Neruda – 7

A poem of a film, with a fat Communist in the lead and a wispy Gael Bernal Garcia as foil and narrator. By constantly using backlighting, director Pablo Larrain conveys the mood and spirit of the 1940s and half the fun is experiencing the people, politics and costumes of that era in Chile (when the movie moves to France in the final minutes it falls flat). From this distance it’s hard to understand the power or importance of Pablo Neruda, or any poet!, and the director is careful not to make him especially heroic. The chase is clearly a fantasy or fiction, and we don’t take anything that happens too seriously. It is, after all, a poem.

Elle – 8

A twisted story with neat directorial touches in every nook and cranny. Every character was driven by sex – and that means “every,” major or minor, old or young. While that may not have seemed totally realistic, it did seem, well, French. Whereas many thrillers fall apart when viewed in retrospect, the more I thought about Elle, the more I found to think about. “Elle” is Isabelle Huppert, and she is one tough, troubled but strong woman, making psychological sense if we could only figure her out. What’s also remarkable is that while the story is all about her – just as it was in Things to Come – there are 13 other fully realized characters with roles to play – and sex drives to deal with.

Fences – 7.7

A powerful drama, lifted almost intact from the stage. This seemed a problem at first – the staginess of all the action transpiring on the backyard lot, the declamations in place of conversation – but the sheer humanity of the characters, and their problems, won us over. When Denzel Washington defended his affair by saying, in effect, that it was releasing so much that was cooped up inside him, and his wife, Viola Davis, responded, But what about me and my needs?, emotional cords reverberated, onscreen and off. The cast, as in a play, was small, which allowed us to know, and understand, how they all fit together. In the end, I’m sure this is still better as a play, but the production was a noble effort and should earn Davis, at least, an Oscar nomination.

La La Land – 6.7

A cotton candy confection of a film: pretty, sweet, airy, but not much there. Rather than playing real people, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling seemed to be playing Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly, or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. The film embraced its derivative core in such meta moments as the characters’ dream dance sequence at the Griffith Observatory, and you got the feeling that every cliche-driven plot point alluded to Hollywood’s past. In short, it was an exercise in style, and I kept waiting for an emotional click that, for me, never came. The songs, the dancing, the sets, the people – nothing was very memorable. And if I am to watch a Hollywood starlet’s face up close for two hours, there are many I would prefer to Emma Stone’s.

The Handmaiden – 7

Two-thirds a good movie, as I thought we were witnessing, Rashomon-like, two different views of the same events, a chamber piece told with Asian elegance and stunning beauty. Then came chapter three, which took the beauty and trashed it, removing the mystery as well as one character’s fingers. The plot that played out made less sense than the plot I had imagined and left us feeling soiled and unsatisfied. There was, I read, a layer of political commentary involving the Japan-Korea interplay, but that was too alien for our understanding or appreciation.

Loving – 7.5

The election of Donald Trump has infected so much of my outlook it is not surprising that it dampened my enthusiasm for Loving, which would otherwise have been a hopeful, inspiring story of two regular people and a couple of young ACLU lawyers bringing down Virginia’s hateful anti-miscegenation law. Just look at how backward and racist part of our society used to be, and glory in how far we have come in the last 50 years. Except that racism is coming back and the Supreme Court no longer stands as a beacon of justice. The descendants of the Ku Klux Klan have moved from the fringe to the front page.

The movie’s other problem is its lack of suspense. We know, going in, exactly what happens. Instead of being nervous for our heroes, we feel impatient: come on, let’s get to the Supreme Court decision. The slowness of the movie and the frequent repetition of scenes – there goes Richard Loving slathering concrete on the cement blocks again – only adds to our impatience.

Ruth Negga is being mentioned for acting awards, but I wonder how much of that comes from the Academy’s embarrassment at lack of black Oscar nominees last year. To me, the more challenging and effective portrayal was by Joel Edgerton, who had the harder job of being sympathetic while playing someone who was not too smart. If anyone should get an award, though, it should be the set designer: I was totally convinced we were in 1950s rural Virginia. No award to the casting director: larger-than-Life Michael Shannon in a bit part took me out of Virginia to Hollywood for no good purpose.

Arrival – 7

The whole movie begs for explanations and answers: who are these aliens, what do they want, how do they communicate, how will humans understand them, and can humans cooperate when faced with a crisis? It is, therefore, a bit of a disappointment when none of these questions are satisfactorily answered – not that there could be satisfactory answers to such sci-fi premises. The point of the movie is the process: how do Americans, and specifically linguist Amy Adams, go about addressing the issues. Enjoy the ride – and both Adams and Jeremy Renner are pleasant company – and don’t worry about a destination.

Mifune: The Last Samurai – 5

Good fun to be reminded of Toshiro Mifune’s roles, especially in Kurosawa classics, and get some sense of what made him a star. Otherwise, there was nothing particularly compelling or unique about this documentary.

Eagle Huntress – 5

The story, and the telling, were too pat for a documentary: more often than not, it seemed like scenes were being staged for the camera, rather than that the camera  happened to be there. The affectlessness of Aishorplan, the 13-year starlet, didn’t add to the convincing. But I can never get too much of those Mongolian steppes and life in a yurt.

Moonlight – 6

Certainly an interesting movie covering a subject not often seen in movies and brand-new actors, but it was long and slow and not a lot of fun to watch. The main character(s) were quiet, repressed, not attractive in physical appearance or choice of lifestyle (i.e., drug-dealing). There wasn’t much of a story – just three chapters in a life; and it was nigh impossible to see how the Chiron of chapters 1 and 2 morphed into Chiron chapter 3.