Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, Miss Sloane, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Passengers, Jackie (and a little bit about Hacksaw Ridge)

                  2016 Holiday Wrap-Up Comments (onward to 2017)
 First, Happy New Year to all of you!  Next, after taking a couple of weeks off during the end-of-the-old-year/start-of-the-new
-one-holidays I’ve been watching a good number of cinematic vehicles vying not only for your monetary attention but also for love from the voters at various critics’ and professional groups, who’ve either already announced their winners or will be deciding on nominees soon now that we’re into 2017 (you can consult the Metacritic various awards link in the Related Links section far below for details).  So, because I’ve got 7 relatively-recent-releases to discuss in some detail I’m going to desperately attempt to keep the individual verbiage relatively brief for a change so that I can get all of them in without totally blowing out your eyeballs (and my brain cells).  If you wish to talk about any of them at further length, please feel free to contribute whatever you like in the Comments section at the very end of this posting.
                                                           Reviews 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.

 In honor of the new year, though, I’m going to do something new: set up for a more-detailed-review in my next posting, so I’ve got some commentary on Fences but this isn’t the actual review just yet.
                                                 Fences (Denzel Washington)
Troy Maxson is an angry 53-year-old Black man (in the 1950s) who got into trouble in his youth, spent years in prison, had potential as a major-league baseball player but was too old when the sport was finally integrated, now works as a garbageman with constant invective dished out onto his long-suffering wife, mostly-estranged adult son, and frustrated teenage son.
 While I haven’t yet seen everything that either is or might be in contention for various nominations/ awards for 2016 releases, I’d be hard-pressed to find anything better than this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Broadway success, Fences.  It won 4 Tony Awards: for Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (James Earl Jones), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Mary Alice), Best Direction of a Play (Lloyd Richards), along with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; it also scored when brought back to the Great White Way in 2010 with Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play (Denzel Washington), and Best Actress in a Play (Viola Davis)—although when adapted to film the role of Rose Maxson (Davis) becomes a contender for Best Supporting Actress (in the minds of nominators because, despite being just about the only female on screen, she still doesn’t dominate every scene the way that husband Troy [Washington] does, as the script is structured in his favor; also, from the studio’s [Paramount] perspective it puts Davis' 2 especially-explosive-scenes in a category she’d be more likely to win rather than being up against performers required to carry their films in the Best Actress category, especially Natalie Portman [Jackie; review below] and Isabelle Huppert [Elle, Paul Verhoeven; review in our December 15, 2016 posting]).

 With a heritage such as this to build on, Denzel’s version of Fences has a head-start that none of the other top contenders offer this year (despite their more-cinematic-natures compared to the spatially-confined-setting of Fences with its primary location of the Maxson home and every scene's impact fully dependent on powerfully-delivered-dialogue rather than actions to move its story along), easily making it my current choice for Best Film of 2016 (along with Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay [where the honor would go posthumously to Wilson who transformed his own work years ago, before his death in 2005])—it’s a contender for best director as well, although the greater cinematic challenges faced by Damian Chazelle for La La Land (review in our December 21, 2016 posting) make it difficult for me to choose anyone else for that prestigious category.  It’s also the only new film since I began writing these reviews in 2011 chosen for my very rare 5-star-rating (!), simply because like the few re-released-classics I’ve seen fit for this honor, I truly believe years from now audiences will still be able to watch this version of Fences for the lessons it can offer in the highest achievements of cinematic art, where it will join the company of already-established-notables.

 I anticipate objections to this praise for Fences as a film, given how it’s been transformed from stage to screen with minimal attempt beyond director Washington’s choice to shoot it in and around an actual house in Wilson’s Pittsburgh, PA Hill District neighborhood (providing an authentic flavor as to how these characters and their rough situations were conceived by their author) to give audiences reason to see this filmic-story as anything but a play taken fully from the limited-space/immediate-presence aesthetic of live theatre, put on screen with the minimum of cinematic-approaches needed to keep this from being a transcription-recording of such a play (as was the fabulous TV-film-version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman [Volker Schlöndorff, 1985] with Dustin Hoffman in the role of Willy Loman).  Yet, some other 5-star-films (at least by my standards, if I ever get around to reviewing them in their DVD incarnations) such as A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966), or Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992) are essentially doing no more than Fences in simply giving a realistic-looking-cinematic-setting to narratives that depend solely on stellar dialogue delivered with superb performances.  Fences is easily in this company, one of the truly finest films I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.  In fact, I think it’s so good it deserves more depth of analysis about this self-hating-man, his beleaguered wife, his 2 estranged sons, and the racist milieu he’s always roaring against in the 1950s than I can properly give in this program of compressed comments so I’m going to revisit it in my next posting to give it the fuller attention it deserves, with hopes you'll see it by then if it's available to you.

 In the meantime, here are some background-information-links that might help you with the context of what’s being delivered in Denzel’s presentation of Fences: (1) A 1996 interview with Wilson (32:16) conducted by Charlie Rose which helps explain this author’s goals with his 10-cycle-series of plays focused on various aspects of African-American life, each one set in a different decade of the now-gone-20th century (with a lot about his then-current Seven Guitars [1995]); (2) a clip of scenes (13:25) from the 2010 Broadway Fences with Washington, Davis, and others you’ll recognize from the film (with the oddity that some of the deliveries bring forth laughter from this audience that wouldn’t occur with the film, not because there’s anything lacking in the delivery but in the context of live performance some lines take on shades of different meaning—or maybe it’s just the age-old-use of a nervous human response to ease the tension of observing a difficult situation); (3) a short (5:11) clip comparing the presentations of the abrupt “How come you ain’t never liked me?” scene between Troy and son Cory from the 1987 Broadway original and the 2010 revival; and (4), if you’ve got the time to invest in it (2:10:41) a full-length-video of a performance of the play but not either of the productions previously noted (another limitation in this video is that the sound’s not great throughout, although it does come through well when Troy’s at full volume with many of his fiery speeches), which shows you that Washington essentially took the material as written, just opening it up a bit in a few scenes around Pittsburgh whereas the play is anchored to the Maxson home.  

 So, we’ll explore more about Fences soon but now we’ll move on to other offerings vying for your new year’s interest as awards fever builds, with the soon-to-be-broadcast (Sunday, January 8, 2017, NBC, 8pm ET) Golden Globes setting it all in motion (where only some of the current features I’m reviewing here are nominated but Fences does have a shot with this Hollywood Foreign Press Association for Best Actor in a Dramatic Motion Picture and Best Supporting Actress in a film).
                                          Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)
In the early 1960s at NASA’s Virginia facilities we’re focused on the important contributions of 3 Black women to the emerging U.S. space program as their mathematical and computer-programming abilities provide invaluable aspects of the success of the Mercury astronaut program, even though their stories have taken far too long to be publicly told.
 After the OscarsSoWhite protests last spring about the lack of nominations for Black-directed, Black-themed movies and/or Black actors in any screen-stories (with most of the omissions-compaints focused on Straight Outta Compton [F. Gary Gray, 2015; review in our August 20, 2015 posting] and Creed [Ryan Coogler, 2015; review in our December 2, 2015 posting]—but, except for the lack of a Best Supporting Actor nom for Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation [Cary Fukunaga, 2015; review in our November 5, 2015 posting] I can’t say I’d have replaced any of the eventual nominees with representatives of those films), Hollywood’s given us many reasons to reverse that shortcoming in 2016 with such offerings as Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle; review in our April 7, 2016 posting), Free State of Jones (Gary Ross; review in our July 7, 2016 posting), Southside With You (Richard Tanne; review in our September 1, 2016 posting), Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair; review in our October 5, 2016 posting), The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker; review in our October 27, 2016 posting), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins; review in our November 10, 2016 posting)—a probable front-runner for both Best Picture and Best Director in the Oscar races—Loving (Jeff Nichols; review in our December 1, 2016 posting), Fences, and Hidden Figures, featuring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer as rock-solid-defendable-contenders for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively (this film’s in limited release, opening wider on January 6, 2017).  Like most of the others noted above, Hidden Figures is history-inspired, although representing a history sadly overlooked until recently, that of the kept-behind-the-scenes-contributions of many African-American women stationed at Virginia’s Langley Research Center to the eventual success of the NASA space program in the early 1960s.

 While the White-male-centric-institutionalized-indignities of the time are noted—we see math-whiz Katherine Johnson’s (Henson) crass, initially-assumed status as a janitor upon arrival at her newly-assigned-NASA office, her need to trot a ½ mile to and from the nearest Colored Women’s Restroom at the facility (in the West Area Computers building where the other Blacks worked; here’s an interview [26:04] with the real Ms. Johnson if you’d like to know more)—the focus is on what these women accomplished given their talent and determination not to be dismissed as Katherine so often is by supervisors Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).  Fortunately, the head of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), is only concerned with results, not racial or gender status, so he not only provides few obstacles to these women achieving their potential in our space race with the Soviet Union in that era (Katherine’s calculations provide the needed math to get John Glenn [Glen Powell] back to Earth from orbiting although she has to get more assertive to finally be listened to; Dorothy Vaughn [Spencer] is a long-denied-but-finally-appointed-supervisor as her large team takes control of the FORTRAN programming for a mysterious IBM computer so vital to the program [with the irony that “computers” in those days referred to humans doing math calculations]; Mary Jackson [Janelle Monáe] gets pushy against the Establishment also by going to court to allow her into segregated classes leading to her achieving an engineering degree) but also breaks down regulations that have kept them back simply because of their unearned-double-whammy of being both Black and female.

 This is an uplifting film that foregrounds these women’s determined-accomplishments in the early years of the Civil Rights movement, giving adequate time to each of their situations with acknowledgements of the struggles they face trying to keep up with massive, crucial duties at work while also doing their best to maintain their private lives, at times with encouragement from family and friends, at times not because the established roadblocks of those years often made their struggles seem pointless.  Hidden Figures has been well-received by film critics (with 92% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a 73% score at Metacritic; more details in the links far below), with similar support from me (hoping that Henson and Spencer might receive Oscar nominations; Spencer’s got a nod as Best Supporting Actress in a film from the Golden Globes, along with their 
Best Motion Picture Original Score finalist status for Hidden Figures), but I’m not fully-blown-away by it, possibly because (to my knowledge) it hasn’t taken some of the more egregious liberties that films “based on true events” often do, so it just comes across as a steady-but-inevitable-march to justice, certainly a cluster of events that need to be celebrated but not necessarily something that results in the finest example of cinematic accomplishment.  I recommend it as long as you don’t expect much beyond what you’d assume from the well-summarized-scenes shown in the trailer.
                                                           Lion (Garth Davis)
A very young boy living in poverty in India insists on accompanying his older brother on a clandestine train ride one night but the youngster falls asleep on another train only to find himself transported to far-away Calcutta where he becomes a street urchin who winds up in an orphanage to be adopted by a loving Australian couple but he still yearns to find his original family.
 Yet another of 2016’s films “based on a true story” (not yet well-known, though, playing now in only 525 theaters, taking in a mere $6.8 million domestically [in the U.S.-Canada market] after 6 weeks in release) this one’s about Saroo Brierley, from the city of Khandwa, India who in 1986 is separated from his family, ends up raised in Australia.  As a 5-year-old, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) spends his days with older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), scrounging extra cash (by such actions as stealing coal from passing freight trains) to buy food for themselves, mother Kamla Munshi (Priyanka Bose)—who works as a laborer hauling rocks—and very little sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki).  Then, on a night expedition to another town on the rail line after once again sneaking aboard a train, Saroo (who insists on coming with Guddu, despite his brother’s protests) is so tired he falls asleep on a station bench while Guddu goes off to his unspecified business.  When Saroo awakens, he’s alone, frantic, enters an empty train, falls asleep again, wakes up the next day to find he’s on an out-of-service-vehicle that eventually stops 1,600 km away in Calcutta where most of the Bengali speakers can’t even understand his Hindi.  Utterly lost in this huge city, he gets by for awhile, accepts the hospitality of a woman who feeds him but then runs away when he senses her male companion wants him for some unspecified (likely pedophile) purpose, ends up in a huge jail-like-orphanage where good fortune finds him through adoption by an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley from Hobart, Tasmania.  Once he’s flown to his new home, he easily accepts their spacious house, wondrous appliances (refrigerator, TV, etc.), and unconditional love, marred only by their decision to later adopt Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whose emotional problems disrupt the family harmony.  We then jump another 20 years to when they don’t see Mantosh too much, while Saroo (Dev Patel) heads off to Melbourne in 2008 to get hotel management training.

 Events begin to move quite rapidly at this point as Saroo soon falls in love with fellow-trainee Lucy (Rooney Mara) but then, through a chance circumstance with their Indian friends, he begins to think again about his original home; jumping to 2010 back in Hobart (with Saroo as a hotel manager it seems, but that’s kept vague), Lucy’s with him but the estrangement from Mantosh grows fiercely (because of the pain that the younger brother’s caused their parents) just as Saroo's obsession with India drives Lucy away (he also appears to have quit his job, furiously spending his days with mapping calculations of where he might have come from, furthered by the problems that he’s misunderstood the name of his town while his illiterate mother would have had a difficult time putting out tracers on him).  Using Google Earth he finally stumbles across a vaguely-familiar-image, leading to a mix of memory and photo scanning that reveals the long-sought-location.  He then reconciles with Lucy, assures his adoptive parents he’s not losing love for them, heads off to India where he reconnects with Kamla and Shekila but finds Guddu’s dead (sadly, killed by a train the night Saroo disappeared) and he misunderstood his own name, Sheru (“lion”).  Patel, looking more like Frank Zappa than the clean-cut-guy in Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), is being talked up as a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee (he’s already got that from the Golden Globe voters, as does Kidman for Best Supporting Actress along with the film itself for Best Drama and Best Original Score), an awards-logic implying no one is a lead performer in this story given that the only character who continues throughout (along with a good number of flashbacks and fantasy images of Guddu) is played by 2 actors.  The adapted screenplay (from the real Saroo’s autobiography, A Long Way Home [2014]), might also merit Oscar consideration, along with the film’s gorgeous cinematography and its overall possibility as a Best Picture option, given that it’s impactful, honest, never melodramatic, serving as useful information about the roughly 80,000 homeless children who annually wander through India.

 Just before the final credits we see a good number of photos of the actual Brierley family and some 2013 footage of Kamla sharing her joy with Saroo and Sue, a very heartwarming inclusion showing no animosity between the 2 mothers, each with a special place in Saroo’s heart.  However, his joyful reality makes it difficult for me to be objective about Lion (other critics are conflicted too, with 86% at RT, only 68% at MC), given my own situation as an illegitimate-adoptee who tried unsuccessfully to be in contact with my own birth mother a few decades ago (a refused request so as to not upset the stability of the life and family she had after me, but I always wanted to know more—including who my father was—wondering if she had anything like the complexity of Sue who could have birthed her own children but decided to adopt instead, based on a vision at age 12 of a brown-skinned-boy [not a description of me, though])Lion is a well-cast, well-presented story that I easily recommend, although, like Hidden Figures, it moves steadily (then rushes) toward a conclusion requiring appreciation of the journey more so than the destination which is either already well-known (as with John Glenn back to Earth safely after his 3 orbits rather than the intended 7 because of heat-shield-problems) or inevitable, as in Lion's result.
                                                    Miss Sloane (John Madden)
A ruthless Washington, D.C. lobbyist finds trouble in her high-powered firm when she not only objects to taking on a pro-gun-rights client but also finds herself lured away to a smaller firm supporting expanded background checks; this complicated plot focuses on the venality that pollutes our federal government with an outstanding lead performance from Jessica Chastain.
 While it’s not always easy to follow this plot (sometimes hindered, sometimes helped by the quick pace of the editing and scene flow), it’s about Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a fierce lobbyist for a powerful Washington, D.C. firm where she moves at the speed of sound, her ruthless need for success making her feared, despite clashes with boss George Dupont (Sam Waterston), especially over their latest client, Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata), who wants opposition to a Senate bill that strengthens laws on gun-purchase-background-checks, a stance Sloane is so personally opposed to she laughs at Sanford that she’d be part of such a campaign.  She gets the opportunity to show her opposition when recruited by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong)—who runs a lower-profile, less-well-funded-firmto drum up support for the bill, taking some of her former colleagues along with the notable exception of protégé Jane Molloy (Alison Pill).  Sloane’s strategic procedures, deals, and endless drive (supported by a steady intake of uppers, avoiding the nuisance of sleep, just as she’s saved from the nuisance of relationships by regular sex from escort-service-stud Forde [Jake Lacy], who mistakenly gets attracted to her) are pushing her project toward success, even as she takes the misstep of outing one of her new colleagues, Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as a PTSD-survivor of a vicious high-school-shooting a few years ago, drawing public sympathy to the cause until Esme’s almost shot by a stalker, then saved by an armed bystander, somewhat derailing the gun-control-campaign.  Still, the accumulating success of Sloane’s intricate plans leads Dupont to pressure Senator Ron Sperling (John Lithgow) to start an ethics investigation against her based on an illegal Indonesian trip she arranged some time ago, with the most damning evidence found by seeming-traitor Jane, so even with solid tactics offered by lawyer Daniel Posner (David Wilson Barnes)—who privately despises her because of her amoral legacy—Liz is facing 5 years in prison.

 However, in a manner quite evocative of the “stand up for decency” filibuster-finale of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and the “damn the rules, my client’s guilty”-shocker of Al Pacino in Norman Jewison's And Justice for All (1979), Ms. Sloane strikes back with a clandestine video of Dupont blackmailing Sperling into the investigation, threatening to bring him down in the next election cycle if he doesn’t cooperate (Sloane works with a surveillance team to get the dirt she needs for her various purposes), so even though she ends up being jailed for perjury (previously testifying she’d never used such tactics [more lies come from Forde who willingly admits being a sex worker but denies he ever slept with Liz, just when we think she’ll be exposed from a credibility standpoint, but there's no proof to dispute him so she's off that hook]) we're shown her release after 10 months (ending the movie on ambiguity as to who's there to meet her) while the careers of those old, powerful men suffer much deeper damage (also, the gun bill passed, for whatever good it might do).  The plot suffers a bit of damage as well, given we find out Jane always worked in league with Sloane against Dupont, that Liz purposely filled out the illegal document so there’d be reason for the witchhunt against her, yet—based on the script's flashback structure where we begin with Sperling’s attack, then rewind to see what led up to Liz's public grilling—this "fatal" planted paper connected to the improper-perk must have occurred before the gun-control-conflict emerged, so either scriptwriter Jonathan Perera didn’t fact-check his own chronology or Sloane planned such revenge for a long time, retaliating for unspecified actions against her (there’s no indication she was an intended-time-bomb against the lobbyist industry, as she’s quite satisfied with her nefarious victories although she didn’t drag any of her co-workers down with her to keep them out of jail).  

 It’s taken me far too long to get around to Miss Sloane (out for 6 weeks now), but it’s not well-rated (RT 69%, MC 64%; more details below) nor successful (only $3.5 million domestically), but I wanted to see Chastain’s performance, which is truly Oscar-nomination-worthy (she’s already got one as Best Dramatic Film Actress from the Golden Globes) despite the movie basically being expendable except for offering some actual D.C. “swamp draining” which is more active here than we’re likely to get when our “populist” President-Elect finally takes over with his industry-rich-fat-cat-Cabinet.
            Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards)
Most of this story takes place in the period just before A New Hope (1977), focused on the Rebel Alliance’s determination to steal the plans for the Empire’s new Death Star weapon, in hopes of defending the galaxy from it.  There’s no secrecy that they succeed, but it’s nice to see some familiar Star Wars faces again, with the technology at a level on ongoing-superb.
 If you know the chronology of the official Star Wars story (enhanced by a good many supportive novels, most of which take place in the years following …: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand, 1983]) you’d quickly understand that Rogue One ... begins soon after …: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005) but most of the action takes place several years later just before we meet Luke Skywalker in …: Episode IV—A New Hope (Lucas, 1977), although Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Han Solo are the major characters from that groundbreaking-episode of this “long time ago […] far, far away” galaxy who don’t make at least a brief appearance in Rogue One.  What we do get as a collection of new characters that won’t be seen again (unless we get further into prequels of prequels), beginning with Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon as a child, Felicity Jones after that), daughter of scientific-engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who’s recruited against his will by the Empire’s Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to build what we know as the Death Star.  Jyn’s mother, Lyra (Valene Kane), is killed while protesting the “recruitment” but Jyn escapes, to be found soon after and raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an extreme exemplar of the Rebel Alliance, too much so in his methods for most of his colleagues.  As Jyn reaches young adulthood she falls into petty crime but is released from prison through the efforts of the Rebels who hope she’ll help locate her father after word comes from defecting-Empire-pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) about the ghastly, mysterious weapon of utter-mass-destruction.  While the plot from this point on gets too detailed to attempt to summarize in my shorter format this time, let’s just say that Jyn links up with blind, Jedi-like-warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), his assassin friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and droid K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk) to verify the message from Galen by way of Rook, so they’re off to rescue Dad and retrieve the Death Star blueprints (with the weapon’s built-in fatal flaw, thanks to Galen).

 In the process (with a lot of space battles throughout all of this, seemingly more than we normally get in Star Wars stories where they usually come near the end of the separate plots) Galen dies, Jyn’s group (including Rebel major-honcho Cassian Andor [Diego Luna]) sets out on a rogue mission (in a stolen Imperial ship Rook calls “Rogue One”; he also dies in the ensuing battles) to steal the Death Star schematics (with the Rebel fleet finally coming to help them out), during which time we get a cameo appearance by Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones) along with extended screen time from Grand Moff Tarkin (courtesy of image-transcriptions made of now-deceased-Peter Cushing superimposed onto another actor).  K-2S0, Chirrut, and Baze are all battle victims as well, but Jyn and Cassian manage to get the data (in an inner-core-facility-scene very reminiscent of … A New Hope), finally transmitting it to a Rebel ship just before the Death Star destroys all traces of this place, including our remaining heroes.  Vader’s fleet attacks the Rebels, but the ship with the plans escapes as we find it’s the one with Princess Leia aboard (the also-now-departed Carrie Fisher, made young again with that same computer-image-manipulation-technology) that'll still be on the run at the start of … A New Hope.  Unlike everything else on screens I’ve mentioned so far, Rogue One’s had no problems making money ($817.4 million globally after just 3 weeks [#58 on that All-Time List but sure to climb higher], $440.9 million of that domestically)—along with getting many critics’ support (84% at RT, 65% at MC)—with its constant action, appealing characters, and stunning computer graphics making it well worth a visit (even in a plain screening without 3-D or IMAX enhancements).

 But much of the thrill to be found in Rogue One ... is in getting a sense of the original … A New Hope again (with notable cameos from several of its characters, including quick shots of R2-D2, C-3PO, and Chewbacca [or at least some Wookiee], along with the holographic-monsters-chess-game) while waiting patiently to see what happens much further along in the Star Wars narrative arc after knowing the events of The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015; review in our December 31, 2015 posting).  This new offering is obviously a must-see for Star Wars fans such as myself, but if you’re somehow a novice to this mythology it may be overwhelming to race through so much plot presented in such a rapid pace.
                                              Passengers (Morten Tyldum)
A sci-fi tale where 5,000 passengers in suspended animation are heading for a new home on a distant planet, but a malfunction causes one of them to wake up only 30 years into his intended-120-year-hibernation with no one but an android bartender to share his time with until he makes a decision to awaken a fellow passenger, despite the ethical dilemma of doing so.
 The Avalon spaceship carrying 5,000 passengers, 258 crew members, and support-staff-robots 
(all the humans in suspended animation, as the ship’s on computer-controlled-autopilot) is headed toward planet Homestead II for a new life beyond overcrowded Earth (with their destination being very far away, given they’re traveling at half-light speed for 120 years; the date isn’t noted, but this must be far into our future as the planet's one of several already partially-colonized by Earthlings with assurances from the corporation in charge there’s never been a “sleep pod” malfunctionyou might remember a somewhat-similar-tale of off-world-escape in Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982] but that was supposed to be in place by 2019, a target date completely unlikely at this point).  All the advance planning hits a hitch, though, because as the ship’s force shield fails to fully deflect a large asteroid it creates a power surge awakening mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) only 30 years into his hibernation, leaving him with no contact within Avalon except philosophical-android-bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), no access to the sleeping crew in their entry-proof-cabin, and no help from Earth because his message will take 19 years to get there, 36 more for a response (plus costing him $6,012 to send it) so he’s seemingly doomed to float along with nothing more than basic rations (he’s flying economy with no access to the better meals), whiskey from Arthur, and the ship’s entertainment systems to occupy him until his inevitable death.   After a year of this—getting mountain-man-shaggy, near-crazy-suicidal in the process—his fascination with very alluring fellow-traveler/journalist/age-appropriate Aurora Lane (maybe her name's a reference to the enchanted-princess in Disney's Sleeping Beauty [Clyde Geronimi, 1959], but if so Jim has quite a task to prove his “princely” credentials later in this story) leads to the “murderous” decision (as she later sees it) to revive her for companionship, which he does under the ruse of another pod malfunction, so over the next year (after his barbering cleanup) they grow close, falling in love.  (You might ask, what other choice do they have?  Their movie-star-attractiveness doesn’t hinder the attraction either.)

 However, that other choice of how to respond to each other becomes manifest when Arthur tells incredulous Aurora about Jim’s long quandary over awakening her (to share his sure death), which breaks off the now-ex-lovers' contact entirely until events bring them together again: various malfunctions on the ship lead to the unplanned awakening of Chief Deck Officer Gus (Laurence Fishburne) who's able to determine how the initial problem that awoke Jim has been festering for some time now, growing worse; as they attempt to conduct repairs, Gus dies from problems developed from the untimely-release from his hibernation pod; Jim and Aurora discover that the fusion reactor’s overheating, requiring the opening of an outer hatch to vent the surging energy; Jim has to do this manually which results in his being propelled into space with his tether snapped; Aurora manages to rescue him via a space walk in which she reels him in by the tether like a marlin fisherman, then heals him in the futuristic Autodoc.  Jim later discovers that the Autodoc could also function like a hibernation chamber, offering her the option of returning to deep sleep but she declines.  Years 
later when the crew and passengers awaken as planned they find the ship completely overrun with vegetation (somehow Jim managed to plant a tree much earlier, so I guess he added a lot more; why such organics were being transported to a verdant planet isn’t explained) and Aurora’s book about their journey.  (Written before their deaths but with no shown offspring so birth control must have been as readily-available as whiskey on the Avalon; also, the planned wake-up was to have occurred awhile before landing to allow reorientation of the ship’s population so I guess the food supplies intended as nourishment for 5,258 over 4 months would have sustained just 2 for several decades [with an added bonus: she’s a Gold Class passenger who could access tastier meals].)  

 Despite the seeming ripoffs from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013; review in our October 9, 2013 posting), and others of this genre, Passengers is an amusing-enough-diversion during our holiday lull, although the critical establishment’s been quite scathing (RT 31%, MC surprisingly a bit higher at 41%; more details far below) and what I’m sure were intended as huge returns on a $110 million budget have been underwhelming so far at $68.8 million domestically, another $60 million internationally, despite the star power of the leads.  It’s a fun ride but there’s much more substantial stuff reviewed above (and below) for you to choose from.
 Originally, I planned to keep this massive missive to just the 6 films I saw at the end of 2016.  Well, it was actually 7 including Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)—another based-on-fact-story, with this one being about an extraordinary conscientious-objector-medic, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), in WW II who saved 75 of his wounded infantry buddies during the brutal U.S. assault on Okinawa in May 1945—but besides this film’s sincere praise of the actions of a very brave, religiously-inspired-man (a Medal of Honor winner for his selfless actions, the 1st c.o. to receive this prestigious citation) while showing the gut-wrenching-brutality of battlefield violence (many images of the grim reality of soldiers laying in the mud, bleeding profusely, with parts of their bodies blown away), I really can’t say much else about it.  If I were doing an actual, explored review I’d give Hacksaw Ridge 3½ stars for its impactful technical proficiency and well-focused-acting—it garnered 86% at RT, 71% at MC; more details in the links below—yet Doss comes across as a guy who never makes a mistake or shows hesitation, by the end the presentation he’s almost approaching sainthood and I can’t think that anyone could easily sit through this grotesque violence unless you just need a harsh lesson in how much war truly is hell (the box-office figures support this hesitation, as the film’s pulled in only $64.7 million domestically after 9 weeks in release, with an additional $72.2 million internationally—although it’s highly respected by the Golden Globe nominators who've put it up for Best Dramatic Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture Director, and Best Actor in a Dramatic Motion Picture).  In its own way, Hacksaw Ridge resembles Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which also mixed extreme graphic imagery with a sense of God's ultimate plans, in that case based on the Gospels' accounts of Jesus’ cruel death with blood flowing everywhere from the awful whippings and other violence associated with the Crucifixion, although not rendered in such detail in the Biblical prose. 

 However, after spending part of New Year’s Day with Jackie I decided to add 1 more set of review comments, even reviving my standard format of What Happens, etc. in honor of liking it so much, so let’s see if you agree that it’s better than everything else I’ve reviewed here except for Fences.
                                                                 Jackie (Pablo Larraín)
Except for flashbacks to her 1962 televised tour of the White House, this film focuses on an interview given by former-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy shortly after JFK’s assassination with other flashbacks to that event and the days following when she was making difficult but myth-building-decisions intended to verify a celebrated legacy for her slain husband.
What Happens: Any attempt to recount the events of Jackie in a chronological fashion as they appear on screen would lead to great confusion because there are so many very-brief-to-extended-flashbacks between the film’s present-setting of a reporter (Billy Crudup)—not identified but easily understood as Theodore H. White—interviewing widow Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) for Life magazine at her Hyannis Port, MA home shortly after the assassination in Dallas, TX on Friday, November 22, 1963 of her husband, President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) about this national tragedy and the various connective events up through the ceremony of his burial at Arlington National Cemetery the following Monday.  For clarity here, I’ll recount what we’re shown in the flashbacks first, then address the scenes of the interview (if you’d like to get a larger context of the actual Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’ life during her White House years from 1961-1963 you might want to consult this ABC documentary [1:23:55] broadcast September 13, 2011 based on hours of intimate recordings prior to her death in 1994, illustrated with supportive visuals).  An extensive flashback in our current docudrama film is of her televised narrated tour of the White House (February 14, 1962, simulcast on CBS and NBC, repeated on ABC shortly thereafter) where Jackie's Mrs. Kennedy is shown in black and white as we (along with her contemporary audience) watch her on the tube, color in wider shots as we see her and CBS reporter Chris Collingwood (actor not noted that I can find, but I’ve read that actual footage of the tour was incorporated so maybe that’s really him) walking through the mansion, talking, with our awareness of the cameras and boom microphone operators, while Jackie’s Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) is out of TV-camera-range but constantly trying to keep up the First Lady’s smile and focus despite her obvious nervousness at staying smooth and articulate throughout the duration of this event which appears to be done live in our current film but was actually shot in advance, then edited.

 The other flashbacks are decidedly more somber, consisting of the brutal assassination recreation (in which we see from above JFK’s exposed, bloody skull as he lies dying in her lap, probably not leaving as much residue as should have been shown on her soiled pink suit); the somber official pronouncement of his death at the hospital after the grey, eerily-empty-shots of the rush down Dallas' Stemmons Freeway; her shocked-sorrow on the Air Force One ride back to D.C. (with her steadfast refusal to change clothes so that the shocked world could see what the early '60s era of extremist-right-wing-hatredwhich there was plenty of, especially in my former-home-state of Texashad brought regarding her husband, even though the killer was conveniently identified as a Communist); her alternating fierce determination to walk with the casket on Monday when it would be taken from the Capitol rotunda to the church for the funeral prior to burial despite great security concerns (with no one clear yet on whether JFK’s killing was part of a larger conspiracy—then her soulful admission to a bluntly-encouraging-priest, Father Richard McSorley [John Hurt] that the public walk was to force the world to honor a murdered leader as well as her hope that she’d be shot as well, ending her agony) and her lonely wanderings through the White House trying to numb herself on booze, pills, and an endless supply of cigarettes; the great number of tasks (including choosing Jack's burial location) on Saturday prior to the crisis on Sunday with Lee Harvey Oswald killed by Jack Ruby on national TV (along with her anger at Robert Kennedy [Peter Sarsgaard] for keeping this news from her when it first happened, as the 2 shifted from consoling to head-butting as each tried at various times to take command of the rapidly-evolving-situation); followed by the funeral and burial events.

 Unlike the often-chaotic-nature of these scenes (with quick changes of locations; wide shots that seemed to swallow up tiny, isolated characters vs. intense closeups of tension-filled-faces, hers often smeared with blood; discordant music intended to be aesthetically-irritating to match the narrative's mood) the intercut scenes of the interview (occurring inside and on the porch of her MA home) are often shot head-on of both reporter and subject, making it seem like they’re both on TV as he pushes for more honestly, she controls what will be printed (e.g. still puffing away, she says [for the “record”]: “I don’t smoke.”) with the acknowledgement that audiences are more interested in a story, which she caps off with references to “Camelot,” which she says will never come again.

So What? Given that Larraín’s title might imply a wider-scoped-study of his complex subject, we might also wonder why he didn’t call it Camelot, because the impression we’re left with is that this version of the final days of the Kennedy era and Jack's Presidency are all about the unexpected-interfamily-tension over grand legacy unfulfilled (Bobby’s lament) rather than legacy affirmed (Jackie’s insistence on the grand gestures of JFK’s final resting—the symbolic riderless horse, the public march where even security-conscious world leaders, with the clear focus on France’s President, General Charles de Gaulle, are coerced to join in by her decision to put herself in possible harm’s way so that the nation could grieve in unison), but the decision is to focus just on her, turning crucial players in this drama such as RFK, other Kennedy family members, and new-President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) into minor characters in an epic story of myth-enhancement before the unique opportunity slipped away, requiring this film to offer some fictional extensions of publically-known-fact that would find either resonance or alienation among a national audience of filmgoers, many of whom revered this guarded woman—even though dismissed by various pundits as a debutant (by her own furious admission) during her most-intense-time in the 
spotlight, then seen as an enigma by the media-obsession with her life in her long years following the events of this film.  Whether the director’s vision—and his lead actor’s interpretation of this iconic figure—can match up to his intentions certainly rests with the perceived insights of the beholder.  While Jackie’s numbers are collectively strong (87% at RT, 81% at MC; as always, further details below) with many critics, such as what you'll find in comments by Kelly Vance from my San Francisco-area East Bay Express, being very supportive (“The film is not a document, nor a myth, nor a political indictment, but a completely subjective, artfully wrought fragment of the American mystique.”) while another voice, from “the city”-side of the SF Bay, by Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle offers a huge helping of maximum-snark (“Laughably off-key and relentlessly dull […] It is a mess of a film, botched but also misconceived […] There’s nothing at stake, no transformation to witness, just the weird spectacle of Portman’s peculiar Jackie impersonation and the promise hinted at throughout, that the assassination will be shown.”)  I’ll agree with LaSalle that Sarsgaard is distracting as RFK (I see Eddie Redmayne as being possibly more appropriate) but that’s about as far as I’ll go before ignoring most of his commentary entirely.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: Nevertheless, my fond embrace of Jackie is by no means intended to be any more foolproofingly-objective than my above response to Lion because I’ll admit that the events of that awful weekend in 1963 have haunted me ever since.  Like Oliver Stone’s implications in JFK (1991), I can’t stop fantasizing about what might have come for my nation, its place in the world, the evolution of our society during the turbulent times of the 1960s-‘70s if only there had been 2 terms of the older Kennedy brother’s leadership, possibly followed by passionate younger brother Bobby, rather than the Vietnam War escalation under LBJ (proud Texan that I once was to see him in the highest office—despite the circumstances of his arrival—just as I was once a proud Catholic in 1960 to see JFK’s election victory [manipulated as it might have been by the Chicago mob] over a form of religious prejudice, although I claim neither allegiance now), Nixon’s vicious disregard of his political opponents (Gee, why does that still sound familiar?), and the eventual ascent of “Saint” Ronald Reagan, by whose conservative standards (even though they weren’t nearly as right-wing as many of his fanatical acolytes have been led to believe—you need for me to sign anything to verify that I’m with Bernie Sanders at the democratic socialist end of the spectrum or is that obvious enough already?) every act of Congress still seems to be measured by today.  JKF’s death was hugely profound on me as a high-school-sophomore even as it continues to haunt me today as a senior citizen in a manner that Jackie effectively evokes in a melancholy way, that the memory (even if partially a media myth) of Camelot was but “a fleeting wisp of glory” not unlike the failed-vision of King Arthur that legends (popularized by T.H. White), the 1960 Broadway musical (Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe), and the 1967 movie (Joshua Logan) all captured in their various romantically-tragic-methodologies as well.

Jackie gives me a strong desire to celebrate the widow's resolve to force her countrymen to both acknowledge how the John Birch-type-hatred of her husband contributed to his death (no matter who actually pulled the trigger, although I doubt I’ll ever be convinced that Oswald was truly the lone gunman)—an anti-social-evolution-viciousness all too evident in Texas at the time of the killing, accompanied at least in my Galveston-Gulf Coast part of the state by rain and cold weather that entire weekend as if the heavens were weeping for a lost leader—and to embrace the higher ideals that were at the heart of his long-range-intended agenda (even as I acknowledge he was too clever a wheeler-dealer-politician [just like his even-more-successful-immediate-successor] to move too much, too fast for an entrenched society to be ready to follow him too quickly).  Sure, this is an impressionistic reworking by a Chilean filmmaker of the Jackie Kennedy image that we’ve come to know over the decades (as carefully constructed as it may have been as well), but, within the context of art (as well as what's allowed to be archived or celebrated, as with the situation of Hidden Figures), history is often open to interpretation (among many others, William Shakespeare certainly thought so as evidenced by his historically-grounded/ dramatically-enhanced-plays, from the Roman days of Julius Caesar [1623] to his own recent English heritage in Henry VIII [1613]).  Historically-interpreted or not, Portman’s portrayal in Jackie is drawing serious Best Actress consideration (including for the Golden Globes Dramatic Films, Mick LaSalle's dismissal notwithstanding: “a badly wigged leading lady giving a vain, self-indulgent performance”), an honor which I heartedly support, along with the strong possibility of Jackie as a contender for 2016’s best film overall (where it will still have to bow to Fences for me, though).  

 Whether I’ve convinced you about the worthiness of this filmic portrait of Jackie Kennedy or not (and if you have seen or will see Jackie you might want to compare what you'll find in Portman’s White House tour with the real thing [57:37] to see how marvelously-well she's connected to her closely-studied-subject)—while the box-office-results for this film are not all that convincing so far, 
I admit, with a scant domestic take of $5.7 million after 5 weeks (but only in 359 theaters to date)—maybe I can just leave you with the dreamily-optimistic (my hope for 2017, at least before the first week is out) thoughts of Camelot’s finale as my Musical Metaphor for the best aspects of all that's been reviewed above, as sung in the movie by Richard Harris at watch?v=ziTgoseyWoU, but given that in Jackie the reference is to the Broadway cast’s soundtrack with Richard Burton in the Arthur role maybe you’d prefer him in a 1978 concert at  Either way, again I wish all of you wherever you may be around the world a most joyous, prosperous 2017 with many reviews of the upcoming cinema to share.
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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 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses 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 for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2016.

Here’s more information about Fences: (16:06 interview with actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis)

Here’s more information about Hidden Figures: (24:51 news story on the actual Black women who worked behind the scenes at the NASA space program, focusing on Margot Lee Shetterly who wrote the book this film is based on and the women she wrote about)

Here’s more information about Lion: (31:45 interview with actor Dev Patel)

Here’s more information about Miss Sloane: (12:19 interview with director John Madden, screenwriter Jonathan Perera, and actors Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow)

Here’s more information about Rogue One: A Star Wars Movie: (click the little 3-line-symbol in the upper-right-corner to get into the site’s features) (15:09 extensive overview of the Easter Eggs and references in Rogue One … for those totally saturated with Star Wars mythology, presented in rapid-fire-fashion, plus a clothing ad at the end—also, YouTube will probably flow you into another video about 21 Rogue One … Easter Eggs if you want more of this sort of thing or see https://www. if you want to go directly to this one (19:03), although it covers much of the same territory)

Here’s more information about Passengers: (this link has a short clip from the movie [the gravity-loss-scene] along with the trailer) (11:07 commentary, some of it quite silly and some of it actually about this movie, from Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence)

Here’s more information about Hacksaw Ridge: (17:27 mini-documentary about WW II, giving context to the Desmond Doss story, with some testimony from the real man plus lots of links to other videos about him [along with some occasional subtitles in a language I can’t identify]; however, despite the useful material presented here please note that I’m NOT advocating the “God Rules Exposing False Science/Theology & New World Order,” anti-Mason message, and knowing “your true enemy” statements at the very end of this otherwise-informative-video)

Here’s more information about Jackie: (6:46 Top 5 Must Watch Facts about the film)

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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.


  1. Quite a group of Ken Burke reviews to digest in one sitting. My ordering, high to low: Lion (excellent), Fences (also excellent but really smacks of Broadway show on film), Hidden Figures (better than the trailers lead you to believe), Hacksaw Ridge (very good even if formulistic), Passengers (decent popcorn movie), Jackie (could have been stronger), Miss Sloane (have not seen it but I still like it better than)...., Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (even the star wars fanatics I know were not impressed, but if you need scifi try Dr Strange).

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the digestion and for your remarks on the films involved. Ken

  3. Hi Ken – we agree to disagree on Fences, such a shame as we are usually very in sync! How has this happened?! lol You note in your review this will be looked upon “for the lessons it can offer in the highest achievements of cinematic art”…but you don’t go into detail as to how (is there another review to come? If so, I would love to read it). I didn’t feel it was very cinematic. I wish I had Washington on stage in this as I think he would have blown me away but, on film, I just cringed at his shameless screen hoggery. It upended the film for me.

  4. Hi Jason, I do think that Fences is cinematic, although maybe I've not yet explained fully what I mean by that, although I've tried (the quote you cite above is from my Jan. 4, 2017 review; did you also read the other one [January 12, 2017] where I go into a little more detail on this concept?). I agree Fences isn't "cinematic" in the sense of lots of editing, dramatic camera camera angles, active moving camera, and/or dynamic uses of depth-of-field to juxtapose foreground and background (so that it doesn't fit either the montage tradition of Eisenstein nor the Realism tradition so favored by Andre Bazin).

    However, like the other famous plays set to film that I note in my reviews--which I also doubt would would considered all that "cinematic," despite being lauded as great films--this one puts its emphasis on dialogue (very theatrical, I admit) but also (for me, at least) puts that dialogue (enhanced by a lot of impactful closeups) into the context of a stand-alone cinematic experience (rather than just filming a stage play in real time) that I feel is riveting to watch, forcing me to confront the emotional crises the various characters are experiencing in a manner that moves me as much as any more-dynamically-cinematic film that I've ever seen.

    As for Denzel hamming it up, I think that's just his accurate rendering of a larger-than-life character as written by August Wilson (I admit I've never seen the play but have watched clips of scenes from it featuring Washington and James Earl Jones, both of whom won Tony awards). Anyway, I'm still enamored of it, sorry that you aren't.