'Tis the season for "important" movies, at least according to the Hollywood machine desperately trying to get your attention (not to mention the Academy's attention) at the multiplex. Audiences mostly buy into the idea that December film releases are higher quality products than say those that come out in March, and who could blame them? For decades studios have deemed awards season the most crucial time of year, funneling mountains of publicity dollars into marketing films about serious subject matter with serious actors that make you feel serious emotions.
Multiple new films fitting snugly into this category open locally in the week leading up to Christmas Day, giving the viewing public a range of various options. The most impressive (at least on paper) is Denzel Washington's long-gestating film adaption of Fences (opening Dec. 25), August Wilson's 1983 play about an African-American family living in Pittsburgh during the 1950s. Issues of race, gender, and power define the character's words, which often overwhelm their actions.
Towering patriarch Troy (Washington) walks home from his job as a garbage man with best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) in the opening scene, putting on the first of many performances that mask deeper rings of resentment and insecurity. A bottle of gin only amplifies Troy's grating persona, something his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) have dealt with for nearly two decades.
The hypocrisy of Troyís sermons (which are stricken with baseball metaphors) quickly becomes apparent; he is just as susceptible to weakness and doubt as any other man despite the bravura chest thumping. Washingtonís film may give this character a platform to rant and rave but very little pity once his words start falling on deaf ears. Stubbornness and denial are a dangerous mix, even more so than a stiff drink and flirtatious small talk.
Often overpowered by Washington's forceful turn, Fences struggles with a bad case of thematic redundancy. We get it, "the world is changing and you can't even see it." The film also fails to define a cinematic rhythm separate from Wilson's doozy of a script. Washington's direction shows little visual ingenuity and at times feels stilted. Davis' show stopping performance transcends such limitations in the few scenes that call for it, letting Rose shed her matriarchal skin to reveal a glorious range of determination, spite, resilience and disappointment underneath.
Fences remains contained to a few sets, but it understands that life can't be boxed in. Many of its most inspired moments come when characters realize the power of simply walking away, refusing to wallow in self-pity (i.e. "the walkin' blues").
Garth Davis' Lion (opening Dec. 25) presents no such complexity when telling the true story of Saroo Brierly, a young Indian boy separated from his family after accidentally getting stuck on a cross-country train. Not knowing the name of his hometown, Saroo is unable to help authorities locate his parents. Adoption agents eventually place him with a family in Australia. Twenty years after his disappearance, he sets out to locate his birth family using a new tool called Google Maps.
Based on the book "A Long Way Home" written by Brierly himself, the film leans on simplistic cause and effect to create heightened emotional tension. When young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) finds himself marooned in Calcutta, every adult he encounters has a nefarious hidden agenda. Escaping one local devil merely leads him to another. That is until John and Sue Brierly (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) fill the role of saintly white saviors, giving the boy a stable home and secured future.
Dev Patel plays college-age Saroo as a brooding lost soul, haunted by an obscured past but too stubborn to share his troubles. Histrionic narrative potholes involving Saroo's love interest (Rooney Mara, bored as ever) make Lion even chunkier and dishonest. Even worse, the great cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) is wasted thoroughly, his images relegated to bland horizon shots and wide-angle poverty porn.
While harboring its own fair share of melodrama, J.A. Bayona's modest gothic fable A Monster Calls (opening Jan. 6) seems emotionally minimalist by comparison. Mixing live action, watercolor animation and motion capture, the film uses special effects to enhance story and not the other way around.
A Monster Calls
Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is a kind and empathetic boy, surrounded by anger and grief, who lives in the English countryside with his sickly mother (Felicity Jones). Bullied at school, he comes home every night bursting at the seams with repressed anger. Connor's tortured psyche eventually produces a fantastical dream state, one in which a tree Monster (Liam Neeson) visits him nightly telling stories about deceptively evil princes and vengeful apothecaries. These nightmares-as-parables allude to a poignant sense of loss Connor can't fully begin to fathom.
A Monster Calls is visually arresting if not always dramatically so. The natural world provides inspiration for the macabre, specifically in the look of Neeson's stoic Yew Tree that transforms into a formidable creature with crisscrossing spiny thickets for skin and veins. Conor's imagination eventually collides with the real world, illuminating the consequences of denial.
Between the three new releases mention here, Bayona's film creates the most convincing catharsis for the prolonged experience of familial trauma. At times sluggish and redundant, A Monster Calls nevertheless stays true to the child's evolving perspective, something you can't say about Fences or Lion.
A Monster Calls: Connor (Lewis MacDougall) gets bullied at school only to come home and has to care for his sickly mother (Felicity Jones). In order to cope with the trauma, he creates a fantastical parallel dream state with a parable-telling tree Monster (Liam Neeson). Opens Friday, Jan. 6, in limited release.
Assassin’s Creed: Sent back in time to experience the memories of his ancestors, a prisoner (Michael Fassbender) discovers he comes from a family of assassins. Based on the popular video game. Opens Wednesday, Dec. 21.
Elle: Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant and nasty revenge thriller stars Isabelle Huppert as a video game designer who goes to great lengths to unmask the identity of her masked attacker. Opens Friday Dec. 23, and screens through Thursday, Dec. 29, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Fences: Denzel Washington adapts August Wilson’s famous play about an African American family living in Pittsburgh during the 1950s. Co-starring Viola Davis. Opens Sunday, Dec. 25.
Lion: This drama tells the true story of Saroo Brierly (Dev Patel), an Indian college raised in Australia who sets out to find his birth family after being separated from them for 20 years. Opens Sunday, Dec. 25.
Notes on Blindness: After losing sight, John Hull knew that if he did not try to understand blindness it would destroy him. In 1983 he began keeping an audio diary, documenting his extraordinary journey into a world beyond sight. Opens Friday Dec. 23, and screens through Thursday, Dec. 29, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Passengers: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play passengers on a space vessel who mysteriously wake up 90 years too early while in flight to a distant colony planet. Opens Wednesday, Dec. 21.
Sing: A Koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) tries to jumpstart interest in his struggling theater by opening auditions for a singing contest with a cash prize. This animated film also features voice performances by Scarlett Johansson and Reese Witherspoon. Opens Wednesday, Dec. 21.
Why Him?: Bryan Cranston plays a disapproving father who goes to war with his daughter’s new boyfriend (James Franco).
One Time Only
It’s a Wonderful Life: Jimmy Stewart stars as a depressed businessman who is visited by a Christmas angel who shows him what life would have been like had he never existed. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
All Through the House: A maniacal Santa-killer leaves behind a trail of blood and guts in this 2015 horror film presented by Horrible Imaginings Film Festival. Screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Trading Places: Dan Aykroyd’s snobby investor and Eddie Murphy’s wily con artist have their positions in life swapped by two meddling Wall Street titans. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 28, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.