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.

Greatish Performances #41

larson 12

#41 — Brie Larson as Grace Howard in Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)

Written and directed by Destin Danile Cretton, Short Term 12 is intensely focused in portraying the tender existences of people connected to a group home for struggling teens. There are big moments in the film — troubling revelations, devastating individual choices, acts of violence — but it’s even more compelling in the attention it gives to the emotional gashes that can last a lifetime, never quite healing over enough to become scars. Some bruises are forever tender.

At the center of the film, encompassing all of its trembling complications, is the performance by Brie Larson as Grace Howard. One of the supervisors in the group home, Grace is fiercely dedicated to her charges and, it seems, has more of knack for reaching troubled young people than some of her colleagues. She’s no noble saint, though It is not a portrayal of beatific delicacy. As acted by Larson, Grace is strikingly human. Even as she approaches the residents of the group home with thoughtful care, she can be impatient, stern, and visibly worn out. There is therapy and compassion at play, but it is also a trying job, and Larson wears the day-by-day of it all like a lead-lined coat.

There’s also a lurking risk in Grace’s involvement with the group home residents. Her ability to sympathize is strong in part because of the dark secrets in her past. She can be rash in her decision-making and a righteous in her certainty of the best course of action, qualities that sometimes derail her. Larson artfully plays the conflicts that keep Grace in a precarious stasis. There are moments that flare, but much of Larson’s performance is notable for its simmering uncertainty, the hesitant reaching for a handle she knows has a high likelihood of scalding her. The people who support her, including a coworker who is also her kind, adoring romantic partner (John Gallagher, Jr.), are eyed by Grace with skepticism, less because of they have demonstrated themselves to be untrustworthy and more out of a grim certainty that the universe twirls on the axis of betrayal. Larson makes this emotional hardship experienced by Grace into an ache so real it’s almost solid.

Larson probes into her character with a commitment beyond developing many layers. Instead, Larson builds those layers and then manages to show them all at once, draped across one another like sheets of vellum that shift subtly as the light changes. At times, the intimacy of the performance is so truthful that it can seem like Grace’s gradual opening up of herself is a real thing, coaxed by Larson rather than acted by her. In committing fully and ferociously to Grace, Larson honors the character. More laudably, Larson honors the many people in the world who are living their own versions of Grace’s quietly heroic endurance.


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 in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April

The Unwatchables — The Counselor


I don’t inherently have a problem with films that go a little bonkers. And I can muster up an appreciation whether the offerings in question are good or bad. Bong Joon-ho devising brilliant storytelling around dystopian science fiction taking place almost entirely within a locomotive endlessly circling the planet? Yes, please! Neil Labute disastrously fumbling with a limp gothic horror remake in which Nicolas Cage overacts his way through fisticuffs while wearing a ratty bear costume and torture by bee helmet? I’ll take seconds and lick that plate clean!

Maybe the real problem in when a film the tilts toward lunacy lands somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, marked by neither inspiration nor ineptness. What happens when material that is relentlessly nutso is handled with dull competence?

The Counselor happens, that’s what.

Directed by Ridley Scott, The Counselor assembles a first-rate cast and sets them wandering aimlessly across a plot of creeping criminality and addled sexual intrigue. I’d like to provide a little more detail on the mechanics of that story, but I could barely discern what was going on besides the different characters — led by the title attorney, played by Michael Fassbender — slipping in and out of each other’s orbits to deliver coyly menacing dialogue. The gears of the story don’t connect. They just spin and spin.

The most notable name in the opening credits is revered novelist Cormac McCarthy. The Counselor is his first produced original screenplay, following adaptations of his books that include one flat-out classic and many more big screen works that implicitly, inadvertently argue that his distinct brand of terse, tense prose doesn’t travel well when moved from the page. In this instance, there’s no condemning the translation. McCarthy presumably believed these lines could be spoken aloud and sound like human communication. But actors imbued with boundless talent straight from the heavens couldn’t pull off a moment such as the one in which Javier Bardem reacts to a grim comment from Cameron Diaz by asking her, “You don’t think that’s a bit cold?,” and she responds, “I think truth has no temperature.” And then there’s Fassbender’s cooing to Penélope Cruz, “Life is being in bed with you. Everything else is just waiting.” It one of the grossest approximations of seductive romance I’ve encountered in a film in quite some time.

The above litany doesn’t even start digging into the nutty plot points: the bikini pool party with a leopard sedately hanging out, the intricate highway beheading that mystically stirs an incarcerated woman (Rosie Perez) awake, the scene of Diaz mounting — in both the dictionary and pornographic definitions of the word — a sports car windshield as Bardem gazes up in confusion. Scott films all this with an odd placidness bordering on dull-eyed indifference. It’s an exercise in riled perversion presented as a chain of plainly framed close-ups, like a TV movie from decades ago. Decadence has rarely seemed so dull.

I made it approximately halfway through The Counselor.


Previously in The Unwatchables
— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman

Dominik, Howard, Junger, Miller, Wolchok

Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016). And so we’ve reached the point in the superhero era of cinema that allows for a caustically deconstructionist take on the genre to become one of the biggest hits of the year. There might be no better methodology for tracing the chronology of the genre’s takeover than measuring the comparative impact of Mystery Men (a dud in 1999) to Kick-Ass (a solid hit in 2010) to Deadpool (a sensation in 2016). Technically, Ryan Reynolds first played Wade Wilson in the dismal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, release in 2009. Besides the smirking countenance of the actor, that iteration of the character bears no resemblance to the jabbering, comic sadist who romps through Deadpool. Taking cues from most of the Marvel comics featuring the character, director Tim Miller and credited screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick imbue Deadpool with an awareness of his own fiction, letting him comment on the narrative manipulations and pile-up of tropes that dog him as he marauds against a big batch of colorfully brutal opponents and tries to rescue his lady love (Morena Baccarin). It has amusing moments, but the redundancy of the central gag wears thin quickly. Reynolds reverts back to the Jim Carrey, Jr. routine that sustained him when he was one of two guys hanging out with a girl in a pizza place, which only demonstrates how tiresome that performing style becomes when not laced with Carrey’s dark ingenuity.

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? (Sebastian Junger, 2013). Subtitled “The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” this documentary essentially serves as Sebastian Junger’s tribute to his co-director on the exceptional Restrepo. Hetherington was a photojournalist with a special commitment to fearlessly documenting some of the most dangerous corners of the planet. He was killed after being hit by shrapnel while on the ground covering the 2011 Libyan Civil War. More of an admiring remembrance than a sharply-drawn piece of cinema, the film does make a compelling argument for the immense contribution of those reporters, whether armed with cameras, audio recordings, or notebooks, who put their lives on the line to bring stories of global dismay to the public, a reminder that couldn’t be more timely.

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Director Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford aptly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of his filmmaking approach. More pertinently, it shows just how those opposing qualities intertwine, resulting in a hopeless knot. Based on the 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik’s film maintains a sleazy, downscale vibe that calls to mind the urban noir films of that era, but updates the action to the fall of 2008, drawing in the presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain and the financial collapse that shaded it into a rueful Greek chorus, singing from televisions and radios in the background of various scenes. It’s presumably meant to give the proceedings a different heft, a heightened pertinence. Instead, it’s a busy distraction from the meaty dialogue and decent, lean drama involving the layers of retribution surrounding a poker game robbery. There’s similar conflict with the visuals, which are both marvelously shot (by Greig Fraser) and sometimes so fussed over they become stultifying. One sequence involving an assassination on the roadway is prime example. It’s objective resplendence doesn’t prevent it from being woefully indulgent.

Very Semi-Serious (Leah Wolchok, 2015). This documentary about the cartoons that speckle the pages of The New Yorker is wispy and enjoyable. While a few of the figures who move through the film are fascinating, notably the endearing oddballs Liana Finck and Edward Steed (the latter of whom approaches genius in his comic creations), the film is strongest as a consideration of process. In detailing the multitude of steps required before a cartoon sees print, director Leah Wolchok highlights quietly makes the argument that nothing should be taken for granted, even that material that, at first glance, appears to be little more than filler.

In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015). Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the travails of the sailors aboard the whaleship Essex, a story that helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, this attempt at a resounding adventure film is primarily notable for its grinding dullness. Ron Howard capably handles the sequencing of shots — despite swirling chaos, there’s rarely confusion about what is transpiring — but can find no passion within the tale. The various characters are thin as fraying thread, informed more by cliche than recognizable humanity.

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.

Carey, Harvey, Hill, Maloof and Siskel, Shepard

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962). The film begins with a car crash, the vehicle careening off a cliff into the murky drink. Though the authorities are unable to find the vehicle’s female occupant (Candace Hilligoss), she eventually emerges, carrying no memory of how she survived. She proceeds with her plan, traveling to Utah for a job as a church organist. From there, writer-director Harvey, along with co-screenwriter John Clifford, comes up with downright ingenious ways to build scenes with unsettling layers with an obviously meager budget. The movie is ticklishly amusing given some of its more dated elements and amateurish acting, but it’s also almost moving in its pure conviction, standing as a sterling example of unabashed independent filmmaking.

Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974). Originally conceived as a sequel to the hit film Coffy, this scruffy revenge saga settles Pam Grier into yet another no-nonsense character with a spot-on name. Like a lot of films that hinge their stories on acts of retribution, there’s a certain amount of laziness to it, relying so heavily on the primal appeal of the instinct that any attempts at nuanced motivation are set aside. Grier is blessed with charisma and hampered by a dearth of acting craft, compounding the sense of the film as a grinding, empty exercise. The film’s primary merit is as a useful artifact of a certain sliver of American cinema, when the sudden swell of content freedom was applied with equal vigor to the aspirational art and the sputtering trash.

Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2014). This documentary works incredibly well as a act of specific advocacy, but falters as nonfiction cinema. The likely culprit for the flawed execution is the direct involvement of Maloof in the creation of the film. He was the person who unearthed the treasure trove of the title figure’s photographs, largely snapped while she was serving as the in-house help for a series of well-off Chicago families. Where the film could have used a touch of journalistic distance, Maloof keeps nudging it toward his own righteous passions about the established art world’s reluctance to belatedly embrace Maier’s work. It starts to play less like genuine concern about the artist getting a fair shake and more Maloof pitching a tantrum that the discovery hasn’t played out to his full benefit. I’d wager Maloof’s status as co-director is also instrumental in the film largely side-stepping the introduced notion that Maier would have despised her art being shared so freely after her death. It’s an especially rich conflict to set aside, because Maier’s photography, as selectively curated for the film, practically demands to be seen, earning favorable comparisons to masters of the art form such as Walker Evans and Rebecca Lepkoff.

Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2013). Maybe it’s the specificity of the genre. Dom Hemingway proves there’s a clear limit to how many films about comically colorful British gangsters the cinematic firmament can bear. The screenplay and direction, both by Richard Shepard, are soundly constructed, and Jude Law delivers admirable in precisely the sort of shift from sexy centerpiece to ragged character role that should be the prevailing course of his career from here on in. And yet it all feels drab and familiar, banging artistic pots that have made more notable noises in the hands of Martin McDonagh or even Guy Ritchie. The film does provide the blessed sight and sound of Khaleesi covering the Waterboys, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

The To Do List (Maggie Carey, 2013). Maybe there will eventually be an inclination to round up, just as is the current norm with loads of nineteen-eighties films aiming for laughs, but I suspect instead that retrospective surveys of comedies from the current era will take note of how many could have achieved greatness were there a little more discipline. The feature film debut of Carey cannily hit a slender mark, appropriating the tropes and rhythms of the dopey sex comedies of the eighties and nineties while simultaneously deconstructing and slyly mocking them. Aubrey Plaza stars as Brandy Klark, uptight valedictorian of her graduating high school class who decides she needs to catch up on her sexual experiences before diving into the deep pool of higher education. She approaches it with the same meticulous organization that earned her top grades. When the character is locked down, Plaza is quite good, showing how confusion and curiosity go hand in hand. But there’s inconsistency across the board, including the outlook of her character, defined by awkward innocence one moment and barbed self-assurance worthy of April Ludgate the next. It’s consistently amusing and just insightful enough to be disarming, but it also lets sloppiness undercut its smarts to a unfortunate degree.


Garland, Howard, Mangold, Ross, Taylor

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Novelist and screenwriter Garland makes his directorial debut with this smart, chilly science fiction film about a reclusive tech magnate (Oscar Isaac) who flies up an employee (Domhnall Gleeson), supposedly selected at random, to help him test out some remarkable new artificial intelligence he’s created. Complicating the test subjects reactions is the little detail that the A.I. has been loaded into an android with a notably lovely female form and visage (Alicia Vikander). Garland builds his script with almost malicious psychological cunning, fomenting uncertainty as to whether the genius inventor is a simmering madman or a master manipulator, which creates a dynamic between the two male leads that sometimes makes it feel — a little unfairly, I’ll admit — that Gleeson is simply repeating his performance from last year’s Frank. Overall, the film is strong and intriguing, demonstrating that Garland has a fine sense for visual construction and pacing. The ending lingers like an echo that mysteriously won’t die down, but until that point, it’s a sterling debut.

Rush (Ron Howard, 2013). Howard reunites with Frost/Nixon playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan for this docudrama about a Formula One racing rivalry, primarily as it plays out across the 1976 season. By most accounts, Morgan is fairly faithful to the truth, mainly goosing the drama only to heighten the conflict between the two principals. Howard is the one pushing for something a little different, enlisting Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, to give the film a stylish, almost dreamy look, miles away from the director’s usual plainspoken visuals. It’s more intriguing than transformational, especially since Howard sometimes seems a little flummoxed by the task of coming up with a satisfying variety of ways to shoot the redundancy of cars roaring in laps. Chris Hemsworth is well cast as golden boy racer James Hunt, maybe too much so, making him come across as Thor in a jumpsuit. Daniel Brühl fares better, thanks to relative unfamiliarity with his acting, but also because his character, Niki Lauda, has a fascinating edge that never dulls.

Get On Up (Tate Taylor, 2014). This biopic of legendary performer James Brown benefits from a sensational lead performance by Chadwick Boseman, one-upping his own fine work playing Jackie Robinson in 42. The role obviously lends itself to the sort of mercurial shifts that any actor would relish, while also placing him on stage to replicate the boisterous showmanship of the Godfather of Soul. It can sometimes make it seem like Boseman is completing an especially exhausting acting obstacle course rather than building a fully rounded performance, but he does it with so much vigor and style that it’s applause-worthy anyway. The film itself is an exuberant mess, with Taylor lingering on the musical performances very nearly to the film’s breaking point and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth trying so fervently to avoid lapsing into tired biographical rhythms that they wind up with an ungainly snarl of ping-ponging chronology and intermittent breaking of the fourth wall. It might not work, but it’s bizarrely fascinating when it doesn’t.

The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973). Written by the unlikely team of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, the film reportedly came about when producer-director Herbert Ross encouraged the duo to dramatize one of the elaborate scavenger hunt style games they concocted for their famous friends. It naturally became a murder mystery in the elaborate style of Agatha Christie, with a bevy of Hollywood folks invited for a weeklong cruise on the yacht of producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn), a devotee of games and puzzles who’s still smarting from the hit and run death of his wife (Yvonne Romain) about a year earlier. The plot deals with secrets, retribution, and the instinct for malice that pumps through everyone, with the constantly doubling back to reveal hidden truths reaching dizzying intensity by the last reel. It’s often ingenious and staged nicely by Ross throughout. There’s also a fantastic supporting performance by Dyan Cannon, playing a chatterbox, self-involved talent agent.

The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). The second solo outing for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) on the big screen draws loose inspiration from the character’s landmark 1982 limited series, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller, which sends the snarliest X-Man to Japan to deal with Yakuza and samurai and family honor and all sorts of other tired nonsense overvalued by Westerners when they craft stories around the island nation. The film is almost relentlessly dour, enthralled by its own supposed edgy coolness. It buys into the grim and gritty aesthetic so thoroughly that even the sequences of the sort of high lunacy that could only work in a movie drawn from superhero comics — a protracted fight atop a moving bullet train, a character performing open heart surgery on himself to remove a mysterious spidery gizmo from inside his chest — wind up intensely serious instead of bounding with the spirit of happy abandon that could have made them work.