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.

The Unwatchables — The Mummy

mummy

I hold Tom Cruise directly responsible for some of my worst experiences in the movie theater. In the summer of 1990, I committed to co-producing and co-hosting a weekly movie review program at my college radio station. The plan included a debut episode on Labor Day, looking back at the biggest hits since Memorial Day. (This was back when blockbuster movies were largely confined to the warmer months, when school was out). It was my obligation to seek out as many of those hits and potential-hits as I could. As always, it was a decidedly mixed bag of features, but only the dreadful Cruise vehicle Days of Thunder made me question the wisdom of committing to the weekly grind of seeing every movie released.

In the years that followed, I suffered through many more lousy movies that suffered from Cruise’s star machine ego, from downright crummy efforts (Far and Away, the first two Mission: Impossible films, Vanilla Sky) to otherwise intriguing films in which Cruise’s performance was easily the weakest element (The Firm, Jerry Maguire, Collateral). He had his moments, either do to shrewd casting that played to his limitations (Eyes Wide Shut) or yet rarer instances of directors who pushed him to go deeper than he previously seemed capable (Magnolia), but Cruise mostly settled in to a groove as the movie star least likely to deliver a pleasant surprise.

This preamble is meant as mildly chastened acknowledgement of the way my sentiments have shifted. I come to praise Cruise, not to bury him. In recent years, he wild-eyed zeal for entertaining the audience, at practically any cost to his life and limb, has been perversely charming. His taste in projects remains highly questionable, but, by Xenu, he consistently gives it his all. When Cruise’s banzai-charge insistence meets a theme park ride big and bold enough for him to him to ricochet around within it, the results can approach cinematic bliss.

I think the filmmakers behind The Mummy believed they has fashioned just such a platform for Cruise. Intended as the linchpin of an interconnected cinematic universe of famed movieland spooky creatures, The Mummy is confused from the first frames of ponderous backstory.

Cruise plays a military man with the super-masculine name Nick Morton. He’s on a mission in Iraq when a massive underground tomb is discovered. He explores it with his requisite wise-cracking buddy (Jake Johnson) and a young, foxy archeologist (Annabelle Wallis), who, it just so happens, Nick knows from an earlier tryst. Down in the tomb, Nick does really helpful things, like fire bullets at pulley ropes on a hunch. That leads the trio to find a sarcophagus that’s been the longtime prison to an Ancient Egyptian princess who was buried alive after she took deadly issue with the patriarchal preferences in lines of royal succession.

As directed by Alex Kurtzman (whose mattresses are probably stuffed with the wads of cash he’s made by writing the Transformers movies and other ruinously bad franchises), The Mummy is simultaneously hectic and boring, ladling on chintzy special effects that wouldn’t have passed muster back when Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz were romping their way through Universal’s prior, more successful attempt to extract riches from this long-held property. Cruise’s eagerness to invite physical mayhem upon himself for the sake of his art leads directly to a fairly inventive nosediving plane sequence, but the rest of the film’s ideas are collectively the equivalent of cooked noodles hurled at the drywall. Some stick, some don’t, and it all lands as an incoherent mess.

Amusingly, Cruise seems utterly perplexed the whole way through, as if no one told him anything about the film he’s in. I don’t mean his character is taken aback by the paranormal foofaraw converging upon him. I mean very specifically that Cruise himself appears baffled, by everything, whether its the props, the scenery, the frothing overacting by Russell Crowe (as Dr. Henry Jekyll and his internalized alter ego), or even the most basic plot points. When Wallis strides up and lays out the exposition of her character’s relationship to Nick, Cruise looks like a pained individual feeling overwhelmed on his first day of improv class. It’s not exactly the headlong foolhardiness I’ve learned to appreciate in Cruise’s later career, but it provided some amount of amusement in an otherwise dismal film.

I made it approximately two-thirds of the way through The Mummy.

 

Previously in The Unwatchables
— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. ChU

Playing Catch-Up — The Hero; Paddington 2; Deepwater Horizon

hero

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.

 

paddington

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.

 

 

deepwater

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

united

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.