Playing Catch-Up — A Ghost Story; I Am Not Your Negro; Mudbound

ghost story

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017). There’s been some chatter lately about the divide between film critics and general audiences. I thought about that quite a bit while finally catching up A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s ruminative tale of grief and holding on too long. The feature showed up on plenty of lists tallying up the year’s best movies, but I imagine most viewers would regard the 90 minutes spent with its deliberate, spare storytelling as a form of punishment. I’m somewhere in between. I admire Lowery’s unyielding commitment to his concept, but I don’t exactly warm to it. In depicting a household marked by loss, in which the dearly departed (Casey Affleck) haunts his former romantic partner (Rooney Mara) in a spectral form straight out of a Peanuts strip, Lowery is so reserved that he leaves barely any room for character — and therefore emotion — to infiltrate the proceedings. The result is a movie that’s a fascinating feat, but its ultimately too arid to sustain feature length. As a short, I might very well have been spectacular.

 

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I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016). The spine of this documentary is derived from writing James Baldwin did in the nineteen-seventies, as he tinkered with a proposed book project reflecting on the lives and impacts of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Raoul Peck’s film takes its cues from Baldwin as it expands from there, endeavoring to take in the whole of the famed writer’s life and influence as more of a thoughtful, exploratory cinematic essay rather than some dutiful trek through career highlights. It is dizzying and powerful, especially in the resonant delivery of Baldwin’s words by a atypically understated Samuel L. Jackson. Mostly, it stirs regrets about the ways public discourse has degraded over the years. It’s only been fifty years or so since Baldwin was invited to go on national television and expound on the issues of the day with profound intellectual force. Even with a vastly expanded landscape, there’s practically no room in the clattering modern discussion for someone who addresses the nation’s shared challenges with such articulate assurance.

 

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Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017). A fantastic example of serious-minded, large-scale filmmaking, Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound is an emotional powerhouse. Set in small town Mississippi shortly after World War II, the film concentrates on two different families. The McAllans, who have purchased a downtrodden farm, and the Jacksons, who work that lands ostensibly as employees, but really under the imposed servitude of a bigoted South. The film’s dense complexities are reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — and the underrated 1980 film version, directed by Milos Forman — and Rees rises to meet the challenge, handling the overlapping and intersecting plot lines with astonishing skill. The cast is terrific across the board, with especially strong performances by Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, and Garrett Hedlund. And Rachel Morrison’s cinematography — which has already earned her a place in Academy Awards history — is a pure artistry, tapping into the natural majesty of rural America. It calls to mind Haskell Wexler’s Days of Heaven photography, but with a dose of brutal realism, like a heavy leather bible that gives off a certain glow, but is rough to the touch.

Playing Catch-Up — Payment on Demand; The Florida Project; Money Monster

payment-on-demand

Payment on Demand (Curtis Bernhardt, 1951). Bette Davis was a tough customer from the very beginning, but as she edged into middle age there was a special pleasure in watching her disdainfully browbeat all those wronged her. In Payment on Demand, Davis plays Joyce Ramsey, a doyenne of San Francisco high society who is shocked when her husband (Barry Sullivan) asks for a divorce. The film alternates between Joyce dealing with the fallout of this emotional bombshell and flashbacks tracing the couple’s progress from eager youngsters to husband and wife eventually wounded by their own success. In the retrospective scenes, director Curtis Bernhardt borrows visual tricks imported from the stage, giving them a dreamlike quality. As much fun as it is to watch Davis snap off her lines of aggrieved furor as the dissolution of the marriage is underway, her enormous acting skill is most impressively on display in the flashbacks. She effectively conveys the evolving stages of this woman’s life through demeanor, body language, and the gentlest variations in her voice.

 

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The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017). Following the grand, giddily energetic Tangerine, Sean Baker continues to establish himself as the auteur of the underrepresented with The Florida Project. Set amidst the rundown motels and strip mall businesses anchored in long, cold shadow of Walt Disney World, the film pays caring — but strictly honest — attention to the individuals who exist in the sort of poverty that is practically impossible to escape. The film deliberately skips across the experiences of the characters, favoring impressions over plot. Or so it seems, but the details eventually accumulate into a larger story that’s sternly powerful. Baker gets strong performances out a cast mostly comprised of novices, wisely deferring to the measured certainty of Willem Dafoe, playing a motel manager whose work is never done.

 

money monster

Money Monster (Jodie Foster, 2016). Jodie Foster showed great promise as a director in the nineteen-nineties, but her more recent features are perplexing in their wobbly construction and general lack of insight. At least, Money Monster isn’t as plainly inept as its immediate predecessor, the detestable The Beaver. George Clooney plays the boorish host of a cable business news program who is taken hostage by a gunman (Jack O’Connell) aggrieved over the tanking of a stock that was on championed on air. Ostensibly a pointed condemnation of the callous greed of Wall Street, the film is at once hackneyed and ludicrously convoluted. In a disappointing surprise, Foster — an actress of uncommon skill who’s worked with some of the great directors of her time — presides over a batch of performances remarkable only for their pronounced disengagement, even though she’s working with significant talents like Julia Roberts, Giancarlo Esposito, and Caitriona Balfe.

 

Playing Catch-Up — The Rules of the Game; Beatriz at Dinner; Miss Sloane

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The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939). Considered one of unassailable greats of all cinema (or at least a foundational classic that demonstrated the way the spirited form could be applied to weighty social subjects), Jean Renoir’s farcical examination of the cross-crossing trysts of the French upper class remains dishearteningly relevant nearly eighty years past its original release. Renoir captures the illicit tomfoolery of the various characters with a cheeky with and a grandly effective sense of comic timing. His bleak sense of humor reaches its apotheosis in the closing moments, when a cold-hearted punchline lands with the brute effectiveness of the storied films of the nineteen-seventies, when wry cynicism was most valued. There are dandy performances all around, include one by Renoir as Octave, who oscillates between loyalty and an especially genially brand of lechery.

 

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Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta, 2017). Longtime collaborators Miguel Arteta and Mike White reteam for this drama that drops an unlikely visitor into the midst of dinner party otherwise populated by people whose wealth and privilege have made them callous, even as they occasionally feign sympathy for the less fortunate. Although there are others on hand, the film largely plays as a one-on-one debate between a blowhard developer (John Lithgow) and a physical therapist (Salma Hayek) who’s namechecked in the title. Even as White’s screenplay has a tendency to get a little too pat in its political debate, he has the good sense to keep the verbal combatants at least somewhat balanced. Off-putting as the industrialist might be, the woman representing the working classes can be tedious in her serene certainty, a quality enhanced by Hayek’s strong performance. There’s a sense that Arteta is laboring to prolong a thin premise, and the stretching finally snaps in the last act, when its clear no one has a compelling way to end the thing. The film’s true highlight is the performance of Connie Britton, bringing insight to the role of the woman hosting the party, commanding her world with surface kindness.

 

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Miss Sloane (John Madden, 2016). I saw this film retrospectively referred to as Jessica Chastain’s warm-up for her leading turn in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, which was naturally going to require a facility for delivering buckshot blasts of jargon-laden dialogue. As usual, Chastain is a striking, strident presence, even when the film’s attempt to dress up a potboiler frame with serious social justice trappings proves faulty. Chastain is the title character, a shark-like Washington lobbyist who joins up with a small firm to lead a quixotic fight to get a piece of gun control legislation passed. Her new cohorts’ collective pained bafflement at her roughshod tactics sometimes rings false, but it’s enjoyable to watch Chastain smash through those scenes with an authority reminiscent of her turn in Zero Dark Thirty. Similarly, approaching the machinations of ugly Washington lawmaking — and the associated molding of public opinion — with the convoluted creativity of a heist picture is a fun notion, but director John Madden can’t quite loosen up. He gives the film a too somber of a spirit.

Playing Catch-Up — Beggars of Life; The Crazies; Brillo Box (3¢ Off)

beggars

Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928). Released one year after William A. Wellman directed Wings to the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture, this drama sticks close to a pair of thrown together traveling companions (Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen) as they ride the rails with hopes of reaching Canada, in part because the woman committed a murder in self-defense. Their journey is complicated by an encounter with thuggish hoboes, led by a man named Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery). While certainly of the era, Beggars of Life is reasonably raw in its depiction of the dangers on the dusty byways of the U.S., especially faced by the young woman as she crosses into the sights of lascivious men. Brooks and Arlen skillfully walk the line of between expressiveness and over-emoting that was the key acrobatic feat of silent film actors. Beery is a memorable presence, but he does largely get by on scrunching up his face and rubbing his scrubby head of hair. The plot doesn’t exactly fall apart at the end, but it does noticeably sway on its foundation.

 

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The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973). Director George A. Romero’s adeptness at incorporating sly social satire in to his horror films is most commonly cited when discussing his various dances with zombies, but this cynical gem is arguably a better demonstration of the feat. With only the bare essentials of backstory and explanation, the plot roars to life. A biochemical weapon developed by the U.S. military infiltrated the water supply of small town, leading the afflicted to descend into jabbering madness on the way to a fatal outcome. A typical gang of plucky survivors tries to escape while the authorities do the convoluted best to cover up the outbreak and develop an antidote, in that order of priority. The performances sometimes veer too close to amateurish, but I found nothing but delight in watching Richard France chomp through his turn as a scientist forcibly (and somewhat randomly) recruited to fight the virus. Romero clearly revels in the mayhem he sets loose, making pointed arguments about the bogged ineffectualness of the military and civic leaders in general.

 

brillo

Brillo Box (3¢ off) (Lisanne Skyler, 2016). In a breezy forty minutes, documentarian Lisanne Skyler mines her own family history for a meditation on art collecting, as hobby and as an act of financial speculation. In the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, Skyler’s parents were casual but prolific art collectors, filling their New York apartment with pieces from emerging artists who would shortly become known as the masters of their day. Among the pieces that artworks that they briefly claimed was on of Andy Warhol’s yellow Brillo boxes, which they inadvertently conferred extra longterm value upon it by insisting the artist sign in. (According to the documentary, the signed yellow Brillo box is one of only three of its kind.) In a tragicomic turn, Skyler’s father traded the piece away well before it skyrocketed in value. He bought it for $1000. Four decades later, it sold for millions. With a remarkably good-natured tone, Skyler’s traces the piece’s long history, with brisk, informative diversions into Warhol’s career, the terrain of modern art, and her own family’s shared biography. Without resorting to overt jokiness or sacrificing a mission to educate, Skyler crafts a brightly entertaining film.

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.

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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.

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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.