Playing Catch-Up — Leaving Neverland; Blaze; Denial

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Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed, 2019). Working with a landslide of troubling evidence and an abundance of cautious patience, British documentarian lays out a compelling, convincing case that Michael Jackson regularly perpetrated sexual abuse on boys that came into his orbit once he ascended to the highest echelons of fame. Relying largely on the testimony of two survivors of Jackson’s alleged criminal actions, Reed spends four hours careful tracking through their experiences and the long aftermath which included Jackson being pulled into court to face charges on more than one occasion. Apoplectic defenders of the pop star note that both individuals featured prominently in the documentary testified in those cases on Jackson’s behalf, claiming under oath that they experienced no ill treatment at his hands. But Leaving Neverland preemptively addresses that complaint with sensitivity, explaining the levels of shame, denial, and self-preservation that often impact the memories and compromise the actions of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. When the abuser is an incredibly famous, wealthy, powerful figure, truth-telling becomes exponentially more difficult. Reed’s filmmaking is deft and often very brave, presenting the most uncomfortable details with brutal, appropriate candor.

 

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Blaze (Ethan Hawke, 2018). This biopic casts skilled singer-songwriter Ben Dickey, an acting novice, as Blaze Foley, a semi-legendary country music songwriter and performer with a self-destructive streak who died before his fortieth birthday. Written and directed by Ethan Hawke, the film is defined by an understated melancholy that is likely meant to mirror Blaze’s tunes. Hawke tinkers with the structure, interlacing Blaze’s fitful career progression with a barroom performance and, far less successfully, a radio interview with two of Blaze’s colleagues, his erstwhile harmonica player, Zee (John Hamilton), and Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton). The latter device causes the film to meander without providing any useful added insights. The film’s strongest element is the romance between Blaze and Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), whose memoir serves as the basis for Blaze. (Rosen is also co-credited with Hawke on the screenplay.) Hawke is at his best when his ambitions are most modest, and Shawkat is quietly marvelous in the role. The more Hawke strays from the serious-minded compassion that informs those scenes — the hammy overacting of his pals Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, and Richard Linklater as Texas oilmen trying out the music mogul game comes to mind — the more he undercuts his generally admirable creative vision.

 

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Denial (Mick Jackson, 2016). In 1996, a court case was set into motion in the U.K. when David Irving, a self-anointed World War II expert, accused academic Deborah Lipstadt of libeling him in her book Denying the Holocaust. With rigor and a sterling appreciation for the complexities of both the legal battle and its ramifications in the broader public discourse, Denial tracks the experience of Dr. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) as she must defend herself against the sort of person who shouldn’t even be given the dignity of meager attention. (Timothy Spall plays David Irving.) As scripted by David Hare (officially adapted from Lipstadt’s memoir about the case), the film is sharp, lucid, and consistently engaging, exploiting the familiar mechanics of legal dramas without succumbing to cliche. Director Mick Jackson slips occasionally with a needlessly fussy visual flourish (raindrops striking pavement in slow motion, some swooping camerawork around the Auschwitz concentration camp), but is mostly solid and smooth in his rendering of the story. The film boasts excellent acting from Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, and Andrew Scott, but it’s mightiest attribute is probably the way in which it is suitably angered and enlivened by the modern blight of rewriting hard, cold facts to suit villainous — often bigoted — agendas. Denial is an urgent retort to the current opportunistic erosion of norms in both the U.K. and the U.S., which makes it all the more remarkable that the film was made before the disastrous 2016 elections in each nation.

Playing Catch-Up — The Uninvited; The Last Black Man in San Francisco; Tickled

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The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944). Based on a Dorothy Macardle novel, director Lewis Allen’s feature directorial debut is widely cited as the first movie to depict ghosts as spectral entities that might actually exist in the world, moving amidst living beings because of some elusive unfinished business in the world. To at least some degree, every subsequent film that treats ghosts seriously can be traced back to this effort. In the film, siblings Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) impulsively purchase an abandoned manor on the coast of Cornwall, seeing it as a welcome refuge from the hustling stresses of the city. They soon find the house comes with a chilling added presence and launch efforts to determine how the troubled history of the previous owners might help explain the haunting. Allen achieves a nice gloomy atmosphere with the house, and the script — co-credited to Frank Partos and The Hundred and One Dalmatians novelist Dodie Smith — properly balances rapidly eroding incredulity with mildly exasperated wit. The leads are fine — both Milland and Hussey opt for a bland, capable approach fairly common in the nineteen-forties — but the supporting cast is peppered with wonderful, idiosyncratic turns, led by Alan Napier as a local physician roped into the supernatural sleuthing and Cornelia Otis Skinner as a menacing sanitarium operator.

 

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019). Scraping by the in the money-draining city of San Francisco, Jimmie (Jimmie Falls) is obsessed with the upkeep of a large Victorian house, causing him to sneak onto the property to tend the garden and touch up the paint when its residents are away. In this strange endeavor, he’s usually joined by his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken man always surveying his environs and then scribbling in his notebook, engaged in a seemingly permanent creative process. That’s the set-up of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the feature directorial debut of Joe Talbot. Drawn from the real experiences of Falls, the film is elegant and insightful, calling back to independent films of the nineteen-eighties and -nineties that delved deeply into characters existing in a distinct place and time. Talbot displays a talent for image construction that’s almost startling in its ability to find beauty in the mundane, and every bit of the film’s mechanics — Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography, Emile Mosseri’s music, David Marks’s editing — is utterly superb. Both main actors are vibrant in their roles, with Majors proving especially inventive in keeping the humanity prominent in a character that could have easily been reduced to an actorly stunt. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is absolutely extraordinary.

 

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Tickled (David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, 2016). In this documentary, New Zealand reporter David Farrier, who specializes in offbeat stories, is tipped off to the presence of tickling videos online featuring young adult men bound and subjected to skittering fingertips against sensitive areas likely to provoke giggle fits. Branded as if they’re part of a loopy sports league, the videos raises suspicions in the Farrier, and he quickly determines there might be more insidious motivations behind the fetishistic clips. He partners with producer Dylan Reeve for his onscreen detective work, including the occasional ambush interview, taken straight from Michael Moore’s now dog-eared playbook. Tickled is constructed with practiced looseness and unconvincingly feigned jolts of surprise reminiscent of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish. The basics might be true, but the presentation is overly reliant on cinematic hucksterism. There are callous opportunists to be found here, well worth exposing. But Tickled is wobbly in terms of its own creative ethics. The film undercuts itself.

Playing Catch-Up — L7: Pretend We’re Dead; Cold War; Green Book

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L7: Pretend We’re Dead (Sarah Price, 2016). A nifty video scrapbook posing as documentary, this film traces the career of the L.A. hard rock band L7. Largely avoiding details of personal entanglements, L7: Pretend We’re Dead dutifully ticks off the various albums, tours, and hits (or hit, singular, really). There are occasional testimonials to the group’s influence, but director Sarah Price never makes much of a case for it, assuming everyone watching starts in agreement on the point. And the rare and compelling issues the film does raise — such as the significantly difficulty any performing artists have in making a decent living because of the deceitful tactics employed within the music industry — are too quickly breezed past. The one thing the movie proves decisively is that guitarist and vocalist Donita Sparks possesses levels of charisma that exceed those of most mortal beings.

 

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Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2018). This absolutely masterful film from Pawel Pawlikowski follows the rocky love story between two Polish performers across the first decades following World War II. With deep empathy and astonishing economy, Pawlikowski crafts a story of hope that consistently sustains bruises. Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are both grand in the leading roles, with the former particularly adept at finding reservoirs of meaning in the simplest moments. Aided by Łukasz Żal’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, Pawlikowski’s builds images that are constantly striking, elegance and poetry in dusky black and white. The true beauty is in the storytelling. Inspired by his own parents, Pawlikowski has built a film of delicacy and rare emotional power. And he somehow manages, with the simplest strokes, to make “Rock Around the Clock,” one of the most familiar songs in the pop music canon, comes across as freeing and revolutionary again. Cold War holds magic within miracles.

 

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Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018). Even putting aside the stockpile of unseemly stories associated with Green Book, the well-meaning, woefully tepid drama still invites dismissal. Based on the true story of pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) touring the Jim Crow South in the nineteen-sixties and gradually bonding with his loutish driver (Viggo Mortensen), the film defaults to platitudes that had already carried a whiff of must thirty years ago, when Miss Daisy needed help getting to the Piggly Wiggly. Both leads are solid enough (and no matter what is etched on the trophies he’s been collecting, Ali is clearly a lead) and Peter Farrelly’s direction is perfunctorily suitable to the task. But the film is devoid of insight or nuance. Clearly no one involved in it agrees with that assessment, as Green Book is presented as if it holds profundities that will erase all of society’s ills. Good intentions and confidence in their value is no guarantee of transcending inanity.

Playing Catch-Up — Tully; Can You Ever Forgive Me; The Smart Studios Story

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Tully (Jason Reitman, 2018). Working with a script by Diablo Cody, the writer behind two of his best outings, and a compelling, vanity-free performance by Charlize Theron, director Jason Reitman creates a film that is almost jarring in its bleak comic honesty. Theron plays Marlo, a harried mother who’s just added a third child into an already kinetic household. Marlo’s wealthier brother (Mark Duplass) gifts her a night nanny to help with the new nanny, which leads to the appearance of Tully (Mackenzie Davis) at her front door. Davis is terrific as a suspicious mix of extreme competence and blithe free-spirit, but it’s Theron’s sharp emotional insights that give the film weight. Even before the plot starts flashing its sleeve-snugged cards, Theron slyly conveys the way responsibility can erode all sense of self. The film teeters from time to time, but that can happen when reaching as high as Tully does.

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018). Broke, desperate writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) gets an influx of cash when she stumbles upon some vintage correspondence of famous figures of the past. With a small battalion of old typewriters and her own gift for literary mimicry, Lee briefly made a living peddling fake nostalgic artifacts that were probably more satisfying to collectors than their non-fiction counterparts. Based on Israel’s memoir of the malfeasance, Can You Ever Forgive? is charming in its sense of survival amidst sordidness. Without resorting to a lot of showy signifiers, director Marielle Heller convincingly finds the flavor of New York City in the early nineteen-nineties, hardscrabble but also buffed into a more acceptable shape. The same can be said for the lead character, played by McCarthy with a bruising wit, thuggish indifference to others, and just a few well-placed flickers of vulnerability. Richard E. Grant is marvelous as Lee’s roguish accomplice, and there’s a brisk sternness to Jane Curtin’s turn as Lee’s beleaguered agent.

 

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The Smart Studios Story (Wendy Schneider, 2016). This highly specialized music documentary is a perfect product of the Kickstarter era of nonfiction filmmaking, when every last person, place, and thing with enough fans to fill a medium-sized hotel conference room is going to get its turn on the screen. In this case, it’s the humble little recording studio that cropped up in Madison, Wisconsin and improbably became ground zero for several influential albums of the nineteen-nineties, most notably Nirvana’s Nevermind. As with many music documentaries, The Smart Studios Story is calibrated to sate the previously fascinated rather than to spur discovery for the blithe newcomer. As someone who resided seven blocks away from Smart Studios during its heyday, I fall squarely in the former camp. Rough around the edges in a way that suits the subject, Wendy Schneider’s film is engaging and amusing in equal measure, drawing upon interviews with several colorful character who passes through the studios’ doors and making an open-and-shut case in favor of the place’s magic simply through generous sampling of Smart musical output. Truth is, it is impossible for me to resist a documentary that includes a debate — no matter how brief — on the behavior of Kenosha punks.

Playing Catch-Up — Justice League; The Tale; A Monster Calls

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Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017). Where to even begin with this rambling monstrosity? There’s so much to loathe in this desperate attempt to replicate the success of the Marvel movie model by the company’s distinguished competition in the realm of periodicals. The plot of Justice League is grueling apocalyptic nonsense and character development is practically nonexistent, even for the handful of figures who are essentially making their debut. Then there are director Zack Snyder’s trademark eyesore visuals, which look like the sort of thing Terrence Malick might come up with six or seven years into a battle with degenerative brain disease. Maybe the most damning criticism is the inexplicable fact that mere months after her utter triumph in Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot here seems like a performer completely bereft of wit or charm. Joss Whedon was famously recruited to finish the film after Snyder left due to family tragedy. but there are only the lightest evident fingerprints of the filmmaker who first assembled the Avengers. Justice League is dismal and ill-conceived in practically every way.

 

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The Tale (Jennifer Fox, 2018). Powerful as a reflective on hidden trauma, but muddled and occasionally amateurish as drama, Jennifer Kent’s heavily autobiographical film is at its very best when it ruthlessly examines the slippery nature of memory, especially when self-preserving rationalization are in play. A documentarian named Jennifer (Laura Dern) gradually confront her own history, specifically a time in her girlhood (her thirteen-year-old self is played compellingly by Isabelle Nélisse) when she was under the thrall of some adults (Elizabeth Debicki and Jason Ritter) she met while attending a horse-riding camp. The depiction of young Jennifer being groomed for molestation is bluntly precise, making The Tale properly difficult to watch in places. And Kent is deeply insightful in considering the ways in which pain can be repurposed into a warped sense of power by the survivor. Some lamented the lack of a theatrical release when this striking Sundance Film Festival entry was picked up by HBO, but I suspect it works better in the smaller format, if only because of a certain flatness to the visuals and simplicity to the dialogue that occasionally slips over to stilted. Dern is predictably strong, but the best performance belongs to Ellen Burstyn, who adds welcome layers to potentially thankless role of Jennifer’s mother. Fox’s screenplay gives Burstyn a prickly source of conflict, and she goes ahead and plays a full person.

 

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A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, 2016). Based on a book by Patrick Ness, this dark fantasy depicts a twelve-year-old named Connor (Lewis MacDougall) whose dismay over his ailing mother (Felicity Jones) seemingly stirs to life an ancient yew tree, which comes to him as a towering, bark-hided monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) bent on telling tales. Visually resplendent and creative, A Monster Calls is a small feat of beautiful sadness, handling the endurance test of watching a loved one slowly die with a piercing honesty. Except for a coda that gets a little too cute, the storytelling is expertly rendered. There is particular depth in the psychology of Connor, often expressed through the reactions of those around him because the character spends so much of the film in a state of fairly passive misery. In the last act, though, his protective walls start to crumble. Across that passage of the film, MacDougall’s acting is absolutely marvelous, full of unguarded truth.

Playing Catch-Up — The Hero; Paddington 2; Deepwater Horizon

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The Hero (Brett Haley, 2017). Brett Haley conceived of this character study after working with Sam Elliott on a previous effort. The genesis of the project is clear in the finished product, if only because there’s barely any purpose beyond giving the veteran actor a chance to flash his laconic charm with a dose of uniquely stolid vulnerability. Elliot plays a cowboy actor of middling success who earns his living with commercial voice-over work. He’s feeling his mortality for reasons having to do with age and some dire medical news. And that’s about it. There’s not much story, making the film into a character study that’s paper thin, more warm tribute than sharp analysis. Elliott is a fine presence and acquits himself well in moments that are more emotional that what he’s usually provided, but he doesn’t dig all that deep. The performance is fine and admirable without ever feeling essential.

 

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Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2018). Elevated by the warm, inventive visuals of director Peter King, this sequel is a unexpected, lovely delight. The titular bear (voiced with sweet care by Ben Whishaw) with a taste for marmalade and a gentle life with a human family in London finds himself imprisoned when he’s framed in theft of a rare pop-up book worth a fortune. Paddington’s family tries to free him by identifying the real criminal (a washed up actor, played with zippy gusto by Hugh Grant) as he befriends — and somewhat tames — a group of roughneck fellow inmates, including a gruff chef (Brendan Gleeson, marvelous in a role that winks at his usual typecasting while still giving him a chance to do something completely new). The screenplay (co-written by King and Simon Farnaby) is smart, dense, and economically makes certain every detail counts. King’s astonishing approach to the film’s look that takes Paddington 2 to another level. The charms are boundless.

 

 

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Deepwater Horizon (Peter Berg, 2016). Drawn from massively impressive New York Times reporting on the 2010 disaster involving a offshore drilling rig that killed eleven people and leaked countless gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, this film is obviously well intentioned. It’s also deeply flawed. For all his clear skill as a director, Peter Berg defaults to a muscular bluntness that can sometimes make him seem like Michael Bay with taste and a conscious. Instead of providing plainspoken authenticity to the procession of details of the fateful day, Berg’s approach strips away all tension. The film resembles any generic, explosion-filled action movie, problematically undercutting the real life tragedy depicted. There’s laudable authenticity to the scenes of regular guys just doing their jobs in the lead-up to everything falling apart, though the depiction of the BP executives (especially in the performance by John Malkovich) is grounded in an oily villainy that tilts toward the manipulative.

Playing Catch-Up — A United Kingdom; Downsizing; Girls Trip

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A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016). It’s almost jarring to see a modern movie as staid in its dramatization of noble societal perseverance as A United Kingdom. Based on real history, the film follows the heartbreaking travails of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), member of the royal lineage of the Bechuanaland Proctectorate in Africa whose rightful ascendancy to leadership of his people is denied by the British government after he marries a white Londoner named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The couple endure brutish bigotry, often delivered with the added weight of government authority by figures of sneering, suit-jacket, administrative evil, including one played by Tom Felton, trapped forever as a angry, simpering Malfoy. Oyelowo and Pike both give nice, nuanced performances — and, not incidentally, there are utterly charming in their courtship and comfort as a couple — but the film moves with the clacking dramatic reticence of any of the well-meaning dramas of slow-but-sure social justice on the African continent that peppered art house calendars twenty to thirty years ago. Amma Asante directs as if she’s making a product suited for the genteel trepidation of the classroom rather than the more emotional landscape of true cinema.

 

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Downsizing (Alexander Payne, 2017). Following a successful string of films in which director Alexander Payne found wry humor in the simplest human stories, the Nebraskan creator returns to the brand of stealthy, in-through-the-side-door satire of his first features. In the near-future, scientists combat the calamity wrought on the planet by clumsy humanity by shrinking a portion of the population down to roughly action figure size. Around that basic premise, Payne and his usual screenwriting collaborator, Jim Taylor, brick up a teetering tower of plot. There are interesting ideas throughout, but the entangled complexities ultimately become too unwieldy. It’s as if Payne tried to compress a full season of an HBO series into a couple hours. The methodology undermines the film’s strongest element, the generally strong supporting performance by Hong Chau, as an refugee who lost her leg in a gruesome human smuggling event. The screenplay defaults to often to brash generalities in the character. That Chau plays them with sprightly conviction doesn’t fully redeem the troubling shorthand.

 

 

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Girls Trip (Malcolm D. Lee, 2017). This comedy about college friends reviving their annual vacation together with a raucous trip to New Orleans has only a wisp of a story, the post-Bridemaids conviction that females being bawdy is all that’s needed to generate laughs, and characters so confined to their basic types that its hard to fathom how the camaraderie every developed in the first place. It’s also got a performance from Tiffany Haddish that demands the coining of a term stronger than “star-making.” That’s plenty to give the film a reason for being. She’s utterly magnetic in the film and mercilessly funny in her fearless bravado. Much as Malcolm D. Lee deserves credit for smartly tilting Girls Trip to Haddish’s considerable strengths, he also takes a pedestrian approach to the visuals and pacing, which grow more problematic as the film adheres to the recent movies comedy trend of sprawling to a running team that’s at least twenty minutes too long.