Branagh, Brooks, Leigh, McGrath, Trank

Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015). It’s grading on the most generous of curves, but as a crass attempt to develop a new revenue stream for a beloved Disney animated class, the live action Cinderella isn’t so bad. It’s certainly a damn sight better than the grotesque senses assault of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which basically established this type of cinematic tomb raiding. Similarly, Kenneth Branagh’s directing is more tightly controlled and snappily efficient than anything else he’s done in ages, the stricter corporate oversight perhaps taming his penchant for dragging indulgence. Most of the acting is merely perfunctory, save for the occasional ravishingly overcooked line reading of Cate Blanchett as the title character’s unkind stepmother. (To his credit, I couldn’t place Richard Madden as I watched, which indicates he carried his performance as the Prince admirably far from the resolutely charmless Robb Stark.) The surest value in this Cinderella comes in its showcase of costume design, art direction, and other deep credit technical artistry. The film pays only glancing attention to capturing the heart or stirring the mind, but it continuously dispenses gifts for the eyes.

Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015). I think my affection for the Fantastic Four is exceedingly welldocumented by now. Even I’m prepared to admit that the characters effectively repel any attempt, earnest or otherwise, to transfer them to the big screen. They probably belong on the comic book page and nowhere else (and it’s entirely possible that even their time there has passed, just as Marvel Comics has evidently decided, even if it is motivated as much by churlishness protest over their disconnection from movie rights as any sound editorial judgment). The most recent stab at making Marvel’s first family into into a viable movie franchise is a confused and confusing mess. There’s interesting but misguided elements to the film, led by a body horror explication of the characters’ superpowers that a younger David Cronenberg could have juiced up to unsettling minor masterpiece levels. In the hands of director Josh Trank, though, it’s just one more notion that he doesn’t have the patience or narrative focus to turn into a full-fledged idea.

The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks, 1956). Adapted by Gore Vidal from a teleplay written by Paddy Chayefsky, The Catered Affair represents the sliver of time that Hollywood was interested in honest but unpitying depictions of those who lived on the lower rungs of the economic class ladder. In its plotting, the film feels like a unapologetic counter to the conspicuous consumption of the original Father of the Bride, which was released a few years earlier. Jane Hurley (Debbie Reynolds) gets engaged to her longtime beau (Rod Taylor). Their original plan to simply pop into the courthouse in the middle of the week is complicated by the intense desire of Jane’s mother (Bette Davis) to provide her daughter with the sort of proper wedding that can stand in for years of denied luxuries. The story artfully acknowledges all the ways such aspirations cause undue complications, while also shrewdly getting at the underpinnings of disappointment, extending even beyond financial security, that motivate the mother’s devotion to providing Jane the very best, just this one time. Brooks brings the steadiest of hands to direction, eliciting especially strong work across the cast. It’s no surprise that Davis turns in rich, rewarding work, but I’d also venture to say this contains the strongest acting I’ve ever seen out of Reynolds. Ernest Borgnine, one year past the performance in Marty that nabbed him a Best Actor Oscar, is especially good at conveying the wounded dignity of the family’s cab-driving patriarch. Only the closing moments — delivered in too much of a rush, leading to some mildly regressive messaging — feel compromised. The rest is well thought out, both ruefully comic and dramatically heartfelt.

Becoming Mike Nichols (Douglas McGrath, 2016). Putting a narrow spotlight on the very beginning of Mike Nichols’s storied career, this brief documentary illustrates the revelation and the shortcomings of a such an approach. Going no further than the director’s first two films, Becoming Mike Nichols suggests a slice of a mini-series version of Inside the Actor’s Studio, with every production afforded the generous hunks of time required to really dig into them. When a montage from The Graduate is discussed, for example, director Douglas McGrath cuts in the entire sequence instead of settling for an indicative few seconds. It makes a significant difference in understanding the craft being examined. However, going no further that 1967 leaves decades of important work relegated to nothing more than a coda of movie posters and Playbill covers, giving the film a sadly shortsighted feel. Additionally, Jack O’Brien proves to be a dismally inadequate interviewer, floundering with a lack of insight and an overabundance of chummy eagerness. His assertion that he only recently realized the ending of The Gradate wasn’t purely celebratory is such an embarrassment that McGrath would have been kind to undertake an editing room excising of the disqualifying admission.

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014). Mike Leigh’s biopic of the British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), known for almost painfully beautiful landscapes, covers roughly the last twenty years of is life. Leigh collaborates with cinematographer Dick Pope to give the film an elegant visual resplendence that evokes the artist’s most famed works, a truly astonishing accomplishment. For me, that comes sadly close to being the beginning and end of the film’s charms. Mr. Turner is a remarkably dull affair, dominated by scenes made sluggish through heaving dramatic duty. Little of Leigh’s trademark rambunctious — his dedication to capturing the messiness of life — is present in the film. Instead, it clicks ponderously from one moment to the next. Even the few effective set piece scenes — Turner striding imperiously through a  gallery showcase of his work, the painter confronted by the newfangled technology called the camera that’s destined to minimize the value of his realistic paintings — are impaired by a tendency to stretch them until they’re flaccid. Leigh obviously means for the film to be a showcase for his regular troupe member Spall. It’s painful to begrudge him a rare meaty lead, but Spall rarely moves beyond one sharply-played note. He relies on the physical brutishness of Turner, playing him like a wild boar made human, right down to the agitated grunts.

Landis, McDonagh, Nichols, Parks, Trevorrow

The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980). I routinely think of this musical-action-comedy as the strongest film of the many that have been spun off from Saturday Night Live recurring characters, though we’re admittedly looking at a shallow, fetid pool. A recent fresh viewing suggests I might have been inflating in, undoubtedly on the basis of how freely I and my cohort of dopey high school friends quoted it, as if reciting a bar order of “three orange whips” at a purportedly clever moment would position us as comic geniuses. The movie is more slapdash than I remembered and spotted with painfully flat line readings across the cast. It’s not unreasonable that, say, lifelong musician Matt Murphy might not flash the chops of a great actor, but even co-leads Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi drift through certain scenes with amateurish indifference. Director John Landis stages the varied material — not too many other films have both musical numbers and densely populated car chases — with reasonable deftness, but he falters in the pruning process. Stretching comfortably past the two hour mark, the film is overlong. It’s hampered by trying to do too much, as if everyone involved was defensively trying to prove the worthiness of spinning a feature out a couple sketch comics’ vanity tribute to their favorite music.

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016). At the time of its release, this tricky drama from Jeff Nichols got attention as a indie-sensibility corrective to superhero movies. The strange powers exhibited by young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) aren’t exciting or inspiring. They’re terrifying, a symptom of an existence out of control. Maybe even more potently, the film offers up a more realistic depiction of a Spielbergian story pitting small-scale people imbued with sudden fantastical threads to their life against forbidding authorities. It is grim and pained, offering a pointed assessment of humanity’s rapidity in collapsing all empathetic camaraderie in the face of a threat. Rod Serling would undoubtedly find it satisfactory. It’s a strong film, but the mechanics sometimes grind too loudly. And most of the actors, including Michael Shannon as the boy’s father, seem to operate at a slight remove from the inner layers of their characters. The best performance comes from Adam Driver, playing a scientist who is simultaneously wary and intrigued, which is precisely the right combination of reactions facing the circumstances with the film.

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014). I’m lukewarm on John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to The Guard, but I suspect my disconnect is a result of the film’s greatest strength: a deep immersion in the culture it depicts. Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, an Irish priest who’s somewhat worn down by hiss community’s fraying connecting to the church, and that’s before he receives a threat on his life from the other side of the confessional. The film depicts the fraught few days leading up to the named time of the murder, exacted on this priest because he’s a good man, meaning the shock will be greater. McDonagh weights the film with the mood of burden, often letting it play with dreamlike shimmers of sensation rather than grounded narrative. This approach almost excuses some of the creakier elements of the drama  — like a tendency towards callousness among the townspeople that rings false – but not quite. If McDonagh wants to make Calvary carry the numbing feel of moving hopelessly through an existential dilemma, he accomplishes it. Me, I could have used a little more attention to the rigors of narrative.

The Super Cops (Gordon Parks, 1974). Man alive, did filmmakers in the nineteen-seventies love making movies about honest police officers who chose to not play by the rules in orde to buck a corrupt system or what? One year after Serpico mined similar territory, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and director Gordon Parks adapted the nonfiction book  The Super Cops: The True Story Of The Cops Called Batman and Robin into another brusquely dismaying and wryly comic police drama. The film has its charms, but it’s also fairly indistinct, save for the performance of Ron Leibman, who maybe never had a better showcase for his unique brand of fuming, amused self-regard.

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015). Putting aside that the human characters who populate the films that follow Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park are problematically  committed to not learning a thing from a carnage-filled past, the revival of the franchise that taught average moviegoers about chaos theory makes for a decent entertainment. Reminiscent of Roland Emmerich’s underrated White House Down, Colin Trevorrow’s first stab at big, big budget filmmaking hits extremely familiar notes, but does so with just enough verve and commitment to make the finding of flaws in the proceedings feel like part of the fun instead of evidence that everything’s gone terribly wrong. Unlike other recent efforts at restarting old franchise engines, Jurassic World touches on its cinematic history lightly and with occasional flashes of welcome wit. If nothing else, it’s a damn sight better than either of the other two Jurassic Park sequels, the worst of which, don’t forget, was directed by Spielberg,

 

Then Playing: Unfriended

unfriended.jpg

I usually reserve the longer reviews for films still playing in theaters, but sometimes a title I’ve caught up on later merits a few extra words.

Appropriately, the conversation took place on Facebook Messenger. I was discussing Unfriended with my friend Khaetlyn, who had recommended the film in the first place, offering the assurance that it was far more than the trashy, cheapo found footage horror film it appeared to be from all the floridly urgent promotion around it. Shortly after seeing it, I was about to let her know that she was correct, when she framed her curiosity about my reaction in a way that felt familiar from our days working together.

unfriended chat

I work with college students, so I’m routinely dealing with individuals at least a generation younger than me. For a stretch, Khaetlyn and her cohort on the summer work crew I supervised amused themselves by taking a moment each and every day to announce the shared year of their individual births to me, causing pinging in my temple because it corresponded with a calendar I lived through when comfortably into my adulthood. Initially, this invocation of my ancient memory seemed like that same old ribbing, but then Khaetlyn explained precisely why it was pertinent for this conversation. As a result, I started thinking about my own limitations in evaluating film.

First, it’s worth laying out the particulars of Unfriended. In proper modern horror movie fashion, it centers on the murderous revenge of a cruelly persecuted teen. The youth in question is Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide after a deeply unflattering video of her disastrous drunkenness at a party was posted anonymously and without her consent. On the anniversary of her death, a mysterious figure using Laura’s various social media accounts begins needling the group of friends who were collectively suspected of responsibility for the offending upload.

In some ways, the film is conventional as can be, with the pending victims all sketched out in the simplest manner and defined with such broadly divergent personality traits that it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which they tolerate one another much less operate as a friendly clique. More problematically, the inevitable gruesome deaths are exacted through methods that are meant to be novel but are instead dull-witted and set up in a painfully obvious fashion. The kid who holds up a nonsensically out-of-place blender early in the film is sure to become unhappily acquainted with its whirring blades before the final credits. In the horror genre, this sort of bleakly dispatched comeuppance is too often what passes for wit.

What sets Unfriended apart, though, is the sneakily ingenious realization of its central conceit. The whole film plays out on one laptop screen, as Blaire (Shelley Hennig) interacts with her increasingly worried then panicked friends, as well as the fearsome figure digitally harassing them, entirely through online resources, such as Facebook, Skype, and various chat functions. In an especially valuable touch, the filmmakers use actual digital products, rather than some phony stand-in like facelOOk, creating greater authenticity through familiarity. When they intend to stir minor but effective anxiety through delayed communication — the absence of response potentially meaning the more dire of outcomes given the situation — the fully recognizably pulse of little dots, or lack thereof, has a fiercer impact than the cliched horror movies rhythms of absence followed by a jolt.

Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves stage the action expertly, using the fidgety interactions of a screen-fixated teen to help alleviate any tedium that may come from the limitations of operating on a single desktop. In particular, they shrewdly use their technique to delve into the thought process of the main character, as she taps out a response only to think better of it and backspace her first instinct into oblivion or is triggered by some fresh taunt to click on new browser tab so she can research a theory she’d previously dismissed. At its most intriguing, the movie is a map of one anguished mind.

I can assess and intellectualize all of these facets of the film, but I question whether or not I can truly feel them. As I grew up, the wilds of the World Wide Web weren’t available to me. Hell, it wasn’t even invented yet. The agreed upon date of Tim Berners-Lee’s technological conjuring of the internet-reliant communication platform is one year after I graduated high school. My friend Khaetlyn grew up with it, and the social media juggernauts it spawned, as a part of life as ubiquitous and necessary as landline telephones when I was a kid. For her, certain moments in Unfriended had an entirely different resonance, particularly those that exploited fears around a lack of control of one’s public persona. The painful knot of uncertainty upon discovering someone else has posted a picture of you is something I’ve never experienced, not really. For people twenty years (or more — sigh) younger than me, the gap between the notification of the picture and confirming its contents is pure threat. Hell, the fact I posted a fragmentary screenshot of one of our conversations will likely give my friend momentary heart palpitations.

My lack of directly relatable experience isn’t automatically a damning flaw. I don’t feel the need to be a Jedi or a Wookiee to weigh in on Star Wars. Even so, it feels different in this instance. Horror movies, after all, play to base emotions, deeply embedded fears. Many of the dangers featured in such fare play upon my own survival instincts, whether or not I can directly related to the heightened dilemma. Even though I don’t have kids, for example, I’ve been culturally indoctrinated to react a certain way if I see one in danger. With Unfriended, I entirely missed one piece of it that was a significant driver of its clicking disquiet. That doesn’t make me feel unqualified to assess the film, but it does get me thinking about the how the borders of my experience shape my reaction to it. As I continue to put fingers to keyboard to tap out my opinions, it’s a worthwhile reminder.

Auer, Bateman, Halperin, Nelson, Newley

Bad Words (Jason Bateman, 2014). The feature directorial debut of Bateman has a nifty story hook and an admirable nasty streak. It’s especially nice to see Bateman fully tap the vein of dark consternation that pulses through his best, smartest comedic work. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Andrew Dodge also relies on a adult-child friendship that feels patently phony and is also fairly hackneyed for this sort of dark comedy. That there are a few slightly more clever notes played between Bateman and Rohan Chand (playing a more appropriately-aged rival in a national spelling bee that Bateman’s disgruntled adult has pushed his way into via a loophole) doesn’t forgive the familiarity of the basic structure of the relationship. Still, Bateman demonstrates strong enough filmmaking chops that it’s no surprise he was able to parlay this into more intriguing opportunities.

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (Anthony Newley, 1969). Ah, yes: the sort of glorious mess that only the late nineteen-sixties could deliver, as a bolstered commitment to directorial authorship converged with rapidly loosening content controls and the external influence of psychedelic free-for-alls to produce garish visions of baffling excess. In the case of Hieronymus Merkin, the poisoned candy mix has the added ingredient of a big star’s unchecked ego. Newley reportedly worked on the screenplay while suffering through the Doctor Doolittle film shoot, ultimately collaborating with Summer of ’42 writer Herman Raucher to arrive at an autobiographical story of an entertainer whose toxic lifestyle includes levels of sex addiction that skew toward the deviant (it is sad marker of both the era and the level of vile privilege held by celebrities that Newley essentially confesses to a sexual relationship with a child with only the slightest iota of guilt or regret). It’s also a musical, with numbers cowritten by Newley, many of which sound as though they could have emanated from the songwriting team of Clarke and Rogers. Included among the ostensible showstoppers is a lurid donkey fairy tale and a big, theatrical ballad about embracing narcissistic atheism. The film is awash in indulgent meta flourishes and inane, broad satire, led by the presence of Milton Berle as satanic stand-in Goodtime Eddie Filth. Newley cast his then-wife Joan Collins as the main character’s spouse, a callously deceived woman named Polyester Poontang. Collins credited her viewing of the film, at least in part, as the motivating factor in her choice to divorce Newley, which surely gives the film a fairly unique place in the annals of cinema.

The Crime of Dr. Crespi (John H. Auer, 1935). Adapted from an Edgar Allen Poe story — loosely, no doubt — follows the titular physician (Erich von Stroheim) whose resentment for a fellow medical practitioner (John Bohn) gets expressed in a devious manner, when he’s called upon to perform a surgical rescue following a car crash. The film is nicely creepy and tiptoes into highly gruesome concepts, especially for the time. Auer creates a nice sense of mood, even as the film was obviously assembled in a rush (there are reports a mere eight days was devoted to filming). The performance by von Stroheim has particular markings of a rushed, necessary indifference to polish. He’s sharp and inadvertently amusing. It can’t be called a great performance, but it’s surely entertaining.

White Zombie (Victor Hugo Halperin, 1932). A seminal enough film that it provides the foundation for the pervasive presence of the living undead in pop culture while also inspiring a pretty rotten rock outfit. While it’s indeed striking at times, and it features one of those performances of looming menace that made Bela Lugosi justly famous, the film is also disappointingly dull. Though the running time only just slips past the the hour mark, the story of zombies in Haiti is padded like a plush, mouldering pillow. 

Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson, 2015). This documentary tracks a group in American history with a mandate that is especially relevant today, forcefully filling in the willfully ignored gaps in most historical considerations of the Civil Rights organization. Nelson does an admirable job of packing in insightful, telling information, especially in the expert assemblage of archival footage. At a time when broadcast television was surging, the Black Panthers made great television. The contrasting depictions Nelson unearths, coupled with more modern reminiscences from individuals with strikingly different views of the Panthers, makes for a fascinating mosaic of dissent and demands for fairness in the United States. Nelson is also frank about all the ways the organization and its members descended into self-destructiveness. If anything, the film is only hampered by the challenge of fitting in all the pertinent material. Nelson makes the implicit argument that the Black Panthers are complex enough to merit one of those documentaries of a Burnsian length, easily stretching out for hours and hours.

Abrams, Benson and Moorhead, Fosse, Jones, Roach

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015). As a piece of nostalgic reclamation, the latest “Episode” of the Star Wars saga does its job so efficiently that its hard to get overly enthused about it as cinema. In a strangely fitting turnabout, the film series that fundamentally changed the business of U.S. moviemaking has turned into a follower, adhering closely to the mighty Marvel model. There’s little indication that The Force Awakens is laying the groundwork for vaster, interconnected stories, but it’s all introduction and reassurance, a tapping of the baton before commanding the symphony to life. The sense of perpetual pending is reinforced by the choice of Abrams to lean as close to a remake of the original Star Wars as possible, while still offering a new story, a trick he pulled off far more successfully with his initial Star Trek film, in part because that soft sci-fi playground is more accommodating to trump cards like time travel and multi-dimensional switcheroos. It bears all the hallmarks of its director, qualities that are engaging and flawed in equal measure. He has a gift for dreaming up clever concepts and a cursed inability to develop them into deeper drama or to resolve them in a satisfying manner. There’s no more frustrating example than the character Finn (John Boyega), introduced as a stormtrooper gone AWOL. It’s a great notion that doesn’t resonate in the slightest through the remainder of the character’s journey. Instead, Finn becomes a vessel for whatever Abrams the writer needs in any given scene, mostly the recipient of exposition from others. Those reservations noted, I can’t deny that there’s pleasure to be had in simply seeing this fertile fiction reengaged in a positive, affectionate manner. And the table-setting feel of the film also leads directly to the strongest compliment I can pay it: moving forward, I’m far more interested in the possibilities of the new characters (especially Rey, played by Daisy Ridley) than continuing to see the old ones dragged out for respectful applause.

Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2014). It only took one tiny plot detail to motivate me to see Spring, a novel horror-romance hybrid from the directorial team of Benson and Moorhead. When an emotionally reeling young man (Lou Taylor Pucci), in Italy on an impromptu escape from the United States, is forthrightly offered strings-free sex by a gorgeous woman (Nadia Hilker), his reaction isn’t eager acquiescence but instead a far more realistic skepticism. This is so thoroughly at odds with currently storytelling convention, which holds that mindlessly horny men are quick to meet their doom, that I needed to see what other worthy innovations Spring might hold. In general, the film is solid and shrewd, tracking through its more fantastical elements with care and developing its metaphors about the various challenges of new romantic relationships, including fear of commitment, in a way that is clear without being pushy or self-congratulatory. It helps immeasurably that both leads are charming and real in their portrayals.

Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015). This biopic about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is a rickety piece of disingenuous nonsense, displaying none of the commitment to narrative structure and emotional integrity that won the work of its subject two screenwriting Academy Awards during the course of his partially cloaked career. By the evidence here, Roach has no capability of shaping individual scenes, much less entire films. The film skids along through its flummoxed recounting of one of the most regrettable periods in Hollywood history. The tenor of the performances are equally haphazard, with Bryan Cranston’s turn in the title role especially problematic. He regularly lapses into a mildly cartoonish cadence that suggests he’s delivering a stealth audition to play Thurston Howell III in a big screen Gilligan’s Island remake.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015). This documentary about the famed multi-day interview with Alfred Hitchcock conducted by fellow director François Truffaut, in 1962, manages to be consistently fascinating without really distinguishing itself as a particularly smart or even capable piece of filmmaking in its own right. Jones, who previously worked closely with Martin Scorsese on documentary appreciations of Val Lewton and Elia Kazan, has an expert way with deploying selected film clips to make his points about the delirious creativity of his subjects, a quality in full effect here. With Hitchcock/Truffaut, he’s less adept at building his case with supporting interviews and the archival photographs and recordings of the original interview sessions. Luckily, the foundational work that feeds into the documentary — the interview itself and the films of the two men — is convincing enough all on its own. Jones might not illuminate its collective value, but nor does he obscure it.

Sweet Charity (Bob Fosse, 1969). The feature directorial debut of Fosse understandably springs from a Broadway hit that also bore his fingerprints. Based on the film Nights of Cabiria, with the main character transformed from a sex worker to a dance hall girl (making her more palatable to nineteen-sixties audiences shelling out for a bubbly musical), Sweet Charity offers the melancholy tale of the perpetually unlucky in love Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine). Though Fosse had great films in him, his first outing finds him still feeling his way, caving in to some structural uncertainty that the plot’s episodic nature only accentuates. As anyone would expect, the film is strongest in the segments that sit squarely in Fosse’s wheelhouse, notably the production numbers “Big Spender,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and the relentlessly marvelous “Rich Man’s Frug,” the last offering the best demonstration of Fosse’s ingenuity with the myriad possibilities of the human form. The handful of numbers staged on location in New York City are the weakest, as the wide open spaces ironically make Fosse’s choreography feel more confined, the rigors, pitfalls and built in time limits that come naturally with shooting outdoors preventing him from driving toward the level of painstaking perfection he usually demanded.

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.

 

Broomfield, Demme, Radice, Safdie and Safdie, Truffaut

Ricki and the Flash (Jonathan Demme, 2015). By the last third of the film, it seems clear that Demme’s chief motivation for taking on this project is the opportunity to apply his extensive experience directing concert films to this fictional story of a derelict mother (Meryl Streep) who fronts a bar band. He certainly demonstrates only passing interest in the tepid familial drama in the script, written by Diablo Cody with a equal freedom from her previous dialogue quirks and recognizable humanity. When Streep’s bedraggled singer returns to her former home, responding to a suicide attempt by her daughter (Mamie Gummer), every bit of the story plays phony, completely derailing Demme’s typical adeptness with finding resonant honesty. He’s more engaged when the last act. If the director is more engaged when the last act is essentially a series of cover song performances briefly interrupted by offhand resolution of earlier character disputes, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film notably improves. This winds up as one of least consequential entries in Demme’s filmography.

Heaven Knows What (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie, 2015). Based on an unpublished memoir by Arielle Holmes, who also plays the lead role, this depiction of the lives of homeless drug addicts in New York City is bruising and effectively intense, at least until the some needlessly bombastic plot turns in the closing stretch. In particular, the film offers a harrowing view of the difficulty of ever breaking free from such a life, with the constant need to reinvent the means for temporary survival creating a stasis of misery. The Safdie siblings handle the material with an empathetic approach utterly free of judgement, staging individual scenes with an attentive understatement that’s ideal. At its strongest, the film is quietly devastating.

No No: A Dockumentary (Jeff Radice, 2014). By now, Dock Ellis hurling a Major League no-hitter while high on LSD, in 1970, is such a broadly known piece of baseball lore that even those with no interest in the sport are like to know about it. While Radice’s documentary clearly trades on that notoriety, most plainly in the very title of the film, the director’s clear intent is rescuing the ballplayer’s reputation from those who give him no more consideration than a caustic chuckle. Ellis was also a skilled pitcher apart from that somewhat flukey feat, an outspoken advocate for civil rights at a fairly complicated time, and, maybe most admirably, a passionate, tireless advocate for those struggling with addiction, as he himself once did. The acid trip no-hitter wasn’t a funny story to him. It was evidence of his own struggles stamped into the record books. Radice’s documentary has powerful moments — Ellis’s emotional reaction when reading aloud a letter sent to him by Jackie Robinson is the clear highlight — but it also winds up just a touch scattered in its attempts to get everything in. Still, it does its job, laying out evidence that Ellis, who died in 2008, deserves to be more than a comic footnote in sports history.

Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960). Truffaut’s second feature as a director is less dazzling that his debut, The 400 Blows, but is still an impressive piece of the opening salvo of the French New Wave. Adapted from the novel Down There, by United States writer David Goodis, the story about a pianist who gets drawn into muddy mingling with the local criminal element plays like a detached film noir, delivered with a French shrug instead of the more familiar stateside grim fortitude. Truffaut employs some the playful technique — expertly on point and cheekily deconstructionist at the same time — that would turn his next film, Jules and Jim, into the textbook example of his country’s revolutionary approach to cinema. Here, the approach is used more sparingly, making it more jarring but also a little less satisfying. The film winds up playing like a key transitional piece rather than it’s own wholly realized work.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (Nick Broomfield, 2014). Even though director Broomfield is the most problematic part of this documentary about a Los Angeles serial killer, he deserves credit for getting at highly problematic social truths that elevate the film above its lurid, true crime story trappings. The controversial filmmaker, still probably best known for the controversial documentary Kurt & Courtney, is a strange presence throughout, coming across as casually predatory and strangely baffled as he walks through low income L.A. neighborhoods with his boom mic and bulky headphones. And yet Broomfield also manages to offer a sharp consideration of the dearth of attention paid to this horrid murder spree that spanned decades, by both the national media and the local authorities, convincingly chalking it up to the darker skin color of all of the mass murderer’s victims. Had it been a countless blonde, white women who were disappearing over the years, vicious witch woman Nancy Grace would have led the charge as CNN caved in to single-topic, round-the-clock coverage. Much as the film takes the time to track through the horrific details of the so-called Grim Sleeper’s crimes, the most detestable tales it tells are of the whole of society, paying no mind as a long series of women vanished without a trace.