Playing Catch-Up — An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn; Straight Outta Compton; Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

beverly

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (Jim Hosking, 2018). I’m sure there’s an easier, more lucrative career path to follow than the road chosen by Aubrey Plaza since the end of Parks and Recreation, which makes her spirited commitment to the oddest projects imaginable all the more laudatory. In An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, Plaza plays Lulu Danger, a disenchanted diner waitress who flees from her life to stalk the mysterious performer Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson) when he’s booked for a gig at a nearby posh hotel. Director Jim Hosking’s comic style is flatfooted absurdity, which is amusing when Jemaine Clement (as a hired thug who becomes an accomplice to Lulu) is muttering mildly startled oddities and far less so it’s time for the fart jokes and other scattershot lowbrow riffing. Some of the performances are deliberately amateurish, and then there’s Emile Hirsch as Lulu’s jilted husband, demonstrating this is trademark fuming rigidness isn’t improved by the appropriation of Jack Black’s bombast. It’s Plaza who nearly holds the whole thing together. She has a remarkable capability to lend a thread of the genuine to the most ludicrous scenarios.

 

straight

Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015). This depiction of the rise, fall, and lasting influence of N.W.A. proves that even gangsta rappers can fit tidily into the well-used template of the pop music biopic. The first portion of the film is strongest. Director F. Gary Gray builds a winning energy as he traces the group’s formation and creative development. These scenes have an astuteness that properly conveys the impact of N.W.A. Some of the details away from the clubs and studios — including the real problem of police harassment in underprivileged communities — are rendered in a style that’s too heavy-handed, blunting the effectiveness. The grows slack as N.W.A. experiences success and splinters apart, as the dividing of the narrative plays less like admirable scope and more as an inability to determine which story is most interesting. That isn’t even a tricky dilemma. It’s clearly Eazy-E who the film should stick with most closely, if for no other reason than Jason Mitchell is outstanding in the role.

 

film stars

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017). Based on the memoir by Peter Turner (portrayed by Jamie Bell in the film), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool covers the later years of Gloria Grahame, an Academy Award winner (famed in Oscar lore for her notably brief acceptance speech when claiming her trophy), who endured indignities sadly common for older actresses. Annette Bening plays Grahame with insight and grace, adopting the actress’s whispery voice, but otherwise not lapsing into overt impersonation. She concentrates on the emotion of the piece. It’s a fine performance, though well down the list of essential Bening turns. Paul McGuigam offers a workmanlike directing job, plodding around with no evident feel for nuance, the sort of quality that could have given the film real depth of feeling beyond its human interest reportorial plainness.

Playing Catch-Up — T2 Trainspotting; Game Night; RBG

t2 train

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017). From the moment it was announced, director Danny Boyle’s choice to develop a sequel to his breakthrough film, Trainspotting, seemed highly suspect, a seemingly desperate creative retreat for a filmmaker whose recent projects — even when generally well regarded — just weren’t quite clicking. I was wrong. In peeping back in on the Scottish hooligan drug users twenty years later, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (working with characters created by novelist Irvine Welsh) craft a cinematic effort of stinging emotional bruises, grimly wise humor, and marvelous visual invention. The dabs of nostalgia, in the form of imagery echoes and musical cues (in one perfect moment, literally presented as a needle drop), are consistently presented with jolting ingenuity. It also helps that the various returning actors have all grown stronger at their craft. T2 Trainspotting is equal to its predecessor. It might even be better.

 

game night

Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018). This comedy is essentially a riff on The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 feature that trapped Michael Douglas’s wealthy misanthrope in an enjoyably ludicrous LARP of dangerous riddles and mounting conspiracy. The regular gathering of board games and generous wine pours hosted by married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, respectively) is infiltrated by Max’s hotshot brother (Kyle Chandler), who wants to add a little excitement by hiring a company that specializes in elaborately dramatized mysteries, a little like an escape room place that makes house calls. Then the make believe mayhem coincides with real thugs storming, but the genial suburbanites think its still a harmless diversion. Mark Perez’s screenplay is clever and well-constructed, and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who were shockingly artless in their approach to the Vacation update) handle the plot’s complexities and splintered perspective with admirable skill. It’s the cast that really sells it, though, led by Billy Magnussen, who nails the requisite dumb guy role, and especially Rachel McAdams, who works wonders in a bar scene in which her character is delightfully invested in the whole affair.

 

rbg

RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen, 2018). Rather opportunistically, this documentary grabs ahold of the Supreme Court Justice who’s surged to unlikely superstar status in recent years and squeezes tight with lots of love. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career merits reverence as much for the gender discrimination cases she argued as an attorney before the highest court in the land as it does for her decades served as a justice. Initially a pragmatist, Ginsburg has become a bulwark for progressive values as new colleagues have skewed far to the right. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a survey more than a deep consideration on Ginsburg’s work and legacy, which sometimes keeps the film at such a surface level than it’s almost glib. Despite the flaws, Ginsburg — who gave the filmmakers ample access — shines through as a vital, inspiring presence.

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.

 

the tale

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.

 

monster

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 — Ocean’s Eight; Only the Brave; Brigsby Bear

eight

Ocean’s Eight (Gary Ross, 2018). In concept, this stab at reviving the Ocean’s heist film franchise is clever, especially in the way it reshapes the fundamentals to reflect the gender-swapped crew. Maybe it relies on stereotypes, but I like the wall the masculine garish flash of Las Vegas has been supplanted by the Met Gala, to cite one example. In execution, though, Ocean’s Eight is surprisingly drab. The long con has no snap to it, and the cast of aces is left stranded in characters that haven’t been fleshed out past their introductory traits. Gary Ross was once a filmmaker of some promise, but here he takes the material and practically embalms it.

 

only the brave

Only the Brave (Joseph Kosinski, 2017). Adapted from a GQ article about the firefighter who lost their lives in the blaze that took over the landscape outside Yarnell, Arizona in 2013, Only the Brave is the sort of serious-minded docudrama that used to be well-represented on the major studios’ release schedules. The rarity of such a thing in this time of cinematic gods and monsters makes it tempting to overpraise it. The mere existence of the film is a triumph. And Only the Brave is commendable in many ways. The lead performance by Miles Teller engages a lower working class stiff grinding his way out of self-inflicted hardship with tough honesty and a welcome lack of condescension. And the film deftly avoids sensationalizing its central deadly cataclysm, the fatal flaw of the similar Deepwater Horizon. Even so, the script is peppered with problems, including a dream sequence that haunts crew leader Eric “Supe” Marsh (Josh Brolin) and a pervasive sense that it’s sanitizing the culture of these rough men who face down death for a living. Liberated from the nonsensical science fiction myth-making of his previous features, Joseph Kosinski directs with a commendable respect for the emotional and narrative clarity.

 

brigsby

Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2018). In this odd indie comedy, Kyle Mooney stars as James Pope, a young man who spent his whole life in a secluded bunker presided over by parental figures who kept him diverted with a steady stream of videotapes featuring the adventures of a fictional bear who looks like he started on his quests after being kicked off New Zoo Revue. When James is liberated from his captivity, the confusion of the real world makes him fixate on his childhood hero Brigsby Bear even more, because it’s the core of his identity and therefore his only hope for rebuilding a sense of self. Brigsby Bear almost finds its way to insightful observations about the ways in which art and the creative process — especially in the service of lighter fare — can provide a mechanism for dealing with trauma. Dave McCary doesn’t quite seem to know how to instill the necessary weight into the film’s ideas, leaving a finished product that too often feels like a gimmick that hasn’t quite developed into a story.

Greatish Performances #37

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#37 — Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

It’s tough being a newcomer to a lengthy tale eight parts deep in the telling, with each prior installment adding convolutions to the established mythos. Never mind the daunting expectations that might be held by an existing fan base, the real challenge is beginning the race from behind in building a character. In a film series, many of the other actors will have the benefit of drawing on earlier information with the ease of recalling deeply ingrained memories. For those who’ve been around for ages, shaping and shifting the character is second nature. They essentially share the history with the role being played.

The Last Jedi, officially Episode VIII of the Star Wars saga (now distant enough from its introduction into the culture that the “long time ago” perpetually used in the opening title card carries apt meaning apart from the fictional chronology it sets in place), brings a few new characters to the fold, none more effectively than Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran. Within the story of good rebels and evil, despotic leaders, Rose is on the correct side, working as a maintenance technician with the motley collective acting as the resistance against tyrannical fiends who insist on imposing their churlish, self-aggrandizing will across the galaxy. In an ongoing narrative that favors hotshot pilots and quasi-mystic figures with godlike abilities, Rose is a modest worker, the sort who might be seen briefly in early films, scuttling between spaceships and gizmos right before the heroes rush off to save the day.

Part of the strength of Tran’s performance — of her inspired character-building — is that she emphasizes the practicality that naturally stems from Rose’s place in the hierarchy of the rebellion. When she encounters Finn (John Boyega) near the escape pods of a star cruiser, her initial excitement at meeting a famed hero of the rebellion quickly pivots when she susses out that he’s planning to sneakily disembark, an act she views — and she’s essentially correct in this — as desertion. There’s no hand-wringing or flood of anguish for Rose in this moment of admiration undone by betrayal. Instead, Tran smartly plays Rose as observant and decisive, traits that suit her role in this upstart interstellar army. She lays Finn out with a taser, because that’s what she must do when discovering a soldier going AWOL. There’s a tremor of regret perhaps, but mostly determination. This is what she signed up for.

Although Rose is new to the series, that doesn’t mean she’s bereft of backstory. As The Last Jedi depicts, Rose’s sister, Paige (Ngô Thanh Vân), sacrificed herself to make sure a bombing mission was completed successfully. Her sibling’s death weighing on her, Rose brings something surprisingly unique to a film series that has the word “wars” prominently in its title. She understands the stakes inherent to engaging in violent battles in the name of securing freedom. There are plenty of other deaths across the Star Wars movies, but most of them are incidental carnage in the background or offered as the turning key that moves the narrative from one act to the next. It certainly doesn’t help that mortality is a loose concept among the Jedi, with beloved mentors shimmering back into sight after they’ve died, the Valhalla of this corner of universe equipped with escalators that go both ways.

Tran exudes the both the deep loss Rose feels and the steely conviction to endure, fulfilling the broader mission that she and her sister embarked upon. Like anyone who’s been sent tumbling into the depths of grief, she understands the gravity of profound loss in a different way. The worthiness of a cause doesn’t alleviate the pain of those who’ve watched a loved be forever torn away in the fighting for it. Sacrifices in war are noble, but perhaps strategic survival has greater value. Rose isn’t in retreat. Far from it, in fact. She committed to seeing the revolution through, but her fervor is joined by wisdom. Tran plays every bit of this as Rose tenaciously steps up her involvement in the galactic roundelay.

In playing Rose, Tran is commanding and charismatic, truthful and cunning. Mostly, Tran brings an abundance of a quality that in shockingly short supply in this widely adored extended exercise in morality-based storytelling. To the Star Wars universe, Tran brings humanity.

 

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man

Playing Catch-Up — A Quiet Place; All Fall Down; New Wave: Dare to Be Different

quiet

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018). Writer-director John Krasinski’s horror film about sonically-attuned, carnivorous creatures is a splendid analogy for the anxieties of child-rearing. It’s also wildly implausible within the confines of its own fictional world, largely because the threats are made so fearsome that survival is basically impossible for even the most cautious being. One errant sneeze, sniffle, cough, stumble, or hiccup and the family is monster chow. The script — co-credited to Krasinski, Scott Beck, and Bryan Woods — smartly keeps the plot lean, and Krasinski shows a real facility for shaping mood and building tension. He’s less commanding playing the patriarch of the story’s besieged family, but he’s got a couple ringers in Emily Blunt and young Millicent Simmonds to give A Quiet Place the emotional heft it needs.

 

All-Fall-Down

All Fall Down (John Frankenheimer, 1962). Based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy, All Fall Down is the first of three films directed by John Frankenheimer that saw release in 1962 (the others are Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate). A family melodrama in its bones, Frankenheimer brings a nineteen-sixties edge to the film that enlivens the whole project. The film contains a very early performance by Warren Beatty, as ne’er-do-well son Berry-Berry Willart, but he’s notably ill at ease with the James Dean explosive anguish he needs to play. The other performances are far stronger, including deeply felt turns by Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Angela Lansbury (playing Beatty’s mother despite a mere twelve years difference in their ages, an infraction against reasonable biological chronology that Frankenheimer infamously compounded in The Manchurian Candidate). There also a nice turn from Brandon deWilde, playing the introverted, slightly odd younger son of the family. He brings a intriguing depth of feeling to a role defined by a placid naïveté.

 

wlir

New Wave: Dare to Be Different (Ellen Goldfarb, 2017). The ostensible focus of this documentary is the relatively short-lived but influential tenure of Long Island radio station WLIR as a rare commercial broadcast purveyor of challenging new music. From the time of a format change in 1982 until the loss of their FCC license in 1987, the station championed emerging artists while in a perpetual underdog station in a highly competitive media market. (Former staffers recount racing to the bank with their paychecks, sure whoever was last in line last would get a shake of the head and a report of insufficient funds). The film also gives ample screen time to the transformational music of the era, too often to the diminishment of the radio station’s story. I’m hardly the person to argue against eager excavations of songs and stories from college rock’s most fertile period, but director Ellen Goldfarb sidetracks to her interviews with nineteen-eighties artist with such frequency that the character of the station and its collective personnel gets lost. The movie becomes a scrapbook: delightful for those who experienced the time and place firsthand, short on meaning for everyone else.

Playing Catch-Up — Devil’s Doorway; Split; Isle of Dogs

doorway

Devil’s Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950). This nail-tough western from the heart of Anthony Mann’s career (released the same year as Winchester ’73) boldly examines vicious bigotry against Native Americans at a time when most Hollywood Westerns still cheerily trafficked in cowboys-vs.-Indians simplicity. Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) is a Shoshone who returns to his Wyoming home after serving honorably in the U.S. Civil War. The sense of respect and equality he experienced while fighting for the North isn’t mirrored by much of the population of Medicine Bow, led by villainous lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who rouses the aggrieved populace to lay claim to ranch land that is rightfully Lance’s. Guy Trosper’s screenplay is uncompromising in depicting the obstinate outlooks developed on the punishing edge of the nation’s frontier, and Mann films the material with his trademark bruising elegance. Taylor is awkward in the leading role, not only because of the unfortunate — and, worth noting, very much of the era — cross-cultural casting. He plays the harshly treated character like any other Western hero, missing the opportunity to explore the nuance of a humble, dignified individual treated unfairly by society because of sad prejudice. The film is admirable, but a more insightful performance could have made it resonant.

 

split

Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2017). The latest exercise in gimcrack narrative sleight of hand from M. Night Shyamalan is his best in ages, which is admittedly praise so faint as to be translucent. It’s loopy nonsense, but also highly watchable, which is a significant step up for the filmmaker once prematurely hailed as “The Next Spielberg.” James McAvoy plays a young man struggling with an overabundance of distinct personalities jostling for control in his head, a dilemma exacerbated by the inconvenient detail that those more prone to ill deeds are beginning to win the battle. The role calls for an abandonment of delicacy and restraint, and McAvoy obliges. He gives it his all, and if it’s not necessarily a great performance, it’s certainly admirably, unashamedly committed. To his credit, Shyamalan is, too, and the resulting movie is a eagerly playful potboiler. Anya Taylor-Joy merits special praise for her serious, probing performance as a teenager abducted by McAvoy’s troubled soul.

 

isle

Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018). Returning to the stop-motion animation he first employed in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson crafts a sweet, melancholy fable set in a quasi-futuristic Japanese dystopia where canines have been exiled, purportedly on the basis on a mysterious ailment, but really because of an ancient grudge. I’ll leave assessments of the cultural appropriation elements of the film to more qualified analysts and not that, strictly as a piece of storytelling, Isle of Dogs is genial, amusing, and of such mild consequence that it starts receding from memory before the closing credits are over. The precision of Anderson’s images is well-suited to the animation form and he and his collaborating screenwriters develop strong humor out of the normal behavior of dogs without ever belaboring a joke. In a stellar voice cast, Bryan Cranston and Edward Norton are the standouts.