, it heartens me somewhat to see depictions of today’s teenagers being just as hair-trigger-emotional and clueless as back in my day of the mid-1960s despite their much-freer, hopefully better-informed social climate, but I’m not quite ready to just easily accept that she could mouth off to him the way she does with no response except sarcasm as cutting as what she's dishing out; if I’d said anything close to that to any of my teachers back then I’d probably still be in after-school-detention writing tedious punishment essays), it ultimately comes across as a “live, love, laugh and be happy” (but raunchy) teenage-pep-talk which doesn’t hold up for me as an entire movie as much as I’d hoped it would based on the intriguing trailer (although its concept and presentation didn’t seem to bother most of my noted-criticism-brethren, as shown above by their much-more-enthusiastic-responses).

 However, in that peppy vein I’ll go with the obvious (from my high-school-years at least) for my Musical Metaphor with The Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There” (on the same albums cited in the just-above-Metaphor, along with the 1964 Capitol Records’ Meet the Beatles!)—as felt from Erwin’s giddy-wrap-up-with-Nadine-perspective—at 
(where it’s actually the Liverpool Lads this time, in their 1st performance on The Ed Sullivan Show [February 9, 1964], although the video quality is pathetic but the audio’s better than any other live Beatles’ video I’ve found of this song) where, because “she was just 17 You know what I mean” (getting us into R-rated-innuendo again) we can celebrate innocent love that verifies “I’ll never dance with another” even as we know that eventually it won’t just be a “heart” that goes “boom,” as Darian and Krista have already demonstrated and Mona would have had the guy she ran off to Portland to see not actually been married already—surely Nadine and Erwin will be following soon.
            Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)
 In my last posting I included a brief notice about a restored-reissue of Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985), a marvelous Japanese comedy (to which I’d easily give 5 stars if I were actually reviewing that film) interweaving various stories about food, now playing in select cities.  By chance, there's another somewhat-contemporary-classic also getting a restoration-revival, Daughters of the Dust, which is a marvelous, mesmerizing film that I used to show in my cinema history class (as a great example of Lyrical Realism, which I paired on my screening night prior to the upcoming lecture with an example of Photographic Realism, The Grapes of Wrath [John Ford, 1940] because both dealt with fractured-families facing up to the rigors of a long journey into the unknown, the latter moving on from dust-bowl-Oklahoma to the dubious-paradise of California, the former from an off-shore-island of the deep South to become fully part of our American nation in the North).  Dash draws on her roots of her father’s Gullah/Geechee (a creole name for these people who were either escaped-would-be-slaves prior to the Civil War or freed slaves in its aftermath) heritage to tell of the fictional Peazant family preparing for their breakaway from the ancestral home of Ibo Landing on Dawtuh Island 
(a mostly-tranquil-place still alive with the tales, religions, dialects, and customs of West Africa) to finally integrate into a world completely foreign to most of them.  In the process of their story we meet 5 generations of this family: the oldest being matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), the youngest is the Unborn Child (Kay-Lynn Warren) narrator whose voiceover explanations of the discord within the family over leaving or staying might be heard as after-the-fact-memories but whose unexplained presence in a couple of scenes clearly puts this film into the realm of what's called Magical Realism in Latin American-fiction-contexts.  I encourage a viewing* of Daughters ..., either on screen (if it's available in your area) or by video, another one I’d give my rare 5 stars to if this were an actual review (RT said 93% positive when it first came out while MC offered 81%).

*You can go here to find the confirmed locations (this link should lead you right to the Daughters ... page where you can click on Now In Theaters to get the locations and listings links, but if that doesn't work then click Films, then the image link for Daughters ... [I don't know why the main link is so inconsistent on different browsers]), now playing or opening until mid-February, 2017 (as with Tampopo, if you happen to be in my San Francisco Bay area it’s coming on December 2, 2016 to Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in SF and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley).  Be forewarned, though, that even though this film’s in English the Gullah dialect is hard at times for a non-native-speaker to understand; if that really bothers you then maybe a video version with English subtitles would be best, but even though it took me a couple of viewings to fully understand what was being said in all of the scenes I still came away with a sense of awed-encounter even after the 1st time.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about Loving: (8:50 BBC mini-doc about the actual Richard and Mildred Loving case resulting in the overthrow of anti-miscegenation laws) and (8:02 a similar account of the Loving couple from PBS with some input from director Nichols and clips from the film)

Here’s more information about Allied: (13 :05 interview with director Robert Zemeckis and actors Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard [audio quality poor in many places, very distracting echo])

Here’s more information about The Edge of Seventeen: (this is a Red Band trailer so be aware that the language involved reflects the justifiable R rating; if you’d like a version less raunchy you can go to, a 14:24 compilation of clips and trailers from this movie, but the more sanitized stuff goes only until 7:08 of its running time at which point you’re back to the above trailer and other scenes that generously use f*** so decide for yourself how much you want to watch) (cast members talk about embarrassing high-school-moments)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.