Playing Catch-Up — Bohemian Rhapsody; Birds of Passage; Ralph Breaks the Internet

rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher, 2018). This biography of Freddie Mercury, concentrating on his time as the frontman of Queen, is almost startling in its ineptitude. Put aside that it treats the basic chronology of the band’s history as jumble of incidents that can be rearranged at will, reduces most of the characters (including the protagonist) to flavorless dopes, and even that it fabricates an extended hiatus in order to inject phony suspense to the famed performance at Live Aid. In its most fundamental narrative mechanics, it is a baffling failure, made with a level of clumsiness that somehow passed through an array of entertainment business gatekeepers. The torturous production history is partially to blame, but no one deserves extra credit for conducting a rescue mission in a leaky boat. Dexter Fletcher is officially uncredited for his efforts as an unexpected understudy to director Bryan Singer, who was fired midway through production. If his name had been put on the posters, he would have been forgiven for traveling theater by theater to cross it off. Rami Malek is no more than a mediocre mimic as Mercury. As with every other part, the wigs, makeup, costume, and other transformative elements account for the majority of the performance.

 

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Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, 2018). Many of the beats in this crime drama are familiar. The novelty of the setting jolts the story away from any narrative weariness. Birds of Passage is sharp and dizzying, lofting its tangled conflicts between drug trade factions to Shakespearean heights. Spanning from the early nineteen-sixties to the cusp of the eighties, the film has a headlong momentum into violent collapse, made yet more fascinating by the cultural particulars shrewdly adding another level of convincing motivation to the treacherous pride and vengeance that practically guarantee a brutal fate. Directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego flash a strong visual sense without sacrificing clarity, even in the handful of moments built around dream logic. The performances are all solid, with an especially strong turn by Carmiña Martínez as the family’s matriarch who’s equal parts spiritual and pragmatic.

 

ralph internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet (Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, 2018). Like its predecessor, Ralph Breaks the Internet leaps joyously into a premise laden with possibilities and then draws surprisingly little inspiration from it find there. This time out, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) brave the World Wide Web in search of a part needed to rescue the latter’s home video game from the scrapheap. There’s fun to be had with the vagaries of online culture, and the film absolutely has some clever bits. It’s telling, though, that the comic highlight is some mischievous tweaking of Disney princess tropes which could have have been mined with justification if Ralph were breaking cinema history, the children’s section of the local library, or, thanks to a nifty parody song with music from none other than Alan Menken, a soundtrack-heavy CD collection. There’s simply not enough rigor to the storytelling. Silverman gives a terrific voice performance as Vanellope, building who emotional journeys into single lines.

Playing Catch-Up — L7: Pretend We’re Dead; Cold War; Green Book

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L7: Pretend We’re Dead (Sarah Price, 2016). A nifty video scrapbook posing as documentary, this film traces the career of the L.A. hard rock band L7. Largely avoiding details of personal entanglements, L7: Pretend We’re Dead dutifully ticks off the various albums, tours, and hits (or hit, singular, really). There are occasional testimonials to the group’s influence, but director Sarah Price never makes much of a case for it, assuming everyone watching starts in agreement on the point. And the rare and compelling issues the film does raise — such as the significantly difficulty any performing artists have in making a decent living because of the deceitful tactics employed within the music industry — are too quickly breezed past. The one thing the movie proves decisively is that guitarist and vocalist Donita Sparks possesses levels of charisma that exceed those of most mortal beings.

 

cold war

Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2018). This absolutely masterful film from Pawel Pawlikowski follows the rocky love story between two Polish performers across the first decades following World War II. With deep empathy and astonishing economy, Pawlikowski crafts a story of hope that consistently sustains bruises. Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are both grand in the leading roles, with the former particularly adept at finding reservoirs of meaning in the simplest moments. Aided by Łukasz Żal’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, Pawlikowski’s builds images that are constantly striking, elegance and poetry in dusky black and white. The true beauty is in the storytelling. Inspired by his own parents, Pawlikowski has built a film of delicacy and rare emotional power. And he somehow manages, with the simplest strokes, to make “Rock Around the Clock,” one of the most familiar songs in the pop music canon, comes across as freeing and revolutionary again. Cold War holds magic within miracles.

 

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Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018). Even putting aside the stockpile of unseemly stories associated with Green Book, the well-meaning, woefully tepid drama still invites dismissal. Based on the true story of pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) touring the Jim Crow South in the nineteen-sixties and gradually bonding with his loutish driver (Viggo Mortensen), the film defaults to platitudes that had already carried a whiff of must thirty years ago, when Miss Daisy needed help getting to the Piggly Wiggly. Both leads are solid enough (and no matter what is etched on the trophies he’s been collecting, Ali is clearly a lead) and Peter Farrelly’s direction is perfunctorily suitable to the task. But the film is devoid of insight or nuance. Clearly no one involved in it agrees with that assessment, as Green Book is presented as if it holds profundities that will erase all of society’s ills. Good intentions and confidence in their value is no guarantee of transcending inanity.

Playing Catch-Up — Tully; Can You Ever Forgive Me; The Smart Studios Story

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Tully (Jason Reitman, 2018). Working with a script by Diablo Cody, the writer behind two of his best outings, and a compelling, vanity-free performance by Charlize Theron, director Jason Reitman creates a film that is almost jarring in its bleak comic honesty. Theron plays Marlo, a harried mother who’s just added a third child into an already kinetic household. Marlo’s wealthier brother (Mark Duplass) gifts her a night nanny to help with the new nanny, which leads to the appearance of Tully (Mackenzie Davis) at her front door. Davis is terrific as a suspicious mix of extreme competence and blithe free-spirit, but it’s Theron’s sharp emotional insights that give the film weight. Even before the plot starts flashing its sleeve-snugged cards, Theron slyly conveys the way responsibility can erode all sense of self. The film teeters from time to time, but that can happen when reaching as high as Tully does.

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018). Broke, desperate writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) gets an influx of cash when she stumbles upon some vintage correspondence of famous figures of the past. With a small battalion of old typewriters and her own gift for literary mimicry, Lee briefly made a living peddling fake nostalgic artifacts that were probably more satisfying to collectors than their non-fiction counterparts. Based on Israel’s memoir of the malfeasance, Can You Ever Forgive? is charming in its sense of survival amidst sordidness. Without resorting to a lot of showy signifiers, director Marielle Heller convincingly finds the flavor of New York City in the early nineteen-nineties, hardscrabble but also buffed into a more acceptable shape. The same can be said for the lead character, played by McCarthy with a bruising wit, thuggish indifference to others, and just a few well-placed flickers of vulnerability. Richard E. Grant is marvelous as Lee’s roguish accomplice, and there’s a brisk sternness to Jane Curtin’s turn as Lee’s beleaguered agent.

 

smart studios

The Smart Studios Story (Wendy Schneider, 2016). This highly specialized music documentary is a perfect product of the Kickstarter era of nonfiction filmmaking, when every last person, place, and thing with enough fans to fill a medium-sized hotel conference room is going to get its turn on the screen. In this case, it’s the humble little recording studio that cropped up in Madison, Wisconsin and improbably became ground zero for several influential albums of the nineteen-nineties, most notably Nirvana’s Nevermind. As with many music documentaries, The Smart Studios Story is calibrated to sate the previously fascinated rather than to spur discovery for the blithe newcomer. As someone who resided seven blocks away from Smart Studios during its heyday, I fall squarely in the former camp. Rough around the edges in a way that suits the subject, Wendy Schneider’s film is engaging and amusing in equal measure, drawing upon interviews with several colorful character who passes through the studios’ doors and making an open-and-shut case in favor of the place’s magic simply through generous sampling of Smart musical output. Truth is, it is impossible for me to resist a documentary that includes a debate — no matter how brief — on the behavior of Kenosha punks.

Playing Catch-Up — Shirkers; I Feel Pretty; First Reformed

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Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018). This documentary traces a guerilla attempt at filmmaking by a group of teenagers and their somewhat skeevy teacher in Singapore, in the early nineteen-nineties. Essentially a cinematic memoir of embitterment and gradual self-discovery by Sandi Tan, Shirkers abounds with ingenuity. Tan intercuts footage of the original film (also called Shirkers) that was lost for years with modern reminiscences about the whole process, including emerging revelations on the toxicity that was in play in and around the shoot. The recovered material is consistently striking, offering visual premonitions of the precise whimsy of Wes Anderson or Paul King while tonally recalling the offhand absurdity of early Jim Jarmusch. But for all the testimony about its latent genius, there are also clear indications that the film would have been hampered by its amateur origins. It’s the retrospection that gives Shirkers its power and poignancy, especially in the documentary’s closing rumination on the value of preserving moments of youth when personal bonds are intense and all dreams seem possible.

 

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I Feel Pretty (Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein, 2018). The feature directorial debut from the screenwriting duo behind Never Been Kissed and a cluster of similarly high concept romantic comedies that beg to be avoidedI Feel Pretty aspires to some broader social commentary around its gimmick. It’s ultimately too muddled to deliver any effective arguments, though, making it a perpetrator of the sort of inane surface-level judgments it supposedly condemns. Amy Schumer plays an aspiring fashion industry worker hampered by her glum appraisal of her own beauty. A conk on the head jumbles her perception. Her appearance is unchanged, but when she looks in the mirror she sees a knockout, and the film charts the upward personal and professional movement she enjoys mostly, it seems, because her confidence spikes. Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein are perfunctorily capable as directors, but deserve credit for casting Michelle Williams against expectations in a broadly comic role. Adopting a wispy, high voice and a stiff yet needy demeanor, Williams is thoroughly engaging, the film’s sole winning attribute.

 

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First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018). In a striking, flawed artistic comeback after several years adrift, Paul Schrader cribs liberally from preceding cinematic depictions of religious leaders (particularly classics by gloomy European masters) and injects the material with the grinding nihilism that comes with residing on a planet being made uninhabitable by humanity’s harsh hubris. Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is charged with presiding over a dinky church with a dwindling congregation. He is sinking into physical disrepair and psychological distress, which Schrader depicts with bracing acuity. For most of its running time, First Reformed is insightful and starkly potent. Then the third act arrives and the film veers into bonkers thematic tumult that echoes the trajectories of any number of Schrader’s many protagonists over the years. Charitably viewed as a honoring of signature, the closing stretch instead plays to me as a roughshod recycling that betrays an absence of ideas. The considerable strength of all that precedes it is sadly undermined.

Playing Catch-Up — Andre the Giant; The Wife; Life of the Party

andre the giant

Andre the Giant (Jason Hehir, 2018). A veteran of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries, Jason Hehir brings a studious steadiness to this recounting of the life and career of the professional wrestler born André René Roussimoff. It’s a tale tinged by tragedy, as the hulking form that gave Andre the Giant his fame was a result of his body’s over-production of growth hormone, which eventually contributed to his death before the age of fifty. He also lived in a tremendous amount of pain, and Hehir finds wrestling footage that suggests Andre the Giant in paralyzing agony, still putting on a show. What Hehir seems unwilling to do is really press on whether or not the continued placement of Andre the Giant on wrestling cards was exploitative, whether, in essence, those owners and investors who saw professional wrestling exploded in popularity — in no small part because of Andre the Giant’s fame — owed him a better and more gracious shift to retirement. WWE head honcho Vince McMahon atypically gets a little teary on camera, but that’s about it. Andre the Giant offers fine tribute, but it stops short of justice.

 

wife

The Wife (Björn Runge, 2018). Glenn Close plays the title role, a woman who’s spent decades as the caring, dutiful partner to a a Great American Novelist (Jonathan Pryce). When he receives the Nobel Prize in Literature, the pair — along with their son (Max Irons, really overdoing the sullenness and flash point anger) — journey to Sweden for the festivities. Prompted in part by the inquiries of an aspiring biographer (Christian Slater), the unsteady life they’ve built begins to teeter. The film exists as little more than a showcase for Close’s acting, and she plays all her key moments with the firmly contained roil of emotions that’s long been her signature. Although fine work, her approach is also familiar enough that the choices show. Björn Runge directs with a pedestrian flatness that matches the script. Jane Anderson adapted a novel by Meg Wolitzer, scrubbing away any moral nuance she might have found there. There are pieces to a insightful, complicated story here, but none of the creators show any interest in putting them together.

 

life party

Life of the Party (Ben Falcone, 2018). By chance, a couple hours before settling in to watch Life of the Party, I caught a good chunk of Back to School, the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield starrer with a similar premise. There’s a notable crudity — in every sense — to the earlier comedy, but at least it’s got some life in it and a capacity to surprise. Melissa McCarthy has some charming moments as a middle aged woman on the brink of divorce who decides to finish her college degree, alongside her daughter (Molly Gordon). She also engages in a lot of tired comic riffing. As he’s done in other comedies co-created with McCarthy, director Ben Falcone lets scenes drag to the point of indulgence, probably convinced that it reads as commitment and even audacity. The main pleasures come from the fringes, such as an endearingly odd line reading from Maya Rudolph (as the lead characters best friend) or Gillian Jacobs (as a sorority sister who’s arrived at school later in life because of years spent in a coma, a fertile premise that’s barely touched).

Now Playing — If Beale Street Could Talk

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James Baldwin published If Beale Street Could Talk, his fifth novel, in 1974. In the new film adaptation, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the action takes place in the era of the book, but there’s a fierce modernity to the concerns raised by the story. Centered around the romance of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne), the film addresses the myriad of way in which young black and women in U.S. society are told they don’t belong, they are not valued, their rights are lesser, their freedoms are subject to immediate and permanent revocation. Jenkins and his skilled collaborators include the proper period trappings — soulful music, florid fashions, and a New York bereft of tourist-friendly gussying — but they are not making a period piece. Jenkins knows that Baldwin’s thesis of oppression sanctioned by the apparatus of the state is persistently pertinent. He uses his film to reargue it with passion and empathy, underlining with permanent ink.

I don’t really mean for my descriptions to imply that the film can tilt toward the didactic. But it can. Although he wrote several novels, Baldwin is arguably now best known for his politically-minded essays and corresponding willingness to step forward as a public intellectual (when the country still valued such individuals) and engage all manner of contrary fools. And If Beale Street Could Talk sometimes comes across as rueful rumination on the state of society adorned in the mildly convincing costume of fiction. Consistently admirable in intent, the film occasionally relies on contrivances of character to heighten the drama. A scene in which Tish reveals a piece of notable personal news to Fonny’s family is staged, shot, and acted marvelously — calling to mind a stage play of pugnacious emotion —  but it also relies on an alignment of people that strains credibility, calling into question how their paths could have ever started to converge. Similarly, a pivotally placed racist police officer (Ed Skrein) is portrayed with such abject villainy that it undercuts the film’s argument about the inborn prejudices that corrupt true justice.

Despite the flaws, the film remains compelling, convincing, powerful. Much of that is due to the work of Jenkins, whose style invites ready comparisons to poetry. The music peppered through If Beale Street Could Talk brought me to realize the proper corollary is jazz, where the space between the notes can be the most important part of the music. The film operates by mood, by feel, by intricate consideration of the moment. There are strong performances throughout — particularly by James, Regina King, and, building a whole person in essentially one long scene, Brian Tyree Henry — but it is the elegance with which Jenkins pulls everything together that imbues the film with pained beauty. The work doesn’t approach the deep and contained accomplishment of Moonlight (few films do, it must be noted), but If Beale Street Could Talk is clearly from the same immensely skilled cinematic author. Even its flaws help to illuminate greater truths.

Playing Catch-Up — Rampage; What’s Up, Doc?; River of No Return

rampage

Rampage (Brad Peyton, 2018). I fully understand the wisdom in calibrating expectations accordingly for a movie adaptation of a 1986 video game that was little more than giant monsters knocking down buildings. Basic coherence isn’t too much to ask for, is it? Dwayne Johnson plays David Okoye, a San Diego primatologist whose favorite charge, an albino gorilla named George (Jason Liles, in a motion capture performance), is infected by a virus that crashes to earth after a satellite cracks up in orbit. George, like a wolf and a crocodile in different parts of the country, grows to ludicrous size. Then they all start, well, rampaging. The movie is pure nonsense without being fun, throwing basic logic overboard for no good reason. Johnson is admittedly a remarkable human specimen, but I doubt he can just shake off a gunshot wound. As a government agent, Jeffrey Dean Morgan strolls in with his tedious charming asshole schtick.

 

whats up doc

What’s Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972). One year after the sublime The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich arguably expressed his truest creative self by creating a modern version of Hollywood screwball comedy. It’s sublime, too. in a dynamic that blatantly, brilliantly apes Bringing Up Baby, Ryan O’Neal plays an uptight scientist, and Barbra Streisand, as vibrantly charismatic as she’s ever been onscreen, is the daffy dame who discombobulates him on the way to inevitable infatuation. What’s Up, Doc? zigs, zags, and zings, joyfully tossing in hurled pies, hotel-demolishing slapstick, and a wild car chase across the slopes of San Francisco that includes moving men toting a sheet of plate glass across a street at exactly the wrong time. Bogdanovich’s timing throughout is Swiss watch perfection.

 

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River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954). This Hollywood Western stars Robert Mitchum as a rancher living down some past malfeasance (somewhat noble malfeasance, of course, but malfeasance nonetheless). Through fairly familiar genre circumstances, the rancher needs to take a treacherous raft ride down a roaring river, with his young song (Tommy Rettig) and a comely music performer (Marilyn Monroe) onboard. River of No Return is Otto Preminger in his shrewd workmanlike mode, but he’s better at that than most. He uses the widescreen to capture grand Technicolor vistas, which is sometimes undermined by green screen work that’s hopelessly stiff, even for the time. Both Mitchum and Monroe are agreeably settled into variants on their justly valued movie star personae. The flare-ups of retrograde sexual politics are regrettable. Like the special effects, they’re only partially excused by the copyright date.