Playing Catch-Up — M; Halloween; Jane Fonda in Five Acts

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M (Joseph Losey, 1951). Twenty years after the Fritz Lang film of the same name became a breakthrough for actor Peter Lorre, Hollywood took its crack at the very sordid tale of a child murdered hunted by both the police and the local criminal syndicate. David Wayne plays the compulsive killer with a fraught intensity aligned with the psychological theories of the day, when murderous impulses were often treated dramatically as a sort of migraine-induced fever dream. Director Joseph Losey gives the film a proper sordid feel, emphasizing the grit of the city and the muscular jockeying of the men who operate in it, on both sides of the law. A methodical approach to the storytelling works well, at least until the denouement, which feels drawn out as Wayne’s performance slips fully from measured intensity to the brink of floridness.

 

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Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018). Representing the eleventh Halloween film, and at least the third attempt at significant relaunch erasing much of what precedes it, this horror film positions itself narratively as the sole follow-up to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic. The murderous Michael Meyers (James Jude Courtney, with Frank Castle, the originator of the role, pitching in) has been incarcerated for the whole of the four decades since he weaved through trick-or-treaters to terrorize the town of Haddonfield. And the most famous survivor of his killing spree, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), has been living in self-imposed isolation like a doomsday prepper, though her version of the end of the world wears a largely featureless mask. On an ill-timed and ill-fated transfer of patients from one sanitarium to another sets Michael loose on the anniversary of his last bloody romp. Fangoria-approved carnage follows. The film is directed by David Gordon Green, whose directorial career has been all over the place since his poetic debut, George Washington. He proves adept at mood-setting and is even more impressive at using smart, jolting edits to heighten the tension. As enjoyable as it is to see Curtis offer her own version of Linda Hamilton’s radical Terminator 2 transformation, the story is a little too thin. It hits all the expected beats without much reinvention, which means it inevitably gets dull. One of the strongest compliments I can pay the film in this era of endless recycling is to note the fan service is thankfully kept to a minimum (and what’s there is, admittedly, clever and entertaining).

 

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Jane Fonda in Five Acts (Susan Lacy, 2018). There are few Hollywood lives more deserving of a feature-length documentary than momentous, contradiction-laden journey of Jane Seymour Fonda. Director Susan Lacy has direct access to the star and a few of her close compatriots, but avoids letting the film descend into hagiography, even as her sympathies for Fonda as a survivor are very clear. Fonda’s most controversial actions as an activist in opposition to the Vietnam War are addressed directly and in depth, as is the familial pain she endured and caused. But her astounding acting talent and focused intelligence are also given their due. And then the film offers a reminder of the true blockbuster levels reached by Fonda’s workout products. To say Fonda contains multitudes is like gazing out on the Pacific and saying, “Well, there’s probably a drop or two in there.” Lacy uses her windfall of archival footage and photography well. If there’s a shortcoming to her approach, it’s a lack of proper astonishment at the condensed timeframe of some of Fonda’s most impressive achievements. From 1978 to 1981, she developed and starred in Coming Home, The China Syndrome, 9 to 5, and On Golden Pond, with a couple other starring roles mixed in. And Jane Fonda’s Workout Book was published in that span, too. That’s a career’s worth of highlights within a bushel of months. It’s remarkable.

Playing Catch-Up — Keeper of the Flame; A Star is Born; The Front Runner

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Keeper of the Flame (George Cukor, 1943). Only the second film to boast the famed pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Keeper of the Flame is a stern, stout-hearted drama that too often has the life knocked out of it by a pummeling seriousness. Tracy plays Stephen O’Malley, a well-regarded war reporter who investigates the car crash death of a beloved political leader. In the process, he becomes acquainted with the man’s widow, Christine Forrest (Hepburn). She’s reticent about sharing details of her life with the departed rabble-rouser, and, naturally, suspicions mount and dark secrets begin to emerge. All of the performances are delivered with a hushed intensity, an approach that become tedious quickly. More problematically, director George Cukor never quite gives the film a solid footing. Sometimes he tilts toward a gloom-filled thriller like Alfred Hitchcock might make with the material, and sometimes a Frank Capra-style fable of oppressive systems impeding the mission of true-hearted citizens seems to be the desired tenor. The film was a passion project of Tracy’s. He felt it dramatized an encroaching fascism in the United States and argued fiercely against it. The mission of the film is noble, but the final product is dreadfully dull, unlikely to rouse spirits to take up any cause.

 

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A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954). Officially the second big screen version of A Star is Born and the first to shape the material into the form of a musical, Cukor’s film is a prime example of the resplendent entertainment constructs Hollywood could dish out with startling expertise in the middle of the twentieth century, after the new art form of cinema had properly grown up and before the brilliant, rebellious reinventions of the late-nineteen-sixties and early-seventies. In this version of the movie story that’s been shared and re-shared to point of fable, alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) becomes enamored with Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a singer scuffling on the margins despite her knockout voice. Norman mentors and champions Esther, spurring her to an ascendent career even as his starts to crumble, the opposite trajectories complicating a romance that arises between the two. Cukor’s usual deftness is in full evidence here. He uses elegant, extended takes and astute, meticulous depictions of the worlds the main characters move through to craft a vivid, lived-in, emotionally rich spectacle. Mason and Garland are both marvelous, balancing their characters perfectly on the line between archetype and distinct individual. Garland in particular demonstrates how raw star power can be leveraged into a deep, thoughtful acting.

 

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The Front Runner (Jason Reitman, 2018). Jason Reitman’s film about the collapse of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign is almost entirely devoid of substance, relying on the most facile observations about the U.S. political process. Hugh Jackman plays Hart with the lightning flash aggrieved offense of a man accustomed to getting his way, but he misses the combination of hefty intellect and forceful charisma that made the senator’s hubris-driven self-immolation into a compelling story rather than a mere footnote. The film’s rote, remote nature means an aces supporting cast — J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga, and Kaitlyn Dever among them — is squandered. The most notable performance comes from Sara Paxton, who responds with deep honesty to the script’s small, valuable attempt to give Donna Rice a level of personhood beyond her role as “the other woman” in the scandal that ended Hart’s campaign. Other than that, The Front Runner is more re-creation than drama.

Playing Catch-Up —The Girl in the Spider’s Web; Old Boyfriends; Hotel Artemis

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Fede Álvarez, 2018). I have no firsthand familiarity with the Lisbeth Salander novels penned by Stieg Larsson, but I’m beginning to suspect, whatever their merits, they might repel earnest efforts to turn them into Hollywood entertainment. First, the series felled director David Fincher, who got utterly lost in the lurid mechanics of the story in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The most recent attempt is an even bigger miss. Adapted from the first novel written by David Langercrantz, chosen by Swedish publisher Norstedts to keep the money machine going after the death of Larsson, The Girl in the Spider’s Web finds Lisbeth (Claire Foy) routinely performing acts of vengeful justice against bad men. She is hired by a computer programmer (Stephen Merchant) to retrieve a powerful piece of software that can access the full arsenal of major weaponry around the globe. That assignment draws her into a tangle of dueling international factions and makes her a target, necessitating a reunion with her old journalist pal, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, making practically no impression at all). The film is plodding and borderline nonsensical, desperately cloaking its potboiler soul in an arch aspirational coolness that plays as deadening self-regard. Director Fede Alvarez’s provides workmanlike oversight and little else. Even inspired chaos agent Lakeith Stanfield, as an NSA agent on his own mission to retrieve the computer program, is reduced to an interchangeable game token, in service of tedium.

 

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Old Boyfriends (Joan Tewkesbury, 1979). The sole feature directorial effort from Joan Tewkesbury, co-writer of Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us and Nashville, this odd drama casts Talia Shire, between Rockys, as Dianne, a woman going through her old diary and visiting some of the males who once occupied her time, leaving emotional scars in the process. The film has a bedraggled cynicism of the late-nineteen-seventies, whatever insurrectionist hope that once beat in the heart of young U.S. citizens rotted to a rueful resignation. It’s never entirely clear — perhaps intentionally, without a doubt effectively — what motivation drives Dianne, in part because it seems fairly fluid, less out of adherence to an internal narrative logic and more to suit an interest in covering a lot of dramatic ground. The thesis of Old Boyfriends grows more confused when it slumps to an entirely unconvincing conclusion, though it’s hard to fathom exactly what ending would be completely satisfying given the episodic nature of the film. Shire has some fine moments, but the role begs for an actress that could bring a greater capacity for depth to the performance. Still, there’s plenty of insight and cunning to Tewkesbury’s work. It shows promise. That the readily evident possibility went unfulfilled is an indictment of the film industry’s longstanding aversion to female auteurs.

 

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Hotel Artemis (Drew Pearce, 2018). I’ll can see how Hotel Artemis might have been enticing in screenplay form, pages begging to be turned as an amalgamation of a Tarantino-style assemblage of wisenheimer thugs and glum, stylized near-future science fiction unfolded. In execution, it’s a dismal slog through tepid posturing and strained backstory anguish, portrayed by an overqualified cast flailing for any sense of purpose like lumbering bears trying to retrieve salmon lunches from a briskly flowing stream. A decade in the future, society teeters on a steely edge. Serving a criminal element prone to workplace injuries that are best not taken to conventional elements, the Hotel Artemis is presided over by a woman known only as the Nurse (Jodie Foster, whose genuine greatness as an actress seems as distantly past as the Gettysburg Address). On a particularly busy night, a multitude of conflicts come to a head, including the personal hardship she’s long buried. In his feature directorial debut, Drew Pearce offers a style that is frenetic and pushy, exposing the glib superficiality of the whole endeavor. Only about ninety minutes long, Hotel Artemis is the rare modern film that feels a little too short. Unfortunately, character development and logic were the main sacrifices to the digital editing software’s delete function.

Playing Catch-Up — High Life; The Long, Hot Summer; The Hate U Give

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High Life (Claire Denis, 2019). For her English-language debut, French director Claire Denis doesn’t play it safe. High Life is a science fiction film about a small group on a shoebox-shaped spaceship that has an exterior vaguely resembling a wood paneling and hi-fi equipment combo, making it seem like a nineteen-seventies bachelor pad pirouetting through the cosmos. Treating chronology pliably, Denis reveals the film’s secrets with an intense European restraint, burrowing into the wounded psychologies of the assorted passengers with ferocious cunning. She is yet more ruthless in her attention to physicality. There are enough bodily fluids — of just about every imaginable sort — flowing through the movie to fill a fleet of tanker trucks, and lingers on bodies pushed to distortion with an unblinking attentiveness that rivals David Cronenberg. Her cast is game — Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and Mia Goth are equally strong in their respective roles — but High Life is so clearly a realization of Denis’s troubling vision that most of her collaborators, despite their best efforts, start to feel like mere cogs in an especially greasy machine.

 

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The Long, Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958). In the same cinematic year he played Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, earning his first Oscar nomination, Paul Newman took on the lead role in this similarly Southern-soaked tale of familial discord and charismatic caddishness. Adapted freely from a trio of works by William Faulkner, The Long, Hot Summer features Newman as Ben Quick, a totem of mildly menacing masculinity who arrives in a small Mississippi town, the cloud of personal and family reputation trailing him. He falls in with the Varner family, whose name is on practically every business in the community, and he’s soon working for the clan’s bullish patriarch (Orson Welles) and slyly testing its favored, circumspect daughter (Joanne Woodward). Martin Ritt directs with characteristic clarity, favoring simplicity over thematic or visual adornment. That suits the material well, allowing the tension to build slowly. Narratively, the film falls apart in the third act. Characters become beholden to contrivances of plot rather than established beliefs and motivations, and the whole endeavor slumps to an unsatisfying conclusion. This is the film Newman and Woodward worked on when they embarked on their laudably enduring relationship, and it’s a true joy to watch them work together, locking into an uncommon rhythm. There’s also a nice supporting performance by Lee Remick, but Welles, playing a character roughly twenty years older, is in his occasional mode of indulging in hammy stage acting that is ill-suited for the medium in which he’s actually working.

 

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The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr., 2018). Based on the 2017 young adult novel of the same name, The Hate U Give sets itself lofty goals. At its foundation, the film is about the pervasive acts of police brutality against U.S. citizens with darker skin color and the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen in protest. But its ambitions don’t stop there, and it sometimes seems as if director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells (adapting Angie Thomas’s novel) are trying to wedge in every last pervasive challenge faced by members of current black communities. The ambition is admirable, but it is hindered by a didactic approach that, while wholly understandable, serves to undercut the effectiveness of the drama. At the center of the film is Starr (Amandla Stenberg), a high school student who witnesses her childhood friend killed by a police officer during a traffic stop for a minor infraction. Her struggles in the aftermath — weighing self-protection against activism — are rendered with empathy, and Stenberg is very strong in the biggest, most intense moments, like an angry schoolyard confrontation with a callous classmate (Sabrina Carpenter). Although flawed, the film is important and powerfully acted (Russell Hornsby excels as Starr’s father). Tillman is notably unflinching, and therefore properly devastating, in his depiction of a law enforcement culture that operates too often with the the vile assumption of criminality among a portion of the population, employing a trigger-happy response with tragic results.

Playing Catch-Up — Cop Car; The Predator; The Case Against 8

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Cop Car (Jon Watts, 2015). Like the product of a mysterious third Coen brother who got some of Steven Spielberg’s DNA spliced into him in utero, Cop Car begins with a simple premise, predicated on the wonderstruck and cloddish decision-making of young boys. While running away from home, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) come across an empty police cruiser on the side of a remote road. They decided to take it for a joyride, which causes consternation for the crooked law enforcement officer (Kevin Bacon) who should have locked his doors before wandering out to engage in some foul doings in the woods. Director Jon Watts (who’s co-credited on the screenplay with Christopher Ford) demonstrates a smart, clear storytelling style, and he does well with the young actors. Bacon leans on the villainy of his character a little too hard, but there’s an effective supporting turn from Shea Whigham, who continues to build an impressive repertoire of mildly cloddish men in over their heads.

 

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The Predator (Shane Black, 2018). The compulsion to reanimate every last cinematic property from the nineteen-eighties that has even a shred of name recognition comes around, yet again, to the marauding space monsters with a talent for blending into their surroundings. There are a few fun passages in the first half, mostly due to Shane Black’s whole Joss-Whedon-with-a-dirty-mouth approach to scripting. Mostly, though, I want to concentrate on the performance of Olivia Munn, as Casey Bracket, an evolutionary biologist plucked off the campus of Johns Hopkins to help study the fearsome creature. In addition to the multitude of well-documented indignities she faced during the shoot and the later press rollout, Munn is laden with line after line of absolutely impossible dialogue, including:

  • “Guys, guys, guys, guys, I get it. I get it. You wanna know if someone fucked an alien.”
  • “New rule: No one shoots my fucking dog.”
  • “Getting the fuck out of here is my middle name.”
  • “He’s right. It’s their M.O. Grow a dick, will ya?”

Munn doesn’t exactly make any of these lines work, but they don’t sink her either. And fighting to a draw seems the best possible outcome under the circumstances. So bravo to Munn, the one true hero of The Predator.

 

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The Case Against 8 (Ben Cotner and Ryan White, 2014). This finely constructed documentary benefits enormous from candid access to the four plaintiffs who came together to legally challenge California’s regressive, bigoted Proposition 8 after it passed in the 2008 election. Directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White also give a significant amount of screen time to off couple attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson, who were on opposite sides of the deeply destructive Bush v. Gore before improbably teaming to fight on behalf of same-sex marriage. For all its admirable qualities, The Case Against 8 can often come across as only surface-deep, in part because it assumes an automatic political alignment between the filmmakers and the viewers. The theory is probably sound, but it’s just as deadening a filmmaking choice here as it is in one of those pieces of offensive agitprop made by right wing nuts. There’s undeniable value in simply capturing the steps taken by everyone involved on the correct side of this litigation, and the film does that with a keen attention and an honorable sympathy. The documentary stands as a useful piece of a larger lesson.

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.

 

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