Playing Catch-Up — Pather Panchali; Pocketful of Miracles; Free Solo

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Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955). The debut feature from Bengali director Satyajit Ray is a marvel of deep empathy and refined visual storytelling. Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali focuses on the struggles of a rural family living in poverty in the nineteen-tens. Ray adeptly captures the breadth of the challenge the family faces, largely through the perspective of its two children, Durga (Runki Banerjee when the character is a child, and then Uma Dasgupta when she moves into her teen-aged years) and Apu (Aubir Banerjee). Without shortchanging the grim realities of an existence on the edge of the most basic solvency, Ray finds moments of grace in the kids’ fascination with the smaller treasures of life. Eventually, tragedy intrudes, and Ray’s approach allows the resulting sorrow to feel narratively and thematically proper rather than harshly exploitative. Aligned with Italian neorealism, Pather Panchali is especially impressive because it was crafted by relative novices, including most of the actors, miracle-working cinematographer Subrata Mitra, and Ray himself. The film is a compelling testimony to the value in democratizing access to the tools of cinematic art.

 

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Pocketful of Miracles (Frank Capra, 1961). The final feature from storied director Frank Capra exhibits a surprising deftness given the length of his career’s tooth at the time. It might have helped that Capra had already take a pass at roughly the same material once before. Pocketful of Miracles is based on the Damon Runyon story Madame La Gimp, which Capra had previously adapted for the screen in the the 1933 comedy Lady for a Day. The story centers on a destitute woman named Apple Annie (Bette Davis) who sells fruit on the street while presiding over a small crew of fellow small-scale hustlers and panhandlers. Her wares are viewed as the ultimate good luck charm by local gangster Dave the Dude (Glenn Ford), who is on the cusp of securing a major alliance as Prohibition falls. To keep Annie happy — and those lucky apples coming — Dave has to help orchestra a ruse upon the occasion of a visit by Annie’s daughter, Louise (Ann-Margret, in her first film role). Capra structures the film like an farce, though one that never spin off into frenetic tomfoolery. With a crispness to the visuals and the narrative, Capra keeps the proceedings grounded in emotion and smartly leans on the skilled cast. This is one of the better performances I’ve seen from Ford, and there are fine supporting turns from Edward Everett Horton and Peter Falk, the latter earning an Oscar nomination, his second in as many years.

 

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Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2018). Last year’s Academy Award winner in the feature documentary category mostly succeeds because of the ways it subverts rules and therefore expectations. On its most basic level, Free Solo follows the quest of Alex Honnold to become the first person to scale El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, with the aid of ropes or other mountaineering support gear. The film marvels at the death-defying feat without ever fully celebrating it, leaving plenty of room for the viewer to draw negative conclusions about Honnold’s choices. Amy Poehler says the movie should be called White Nonsense, and that seems reasonable to me. Co-directors Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin capture several small, telling moments — such as Honnold’s amusement in filling out a psychological profile questionnaire being stopped dead what he hits the entry that asks about depression — and use them shrewdly and strategically to build a fuller picture of the climber and those around him. The most impactful choice involves the gradual incorporation of Chin and his camera crew into the film’s narrative. They are not simply pointing their camera, but preemptively weighing the guilt and horror they will feel if their footage includes Honnold falling from a dizzying height, sustaining grave injury or death. What could have easily been a rote sports documentary with some stunning nature photography for flavor becomes instead an unexpected modern morality play.

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.

 

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 Kid Who Would Be King; Total Recall; The Old Man and the Gun

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The Kid Who Would Be King (Joe Cornish, 2019). After his feature directorial debut, Attack the Block, Joe Cornish seemed positioned to jostle with a few others — including Edgar Wright, one of that film’s producers — for the distinction of evolving into a Spielberg for the new millennium, delivering rousing entertainments built with a zippy panache and a bold, cunning visual sense. Active courting of Cornish commenced, but he was evidently having none of it (a choice likely influenced by the experience of working in futility on Marvel’s Ant-Man with Wright), choosing instead to retreat from the business for a while. His return is a chipper oddity, a film about a bullied schoolboy named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who is set upon a quest when he finds Excalibur on a construction site. With similar scrappy chums in his impromptu band of modern knights, Alex has to thwart the malevolent machinations of Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and save the world from the demonic army she’s roused. The Kid Who Would Be King is pleasant enough, but there’s also an old fashioned quality to the storytelling that is more deadening than nostalgically charming. The movie feels like it could have been plucked from a major studio’s lineup of kid-friendly fare circa 1995. Generously, that quality could be seen as imparting a timelessness of the film. In practice, it feels disposable.

 

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Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990). Like most adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s mind-bending fiction, Total Recall endured a torturous development process that pummeled out all the complexities leaving a gimmick upon which a pedestrian action story could be draped. In 2084, people can take faux vacations by getting memories injected. When a construction worker named Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) give it a go, opting for Mars as his destination, he has a strange reaction, eventually being told it triggered the emergence of his real identity of a crafty super-spy. Following up the far superior RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven carries over some of the boisterous imaginings of a cluttered future society, but loses the keen satire. Schwarzenegger’s pronounced limitations as an actor are a major issue, eliminating any of the nuanced intrigue of flexible identity and plopping in basic action movie platitudes in the resulting vacancy. As Quaid’s wife, Sharon Stone flashes the flinty, enticingly dangerous star quality that would push her to the pop culture stratosphere a couple years later.

 

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The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery, 2018). Drawn from the real exploits of an aged bank robber, The Old Man & the Gun is expertly designed by writer-director David Lowery to fully exploit the limited yet formidable acting talents of Robert Redford. As Forrest Tucker, Redford moves through the film with the relaxed charisma that’s always been his strongest attribute. He’s especially engaging in the handful of scenes pairing him with Sissy Spacek, as a sweet widow courted by Forrest. Lowery gives The Old Man & the Gun the unhurried pace and twilight glow of a small-scale nineteen-seventies drama, further emphasizing the elegiac sense that a whole era of good-natured movie stars and refined, human cinematic storytelling is flickering out to a regrettable extinction.

Playing Catch-Up — Tortilla Flat; Serenity; The Meg

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Tortilla Flat (Victor Fleming, 1942). Not long after presiding over Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the same calendar year, director Victor Fleming went far more small-scale with this loose adaptation of a typically scruffy John Steinbeck novel. The skillfully aimless plot is put into motion when Danny Alvarez (John Garfield) unexpectedly inherits two houses from his grandfather, but it’s really about the ways in which a loose-knit band of cohorts revolve around each other with interchanging schemes and affection. The prime hustler is Pilon, played by Spencer Tracy with his trademark stammering naturalism that was almost entirely unique for the era. The constancy of Pilon’s machinations is an especially good match for Tracy’s whirring mental gears approach, and he (like everyone involved) thankfully keeps any affectations that might have been at the time associated with the character’s Mexican heritage to a minimum. There’s also a nice, Oscar-nominated performance from Fleming’s wizard, Frank Morgan, playing a trusting, pious vagabond. Tortilla Flat has its charms, but it occasionally strains for a level of importance and poignancy that simply aren’t there. And the filmmakers stick Hedy Lamarr with a role that is tonally inconsistent, flipping from fiery and defiant to soft and simpering with little narrative justification.

 

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Serenity (Steven Knight, 2019). Stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway were reportedly angry that fledgling distributor Aviron Pictures didn’t mount a more expensive and effective marketing campaign for Serenity. Their ire should instead be over the fact this screwy neo-noir was released at all, since its self-satisfied incoherence can only damage the reputations of all involved. Writer-director Steven Knight’s screenplay assembles all sorts of familiar pieces — the grimly haunted protagonist, the seductive blonde dangling dangerous offers, the hardscrabble setting — and gives them a shiny update, while also hurling in a swooping meta curveball. Hathaway looks consistently ill at ease, as if she’s still a couple takes away from settling into the scene, and McConaughey is locked onto the most painful setting of his gruff hambone mode. Knight’s directing is as fussy as his writing. The movie is constantly jabbing the viewer hard in the rib cage, seeking validation of its supposed cleverness. It’s exhausting.

 

the meg

The Meg (Jon Turteltaub, 2018). Big, dumb fun minus the fun, this monster-shark action-thriller tries to push all the buttons of bygone summer blockbusters, but instead mashes a slabby fist onto the control panel over and over again. I suppose mileage may vary depending on how much appeal star Jason Statham hold for the individual viewer. Without exception, I’ve always found him to be a deadening presence in any film. The Meg doesn’t alter that impression one iota. Even as the movie pushes deeper and deeper into gleeful absurdity, there’s no spark of spirit to it. Director Jon Turteltaub simply grinds it out, comfortable he’d stuck his harpoon into a foolproof property. At least in terms of earning power, he wasn’t wrong.

Playing Catch-Up — Tomb Raider; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Red Sparrow

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Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug, 2018).  I saw both films that cast Angelina Jolie as adventurer Lara Croft at the time of their original releases, and I don’t remember a second of either one. I suspect the same fate awaits Tomb Raider, the recent attempt to launch one of the most famous video characters into a sustained movie franchise. With an antsy, trite back story about mysterious parental abandonment helping to drive her, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) sets forth on a series on tests with the promised prize of the magical riches to be found in the final resting place of an ancient queen feared for her command of magic. With laughable ease, Lara bests all manner of puzzling contraptions meant to be elaborate guards against interlopers. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug galumphs his way through the material, bringing a level of craft that rarely rises above the level of blandly serviceable.

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J.A. Bayona, 2018). Although I acknowledge it’s the faintest of praise, I moderately enjoyed the much-maligned 2015 Colin Trevorrow film that revived the popcorn entertainment franchise about cloned prehistoric creatures teaching modern man a bloody lesson about hubris. The eager dopiness of the Jurassic World made it play like a nice throwback to the heyday of summer movie season (as opposed to the current release calendar that accommodates high concept blockbuster wannabes year-round). Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom doubles up the stupidity and drains the compensating joyous verve. Director J.A. Bayona has a strong visual sense, but his creativity is blunted by the machine he’s climbed into. There are clever twists on the theme here and there, but the film also indulges in off-putting gimmickry and narrative sleight of hand meant to boost tension. The whole endeavor is numbing.

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Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence, 2018). Jennifer Lawrence reunites with the director of three-fourths of her Hunger Games money presses for this adaptation of a 2013 spy novel that was the first of a trilogy. Red Sparrow follows a Russian ballet dancer named Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) who sustains an injury that ends her performing career, but still allows her to transition to a new career in sex-soaked espionage. The novel was released the same year that The Americans debuted, but the film suffers from a timing that makes it seem like a weak echo of the exemplary television series. Where The Americans boldly and intelligently examined the psychological wounds sustained by those who turn their whole beings over to clandestine service for the state, Red Sparrow sits immersed in the fetid salaciousness without stirring the waters in the slightest. This comparison is especially true — and especially damnable — in the depiction of sexual manipulation of the part of the agents, which comes across as painfully naive in its blithe disregard for consequences. Lawrence still flashes a charisma that’s hard to deny, especially in those moments when contempt flares in her eyes. Even she can’t elevate a film this dreadful and dull.

Playing Catch-Up — Skyscraper; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?; Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

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Skyscraper (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2018). A combat veteran and former hostage rescue team operative, Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is working as a security expert when he’s recruited to identify the shortcomings in a state of the art building in Hong Kong that towers over two hundred stories. Will’s family is in building when a terrorist action demolishes the structure’s defenses and set the building ablaze. And thus our hero springs into action, accomplishing the most brilliantly ludicrous physical feats on his was to rescuing those in peril and dispatching the snarling bad guys. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber stages the action with workmanlike clarity if not much invention. The bigger problem is that he lacks a taste for the kind of bright outlandishness that might have pushed the film into the giddy stratosphere of snapping bubblegum delight. Skyscraper should be far more fun than it is.

 

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville, 2018). Largely a straightforward recounting of the career and influence of television icon Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? emulates its subject by gently making the case for kindness and understanding. Documentarian Neville has enviable access to key collaborators and loved ones in Rogers’s life, as well as miles of footage from various television programs, including some of his earliest efforts. That is largely enough, even if there’s a pesky sense that Neville feels obligated to introduce some more prickly elements to Rogers persona (an early lack of support for a gay colleague, a later stubbornness in his work) without having the stomach to properly explore the contradictions raised. But if there’s any person from the latter half of the American century who deserves the generosity of a hagiography, it’s Rogers. Neville’s film makes it clear that the world would be a better place if a wider swath of the population were living his lessons.

 

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Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath, 2018). The time is right for a movie spoofing superheroes, and this big screen version of the popular Cartoon Network series (which is based on a long-running and regularly revived comic book team) has a cheeky energy that keeps the momentum up. In the film’s best moments, co-directors Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath tap into a spirit reminiscent of the heyday of The Powerpuff Girls, which is impressive indeed. There’s no reason to expect Teen Titans Go! To the Movies would approach high genius in is deconstruction of  genre tropes. but so many of the jokes are mostly notable for their pronounced mildness. The film also has a remarkable fascination with butts. I guess that’s what make kids laugh.

Playing Catch-Up —Cloud Atlas; Margaret; Venom

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Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, 2012). Based on the dense, woven basket David Mitchell novel of the same name, Cloud Atlas is an escalating dare as cinema. The film freely intercuts between six different plots, spanning from the high seas of the mid-nineteenth century to a dystopian future around three centuries from now. There are echoes and parallels across the stories, including most of the principal cast playing multiple roles, often under mounds of makeup effects. Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, all familiar with reality-warping narrative tricks, do their best to hammer the unwieldy material into a sleek shape, but it’s probably an impossible task. Inevitably, some stories work better than others, and every instance of endearing inspiration is matched by two of shortcut cliche gussied up in distracting finery. The cast is understandably all over the place in their capability to meet the demands of their varied roles, with Halle Berry the somewhat surprising standout. Tom Hanks should be the ringer of the group, but he frequently lapses into hammy posturing. The weakest might by the Wachowskis’ former Agent Smith, Hugo Weaving, who’s saddled with too much dull villainy, including a proto-Babadook chaos spirit that is maybe the film’s single worst element. Cloud Atlas is messy, but at least its cascading clutter is in service of wild ambition. I’ll always take that over staid safety.

 

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Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2012). I can’t compare this longer, preferred cut of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan against the first version of Margaret that saw release one year earlier, but trimming over a half hour out of this thoughtful, complicated drama would be an act of creative brutality. Filmed in 2005, the film reckons with the anxious uncertainty and aligned aching for justice that was endemic to the U.S. spirit in the long aftermath of the September 11th attacks. And yet it’s not about that in any explicit way, focusing instead on the emotional travails of a high school student named Lisa (Anna Paquin, stronger here than I’ve even seen her) who witnessed — and partially caused — a fatal accident on a New York City street. Without ever letting the film get undone by sprawl, Lonergan covers a tremendous amount of storytelling ground, always with a thematic purpose. Margaret is a dense, emotionally acute movie that invites spirited and exhaustive discussion of its many, many layers. Its imperfections probably make it the weakest of Lonergan’s three films to date, but Margaret is still enthralling as a piece of art that unabashedly aims for greatness.

 

venom

Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018). A rampaging, borderline incoherent disaster, Venom scrapes a cartoonishly designed antihero from the Marvel Universe and sets him bounding along to the most tired rhythms of big screen superhero storytelling. In the comics, Venom’s origin story hinges on symbiotic costume briefly worn by the amazing Spider-Man, which helps to explain the design of the character. Here, it’s just some living, thinking goo coveted by an evil corporation, led by Elon Musk stand-in Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). A chunk of it winds up bonding with down on his luck investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, affecting a voice and cadence that suggests Bobcat Goldthwait doing an impression of Marlon Brando playing Irwin Fletcher) and the quickly wearying nonsense gets underway. Director Ruben Fleischer seems entirely indifferent to refined qualities such as character depth or narrative coherence, opting instead for so much distracting clamor. For me, the sole enjoyment in the film is watching Michelle Williams, as Eddie’s estranged girlfriend, navigate her scenes as a gingerly baffled bystander.