Then Playing — Cold Pursuit; The Book of Henry; The Naked Spur

cold pursuit

Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland, 2019). Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland makes his English-language debut with a remake of one of his own previous features, presumably because the narrative framework was well-suite to the very-particular-set-of-skills era of Liam Neeson’s career. Neeson brings his Stonehenge-slab self to the role of Nels Coxman, a Colorado snowplow driver whose son (Micheál Richardson) is killed by members of a drug cartel. Nels launches himself into an obsessive scavenger hunt in which each new clues leads to a new outer orbit thug to dispatch as he moves ever closer to the kingpin (Tom Bateman) in charge of it all. The film is made slightly more distinctive than the usual Neeson action romp by its bleak sense of humor, manifested most clearly in the epitaph title cards that follow the howling death of each adversary. Bateman labels mightily but finally unsuccessful to inject the heavy with Alan Rickman levels of personality. Emmy Rossum fares better as a police officer whose enthused by the prospect of a major crime taking place in her sleepy mountain town.

 

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The Book of Henry (Colin Trevorrow, 2017). This is a movie so disastrous in conception and execution that, by all appearances, it likely contributed to Colin Trevorrow getting ousted from the director’s chair for the ninth episode of the Star Wars saga. (It’s worth noting that Trevorrow’s plans for wrapping up the space-spanning series, leaked earlier this year, sound so much better than the inanities J.J. Abrams slopped onto the screen.) This drama with Spielbergian aspirations and a thoroughly warped sensibility concerns a single-parent household with two brothers, one a sweet, bullied kid (Jacob Tremblay, who’s really cornered the market on terrorized boys) and one an ultra-capable genius (Jaeden Martell) who plays the stock market in his spare time. When tragedy befalls the latter, he sends his frazzled, video game–loving mother (Naomi Watts) on a bizarre mission to rescue the pretty neighbor girl (Maddie Ziegler) from her abusive stepfather (Dean Norris). Wildly misguided in practically every way, The Book of Henry is the sort of film that leads to speculation about what sort of filmmaker’s-new-clothes scenario transpired that allowed it to get made in the first place. I’ve rarely seen such a bonkers narrative presented with inexplicable sincerity. By the time Watts’s matriarch is traipsing casually into mercenary mode, I found myself wishing for the cinematic equivalent of a mercy rule, freeing all involved from having to see this thing through.

 

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The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953). This vicious Western stars James Stewart as Howard Kemp, an irritable bounty hunter who’s determined to collect the $5000 reward offered for bringing in murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). The task is complicated by the shifting motives of others who wind up in the traveling party, including a luckless prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a military man (Ralph Meeker) who was recently given his dishonorable discharge. Vandergroat nurtures the dissension in the group, sometimes aided by his comely traveling companion, Lina (Janet Leigh). Inevitably, The Naked Spur is hampered by some of the stodginess of its era — not to mention the unpleasant gender dynamics that send Lina tumbling into Howard’s arms for no reason other than Stewart’s top billing — but the lean storytelling often engages, especially as Ben plies his psychological manipulations with joyful malice. If it’s not particularly subtle villainy, Ryan having the time of his life in the role is fine compensation for the lack of nuance.

Then Playing — A Fantastic Woman; The Quiet Man; Blow the Man Down

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A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017). Marina (Daniela Vega) is Chilean who works as a waitress and sometimes moonlights as a singer. She’s engaged in a romance with an older gentleman named Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who dies of a brain aneurysm on a night when he and Daniela were together. Because Daniela is a transgender woman, Orlando’s family, including his ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim), view her with an attitude that is a thin layer above contempt. There’s not much plot to A Fantastic Woman, but there’s an abundance of empathy, as Lelio trains his attention on the ache felt by Marina and all the ways those around her target her with callous disregard for her identity. Vega is quietly marvelous in the role, opting for tender restraint at all the right moments. The film’s occasional trafficking in magical realism is too halfhearted to make the proper impact. The simpler Lelio keeps his storytelling, the better it is.

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The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952). The movie John Ford spent almost twenty years trying to make is an absolute charmer. The director’s regular collaborator John Wayne stars as Sean Thornton, a strapping fellow who returns from the U.S.A. to the small Irish town where he was born, quickly achieving his goal of reacquiring the family homestead. Before long, his to do list expands to include courting Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), to the consternation of her bull-headed brother (Victor McLaglen). The film is strongest across the first half, as Ford takes obvious pleasure in depicting the scrappy charms of the Irish community, especially tippling matchmaker Óge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerland). The storytelling beats become a bit too familiar in the second half — and the retrograde gender norms of the era drain the entertaining verve out O’Hara’s character and performance — and least until the beating becomes quite literal in an extended brawl that is a feat of comic excess.

 

blow the man down

Blow the Man Down (Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, 2020). With a wryly bleak attitude, a shrugging-shoulder assessment of humanity’s worst instincts, and a confident inventiveness, Blow the Man Down recalls Blood Simple, the blazing beacon of a debut from the Coen Brothers. Co-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy (who also share credit on the original screenplay) add tremor of feminist empowerment that deepens the story. Sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) are in mourning after the death of their mother, and collectively uncertain about the future. When Mary Beth’s barroom pick-up takes an ill turn, the young woman are struggle to clean up the resulting mess, unearthing some of the darker secrets of the town in the process. Both Saylor and Lowe are terrific, and Margo Martindale is given the welcome opportunity to revisit her capacity for menace first exhibited, to great effect, in the best season of Justified. Mostly, though, Blow the Man Down is notable as an assertion of talent by exciting new filmmakers.

Playing Catch-Up — Panic in Year Zero; Searching; Stronger

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Panic in Year Zero (Ray Milland, 1962). This Cold War drama, one of a handful of films directed by Ray Milland, takes a fascinating approach to its tale of U.S. society in the immediate aftermath of nuclear weapons leveling a few major cities. Milland plays the patriarch of a family that’s off to a fishing weekend when the bombs fall, and he sternly leads them through a survivalist withdrawal from the increasingly tense social breakdown across the land. Milland’s visual sense is fairly stiff and clumsy, but the screenplay — co-credited to John Morton and Jay Simms — is psychologically astute in its depiction of rapid erosion of morals and national camaraderie as self-preservation takes preeminence. Far from alarmist or sensationalistic, the film is quietly insightful and thoroughly convincing.

searching

Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018). Usually a similar technique to the horror film Unfriended, director Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut confines its perspective to material that appears on a computer screen. In Searching, John Cho plays David Kim, whose daughter, Margot (playing primarily by Michelle La), goes missing, sending him on a desperate scramble through her online history to determine what malfeasance might have been perpetrated against her. There are clever elements, including spot-on depictions of the sometimes destructive ways information travels across web-based platforms. Cho is very good in the lead role, but the performances are shakier across the supporting roles, especially when they’re relying on just voicework, as if Chaganty neglects to value the importance of emotional veracity when the dialogue is delivered in a recording booth rather than before a camera.

 

stronger

Stronger (David Gordon Green, 2017). This adaptation of the memoir of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a survivor of the bomb attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, wavers between daring authenticity and numbingly familiar biopic beats. Director David Gordon Green is leans toward the unsparing in depicting the physical and emotional trials enduring by Jeff after his proximity to the explosion results in the amputation of both of his legs below the knees. And Gyllenhaal is more than game to writhe in rage and agony, honking his lines in a thick Boston accent. The script and the performance both lack the depth needed to lend authenticity to Jeff’s eventual, inevitable healing and conversion into a better person. The result is a work that is well-meaning, professionally rendered, and hollow at its core. Tatiana Maslany does nicely understated work as Erin, Jeff’s long-suffering girlfriend.

 

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

marty

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.

 

lego batman

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.

 

eternity's gate

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.

 

brute force

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.

 

jumanji

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.