The Playing — Love, Simon; Ad Astra; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

love simon

Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018). In adapting Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda to the screen, director Greg Berlanti and his collaborators honor the story of a gay teenager coming into his own by structuring it like any number of other sweet, mundane high school comedies. The largely unremarkable tone and presentation of Love, Simon is what makes it remarkable. In the film, Simon (Nick Robinson) is worried about revealing himself as gay, even to his closest friends. Then a correspondence with another gay teen, who posted anonymously on a message board, starts to prompt Simon to come to terms with what he really wants out of life. Berlanti stages the drama smoothly and finds gentle comedy in the scenarios. The film is nicely ingratiating, even if it lacks the depth that would lend added poignancy.

 

ad astra

Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019). Positioned somewhere between the icy precision of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the adventure story romp of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, director James Gray’s latest film aims for arty only to wind up clumsy. In the near future, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is charged with a secret mission, retrieving his father (Tommy Lee Jones), previously believed missing, from Neptune, where a project has gone terribly wrong. Gray combines science fiction with anguished family drama, throwing in a moon buggy chase and murderous spaceship monkeys for good measure. Despite the various attempts to jolt Ad Astra to life, the storytelling is problematically ponderous, in part because the protagonist is so intensely withdrawn. Pitt plays the role well, but he can only inject so much genuine emotion into the piece, leaving the film to grind mechanically in its pretensions. Striking imagery and a typically flinty turn by Jones similarly aren’t enough to compensate for the film’s shortcomings.

 

mabuse

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933). The last film Fritz Lang directed in Germany before fleeing the Nazi regime, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a blissfully bonkers thriller about a evil psychologist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) with extremely potent mentalism powers that allow him to serve as kingpin to a booming crime syndicate, even while he’s locked in an asylum. A sequel to the 1922 silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, also directed by Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is stacked with dazzling shots and moves with a headlong impish energy. The film also boasts an extremely fun performance by Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann, a police detective trying to crack this especially weird case. He operates with squirrelly energy and a clacking curiosity that’s a nice mirror of the restless ingenuity Lang brings to the whole film.

Playing Catch-Up — Crawl; Her Smell; The Commuter

crawl

Crawl (Alexandre Aja, 2019). To his credit, director Alexandre Aja clearly understands the lean and lowdown appeal of the premise to Crawl. With little fuss and effecticely shorthand character-building, Aja races headlong into the telling the story of a flooding Florida house during a raging hurricane and the hungry alligators that come sloshing in with the rising waters. Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) departs from her college swim team locker room to check on her father (Barry Pepper), a contractor on the coast. He’s had a nasty accident, trapping him in a roomy crawlspace under his house, and most of the film’s blessedly compact running time is devoted to Haley’s efforts to extricate herself and her pops from danger. Crawl has only modest aspirations (it’s a charming notion that Aja and his collaborations are offering profound commentary on climate change, but the film suggests the global calamity is little more than a handy gimmick for them), but it achieves its plain, rough goals with suitable verve.

 

her smell

Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry, 2019). Writer-director Alex Ross Perry reunites with his Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth star, Elisabeth Moss, gifting the actress with the part of a wild child, indulgently self-destructive rock star. The film’s nineteen-nineties setting is only one part of the reason main character Becky Something suggest Courtney Love at her most dangerously unhinged. It’s a juicy part, and Moss tears into it with trademark gusto. The other performers are largely relegated to reacting with differing ratios of fury and exasperation. The film is admirably raw in its emotional content, and Perry has a remarkable patience with the most tender moments. In the end, though, the film is a character study stretched thin enough that holes rip open. Perry has interesting ideas, but not enough of them to fill up two and a quarter hours.

 

commuter

The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018). Liam Neeson is back on the unwilling vigilante beat, put there by the Jaume Collet-Serra, the director who’s put him in that place repeatedly. At least The Commuter has a more offbeat angle that employs the everyman-in-extraordinary-circumstances tool from Alfred Hitchcock’s old kit. Riding the train home one day, Michael MacCauley (Neeson) receives an offer from a stranger who introduces herself as Joanna (Vera Farmiga). She asks him to draw on his old history as a police detective to sniff out which fellow passenger on the train who is smuggling a stolen item, promising him a big payday if he’s successful in his sleuthing. It becomes quickly apparent to Michael that there are nefarious operators manipulating the situation, and the film is is structured around his attempts to think and punch his way out of trouble. The Commuter is leaden and strained, as the filmmakers seem unwilling to charge ahead with the kind of freewheeling abandon that could take them into big, dumb fun territory.

Playing Catch-Up — Aquaman; Dolemite Is My Name; Green Room

aquaman

Aquaman (James Wan, 2018). The relatively cinematic merits, or lack thereof, of Marvel Studios’ blockbuster epics has been a mostly mortifying public debate in recent weeks, evidently requiring every director of note to weigh in. While the fact that Martin Scorsese is pressed by every interviewer to expand upon or clarify his original comments is enough of an embarrassment, as someone who is fairly well-versed on this slice of the entertainment industrial complex I feel compelled to note that the poison-tipped arrows have been aimed at the wrong target. The true affronts to the art form are the bursting piñatas of eyesore spectacle released by Marvel’s distinguished competition in the superhero space. Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman looks more and more like a rare and beauteous aberration with every new stab at expanding the DC Cinematic Universe. Among DC’s stable of costumed do-gooders, Aquaman was always going to be the character with the most built-in goofiness to overcome in any big screen adaptation. To their credit, the filmmakers behind Aquaman basically lean in to the lunacy. Mostly, though, their attempts at rambunctious tomfoolery are limited to action hero quips that would have been stale twenty years ago. The plot is a snoozy tangle of a gruff rapscallion finding his inner heroism and palace intrigue about as intriguing as a fishbowl’s little plastic castle. Director James Wan hews closely to the Zack Snyder template of visuals rendered with garish artificiality and action scenes are kinetic nonsense. About the only pleasure in Aquaman is watching performers accustomed to more serious fare (Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman, most notably) try vainly to find their sea legs on this roiling vessel.

 

dolemite

Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019). Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have shown a unique talent for offbeat biopics over the years, with Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt as the standouts. Their sensibility — impish yet deeply grounded by smart, telling details — elevates Dolemite Is My Name, a survey of the odd, unlikely rise of entertainer Rudy Rae Moore. In a performance of surprising insight and restraint, Eddie Murphy plays Moore. What could have easily been bawdily comic is instead underscored by an especially vulnerable ambition, Murphy adeptly capturing Moore’s earnest attempt to make a place in a showbiz world set up to reject the likes of him. Murphy’s performance is sensitive without ever lapsing into easy pathos. The film is also a celebration of the flashes of ingenuity that often arise when the creative environment is particularly hardscrabble, and director Craig Brewer does a nice job capturing the camaraderie of Moore’s circle of determined amateurs. The whole cast is dandy (especially Wesley Snipes, as an actor with big Hollywood credits who’s reduced to working on one of Moore’s productions), but it must be noted that they’re all operating with the booster shot of Ruth L. Carter’s costumes, which are vibrant crazy-quilts of nineteen-seventies fashion.

 

green room

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015). At the end of a miserable concert tour, which was such a low-paying professional endeavor that siphoning gas was a regular requirement to get to the next gig, a punk band picks up one last date. The show is at a remote warehouse space, and the band quickly gleans that they’re one of a procession of amp-rattling acts soundtracking the aggressive posturing of a group of white supremacists. The band taunts danger by leading their set with a cover version of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” and things get markedly worse from there. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier constructs the story with cunning panache, and he displays a gift for maintaining an almost diabolical level of tension. The quantity and intensity of the film’s gore arguably betray a different sort of sadism on the part of the filmmaker. Green Room is as brutal as the punk rockers at its center.

Playing Catch-Up — La Pointe Courte; Boy Erased; Stan & Ollie

la pointe

La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, 1955). Three years before Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, the film usually cited as the beginning of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda delivered this film that certainly flaunts a lot of the hallmarks of the influential cinematic movement. In a small waterfront town, Lui (Philippe Noiret) meets his wife, Elle (Silvia Monfort), who’s journeyed from Paris. The two stroll through town discussing their relationship in the most way possible. The residents of the town go about their modest business, mostly centered around pulling seafood out of the water, sometimes in defiance of regulations. Varda made her debut film with only the barest sense of how narrative cinema was supposed to work. By all accounts, she wasn’t even an especially avid film fan at the time. And yet La Pointe Courte is brightly alive with inspired reconstructions and elegant visuals. There’s a hardscrabble realness to the scenes of the townspeople that contrasts marvelously with the more refined, restrained portions of the film intently focused on the couple. It’s a grandly great film.

 

boy erased

Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton, 2018). Adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased delves into the harrowing, cruel culture of gay conversion therapy. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is from a deeply conservative and religious Southern family, and he willingly enters the perversely named Love in Action program after going away to college unearths portions of himself he’d been denying. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who also plays the leader of the gay conversion program, the film tracks through the ugly faux therapy with painstaking attention to the brutality of it all. If anything, Edgerton is overly reliant on the program’s particulars, unfolding the therapy sessions with mounting misery that feels false, adhering to the dramatic need to escalate stakes rather than a believable progression. The approach has the unfortunate effect of deadening the piece’s emotions. The film’s strongest scene centers on a conversation between Jared and his father (Russell Crowe), mainly because its one of the few instances of the storytelling stretching away from the expected norm, allowing that familial conflicts and pain often don’t wrap up with a tidiness that audiences desire.

 

stan and ollie

Stan & Ollie (Jon S. Baird, 2018). This biographical drama about the beloved comedy team Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) is kind, well-meaning, and dreadfully dull. Mostly set during a tour of the U.K. the duo mounted late in their career, Stan & Ollie is about little squabbles and minor struggles, the latter escalating somewhat as Oliver’s health worsens under the rigors of performing. There’s not enough there to give the movie any momentum or real sense of purpose, a problem director Jon S. Baird compounds with his plain visuals and sluggish pacing. What the film does have are very nice performances. Coogan and Reilly are both very fine as familiar figures, but the scene-stealer is Nina Arianda as Stan’s brusque, headstrong wife. She seems airdropped in from a different, far livelier movie.

The Unwatchables — Welcome to Marwen

marwen

I assume the creative team behind Welcome to Marwen operated with the best intentions. The 2018 film is adapted from Jeff Malmberg’s well-respected 2010 documentary, Marwencol, which centered on Mark Hogancamp and the therapeutic value he derived from developing a miniature world. In 2000, Hogancamp was brutally assaulted by a group of men in a hate crime driven by his admission that he sometimes wore women’s clothing. The physical effects were devastating, and Hogancamp didn’t have the money necessary to get proper treatment for the post-traumatic stress that further hindered his recovery. So he developed his own form of art therapy, staging scenes with the dolls in his tiny town and shooting striking photographs that offer visual echoes of the most devastating wartime pictures. Only the most hateful, bigoted individuals could see Hogancamp’s real story as anything other than moving and inspiring.

For the fiction film rendering, director Robert Zemeckis spins the hard reality of Hogancamp’s story into a fresh excuse to deploy special effects gimmickry. Once a filmmaker of cheerful cleverness, Zemeckis became hopelessly besotted with technological boundary-pushing decades ago. At least as far back as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, released in 1988, Zemeckis has seemingly made the possibility of a new advancement in visual storytelling an overly important criterion in his professional selections. On increasingly rare occasions, the innovation was in place to serve the story. Too often, the freshly invented movie magic appeared to be the only element that ensnared Zemeckis’s restless interest.

In the case of Welcome to Marwen, the infatuation with surface is especially callous. The struggles of Mark Hogancamp (played in the film by Steve Carell) are handled with soulless efficiency so Zemeckis can get to visual tomfoolery of depicting the imagined drama in the model world as if it’s Toy Story with ostensibly more serious underpinnings. Carell and a small band of talented actresses (including Diane Kruger, Merritt Weaver, and Janelle Monáe) portray the living dolls through motion-capture performances. Most of the actresses also play the real-life counterparts who theoretically inspire the characters Mark develops, a conceit that smacks of cursory construction, a wink at the audience rather than someone that deepens the understanding of Mark and the support group that’s developed around him.

Every element of the film is grotesquely glib, from the depiction of Mark’s anxiety attacks as explosions of violence straight out of a Samuel Fuller movie to the intrusive score by Alan Silvestri, which echoes the jabbering whimsy of Danny Elfman’s mimeographed music for various Tim Burton efforts. If Zemeckis contained the hackneyed dialogue and veneer of phoniness to the scenes of animated model figures while grounding the other scenes in tough reality, an argument in favor of the film’s arch falsehoods could be made. Instead, the entirety of the narrative is molded in plastic.

I only made it thirty-five minutes into Welcome to Marwen

Previously in The Unwatchables

— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
— The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman
— The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott
— Vice, directed by Adam McKay
Savages, directed by Oliver Stone

Playing Catch-Up — Panic in Year Zero; Searching; Stronger

panic zero

Panic in Year Zero (Ray Milland, 1962). This Cold War drama, one of a handful of films directed by Ray Milland, takes a fascinating approach to its tale of U.S. society in the immediate aftermath of nuclear weapons leveling a few major cities. Milland plays the patriarch of a family that’s off to a fishing weekend when the bombs fall, and he sternly leads them through a survivalist withdrawal from the increasingly tense social breakdown across the land. Milland’s visual sense is fairly stiff and clumsy, but the screenplay — co-credited to John Morton and Jay Simms — is psychologically astute in its depiction of rapid erosion of morals and national camaraderie as self-preservation takes preeminence. Far from alarmist or sensationalistic, the film is quietly insightful and thoroughly convincing.

searching

Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018). Usually a similar technique to the horror film Unfriended, director Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut confines its perspective to material that appears on a computer screen. In Searching, John Cho plays David Kim, whose daughter, Margot (playing primarily by Michelle La), goes missing, sending him on a desperate scramble through her online history to determine what malfeasance might have been perpetrated against her. There are clever elements, including spot-on depictions of the sometimes destructive ways information travels across web-based platforms. Cho is very good in the lead role, but the performances are shakier across the supporting roles, especially when they’re relying on just voicework, as if Chaganty neglects to value the importance of emotional veracity when the dialogue is delivered in a recording booth rather than before a camera.

 

stronger

Stronger (David Gordon Green, 2017). This adaptation of the memoir of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a survivor of the bomb attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, wavers between daring authenticity and numbingly familiar biopic beats. Director David Gordon Green is leans toward the unsparing in depicting the physical and emotional trials enduring by Jeff after his proximity to the explosion results in the amputation of both of his legs below the knees. And Gyllenhaal is more than game to writhe in rage and agony, honking his lines in a thick Boston accent. The script and the performance both lack the depth needed to lend authenticity to Jeff’s eventual, inevitable healing and conversion into a better person. The result is a work that is well-meaning, professionally rendered, and hollow at its core. Tatiana Maslany does nicely understated work as Erin, Jeff’s long-suffering girlfriend.

 

Playing Catch-Up — Leaving Neverland; Blaze; Denial

finding neverland

Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed, 2019). Working with a landslide of troubling evidence and an abundance of cautious patience, British documentarian lays out a compelling, convincing case that Michael Jackson regularly perpetrated sexual abuse on boys that came into his orbit once he ascended to the highest echelons of fame. Relying largely on the testimony of two survivors of Jackson’s alleged criminal actions, Reed spends four hours careful tracking through their experiences and the long aftermath which included Jackson being pulled into court to face charges on more than one occasion. Apoplectic defenders of the pop star note that both individuals featured prominently in the documentary testified in those cases on Jackson’s behalf, claiming under oath that they experienced no ill treatment at his hands. But Leaving Neverland preemptively addresses that complaint with sensitivity, explaining the levels of shame, denial, and self-preservation that often impact the memories and compromise the actions of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. When the abuser is an incredibly famous, wealthy, powerful figure, truth-telling becomes exponentially more difficult. Reed’s filmmaking is deft and often very brave, presenting the most uncomfortable details with brutal, appropriate candor.

 

blaze

Blaze (Ethan Hawke, 2018). This biopic casts skilled singer-songwriter Ben Dickey, an acting novice, as Blaze Foley, a semi-legendary country music songwriter and performer with a self-destructive streak who died before his fortieth birthday. Written and directed by Ethan Hawke, the film is defined by an understated melancholy that is likely meant to mirror Blaze’s tunes. Hawke tinkers with the structure, interlacing Blaze’s fitful career progression with a barroom performance and, far less successfully, a radio interview with two of Blaze’s colleagues, his erstwhile harmonica player, Zee (John Hamilton), and Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton). The latter device causes the film to meander without providing any useful added insights. The film’s strongest element is the romance between Blaze and Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), whose memoir serves as the basis for Blaze. (Rosen is also co-credited with Hawke on the screenplay.) Hawke is at his best when his ambitions are most modest, and Shawkat is quietly marvelous in the role. The more Hawke strays from the serious-minded compassion that informs those scenes — the hammy overacting of his pals Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, and Richard Linklater as Texas oilmen trying out the music mogul game comes to mind — the more he undercuts his generally admirable creative vision.

 

denial

Denial (Mick Jackson, 2016). In 1996, a court case was set into motion in the U.K. when David Irving, a self-anointed World War II expert, accused academic Deborah Lipstadt of libeling him in her book Denying the Holocaust. With rigor and a sterling appreciation for the complexities of both the legal battle and its ramifications in the broader public discourse, Denial tracks the experience of Dr. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) as she must defend herself against the sort of person who shouldn’t even be given the dignity of meager attention. (Timothy Spall plays David Irving.) As scripted by David Hare (officially adapted from Lipstadt’s memoir about the case), the film is sharp, lucid, and consistently engaging, exploiting the familiar mechanics of legal dramas without succumbing to cliche. Director Mick Jackson slips occasionally with a needlessly fussy visual flourish (raindrops striking pavement in slow motion, some swooping camerawork around the Auschwitz concentration camp), but is mostly solid and smooth in his rendering of the story. The film boasts excellent acting from Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, and Andrew Scott, but it’s mightiest attribute is probably the way in which it is suitably angered and enlivened by the modern blight of rewriting hard, cold facts to suit villainous — often bigoted — agendas. Denial is an urgent retort to the current opportunistic erosion of norms in both the U.K. and the U.S., which makes it all the more remarkable that the film was made before the disastrous 2016 elections in each nation.