Playing Catch-Up — Leaving Neverland; Blaze; Denial

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Now Playing — American Factory

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Documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar live in Dayton, Ohio, one of many Midwestern U.S. cities that has historically counted on manufacturing to provide gainful employment for the citizenry. When the community’s auto manufacturing facility shut its doors, in 2008, thousands were put out of work. Reichert and Bognar captured the economic body blow in the documentary short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, which earned an Academy Award nomination. Then the facility was repurposed after several years of vacancy, chosen as the flagship U.S. production center for Chinese glass manufacturing company Fuyao. For this new chapter, Reichert and Bognar again picked up their cameras.

With remarkable access and great moral clarity, American Factory traces the bumpy process of a Chinese company and U.S. workers adapting to each other. Fuyao’s founder and CEO, referred to consistently in the film as Chairman Cao, surveys his new company outpost with an air of villainous disregard, voicing his displeasure with everything from the efficiency of the workers to the placement of a security light. The employees are grateful for the new opportunity, but they’re also keenly aware that the pay is meager compared to the union-boosted wages of the bygone GM plant. Despite the stingy payroll, the Chinese managers can’t understand why the U.S. workers are disinclined to work through breaks, stay late, and punch in on the weekends. As the U.S. facility struggles to reach productivity goals and American managers are jettisoned, initial hopes rot into mutual contempt.

Reichert and Bognar share the story of the fledgling plant with sharply focused insight. There’s little doubt where their sympathies lie, even before the closing moments of the film deploy stark data about the likelihood of advancing automation technologies all but eradicating blue collar jobs in the near future. If the film sometimes lacks the riveting evenhandedness that distinguishes in its most exceptional cinematic ancestors (Barbara Kopple’s American Dream comes to mind), it still carries moments of bracing hard truth, like the U.S. manager whose vicious animosity towards union talk undergoes a sharp reversal after he’s cast aside by Chinese leadership.

And the directors bring a lovely deftness to the intermingling diverse worlds within the film, whether in taking note of the communication breakdowns that hamper production or sharing the sight of a seemingly gruff American manager moved to tears by a corporate pageant of cultural pride he watches when visiting China. Even when the standing differences turn comic — as when an American supervisor’s cynical joke about putting duct tape over the mouths of complaining workers is met with an earnest query from a Chinese counterpart about whether that approach is legally allowed in the U.S. — the moments undergird the film’s theses. With unerring methodology, the directors make certain every detail fits properly into the larger picture.

American Factory is further strengthened by exemplary cinematic craft. The film boasts lovely cinematography (credited to five individuals, including each of the directors) and crisp editing (by Lindsay Utz). Chad Cannon’s music score provides the perfect emotional undercurrent to the film, the documentary equivalent to the evocative immediacy John Williams routinely brought to fiction features. Each element further emphasizes the obvious care that went into American Factory, the clear commitment to only telling this vitally important story if it could be told well.

Playing Catch-Up — The Uninvited; The Last Black Man in San Francisco; Tickled

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The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944). Based on a Dorothy Macardle novel, director Lewis Allen’s feature directorial debut is widely cited as the first movie to depict ghosts as spectral entities that might actually exist in the world, moving amidst living beings because of some elusive unfinished business in the world. To at least some degree, every subsequent film that treats ghosts seriously can be traced back to this effort. In the film, siblings Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) impulsively purchase an abandoned manor on the coast of Cornwall, seeing it as a welcome refuge from the hustling stresses of the city. They soon find the house comes with a chilling added presence and launch efforts to determine how the troubled history of the previous owners might help explain the haunting. Allen achieves a nice gloomy atmosphere with the house, and the script — co-credited to Frank Partos and The Hundred and One Dalmatians novelist Dodie Smith — properly balances rapidly eroding incredulity with mildly exasperated wit. The leads are fine — both Milland and Hussey opt for a bland, capable approach fairly common in the nineteen-forties — but the supporting cast is peppered with wonderful, idiosyncratic turns, led by Alan Napier as a local physician roped into the supernatural sleuthing and Cornelia Otis Skinner as a menacing sanitarium operator.

 

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019). Scraping by the in the money-draining city of San Francisco, Jimmie (Jimmie Falls) is obsessed with the upkeep of a large Victorian house, causing him to sneak onto the property to tend the garden and touch up the paint when its residents are away. In this strange endeavor, he’s usually joined by his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken man always surveying his environs and then scribbling in his notebook, engaged in a seemingly permanent creative process. That’s the set-up of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the feature directorial debut of Joe Talbot. Drawn from the real experiences of Falls, the film is elegant and insightful, calling back to independent films of the nineteen-eighties and -nineties that delved deeply into characters existing in a distinct place and time. Talbot displays a talent for image construction that’s almost startling in its ability to find beauty in the mundane, and every bit of the film’s mechanics — Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography, Emile Mosseri’s music, David Marks’s editing — is utterly superb. Both main actors are vibrant in their roles, with Majors proving especially inventive in keeping the humanity prominent in a character that could have easily been reduced to an actorly stunt. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is absolutely extraordinary.

 

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Tickled (David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, 2016). In this documentary, New Zealand reporter David Farrier, who specializes in offbeat stories, is tipped off to the presence of tickling videos online featuring young adult men bound and subjected to skittering fingertips against sensitive areas likely to provoke giggle fits. Branded as if they’re part of a loopy sports league, the videos raises suspicions in the Farrier, and he quickly determines there might be more insidious motivations behind the fetishistic clips. He partners with producer Dylan Reeve for his onscreen detective work, including the occasional ambush interview, taken straight from Michael Moore’s now dog-eared playbook. Tickled is constructed with practiced looseness and unconvincingly feigned jolts of surprise reminiscent of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish. The basics might be true, but the presentation is overly reliant on cinematic hucksterism. There are callous opportunists to be found here, well worth exposing. But Tickled is wobbly in terms of its own creative ethics. The film undercuts itself.

Now Playing — The Farewell

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It’s a simple tenet, too often ignored. The more specific a work of art, the more likely the piece resonates with a thoroughly enmeshed truthfulness that approaches the universal. A film doesn’t need to be autobiographical to qualify, nor is realism necessarily a component. The chief reason Black Panther stands as the strongest entry to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is director Ryan Coogler’s impassioned adherence to this guideline. The Farewell, a markedly different film, meets this standard, too, and not solely because writer-director Lulu Wang drew from her own family’s experience in shaping the story. The film is special and uniquely moving because it is defined by a cultural specificity that is presented without condescension, to either the characters or the audience.

In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American living in New York City, struggling to make her way as an aspiring writer as she edges out of young adulthood. Billi has a strained relationship with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), so she draws a significant amount of emotional support from regular phone calls with her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), who still lives in China. When word comes back through family channels that the elderly woman has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s devastating to Billi, especially when she’s discouraged from attending a family reunion in China to effectively pay last respects, though it is done under the guise of a wedding. The family is opting not to share the diagnosis with the grandmother, under the premise that it’s a kinder course of action to keep her in the dark about the gravity of her illness. It’s thought that Billi will not be able to keep the secret. She attends anyway, and the film traces her experience in the country she left as a child and the tension she feels over the well-meaning but ethically debatable subterfuge.

Wang’s script is constructed with delicacy and care. The family dynamics are sketched in with just enough detail to give the actors room to explore, finding nuance in the restrained affection and verbal glancing blows. Every cast member responds marvelously, with Awkwafina and Shuzhen giving notably lived-in performances. Smartly, Wang shows all the tiny deceptions that flow through various human interactions, all chosen because sometimes proffering an untruth is the simplest course, harmless and more efficient. More than any expository lecture of Chinese cultural norms could be, this screenwriting choice provides the needed perspective.

Warm and wise, The Farewell is dynamic precisely because it doesn’t strain to achieve such a state, deploying histrionic speeches or cataclysmic reveals. If it sometimes feels a touch too sedate — especially in its relative lack of visual panache — that strikes me as a minor flaw, entirely forgivable because the eschewing of vivid dramatics is its own act of kindness. The film remains well clear of any sense of emotional cheapness or other easy exploitation of the scenario. In a lovely irony, a film about a grand, knotty lie succeeds because of its commitment to honesty.

Now Playing — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

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By now, it should be be no surprise that a new Quentin Tarantino film finds the filmmakers shuffling together all his good and bad instincts like the thick, blood-speckled cards of a tarot deck. Then they’re flipped up with a randomness that is reshaped into a semi-logical totality on the fly by the teller, often in direct contrast to what any reasonable intuition might infer. No, no, no, he jabbers insistently, the Death card is actually good!

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, duly pronounced Tarantino’s ninth film in promotional materials, is set in Southern California in 1969. The entertainment industry looms large in the narrative, mostly in the recounting of lonely ballad of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former big screen fixture and star of the TV western Bounty Law who’s slipping into professional irrelevancy, reduced to guest spots as cardboard villains to be dispatched at some point between the last commercial break and the closing credits. There are also Rick’s new neighbors, newlyweds Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), who represent the ascendancy of the generation that’s pushing the older creative personnel aside. As real figures introduced into Tarantino’s fiction, the couple also provides the impetus for the director to dig into the darker corners of the late-sixties California culture.

To get to the ranch where trouble is fomenting, Tarantino employs a character named Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s former stunt double and current jack-of-all-trades aide, driving the actor to and from the set, fixing items around the house, and providing pep talks. Cliff’s curiosity about a live wire hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) eventually puts him within the burbling menace of the community of hollow-eyed young disciples assembled by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who’s courting an especially narrow typecasting dilemma by also playing the insane monster in the upcoming season of Mindhunter). Before the film is complete, the brief connection proves significant.

To Tarantino’s credit, he operates essentially three distinctively story threads in a way that allows them all to be more of less satisfying. He’s not particularly deft in his juggling — his helpless love for languid set pieces essentially forces him to leave pots he’s set to bubbling unattended for longer than is ideal — but he largely makes the sprawling film feel cohesive and admirably, improbably tight. The more significant problem is the period details — in music selection, in art direction, in styling — that have been inserted into the film as delicately as a backhoe drops in a load of gravel. Especially in the first act, when Tarantino is establishing his world, the film can seem less of an exercise in storytelling and more of an excuse for the filmmaker to display the favorite things he acquired after going into a vintage shop and declaring he’d take it all. Very quickly, the material excess shifts from convincingly of the era to pure distraction.

Almost in defiance in its flaws, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood continuously reasserts itself as disarmingly compelling, mostly due to the conviction Tarantino and his collaborators bring to the intoxicating allure of the movies. Propelled by DiCaprio’s multi-layered performance — which, at times, seems to be lightly satirizing the floridness of his turn in Tarantino’s Django Unchained — the rickety endurance of Rick achieves an unexpected poignancy, and the perplexing underuse of Robbie is very nearly redeemed by the sweetly unguarded joy she conveys in the scene in which Sharon goes to a movie theater to watch her own performance in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. Tarantino’s obvious and genuine affection for the roiling history of U.S. cinema inserted into his work has previously come across as overly self-satisfied, predatory, and even mildly toxic. This film represents the first time his obsession plays as warm and movingly appreciative.

As has been the case in every movie bearing the director’s signature after the comparative control of Pulp Fiction, the new Tarantino joint is messy. Personal appreciation will depend on how the the filmmaker’s well-established tics registers with the individual viewer. Are they are joy, or are they an irritation? I’ve gradually drifted toward the latter camp, but I recognized the charms of — and was occasionally enthralled by — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Although I found plenty to dislike (mostly the borderline sadism of the grand finale, shaped by Tarantino’s now trademark vindictive revisionism), the more restrained, observant moments — Rick’s tentative pleasure in succeeding on set, Rick and Cliff smack-talking their way through an episode of The F.B.I. — managed to compensate. If nothing else, this film offers the least aggressively mannered dialogue of any Tarantino film, a small yet laudable feat.

I’m long past expecting Tarantino to restrain his oddly lowbrow pretensions enough to let his actual talent catch up. Creatively, he’s a typhoon that swirls up gemstones. Standing in his path mean gets buffeted, but riches are the reward. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood could be leaner, smarter, kinder, easily a half hour shorter. But then it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie, would it?

Playing Catch-Up — It Came from Outer Space; The Fastest Guitar Alive; At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal

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It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953). From the boom years of modestly budgeted, big studio science fiction, this tale of space creatures who alight on Earth is based on a story cooked by no less a luminary in the genre than Ray Bradbury. A spacecraft crashes in the Arizona desert and the shuffling, shaggy globules that emerge start body-snatching the locals as they work to repair their vessel. Characterizations are thin, the acting is stiff, and director Jack Arnold stages most scenes with a perfunctory efficiency. The film strives for social commentary on flaring prejudice against outsiders, but screenwriter Harry Essex lacks the acute sense of human psychology and adeptness at layering in moral underpinnings Rod Serling brought to similar storytelling in The Twilight Zone, which launched a few years later. There are definite charms to It Came from Outer Space, but they are entirely dependent on nostalgia. The film plays best as an artifact of a certain style and era.

 

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The Fastest Guitar Alive (Michael D. Moore, 1967). This dippy western likely contributed to Hollywood abandoning the notion of banging out star vehicles for rock ‘n’ roll singers. Roy Orbison plays Johnny Banner, who travels the range with a guitar equipped with a retractable rifle barrel. With his partner, Steve (Sammy Jackson), and a small fleet of dance hall girls, Johnny is on a spy mission for the Confederate Army in the waning waning days of the U.S. Civil War. There are double-crosses and other shenanigans galore, and the film stops dead every few minutes for a musical number, most co-written by Orbison. Predictably, Orbison isn’t a very good in the film (though his gentle urgency and halting cadence calls to mind the delightful William Sanderson at times), but his thespian talents don’t lag all that far behind those of his castmates, who claimed acting as their day jobs. The Fastest Guitar Alive is most painful in its flailing attempts at comedy, notably the downright embarrassing depiction of a Native American tribe that includes comedian Ben Lessy as its befuddled chief.

 

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At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (Erin Lee Carr, 2019). As it should be, this documentary about the abuse of girl gymnasts at the hands of a trusted and  institutionally protected team trainer is a lingering gut punch. The crimes of predator Larry Nassar are duly detailed, but director Erin Lee Carr also provides plenty of space for the raised voices belonging to the survivors of his fiendish manipulations and appalling physical intrusions. And she brings an equally sharp, journalistic attention to the broader culture around the sport of gymnastics, which thrives on abusive power dynamics and borderline abusive coercion of eager girls at its most innocent, pummeling athletes into shape before they’ve reached their teens, obsessively eying future Olympic gold all the while. Carr expertly relies on classic documentary techniques — straight-to-camera interviews, extensive use of dramatic archival footage — and the result is sturdy rather than staid. At the Heart of Gold is agonizing and vital.

Now Playing — Midsommar

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I greatly admire Hereditary, Ari Aster’s feature directorial debut, but I completely understand how some moviegoers might have developed an aversion to it by the end. There’s no charity from me to those who rankled at the visual resplendent and insidious thematic brutality of the bulk of the film, presumably because it didn’t adhere to the preferred mainstream horror model of simple concepts and jump scares. But anyone whose pleasurable ride took on a rattletrap rockiness when the film veered sharply to travel down unpaved Bonkers Street in the closing moments just might have a point when they wrinkle their nose at the title’s evocation. The cannon blast of ludicrousness worked well enough for me, but I get the more discombobulated reaction.

The sophomore effort from Aster, Midsommar, takes the excess of his prior feature and starts running multiplication tables with it. The film opens as a young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) experiences a family tragedy, further muddying the relationship with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). An anthropology student in college, Christian was souring on the romance and planning an escape of sorts by accompanying a small cluster of classmates on a trip to Sweden, where they’re planning to observe a lengthy summer solstice celebration in the remote community where Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), another friend from school, grew up. Feeling guilt about Dani’s distraught state, Christian invites her along, much to the irritation of his cohorts (the other two travelers are played by William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter). Upon arriving in the commune-like space, all gathering spaces and idyllic grassy expanses, the visitors size it up as quaint and a little odd. Then, as it will, menace starts to emerge.

As in Hereditary, Aster builds mood with uncommon expertise. With the subtlest shifts — of image, of tone, of performance — he transforms the very soul of a moment. He’s not averse to florid spectacle, as Midsommar proves repeatedly. But his clearest strength is wrenching devastating impact out of small moments. No matter what fevered hysterics Pugh goes through as the film’s madness escalates — and she ably scales mountains of overheated emotion — it is the fragile humanity she brings to the small incursions on her most vulnerable points that have the greatest resonance.

Pugh’s performance is vital. It keeps the film grounded, no matter how luridly fanciful Aster’s imaginings. She’s not joined in accomplishment by her castmates, especially Reynor, who looks genuinely confused as the film roars to its crescendo of a third act. That works for the character somewhat, but his placid, gaping wonderment is so out of step with the story beats that it grows laughable. Similarly, the film actively relies on the anthropologist instincts of the central character to sidestep the perpetual horror movie plot hole of characters opting not to flee at the first sign of danger, but none of the actors portraying academics is at all convincing. Normally, that might not be a major issue. The day jobs of characters are little more than a distant notion in most films. Here, though, the validity of the plot hinges on an intellectual commitment to impartial observation after witnessing a horrific act. Just because the rationale is present doesn’t mean, in its depiction, it’s convincing.

What Midsommar does have in abundance is Aster’s fearless adherence to his own vision, even as it cyclones into lunacy. It is surely the most boldly gonzo wide release film since Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, but blessedly free of the absurdly misplaced artistic self-regard that made the earlier feature into a fingerpaint smear of quarter-baked notions. The not insightful flaws of Midsommar are unmistakable traces of earnest filmmaking ambition. For a director such as Aster, borne by wildly invigorating creative instincts, that approach is far preferable to timidity and restraint.