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.

 

cold war

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.

 

green book

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.

 

downsizing

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.

 

 

girls

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.

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.

 

i am not

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.

 

mudbound

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

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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.