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

jane

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

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.

 

debt

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.

Playing Catch-Up: The Hot Rock, Krisha, Tiger Shark

the hot rock

The Hot Rock (Peter Yates, 1972). This adaptation of a Donald Westlake novel — featuring a screenplay that was William Goldman’s first produced work following his Oscar win for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — is a lithe and cheeky heist film. Robert Redford plays John Dortmunder, a professional thief freshly released from his latest stay is prison. Mere minutes pass before he’s roped into a new scheme involving the theft of an African gem on display in the Brooklyn Museum. What follows is a series of setbacks — all smartly plausible — that require Dortmunder and his assembled squad to engage in increasingly elaborate schemes in a continued quest to secure the elusive stone. Yates directs with a unruffled briskness and the widescreen cinematography by Edward R. Brown captures early-seventies New York in all its picturesque squalor. If not every caper convinces, the filmmakers are appealingly committed enough to engender some forgiveness of narrative wobbles. And the film boasts Redford right in the heart of the prolonged peak of his movie star dazzle, when he could effortlessly hold the screen. He spends much of the film in a mode of beleaguered irritation — a Redford specialty — but the closing moments offer a reminder that, no matter how much the actor may have preferred otherwise, he was always at his most convincing when he’s strutting through a world that he’s decisively bested.

 

krisha

Krisha (Trey Edward Shults, 2015). Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is a woman returning to the family fold with a visible anxiety, as if worried about the volcano that’s sure to erupt at some point during the visit. The text is strictly domestic drama, mundane and recognizable. The visual presentation is a wonderfully florid and tensely edited, as if a skilled student was given the classroom assignment of repurposing a staid weepie into a fierce horror film. In shifting the parameters on how this sort of story can be staged, Shults (who also wrote the screenplay) taps into the deepest wells of roiling emotions the characters endure as the attempted reconciliation plays out as predictably doomed. Never has a tumbling pan of food been filmed with such a precise sense of fevered tragedy.

 

tiger shark

Tiger Shark (Howard Hawks, 1932). One of four films that Hawks directed (or co-directed) with a 1932 copyright date, Tiger Shark depicts the troubled tale of tuna boat captain Mike Mascarenhas (Edward G. Robinson). As the film begins, he’s blistering under the hard sun in a lifeboat. And then a shark bites off his hand. Things don’t necessarily get worse from there, but they don’t really get all that much better, either. The pulpy melodrama of the story has a certain allure, and its fascinating to watch this relatively early production strive for verisimilitude in its depiction of the brutality of having the ocean as a workplace. The biggest draw, though, is the performance of Robinson, doing inspired character work as the captain with a tendency to inflate his appeal and accomplishments. What could play as ego and delusion is instead built upon an endearing vulnerability.

Feist, Sandel, Singer, Stoller, West

In the Valley of Violence (Ti West, 2016). As an enthusiastic fan of Ti West’s early excursions into affectionately knowing spins on the horror genre, I had high hopes for his stab at the Western, the most venerable of Hollywood genres. In the Valley of Violence is serviceable, but it lacks the spark of vitality required to give it a true reason for being. Part of the problem is the hoariness of the premise, which West never manages to transcend with either reinvention of panache. A wandering, wounded soul (Ethan Hawke) seeks revenge in a dusty town presided over by a Marshal (John Travolta) with a streak of malevolent control. There’s no real zing to the movie, though West deserves credit for both giving Travolta one of his better parts in recent years and helping him to a performance that perfect balances brio and restraint.

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016). Months before Logan and Legion demonstrated that Marvel movie mutant-verse is ready for jolts of original creative thinking, Bryan Singer’s fourth directorial dance with this corner of the comic publisher’s empire of characters implicitly made the argument that the basic methodology previously in place is damnably empty. Extending the First Class iteration of the movie X-Men into the early nineteen-eighties, the film engages in some bland period tomfoolery, but mostly drags its way through a nearly indecipherable plot involving the reemergence of an ancient megalomaniacal mutant named En Sabah Nur (played with no distinction whatsoever by Oscar Isaac). Arguably the only interesting element of the film is trying to spot the moments when talented actors such as Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence slip into a mode of near-total disengagement.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Nicholas Stoller, 2016). The first Neighbors was fitfully funny, but also marred by usual haphazard storytelling of modern comedies, especially those that have creative personnel who have origins in the Apatow orbit. Though most os the same creators are back in place for the sequel — including director Nicholas Stoller — the result is more solid, engaging, and — to my happy disbelief — even occasionally downright winning. The first film’s new parents (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) see their attempt to sell their college town home threatened by the hard-partying sorority that’s moved in next door. Turning the adversaries from boys to girls could have been the height of laziness, but the big batch of credited screenwriters (including Rogen and his primary partner, Evan Goldberg) actually have some insightful things to say about gender inequity and the destructive nature of competitive youth culture. Though I’m skeptical about the longterm prospects for this career path, Zac Efron, returning as frat revelry master Teddy Sanders, has developed an endearing, funny screen presence as a sweetly dim beefcake.

Deluge (Felix E. Feist, 1933). The early portions of Deluge serve up one of the earliest Hollywood disaster films. As an unexplained swell of storms lays waste to the cities of the word. In an extended sequences that gives the explosive mayhem a run for its box office dollars, skyscrapers tremble and crumble as screaming people run wild through the streets. That gives way to a reasonably astute exploration of how society would splinter apart and then be slowly bound back together, with treacherous splinters digging deep into the muscle along the way. The melodrama doesn’t always convince, but enough of the details are weighted with wisdom to make the film consistently compelling.

The Duff (Ari Sandel, 2015). Based on a young adult novel by Kody Keplinger, the film casts Mae Whitman as Bianca Piper, the high school student saddled with the uncomplimentary nickname of the title, which stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Ari Sandel makes his feature directorial debut and handles the comedy deftly, although the script’s penchant to swerve into fantasy occasionally upsets his balance. The film starts no revolutions with its focus on a teen-aged underdog, but Whitman is a flinty marvel. She has star power, acting chops, and pinpoint comic timing.

Collet-Serra, Davis, Heisler, Levine, Lewis

Lion (Garth Davis, 2016). The feature debut from Garth Davis — who has major cred in my book for directing half of Jane Campion’s great Top of the Lake — looks like the same achingly earnest, self-consciously award-hungry cinema the Weinsteins have been delivering since their Miramax days. For the first half of the film, anyway, its far sharper and more compelling than that. When five-year-old Indian boy Saroo (played at that age by Sunny Pawar) gets separated from his family after getting on the wrong train, his travails lost, alone, and unable to effectively communicate about where he’s from are heartbreaking. Working from a screenplay by Luke Davies (based on the memoir A Long Way Home, written by Saroo Brierly with Larry Buttrose), Davis crafts the film with a honest commitment to the harrowing particulars but also a welcome dose of restraint. He understands the small emotional tremors loom as large as the seismic tragedies and develops the narrative accordingly. The film is especially clear-eyed in acknowledging that the rescue afforded by international adoption is far trickier than most depictions allow. The second half of the film, in which a grown Saroo (Dev Patel) uses the snappy new technology of Google Earth to obsessively search for his childhood home, isn’t nearly as compelling, in large part because Davis becomes overly reliant on suspense and conflict that isn’t really there, not in a meaningful way. From start to finish, though, Davis collaborates with cinematographer Greig Fraser to craft beautiful images that simultaneously serve the needs and purposes of the story.

Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950). The ailment of the title afflicts Bart Tare, who compulsively steals a pistol as a fourteen-year-old (Russ Tamblyn) and then grows into a Army marksman (John Dall) who gets mixed up with the wrong gal, a carnival sharpshooter (Peggy Cummins). She correctly determines that their mutual talent firearms would be far more lucrative on the robbery circuit than in traveling tents, impressing rubes with snappy tricks. Bart’s pacifist preferences keep getting in the way as the duo go on their crime spree, culminating with the classic one last job, robbing the payroll of a meat processing facility. Joseph H. Lewis directs the film with the requisite sense of sweat-soaked luridness, setting the characters into pirouettes of wanton self-destruction. It’s ultimately a little too pulpy, eschewing nuance so thoroughly that it finally comes across as a stiff artifact of a certain era in Hollywood, when the audience desire for feverish crime sagas run up against industry dictates that criminals always met their comeuppance.

The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2016). Jaume Collet-Serra has spent much of the past decade directing Liam Neeson films that aren’t Taken but look just like Taken. That habit of striving for creativity within the limiting and repetitive presumably served him well with The Shallows, a high-concept thriller that primarily takes place after a surfer (Blake Lively) has become stranded offshore with a ravenous shark providing a significant discouragement from swimming for safety. Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay tacks toward the grueling minutiae of the survival story and Collet-Serra shapes it with admirable patience. Lively is similarly committed, but there’s barely a character to play. It makes for a middling story, but a solidly engaging filmmaking stunt.

The Night Before (Jonathan Levine, 2015). This raucous and gently ribald holiday romp offers a sample of what modern ramshackle Hollywood comedies could be if they were approached with a little directorial discipline, or at least an occasional willingness to dial in excesses. It might seem like a minor accomplishment, but a running time of just over one hundred minutes is itself a feat. The story follows a trio of old pals (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, and Seth Rogen) whose tradition of Christmas Eve bar-crawling seems poised to come to an end as they edge into divergent versions of adulthood. The movie riffs on other Christmas classics, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Die Hard, but does so with just enough creativity and wit to elevate it above empty referencing. Rogen is very funny in a series of scenes involving his character’s misguided reintroduction to the freewheeling drug use of his youth, and there’s a marvelous supporting turn by Michael Shannon that exploits his reputation for intensity while illuminating surprisingly deft skills as a comic actor.

The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler, 1942). A hard-boiled film the piles betrayal upon betrayal in a story involving crooked political leaders, opportunistic dames, and lumbering thugs pummeling each other between belts of brown liquor. In adapting a Dashiell Hammett novel, screenwriter Jonathan Latimer tries to wrestle a snarl of characters with slippery motives into a coherent narrative. It all gets the better of him, but there’s some snappy interplay amidst the confusion. Stuart Heisler makes it into a muscular film noir with developing the gloomy panaches of the totems on the subgenre.

Larraín, Lubitsch, Riley, Snyder, Sollett

No (Pablo Larraín, 2012). In Chile in  the late nineteen-eighties, the dictatorial government of General Augusto Pinochet orchestrated a public vote to give the populace a chance to weigh in on whether or not they’d maintain control for another eight years after a decade-and-a-half of bludgeoning rule. With various systems under tight control and the people largely cowed by governmental forces, it was expected to be a mere formality on the way to maintaining continuity, a show of phony democracy to appease the international community. Instead, Pinochet was ousted. In this consideration by screenwriter Pedro Peirano and director Pablo Larraín, the employment of marketing campaigns transferred almost directly from cola commercials is what shifted history. That’s undoubtedly a reductive evaluation, but it makes for a fascinating film. Larraín maintains tone beautifully, giving the film a scruffy anxiousness as the squabbling factions within the “No” campaign struggle to determine the right balance of substance and flash, tactic and truth. If the film is more exploratory than pointed in its thesis, it examines the challenges of politics merging with media in a consistently committed fashion. Gael García Bernal gives a characteristically strong performance as an adman at the lead of the “No” campaign.

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932). A pair of romantically intertwined con artists (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) insinuate themselves into the life of a Parisian perfume magnate (Kay Francis) with an end goal of getting their hands on a wad of cash squirreled away behind a wall safe door. This pre-Code comedy views morality as an especially slippery thing and has no particular problem with that as the way of the world. As always, Lubitsch brings a remarkable panache to the staging of the film, finding ways to accentuate gags without ever underlining them. The whole cast snaps in a manner blessedly common in that area, with Hopkins making an especially strong impression through her nicely barbed portrayal of a woman with well-founded suspicions and the skills and wherewithal to look out for herself.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016). Thuddingly stupid, Zack Snyder’s latest abomination can’t even rise to the level of cinematic car crash, stirring lurid interest in its levels of disaster. As opposed to the better crossover moments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s no wit or inspiration to the character interactions. Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck, terrible in the role, just as any sentient filmgoer would predict) are simply flung at each other, like clacking mallets. The returning actors come across as desperately bored and the newcomers all seem pained, especially Jeremy Irons, who plays Bat-associate Alfred like he’s moments away from chucking it all and heading out on a bender in Gotham City. At least disgruntlement in a reasonable response to the material. Jesse Eisenberg is nothing but wired affectation as Superman foe Lex Luthor. At the time this was released, there was some praise for Gal Gadot’s turn as Wonder Woman, presumably for little other reason than she occasional appears to be actually having some fun. She’s certainly the only one.

Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015). In addition to his status as the actor who, more than any other individual, transformed the craft of acting in the twentieth century, Marlon Brando was an endlessly intriguing human being. He restlessly invested himself in social justice issues and swelled with internal conflicts over the inherently superficial aspects of the professional field he commanded. Employing private audio tapes recorded by Brando, in addition to miles of supporting film clips and interview footage, director Stevan Riley stitches together a portrait of the man. Though commendable for its attempting something new and different than a standard documentary approach, Riley’s technique is more likely to get it its own way than it is to provide unique illumination. Brando is worth watching under almost any circumstances, but Riley puts that assertion to the test.

Freeheld (Peter Sollett, 2015). In dramatizing the true story of the trying attempt by a dying New Jersey police officer (Julianne Moore) to secure survivor benefits for her same-sex partner (Ellen Page), Peter Sollett’s film is noble and sadly drab. Most problematically, it’s lacking in passion, resulting in a movie that plays like an earnest book report. Page is initially very strong, playing her part with a character actor conviction that suggests sharp new possibilities for her career moving forward. Even she’s eventually drawn into the eddy of convention that defines the films. By the closing scenes, she, too, could be anybody.

Edgerton, Holmer, Kriegman and Steinberg, Moore, Øvredal

The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015). I find it amusing and even endearing that Joel Edgerton bypassed any potential inclinations to establish himself as a serious cinematic artist with his feature directorial debut and instead crafted a lurid little thriller not unlike those that routinely slunk into cineplexes throughout the nineteen-nineties. In The Gift, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to Southern California because the former has taken a new job. While shopping for their new home, Simon and Rebecca bump into Gordo (Edgerton), an acquaintance from Simon’s high school days. Gordo insinuates himself into their lives — including the stealth delivery of gifts — so insistently that it begins to pick up an air of danger, and that’s before it’s clear that there’s a nasty secret to be unearthed. The film is basic but accomplished enough. Edgerton delivers a nice performance, keeping Gordo’s motivations teetering on the edge of uncertainty without ever cheating and maintaining a level of sympathy for the character. Bateman is shakier as his role becomes more demanding, though it’s interesting to see him playing against type, accentuating the nasty edge that’s present but buffered in many of his performances.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, 2016). Occasionally, documentary filmmakers hit the jackpot. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg surely believed they were undertaking a fairly simple journalistic tracing of an attempted redemption political campaign for Anthony Weiner, running to become the Mayor of New York City a few years after a sexting scandal drove him from his place in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the midst of the mayoral campaign, however, a new, similar batch of online infractions emerged, at precisely the point Weiner’s campaign was on the upswing. Kriegman and Steinberg were then gifted with a public meltdown of astonishing proportions, which offered sharp insights to the dangers of a cavalier life lived in public, the broken political system, and the toxic narcissism that drives certain people. Given wide access to Weiner, the filmmakers capture amazing moments, such as the politician gleefully rewatching a combative interview on Lawrence O’Donnell’s television program, utterly oblivious to how badly he comes across. The material is assembled well, though they occasionally prove themselves just as prone to distraction by the most salacious elements, as when they afford too much attention to one of Weiner’s most fame-hungry online partners, a woman with a name ludicrously spot-on for a sex scandal participant: Sydney Leathers.

The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2016). The agreeably low-key indie film follows Toni (Royalty Hightower), an eleven-year-old girl who regularly accompanies her older brother (Da’Sean Minor) to the local community center, where he is training as a boxer. Toni wanders off to a different gym and finds a group of girls training as members of a championship dance team. She musters up the courage to join the squad, and it seems the film is settling into a familiar pattern. Then writer-director Anna Rose Holmer delivers a surprising turn. One by one, girls on the team are falling prey to terrible fits, none of which can be explained. Holmer has a talent for striking, unique visuals that never become indulgent. She demonstrates an even more impressive command of tone, infusing the film with the creeping menace of a horror film. Hightower is warm and winning in the lead role, and there’s a dandy supporting performance by Alexis Neblett, playing a diminutive teammate with a couple Minnie Mouse buns atop her head and a vivid confidence.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (André Øvredal, 2016). The director of the Norwegian found footage horror film Troll Hunter makes his English-language debut with this grim and playful story of a father and son coroner team (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, respectively) who endure a stormy night with an especially perplexing cadaver (Olwen Kelly). Written by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, the film is at its best through its nice slow build, as every slice reveals something a little more troubling as the woman on the slab. Like a lot of horror films, it has trouble pivoting into its third act, defaulting to the usual heightening tactic of bringing on the cataclysm. Before that, it’s dark, dandy fun.

Sisters (Jason Moore, 2015). While Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, together and apart, are tremendous in many venues, the big screen continues to prove vexing. Working from a screenplay by longtime Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell, Fey and Poehler play the siblings of title. They journey back to their hometown of Orlando after news comes that their childhood home is being sold. Through slippery logic, they decide to have one big blowout party before the deal closes. Glumly unfunny mayhem ensues.

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.