Playing Catch-Up — Z for Zachariah; These Wilder Years; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

z

Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015). Based on a Robert C. O’Brien science fiction novel published in the nineteen-seventies, Z for Zachariah takes a somber approach to post-apocalyptic storytelling. Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) is living alone on a farm, maintaining the land well enough to eke out an existence. Her solitude is disrupted by the arrival of John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an engineering suffering from a mild case of the radiation poisoning that wiped out the rest of the populace. Ann nurses him back to health and they forge a caring partnership that’s about to take a turn into romance when a third figure, a man named Caleb (Chris Pine), strolls into their lives. Once the triangle is formed, the film becomes overly familiar, proffering a gentler version of expected conflicts of jealousy and suspicion. Before that, its an effective dual character study, as director Craig Zobel affords the performers the space to deeply explore the roles, showing their tentative shifts. Robbie is especially good, finding the dignity in her religiously devoted, wisely cautious character.

 

wilder

These Wilder Years (Roy Rowland, 1956). This drama casts James Cagney as Steve Bradford, a wealthy industrialist who seeks out the son he gave up for adoption twenty years earlier. More accurately, he shunned any responsibility for the boy, forcing the young mother to seek refuge in a orphanage run by Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck). Steve is accustomed to getting whatever he wants, and Ann is firm in her refusal to give up the information he’s after. He charms, he cajoles, he bullies. Still, she won’t budge. Cagney is sharp and engaging in the role, and there’s a nice, typically sly turn by Walter Pidgeon as a lawyer Steve recruits to play a few more angles for him. Roy Rowland’s direction is workmanlike, which actually works for the story. In the best way, the movie feels like a lean stage play that’s been brought to the screen faithfully. If it lacks in cinematic inspiration, These Wilder Years is solid in its fundamental storytelling.

 

scruggs kazan

The Ballad of Buster Scrugss (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2018). The Coen brothers have corrected the record about the widely reported belief that their latest is a repurposed television series, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs still suffers from the common ailment of any film with an anthology format. The quality levels of the individual segments vary widely, and the constant comparison sinks the subpar further in estimation. They disrupt the specialness, setting the whole endeavor askew. When the film is at its best — “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” and “Meal Ticket,” which is maybe as bleak as anything the Coens have ever dreamed up — it is truly grand. The Coens basically acknowledge the film is comprised of story ideas they couldn’t stretch to feature length, and the thinness of the ideas is the main culprit when it falters (“Near Algonodes,” and “All Gold Canyon,” which at least boasts a charming performance by Tom Waits, fulfilling his casting destiny by playing a grizzled prospector). Visually resplendent and peppered with sterling dialogue (much of the best of it gifted to Tim Blake Nelson as the title character), the film on balance succeeds more than it fails, even as it clearly slots into the Coen filmography category reserved for the enjoyable but less consequential.

Playing Catch-Up — An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn; Straight Outta Compton; Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

beverly

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (Jim Hosking, 2018). I’m sure there’s an easier, more lucrative career path to follow than the road chosen by Aubrey Plaza since the end of Parks and Recreation, which makes her spirited commitment to the oddest projects imaginable all the more laudatory. In An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, Plaza plays Lulu Danger, a disenchanted diner waitress who flees from her life to stalk the mysterious performer Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson) when he’s booked for a gig at a nearby posh hotel. Director Jim Hosking’s comic style is flatfooted absurdity, which is amusing when Jemaine Clement (as a hired thug who becomes an accomplice to Lulu) is muttering mildly startled oddities and far less so it’s time for the fart jokes and other scattershot lowbrow riffing. Some of the performances are deliberately amateurish, and then there’s Emile Hirsch as Lulu’s jilted husband, demonstrating this is trademark fuming rigidness isn’t improved by the appropriation of Jack Black’s bombast. It’s Plaza who nearly holds the whole thing together. She has a remarkable capability to lend a thread of the genuine to the most ludicrous scenarios.

 

straight

Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015). This depiction of the rise, fall, and lasting influence of N.W.A. proves that even gangsta rappers can fit tidily into the well-used template of the pop music biopic. The first portion of the film is strongest. Director F. Gary Gray builds a winning energy as he traces the group’s formation and creative development. These scenes have an astuteness that properly conveys the impact of N.W.A. Some of the details away from the clubs and studios — including the real problem of police harassment in underprivileged communities — are rendered in a style that’s too heavy-handed, blunting the effectiveness. The grows slack as N.W.A. experiences success and splinters apart, as the dividing of the narrative plays less like admirable scope and more as an inability to determine which story is most interesting. That isn’t even a tricky dilemma. It’s clearly Eazy-E who the film should stick with most closely, if for no other reason than Jason Mitchell is outstanding in the role.

 

film stars

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017). Based on the memoir by Peter Turner (portrayed by Jamie Bell in the film), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool covers the later years of Gloria Grahame, an Academy Award winner (famed in Oscar lore for her notably brief acceptance speech when claiming her trophy), who endured indignities sadly common for older actresses. Annette Bening plays Grahame with insight and grace, adopting the actress’s whispery voice, but otherwise not lapsing into overt impersonation. She concentrates on the emotion of the piece. It’s a fine performance, though well down the list of essential Bening turns. Paul McGuigam offers a workmanlike directing job, plodding around with no evident feel for nuance, the sort of quality that could have given the film real depth of feeling beyond its human interest reportorial plainness.

Playing Catch-Up — The Sisters Brothers; Our Brand is Crisis; A Bigger Splash

sisters

The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, 2018). The English-language film debut of French director Jacques Audiard rambunctiously tinkers with one of most storied Hollywood genres without ever quite figuring out what sort of neo-Western it wants to be. Sometimes it aims for the glum myth-busting of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and sometimes it engages in the parody-skirting assertion of more modernized sensibilities favored by Quentin Tarantino. Predictably, then, the film doesn’t quite cohere, proceeding as a fitfully engaging tale with a muddled purpose, thematically and narratively. Both Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are solid as the title siblings, but the most distinctive acting comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, who continues his recent trend of committing to an accent of inscrutable geographic derivation like a determined unicyclist atop an oval wheel. The performance is quite strong otherwise — nuanced and deeply felt — only strengthening its status as the film’s most diverting sideshow.

 

crisis

Our Brand is Crisis (David Gordon Green, 2015). A fictionalization of the fierce, superb Rachel Boynton documentary of the same name, this drama about U.S. political consultants running roughshod over truth and decency while working for candidates a Bolivian presidential election is sadly tame, mistaking platitudes for profundities. Sandra Bullock works hard as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a disgraced campaign guru trying to get her groove back, but the script (credited to Peter Straughan, who was an Academy Award nominee for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also signed his name to The Snowman) is haphazard about the character, eschewing consistency in favor of the narrative needs of the moment. Bullock never had a chance. The directing job by David Gordon Green is smooth and perfunctory, showing no interest in teasing out the fraught complexities of the scenario. This represents at least the second time Billy Bob Thornton has been called upon to play a James Carville avatar. Understandably, he seems colossally bored the entire time.

 

bigger

A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015). The most interesting thing about this restless mishmash of a movie is the way it foreshadows the Luca Guadagnino joints to come. The film’s orbiting of heightened hormones at a picturesque European estate can’t help but call to mind Call Me By Your Name, but I didn’t expect a hard turn into the sort of florid, intensely dramatic human danger that inspired Guadagnino to remake Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And then there it was. The film settles in with a rock star (Tilda Swinton) recuperating after throat surgery and receiving a visit from a former lover and music business cohort (Ralph Fiennes), with his newly discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson) in tow. As an acting playground for Swinton (delightfully expressive to compensates for her character’s near inability to talk) and Fiennes (give a Jeff Bridges-style eager free spirit a slightly manic twist), the film is fun. Viewed from nearly any other angle, it’s an untended shrub of confused notions.

 

Greatish Performances #36

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#36 — Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne in Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

As impressive as the Marvel Studios business model of craftily interlocking films has been (and markedly difficult for others to replicate), the actual cinematic quality of their output has been shakier. The combination of craft and inspiration needed to elevate material past product into art is compromised by the sheer mechanics of the upstart movie moguls’ master plan. Surprisingly, given the fact that the studio’s extraction from source material is based far more on the costumed figures than any particular storylines in which they appeared, one of the most consistently weak areas is in character development.

This key shortcoming is typically disguised by the incredibly astute casting choices the studio has made, at least after a slightly bumpy beginning. (Wave to the people, Terrence Howard and Edward Norton!) The characters cohere less from what’s on the page and more from a strange alchemy of the actor’s charisma and the fundamental possibilities of the respective roles. Robert Downey, Jr.’s turn as Tony Stark is emblematic, drawing on the actor’s impish restlessness and flash fires of bizarrely ingratiating ego to create a vision of the kajillionaire inventor that has no precise antecedent in the panels from which he is mined. Downey is consistently winning in the part, but even now he cuts against the material as often as he aligns with it. The approach is defining, and individual actors who have long hauls with their roles typically do better when they strip away the layers of character and are noticeably, comfortably themselves on screen. Scarlett Johansson scraps the accent and ignores Black Widow’s haunted history. Chris Hemsworth gives up on the burdensome Shakespearean weight imposed on Thor.

If I’ve identified a rule, there’s of course an exception. In Ant-Man, Evangeline Lilly plays Hope van Dyne, the daughter of the scientist (Michael Douglas) who created the size-changing technology that allows the titular hero (Paul Rudd) to shrink down to a minuscule version of himself. Enlisted to help train Rudd’s character, an ex-con whose presumed slippery ethics are a major part of the reason he was asked to suit up for wild adventures, Lilly’s Hope is fierce and strident. She puts her charge through the paces with a perturbed sense of duty, all the while exuding a forthright assurance that prompts the natural question as to why she wasn’t given the chance to play superhero in the first place.

Female roles — even leading female roles — haven’t exactly been a strength of the Marvel movies, which Lilly’s performance seems to comment on, particularly in the satisfying meta moment in the tag-on scene that finds Hope being introduced to a costumed tailored for her and noting, “It’s about damn time.” Other Marvel movie characters are saddled with plenty of backstory, but the details tend to be plot points almost detached from the person. Lilly takes every bit that’s given to her — resentment toward her father, acumen acquired from years in the family business, pangs of regret related to her missing mother — and uses it fully, building Hope layer by layer. There is nuance in her reactions that convey the history she carries. She’s more than an action figure biding time until the next set piece. Watching her process information is more fascinating than any of the movie’s digitally-drawn derring-do.

There are plenty of performances worth cheering across the Marvel movies. In addition to transforming narrative into a weirdly open-ended and overlapping act of ongoing effort, the studio has shifted the tectonic plates of movie stardom. Downey is a more major figure than he’s every been, but that celebrity is so thoroughly bound to Tony Stark that it’s strange to see him do anything else. Lilly transcends the built-in limitation of the model by simply giving more, by not stepping away from the actor’s foundational chore of of finding the inner being of the character and depicting it with honesty and constancy. In this movie universe of mighty feats, nothing is more heroic.

 

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican

Playing Catch-Up — From Beyond the Grave; The Family Fang; Black Mass

beyond

From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974). Drawn from the horror short stories of British author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, this anthology film from the macabre minds at Hammer Studios offer a quartet of twisty tales of supernaturally-charged comeuppance, all of them stirred into being after individuals engaged in ethically-challenged transactions with an antique store proprietor (Peter Cushing, gleaming menace). As in all but inevitable given the format, some stories work better than others. But each segment has at least one element that works wonderfully, such as David Warner’s mounting exhaustion as he’s compelled to murder by a haunted mirror, or the delightfully loopy performance by Margaret Leighton as a clairvoyant who offers her services in expelling an invisible demon from an otherwise humdrum home. A story entitled “An Act of Kindness” is the strongest, due to especially creepy performances from Donald and Angela Pleasance (father and daughters thespians playing, appropriately, father and daughter) and a twist ending that’s actually surprising. Kevin Connor brings a playful sense of humor to the staging without ever skewing into condescension.

 

family fang

The Family Fang (Jason Bateman, 2015). It was probably the darkly comedic elements of this story that made Jason Bateman seem like a viable choice for director, as if it could be an extension on the tone he employed in his reasonably promising feature debut as a helmer, Bad Words. But there are far more layers to this examination of the lingering repercussions of growing up in a colorfully troubled clan, and Bateman delivers a muddled mess almost entirely devoid of emotional authenticity. Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman, who also isn’t up to the acting task he’s undertaken) are smarting from their wild childhoods as pawns in the social stunt performance art of their parents (played in their younger years by Jason Butler Hamer and Kathryn Hahn, and in pending dotage by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett). There’s nothing psychologically astute about the film. It’s so inert that it practically disproves Leo Tolstoy’s famed quote about the individualized uniqueness of unhappy families.

 

black mass

Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015). This biographical fiction about infamous Boston organized crime figure James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) desperately wants to be a the second coming of Goodfellas, with a bit of The Departed cross-stitched in for good measure. Instead, Black Mass offers convincing proof that Scorsese’s mobster masterwork would have been incredibly dull had each entry in the famed procession of retribution killings set to “Layla” been instead fully dramatized, complete with predictable fake-outs of mercy before each trigger pull. Perhaps the only element of Black Mass that’s surprising is the remarkable array of affected Boston accents, no two alike and yet all equally atrocious. It’s like a Whitman sampler of drawn-out vowel sounds. Scott Cooper assembles a cast stacked with names and then leaves most of them stranded, gaping at proceedings with a level of stern seriousness so heightened that it reads as befuddled worry. Depp, in the dire downswing of a once promising career, is terrible in the main role, but he has plenty of company in acting ignominy, including Dakota Johnson, who delivers one of the least convincing line readings of the word “motherfucker” ever committed to film.

Playing Catch-Up — The Final Girls; Baby Face; Lightning Strikes Twice

final girls

The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015). This send-up of horror films — with special satiric sanctimony leveled at the slasher films of the nineteen-eighties — can’t help but draw comparisons to similar efforts in recent years. And already muddled film looks positively witless when gauged against titles that took the impulse for impish deconstruction to greater heights. Max (Taissa Farmiga) is still smarting from the recent death of her actress mother (Malin Åkerman) when she — for perplexing reasons — attends a midnight screening of the beloved, departed parent’s most famous film, Camp Bloodbath. Max and a few of her friends mystically show up inside the movie, using their knowledge of the plot proceedings to keep themselves safe from masked killer Billy Murphy (Daniel Norris). The film’s spiked taffy tone recalls, of all things, the dismal Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson veers between amused affection for and snide derision of the genre trappings of horror flicks. The highly distracted point of view combines with the surface-level spoofery to result in a film that plays like a clanging mess.

 

baby face

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933). This early showcase for Barbara Stanwyck is arguably best known for a plainspoken salaciousness that ran it afoul of the censors as the Hays Code was ramping up. Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who follows the advice of a cobbler (Alphone Ethier) who frequents the raucous speakeasy run by her louse of a father (Robert Barrat). Lily jaunts out into the world with a scheme to achieve upward mobility by treating lustful, susceptible men as ladder rungs. Unsurprisingly, Stanwyck is fantastic, especially when the script feeds her sardonic lines to fling at the various dolts and dupes who swarm around her (including, briefly, John Wayne, six years before Stagecoach made him a star). Alfred E. Green directs with a flat-footed efficiency that’s a marker of the era when Hollywood was a grinding company town. The film is remarkable in its proud amorality, at least until an obligatory romantic ending that doesn’t jibe with all that’s come before it.

 

lightning strikes twice

Lightning Strikes Twice (King Vidor, 1951). This crime drama is like a freewheeling hybrid of film noir, Gothic horror, and Western. Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) is an actress bound for a dude ranch to recover from the strain of being strangled eight performances per week in a touring company of Othello. She’s diverted into the sphere of Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd), a convicted murdered who was sprung from death row when a retrial resulted in a hung jury. The screenplay (by Lenore J. Coffee, adapting Margaret Echard’s 1940 novel, A Man Without Friends) merely skims its finger gingerly across the florid lunacy it introduces, but King Vidor fully invests in the twisty darkness, playing with encroaching shadows and reflections as a visual motif. He also infuses and sense of constant menace into the film, heightening the unpredictability as Shelley falls for Richard, even as paranoia about his lurking motivations overtakes her. The performances are mostly unremarkable, but Mercedes McCambridge, just a couple years after her Oscar-winning turn in All the King’s Men, brings a zesty oddness to her turn as a dude ranch proprietor wrapped up in Richard’s sordid past.

 

Playing Catch-Up — Columbus, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Miles Ahead

columbus

Columbus (Kogonada, 2017). The feature debut from filmmaker Kogonada, who has been justly lauded for video essays on other directors’ work, is an object of understated beauty. Empathetic and honest, Columbus is set in the Indiana city of the same name that is an unlikely touchtone for fans of modernist architecture. Jin (John Cho) comes to town because his architect-scholar father has been hospitalized. Aggravated about his familial requirement to dote upon an ill parent who wasn’t especially loving to him, Jin is somewhat aimless in the community, at least until he encounters Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who is stuck in neutral shortly after high school, although she clearly has the intellect to prosper if she moved on to higher education. The two have gentle, talky encounters that recall the cerebral cerebral meanderings of Richard Linklater’s film series that began with Before Sunrise, just with a little less grad school posturing. The film is warm and endearing. It’s also the clear product of a film fan who’s spent a lot of time thinking about how some of the masters of the form framed their images. Even as Kogonada immediately establishes himself as filmmaker of great insight and care, the true standout of Columbus is Richardson. Operating with an emotional delicacy and fascinating naturalism, Richardson gives a great, deep performance, subtly displaying a myriad of layers to her character.

 

meyerowitz

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, 2017). Noah Baumbach is in familiar territory with The Meyerowitz Stories (News and Selected), depicting a New York City family of thwarted artists and painted intellectuals, scuffling with their own insecurities and giving each other deep emotional bruises along the way. In proper reflection of the title, the film moves with the ache of a rueful, bleakly funny collection of interconnected short stories, a little John Salinger, a little John Cheever, and a little Woody Allen in his wordsmith mode. The actors all make a lush pastrami meal out of Baumach’s caustically funny dialogue, even Adam Sandler, who delivers what is arguably his first good performance on film (and, no, I’m not forgetting about Punch-Drunk Love). As the family’s patriarch, Dustin Hoffman has his best role in years and makes the most of it.

 

miles

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015). In one way or another, the notion of Don Cheadle playing Miles Davis on film had kicked around for about fifteen years before the skilled actor finally took matters into his own hands. Besides playing the jazz legend — one of the rare figures in the history of music who can legitimately be called a genius — Cheadle contributed to the screenplay and directed Miles Ahead, his feature debut in that role. Cheadle is predictably strong as Davis, but the film is misguided, layering in fictional escalated action that might allow for easy access to the flaring flaws of the man, but also play as deeply phony. And the film is burdened by leaning into the cliches within Davis’s personal history, such as the haunting presence of a one-time love (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and the penchant for self-destruction. There are moments of quiet insight — such as Davis rediscovering his artistic soul in a brief collaborative jam with a younger musician (Lakeith Stanfield) — but they are brief and too quickly disregarded in favor of dull narrative tricks.