Playing Catch-Up — Diary of a Country Priest; Pacific Rim: Uprising; The Rider

diary

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951). A feat of cinematic austerity, this French drama follows a youthful man of the cloth (Claude Laydu) as he struggles presiding over a rural parish populated by congregants who dismiss him or even treat him with outright hostility. There are no jolts to the film and precious little that can be termed action, even under the most generous dramaturgical interpretation of the word. It is awash in mood and muted emotion, though, and the film insinuates itself with its existential ache. Diary of a Country Priest is constructed with a purposeful distance that prevents it from being fully engaging, but it’s a fascinating artifact of a very different time in global cinema, when visual authors were routinely defining the parameters of the form.

 

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Pacific Rim: Uprising (Steven S. DeKnight, 2018). A retain a significant affection for Guillermo del Toro’s original toy box upending that yielded combative entanglements of giant robots and roaring monsters. Even when I was most in thrall to its bombastic charms, I never really thought that what the universe needed was more Pacific Rim. It’s a stroke of luck to ensnare crackling lighting in glass one time. Trying to set up a bottling line is a fool’s business plan, which Pacific Rim: Uprising soundly proves. The plot particulars are negligible and largely treated as such by first-time director Steven  S. DeKnight, who also worked on the script. John Boyega stars as a reluctant hero who steps into the fray, mentoring a robotics prodigy teenager (Cailee Spaeny). Any human interaction or character development is mere Styrofoam peanuts around the supposed prize of more rock-em-sock-em action sequences. DeKnight lacks del Toro’s combination of effusive spirit and grand visual invention, making the resulting film nothing more than joyless clamor.

 

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The Rider (Chloé Zhao, 2018). Drawn from the biographies of the actors she cast in it, writer-director’s Chloé Zhao’s depiction of life on the fraying social landscape of the American West has a resonant power. At the center is Brady Jandreau (Brady Blackburn), a rodeo rider recovering from a brutal head injury. He’s warned that returning to his former life could exacerbate the damage to his brain, but Brady doesn’t have a great fallback plan. His whole life — his whole identity — is built around a connection to horses. Concentrating on small encounters, Zhao renders the story with sensitivity and a laudable lack of pathos. The film doesn’t press for pity, nor invite judgment. With lovely images and intimate attention to the way emotional devastation can leave deeper scars than physical wounds, Zhao crafts a work of moving truthfulness. The Rider is exquisite.

Now Playing — Burning

burning

Burning begins as a young man name Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) makes his way through a busy Seoul street. Outside of one of the storefronts, two women are hyping the business to the crowd, and one of them, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), spares Jong-su some flirty glances as she pulls numbers for raffle prizes. Jong-su doesn’t recognize her, but Haemi reveals they were classmates and neighbors when much younger. The two go to dinner and the tentative overtures of romance continue, culminating in a gentle sexual encounter shortly before she departs on a trip to Africa. While she’s gone, Jong-su regularly goes to Haemi’s apartment to feed a pet cat he never sees.

The film is firmly, comfortably in the realm of the sedate and mundane — exquisite art house cinema land — finding restrained drama in the specifics of the character’s personalities, his awkwardness and her cheery invention.A greater disruption arrives when Haemi returns from her vacation. Jongsu expects a continuation of their budding relationship where it was left, but she is closely trailed by a new friend named Ben (Steve Yuen, billed here as Sang-yeop Yuen, the name he was given when he was born in Korea). He has an ease and confidence that is the exact opposite of Jongsu’s personality, and it quickly becomes clear that he has laid claim to Haemi’s affections.

Upon this simple narrative frame director Lee Chang-dong constructs a veritable palace of insight and profundity. There is not a wasted moment or detail across the film. (Based on a story by Haruki Murakami, the screenplay is co-credited to Lee and Oh Jung-mi.) Everything contributes, either to the character development, the understanding of place, the explication of class divisions, or, as Ben’s secrets darken, the mounting sense of danger. Lee renders it all with skill and care, showing special mastery with the delicate emotions of the piece. In that task, Lee has remarkable collaborators in his actors. Yoo rouses instinctual sympathy though the dictates of the character require a considered obliqueness, Yuen hints at the ways privilege can corrode the soul, and Jun is nothing less than vivid in portraying a young woman whose inquisitive positivity just might make a bit of a fabulist.

Many of the images Lee puts on screen are staggering in their beauty, especially an extended sequence that takes place at a remote house in an atmosphere of prolonged gloaming. The film is lovely, but spare. There are sequences of jarring impact, but Lee has no apparent taste for ostentation. Burning is lean. It’s also wise and deeply felt. It represents one of the rare and wondrous instances when a film does everything right.

 

Playing Catch-Up — Z for Zachariah; These Wilder Years; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015). Based on a Robert C. O’Brien science fiction novel published in the nineteen-seventies, Z for Zachariah takes a somber approach to post-apocalyptic storytelling. Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) is living alone on a farm, maintaining the land well enough to eke out an existence. Her solitude is disrupted by the arrival of John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an engineering suffering from a mild case of the radiation poisoning that wiped out the rest of the populace. Ann nurses him back to health and they forge a caring partnership that’s about to take a turn into romance when a third figure, a man named Caleb (Chris Pine), strolls into their lives. Once the triangle is formed, the film becomes overly familiar, proffering a gentler version of expected conflicts of jealousy and suspicion. Before that, its an effective dual character study, as director Craig Zobel affords the performers the space to deeply explore the roles, showing their tentative shifts. Robbie is especially good, finding the dignity in her religiously devoted, wisely cautious character.

 

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These Wilder Years (Roy Rowland, 1956). This drama casts James Cagney as Steve Bradford, a wealthy industrialist who seeks out the son he gave up for adoption twenty years earlier. More accurately, he shunned any responsibility for the boy, forcing the young mother to seek refuge in a orphanage run by Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck). Steve is accustomed to getting whatever he wants, and Ann is firm in her refusal to give up the information he’s after. He charms, he cajoles, he bullies. Still, she won’t budge. Cagney is sharp and engaging in the role, and there’s a nice, typically sly turn by Walter Pidgeon as a lawyer Steve recruits to play a few more angles for him. Roy Rowland’s direction is workmanlike, which actually works for the story. In the best way, the movie feels like a lean stage play that’s been brought to the screen faithfully. If it lacks in cinematic inspiration, These Wilder Years is solid in its fundamental storytelling.

 

scruggs kazan

The Ballad of Buster Scrugss (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2018). The Coen brothers have corrected the record about the widely reported belief that their latest is a repurposed television series, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs still suffers from the common ailment of any film with an anthology format. The quality levels of the individual segments vary widely, and the constant comparison sinks the subpar further in estimation. They disrupt the specialness, setting the whole endeavor askew. When the film is at its best — “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” and “Meal Ticket,” which is maybe as bleak as anything the Coens have ever dreamed up — it is truly grand. The Coens basically acknowledge the film is comprised of story ideas they couldn’t stretch to feature length, and the thinness of the ideas is the main culprit when it falters (“Near Algonodes,” and “All Gold Canyon,” which at least boasts a charming performance by Tom Waits, fulfilling his casting destiny by playing a grizzled prospector). Visually resplendent and peppered with sterling dialogue (much of the best of it gifted to Tim Blake Nelson as the title character), the film on balance succeeds more than it fails, even as it clearly slots into the Coen filmography category reserved for the enjoyable but less consequential.

Now Playing — Creed II

creed ii

There were many reasons to celebrate Creed, led by Michael B. Jordan’s exemplary performance as second generation professional boxer Adonis Johnson, who would eventually overcome emotional-fueled reluctance claim the name of his departed father. The other aspect of the film that most impressed me was the strong sense of how elegies are strengthened when they look to the future, emphasizing continuation of the stories that interlace. Creed gave ample time to another chapter of Sylvester Stallone’s decade-spanning turn as Rocky Balboa, but the stallion was clearly being put out to pasture. In his script and direction, Ryan Coogler stressed continuance over nostalgia, reinvention over repetition. It’s open to debate whether there were more stories worth telling about Adonis, but the Rocky saga felt properly completed. That Stallone and others felt there was more to say about the character he created over forty years ago is an anchor on Creed II.

The sequel didn’t seem inevitable, and yet here it is. As the film opens, Adonis claims the heavyweight title in a fight that flicks by with surprising speed and lack of drama. Narratively, it’s mere prelude to the main plot, which brings forth a notable challenger. Viktor Drago (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) has been building a quiet reputation as a brutal boxer in his Russian homeland, under the tutelage of his father, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren). It was Ivan who killed Adonis’s father, Apollo Creed, in the ring, only to later face defeat at the gloves of Rocky, an outcome that led to personal disgrace, as depicted in Rocky IV. As soon as Adonis has a belt declaring him the champ, Viktor comes a-challenging. It’s a bad idea for Adonis to accept the fight, but history and pride prevail.

It’s not exactly unfinished business from the first film addressed by Creed II, but there’s at least consistency to its considerations of the burden of legacy, the craving for acceptance, the need to establish a worthwhile sense of self in doggedly tough world. Jordan remains fantastic in the role, committing to its complexities when mere charisma would do. And his rapport with Tessa Thompson, playing Adonis’s love, Bianca, has only strengthened. Some of the movie’s best moments come in the little scenes of the two of them tentatively, carefully shaping their future together. The screenplay’s shaky motivations and handy conveniences are given just enough repair by the authenticity of the acting.

Just as Creed brought delayed dignity to Rocky’s greatest opponent, Creed II has the makings of the same rescue for the Drago clan. Although it’s given only a modest amount of screen time, there’s a emotional power — even a poignancy — to the harshness of Ivan’s regret and the combative mentoring he provides his son, partially to the goal of providing the younger man with a better life. Director Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t have the same offhand visual ingenuity and perfectly calibrated pacing as Coogler, but he does demonstrate a keen ability to burrow into the deeper emotion of a scene. That generates a lasting effect for some of film’s smallest details.

The film’s footwork mainly falters in the persistence of Rocky’s presence. Stallone again plays him with with endearing melancholy of diminishing fortitude, but there’s nothing new to add. After ceding the screenplay duties to others on Creed, Stallone once again takes a writing credit (shared with Juel Taylor, while Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker provided the story). If Stallone felt the need to provide his own parting words for the character that changed his life (and there are indications he considers this film to be Rocky’s final round), he has rendered too long and belabored of a goodbye. There little here that wasn’t covered as well or better in Creed, so redundancy sets in. The new movie is solid when it’s actually Creed II. It bogs down in its lingering obligations to be Rocky VIII. There can only be one champ at a time.

Now Playing — Widows

widows

Arriving five years after director Steve McQueen took 12 Years a Slave to the top prize at the Academy Awards, Widows is a curious follow-up. It’s not simply that it doesn’t have the heft (in its basics, anyway) as the soul-wrenching slave drama that stands as the British filmmaker’s great success. McQueen’s fourth feature overall is a stark outlier. His artistic voice has been one of grim assessments of humankind, cataloging unsparingly the agony of struggling for something better in the face of rigid social impediments. That preoccupation is present in Widows, too, but it’s backgrounded in favor of more conventional crime drama sparkle and pow.

Based on a two-season U.K. television series of the same name, Widows follows the efforts of a small group of women who are desperate enough to briefly turn to illegal activity after their husbands are killed on another job. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) has the plans her husband (Liam Neeson) drew up for a heist that would yield millions, money she needs to pay off local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). She enlists fellow grieving wives Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and they proceed to cobble together the resources needed to complete the robbery. In a nice change from the usual streamlined process of getting the crew together and assembling the pieces, Widows makes it look like challenging, tedious work. There’s no glamour to it. Hands start dirty.

The more McQueen focuses on the simple strain of mounting this unfamiliar criminal endeavor, the stronger the film. But there’s so much more to it. Even as he’s shaking down Veronica for money he’s owed, Jamal is running for an alderman position in Chicago. His opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of Tom Mulligan, who’s vacating the political position up for grabs. The screenplay — co-credited to McQueen and Gillian Flynn — slops around in the mud of Chicago politics, while also affording a sideways glance at the gun violence and police brutality that has bedeviled the city. There is consideration of generational divides and the brutal rigidity of class structures. And all of that is largely separate from the teetering tower of feminist commentary that is an inescapable topic given the basic premise. It’s a lot, probably too much. McQueen can’t quite finesse it all into something consistently cogent. The film is overlong, yet aches for more time to explore every concept shuffled up.

Despite the flaws, there’s an authority to McQueen’s filmmaking that carries Widows. It’s engaging even as it skims across the surface of its insights. And he does fine work with actors, providing the room for the sort of nuance that can deepen the material. Debicki is particularly strong, in part because her undervalued moll takes the longest emotional journey. Widows might not cohere, but there are riches in its messiness.

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

other side

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.

 

strangers

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.

 

all the money

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.

 

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.