Then Playing — Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Judy; For Sama

portrait

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019). Set near the close of the eighteenth century, Céline Sciamma’s achingly refined, French drama is about a female artist (Noémie Merlant) who is recruited to surreptitiously paint the portrait of a difficult subject (Adèle Haenel) as a gesture on behalf of her absent fiance, a Maltese count she has been handed off to against her wishes. Coexisting in a sprawling seaside home, mostly with only a servant girl (Luàna Bajrami) as company, the two women gradually form a bond that further blossoms in tender, hungry romance. Aided by Claire Mathon’s enticing cinematography, Sciamma crafts a lovely film that takes great care with its central relationships. If Portrait of a Lady on Fire is occasionally a little chilly and stilted, that only places it properly on the continuum of French cinema. At its most piercing, the film depicts the firm solidarity developed by women in a society that too often disregards them. Sticking together — in a variety of ways — is the only rational response.

 

judy

Judy (Rupert Goold, 2019). This biopic of Judy Garland uses the framework of a late-career stint delivering concert performances in London in an attempt to scratch together some meager earnings after Hollywood abandoned her. Most of the film is given over to Renée Zellweger twitching, reeling, and seething as the older Garland, with the occasionally flashback to her days as a teen star (Darci Shaw plays the younger Garland), suffering the casual cruelty of studio control. The abuse of the past helps explain the pill-popping of the future. Zellweger brings the gusto of revival to her performance, including several scenes of singing from the stage in which she does a laudable job of capturing Garland’s signature vocal phrasing and sheer power (diminished as it was by the time in question). It’s a showcase part, and there’s listen of interest in the film beyond it. Rupert Goold directs with a workmanlike blandness, and most of the side characters are mere cogs, though Finn Wittrock manages a few sharpened moments of genial hucksterism as Mickey Deans, Garland’s fifth husband.

 

for sama

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019). Appropriately harrowing and heartbreaking, this documentary provides an unflinching look at what it was like to be on the ground in Aleppo when the city was being ruthlessly bombarded by Syrian military forces and their international supporters. Still a teenager and a college student when the extended Battle of Aleppo began, Waad al-Kateab was also a budding visual journalist. She trained her camera on the mayhem around her, the most powerful footage arguably shot in the hospital operated by her romantic partner, a physician sympathetic to the Syrian rebels protest the nation’s morally corrupt leadership. Working with English filmmaker Edward Watts, Al-Kateab assembles her material with a smart balance between the personal (particularly the birth and infancy of her daughter, who lends the film its title) and the broader impact of blithe geopolitical marauding. For Sama shows the devastating results of war without ever tipping over into exploitation. And the storytelling and the images are so compelling, it’s almost a surprise — and definitely rouses a flare of anger over injustice — that the film doesn’t end with a graphic explaining exactly which government officials were hauled to The Hague to answer for their war crimes.

Then Playing — Under the Silver Lake; Apollo 11; Joker

under silver

Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell, 2019). No one quite knew what to do with writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the indie horror hit It Follows. A shaggy modern detective story, Under the Silver Lake plays like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye if it were made in our current era, when information overload sends vulnerable minds spinning like turbines as they mentally map all manner of conspiracy. Andrew Garfield plays Sam, an idle Angeleno whose attraction to one of his neighbors (Riley Keough) — and her mysterious disappearance — leads him to scuffle around the city in search of answers, finding cryptic clues that heighten his suspicions of a stealth system perpetuating society’s nasty power imbalance. Purposefully unwieldy, the film occasionally falls out of Mitchell’s control and letting the running time edge close to two and a half hours feels less like a reasoned choice and more like an exasperated concession to the impossibility to drawing all the ideas together into a smart, tight narrative. And yet when one of Mitchell’s notions really clicks — as in the scene with a character billed only as Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb) — Under the Silver Lake sparkles with kooky originality.

 

apollo 11

Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019). Gifted with the discovery of ample previously unreleased footage shot around NASA around the time of the mission that first sent astronauts cavorting across the surface of the moon, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller stitches together a documentary that depicts the monumental undertaking. There’s no narration or explanatory commentary. Instead, Miller relies almost entirely on the old footage, which effectively expresses the enormity of the achievement while focusing on the simple, human element, notably that this feat was accomplished by a large group of government employees (admittedly quite exceptional government employees) just doing their jobs. The lack or adornment is admirable, but it also causes the film to occasionally drag. Sometimes a little added context — a touch of retrospective marveling by someone with the knowledge base and communication skill to explain the precise scale of what happened, for example — is a net positive. As a museum piece, Apollo 11 is impressive. As a film, it could use a booster rocket here and there.

 

joker

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019). There’s a decent movie lurking deep inside Todd Phillips’s self-consciously grim reimagining of Batman’s arch enemy. There’s also little indication Phillips knows how to emphasize the best elements. Insights about class-based condescension and the ways a crumbling social safety net causes harm to the most vulnerable members of a community are brushed impatiently aside so Phillips can slavishly ape superior Martin Scorsese antihero dramas from decades past. Borrowing from one of the most masterful filmmakers of the past fifty years at least inspires Phillips to raise the level of his bare craft. Joker is strewn with striking images, and the contributions of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, editor Jeff Groth, and score composer Hildur Guðnadóttir are all first-rate. It’s Phillips’s script (co-credited to Scott Silver) that ultimately sinks the film. The writing is glib and simplistic, the cheap boundary-pushing of Phillips’s Hangover films transferred to a comic book movie setting with only the barest attempt to add depth that could give the film a reason for being beyond bland audience shock. And any time Phillips wedges in lore related to the famed denizens of Gotham City (the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents is depicted for the umpteenth time), the film grinds with tedium. Joaquin Phoenix gives it his all in the title role, but the film conspires against him, making his committed performance feel like one more motorcycle jump in a rattletrap stunt show.

Now Playing — 1917

1917

What hath Alfonso Cuarón wrought? When the director peppered his masterful film Children of Men with action sequences that unfolded in long, unbroken takes (or at least appeared to so), he was hardly the first director to employ the technique. But he launched the modern version of single-shot storytelling, using tight control and rapidly advancing technology to make the viewer feel immersed in the tense travails of the characters, getting a real-time sense of how an ambush played out or how a battle across an urban landscape would feel, inch by perilous inch. Others have drawn on the lessons of that film in varying degrees, most notably Cuarón’s friend and countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu, who flew his seemingly seamless Birdman all the way to the top prize at the Oscars.

With 1917, director Sam Mendes takes the feature-length evasion of obvious edits and applies it to a story of war, presumably with a motivation akin to Cuarón’s quest the heighten the verisimilitude of his most dramatically fraught scenes. Set during the First World War, the film begins as two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay), are charged with a unique mission. They need to travel by foot across the ravaged French countryside to warn other British troops that the attack they are about to launch is doomed to failure. With little time and fewer resources, the pair cut across unfamiliar territory, scarred by assaults and littered with corpses.

Although Mendes drew on tales he heard from his grandfather, a World War I veteran, in shaping the screenplay (he shares a writing credit with Krysty Wilson-Cairns), 1917 smacks of most familiar war-time fiction. The task is simple and the stakes are clear, and any need to develop the characters beyond bland archetypes is shored up with emotional shortcuts, such as putting Blake’s brother among the uniformed men in grave danger. The brutality of war is of course bad enough all on its own, and Mendes clearly strives to accentuate the appalling futility of pitting armed individuals against one another to settle some conflict well removed the personal interest of those firing and being felled by the bullets. There’s a sad savagery to it all, and the century since the film’s setting clearly hasn’t imparted the wisdom needed to move beyond such insane aggressions.

If Mendes’s aim is to make the ordeal of the soldiers more forceful dramatically, the continuous-take tactic actually undermines the goal. Mostly, Mendes inadvertently makes the case for artful editing. Slack scenes of men walking from one test to another offers the reminder that cutting away the superfluous material heightens tension and added power to a piece of cinema. The technical feat is impressive, without a doubt. The management of narrative is far less effective. The mechanics of the filmmaking become central, pushing the worries, challenges, and fleeting triumphs of the characters to the margins.

As usual, it’s a pleasure to gaze upon the cinematography of Roger Deakins, particularly when Mendes orchestrates the plot to allow for some of Deakins’s typical wizardly in lighting and shooting battles at night. And a cameo by Andrew Scott, playing a commanding officer who’s clearly fed up with the war, offers a jolt of personality in a cast defined by sternly serious performance. These attributes enhance the film while simultaneously feeling somewhat apart from the whole experiment, as if they insinuated themselves accidentally and Mendes had to leave them in place so as not to collapse the scheme. For all its forthright boldness of execution, 1917 is an oddly fragile artifact. There’s a hollowness to it. I recognize Mendes’s attempt at poignancy, but I don’t feel it. A movie should be more than a feat of craftsmanship.

The Playing — Hustlers; The Lighthouse; Shazam!

hustlers

Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019). Based on a New York article, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is like Magic Mike with a low-level heist drama applied like glittery eye shadow. A group of exotic dancers at a high-end New York club need to make up for the abrupt drop in revenue when Wall Street high rollers are left with less disposable income due to the 2007 financial crisis. They target men who still have well-stocked bank accounts, drugging them and swiping cash off their handy credit cards. Naturally, the criminal scheme escalates and trouble follows. Among the cast, Jennifer Lopez has drawn the most accolades, and she impressively brings depth to the role while maintaining a useful layer of star power. Constance Wu is even more impressive in the true leading role, and there’s a dandy supporting turn by Lili Reinhart as a member of skimpily-clad crew who has a weak stomach, literally. Scarfaria brings immense panache to the directing, driving Hustlers with a vibrant energy that helps it overcome some its clunkier plot points and more tired framing devices.

 

lighthouse

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019). For his follow-up to The Witch, sticks with horror in the distant past. In the late eighteen-hundreds, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) row out to an isolated island to man a lighthouse for a multi-week stretch. The two are in conflict almost from the beginning, largely because Thomas takes his position as Ephraim’s superior as a mandate to deliver abuse. As their stint in the lighthouse goes on, cogent thinking and emotional checks start to dwindle. Then their relief doesn’t arrive due to a storm, and all hell breaks loose. The tight control of Eggers’s previous feature is also less in evidence, as he gleefully indulges in sordid imagery and bonkers behavior. Dafoe, in particular, is game for the mania, playing his peg-legged former tar as if he’s been asked to use his scenery-chewing abilities to strike the entire set. The Lighthouse is ultimately too unhinged to be fully effective, but the level of commitment from all involved is undeniably impressive.

 

shazam

Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019). Infused with joy and pronounced sense of playfulness, Shazam! should be put on the inspiration board next to Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman to give filmmakers a useful guideline for future screen adaptations of DC comic book stories. When fleeing bullies, young foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel) stumbles upon the underground home of a wizened wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Judging Billy to be true of heart, the wizard bestows special powers upon him. Speaking the word “Shazam” summons a lightning bolt that transforms Billy into a ludicrously buff costumed superhero. Henry Gayden’s screenplay derives knowing comedy from a child’s goofball innocence being applied to feats of physics-defying derring do, and director David F. Sandberg handles those stretches with a winning deftness. As Billy’s foster brother, a hero-obsessed boy who helps test the limits of the newly bestowed powers, Jack Dylan Grazer brings the same crack comic timing that made him one of the highlights of It. As is the case with most superhero films, the last act of Shazam! is a tedious pile-up of incoherent CGI action, stripping away some of the film’s cheery sheen.

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.

Now Playing — Uncut Gems

uncut gems

It is an odd, daring experiment to build a film around a protagonist who unfailingly does the wrong thing. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York City jewelry store proprietor whose skill at garish hucksterism is matched only by his compulsion to gamble away every modest stack of riches that comes him way, certain that windfalls are out there for the taking. As the film begins, Howard is beset by problems, the most menacing of which arrives in the form of hired goons insisting debts are coming due. But Howard also has a rock the size of a generous hunk of bread. Imported from Ethiopia, it contains black opals, and Howard is certain the stone will deliver him a payday of over a million dollars.

The wise course of action is to sit tight and see how the potentially life-changing situation plays out. That doesn’t work for Howard. He’s a hustler with no off switch, and the film revolves around his mounting desperation as he buckles himself into situational straitjackets beyond his meager escape artist capabilities to extricate himself from. Sibling directors Benny and Josh Safdie craft the film with a clear intent to transfer the tension Howard feels to the audience, pressing in tightly on Howard’s anguished face and thumping the soundtrack to almost unbearable levels. It’s bravura filmmaking, so relentlessly pushy that it becomes exhausting in the wrong ways. Although the character sketch is rendered with narrative consistency, the trials of Howard come across as screenwriting machinations rather than a wholly believable progression of events. There’s no suspense in waiting for the other shoe to fall when there’s a relentless downpour of footwear.

The most notable choice in the film is the casting of Sandler, making one of his occasional attempts at more substantive fare than his usual inane comedies built on obnoxious clamor and cartoon logic. As was the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, released almost twenty years ago, the new film provides the strange sensation of seeing Sandler basically play his signature onscreen persona in a serious way. Howard is a troublesome man-child with no regulator on his temper who also fumbles into moments of wounded vulnerability, all of which somehow makes him appealing to attractive women. With no finessing, that same description could be applied to any number of roles churned out under Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions banner. Sandler is suitable, but also can’t find a way to push deeper into the role. As a result, the baggage he brings makes Uncut Gems feel too much like a version of his typical movie where the slapstick happens to leaves a mark.

Now Playing — Little Women

little women

In breaking down Greta Gerwig’s new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to its individual components, the natural starting point for evaluation is the faithfulness of the adaptation. Alcott’s novel made its bow a few decades before there even was cinema, and it was already a beloved standard when director Alexander Butler became the first to bring it to the screen, in 1917. It has been made over and over again, by formidable figures such as George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, and Gillian Armstrong. By official count, Gerwig’s version is the seventh to grace movie theaters, and it comes at a time when there is arguably less patience for taking liberties with the classics in adaptation. Fidelity is a selling point, and Gerwig is remarkably true to the book, often pulling dialogue verbatim from Alcott’s pages.

And yet Gerwig’s Little Women is also immediately notable for the way it scrambles those pages. Alcott follows strict chronology in moving through the story of the four March sisters and those in their orbit, making one sizable leap forward in time at the halfway point. Gerwig moves back and forth between the two major time frames of the novel, finding the characters alternately in the throes of childish impulse and easing into the demands of young adulthood. Other cinematic storytellers using such a device often scramble events according to where they believe the dynamics of the plot best suit the needs and interests of the audience (when Tarantino has done it well, in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Volume 1, this is what he’s pulling off). With Little Women, Gerwig instead does it by feel. She might be shrewd and tactical in her decision-making, but the effect is to swoop scenes together according to their defining emotions. It’s easy to believe that the film is assembled the way Gerwig holds it in her heart, reconfigured after years of rereading and internalizing.

As much as the film feels like a pure expression of Gerwig’s relationship with the book, her enthusiasm manifests in a way that is expansive and generously collaborative. She assembles a wonderful cast and creates the room for them to incisively build the characters. Gerwig’s Lady Bird lead, Saoirse Ronan, has the plum role of Jo March, and works marvels with her adeptness at shifting back and forth between bravado and vulnerability, and sometimes showing how both divergent sensations exist in the same space at the same time. Eliza Scanlen captured Beth’s decency and fragility, Timothée Chalamet aches through the slow growth of next-door dreamboat Laurie, and Tracy Letts is vividly alive in a small role as Jo’s publisher. More than anyone, though, Florence Pugh commands the screen, playing Amy with a stirring forthrightness and blazing creativity.

Every scene is staged with an easy deftness and beauty, which builds up the internal credibility of Gerwig’s approach to the narrative until she takes an especially ingenious pivot in the closing scenes. Little Women, Gerwig’s film, is truest to Little Women, Alcott’s novel, by operating in a sort of dialogue with it. The movie ends as a celebration of storytelling itself, a testimony to the specialness of the original work. In doing so, Gerwig solidifies the certainty that she, too, is an uncommonly talented creator. Gerwig’s work is also destined to thrill, inspire, and endure.