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.

Then Playing — Godzilla: King of the Monsters; The Hustle; The Dead Don’t Die

godzilla

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Michael Dougherty, 2019). By now, Hollywood has offered up a mountain of evidence of their collective inability to do right by the fire-breathing behemoth first brought to the screen by Toho Studios and director Ishirō Honda over sixty-five years ago. Let’s send this to the jury and be done with it already. Clearly overcompensating for complaints about director Gareth Edwards’s decision to slow play the action in Godzilla, released in 2014, the filmmakers behind this sequel opt for all carnage all the time. Concocting a nonsensical narrative to incorporate modernized versions other famous monsters who popped up in various Godzilla films over the years — such as Mothra and Rodan — writer-director Michael Dougherty (he’s co-credited with Zach Shields on the screenplay) opts for the shammy storytelling approach once mastered by the team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (who once took their own crack at Godzilla), populating the screen with generically colorful characters mired in the most hackneyed interpersonal conflicts and having them peer fretfully upwards at digitally rendered destruction. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an exhausting slog.

 

hustle

The Hustle (Chris Addison, 2019). Stanley Shapiro is one of the credited screenwriters of The Hustle, an impressive feat considering he’s been dead for almost thirty years. Co-screenwriter Paul Henning has been gone for a mere fifteen years. That attests to how much this new feature carries over the fundamentals of Bedtime Story, the 1964 con artist comedy on which it’s original based. Dale Launer, writer of the 1988 remake, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is similarly given his due in the credits, leaving one to wonder how much work there was to do for newcomer Jac Schaeffer, Marvel Studios’ go-to writer for their girl movies. She certainly didn’t come up with anything especially novel for stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, both of whom deliver variants of their well-worn screen schtick. Chris Addison directs the film with an apparent disregard for maintaining energy or even any particular level of craft. The Hustle is a two-minutes pitch unconvincingly disguised as a whole movie.

 

dead dont die

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch, 2019). It’s difficult to fathom what Jim Jarmusch thinks he’s up to with The Dead Don’t Die. Does he think he’s making a spoof of zombie movies? Or maybe it’s meant to be a broader social and political satire? Filled with painfully unfunny meta moments (Adam Driver’s small-town cop is sure this is going to end badly because, he reports, he’s read the entire script), the film wants to have its brains and eat them, too. Unlike Jarmusch’s 2014 vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive, there’s no wit nor cleverness to this appropriation of a popular supernatural genre typically deemed outside the realm of achingly indie filmmakers. The trademark deadpan of the filmmaker serves the material especially poorly, giving the whole project a shockingly amateurish air. It’s borderline miraculous to see a film so drained of joyful spirit that the casting of Tilda Swinton as a samurai sword–wielding Scottish woman is devoid of fun.

Then Playing — Richard Jewell; Men in Black: International; Terminator: Dark Fate

richard jewell

Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood, 2019). Another entry in Clint Eastwood’s late career run of pedantic, politically confused prestige dramas, Richard Jewell follows the title security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) during the grueling stretch after his discovery of a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics, held in Atlanta, led to him becoming the prime suspect — the scapegoat, really — in the crime. Scripted by Billy Ray, the film alternates between measured considerations of the media-fueled rush to judgment and cheap embellishments obviously meant to juice the narrative. The film was rightly castigated for its depiction of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), but the most commonly cited offense (sleeping with an FBI agent, played by Jon Hamm) might actually be the least of the filmmakers’ sins in the dramatization. As played by Wilde, the journalist is such as rampaging fiend that she might as well have snakes for hair. And then her sympathies abruptly flip, solely because it’s time for the film’s third act to get underway. This chunk of the story is a major flaw that completely undermines the film’s valuable points about distortions of truth, perpetrated by law enforcement officially and parroted by an acquiescent media, to suit a clamor for instant tidiness in matters of public justice. But Eastwood’s not a filmmaker suited to the nuance of this sort of moral dilemma. He merely sets pots to boiling and moves on, thoroughly disinterested in any answers posited to the questions he raised.

 

min int tessa

Men in Black: International (F. Gary Gray, 2019). It’s getting more and more difficult to remember than the original Men in Black, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and released in 1997, was a charming, engaging movie, merging comedy, buddy cop action, and science fiction playfulness in an utterly novel way. Except for one delightfully oddball Michael Stuhlbarg performance, the sequels are largely woeful, and the recent attempt to revive the whole endeavor, with a couple Ragnarok compatriots on board, is yet worse. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are astoundingly charmless as the latest mildly mismatched partners in policing otherworldly expatriates. In their defense, making any sort of positive impression in the midst of this much dim, unimaginative clamor would be a challenge that could fell the most effortlessly charismatic movie stars. F. Gary Gray directs like he’s sorry he got out of bed in the morning.

 

t dark fate

Terminator: Dark Fate (Tim Miller, 2019). As if constructed to decisively prove that not every successful movie should be stretched into endless installments, Terminator: Dark Fate borrows the rhythms of its most satisfying predecessors — particularly Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which jockeys with The Abyss for the distinction of being the best film directed by James Cameron — and makes them into a fading echo. The plot involves time travelers from the future dispatched to muck around in the present, various implausible robotics, and hefty vehicles and weaponry pushed to their limits. There’s sacrifice and trite wartime melodrama, and it all feels completely hollowed out by the straining machinery of franchise preservation. There are a scattered moments of wit — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s well-worn robot expounding on learned considerations in the field of interior design comes to mind — and Mackenzie Davis remains a real star awaiting the right vehicle, but most of the film is flatly forgettable.

Then Playing — Bombshell; Harriet; Pain and Glory

bombshell

Bombshell (Jay Roach, 2019). I assume there is noble intent behind the presence last year of two major productions dramatizing the toxic, misogynistic work environment at Fox News. I cant’ speak to the Showtime limited series that covered the same ground, but Bombshell squanders its attempt at speaking truth to power (or at least about power) by completed failing in its responsibility to turn facts into drama. As he did with his films about the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election and the emergence of Sarah Palin on the national stage, both made for HBO, director Jay Roach is strikingly artless in his approach to the material, treating the consequence-heavy stagecraft of modern politics like a middle school rumor mill. He evidently thinks it’s the height of daring to reveal that a media outlet built around propagating a disgusting, retrograde worldview also treats its employees poorly. Charlize Theron does an able impression of Megyn Kelly (aided by some impressive makeup), but there’s no depth to the portrayal. The only performance that transcends novelty is that of Margot Robbie, playing an entirely fictional character meant to be a catch-all for the negative experiences the less-famed victims of the corporation’s culture of unchecked sexual harassment. She’s only actor on screen who decided to play a person rather than an agitated talking point.

 

harriet

Harriet (Kasi Lemmons, 2019). This film biography of Harriet Tubman (played with force and compassion by Cynthia Erivo) is susceptible to some of the most common flaws of the form, notably dramatic stiffness and the intrusion of mysticism as a storytelling shortcut. By avoiding the detailed difficulties Tubman and her fellow abolitionists faced when transporting slaves to freedom (some of her most crucial decisions are made after fainting spells that she attributes to God pouring useful knowledge into her), director Kasi Lemmons undercuts her own film, making the journeys less harrowing and, therefore, the tragedy less tragic. Despite its flaws, Harriet has a pull, mostly because Lemmons cannily stages scenes of Harriet’s emergence as a central figure in the movement with the veneer of assumed heroism usually reserved for the likes of General Patton and whoever Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson has decided to deify on screen with one of their leadenly imperious directorial efforts. In a way, the squareness of the film gives it an exciting tingle of cinematic revolution.

 

pain glory-001

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar, 2019). This highly personal film from Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar is basically a character study of Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a much-celebrated movie director who has retreated from his craft and from society, largely because of physical ailments. The movie alternates between his present day, as he makes amends with old acquaintance and gradually emerges from his solitude, and a look at his childhood (Salvador is played as a boy by Asier Flores), marked by poverty, love for his resourceful mother (Penélope Cruz), and the feelings stirred up by a local handyman (César Vicente) with an artist’s soul. The film is low-key and lovely, movingly preoccupied with the grace that comes with accepting the truth of one’s self and others. The film’s prime attribute is the performance of Banderas, bringing care and nuance to the portrait of a deeply wounded man summoning the wherewithal to persist. In all its particulars, Pain and Glory is a strong film. Banderas’s acting takes it one level higher, nearer to the point of exquisite poignancy.

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.