Playing Catch-Up — Bad Company; Abacus: Small Enough to Jail; Son of Saul

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Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972). A relatively obscure entry in the legion of films from the late-nineteen-sixties and early-nineteen-seventies that sought to strip away the romanticizing so entrenched in the Western genre. A young man named Drew (Barry Brown) flees conscription in the Rebel Army during the U.S. Civil War, falling into cahoots with a band of ne’er-do-well wanderers as an act of self-preservation. The group’s leader, Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges, just one year past The Last Picture Show), is an especially crafty huckster, working every angle with jabbering fervor. Director Robert Benton borrows some of the bright-eyed scrappiness of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and offhand visual elegance without indulging in the same anachronistic comedy. Bad Company doesn’t strip the veneer off the Western with the same ruthlessness as some of its peers, but it’s consistently engaging and peppered with sharp details. Among the strong performances, there’s an especially amusing turn by Joshua Hill Lewis as a pie-loving ten-year-old who’s a member of the gang. Brash, short-tempered, and verbally profane, he basically sets the template for young Chris Barnes’ performance as star infielder Tanner Boyle four years later.

 

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, 2017). A model of contained outrage, this documentary tracks the unique prosecution of a small, family-owned bank that primarily served the resident’s of New York City’s Chinatown district. Accused of playing fast and loose with mortgage loans, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was the only financial institution hauled into court to defend themselves for crimes related to the subprime mortgage crisis which wreaked havoc on the global economy. Director Steve James embeds with the family under siege, basically making the argument that the fairly modest business was unfairly persecuted while major banking institutions — that were demonstrably more purposeful in their infractions and caused incalculably greater damage — were left to skip merrily away with no ill consequences, sure to perpetrate fraud on the public again. Although he employs the usual straight-to-camera interviews with his subjects and knowledgable journalists, James’s true mastery is in identifying the telling moments his camera captures and stitching them into the overall film without overt added commentary. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail makes compelling points about the intentional perversion of U.S. justice to disproportionately punish the vast middle for the unchecked immorality of the wealthy, but it is resonant filmmaking because of the thoroughness of its portrait of a family pushed to their emotional and financial limits.

 

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Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015). As bruising and brutal as it should be, this Holocaust drama from director László Nemes follows — very tightly follows, in fact — a prisoner in Auschwitz who takes it upon himself to seek a dignified burial for a boy murdered in the camp. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is one of the Jewish men who is forced into laboring in the camp, ushering his fellow captives into the gas chamber and cleaning up afterward. Nemes is unflinching in the portrayal, but also frames his shots in a clear effort to block out the most horrid images. The obvious intent is to avoid exploitation, even if the result is also a bit of narrative distancing from the historic acts of human cruelty. The trade-off is fair. Son of Saul is a fascinating piece of cinematic craft that carries a heavy emotional load with reasonable assurance. The film has a power, and that power is well-earned.

Playing Catch-Up — Marty; A Kid Like Jake; The Lego Batman Movie

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Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955). Boasting an exemplary Paddy Chayefsky screenplay of downbeat eloquence, Marty manages to examine small-scale lives without a whiff of condescension. Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a thirty-four-year-old butcher who lives in the Bronx with his mother (Esther Minciotti), her constant fretting about his perpetual bachelorhood providing an unwelcome soundtrack. Delbert Mann directs with a kind plainspokenness that’s an ideal match for the material, and Borgnine builds his performance with deep wells of feeling and a laudable absence of easy pathos. The film captures a certain time and place with the level of precision that lends the story an uncommon timelessness. The particulars may be dated, but the film’s emotional honesty resonates brightly.

 

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A Kid Like Jake (Silas Howard, 2018). This family drama has the proper intentions and a certain stiffness, which means it’s probably a fine introduction to gender fluidity for viewers just becoming acquainted with the concept. In New York City, middle class parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) are in the midst of the process to set their four-year-old (Leo James Davis) on a productive educational path with a place in the right kindergarten. In the midst of that stress, they also struggle with the suggestion that the pushing against gender stereotypes exhibited by their child, Jake, might be an indicator of more pronounced identity concerns. Both Danes and Parsons are strong in their roles, and screenwriter Daniel Pearle (adapting his play of the same name) gives them scenes of sensitivity and small, occasionally brave insights. It particular, the ways in which anxiety manifests as instinctual partner blaming in a relationship is effectively rendered. In its totality, A Kid Like Jake is more earnest than memorable. Still, there’s a value to its directness and care, even if it can occasionally feel a little pat.

 

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The Lego Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017). What a strange world we all live in. Following the unlikely critical and commercial success of The Lego Movie, spinoffs and sequels abound, including this adventure of the blocky, plastic version of the caped crusader. Where the computer-animated feature that launched it all was driven by a relentless ingenuity about the building blocks virtually snapped together to make a world, that Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) and his cohorts are made of Lego is almost incidental. Instead, the movie offers a mildly clever deconstruction of the messy mythos around the DC Comics superhero. With only the most minor of script tweaks, this film could have been presented with the same characters in a non-Lego form, which strikes me as a flaws that drains the whole endeavor of purpose. The storytelling is sometimes amusing, but Chris McKay’s directing and staging is overly frenetic, too often letting the visuals collapse into incomprehensible explosions of kaleidoscopic color.

Playing Catch-Up — The Greatest Showman; At Eternity’s Gate; Brute Force

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The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017). The unexpected — and slow-building — success of this big screen musical at least provides gratifying evidence that modern audiences remain hungry for original material, no matter how desperately studio executives treat their production like slabs upon which to drop another McMarvel’s. The career of P.T. Barnum (played here by Hugh Jackman) has provided musical fodder previously, so there’s little confusion about why the filmmakers gravitated to it again. Michael Gracey, making his feature directorial debut, demonstrates a surprisingly deft touch at times. There are signals he has a sharp eye and an admirable sense of how to cut together a film that’s visually dynamic without lapsing into jittery incoherence. The material is not good, though. The screenplay, co-credited to Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, is a by-the-numbers slog, and the songs, by La La Land Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are similarly uninspired and moribund. The cast is game, but unexceptional. Among the performances, my only real pleasure was watching Michelle Williams blithely beam through her thankless role as Barnum’s wife, only because it feels like a well-earned respite from the heavy dramatic lifting that’s her usual professional charge.

 

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At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel, 2018). This experimental probing into Vincent van Gogh’s life and artistic genius has sequences that are almost vividly alive in depicting creation, a task that has humbled far more seasoned filmmakers than Julian Schnabel. Played by Willem Dafoe, van Gogh is depicted as a complicated figure, driving by his passions to points that might be madness or might simply be almost unbearable vulnerability. Schnabel’s abstractions and repetitions are boldly experimental and, unfortunately, wearyingly tedious. The film ultimately comes across as hollowed out, made distance from its subject by Schnabel’s trickery. Oscar Isaac has a nice supporting turn as Paul Guaguin, jolting himself free of the the film’s lulling flow by leaning into the character’s cantankerous certainty.

 

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Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947). A prison drama that lives up to its title, Brute Force follows the inmates of Westgate Prison as they navigate the treacherous social system inside and avoid the wrath of the institution’s sadistic security chief, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), a towering figure among the incarcerated, plots a jailbreak, the prospects of which don’t seem good, given the film’s bleak cynicism. This was made during the height of Hollywood’s Production Code, when no character who perpetrates ill deeds was allowed to get away scot-free, and there’s not an innocent soul in the case, so a bloodbath looms. Director Jules Dassin was a master of shadowy mood, which suits the plot’s fraught, bruised knuckle progression. There’s some woodenness to the storytelling that’s typical of its era, but mostly Brute Force impresses with its bruised knuckle authority.

Playing Catch-Up — The Endless; Crazy Rich Asians; Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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The Endless (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2018). The directing team behind the cleverly subversive horror film Spring train their storytelling on a strange commune in the hills that beckons back a pair of brothers (as if not busy enough, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead take the lead roles). It gradually becomes clear that there is reality-warping strangeness afoot, and the chief pleasure of The Endless is in the evident joy the filmmakers take in patiently explicating their offbeat concept. Amusing as it is that the co-directors are on both sides of the camera (and their characters have the same first names), the film probably would have benefited from more skilled actors in the key roles. It would be nice to have more depth and nuance to the character’s precarious emotional journeys.

 

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Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu, 2018). Adapted from a 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is worth celebrating as a valuable step forward in terms of representation, but there’s no much else to recommend it. Rachel (Constance Wu) travels from New York to China in order to accompany her handsome boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), to a family wedding, discovering that he comes from ludicrous wealth. The film delivering only glancing blows to dilemmas arising from income inequality. The prevailing mode is marveling at the monied splendor. There’s simply not enough wit in the screenplay, and the further the plot strays from the central couple, the weaker it gets. The worries and strife of Nick’s various family members carried not a whiff of interest for me. The wildly charismatic supporting turn by Awkwafina, playing an old college friend of Rachel’s, offers the film’s most consistently enjoyable diversion. Jon M. Chu’s directing is crisp but perfunctory, mimicking romantic comedy rhythms without properly exploiting the template.

 

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan, 2017). If every mildly recognizable franchise-ready movie concept from the nineteen-eighties and -nineties must be recycled, let there at least be a touch of ingenuity in the conception. I think transferring Jumanji from a board game to a vintage video game cartridge is fairly inspired. Unfortunately, the creativity extinguishes itself right there, and it’s plodding mundanity for the rest of this comic adventure that plunks a Breakfast Club adjacent quartet of high schoolers into a jungle-themed quest. Jake Kasdan keeps the action moving briskly enough, then hits the comic moments with a tone that feels like indifference. Karen Gillan is the one performer who shows some skill in her character work, holding on to the uncertain misfit hiding within the Lara-Croftian avatar.

Playing Catch-Up — The Other Side of the Wind; Three Identical Strangers; All the Money in the World

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The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, 2018). Nearly fifty years after Orson Welles shot its first footage and over thirty years since the master filmmaker’s death, The Other Side of the Wind finally sees release. Completed by a team of Welles devotees taking cues from his various notes, the finished product is a delirious tangle of metafiction conceits and arch visual tomfoolery. It bears some resemblance to the odd quasi-documentary F for Fake, made in the midst of the long production of The Other Side of the Wind. The film is largely confined to roughly a twenty-four hour period, as veteran director J.J. Hannaford (John Huston) celebrates his birthday with a sprawling party and tries to screen footage from his latest picture, which threatens to fall apart because of a dispute with the leading man (Bob Random). Welles constructs a narrative phantasmagoria that’s entertaining because of its excesses and rambunctious spirit. Even so, some trimming would have helped. As the film stretches past the two hour mark, the bleak joke of Hollywood indulgence wears thin. Impressively, though, the work is more than a curiosity. It stands on its own as a fascinating piece of cinema from one of the form’s most intellectually sprightly iconoclasts.

 

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Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018). Tim Wardle’s documentary is about a set of triplets who were separated at birth and only found their way back together when they were college age, through freak coincidence. The trio made the mass media rounds  in the early nineteen-eighties, various anchors and talk show hosts marveling at what seemed little more than an amusing human interest story. There were many more twists to come, however, and Wardle’s storytelling makes exemplary use of jarring reveals of veiled history. The enduring consideration of nature versus nurture is obviously well-represented, but Wardle also nudges into the complexities of medical ethics and corrosive celebrity. There’s a little too much use of dramatized recreations of past event for my taste, and other mechanics of the documentary sometimes show through. Those are admittedly quibbles. Overall, it’s sharp and engrossing.

 

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All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott, 2017). Ridley Scott’s rescue job of this film remains its most remarkable element. The choice to recast Kevin Spacey after his reprehensible personal behavior is completely understandable, but the decision to complete all necessary reshoots in a single week of work while sticking to a release date that was less than a month out is the stuff of madness. Spacey’s ceded role of J. Paul Getty has a lot of screen time in this depiction of the early-nineteen-seventies kidnapping of one of the obscenely wealthy business magnate’s grandchildren. It’s a curiosity why Spacey was cast in the first place. The two Oscars in his trophy case don’t change the simple fact that he required a thick layer of makeup to sell the role, while any number of older actors — including Christopher Plummer, recruited to take over — could get the job done with, you know, acting. If only Scott had taken the opportunity to also erase and replace Mark Wahlberg, playing a fixer in Getty’s employ, he may have really had something. For a good portion of its running time, All the Money in the World shows potential to be one of Scott’s best, flush with insights about the people and the strange strata of capitalistic culture it follows. In particularly. Dariusz Wolski’s rich cinematography helps Scott create images as striking as any he’s previously put in the screen. Then there’s the performance of Michelle Williams as the mother of the abducted Getty scion. The script allows for the blasts of raw emotion that are among her specialties, but she also does some shrewd character work, building the woman’s fortitude with carefully applied layers. David Scarpa’s screenplay falls apart at the end, taking too many dramatic liberties in order to heighten the drama, entirely needless embellishments given the fraught particulars of the real story.

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.