Playing Catch-Up — Wind River; Ship of Fools; Demolition

wind river

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017). With just a handful of credits for major creative roles behind the camera, Taylor Sheridan is already establishing a pretty compelling philosophical thesis about the way the world works. In Wind River, those who exist outside the power structure are so removed from real safety and justice that the only recourse is personally bloodied hands. While hunting predators in the remote chill of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, a U.S Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of a young Native American woman (Natalie Chow). Since crime-fighting resources are scarce on the reservation — and because of a relevant past marked by tragedy — the agent winds up immersed in the investigation, especially after a neophyte FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case. Sheridan makes powerful points about discarded populations in his writing, but his pedestrian directing makes a compelling case for the valuable contributions David Mackenzie made in shepherding Sheridan’s Hell and High Water screenplay to the screen. Visual panache and an acutely developed sense of timing go a long way towards elevating a film.

 

ship of fools

Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965). Adapted from a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, which had been published just a couple years earlier, Ship of Fools benefits from the readily available storytelling possibilities that come with throwing a big batch of characters together in the confines of a ship on a transatlantic journey. All screenwriter Abby Mann needs to do in order to stir a scene to life is sit a couple people together at dinner or on the deck. Director Stanley Kramer was famously committed to exploring social justice issues in his cinematic efforts, and the timing of the film — a few years before the cataclysmic start of World War II — allows him to make his points in barbed, cunning ways, even if the sensibility on display is ultimately far too modern. Kramer juggles the cross-crossing plots admirably, and is wise enough to approach his skilled actors with obvious generosity. Everyone in the stacked cast performs admirably, but Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret are standouts.

 

demolition

Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015). This drama is so disastrously bad, it boggles the mind that it was Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to the inventive, sublime Wild (not to mention its status as the director’s last big-screen effort before moving on to conquer television). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man working in finance who is reeling after his wife (Heather Lind) is killed in an auto accident, right in front of his eyes. Davis isn’t saddled with grief, though. He’s more troubled by the indifference he feels, and the guilt (or anguish, or something) that stems from that causes his to act increasingly odd, primarily manifesting in a propensity to disassemble machinery, furnishings, and entire structures. He also befriends a women (Naomi Watts) and her troubled son (Judah Lewis). The entire thing plays as if it were constructed by space aliens taking a stab at depicting human emotions after observations conducted over a single weekend, while they were half-drunk. Gyllenhaal tries real hard, but the film is so bereft of anything genuine that his eager portrayal of a man tilting towards madness comes across as tedious showboating.

Playing Catch-Up: Good Morning; The Big Sky; The Witness

good morning

Good Morning (Yasujirō Ozu, 1959). I’ll admit to being underexposed to the work of the revered Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. (It’s not a good excuse, by any means, but I’ve devoted most of my relevant geographically-based cinema self-schooling to films of Ozu’s countryman Akira Kurosawa.) And since my primary connection to Ozu’s oeuvre is through the masterful Tokyo Story, I think of the filmmaker as a crafter of delicate, relatively sedate art. As that preamble suggests, Good Morning proves how wrong I was in my reductive assumption. A loose remake of a film Ozu made over twenty-five years earlier, Good Morning largely concerns a couple of young brothers operating with escalating bratty behavior in an attempt to bully their parents into purchasing a television set. Around that, Ozu expertly stages a subplot that shows how animosity and suspicion moves with stealthy passive aggressiveness throughout tight-knit community. Ozu’s film is bright, cunning, and delightfully rambunctious. It’s also beautifully structured in every way, including unfussy perfection in the staging of shots and depth of psychological understanding of all the characters that evidences warmth and wry judgment all at once.

 

big sky

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This Western centers on a group of ramshackle fellows who race against a menacing trading company to form an agreement with the Blackfoot tribe in the commerce of the day. Along the way, Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) find themselves in a bit of a love triangle with a Native American woman named Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt). The story isn’t always compelling, but Howard Hawks, as usual, builds the film with personality spilling out of its sprocket holes. It’s especially entertaining to see him bring a bleak humor to the depiction of the physical horrors that routinely befell those who took it upon themselves to tame the frontier. Arthur Hunnicutt received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the cynical hand who provides a moral compass, albeit one with a slightly bent pointer. It was a deserving nod; Hunnicutt’s performance is the highlight of the film.

 

witness

The Witness (James Solomon, 2015). Increasingly, I find it likely that Ezra Edelman’s terrific O.J.: Made in America points to the future of documentary filmmaking, if only because so many features seem to be straining for the same exhaustive examination of interconnected concerns. Director James Solomon covers an immense amount of sociological and deeply personal sub-topics in The Witness, but must largely for doing so in a glancing fashion, finishing with a film that is both impressive ambitious and mildly dissatisfying. First and foremost, the film is about the murder of Kitty Genovese, infamous more for the documented indifference of her New York City neighbors to her cries for help than the street-side crime itself. As Solomon painstakingly shows, the circumstances of Genovese’s death have become emblematic of social apathy, help as a metaphorical tool to make points about everything from day-to-day small town lawbreaking to the devastation delivered against the city of Aleppo. But Genovese was more than a social studies lesson. She was a person, and she left behind a heartbroken family. One of those family members, her brother William Genovese, is the heart of the documentary as he obsessively seeks understanding and closure. (The latter goal contributes to the film’s one flat-out terrible stretch, a sequence in which William hires an actress to recreate Kitty’s screams on the street where she was killed, an inexplicable gesture that Solomon treats as so logical it requires no further exploration.) Solomon has an immense amount to say with him film — some of it powerful, some of it challenging, much of it deeply insightful. In the end, more than anything else, I wish he’d had more time to say it.

Playing Catch-Up — The Best Years of Our Lives; The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography; Truth

best years

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). My overwhelming reaction to this drama of post-war turmoil in the lives of U.S. fighting men and their families is a dumbstruck marveling that it was released just one year after the end of World War II. While I tend to think of the Hollywood cinema of the time as assiduously adhering to the notion of noble soldiers and stolid supporters on the home front, William Wyler’s film is far more complicated and ambiguous in its assessment of the aftermath. The returning war heroes struggle to adapt, dealing with troubled memories, an inability to relate to loved ones, the self-medication of alcohol addiction, and employers who aren’t as welcoming as was once promised. It’s painful in its truth and astonishing in its thoroughness. Wyler adepts shifts between multiple storylines (Robert E. Sherwood is the credited screenwriter, adapting the 1945 novella Glory for Me, by MacKinlay Kantor), offering empathy without pandering or exploitation. The film is resolutely daring in its beautifully melded directness and subtlety.

 

b side

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, 2017). This documentary focuses on precisely the sort of iconoclastic creator that director Errol Morris clearly adores. Elsa Dorfman is a longtime portrait photographer whose work was often undervalued. She opted for Polaroid cameras, though not typically the variety sold warmly to amateur shutterbugs. Instead, Dorfman’s expertise was with bulky behemoths that more resemble the revolutionary devices trundled out to Civil War battlefields once upon a time. Morris catches Dorfman as she’s drifting into retirement, in part because there’s simply going to be no more Polaroid film available for her to ply her trade. There’s an abundance of ideas for Morris to explore — capitalism’s callous indifference to art, the ruthless march of technological progress, the value of an outsider eye when people armed with smartphones are creating self portraits at an unprecedented rate, the beauty of imperfection when measured against control — but Morris gets at these topics only glancingly. At the same time, he wastes time with uninteresting digressions, such as an almost fetishistic attention to Dorfman’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg. As if commenting on the missed opportunity of The B-Side, the screening I saw opened with Morris’s short documentary The Umbrella Man, which is inventive, witty, and revelatory.

 

truth

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015). Deep into Truth, writer-director James Vanderbilt delivers a scene that should carry a mighty resonance right now. CBS News producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) defends her reporting on a story involving George W. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. She rebels against the notion that her personal politics are to blame in doggedly pursuing the story, which turned out to be partially reliant on a document of questionable origin. In identifying the destructive pattern of viewers and readers dismissing information that doesn’t conform to their personal worldview, all the monologue is missing is the detestable term “fake news.” That the sequence — structured as a moment of bravura defense of the very tenets of journalism — carries no political or emotional weight, even as its grown more pertinent since the film’s release, speaks to the inert quality of Vanderbilt’s filmmaking. Truth dutifully tracks through the details of the pursuit of the controversial news story that essentially caused Dan Rather to step away from his anchor post after decades at CBS, showing some of the procedural rigor Vanderbilt brought to his screenplay for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. In this instance, the approach proves dutiful and boring, reducing the characters to empty figures clicking by. Even the mighty Blanchett is felled by the film’s mechanics, apparently compensating for the lack of depth to her character by overplaying the sputtering intensity that led to Mary’s blind spot assurance in shaping the news story for air.

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.