Then Playing — Cold Pursuit; The Book of Henry; The Naked Spur

cold pursuit

Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland, 2019). Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland makes his English-language debut with a remake of one of his own previous features, presumably because the narrative framework was well-suite to the very-particular-set-of-skills era of Liam Neeson’s career. Neeson brings his Stonehenge-slab self to the role of Nels Coxman, a Colorado snowplow driver whose son (Micheál Richardson) is killed by members of a drug cartel. Nels launches himself into an obsessive scavenger hunt in which each new clues leads to a new outer orbit thug to dispatch as he moves ever closer to the kingpin (Tom Bateman) in charge of it all. The film is made slightly more distinctive than the usual Neeson action romp by its bleak sense of humor, manifested most clearly in the epitaph title cards that follow the howling death of each adversary. Bateman labels mightily but finally unsuccessful to inject the heavy with Alan Rickman levels of personality. Emmy Rossum fares better as a police officer whose enthused by the prospect of a major crime taking place in her sleepy mountain town.

 

book henry

The Book of Henry (Colin Trevorrow, 2017). This is a movie so disastrous in conception and execution that, by all appearances, it likely contributed to Colin Trevorrow getting ousted from the director’s chair for the ninth episode of the Star Wars saga. (It’s worth noting that Trevorrow’s plans for wrapping up the space-spanning series, leaked earlier this year, sound so much better than the inanities J.J. Abrams slopped onto the screen.) This drama with Spielbergian aspirations and a thoroughly warped sensibility concerns a single-parent household with two brothers, one a sweet, bullied kid (Jacob Tremblay, who’s really cornered the market on terrorized boys) and one an ultra-capable genius (Jaeden Martell) who plays the stock market in his spare time. When tragedy befalls the latter, he sends his frazzled, video game–loving mother (Naomi Watts) on a bizarre mission to rescue the pretty neighbor girl (Maddie Ziegler) from her abusive stepfather (Dean Norris). Wildly misguided in practically every way, The Book of Henry is the sort of film that leads to speculation about what sort of filmmaker’s-new-clothes scenario transpired that allowed it to get made in the first place. I’ve rarely seen such a bonkers narrative presented with inexplicable sincerity. By the time Watts’s matriarch is traipsing casually into mercenary mode, I found myself wishing for the cinematic equivalent of a mercy rule, freeing all involved from having to see this thing through.

 

naked spur

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953). This vicious Western stars James Stewart as Howard Kemp, an irritable bounty hunter who’s determined to collect the $5000 reward offered for bringing in murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). The task is complicated by the shifting motives of others who wind up in the traveling party, including a luckless prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a military man (Ralph Meeker) who was recently given his dishonorable discharge. Vandergroat nurtures the dissension in the group, sometimes aided by his comely traveling companion, Lina (Janet Leigh). Inevitably, The Naked Spur is hampered by some of the stodginess of its era — not to mention the unpleasant gender dynamics that send Lina tumbling into Howard’s arms for no reason other than Stewart’s top billing — but the lean storytelling often engages, especially as Ben plies his psychological manipulations with joyful malice. If it’s not particularly subtle villainy, Ryan having the time of his life in the role is fine compensation for the lack of nuance.

Outside Reading — Lessons Worth Learning edition

nytime brooklyn hospital

‘We’re in Disaster Mode’: Courage Inside a Brooklyn Hospital Confronting Coronavirus by Sheri Fink

One of the frustrations I’ve felt over the coverage of the current health crisis steams from my perception that there hasn’t been enough attention paid to the harrowing conditions that will arise in hospitals if we don’t collectively work to flatten the curve. It’s generally left as an abstract concept for the general public, a soft theory that it would be generally better for health care professionals if we didn’t hit them with too many cases all at once. That contributes to the small, vocal subset of awful people who decry the pandemic as a hoax. Weeks ago, there was available footage from Italian hospitals that could have presented a stark example of the repercussions if we didn’t work quickly enough. We didn’t work quickly or seriously enough, and now we have examples that are closer to home. The New York Times gives the story to Sheri Fink, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting from a New Orleans hospital in the immediate aftermath of Hurrican Katrina (reporting which she expanded into a weighty, award-winning book). Telling this story is monumentally important. These health care professionals are truly heroic.

 

future

The Coronavirus Pandemic Demonstrates the Failures of Capitalism by Kandist Mallett

Day-to-day existence has shifted in a multitude of ways in response to COVID-19. And it’s increasingly remarkable how many of those shifts expose wholly solvable problems deeply embedded into our wounded society. All the assurances that we will collectively return to normal at some point are misguided. We should emerge from this with a collective commitment to do better, to move towards a system where tapping the brakes on our way of life doesn’t threaten to collapse everything. Writing for Teen Vogue, Kandist Mallett goes straight at the issue. When we get through this, let’s take advantage of the scorched earth to grow a greener, better forest.

 

And from the Outside Viewing department, this story appeared on CBS Saturday Morning today. I think it’s meant to be a heartwarming piece, largely unchallenging to the status quo. But embedded in this story is a condemnation of how most of the prison industrial complex works, ultimately uninterested in rehabilitation and generally seeing incarcerated individuals as human beings. There is a better way.

This Week’s Model — Billy Bragg, “Can’t Be There Today”

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(via)

I think this bloke says it best:

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Stephen William Bragg has spent the last forty years, give or take, surveying a tumultuous world and making sense of what he sees through the grounded poetry of his lyrics, often accompanied by a trusty acoustic guitar. Politically astute, socially empathetic, and a whip-smart thinker, Bragg has a way of getting straight to the core of a problem and finding the emotional poignancy that resides there. As we all keep our distance for the greater good, Bragg expresses the melancholy that arises from all the missed events and commemorations.

Like the bulk of his catalog, “Can’t Be There Today” is in dialogue with the moment in which it’s written. Thankfully, the technology exists to share the song now, when it’s needed the most.

Then Playing — A Fantastic Woman; The Quiet Man; Blow the Man Down

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A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017). Marina (Daniela Vega) is Chilean who works as a waitress and sometimes moonlights as a singer. She’s engaged in a romance with an older gentleman named Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who dies of a brain aneurysm on a night when he and Daniela were together. Because Daniela is a transgender woman, Orlando’s family, including his ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim), view her with an attitude that is a thin layer above contempt. There’s not much plot to A Fantastic Woman, but there’s an abundance of empathy, as Lelio trains his attention on the ache felt by Marina and all the ways those around her target her with callous disregard for her identity. Vega is quietly marvelous in the role, opting for tender restraint at all the right moments. The film’s occasional trafficking in magical realism is too halfhearted to make the proper impact. The simpler Lelio keeps his storytelling, the better it is.

quiet man

The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952). The movie John Ford spent almost twenty years trying to make is an absolute charmer. The director’s regular collaborator John Wayne stars as Sean Thornton, a strapping fellow who returns from the U.S.A. to the small Irish town where he was born, quickly achieving his goal of reacquiring the family homestead. Before long, his to do list expands to include courting Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), to the consternation of her bull-headed brother (Victor McLaglen). The film is strongest across the first half, as Ford takes obvious pleasure in depicting the scrappy charms of the Irish community, especially tippling matchmaker Óge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerland). The storytelling beats become a bit too familiar in the second half — and the retrograde gender norms of the era drain the entertaining verve out O’Hara’s character and performance — and least until the beating becomes quite literal in an extended brawl that is a feat of comic excess.

 

blow the man down

Blow the Man Down (Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, 2020). With a wryly bleak attitude, a shrugging-shoulder assessment of humanity’s worst instincts, and a confident inventiveness, Blow the Man Down recalls Blood Simple, the blazing beacon of a debut from the Coen Brothers. Co-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy (who also share credit on the original screenplay) add tremor of feminist empowerment that deepens the story. Sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) are in mourning after the death of their mother, and collectively uncertain about the future. When Mary Beth’s barroom pick-up takes an ill turn, the young woman are struggle to clean up the resulting mess, unearthing some of the darker secrets of the town in the process. Both Saylor and Lowe are terrific, and Margo Martindale is given the welcome opportunity to revisit her capacity for menace first exhibited, to great effect, in the best season of Justified. Mostly, though, Blow the Man Down is notable as an assertion of talent by exciting new filmmakers.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Forty-Three

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#43 — Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017)

Ten years is a long time, so it’s hardly remarkable to survey that length of time in a chunk of cinema history and discern major differences between the respective creative landscape and the starting and end points. It is still a little dizzying to consider how rapidly some of the changes emerged on the business side of moviemaking during the twenty-tens, as studio consolidation and the unpredictable dynamics of theater exhibition and home video could render healthy studios moribund in the dying flicker of a projector with physical film strung through it. To chose a single example of transformative change, in 2010, Netflix was still entirely reliant of other company’s content to populate their distribution avenues, including a still-fledgling streaming service. By the time 2019 was through, it was pouring money into production and acquisition, practically the only outlet willing to step up and give established filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach the resources needed to realize their creative visions.

Netflix as purveyors of serious cinema art — as something more than a firehose of content that occasionally spit out a couple droplets the glimmered impressively — began, I’d argue, with Mudbound, from writer-director Dee Rees. The project didn’t originate with Netflix. Like Miramax at the beginning of the indie boom, Netflix went to the Sundance Film Festival itching to write big numbers on checks. But choosing Mudbound was itself a statement, a commitment to sort of serious-minded, artistically committed filmmaking the major studios had by that point almost entirely abandoned, deciding flailing attempts at interlocking franchises was a better business model than aiming for the minor box office uptick that came from chasing awards glory. Mudbound seems like a throwback, and that is its great strength.

Based on a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is set in the Mississippi delta in that years around World War II. It is primarily concerned with two families: black sharecroppers and white transplants that own their farm outright but are beset with their own significant struggles in taming the land. But the plot particulars — grueling and heartbreaking as they might be  — are less critical than the cumulative power of social tensions at play, which Rees depicts with acute understanding of the schisms that develop, tremor, and explode wide open because humans collide in moments of agonizing worry and uncertainty. In particular, Rees is powerfully uncompromising in her depiction of the racism of the time and place, when even war heroes are susceptible to the insidious weight of oppression.

Rees’s storytelling is impeccable, weaving together multiple story threads into a clear, compelling narrative. And her command of the more technical aspects of the film is even more impressive. Aided by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Rees crafts absolutely ravishing visuals. In the one cruel turn of Netflix providing the means for Rees’s film to reach more people than it otherwise would have, Mudbound is made for a big screen, where its precision and lush splendor could weaken knees and elicit awestruck gasps. It’s a regret but not a tragedy that Mudbound wasn’t more often seen that way. Rees’s achievement dazzles at any size.

Then Playing — Gideon’s Army; They Drive By Night; Five Feet Apart

gideons army

Gideon’s Army (Dawn Porter, 2013). This documentary examines the grueling, perpetually disheartening work undertaken by public defenders, vital contributors to the principle of equal justice that are severely undervalued. The prevailing storytelling scheme of the day calls for picking a couple cases and follow them through. Director Dawn Porter doesn’t entirely set aside this approach, but the through line cases are visited and revisited in a more sidelong way. She’s concerned with the lawyers actually under the strain of serving the system, assessing their different relationships with the nobility of their work and the echoing inside their respective bank accounts. The film lacks polish, which somehow seems appropriate to the creative mission. Documentary filmmaking is its own form of serving the greater good with only the weakest hope of making a decent living. Gideon’s Army isn’t meant to stir or inspire. Instead, it offers a clear-eyed view of the willful neglect of a primary protections for U.S. citizens.

 

drive by night

They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940). Based on a 1938 novel by A.I. Bezzerides, this pulpy drama use the plight of truckers as a jumping off point, but eventually incorporates all manner of sordidness, including the requisite femme fatale (Ida Lupino, in a ferocious performance). Director Raoul Walsh knows his way around this sort of material more than most, and he crafts the film with the appropriate interplay of gallows humor and headlong conflict, coming up with the occasionally sly visual, probably smothered in shadows. The film is peppered with colorful performances, including Humphrey Bogart as a hangdog trucker, Alan Hale, Sr. as a guffawing company boss, and Ann Sheridan as a sardonic waitress who gets all the best lines until the dictates of the era relegate her to simpering love interest, a development that happens as quickly and easily as snapping on headlights.

 

five feet apart

Five Feet Apart (Justin Baldoni, 2019). Built like an young adult novel adaptation, Five Feet Apart is actually an original work, albeit one based on a real couple that inspired the press to routinely evoke John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in covering their sad, lovely story. Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse) are both teenaged cystic fibrosis patients accustomed to regular hospitalizations. She’s bravely optimistic and regimented. He’s pessimistic and sloppy about his own care. Naturally, they fall for each other, and the film is largely a chronicle of their bittersweet romance with conditions that mandate they stay six feet apart from one another at all times (the five feet of the title is an act of defiance). In his feature debut, director Justin Baldoni handles the material with care and just enough inventiveness to make the mundane, predictable story work, at least until the last act which amps up the drama to level of overt manipulation and, in turn, painful implausibility. Sprouse is solid in his role, but it’s Richardson who continues to prove herself one of the strongest young actors working regularly and prominently in film today. She brings an easy authenticity to every moment, including small, strategic flickers that convey major emotions. Given the chance, she could be her generation’s equivalent of Michelle Williams. She has that kind of talent and onscreen immediacy.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #544 to #541

lords new church

544. The Lords of the New Church, The Lords of the New Church (1982)

“I think that first record was really built on pure adrenaline,” drummer Nick Turner said of The Lords of the New Church several years after its release. “Maybe some chemical help as well, but it was pure adrenaline.”

The Lords of the New Church formed out of the remnants of major punk acts that flared and burned out in recent years. Turner was in the Barracudas, vocalist Stiv Bators was in the Dead Boys, guitarist Brian James was in the Damned, and bassist Dave Tregunna was in Sham 69. In coming together to form their new outfit, the pummeling fervor of their previous acts was generous applied, melded with an almost operatic goth rock. The big rock churn found on their cover of the great garage psychedelic song “Question of Temperature” essentially sets the template. They were going to remain true to what came before, but they were going to go bigger and bolder, taking their sound right up to edge of the vividly ludicrous.

The Lords of the New Church also know where to look to get some borrowed bombast. “Russian Roulette” is largely inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with a title-generating dab of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (which feel like it might be an instance of drug-spun memories conflating the two movies), and “Apocalypso” does the New York Dolls and other similar predecessors proud. The band also has sound instincts about driving full-on when needed, as on the hypercafeeinated “Portobello.” I’m less convinced that the tingly synths on “Open Your Eyes” are the right choices, but sometimes nineteen-eighties music is just going to be nineteen-eighties music and that’s that.

The Lords of the New Church was a solid start for the band, a proper reintroduction for its members and an evolution to a refined musical sensibility. They convincingly mapped out a new route and revved their engine to go roaring along it.

 

motels careful

543. Motels, Careful (1980)

Before the recording of their sophomore album, Careful, the Motels made a relatively significant lineup change. Guitarist Jeff Jourard left the band and Tim McGovern took his place, his job interview undoubtedly boosted by his status as the boyfriend to lead singer Martha Davis. Other than that, the strategy for the California band centered on repeating what they’d done before, including once giving the producer job to John Carter, the Capitol Records exec who signed them to the label in the first place. Motels, the band’s debut, was only a modest success, but everyone was convinced they had the sound and the style to make waves commercially. Consistent effort was all that was needed.

Tracks such as the escalating pop mayhem of “Envy” and the bouncy “Cry Baby” certainly make the argument that the Motels had the stuff of greatness in them, just waiting for the tumbler to properly align, while the lolling ballad “Slow Town” probably best signals the approach that eventually would start generating major hits for them. Elsewhere on Careful, the Motels are clearly trying on different guises, presumably in the hopes that one of them might give them a way to sneak their way onto the charts. There a touch of Joe Jackson’s retro cool to “Bonjour Baby” and some leftover disco posturing on “Party Professionals.” Even when they’re not wholly convincing, the Motels remain solid performers.

Like its predecessor, Careful didn’t manage to break through and all of its singles remained outside the Billboard Hot 100. The situation didn’t necessarily call for wholesale reinvention just yet, but there was clearly a welling uncertainty in how to proceed. Better days were ahead, but the process of recorded their next album proved to be exceedingly difficult.

 

get close

542. The Pretenders, Get Close (1986)

It’s probably best to start with the understanding that the Pretenders are whatever Chrissie Hynde goddamn well wants it to be at the moment she wants it to be that way. Officially, the band was only on their fourth full-length studio effort with Get Close, but they’d already gone through more lineup changes than a professional sports franchise with unlimited funds and a fickle lunatic presiding over the roster. Hynde was the only mainstay from the beginnings of the band. Guitarist Robbie McIntosh, who had joined the band on 1983’s Learning to Crawl, was the only player to appears on every track of the album. Beyond those two, it was a rotating crowd in the studio, including seasoned session bassist T.M. Stevens, former Haircut One Hundred drummer Blair Cunningham (both of whom are credited as official band members), the great keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and who slew of musicians who’d been part of the Talking Heads’ sprawling endeavors. Get Close, by counting stats, was a big record.

Logistics management may have been a challenge, but Hynde remained as firm of an anchor as any act could hope for. The inspired, flirty “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and chugging, confident “My Baby” are worthy additions to the list of truly great singles generated by the band over the years. As if proving her lyrical range, the surprisingly sweet “I Remember You” immediately countered by the Eurythmics-like put-down “How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?” Even when the songs aren’t really all that strong, they blaze with attitude and assurance, a clear conviction that there’s a value to banging out some plainspoken rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s those moments when Get Close tries to push into some era-specific innovation that the album is at its weakest. Bob Clearmountain and Jimmy Iovine are the credited producers on the album, and both leave fingerprints of fuss. “Dance!,” running nearly seven minutes long, seems as if it’s trying to update an old nineteen-sixties dance craze number with a dash of prog rock excess and punk attitude. And the ballad “Hymn to Her” given the fully nineteen-eighties syrup treatment, putting it uncomfortably in line with Clearmountain’s money-minting collaborations with Bryan Adams.

Compared to its predecessors, Get Close was only a middling performer. While it yielded one respectable hit on the Billboard Hot 100 — “Don’t Get Me Wrong” — it was the first Pretenders album that didn’t crack the album chart’s Top 10. When The Singles arrived the following year, it felt like a valedictory gesture. There would be plenty more albums from the Pretenders (and even another top 40 single), but Get Close can be reasonably viewed as the last blazing sparkler of a great act’s

 

well well well

541. The Woodentops, Well Well Well… (1986)

As was often the case with U.K. bands, the Woodentops reached a point where they needed to find a way to draw together their various singles into a format that better suited the U.S. market. After a string of well-regarded single and EP releases on Rough Trade Records, it was time to compile a long-playing companion to their debut full-length, Giant, for North American record shops. One of the band’s singles, Well Well Well, was taken and essentially expanded, providing a sprightly, if somewhat clunky, survey of what the Woodentops had hashed out to that point.

The energetic, infectious “Move Me” suggests the Woodentops as a sort of British answer to the Feelies, taking the glum deadpan moodiness of the Velvet Underground and added a snappier version of postpunk fervor. The juming hootenanny “Do It Anyway” and the firm “It Will Come” demonstrate the band’s considerable chops and even more impressive focus. There’s a sense that they could bang out this buzzsaw fierce numbers with the blinding efficiency of an assembly line stamping machine. Since the compilation also traffics in the sort of loose experiments usually (and properly) relegated to B-sides, there’s some weirdness to wander through, too. “Steady Steady” suggests Bauhaus as a band with heavy Americana influences and a little too much appreciation for the scalding excesses of Jim Morrison at the height of his acid burnout self-aggrandizement. It’s probably incorrect to call that particular creative turn good, but, to be fair, it’s also not dull.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs