Playing Catch-Up — Murder on the Orient Express; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; A Cure for Wellness

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Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017). This adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famed novels finds Kenneth Branagh in his happy showman role, both in the officiously constructed visuals and in his leading performance as detective Hercule Poirot. The famous sleuth is pressed into service when a brutish train passenger (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his cabin. The screenplay by Michael Green (whose packed slate of 2017 releases also included a justly lauded superhero reinvention and a couple lousy science fiction brand extensions) obediently follows the rhythms of the nearly inscrutable mystery story, with colorful suspects pleading their innocence right up to the big reveal, which of course includes a snarled admission of guilt. It has the makings of grand, theatrical fun, but only Michelle Pfeiffer seems to realize the best approach is to swing for the fences with every line reading. Between this and mother!, Pfeiffer is showing that if she’s destined to age into less glamorous roles, she’s damn well going to do it with admirable gusto.

 

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Dan Gilroy, 2017). In the sociopolitical push and pull of Academy Awards nominations, the voting body of the MPAA could certainly have done worse than a citation of merit they gave to Denzel Washington’s work as the titular character in Roman J. Israel, Esq. The performance certainly doesn’t rank among the very best from the screen titan (and, being honest, probably isn’t as strong as that of the Oscar hopeful he likely displaced, freshly reestablished problem child James Franco), but it’s at least markedly, blessedly different, giving Washington the rare opportunity to call on some character actor inventiveness. To the degree that Washington flounders as an unorthodox, socially maladjusted lawyer, it’s most attributable to the rickety efforts of writer-director Dan Gilroy, who follows the well-meaning but eye-rolling inanities of Nightcrawler with a similarly compromised exercise in eager plumbing of slippery modern morality. Gilroy’s storytelling isn’t as twisted and daring as he seems to think it is, giving the film an ugly sheen of smug self-congratulation.

 

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A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2017). This utterly wackadoodle horror-thriller suggests what Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island would have been if it had no interest in — or maybe capacity for — psychological gamesmanship. Certainly that impression is only heightened by the presence of Dane DeHaan, resembling more than ever Leonardo DiCaprio recovering from a bout with tuberculosis. And then there’s the decision to defer to bygone costume and art direction styling at every turn, despite the contemporary setting of the story. It would be baffling, except so little of the film makes any sense at all that quibbling over mildly incongruous storytelling trappings is like clucking about wallpaper design as the house burns down. Before he set sail with the Jack Sparrow money machine of diminishing returns, Gore Verbinski was an intriguing director, albeit with a troubling tendency towards the hyperkinetic. Now his artistry is as sadly confused as the various characters flailing in circles in A Cure for Wellness.

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.

Now Playing — Phantom Thread

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It’s probably not one-hundred percent correct to say that Phantom Thread is unmistakably a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but it sure feels right. The new cinematic offering is meticulously crafted, resolutely erudite, psychologically complicated, packed with insightful acting, and careens into compromised territory before it’s through, mildly undone by the filmmaker’s ambition to instill the unconventional when a more straightforward approach would do just fine.

Phantom Thread is set in London in the post-war tepid rejuvenation of the nineteen-fifties. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a revered fashion designer, with an elite client list and an ire raised by the most delicate affronts against his preferred routine. His professional and personal existence is kept in order by his spinster sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he follows the completion of an especially demanding garment by taking a holiday, he becomes enamored with a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds aggressively woos her, incorporating her into his life as lover, model, muse, and dutiful worker bee.

The film largely operates as a triptych character study. With elegance and aplomb, Anderson renders the intertwining codependency. There’s a cunning to the explorations built into Anderson’s screenplay. The individual characters’ reactions reactions fold and flow like well-draped fabric. Day-Lewis and Manville are both enlivened by the undulating nuances handed to them, giving every last line reading shadings of surprise and thrilling discomfort. They are obviously and wonderfully driven by discovery.

Phantom Thread proceeds with a highly refined, classic Hollywood sensibility (Anderson has acknowledged a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca), imbuing a timeless air about it, a quality further enhanced by Anderson’s cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s lovely score. Even the film practically begs to push through to the last frame of its final reel, Anderson takes the obsession onscreen to a heightened level that feels off in comparison to the rest of its narrative wisdom. No matter how well-mannered the storytelling, Anderson always seems to want a point in which he sends amphibians tumbling from the skies. The third act turn in Phantom Thread isn’t as provocative as that, but it relies on a version of the characters that rings false (and, maybe more damningly, it is forecast with a painfully obvious plot point, hardly the sort of misstep to which Anderson is prone). It’s as if the normal machinations of flawed people doesn’t strike Anderson as daring enough. The audience must be tested.

For me, the chief disappointment is how easy it would be to cleave out the offending plot digression. Every bit of it could be removed, and the pathologies of the characters would remain in place, and would likely read as more intriguing. The ideas that drive the film would be even more profound. I’m sure Anderson and his most devoted adherents would strongly disagree, but the film loses its way when it most strains to expose the darkness of the soul. Phantom Thread is greatness, undercut.

 

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.

 

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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.

 

Now Playing — The Post

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Even without director Steven Spielberg offering fairly unequivocal explanations of his motivation behind signing on for The Post — and working overtime to deliver a finished product as quickly as possible — it’s not difficult to ascertain the film’s sharp relevance to this current moment. For at least the past year, journalists and lawyers have been the power pieces on the misbegotten game board of U.S. politics, providing vital information and defense as a runner-up presidency does everything it can to surreptitiously demolish the very fundamentals of American government and society. And the power has seethed at those who dare to report the actions and ineptitude, tallying up an enemies list, tweeting it out with exhausting regularity. The Post is a timely reminder that the leaders can — and must — be held to account.

With a screenplay credited to Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, The Post concerns itself with the journalistic mining of a hefty tome of classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which took place in 1971. Collecting research requested by the Pentagon, the lengthy document revealed the cascading disastrous decisions of the U.S. government throughout the military involvement in Vietnam, and the corresponding efforts to cover up the mistakes by flagrantly lying to the public. It was scandalous, and the executive branch — headed by Richard Nixon — did everything it could to suppress the reporting, dragging newspapers into court in a major judicial test of the First Amendment.

Spielberg’s film essentially embeds with The Washington Post, as they first find themselves lagging behind The New York Times in reporting on the papers, and then taking over the leading role once the Gray Lady is hit with a court injunction. The prime debate about whether or not to defy an already aggrieved White House with new stories is waged between editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). The former is driven by an enduring sense of mission — that this sort of reporting is exactly what newspapers must do — and the latter is concerned because the media company she inherited is in precarious financial times, reliant on a public stock offering to stay afloat. A war with the U.S. government threatens to undo everything.

There’s not much doubt where Spielberg’s sympathies ultimately lie, but he is a shrewd enough storyteller to realize that the conflict must be even. Graham’s reticence needs to be grounded in good sense, otherwise the film merely bides time. Streep is an invaluable collaborator in this respect, quietly signaling the agonizing journey Graham must go through, weighing the cold business decision against the legacy of the newspaper. On the other side of the history, the decision is easy. Spielberg and Streep work together to offer the useful reminder that it was damned difficult in the moment, especially since Graham was being continually underestimated because she was the rare woman commanding a sizable media organization.

Streep may be the standout, but Spielberg has the clout to assemble a Murderer’s Row of great actors to fill out the cast. In addition to Hanks’s typically strong work as Bradlee, the film includes a great supporting performance by Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a Post assistant editor who is instrumental in landing the story. In general, there’s admirable commitment from everyone involved — including Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, and Bradley Whitford — investing life into their characters, no matter how brief the screen time. While other directors might have settled for useful cogs in the machine to help keep the complex plot chugging along, Spielberg makes certain these are full-fledged people moving in and out of the scenes. Largely because of this insistence on developing a world with in the film, the stakes stay high.

Of course, I mean the stakes stay high dramatically. Then, as now, the dangers to the republic couldn’t be starker. If Spielberg sometimes underlines that point a touch too forcefully, he can hardly be blamed for such a minor infraction against cinematic restraint. When ringing alarm bells, it’s not advisable to muffle the sound.

Now Playing — Molly’s Game

molly game chastain

Molly’s Game, the feature directorial debut of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin makes a compelling case for his previous practice of turning his material over to others to shepherd it to the screen. More than most, Sorkin had the benefit of working for and with strong directors: Rob Reiner (back when he was at the top of his game), Mike Nichols, David Fincher, Bennett Miller, and Danny Boyle. This isn’t a list of infallible creators, but they all clearly know their way around a narrative. They know where to prune, where to smooth, where to enhance. Sorkin, engaging as his writing can be, knows how to pile in words upon words upon words. He adheres rigidly to his established model, which makes his film engaging and frustrating in roughly equal measure.

Based on the memoir by Molly Bloom, the film traces the trajectory of the title character (Jessica Chastain) as she careens from a promising career as a young athlete — thwarted by a freak accident — to an early adulthood of restless indecision, ultimately turned around by her unlikely ascendancy as an impresario of underground, high stakes poker games. In this capacity, Molly mingles with the obscenely overcompensated elite — practically all of them men, most of them carrying within them an exhausting toxicity — believing herself to be insulated from the abundant dangers inherently found among illicit gamblers, a misconception fully and finally exposed when federal authorities come calling with weaponry and handcuffs.

This prime territory for Sorkin: competition and barbed banter, the intricacies of a legal system ill-equipped to deal with the pretzeling ingenuity of darker human nature, and class struggle as verbal jabs between moneyed assholes and slightly-less-moneyed noble underdogs. And it’s difficult to deny that at least some of the storytelling possesses the headlong zing that can make his involvement in a project an automatic enticement. He also piles in information, ladening Molly’s voiceover narration with so much dense exposition that the film occasionally resembles an audio book with a few scattershot images attached. Sorkin’s solution is to make the images as hyperkinetic as his dialogue, a technique likely intended to add of jolt of energy that instead has a numbing effect.

Although Sorkin routinely gets in his own way, there’s a reason actors often rejoice at the chance to speak his words, and Chastain is a dream in the lead role. She is one of those rare performers who emanates strength and vulnerability simultaneously, and, as it turns out, she has a special aplomb — as the stalwarts of The West Wing cast once did — for making Sorkin’s viciously intelligent sarcasm sound natural. As Molly’s attorney, Idris Elba is a little less convincing, but when he and Chastain share the screen the intermingling charisma is thick and luscious as cake batter.

It’s a common and understandable trajectory for a film writer to parlay their earned clout into the opportunity to direct, usually in hopes of preserving the vision they tapped out on the page. I’d wager, though, that Sorkin is not someone who’s typically had to endure other filmmakers running roughshod over his work. Instead, he’s clearly benefited from collaborating with those who occasionally offer a challenge, saying with clarity and conviction that something can be better. In Molly’s Game, it seems Sorkin is out there on his own. Too often, he appears stranded.

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.