Then Playing — Zombieland: Double Tap; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; A Separation

zombieland double

Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019). This sequel to Ruben Fleischer’s winning horror-comedy of a decade earlier isn’t good, but its pedestrian nature is almost charming. It calls to mind a bygone era, when new installments of film series were less preoccupied with world-building and instead just slapped together more of the same with the most modest of additions and expected audiences to queue up for the undemanding reassurance of the familiar. In an era of expanded cinematic universes, Zombieland: Double Tap is a Beverly Hills Cop II for whoever might need it. The film reunites the original quartet of geographically-named survivors of a zombie apocalypse, and sends them traipsing around the dystopian landscape with vaguely defined goals. The narrative moves forward because it must, and everyone is game enough. It’s nice that Emma Stone returned, presumably out of loyalty, but it’s also odd to see her stroll through a role that she now seems well beyond, like a PhD student returning to middle school for a little intellectual batting practice. Only Zoey Deutch truly impresses, injecting sparkling comic verve into her Midwestern valley girl.


hale county

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018). This documentary relies on feel and impression rather than a conveyance of cold, hard facts. The film lands somewhere in between the patient, unadorned observations regularly delivered by Frederick Wiseman and the more overt visual poetry of a more experimental film, such Robert Persons’s General Orders No. 9. While working as a coach and teacher in Western Alabama, RaMell Ross decided to capture the lives of his fellow residents — largely African-Americans subsisting on lower incomes — in an attempt to give expression to a marginalized community. There’s beauty to Ross’s filmmaking, but it’s also telling that Hale County This Morning, This Evening works about as well condensed down to a trailer as it does as a full-length feature. In opting for glances rather than commitment, Ross makes a film that provides more of an introduction than an understanding.



A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011). An absolute powerhouse from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, A Separation begins as a married couple — Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Payman Maadi) — meets in family court to discuss their differences. She wants to move away from Iran, he feels obligated to stay because of his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), and neither wants to be away from their teenaged daughter (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own offspring). At a seeming stalemate, Simin moves out, and the decisions that follow cascade into major problems for Nader. Farhadi brings incredible psychological insight to the narrative, with every turn emanating directly and clearly from established aspects of the well-drawn characters. Pride and stubbornness prove to be especially troublesome instincts. The storytelling in handled with enviable elegance, and Farhadi’s visual sense is unerring. Although framed as a melodrama rather than a thriller, Farhadi’s film anticipates Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in its astute and ingenious exploration of social divisions.

Then Playing — Four Impossible Missions

Given that he emerged as a movie star in the nineteen-eighties, the era when sequels emerged as Hollywood’s favorite toy, it’s remarkable that Tom Cruise was a solid twenty years into his screen career before he appeared in a film with a roman numeral in the title. Only The Color of Money qualified as a second installment, and that was hardly an eager cash-in on a recent hit. Cruise instead built his filmography like an old school cinematic icon, playing endless variants on his signature persona without ever actually repeating a role.

Whatever kept him from signing on for sequels, it wasn’t until he had a greater stake in the production that he opted for a project that was transparently an attempt at launching a series. The first Mission: Impossible film was also Cruise’s first producing credit, though he surely didn’t foresee that he’d still be donning Ethan Hunt’s masks over twenty years later.

I’m certain I will write about the sixth installment in the Mission: Impossible series in the coming weeks, and I at least touched up the prior entry in this space. The mission I now choose to accept is to complete the set.


Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996). The introduction of Ethan Hunt and the team within the U.S. government’s Impossible Missions Force arrived when studios were ransacking the big bin of old TV concepts with vigor, inspired in part by the surprise success of the big screen take on The Fugitive, released in 1993. Employing a distinctive director like Brian De Palma suggested a commitment to making the film a little more interesting than the average generic action outing, even if the filmmaker was still recovering from his consensus career nadir (he was coming off a minor comeback hit with Carlito’s Way, but The Bonfire of the Vanities was still visible in his rear view). No matter the hopes and intent, the finished product is shockingly drab. Characteristically, De Palma is only enlivened by his few set pieces, and the film’s script (credited to David Koepp, Steve Zaillian, and Robert Towne) is devoid of wit, unless Emilio Estevez capping an explanation of the detonation of a explosive device by saying, “Hasta lasagna, don’t get any on ya” counts. (Note: It does not count.) Worse yet, the implausibilities peppered throughout play like lazy storytelling instead of a delight in the physically absurd that would someday be the most endearing hallmark of the series.



Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000). A curious trait of the first few Mission: Impossible films is that the personnel involved hint at aspirations towards grand action lunacy that somehow didn’t quite make it to the screen. John Woo was presumably hired on the strength of Face/Off, in which characters played by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage undergoing and entirely convincing surgical transplant of their respective visages might be the least delirious bit of invention among the kinetic loop-the-loops. Again, though, so little of the final effort is actually compelling. There’s a biological weapon at play, along with the inevitable antidote that must be secured to keep the world — and a lovely thief, played by Thandie Newton — out of peril. The script again isn’t good, but Woo’s direction is more problematic, relying on visual symbols and hyperbolic editing techniques that were already growing tired.



Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006). The third volume of the cinematic set serves as the big screen directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, who had just wrapped five seasons of the TV spy romp Alias. Accordingly, he sometimes packs a few weeks worth of gotcha twists into the film without realizing he hasn’t got the time to develop the characters and situations enough to make the surprises impactful. Even so, this is the first film that burbles up with some of gonzo energy to come, with why-the-hell-not details like an stealth excursion into Vatican City and bombs as brain implants. Nabbing Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the chief villain seemed like a major coup at the time (it’s technically his follow-up to Capote), but the acting great signals his disinterest throughout.



Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011). When Ghost Protocol arrived, the inclusion of Jeremy Renner made it seem as if Paramount was easing Cruise out in favor of the younger star, who was already an Avenger and was tapped to take over for Matt Damon in the Bourne films. Instead, Cruise is positively rejuvenated. For the first time, Ethan Hunt is a distinctive character rather than a cipher. And he has flashes of fallibility — not quite making it cleanly through an open window of a daring swoop from the outside of a skyscraper, for instance — heightening the thrill of the stunts. It’s a basic and yet underused strategy in action films. Watching Indiana Jones nurse his wounds in a ship’s cabin or John McClane painfully pick shards of glass out of his feet serves to make the adventure more exciting, not less. Largely putting aside the projection of gleaming invulnerability found in his earlier action performance, Cruise favors a weariness that makes him significantly more interesting. Brad Bird, making his first live action film after a trio of animated triumphs, proves as adept with action staging when he’s working with human beings rather than cels or computer programs. The closing scramble for a metal suitcase that can disable a launched nuclear missile, staged in a massive parking garage with constantly moving car elevators, is a joyful marvel. It took four tries, but finally everyone involved figured out that these movies, above all else, should be relentlessly fun.

Playing Catch-Up — Citizen Jane: Battle for the City; Concussion; The Debt


Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (Matt Tyrnauer, 2017). This documentary is the sort of non-fiction filmmaking that willingly, happily tips toward hagiographic agitprop, treating its central figure as a beam of inspiring light rather than a complicated person. As is usually the case with such endeavors, mileage will vary. My own political inclinations make me inclined to appreciate the spirited rabble-rousing of Jane Jacobs, who picked up her lance in the nineteen-sixties and tilted at the windmill of Robert Moses, the figure who spent decades controlling most urban planning efforts in New York City. Her story is that of democracy in its most boisterous, hardscrabble form, fighting callous or indifferent power with the shield and sword of collective refusal to bend. Tyrnauer tell the story effectively, interlacing archival footage and modern-day interview testimonials to give the impression that Jacobs almost single-handedly kept some of the most disruptive projects from moving forward. And Moses makes for a fine villain, repeatedly meeting news cameras with caustic dismissals of impoverished citizens that could have been put in the mouth a sneering silent movie fiend. All his missing is a oily, curled mustache and a looming top hat. I think Citizen Jane would be a better film if Tyrnauer were more even-handed in his appraisal of the skirmishes between Jacobs and the Moses-led system. But even if he’s made more of a heated editorial than a film, at least it’s soundly convincing.



Concussion (Peter Landesman, 2015). As the recent blockbuster article from The New York Times proved, the problem of players hobbled later in life by the long-lasting effects of multiple concussions isn’t going away for the NFL anytime soon. This drama depicts one of the key starting point to the rumbling scandal. A Pittsburgh-area pathologist (Will Smith) is called upon to perform the autopsy on a former Steelers great (David Morse) who died in a decrepit state, alone in a pickup truck. Through his research, he discovers evidence of enduring and escalating brain damage, evidently caused by years of hard hits on the gridiron. In showing the uphill battle to bring to light unpleasant truths about a fixture of U.S. culture, the film recalls Michael Mann’s The Insider. As a cinematic stylist, though, writer-director Peter Landesman lacks both Mann’s intensity and panache. The film is too pedestrian to be fully compelling, even if its driving purpose is noble. Smith does a nice job as the doctor, taking care to prevent him from becoming too much of a cardboard crusader. The supporting performers face more of a struggle with roles that fall into overly familiar patterns. Albert Brooks and Gugu Mbatha-Raw have their moments, but poor Mike O’Malley is left to bark our lines of implausibly heightened hostility as a coworker of Smith’s doctor. He’s then to provide a first-act obstacle and nothing more.



The Debt (John Madden, 2011). A remake of the Israeli film Ha-Hov (which translates to The Debt) this drama follows a trio of Mossad operatives dispatched in the mid-nineteen-sixties to capture an East Berlin doctor (Jesper Christensen) who is suspected of being a Nazi war criminal nicknamed “The Surgeon of Birkenau.” Told both in modern day and in flashback, the film takes what initially seems to be a fairly simple story and injects it with some slippery morality. The script and direction both sometimes get a little tedious. This is a plot that cries out for potboiler energy, but all involved are clearly more inclined to keep it all at an inoffensive simmer. The primary appeal is archival, since it contains an early performance by Jessica Chastain. The film made the film festival rounds in 2010, but didn’t see theatrical release until the following year, when Chastain rocketed from an unknown to an ubiquitous figure in prestige film fare. She’s still finding her way, but is already vividly present in a way that sets her apart from everyone else onscreen, including greats such as Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds.

Bernstein with Hooker, Chaplin, Friedkin, Lowery, Taylor

Terminator: Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015). The reeling lesson of the just completed summer box office season is that the recycled repetition of brand-driven moviemaking may finally be sputtering its last. The ideal case study as to why arrived one year earlier. Arriving six years after the previous attempt at franchise revivification, Terminator: Genisys shows precisely how hollow the endeavor can be. The film trots out a procession of touchstones — familiar lines, restaged scenes, echoed character beats — without a hint of a central vision or an ounce of soul. Director Alan Taylor brings that same sluggish blandness that made Thor: The Dark World the weakest film yet released as an official part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmakers can’t even exploit the built-in benefits of an overall time travel storyline that creates endless possibilities for tinkering, instead using it to indulge in narrative switcheroos that obliterate established details and, even worse, defy basic logic. It’s nonsense presented as shocking reinvention, mistakenly equating difference with quality.

Everything is Copy (Jacob Bernstein with Nick Hooker, 2016). This examination of the life and career of Nora Ephron is veers between point-by-point documentary and personal essay. The more it skews to the latter, the better it is. Directed by her son Jacob Bernstein (with an assist by Nick Hooker), the film is at its most intriguing when the intimacy of his attention comes through, even when its no more overt than the occasional interview subject referring to “your mom” when talking about Ephron. Simultaneously, the contradictions of Ephron’s openness in writing about herself while being highly selective and even secretive about what was shared is introduced without being fully explored, an example of the reticence that naturally comes when making a documentary about family instead of a subject that allows for greater willingness to expose with something that might feel like unkindness but which is actually honesty.

City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931). Could any film that came before this be described as a melancholy comedy? Whether or not Charlie Chaplin finessed a new complexity into the cinematic fabric with this film is certainly up for debate. What’s clear is that he firmed up the certainty that his voice was vital and transformative, which would be further cemented by his next feature, the masterful Modern Times. Though City Times has a compelling wholeness and a notable emotional resonance, it’s also a clear product of its time, betraying Chaplin’s background in two-reelers (as well as the general dominance of those shorter form works). There’s an overarching story involving Chaplin’s regular tramp character and a romance with a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherill) that’s based in part on some inadvertent deception, but the film is also somewhat fragmented, making room for every clever set piece Chaplin devised. The best of the bunch is a boxing match that’s a feat of choreography. An artifact of its time, it nonetheless sparks with the enduring thrill of a whole art form being invented on the spot.

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011). This film adaptation of the first play written by Tracy Letts, before he remembered that less twisted depictions of familial discord held the key to official artistic reverence, builds to a cacophony of florid human gruesomeness. Directed by William Friedkin, who previously brought Letts’s Bug to the screen, the film is hobbled by a fevered intensity that feels forced, like an overt attempt to demonstrate that the boundary-battering of nineteen-seventies cinema can be transmogrified to suit a more jaded twenty-first century. The basics of the plot are borrowed from dozens of crime drama ancestors: gambling debts, insurance policy, a hit man, and a klatch of seedy people on the edge of desperation. That puts the burden of shock and surprise on the details, leading to an overlong scene with a KFC drumstick. There are some nice performances in the film, led by Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple, the latter giving a stereotype surprising depth of feeling. Emile Hirsch brings his typical wooden line readings and feigned, needy grittiness to a central role that requires an actor with a stronger sense of craft at hiss disposable. This film was also the starting point for Matthew McConaughey’s respectability revival. He’s strong through the first half, when the script calls on him to rein in his energy, but when the character pivots to bolder gestures, McConaughey’s passion for playing unhinged brings him dangerously close to Nicolas Cage territory.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013). Director David Lowery can evidently bring a fable-like gentleness to just about any story. Ahead of this year’s notably affecting Pete’s Dragon, Lowery brought similar care and restraint to a very different story, involving a criminal (Casey Affleck), the woman he loves (Rooney Mara), and a concerned police officer (Ben Foster). There’s a love triangle in there, but it’s mostly a tale about the grip of the past and the quiet redemption in moving on. Lowery is occasionally so refined and careful in handling the narrative particulars of the piece that he pushes the film toward an emotional aridness. He clearly has a greater investment and corresponding gift in crafting imagery that will convey feeling all on its own. Collaborating with cinematographer Bradford Young, a ringer who’s worked on two of Ava DuVernay’s features, Lowery delivers enough shots of aching beauty to reasonably invoke comparisons to early Terrence Malick.

Banks, Bergman, Hamilton, Limon, Polanski

1971 (Johanna Hamilton, 2014). Clearly positioned as a history lesson for those who venerate Edward Snowden for his digital freedom fighting in bringing to light information about the U.S. government’s shady spying on its own citizens, 1971 focuses in on a break-in at a Pennsylvania FBI office in the year of the title. Those who are shocked by the modern transgressions against privacy can watch this documentary for a bracing reminder that federal crime-fighting agencies are in full-scale same-as-it-ever-was territory, Patriot Act or not. Of course, that doesn’t make current abuses acceptable, but the indignation is best shaped as part of a long arc instead of flashpoint ire over supposedly unprecedented betrayal. The film is solid, admirably underplaying its coup, captured on the coattails of the Betty Medsger book that inspired it, of revealing the identities of the perpetrators who remained unnamed for forty years. It unfortunately has the now commonplace indulgence of dramatizing the events for which footage is unavailable and could have better explored the splintered paths followed by the radicals in the decades since their altruistic crime. Overall, though, it makes a case for the value in pushing back against oppressive power structures, especially in a nation that is supposed to be resolutely of the people.

Fair Game (Doug Limon, 2010). This docudrama traces the Bush administration’s outing of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) as an undercover CIA agent, in clear violation of federal law and in a cheap attempt to cover up their own virulent dishonesty in the run-up to the Iraq War. The film is at its best when screenwriters Jez and John Butterworth stick to the plain mechanics of governmental officials and agencies at cross-purposes. It falters nearly everywhere else, as attempts to dramatize the interpersonal conflicts that the tense days stirred up feel leaden and didactic. Watts is strong and believable as Plame, but Sean Penn is clearly coasting as her aggrieved husband, Joseph Wilson. Limon, trying on serious filmmaking as a break from action spectacles, overcompensates for the perceived staidness of the story, too often flopping his camera around in a misguided attempt to create visual dynamism.

The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963). This is Bergman at his chilliest and most emotionally abstract, even though the storyline hints at melodrama. Two sisters (Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom) are traveling, along with the young son (Jörgen Lindström) of one of them, and stop to stay in a fading grand hotel. There are tensions at play, perhaps stirred by immediate stressors (one of the sisters in gravely ill) but more likely the culmination of long-fermenting conflict. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is typically intoxicating in its gloomy beauty, and Bergman was in the midst of his long peak of crafting cinema that defied expectation in its willingness to engage in elusive rumination. Still, the archness of the tone is sometimes a little too distancing, making this comes across as a bit of rough draft for future masterworks.

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011). The screen adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s stage work (the screenplay is co-credited to the original playwright and Polanski) is a quintessential example of making inert cinema by adamantly refusing to reshape material for a different form. With few exceptions, Polanski opts for structures and staging that could have worked as well in a theater as on a screen. The film could have arguably still been salvaged by strong performances, especially given the impressive stature of the cast assembled. But every last one of them overacts to at least a degree, with Jodie Foster, amazingly enough, the worst offender and Christoph Waltz coming the closest to a respectable turn, if only because the officiousness of his acting actually suits the character. To be fair, the film begins with abounding inherent problems in Reza’s story, which is so labored and contrived that it would take a succession of moviemaking miracles to make it emerge as something sharply real.

Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015). I was hardly enamored with the first screen dance with a capella underdogs the Barden Bellas, but it looks sprightly and heartfelt compared with its witless sequels. The troupe is now three-time defending champs, soaring with diva-esque self-assurance until an accidental act of on-stage lewdness leads to an improbable ban from national collegiate competition, with only a daunting worldwide showcase available as a pathway to retribution. Banks directs with a frenetic indifference to coherently shaping the narrative, not that the screenplay by Kay Cannon (who also wrote the first film) has any evident concern for solid structure or internal consistency. It’s a bunch of lackluster ideas and shapeless jokes heedlessly heaped together, as if upended a laundry basket onto a mattress will magically result in a crisply made bed.

Greatish Performances #20


#20 — Linda Cardellini as Kelli in Return (Liza Johnson, 2011)

In modern cinematic considerations of war, there is a broad agreement that the emotional aftermath when a soldier reached the homeland is just a brutal and devastating as anything that might have happened when they were deployed. Even a film as supposedly jingoistic and fully enamored with battlefield conquest as the ultimate in heroism as American Sniper needs to acknowledge that the military man whose prowess with a rifle is a such that he get deadly superlatives affixed to his name is going to win up staring blankly at a blank television screen when he’s once again become a private citizen. Some of this is undoubtedly attributable to advancing knowledge and corresponding destigmatization of posttraumatic stress, but a more jaded part of myself wonders if a portion of the worthwhile attention might be inspired by the ease of spinning tense drama out of the situation, in much the same way that mourning parents have become the default for grim serialized detective dramas. Heightened emoting will be acceptable, with only the most churlish questioning the accuracy of the moment.

It is the distance from that safe, secure route that distinguishes Linda Cardellini’s performance in Return. As Kelli, a National Guard soldier returning to her small town existence after a tour overseas, Cardellini resists any impulse to signal a tremulous, wounded soul, bedazzled by the capitalistic robustness of the United States. She’s not primed to go off, nor does she give any indication that she’s carrying some deep, dark secret. Kelli’s only response to speculation that she must have had it tough over there is a sincere acknowledgement that it was far worse for others. By all indications, this isn’t false humility or even deflection. Kelli worked at the base hospital, concentrating on keeping supplies stocked, a safe distance from the nerve-wracking duty depicted in The Hurt Locker. If part of what writer-director is positing is that wartime military service exacts a toll on every single person who serves, no matter how safe their task may, then the film is also wise enough to suggest there are varying levels of damage. In the context of a single life, however, those differentiations don’t wipe away the pain.

Without the build to a grueling breakdown scene, Return is reliant on the performance of Cardellini for its impact. She delivers beautifully, largely through carefully calibrating her work to suit the more low-key tragedy. As she tries to settle back into her mundane life, defined the middle class necessities of a husband, kids, and mindlessly straightforward job, the boredom shows, drifting over Cardellini’s eyes like a mountain mist coming down. She’s no adrenaline junkie, but there’s a strong sense that even in her low-level appointment with the National Guard, there was a purpose to her daily existence that her circumstances at home will never meet. The blandness of Kelli’s life nags at her, Cardellini gently showing the ways the dissatisfaction slowly builds, even getting at the guilt and other conflicting sensations of not wanting something that is supposed to be her reward. There’s a sad questing in her eyes, as if she’s in the process of giving up on a version of the American Dream that maybe never made much sense to her to begin with.

It is a performance of great subtlety, scored by the catharsis that refuses to come. In Cardellini’s acting, the withdrawn nature of Kelli is no result of trauma. Instead, it’s a state of being, potentially triggered by her service, but more likely there all along and only noticed by her loved ones when she didn’t fit into their thickly-rendered expectations of how a returning veteran is supposed to act. She doesn’t push back as much as she slumps away from conflict, including the one that settles inside her own soul. Cardellini could have easily drawn on pathos to flesh out the character, but she opts for a trickier, more understated truth. She miraculously finds her way into a being that is impenetrable by design and makes her inner uncertainty piercingly present.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain in Talk Radio

Ford, Hancock, Huston, McDonagh, Robespierre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948). Huston’s famed exploration of greed tainting a slapdash partnership of aspiration gold miners in the Mexican mountains is so deviously ingenious that the director booming cackle virtually echoes through the most feverish scenes. The best Tim Holt can do as the most upstanding, straightforward member of the trio is stay upright against the buffeting winds of Humphrey Bogart, all sweaty paranoia and flash fire intensity, and Walter Huston, delivering a just Oscar-awarded turn as the weather-beaten old-timer whose the one member of the party who’s not a neophyte. The film is simultaneously bleakly mean and a comic marvel, flicking away at the spreading rust at the heart of the money-hungry.

My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946). This moody western offers a depiction of the Earp brothers initially unwilling relocation to the town of Tombstone, their upstanding inclinations helping to clean up a lawless town. Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp with the sort of lean ease that was his trademark. When he unfolds himself, using a deck post to lean back in an old wooden chair, he looks like a grizzled praying mantis at rest. Much of the story is just another blade on the cycling fan of Hollywood westerns, save maybe for the flintiness in the relationship with Wyatt Earp and “Doc” Holliday (Victor Mature). It’s Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography that distinguishes the film. Drenched in impossibly black shadows, multiple scenes play out in silhouette or something perilously close to it. That makes My Darling Clementine into a fascinating experiment in setting mood through visual concealment, a fairly daring choice for a director with rare skill for unfussy narrative mechanics.

The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011). In its simplest interpretation, The Guard is just another variant on the shopworn buddy cop film standard, pairing temperamentally mismatched lawmen on a case that is more complicated than it appears. One in uncouth and the other is rigid and by-the-book. The even have the markedly different shades of skin, adhering to the preferred casting methodology in place since at least 48 Hrs. Two elements of the film make the difference. One is the performance by Brendan Gleeson as the slobby Irish cop who reluctantly works with a visiting FBI agent (Don Cheadle). The other is the precise sense of place and culture fostered by McDonagh. It is a quality that pushes the creation past smarts to something approaching wisdom, proving that even the most familiar material can feel fully reinvented if it plays out with an attentiveness to the world in which it is set. The Guard‘s mechanics may be tropes, but it comes across as a film that could have only been made in one place, in one way.

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013). There’s probably a decent movie that lasts, say, around 100 minutes lurking within this bloated stab at genial prestige. Depicting the arduous process of taking Mary Poppins, the creation of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), from book to screen, the film has some nice moments that capture the pleasures of the creative process (a brief scene showing a key development in the writing of the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” is emblematic of what the film could’ve been). The march to the screen was made especially tough by the persistent dissatisfaction and combativeness of Travers, who resisted any cheerful, Disney-esque softening of her creation. The portion of the film that resides at the studios still presided over by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) are agreeable if imperfect, shaped by the game but ultimately unconvincing portrayals of Thompson and Hanks. The real problem is that the film goes dead anytime tit cycles back to one of the the plentiful flashbacks to the youth of Travers, raised in hardscrabble Australia by a depressed mother (Ruth Wilson) and joyfully childlike but mentally unbalanced father (Colin Farrell). The background that could have been handled in a few deft strokes instead plays out as a sort of parallel film, a really dull one.

Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014). Robespierre’s expansion of her 2011 short film garnered hefty praise for its frankness in dealing with abortion as an undesirable but realistic option in a woman’s life, earning further agog marveling because it did so as a sharp-edged comedy. That’s a significant part of its surprising artfulness, but dwelling on that as the film’s signal achievement requires a fairly superficial reading of what’s on screen. Jenny Slate plays a struggling New York City comedian whose rebound one night stand leaves her with a pregnancy that she never doubts she will terminate through the medical procedure that’s been constitutionally protected for over forty years. Simultaneously, much of the rest of her life is crumbling around her. Besides the demolished romance, her day job is going away and even a paycheck to paycheck existence requires a lot of agonizing stretching between the two points. Robespierre pulls it together with a vibrantly alive, caustically witty tone, correctly relying on the charismatic, lived-in, and wildly expressive performance of Slate. A couple moments of cartoonish, fantastical absurdity are the only minor mars on an otherwise roundly winning film.

Faxon and Rash, Kasdan, Lloyd, Lord and Miller, Snyder

Darling Companion (Lawrence Kasdan, 2012). I’ve got loads of residual affection for writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, but he sure doesn’t make it easy to be one of his defenders these days. Darling Companion was his first film in nearly decade, following the appallingly bad Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher. It doesn’t make an argument that he used his creative downtime wisely. As wispy of a film concept as anyone’s likely to come across, Kasdan’s story (co-written with his wife, Meg Kasdan) concerns an older couple who adopt a stray dog and then lose that new furry family member in the woods around their Colorado vacation cabin. And that’s about it. There are different personal conflicts and evolving relationships at play among the extended group of family and friends staying with them at the cabin, mildly heightened by the stress of the absent pet, but they have no depth or bite. Kasdan assembles a stacked cast that includes Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, and, in a dinky part that could heave been written in its entirety on the back of a PetSmart receipt, Elisabeth Moss, causing my partner-in-all-things to refer to the movie as “interesting actors doing uninteresting things.” She’s spot-on.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013). The kindest thing I can say about Zack Snyder’s reboot of Bryan Singer’s reboot of the adventures of the original superhero and the last son of Krypton is the director’s worst tics, the stuff that makes other entries in his filmography downright unwatchable, are largely tamed. The oppressive slo-mo and fetishistic sexualization of everything in sight may be gone, but Snyder still has an evident love of the garishly bombastic. By all evidence, he values cool shots over all else, which could be acceptable if his version of striking visuals wasn’t mired in some bizarre arrested development version of thought and creativity. Everything across the film’s overlong running time comes across as the very first idea presented that made Snyder helplessly mutter, “Killer.” It’s a rough draft of awesomeness. It’s also incredibly boring, proof that bigger sometimes leads to nothing more than bludgeoning excess. No one in the cast distinguishes themselves, but special scorn is necessary for Russell Crowe’s amateurish shouting as Jor-El, Superman’s pop from across the universe.

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011). I read recently that Phyllida Lloyd maintains she was being completely deliberate with the hacky, cheesy elements of her directing job on the dreadful big-screen jukebox musical Mamma Mia! I wonder, then, what her excuse for the same bumbling, ham-fisted approach to staging and developing insight that crops up in her presumably serious attempt at making a biopic of legendary, controversial U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Played by Meryl Streep (and, for a surprisingly amount of time, Alexandra Roach), Thatcher is ultimately more of a witness to history than she is a shaper of it. Her vaunted steeliness–which gives the film it’s very title–is in evidence in only the most facile way, in scenes that play like weak tea drama. Streep finally won her third Oscar for her performance here, but the work was basically incidental. With far more nominations than any other actor, she was going to get rewarded again, and the time had simply come. It’s not a bad performance, but nothing really distinguishes it from boilerplate docudrama either.

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, 2013). The writing team that got to stand near Alexander Payne as he gave a speech when they all won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for The Descendants may have been obscured in his heavy auteur shadow, but at least they got to leverage that experience into making their directorial debut. Supposedly pulled somewhat from the youthful experiences of co-director Jim Rash, the film is a fairly standard-issue slice-of-life, coming-of-age movie, settling into a crummy water park to help give it some added flavor. The film has its moments, many directly attributable to Sam Rockwell doing his Sam Rockwell thing as a mentor of mild ill repute the youthful protagonist (Liam James) gravitates to at the park. Rash and Nat Faxon pull the whole thing together with a reasonable skill and an eye for the occasional telling moment or side detail. It could use some more storytelling meat to make it seem like it has a real reason for being as a film.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014). I think some of the heady praise doled out to The Lego Movie is an indication that a lot of critics were rounding up, but it’s hard to deny that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller spun up art from the unlikeliest clay. Or, rather, plastic. Just as they’ve done in the Jump Street films, the pair sidestep the pitfalls of crassly conceived material by calling attention to the shallowness of it all, creating by explicitly pointing out how they’re creating it, cheekily mocking all the inherent contradictions and compromises along the way. It’s remarkable that a condemnation of Lego’s current business model of ready-made construction kits is one of the less subversive elements of the film. It’s occasionally a little sloppy and the pathos of the very weird third act twist sits a little awkwardly against the rest of the movie’s wild energy, but the filmmakers deserve credit for seeing their vision through to its logical endpoint. I wonder how deep they got into the filmmaking process before they were sure–really, really sure–no one was going to take it away from them.

Jones, Kubrick, LeRoy, Park, Tourneur

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933). This big musical from the tail end of the Pre-Code Hollywood era is fascinating for its many contradictions, beginning with the framing of Great Depression challenges with a notably defeatist cheer. The production numbers are the handiwork of Busby Berkeley (the songs are by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) and they show off his skill at mesmerizing vastness. “We’re in the Money” is probably the most famous, but others are more interesting, especially the lengthy “Pettin’ the Park,” which includes a strikingly sexy moment involving a bevy of beauties changing behind a sheer screen, and the grim, powerful closer, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” The plot involves class conflict and romantic deceptions, lending the film a little more of an edge, even if all the problems are resolved a little too abruptly and easily at the end.

Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011). The second feature from Duncan Jones clearly aspires to tricky sci-fi mind-fuckery in the Philip K. Dick mode. It casts Jake Gyllenhaal as a military veteran who wakes up in the body of another man, a traveler on a commuter train. He eventually discovers that his psyche is being fed through a new piece of technology that allows him to live out the last eight minutes of another person’s life over and over again, in this instance all in an attempt to discover the identity of a bomber who perpetrated a devastating terrorist attack. Even as an gimmicky contrivance, it makes absolutely no sense, and screenwriter Ben Ripley’s over-eager attempts to keep bending the plot back on itself don’t help. Gyllenhaal is merely adequate in a role that calls for endless layers of disconcerted agitation, but there are a couple entertaining supporting performances by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, mostly because they both effectively ride the fine line between taking the material seriously and signaling their awareness of its inherent goofiness.

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956). Depending on how generous one is inclined to be in rounding up the couple of prior efforts that just edged over the sixty-minute mark, The Killing can be viewed as Stanley Kubrick’s first feature film. A heist picture that examines the robbing of a racetrack from several different perspectives, the film sometimes feels like Kubrick actively teaching himself the mechanics of narrative storytelling more than its own satisfying work of art. Of course, since it’s some of the sharpest instincts in the history of the form being honed to perfection, it’s still pretty damn compelling to watch. All of the performances lodge somewhere between angry heat and tock hard stoicism, with the future General Jack Ripper, Sterling Hayden, setting the perfect template as the crook orchestrating the crime. The screenplay by Kubrick and Jim Thompson (adapted from a novel by Lionel White) builds nicely, right up to the cruel turn of fate that ends the film.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013). The English-language debut of cult favorite South Korean director Park Chan-wook is a delirious gothic horror romp rich in style and short of identifiable human emotions. Mia Wasikowska plays the title character (India Stoker, to be precise), a teenager reeling from the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney, who should really start every film role as a corpse) in a car accident. The funeral brings her long-lost uncle (Matthew Goode) into the picture, and much of the remainder of the film swivels on suspicions about his intentions, towards both India and her mother (Nicole Kidman). Park revels in making seemingly innocent artifacts–shoes, sharpened pencils–into carriers of great dread, but the film never manages to transcend its own giddy luridness in such a way as to make it come across as much more than an exercise.

Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950). Jacques Tourneur’s best-known films fall squarely into the horror and film noir genres, which makes it especially interesting to watching him ply his command of shadows–both those that cut across a set and those that settle on the human soul–in that most venerable of Hollywood genres, the western. The director’s skills honed in other sorts of films come through most clearly in a nighttime raid on the house of a man who’s refusing to sell his land to local mine magnate, the whole sequence staged like it belongs in one of producer Val Lewton’s fright-fests. The film is built around the experiences of a preacher (Joseph Cotten) who comes to a little frontier town, with various stories loosely threaded together giving the whole thing the feel of a dusty slice of life. One of the most notable scenes anticipates a key moment in To Kill a Mockingbird (and arguably does it more cleverly), but the best overall scenes involve the preacher’s conflict with the new town doctor, played with sharp, huffy authority by James Mitchell.

Fleischer, McQueen, Perry, Sturges, Tourneur

The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968). This is definitely an odd one. It’s not hard to see why this has become something of a cult classic, its relative obscurity combining with the floridly executed proto-seventies moody grit creating a fairly singular viewing experience. Based on a John Cheever story, the film casts Burt Lancaster as a middle-aged stalwart of the self-anointed suburban upper class who decides on a whim on day that he can cross the vast distance from one house to his own home entirely by following a path that takes him through all of his many neighbors’ backyard swimming pools. As it gradually comes to light that perhaps Lancaster’s character is living quite the golden existence he portrays, he also has less and less fruitful encounters with others until it all collapses into an emotionally ugly climax. Lancaster is complexly appealing in the role, his trademark glow of confidence growing dimmer as the film progresses. The movie itself often gets tripped up by its own existential confusion, perhaps a vestige of Frank Perry’s clashes with his star, which got him forced off the project in favor of other pinch-hitting directors, including Sydney Pollack. It’s too messy to truly call it a triumph, but it’s a fascinating artifact from the limbo in between sturdy old Hollywood and the cinematic revolution on the seventies.

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011). Steve McQueen reunites with his Hunger star (and future 12 Years a Slave supporting monster), Michael Fassbender, for a modern story of a seemingly successful man whose emotional fragility manifests as a strangely self-destructive sex addiction. McQueen’s propensity for long takes creates some striking and yet inconsequential images (a sustained shot of Fassbender running through city streets, for example), but the real problem is the vast hollowness at the core of the story. There is essentially nothing to Fassbender’s character aside from his horndog dismay, which could speak to a tragically empty life but instead comes across as dramatic lassitude. At times, it comes across as the most misguided portrayal of privilege as the cause of anguish since The Fight Club. Carey Mulligan overacts as the protagonist’s damaged sister, but at least she fully commits herself to doing something.

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943). I recently reviewed a documentary about George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In the film, several interview subjects marveled at how thoroughly the 1968 classic defined the modern conception of the zombie, and all it takes it a look at the Jacques Tourneur horror film from four-and-a-half decades earlier to see how true that is. Rather than the shambling flesh-eaters of Romero’s films, the are spooky human specters, inhabiting the world while obviously completely dead to it. The acting and plot (set into motion when a woman arrives on a Caribbean island to serve as nurse to a sugar magnate’s supposedly ill wife) are nothing to get excited about, but Tourneur is as masterful in shaping mood through stately, shadowy imagery as he was in the previous year’s exemplary Cat People. The zombies themselves are deeply unsettling.

Compulsion (Richard Fleischer, 1959). A film based with meticulous accuracy on the famed Leopold and Loeb murders, in nineteen-twenties Chicago, although the names of the various characters were charged to avoid litigation. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman play Judd and Artie, two young men who kill a young boy, apparently for no other reason than to see if they could do it. When the law catches up with them, their wealthy parents enlist the famous defense attorney Jonathan Wilk, a character modeled on Clarence Darrow and played with majestic intellectual force by Orson Welles. The film is a decent crime drama with a few dark, even trippy elements for the first portion. On Welles strides into the picture, it’s riveting. The commanding filmmaker was in the last stages of an attempt to get back in the favor of Hollywood, which included the studio savaging of Touch of Evil a year earlier. He may have still had trouble securing a suitably accommodating space, but he still had screen presence and evident intelligence to burn, both of which director Richard Fleischer used to great advantage.

The People Against O’Hara (John Sturges, 1951). Presumably it wasn’t too hard for Spencer Tracy to figure out how to play a bedraggled old attorney who finds himself drawn to the bottle when his latest case gets challenging. He defends a young man from the neighborhood, giving him a heightened connection the outcome. Meanwhile, he’s also struggling somewhat with his daughter, who has a certain enabling relationship with him while also muddling through a fairly standard stiff movie romance. The movie has some darkness around the fringes, but most of it is courtroom drama and personal struggle presented in the most pedestrian way. John Sturges is pretty straightforward in his directing, and the finished project is ultimately uninvolving.