Now Playing — Bad Times at the El Royale

bad times

Drew Goddard’s feature directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, has aged very nicely for me. The film’s impish deconstruction of the horror genre was fun from the start, but the layers of cunning stirred in me a long-lasting appreciation for the ways in which Goddard embraced the inherent power in well-worn tropes while also giving them a knowing tweak. The delighted meta shenanigans give the whole enterprise a winning intelligence and low-sizzle current of insightful commentary.

The follow-up has been a long time coming, in part because Goddard got waylaid by Sony’s bumbling management of their Marvel properties, working for ages on a Sinister Six project that was eventually scrapped. An Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Martian kept Goddard somewhat in play (and he deserves extra credit for directing the wildest episode of The Good Place), but it’s taken too long for the latest film to bear his full authorial signature.

Bad Times at the El Royale is another genre exercise, albeit one less ruthless in its demolishing of established narrative devices. Set in the late nineteen-sixties, the film brings together several disparate characters in a border-straddling motel that’s seen better, far more glamorous days. As they check in, it’s clear that all carry heavy, tricky secrets, and Goddard’s ingenuity is in the way he systematically reveals all, holding back key details until the most opportune time to foist them on the audience, like bursts of confetti that just may carry toxins, or maybe wisps of psychotropics. All the ingredients of twisty thrillers are in place — kidnappings, gunplay, missing stashes of stolen money, sordid doings of all stripes — and Goddard absolutely revels in the grand excess he’s created.

And Goddard has assembled a band of game collaborators. The art direction, production design, and costume design are all dazzling, as is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. And the assembled actors tackle their complicated roles with verve. Jon Hamm continues his stretch of roles that reward (and benefit from) his robustly playful instincts, Lewis Pullman somehow keeps finding new pockets of internal turbulence as the sole employee of the motel, and Cynthia Erivo is nothing short of sensational as a girl group singer trying to eke out a living in a hard business that rejected her. The actors have the enticing but tricky task of using bold strokes while also keeping the characters grounded enough that there are real stakes to the mounting mayhem. Largely, they succeed admirably.

The film loses its way somewhat in its final act, in part because Goddard allows one particularly character to push too far into outright villainy, at odds with what’s been previously established. Following the intricate care of the earlier portions of the film, the descent into simply drawn conflict seems too pat, even as Goddard stages it energetically. Bad Times at the El Royale misplaces some of its inventiveness when it’s arguably needed the most, when a sharp ending could have served as the perfect bookend with the film’s crisp, shrewdly conceived opening sequence. It’s a touch of disappointment that isn’t likely to linger. As I’ve come to realize about Goddard’s work, it’s the strengths that endure.

Playing Catch-Up — T2 Trainspotting; Game Night; RBG

t2 train

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017). From the moment it was announced, director Danny Boyle’s choice to develop a sequel to his breakthrough film, Trainspotting, seemed highly suspect, a seemingly desperate creative retreat for a filmmaker whose recent projects — even when generally well regarded — just weren’t quite clicking. I was wrong. In peeping back in on the Scottish hooligan drug users twenty years later, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (working with characters created by novelist Irvine Welsh) craft a cinematic effort of stinging emotional bruises, grimly wise humor, and marvelous visual invention. The dabs of nostalgia, in the form of imagery echoes and musical cues (in one perfect moment, literally presented as a needle drop), are consistently presented with jolting ingenuity. It also helps that the various returning actors have all grown stronger at their craft. T2 Trainspotting is equal to its predecessor. It might even be better.

 

game night

Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018). This comedy is essentially a riff on The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 feature that trapped Michael Douglas’s wealthy misanthrope in an enjoyably ludicrous LARP of dangerous riddles and mounting conspiracy. The regular gathering of board games and generous wine pours hosted by married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, respectively) is infiltrated by Max’s hotshot brother (Kyle Chandler), who wants to add a little excitement by hiring a company that specializes in elaborately dramatized mysteries, a little like an escape room place that makes house calls. Then the make believe mayhem coincides with real thugs storming, but the genial suburbanites think its still a harmless diversion. Mark Perez’s screenplay is clever and well-constructed, and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who were shockingly artless in their approach to the Vacation update) handle the plot’s complexities and splintered perspective with admirable skill. It’s the cast that really sells it, though, led by Billy Magnussen, who nails the requisite dumb guy role, and especially Rachel McAdams, who works wonders in a bar scene in which her character is delightfully invested in the whole affair.

 

rbg

RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen, 2018). Rather opportunistically, this documentary grabs ahold of the Supreme Court Justice who’s surged to unlikely superstar status in recent years and squeezes tight with lots of love. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career merits reverence as much for the gender discrimination cases she argued as an attorney before the highest court in the land as it does for her decades served as a justice. Initially a pragmatist, Ginsburg has become a bulwark for progressive values as new colleagues have skewed far to the right. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a survey more than a deep consideration on Ginsburg’s work and legacy, which sometimes keeps the film at such a surface level than it’s almost glib. Despite the flaws, Ginsburg — who gave the filmmakers ample access — shines through as a vital, inspiring presence.

Now Playing — Private Life

private

I haven’t dug into any interviews with Tamara Jenkins to learn the insider story of why over a decade passed between her last film and her latest, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find the reason serves as narrative fuel for that new cinematic offering. It’s not simply that Jenkins prior two features — Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — had the unmistakable weight of autobiography to them. Private Life, the new film from Jenkins, has the rawness of brutal, brave truth. Someone still could have drawn such a story purely from their imagination, but the details sting with authority that suggests rueful reminiscing is the more likely source.

Private Life focuses on Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), married New Yorkers who have spent years trying to conceive a baby. The film begins with them taking what appear to be weary, final swings at the problem, like a battered boxer in the late rounds of bout that has long been lost. Nearly everything has already been tried. Even adoption proved to be such an arduous process that they’ve circled back to medically enhanced methods, such as in vitro fertilization, which adds a whole other set of tasks to their routine. The relationship is clearly buckling, stressed beyond capacity by the fact that their shared identity is one of futility.

Matters are further complicated by the arrival of their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), who’s taken a sudden leave of absence from college. She is taking respite with her cool city relatives in part because they move in the lower tier bohemian artist circles Sadie sees as a hopeful destination, but also because of the emotional skirmishes she gets into with her own mother (Molly Shannon). Sadie’s presence gives Rachel and Richard a diversion from their interpersonal struggles, simply by providing another person to focus on in their cramped apartment. But she may also provide some assistance with the larger problem, as the couple has reached the point where the possibility of an egg donor has been broached.

Jenkins tilts the material towards wry comedy, albeit of the gut-punch variety. Of course, her lead performers are particularly skilled at maneuvering the narrow pathways between humor and pathos. Hahn is uniquely capable of keeping brash expressiveness firmly tethered to intricate characterizations, and Giamatti’s gift for the slow burn has evolved to a point at which it’s really more of a pilot light dimming to infinity. They give dignity to every tremor of emotion in the roles, showing how these people make their way, sometimes delicately, sometimes bravely, sometimes humbled by the inescapable grind of defeat.

Jenkins assembles the film with a keener eye than I recall from previous films. She crafts visuals that tell compelling stories all on their own and generally assembles the film with the spartan certainty of Woody Allen in his cinematic prime. These qualities also give Private Life a disarming lightness that cuts across the darker subject matter. It has the feel of something that came easily, which isn’t meant to diminish the evident work that went into it. Quite the contrary, a film that can be pointed, precise, and loose all at once is likely the product of a director who knows without a doubt what they want to do, what they are ready to convey. It’s as if Jenkins spent those many years between films envisioning Private Life to the seams in the corners, and only when it was fully formed did she gift it to the rest of us. It should be received with the deepest gratitude.

Now Playing — A Star is Born

star born

It is now almost quaint to think of A Star is Born as a signature example of Hollywood’s tendency to repeat itself, and yet that’s exactly the status bestowed upon the showbiz tale by the time Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson provocatively clinched on the poster for the 1976 version. That was the merely the third big-screen iteration of the story (not including any officially unrelated features drawing obvious inspiration). It took them forty years to reach that point. We’re rushing headlong toward our third Joker in a decade’s time.

But A Star is Born still looms large enough that Bradley Cooper’s choice to deliver a new remake as his directorial debut feels like the ultimate combination of opportunism and hubris. Done with any panache whatsoever, the film is almost certain to set cinematic awards bodies swooning, especially in this era in which movies about the entertainment industry (even tangentially) have proven as irresistible to Oscar voters as hefty paydays from Marvel Studios. But then again, staking a claim on such a project means putting oneself on the level of William Wellman and George Cukor (and, less problematically, Frank Pierson), implying that there’s something new to add that eluded those highly skilled predecessors. To begin a directorial career with A Star is Born is to announce a titan of cinematic prowess is entering the gilded premises of filmmaking artistes.

Lest it seem as though I’m revving up the backlash turbine, I should plainly state that Cooper’s film is a strong debut in many respects, demonstrating an sharp eye for visuals and a graceful way with actors, particularly those with a handful or fewer scenes. His overall sense of pacing is iffy enough that large portions of the film drag, but several individual scenes hum with confidence as they play out with deliberate casualness, taking the time to absorb the interactions between characters.

In this new A Star is Born, the main characters are Jackson Maine (Cooper), a country rocker playing to cheering arena crowds and soothing his emotional ails with an overabundance of alcohol and pills, and Ally Campana (Lady Gaga), a singer who has long since given up on her dreams of a music career. She’s stuck in a crummy job with a verbally abusive manager, but scratches her performing itch by occasionally take the stage at a local drag bar. That where Jackson, stumbling past the bouncer in search of liquor, spots her and immediately becomes enraptured by her talent.

From there, the story proceeds largely in accordance with earlier versions. Jackson takes Ally into his fold of traveling musicians, as both a lover and performer on stage. He’s not the only one alert to her gifts, though. She’s eventually recruited by a producer (Rafi Gavron) intent on transforming her into the next great pop diva, leading to intense conversations about authenticity and helping prod Jackson a little further along on the spiral he’s been riding downward. The more standard version of the story hinges on flaring jealousy, but Jackson’s response is more complicated than that, a snarl of loneliness, personal inadequacy, guilt, and helplessness in the throes of addiction.

Cooper commits fully to the heavy drama of the piece, but it’s decidedly less compelling than the courtship that proceeds it. Across the first third of the film, Cooper develops a dazzling chemistry with Lady Gaga, and she’s at her best when playing a working class young woman whose time with a loving, gruff single father (Andrew Dice Clay, surprisingly charming in the role) has given her an instinctive rebellious streak. There are implausibilities aplenty in the screenplay (credited to Cooper, along with Eli Roth and Will Fetters), but Cooper so winningly taps into the story’s fairy tale qualities that the narrative flaws are largely forgivable. When situations grow grim, the diversionary compensation of charm fades away enough to let the manipulations show.

Like a lot of first-time directors, especially movie stars branching out, Cooper puts everything he’s got into A Star is Born. Sometimes that results in distracting motifs or thematic fuss. Mostly, it translates to a work that is a deeply personal expression, no matter how many skips across the water’s surface the stone of a story has taken. Cooper has a lot he wants to say about creativity, celebrity, love, and familial commitment. That his messages sometimes twist in on themselves like paper clips only heightens the sense that his intellect is whirring relentlessly, making a certain amount of thematic indecision a perverse strength of the film. I certainly don’t know why Cooper felt compelled to make this film this way — and he isn’t really talking — but I can see that it was no lark. The one thing Cooper decisively does is erase any question about the need to take A Star is Born through its paces again. For whatever reason, it’s clearly a project he needed to do.

Now Playing — A Simple Favor

a simple favor

A Simple Favor is precisely the film Paul Feig needed at this point in his directorial career. The filmmaker will always have an honored place in my personal pantheon thanks to his efforts on the practically perfect television series Freaks and Geeks, but his film career, though spotted with undeniable hits, has been spottier creatively. The main problem is one that has been pervasive in modern film comedy: a pronounced tendency to overstuff films with every last bit that might possibly induce someone somewhere to let out even the mildest chuckle. In the kindest appraisal, this approach represents a laudable generosity of spirit, but in execution it generally leads to movies that are unwieldy and ultimately deadened by the many stretches that feel extraneous or simply don’t work. In crafting A Simple Favor, Feig’s habit of undermining his own work is shunted aside by the unavoidable rigors of genre storytelling.

Based on a novel by Darcey Bell, A Simple Favor is a thriller, albeit one with a dewy film of satire upon it. The film follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a widowed single mother who comes across as an eager goody two-shoes in her New York bedroom community. She comes under the sway of Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), the mother of one of her son’s classmates. Emily is the opposite of Stephanie. She’s smooth, assertive, self-assured, happiest when downing potent martinis and assessing her environs with a sharpened tongue. Emily induces Stephanie to push against her own boundaries, even as she also starts leaning on the meeker mom to help address some domestic shortcomings, which stem from a mix of indifference and a demanding job in the city. At one point, Emily seeks some help, telling Stephanie she’s been called out of town at the same time her husband (Henry Golding) has been called to London to look after an ailing relative. And from there, the gears of potentially insidious happenings begin to grind.

By necessity, Feig brings a welcome discipline to his filmmaking, the demands of a Hitchcockian narrative (the adapted screenplay is credited to Jessica Sharzer) naturally cutting down on digressions, comic or otherwise. As his exploratory tomfoolery subsides, his visual sense strengthens. Shot by John Schwartzman, the film has a lithe elegance and a nimble visual wit. Feig can’t quite maintain his trickily entwined tone — part starkly serious, part sardonic — all the way to the end, in part because of the characters sometimes spin out as they try to make the turns necessary to keep up with the twisty plot. To that point, though, Feig has handled the complex, layered storytelling with admirable skill.

The individual who enjoys the clearest triumph in A Simple Favor, though, is Lively. Gifted with a vibrant, headstrong character, she instill a charisma so potent it’s like it was simmered on the low heat down to a thick reduction sauce. She cracks off barbed lines with perfection and surveys everyone around her with a scampish cunning. Before the major machinations of the plot engage, Lively has already injected thrills into the film strictly through the flinty force of her acting. Taking command of a film to that degree is definitely far from simple.

Now Playing — Inventing Tomorrow

tomorrow

Younger generations could be forgiven if they were filled with fury over the planet that has been knocked into disrepair for them. I truly believe that history will incredulously record that the greater political society knew of all the ways it was inflicting damage upon the environment in which it lived and chose to actually accelerate the problems rather than work collectively to solve them. There will be no shortage of villains. Luckily, the new documentary Inventing Tomorrow suggests the heroes may be poised to arrive.

Director Laura Nix’s film follows separate high school students as they diligent prepare to participate in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a massive gathering of young scientists from around the globe. The actual event covers a vast range of topics across the sciences, but Nix opts to focus on young people who are training their equations and contraptions on ecological dilemmas in their local communities. The experiments get a reasonable amount of screen time, enough to provide the gist of their particulars, but not so much that heavy duty explication boxes out the layman. (And I type the preceding as a deeply devout layman.) Nix is less interested in wowing the audience with the audaciousness of the students’ discoveries. She’s more concerned with the inspiration to be found in their resolute earnestness.

Inevitably in a film of this sort, certain figures will stand out as especially engaging and charismatic. I’ll long remember the cheery seriousness of Shofi Latifa Nuha Anfaresi, who works with fellow students to develop a filter for the waterborne tin miners in Indonesia, and the ways the studious diligence of the film’s trio of Mexican boys, working on a paint that can help clear pollution from the ear, meet the shiny splendor of Los Angeles with awestruck eyes. Even so, Nix does a remarkable job of balancing the stories. She’s utterly uninterested in drama and clearly cares barely a whit about who triumphs at the event’s awards ceremony. She is rooting for all her subjects because they deserve to have a cheering section and they being admirably upbeat outlooks to the prospect of healing the the wounded landscape. Blessed by isolation from — or indifference to — the foolish squabbles that have prevented their elders from developing scientific course corrections, these teens simply go about the business of seeking solutions.

Nix hazards hope that the tomorrow being invented by the young will indeed be a better one. I want her to be correct. The individuals in her film deserve it.

Now Playing — Crime + Punishment

crime

Any documentarian depicting a current, ongoing social hardship has an inherent added challenge in the filmmaking process. Simply put, reality doesn’t always play along. The desire to wrap up stories with some level of finality — not necessarily tidily, but with a clear sense of conclusion — runs up against the unyielding adversary of messy existence. A documentary needs to end. The complexities of whatever the documentary traces have no obligation to follow the same protocol. Problems and conflicts may persist. Perhaps more problematically, they might dissipate in a even more unsatisfying haze of sad stasis.

Crime + Punishment, directed by Stephen Maing, follows the efforts of a group of New York City police officers challenging the force’s persistent use of arrest quotas well after the practice was made illegal. Since there’s evidence such policies encourage the persecution of underprivileged communities as officers rushed to make the numbers set down by supervising personnel, the complaint is not merely one of professional preference. Citizens are being harmed. Recognition of that fact is the chief motivation for a group of whistleblowers — all of whom have a racial or cultural affinity to the unfairly targeted community members — as they steel their spines to stand up against a system veering away from the honest justice that’s supposed to be its defining feature.

Maing details the problem with damning detail, smartly including a parallel story of a teenager incarcerated for a crime he insists he did not commit. It is brutal to watch as he grinds through a rickety judicial process rigged to break down his resolve so he pleads guilty in hopes of a reduced sentence. His situation — which exists in a cruel limbo for a year before reaching resolution — puts a solid import to the officers’ collective battle.

As he tracks the day-to-day of the whistleblowers as they try to persist in a job after they’ve been outed as breakers of some nonsense, unstated code of silence, Maing indulges in hidden camera tricks that can seem a little gimmickry. But the tactic does allow him to catch moments of department petty retribution exacted against the protesting cops, countering any suspicions that the fretting about negative professional repercussions are mere paranoia. Like the imprisoned suspect, the officers are faced with a mighty challenge to their will.

There’s little satisfying clarity at the end of the film. Though elements of the whistleblowers’ court case reached completion, other pieces remain inching along. And the various officers have moved forward in different ways, most of them notable for their sense of uncertainty. The particulars might be out of Maing’s control, but he also seems at a loss as to how to shape his most recent footage into cinema that’s compelling. The film simply winds down, as if it is only the first part and a follow-up episode will arrive to clap the story shut. The problems identified in Crime + Punishment are certain to endure, even as there’s some hope that the class action suit has led to some positive cultural change within the force. Even if the infuriating abuses aren’t at an end, the film has an obligation to complete its argument. The equivalent of a defeated shrug won’t do.