Playing Catch-Up: Cops and Robbers; Murder, He Says; Tower

cops and robbers

Cops and Robbers (Aram Avakian, 1973). This jagged comedy of resignation hails from the era of U.S. cinema when depictions of New York City were so gritty that it seemed as if wringing the celluloid like a towel would cause gray sweat to pulse out of it. Written by novelist Donald E. Westlake (who, in an uncommon reversal, later turned the screenplay into a book), the film follows a pair of metropolitan police officers (Cliff Gorman and Joseph Bologna) who decided to use their knowledge of the crime-fighting biz — and the blue uniforms that afford them ready access to just about anywhere — to pull of their own heist, escapes to more hospitable climes dancing in their heads. The deep-dive into frustrated, combative characters is consistently engaging and the plot they hatch is clever with being so overly elaborate that it starts to strain credibility. John P. Ryan gives a nice supporting performance of genial menace as the local crime figure the uncertain officers go to with their plan. Director Aram Avakian gives the production a perfectly tempered seediness and shows an especially keen eye for detail. When the two protagonists float and plot in their above-ground pool, a lone swim flipper, discarded and forgotten, sits forlornly at the bottom of the watery depths. It’s a simple addition to the scene that conveys so much about the raggedy suburban lives they’re living.

murder-he-says

Murder, He Says (George Marshall, 1945). A pollster (Fred MacMurray) heads into the rural wilds in search of a colleague who’d recently gone missing while out there on assignment. He runs afoul of a feisty clan intent on maintaining their privacy, in large part because one of their kinfolk is in jail for bank robbery, but the tens of thousands of dollars in loot was never recovered. Sure that a payday is coming their way, the last person they want on premises is a snoop asking a lot of questions. Though an original work for the screen (the story is by Jack Moffitt, and Lou Breslow is credited with the script), it plays like a cracking stage farce brought expertly into the more permanent medium. MacMurray is characteristically good as the befuddled gent stammering his way to safety among hair-trigger adversaries, and there’s surprisingly strong camera trickery — for the era — allowing Peter Whitney to play brutish twin brothers. The film is hardly profound, but it’s consistently fun.

tower

Tower (Keith Maitland, 2016). This documentary from director Keith Maitland has layers of ingenuity. It reconstructs the events of August 1, 1966, when a distraught and mentally disturbed Marine veteran climber to the top of the tower building at the heart of the University of Texas at Austin campus and started firing his rifle at the crowd below. Although he also employs archival news footage of the terrible event, Maitland largely depicts the deadly assault on unsuspecting citizens using rotoscopic animation. The simplicity makes the agony more profound, especially as Maitland uses that testimony of those who were there to come close to a real-time staging that gives a sense of how awful it must have been for the people on the ground, whether hiding fearfully as shots ring out or lying on the hot pavement, wounded and unable to get themselves to safety. The empathy present in the filmmaking makes the film nearly unbearable at times, which in turn makes it vital.

Playing Catch-Up: Privilege, Sully, Indignation

Privilege

Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967). This is exactly what I want a movie with a 1967 copyright date to be. The sole credited screenplay of novelist Norman Bogner, Privilege follows the story of Steven Shorter (played by Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones), a rock singer who is coopted by British authorities so they can insidiously control the upstart youth culture. Set in a near future, the film is groovy satire, just prescient enough to avoid being little more than an artifact of distant days when the counterculture seeped into cinema with sporadic success. Jones is a middling actor, but he does absolutely nail one expression: a rictus of antsy anguish. Luckily, that’s the main mode of his character. Peter Watkins directs the film with a freewheeling verve marked by moments of smart cynicism that nicely sell the whole conceit.

 

sully

Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016). This dramatization of events surrounding “The Miracle on the Hudson” shows what happens when filmmakers have a compelling incident but no real story to tell. To instill some drawn-out drama, the film is structured around the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the famed plane crash, with scoffing bureaucrats casting doubt on the heroism of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks). It plays phonier than the nightmare plane crashes that come to Sully in the night, seemingly for no other reason that for director Clint Eastwood to throw some CGI-painted destruction onscreen. You know, for the ticket-buying kids. Eastwood’s main problem, though, is a plodding indifference that gives the film the look and feel of a nineteen-eighties TV movie made with rushed near-competence to capitalize on recent news events.

 

indignation

Indignation (James Schamus, 2016). After years as the head of Focus Features and the chief creative partner of Ang Lee, James Schamus makes his directorial debut with the sort of project that has felled many a filmmaker: an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. In the early nineteen-fifties, a young man named Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) escapes his humble roots to attend the posh Winesburg College. He has his struggles, but he also falls under the spell of a classmate name Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who operates with a memorable sexual forthrightness and shares hints of a troubled past. Schamus is also responsible for the adapted screenplay, which is filled with strong scenes, including a daring centerpiece that confines the action to a tense meeting between the college’s dean (Tracy Letts) for several riveting minutes. But there’s also a staid quality that can make the film seem a little square. It needlessly undercuts the potency of the film’s ideas, including the notion that identity politic battles aren’t exactly a new addition to college campuses.

Playing Catch-Up: Suicide Squad, Don’t Breathe, Rogue One

squad

Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016). As we stand perilously on the cusp of Wonder Woman finally arriving on the big screen (which has, predictably, included the wailing of tiresome males who find excuses to decry everything that doesn’t cleave to the credo “Boyz R Da Greatesssssst!”), it’s perhaps worth remembering the DC has gotten very, very bad at making movies of their superhero properties. Suicide Squad — which is one of the most obscure character groupings that the entertainment goliath-wannabe has thus far repurposed for real live actors — is astonishing in its parade of hideous spectacle. It’s as if director David Ayer looked at the palpitating hash of Zack Snyder’s films featuring Superman and decided they were just too darn coherent and emotionally relatable. The notion of a ragtag group of villains coming together on a doomed mission and becoming kinda-sorta heroes is nifty, and even provides an avenue for sly commentary on the increasingly inescapable superhero genre. Thematic depth is usually a boon to a piece of work, but the filmmakers are having none of that. It’s slash, burn, repeat for two numbing hours. Margot Robbie undeniably has her moments as Harley Quinn, the crazy, sexy, cool member of the troupe, but the film’s perpetual motion machine of aggression even manages to drown out her brimming charisma.

breathe.jpg

Don’t Breathe (Fede Álvarez, 2016). This horror-thriller has the good sense to pick a lean, simple concept and stick with it. A group of young adults in circumstances of varying desperation rob a home in economically-ravaged Detroit. They choose the dwelling of a blind veteran (Stephen Lang), in large part because they believe he has a major stash of cash, allowing for the perpetual criminal dream of one-last-big-score-and-I’m-out. He proves to be far from a pushover, and the film proceeds to take one bleak turn after another as he fights back against the intruders and they discover the complications in his backstory. The mechanics are sound but the machine rattles, in large part because director Fede Álvarez (who is also credited with co-writing the screenplay) lacks the finesse to cover up the film’s flaws. His approach is too buzzsaw when fine detailing could have transformed the work into something special. Whatever promise the film holds is obscured by the relentless push of the filmmaking.

rogue

Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016). And thus the universe expands. For the first attempt at a live-action Star Wars film outside of the main narrative, finding a story that immediately precedes the events of George Lucas’s 1977 original (still the best of the lot) probably made a lot of sense. If Rogue One is going to try to do something markedly different — and, to its credit, it does — there’s a safety to mixing in a tinge of familiarity. At times, it seems director Gareth Edwards is really trying to make a Star Wars film for adults, if only because of the way the film emphasizes that conflicts at this level have casualties. The film is earnest, appropriately stern, and consistently dull. Ultimately, it’s too safe, overly adhering to formula in its tone and tenor if not necessarily in all of its storytelling beats. There’s nothing memorable here. It’s a meager sidebar to the saga.

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.

The Unwatchables: Now You See Me 2

see me

Like most erudite (or, if you prefer, snobbish) modern film fans, I’m always ready to spring forth to decry the practice of making all decisions about which projects see the light according to a strained equation about the likelihood of spinning the material into a myriad of interconnection ancillary series. There can’t just be new Star Wars films. There must be a robust Star Wars universe, exploring side avenues and hidden histories that previously piqued the curiosity of precisely no one. But maybe — just maybe — if studios are going to commit to films largely on the basis of repeatability, we’re all better off with stories shaped from the start with narrative sprawl in mind.

Now You See Me 2 feels out of place in the current franchise culture. Instead, it’s a dismal callback to the nineteen-eighties, when every box office success, no matter how modest, spawned a sequel conceived in haste. The original film was a fun concept (Ocean’s Eleven, but with magicians!) that could barely endure the flood of complications it naturally and necessarily engendered. It was charming enough and deeply forgettable, even with a ludicrously overqualified cast (and Dave Franco!).

The sequel is a quintessential example of slapdash opportunism. The original crew of prestidigitating grifters is back, brining no real rationale for their continued camaraderie. They’re here because, hey, it’s a movie. And elements are thrown in with goofy abandon — ego-driven rivalries, bratty twins, strange cabals of competing criminals — until the film feels like a thousand swirling details in search of a purpose.

Nothing exemplifies the problems more than a mid-film scene during which the mischievous magicians steal an incredibly powerful computer chip. As directed by John M. Chu — who apparently go the assignment on the strength of Jem and the Holograms or G.I. Joe: Retaliation  — the scene is a bumbling embarrassment, depicting the supposed geniuses of misdirection as a group of nitwit oddballs who couldn’t convince a gaggle of drunken toddlers that their noses had been apprehended and removed with a sweep of the hand. Physics are incidental, and the skepticism of fierce security experts is as soft as a marshmallows after few spins in the microwave.

I made it approximately halfway into its 129 minute running time.

Previously in The Unwatchables
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster

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.

Baker, Black, Bloom and Stevens, Dieterle, Howard

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, 2016). This feather-light documentary is mostly valuable in its accidental ability to fulfill the the heartsick desire for affectionate remembrances of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds following their deaths in December, shockingly arriving with the crack dramatic timing of a veteran pair of performers. Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens occasional approach insightful examination of the scalding heat endured by those helplessly drawn to the spotlight, but their hearts don’t really seem invested in probing too far into darker corners. The film might have only a modest purpose, but it serves it well.

Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953). A survival saga with a nasty streak, Inferno was part of the 3D movie craze in the nineteen-fifties, though it doesn’t betray much visual contortion to exploit the technology, at least until it goes a little bonkers at the end. Instead, it’s mostly lean and cunning, telling the story of a tycoon (Robert Ryan) who’s left to die in the desert after breaking his leg, his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover (William Lundigan) hoping for an easy way to knock down on the sides of their problematic love triangle.  The wealthy man perseveres, though, cobbling together just enough makeshift tools to her him arduously crawl through his inhospitable surroundings. Given the copyright date of the film, the machinations in Francis Cockrell’s screenplay are surprisingly sound, and Roy Ward Baker directs with a useful restraint and patience. Bleached by sunlight rather than soaked in shadows, the film nonetheless successful adopts the toughened texture of the era’s stronger film noir outings.

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016). After a longer succession of fitfully successful cinematic tumbles over the years, Shane Black finally formulates the perfect project for his bloodied bubble gum sensibility. Just the choice of setting his twisty detective story in the sordidness of nineteen-seventies Los Angeles proves to be the missing masterstroke he’s always needed. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play a pair of scruffy gumshoes — at differing levels of officialness and respectability — who reluctantly team up to solve a mystery involving a dead porno actress (Murielle Telio) and a missing girl (Margaret Qualley). Black’s story is devilishly crafty and his direction presents the material with precisely calibrated comic verve. Crowe is an especially engaging presence in the film. He’s added girth in his middle age years, but it’s magically made him lighter and defter than ever before.

The Trial of Vivienne Ware (William K. Howard, 1932). A lurid and delightfully unhinged crime and courtroom drama, this pre-Code film operates with a briskness that suggests everyone involved is rushing so as not to miss an afternoon bus. The title character (Joan Bennett) is accused of killing her fiancé in a fit of jealous rage. The trial unfolds with the requisites twists and turns, but the drama is amped up to operatic absurdity (there are not one but two violent assaults on witnesses as they testify in open court). Adding to the pleasure is a sly commentary on the salacious pleasure the voyeuristic media takes in turning the whole spectacle into bang-bang entertainment.

6 Hours to Live (William Dieterle, 1932). This film has the kind of premise that classic Hollywood scribes could often spin into a feverish wonder. Warner Baxter plays a diplomat from the fictional country of Sylvaria. He’s attending a global trade summit where he’s expected to cast the sole dissenting vote, scuttling a wide-ranging pact. Then he’s murdered. Fortuitously, a slightly kooky scientist (George Marion) has just invented a device that can resurrect the recently deceased, though only for six hours. In that sliver of time, the revived diplomat seeks revenge and delivers the effective veto of the trade deal. It should be unpredictable fun, but the movie is solemn where it should careen, leaving it strangely inert.