Then Playing — Fast Color; Monty Python’s Life of Brian; Blinded By the Light

fast color

Fast Color (Julia Hart, 2019). Black girl magic made tangible, Fast Color lightly adheres to the superhero origin story template that’s unexpectedly become a cinematic mainstay. In the film, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) returns to her Midwestern childhood home at a time in the not so distant future when a devastating spell of rainless days has spread to years. She reunites with her family while carrying clear trepidation about the homecoming. There’s a sad history that’s initially hinted at and then made more clear as it’s revealed Ruth and the other women in her family all have superhuman powers that allow them to disassemble matter into something akin to astral dust. Director Julia Hart (who is also co-credited on the screenplay, with Jordan Horowitz) doesn’t have much plot to work with, getting by effectively on mood, meticulous visuals, and earnest commitment to the film’s themes. Hart also has the benefit of Mbatha-Raw in the lead role. She brings an intensity of concentration to the performance that goes a long way towards filling in gaps in the story.

 

life of brian

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979). The scampish sacrilege of this comedy, the second wholly original work brought to the big screen by legendary comedy troupe Monty Python, strengthens the material mightily. Beginning with the birth of Brian (played in his adult years by Graham Chapman) a couple mangers down from Jesus Christ, the film expertly, savagely lampoons the shaky reasoning that can lead to global religions when left unchecked. The jokes range from truly inspired to musty with vaudevillian dust, even for the era, but the fervent dedication to making every punchline land evens it all out to one bright, brilliant comic statement. On top of everything else, Monty Python’s Life of Brian is fearless. Terry Jones’s directing is fairly basic. Luckily, that’s all the film really needs.

 

blinded

Blinded by the Light (Gurinder Chadha, 2019). Growing up in England in the nineteen-eighties, a Pakistani teen (Viveik Kalra), wracked by uncertainty and buffeted by abuse from bigots, finds his first real sense of purpose through his love of the music of Bruce Springsteen. Based loosely on the experiences of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light is exuberant and pedestrian all at once. Even as the film cycles through the most familiar beats — familial conflict, sweet romance that turns rocky before being salvaged — it effectively captures the unshakeable sensation of newfound belonging when a great music discovery bores into the very soul. I’d be far less charitable about director Gurinder Chadha’s choice to regularly render lyrics as words on screen when our hero listens to Springsteen if not for the fact that I must concede it’s a reasonable approximation of how prominently those same words exploded for me when I was a teenager enthralled by the Boss’s expressions of melancholy rebellion and wounded romanticism.

The Last One — Sword of Trust

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Sometimes in pop culture there are clear end points, and they can provide insights to a whole series, oeuvre, or discography.

Sword of Trust has a hooky comedic premise. A gruff Birmingham pawn shop proprietor named Mel (Marc Maron) is offered an odd artifact from the estate of a released deceased residents. The man’s granddaughter (Jillian Bell) and her romantic partner (Michaela Watkins) bring in an old Union Army sword accompanied by documentation that purportedly proves the rusty weapon was presented in surrender to a Confederate general, thereby proving the South won the U.S. Civil War, an alternative fact that holds enormous appeal to a problematically sizable contingent of disgruntled bigots. This isn’t an item that just gets hung on the wall next to battered old guitars, so Mel and his employee (Jon Bass) seek out some angry, well-bankrolled conspiracy theorists online, leading the two of them, as well as the women who found the sword, getting lured into a scenario of clandestine transport and other signs of escalating threat.

This is the kind of comedy that could have become a loud, clumsy farce, and the presence of former Saturday Night Live writer (and briefly cast member) Mike O’Brien as co-credited writer suggests the material could have easily gone through the Lorne Michaels sausage factory to become a vehicle for the bleating antics of one of his cornerstone program’s many alumni. Instead, Sword of Trust is rescued by the other person credited on the screenplay, Lynn Shelton. The veteran indie filmmaker also directs Sword of Trust, giving plenty of improvisational leeway to her cast to help build the verisimilitude needed to give the film some heft and meaning beyond its clever gimmick. As was the case in some of her earlier films that had similar high concept prompts — most notably the 2009 feature Humpday, largely considered her breakthrough — Shelton is only interested in the novel narrative mechanics insofar as they provide an entryway to understand real people. In her correct assessments, funny reactions are only funny if they’re grounded in deep, resonant honesty.

The instigating device in Sword of Trust naturally gives Shelton a chance to make some political points, mostly expounding on the troubling absurdity of zealots of hate. But that’s not the most affecting part of the film. Instead, the real heart of it comes from a side story in which Shelton literally plays a role. The director casts herself as Deirdre, an ex of Mel who he still has feelings for, even as he’s felt obligated to box her out of his life because of recurring substance abuse problems. She arrives at the shop looking to pawn a ring. She says it’s because she needs to repair her car so she can get to the new job where she’s doing well. Mel believes the transaction will instead fund another cycle of self-destruction, so he refuses. The emotional skirmish hangs over the film because it hangs over Mel, and Maron has a wonderful scene in which he recounts a whole bittersweet history with a survivors weariness.

Sword of Trust, then, isn’t made to engage in easy mockery of Confederacy apologists or to merely give thrillers a funny spin. At the core, it’s about something real and poignant. It’s about the many ways people struggle to relate to one another, identifying their wounds and trying ever so gently to heal them. I liked a lot of Sword of Truth, but what I’ll remember most clearly is the look on Deirdre’s face — on Shelton’s face — as she tries to make this man she cares about understand that this time is different, this times she’s better, this time she’ll come through if she gets a little help. There is hope and history at once, and Shelton acknowledges that they are operating in conflict. Because that’s what Shelton is interested in, and it’s what she was always interested in. Movingly, she made films to help us understand that we are all complicated and that the complication need not be an impediment. It’s what makes us beautiful.

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the Last One tag.

Then Playing — American Made; Dark Phoenix; Hellboy

american made

American Made (Doug Liman, 2017). Now that Tom Cruise has moved entirely into the phase of his career that involves constantly putting his own well-being in peril to the delight of the audience, more serious fare — even something as aspirationally gonzo as American Made — sits very awkwardly on his gym-sculpted shoulders, mostly because he apparently is going to operate with the same lunatic zeal no matter what. In playing Barry Seal, a pilot who both smuggled drugs and worked for U.S. government agencies during the nineteen-seventies and -eighties, Cruise can’t quite figure out the source of the character’s opportunism, amorality or pure survival instinct. Director Doug Liman is similarly confused, making no real distinction between the mounting of schemes and the points at which they’re moving recklessly forward under their own momentum. The whole movie is the Goodfellas sequence where Henry is so coked up that he gives equal import to helicopters following him and his brother tending the tomato sauce.

 

dark phoenix

Dark Phoenix (Simon Kinberg, 2019). Having already signed his name to the screenplay of one botched adaptation of the X-Men comic book story known as the Dark Phoenix saga, Simon Kinberg evidently wanted another crack at it. And he felt so strongly about the cinematic do-over than he decided to make it his feature directorial debut, too. Using the versions of Marvel’s merry mutants established in the film X-Men: First Class, Kinberg tracks the tragic tale of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a mutant with psychic and telekinetic abilities who is infused with the awesome power of the Phoenix Force, leading her to dabble in malevolence. Kinberg makes the same mistake as he did before, jettisoning nearly everything that made the original story work in a desperate hunt for cool movie mayhem. Perhaps nothing is more damning of Kinberg’s rendering of the story than the moral churn Jean’s friends go through in defending her is handled more artfully in a forty-year-old comic book that was created with adolescents in mind. Dark Phoenix is little more than a good guy who becomes a bad guy and everyone shouts and grimaces around her as it happens. Turner isn’t very good in the title role, but she’s hardly alone in underwhelming. All of the actors show signs of indifference, none more so than Jennifer Lawrence, playing shapeshifter Mystique for the fourth time with the benumbed spirit of contractual obligation.

 

hellboy

Hellboy (Neil Marshall, 2019). This absolutely disastrous attempt to reboot the film series featuring Hellboy, Mike Mignola’s dandy comic book character, suffers from a lack of purpose and an even more gaping absence of creative vision. Working from a screenplay by Andrew Cosby, Neil Marshall slings a lot of stuff on screen with little feel for logic or wit. Taking over the title role, David Harbour does a lot of yelling and comes across as merely flabbergasted any time an expression of more intricate emotion is required. The movie is glued together like a broken mirror with several shards missing and others put in upside down.

Then Playing — Alita: Battle Angel; A White, White Day; Harlan County, U.S.A.

alita battle angel

Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez, 2019). Based on a nineteen-nineties manga series, Alita: Battle Angel is right in line with all the other sci-fi lite and reductive girl power product that bears the sticky fingerprints of James Cameron, who produces this feature and is credited as a co-writer. Alita (Rosa Salazar, in a motion-capture performance) is a cyborg girl in the twenty-sixth century, revived without memories from a mechanical surgeon (Christoph Waltz) who alternates between kindly and cranky. There’s a dreamy boy (Keean Boy) for Alita to pine after, a nefarious power structure for her to rebel against, and a riff on rollerball where she can prove her physical mettle. Robert Rodriguez directs capably — the action set pieces are blandly imagined but rendered with welcome clarity — but there’s only so much that can be done with material this hackneyed. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are shockingly bland in supporting roles.

 

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A White, White Day (Hlynur Pálmason, 2020). This Icelandic thriller starts off promisingly before sort of losing its way in its final act, but the lead performance by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson is powerful all the way through. He plays a former police officer and recent widower who has a loving, attentive relationship with his granddaughter (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) and harbors a deep well of anger, the latter exacerbated when he begins to discover secrets involving his departed wife (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir). As a character study, A White, White Day is wise and graceful. The film grows weaker as the understated revenge plot asserts itself over observations about how this emotionally wounded man gets through his days. Director Hlynur Pálmason, who also penned the screenplay, has a shrewd eye for visuals and manages pacing that is deliberate without growing languid.

 

harlan county

Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976). The feature debut of documentarian Barbara Kopple remains dismayingly pertinent nearly five decades after the events it depicts. Kopple effectively embedded herself with Kentucky coal miners as they went on strike against Duke Power in the early nineteen-seventies, capturing the weariness of the struggle for better wages and safer working conditions. There’s a remarkable thoroughness to what she captures, including the sniping interplay of labor activists who feel their cohorts aren’t doing enough to the blatant — and, it should be noted, highly illegal — tactics used by the “gun thugs” employed by Duke to intimidate the strikers. Kopple is measured, but not particularly even-handed. She sees injustice and cruelty and depicts it accurately. It is a quintessential example of storytelling and advocacy combined to share a hard truth. But the film is no bland history lesson. It’s also thoroughly engaging, mostly by astutely capturing the personalities of everyone on camera. I could have happily spent a couple hours watching the conversation between a New York City police officer and miner picketing in front of the stock exchange. Harlan County, USA is a tremendous piece of work and deserves further credit for setting the rough template and fundamental knowledge Kopple would use several years later to top herself.

Then Playing — Foreign Correspondent; The Rape of Recy Taylor; In Fabric

foreign c

Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). Alfred Hitchcock’s second Hollywood picture is basically a trial run for all slam-bang entertainments that would follow in his career. On the leading edge of World War II, a New York newspaper sends a metro crime reporter (Joel McCrea) to Europe, hoping that his bulldog instincts will yield hotter stories than the usual foreign correspondents’ drab transcribing of diplomatic pronouncements. Sure enough, our dogged journalist stumbles upon a broad scheme of espionage, centered on the faked assassination and kidnapping of a Dutch official (Albert Bassermann), which allows Hitchcock to play around with a regular Joe thrust into extraordinary circumstances, a longtime favorite scenario. Hitchcock’s almost unrivaled command of the mechanics of narrative cinema is fully in evidence in Foreign Correspondent, even if his greater ingenuity only flits in now and then. A set piece inside a raggedy windmill is prime example of the Master becoming the Master. The film is probably most notable for its startlingly direct efforts in urging U.S. audiences to support their nation coming to the aid of European nations beset by the aggressions of Nazi forces. It’s a remarkable example of plain entertainment as stern political advocacy.

 

recy taylor

The Rape of Recy Taylor (Nancy Buirski, 2017). As the title suggests, Nancy Buirski’s documentary isn’t an easy watch. As best she can without diminishing the crime, Buirski tries to be relatively restrained in recounting the violent sexual assault perpetrated on Alabama woman Recy Taylor in 1944, perhaps because there’s plenty of outrage to be had from the institutionalized injustice that followed. Taylor was blocked by bigotry at every turn, her basic human dignity cast aside in favor of the perceived importance of preserving the reputations of the white teens who took her to the outskirts of town and raped her. Even decades after the fact, after the Alabama legislature (hardly a hotbed of woke activism) voted to issue an official apology to Taylor, Buirski can still find heartless ghouls, such as a self-proclaimed state historian, who will gladly signal their disdain for her and her story to the camera. The intent of the documentary in unassailable, but it sometimes feels like Buirski is straining to get limited material to feature length. With little archival footage of Taylor available, Buirski relies heavily on old movie dramatizations of similar crimes, and a long digression about Rosa Parks, who took up Taylor’s case as part of her activism, is interesting but feels out of place. Mainly, the passage about Parks implicitly makes the case that the Civil Rights icon is overdue for a fresh documentary about her life, one that showcases the amazing range of her social justice efforts beyond that one day on the bus.

 

in fabric

In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2019). A wild, warped horror film and consumer culture satire, In Fabric swirls its narrative around the vicious acts perpetrated by a sentient, murderous red dress. Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a divorced woman struggling with a series of cloddish men as she reenters the dating scene. In an effort to boost her self-esteem, she springs for a lush new garment. As hoped for, the dress turns heads, but it also swoops ominously around the flat at night and thrashes the washing machine into metallic debris. Writer-director Peter Strickland is admirably committed to the bit and occasionally approaches levels of bleak, weirdo comedy not seen much in this type of fare since the days when David Cronenberg was at his most delightfully unhinged. The gag isn’t strong enough to sustain the film’s nearly two-hour running time, though, and it grows deeply boring well before the conclusion. Fatma Mohamed gives a consistently amusing performance as a department store clerk with a proclivity for ornate language and ludicrously complex sentence structures.

Then Playing — Zombieland: Double Tap; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; A Separation

zombieland double

Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019). This sequel to Ruben Fleischer’s winning horror-comedy of a decade earlier isn’t good, but its pedestrian nature is almost charming. It calls to mind a bygone era, when new installments of film series were less preoccupied with world-building and instead just slapped together more of the same with the most modest of additions and expected audiences to queue up for the undemanding reassurance of the familiar. In an era of expanded cinematic universes, Zombieland: Double Tap is a Beverly Hills Cop II for whoever might need it. The film reunites the original quartet of geographically-named survivors of a zombie apocalypse, and sends them traipsing around the dystopian landscape with vaguely defined goals. The narrative moves forward because it must, and everyone is game enough. It’s nice that Emma Stone returned, presumably out of loyalty, but it’s also odd to see her stroll through a role that she now seems well beyond, like a PhD student returning to middle school for a little intellectual batting practice. Only Zoey Deutch truly impresses, injecting sparkling comic verve into her Midwestern valley girl.

 

hale county

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018). This documentary relies on feel and impression rather than a conveyance of cold, hard facts. The film lands somewhere in between the patient, unadorned observations regularly delivered by Frederick Wiseman and the more overt visual poetry of a more experimental film, such Robert Persons’s General Orders No. 9. While working as a coach and teacher in Western Alabama, RaMell Ross decided to capture the lives of his fellow residents — largely African-Americans subsisting on lower incomes — in an attempt to give expression to a marginalized community. There’s beauty to Ross’s filmmaking, but it’s also telling that Hale County This Morning, This Evening works about as well condensed down to a trailer as it does as a full-length feature. In opting for glances rather than commitment, Ross makes a film that provides more of an introduction than an understanding.

 

separation

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011). An absolute powerhouse from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, A Separation begins as a married couple — Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Payman Maadi) — meets in family court to discuss their differences. She wants to move away from Iran, he feels obligated to stay because of his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), and neither wants to be away from their teenaged daughter (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own offspring). At a seeming stalemate, Simin moves out, and the decisions that follow cascade into major problems for Nader. Farhadi brings incredible psychological insight to the narrative, with every turn emanating directly and clearly from established aspects of the well-drawn characters. Pride and stubbornness prove to be especially troublesome instincts. The storytelling in handled with enviable elegance, and Farhadi’s visual sense is unerring. Although framed as a melodrama rather than a thriller, Farhadi’s film anticipates Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in its astute and ingenious exploration of social divisions.

Then Playing — Bacurau; Maiden; Through a Glass Darkly

bacarau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, 2020). A wooly mash-up of a modern Western, a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, and a roaring revenge potboiler, this Brazilian film is gonzo is all the right ways. Well, it’s probably more accurate to downshift that observation to most of the right ways, since Bacurau, both co-written and co-directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, also has a tendency for overindulgence in its frothing mania, leading to a running time that would have benefited from some pruning and tightening up. The film’s title refers to the name of the backcountry town where a series of bloody skirmishes take place, mostly due to the incursion of international trophy hunters who’ve decided to train their rifle sights on human beings, arrogantly ignorant to the idea that these humble folk might be more than capable of responding in kind to the aggression. What elevates the film above its grindhouse instincts is a fiercely firing central nervous system of anti-colonialist commentary. The film offers a welcome and timely condemnation of capitalistic instincts that make moneyed individuals expect to operate with impunity.

 

Maiden

Maiden (Alex Holmes, 2019). The skillful documentary recounts the voyage of the good ship Maiden. An aspiring sailor who was frustrated by the chauvinism she faced when trying to join established crew for major competitions, Tracy Edwards made her own opportunity, assembling a group of women to participate in the Whitbread Around the World Race, in 1989. With modern interviews and a plethora of old footage, director Alex Holmes tells the trailblazing story with assurance, tacking into the real details that play like gripping Hollywood heroism, including the elbow-grease refurbishment of a dilapidated ship and the mix of heartbreaking setbacks and spirit-boosting triumphs experienced by the Y chromosome–free tars. If someone isn’t already scrambling to mount a fictionalized film version with Florence Pugh as Edwards, then the movie business simply isn’t working right.

 

through a glass

Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961). This Ingmar Bergman family drama nabbed the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, giving his work the prize in back-to-back years. The film follows a family at their rustic island vacation home. They’re trying to settle into some warm, affectionate time together, but there are lingering shadows, partially due to the emotional distance of the author patriarch (Gunnar Björnstrand), but mostly because of lingering worry about the mental health of Karin (Harriet Andersson), who was recently institutionalized. As usual, Bergman navigates tricky terrain with a grim astuteness, capturing the large and small ways troubles come to the forefront, especially as people try to hold them in. Blessed with a part that calls for boldness, Andersson gives it her all, tearing into the heaviest, hardest moments with a bracing fearlessness. The great Max von Sydow gives a performance of graceful understatement as Karin’s husband, who struggles remain calm and positive despite mounting certainty that there’s no good outcome for him and Karin.

Then Playing — Doctor Sleep; On the Basis of Sex; The White Ribbon

doctor sleep

Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan, 2019). This long-gestated sequel to The Shining is an odd mash-up of Stephen King’s typical narrative tricks and a lavish tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s relentlessly examined 1980 film. Taking place a little more than thirty years after a caretaker’s cabin fever turning murderous during the off-season at the snowbound Overlook Hotel, Doctor Sleep finds adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) living a derelict life, self-medicating away his traumatic memories and intrusive mental powers. He gets clean just in time to start telepathically communing with a young girl (Kyliegh Curran) whose powers exceed his own, and are indeed so great they attract the attention of a cult-like gang that metaphysically feasts on others to extend their long lives. Inevitably, the conflict between good and evil leads right back to the confines of that spooky old hotel, still bearing the axe-marks of old. Like other exhumations of bygone cult favorites, the eager tribute references of Doctor Sleep grow wearying with great speed, no matter how nimbly director Mike Flanagan deploys some of them. The main problem with the film, though, is the performance of McGregor, who blandly rolls through scenes with no apparent connection to the intense, worrisome events around. Rebecca Ferguson fares far better as Rose the Hat, the leader of cruel power-cravers. Charismatic, and properly devilish, she livens up the proceedings every time she’s on screen.

 

basis of sex

On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder, 2018). A perfunctory yet solid film biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), On the Basis of Sex is mostly concerned with the casework seeking equal legal protections for women that were undertaken by the future Supreme Court Justice. There are few passing acknowledgments of her life outside of the determined effort to push the law in the right direction in the realm of gender equity, none of them all that engaging. There’s no question the bout with cancer endured by her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), was an important part of Ginsburg’s life journey, but the filmmakers can’t find their way to a compelling reason for that to be included. It’s there anyway. While it helps establish the famed RBG work ethic, that same characteristic is dramatized in different, stronger ways elsewhere in the movie. Things don’t start clicking until it’s all about the legal work, in part because that’s when everyone — Jones and director Mimi Leder, primarily — are clearly most invested. On the Basis of Sex is somehow solid and lacking at the same time.

 

white ribbon

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009). Director Michael Haneke takes his usual bleak assessment of humankind and applies to a story set in a rural community in the nineteen-tens, a place and time with no shortage of bleakness. Strange misfortunes start happening to area residents, leading to an intense sense of fright and portent. Combined with the usual vicious abuse exacted by parents and other authority figures against the most vulnerable, and a stew of misery starts simmering.  Haneke’s willingness to go straight at the toughest parts of his narrative gives the film a tensile strength, further enhanced by the stark, stunning, black-and-white cinematography of Christian Berger. The film’s theme of religion used an excuse to perpetrate cruel oppression unfortunately remains wildly pertinent, one full century after the film’s time frame. The White Ribbon is a powerful entry in Haneke’s impressive — if admittedly grueling — filmography.

Then Playing — Cold Pursuit; The Book of Henry; The Naked Spur

cold pursuit

Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland, 2019). Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland makes his English-language debut with a remake of one of his own previous features, presumably because the narrative framework was well-suite to the very-particular-set-of-skills era of Liam Neeson’s career. Neeson brings his Stonehenge-slab self to the role of Nels Coxman, a Colorado snowplow driver whose son (Micheál Richardson) is killed by members of a drug cartel. Nels launches himself into an obsessive scavenger hunt in which each new clues leads to a new outer orbit thug to dispatch as he moves ever closer to the kingpin (Tom Bateman) in charge of it all. The film is made slightly more distinctive than the usual Neeson action romp by its bleak sense of humor, manifested most clearly in the epitaph title cards that follow the howling death of each adversary. Bateman labels mightily but finally unsuccessful to inject the heavy with Alan Rickman levels of personality. Emmy Rossum fares better as a police officer whose enthused by the prospect of a major crime taking place in her sleepy mountain town.

 

book henry

The Book of Henry (Colin Trevorrow, 2017). This is a movie so disastrous in conception and execution that, by all appearances, it likely contributed to Colin Trevorrow getting ousted from the director’s chair for the ninth episode of the Star Wars saga. (It’s worth noting that Trevorrow’s plans for wrapping up the space-spanning series, leaked earlier this year, sound so much better than the inanities J.J. Abrams slopped onto the screen.) This drama with Spielbergian aspirations and a thoroughly warped sensibility concerns a single-parent household with two brothers, one a sweet, bullied kid (Jacob Tremblay, who’s really cornered the market on terrorized boys) and one an ultra-capable genius (Jaeden Martell) who plays the stock market in his spare time. When tragedy befalls the latter, he sends his frazzled, video game–loving mother (Naomi Watts) on a bizarre mission to rescue the pretty neighbor girl (Maddie Ziegler) from her abusive stepfather (Dean Norris). Wildly misguided in practically every way, The Book of Henry is the sort of film that leads to speculation about what sort of filmmaker’s-new-clothes scenario transpired that allowed it to get made in the first place. I’ve rarely seen such a bonkers narrative presented with inexplicable sincerity. By the time Watts’s matriarch is traipsing casually into mercenary mode, I found myself wishing for the cinematic equivalent of a mercy rule, freeing all involved from having to see this thing through.

 

naked spur

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953). This vicious Western stars James Stewart as Howard Kemp, an irritable bounty hunter who’s determined to collect the $5000 reward offered for bringing in murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). The task is complicated by the shifting motives of others who wind up in the traveling party, including a luckless prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a military man (Ralph Meeker) who was recently given his dishonorable discharge. Vandergroat nurtures the dissension in the group, sometimes aided by his comely traveling companion, Lina (Janet Leigh). Inevitably, The Naked Spur is hampered by some of the stodginess of its era — not to mention the unpleasant gender dynamics that send Lina tumbling into Howard’s arms for no reason other than Stewart’s top billing — but the lean storytelling often engages, especially as Ben plies his psychological manipulations with joyful malice. If it’s not particularly subtle villainy, Ryan having the time of his life in the role is fine compensation for the lack of nuance.

Then Playing — Gideon’s Army; They Drive By Night; Five Feet Apart

gideons army

Gideon’s Army (Dawn Porter, 2013). This documentary examines the grueling, perpetually disheartening work undertaken by public defenders, vital contributors to the principle of equal justice that are severely undervalued. The prevailing storytelling scheme of the day calls for picking a couple cases and follow them through. Director Dawn Porter doesn’t entirely set aside this approach, but the through line cases are visited and revisited in a more sidelong way. She’s concerned with the lawyers actually under the strain of serving the system, assessing their different relationships with the nobility of their work and the echoing inside their respective bank accounts. The film lacks polish, which somehow seems appropriate to the creative mission. Documentary filmmaking is its own form of serving the greater good with only the weakest hope of making a decent living. Gideon’s Army isn’t meant to stir or inspire. Instead, it offers a clear-eyed view of the willful neglect of a primary protections for U.S. citizens.

 

drive by night

They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940). Based on a 1938 novel by A.I. Bezzerides, this pulpy drama use the plight of truckers as a jumping off point, but eventually incorporates all manner of sordidness, including the requisite femme fatale (Ida Lupino, in a ferocious performance). Director Raoul Walsh knows his way around this sort of material more than most, and he crafts the film with the appropriate interplay of gallows humor and headlong conflict, coming up with the occasionally sly visual, probably smothered in shadows. The film is peppered with colorful performances, including Humphrey Bogart as a hangdog trucker, Alan Hale, Sr. as a guffawing company boss, and Ann Sheridan as a sardonic waitress who gets all the best lines until the dictates of the era relegate her to simpering love interest, a development that happens as quickly and easily as snapping on headlights.

 

five feet apart

Five Feet Apart (Justin Baldoni, 2019). Built like an young adult novel adaptation, Five Feet Apart is actually an original work, albeit one based on a real couple that inspired the press to routinely evoke John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in covering their sad, lovely story. Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse) are both teenaged cystic fibrosis patients accustomed to regular hospitalizations. She’s bravely optimistic and regimented. He’s pessimistic and sloppy about his own care. Naturally, they fall for each other, and the film is largely a chronicle of their bittersweet romance with conditions that mandate they stay six feet apart from one another at all times (the five feet of the title is an act of defiance). In his feature debut, director Justin Baldoni handles the material with care and just enough inventiveness to make the mundane, predictable story work, at least until the last act which amps up the drama to level of overt manipulation and, in turn, painful implausibility. Sprouse is solid in his role, but it’s Richardson who continues to prove herself one of the strongest young actors working regularly and prominently in film today. She brings an easy authenticity to every moment, including small, strategic flickers that convey major emotions. Given the chance, she could be her generation’s equivalent of Michelle Williams. She has that kind of talent and onscreen immediacy.