Playing Catch-Up — Now, Voyager; The Three Faces of Eve; Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

now voyager

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942). Based on a novel released the previous year, Now, Voyager casts Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale, a miserable heiress who comes under particular abuse from her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Charlotte is taken to a sanitarium by Dr. Jacquith (Claude Rains, who’s wonderful in the role), who helps her overcome the feelings of inadequacy that have been instilled over the years. The prescription includes a six-month pleasure cruise following her discharge. It’s on that global jaunt that Charlotte meets Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid). Although he’s married, the two begin a romance. Things are further complicated when both return to their respective homes and then their paths cross again, in quietly heartrending fashion. Director Irving Rapper handles the proceedings with aplomb, preventing the melodrama from swamping the film. He certainly benefits from pointing the camera straight at Davis, one of the most no-nonsense stars U.S. cinema ever produced. Davis gives herself over to complex character work needed to play Charlotte while showing the thread of hard intelligence that will lift the woman out of her misery. There’s also some cracking comedic work by Mary Wickes, in a small role as a nurse employed in the Vale household.

 

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The Three Faces of Eve (Nunnally Johnson, 1957). Any movie exploring heavy-duty psychological issues that bears a copyright date around or before the middle of the last century is going to automatically have some issues. Based on a real case that was turned into a nonfiction bestseller, The Three Faces of Eve is an early cinematic depiction of the mental state now known as dissociative identity disorder. Despite attempts to present the story in a resolutely serious and informative manner — exemplified by Alistair Cooke providing an introduction and narration with journalistic sternness — the particulars are stiffly unconvincing. As is likely expected, the redeeming component of the film is the performance by Joanne Woodward in the title role. A relative newcomer at the time, Woodward took on the part after several other major actresses passed, an almost inconceivable circumstance given the way the challenge of playing a women living with a trio of completely different personalities practically guarantees awards glory. Sure enough, Woodward claimed the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and it was completely deserved. It’s a role that invites showboating, but Woodward opts for piercing honesty, finding an engaging vividness in subtle shifts rather than sweeping gestures.

 

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Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney, 2012). A product of the inexhaustible Alex Gibney documentary machine, Mea Maxima Culpa ruthlessly examines the grotesque scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church. Gibney frames the film with the especially grotesque case of decades of abuse perpetrated in a Milwaukee school for the deaf, but devotes time to as much of the sprawling assault on morality as a couple hours of nonfiction filmmaking can contain. The film is laudable in its scope and density. It stirs outrage and sympathy in equal measure, with a handful of individuals — mostly survivors of the abuse who became brave voices for justice — emerging as true heroes. I would have preferred Gibney excised the creepy, foreboding recreations, but overall Mea Maxima Culpa is vital, powerful filmmaking,

Playing Catch-Up — Get Low; Ex Libris: New York Public Library; What We Do in the Shadows

get low

Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009). A wry comic drama all baled up in folksy charms, Get Low is so thoroughly pitched toward star Robert Duvall’s strengths that its difficult to imagine the film existing in a universe without him. Duvall plays Felix, a curmudgeonly man living a hermit’s life in the woods outside small Southern community in the nineteen-thirties. He emerges from his seclusion in order to stage an early funeral, presumably so he can hear what the townsfolk might say about him. Eventually, it becomes clear that Felix is really using the event as a means to edge toward a confession about the dire mistake that sent him guiltily into solitude in the first place. Aaron Schneider presents the material with a personality-free base capability that makes the already drab material settle into a misty Hallmark Channel doze. There are some nicely lived-in performances among the supporting cast — Lucas Black and Sissy Spacek are the strongest — but the lead role too often invites Duvall to resort to colorful indulgence, a tactic Schneider clearly welcomes.

 

ex libris

Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017). On the basis of the grumbling reactions of the viewers around me at the completion of Frederick Wiseman’s latest direct cinema documentary, I feel compelled to emphasize that the venerable filmmaker’s lengthy, firmly unadorned approach to depicting the workings of the New York Public Library might not be to everyone’s liking. It’s effectively the polar opposite of Michael Bay: all substance, no bombast. To me, Ex Libris is an object of near-endless fascination as it quietly, insistently makes the case for libraries as vital hubs for communities. They are founts of learning, erudition, support, and engagement in an era of hollowed-out spectacle and venomous anti-intellectualism in the broader culture. With methodical care, Wiseman observes the myriad ways the New York institution bolsters the citizenry, including after-school programs, senior citizen engagement, and implementing a municipal program to provide internet access to people who would otherwise be in digital darkness. Because Wiseman simply points his camera and avoids edits for as long as he can, interest is always prone to waning if he spends too much time in an area the viewer finds dull. I had no problem with the repeated and necessarily repetitive administrative meetings, but the slam poem — which usefully demonstrates the diversity of library programming — felt endless to me. A recent Twitter dust-up about the viability of libraries ended with the dimwitted pundit who initiated the whole thing conceding defeat in the face of heated counterarguments. He could have saved himself a lot of grief had he watched Wiseman’s documentary before opening up his tweet-hole. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone could sit through the film’s three-plus hours without coming to the iron-clad determination that the enduring institutions are a pure public good.

 

shadows

What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, 2014). I had to do a little homework before my weekend moviegoing, you see. This comedy — structured as a rundown Real World with vampires sharing a flat — is understandably adored by many. I find it hit-or-miss, but the hits are plentiful and usually strong enough to make the clunkers wholly forgivable. Co-director Waititi is especially funny as the sweetest, most vulnerable member of the blood-sucking household. Waititi and co-director Jemaine Clement also deserve praise for actually building discernible, engaging storylines into a comedic approach that usually default to scattershot plotting designed to leave room for whatever random assemblage of gags are generated during the filming process. The clearest comic victory, though, comes from the crew of werewolves led by a genially insistent alpha played by Rhys Darby. The humor derived from the roaming pack of lycanthropes is the most inspired realization of the film’s merging of the fantastical and the mundane.

Playing Catch-Up — Columbus, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Miles Ahead

columbus

Columbus (Kogonada, 2017). The feature debut from filmmaker Kogonada, who has been justly lauded for video essays on other directors’ work, is an object of understated beauty. Empathetic and honest, Columbus is set in the Indiana city of the same name that is an unlikely touchtone for fans of modernist architecture. Jin (John Cho) comes to town because his architect-scholar father has been hospitalized. Aggravated about his familial requirement to dote upon an ill parent who wasn’t especially loving to him, Jin is somewhat aimless in the community, at least until he encounters Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who is stuck in neutral shortly after high school, although she clearly has the intellect to prosper if she moved on to higher education. The two have gentle, talky encounters that recall the cerebral cerebral meanderings of Richard Linklater’s film series that began with Before Sunrise, just with a little less grad school posturing. The film is warm and endearing. It’s also the clear product of a film fan who’s spent a lot of time thinking about how some of the masters of the form framed their images. Even as Kogonada immediately establishes himself as filmmaker of great insight and care, the true standout of Columbus is Richardson. Operating with an emotional delicacy and fascinating naturalism, Richardson gives a great, deep performance, subtly displaying a myriad of layers to her character.

 

meyerowitz

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, 2017). Noah Baumbach is in familiar territory with The Meyerowitz Stories (News and Selected), depicting a New York City family of thwarted artists and painted intellectuals, scuffling with their own insecurities and giving each other deep emotional bruises along the way. In proper reflection of the title, the film moves with the ache of a rueful, bleakly funny collection of interconnected short stories, a little John Salinger, a little John Cheever, and a little Woody Allen in his wordsmith mode. The actors all make a lush pastrami meal out of Baumach’s caustically funny dialogue, even Adam Sandler, who delivers what is arguably his first good performance on film (and, no, I’m not forgetting about Punch-Drunk Love). As the family’s patriarch, Dustin Hoffman has his best role in years and makes the most of it.

 

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Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015). In one way or another, the notion of Don Cheadle playing Miles Davis on film had kicked around for about fifteen years before the skilled actor finally took matters into his own hands. Besides playing the jazz legend — one of the rare figures in the history of music who can legitimately be called a genius — Cheadle contributed to the screenplay and directed Miles Ahead, his feature debut in that role. Cheadle is predictably strong as Davis, but the film is misguided, layering in fictional escalated action that might allow for easy access to the flaring flaws of the man, but also play as deeply phony. And the film is burdened by leaning into the cliches within Davis’s personal history, such as the haunting presence of a one-time love (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and the penchant for self-destruction. There are moments of quiet insight — such as Davis rediscovering his artistic soul in a brief collaborative jam with a younger musician (Lakeith Stanfield) — but they are brief and too quickly disregarded in favor of dull narrative tricks.

Playing Catch-Up — Compliance; The Bad Sleep Well; The Devil’s Bride

compliance

Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012). Based, incredibly enough, on a true story, Compliance shows the ugly susceptibility people have in the face of authority, even when those giving the orders have done nothing to prove they deserve to be followed. On a busy, stressful Friday night, a fast food restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a person claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy). The man on the line says a teenaged employee (Dreama Walker) stole money from a customer. She needs to be brought into a back room to be interrogated and strip searched, he instructs. What follows is an assault of escalating degradation, all perpetrated with innocent obedience by people who believe they are listening to law enforcement. Even the film’s most lurid details are based on fact, but it sometimes pushes so drastically far into implausibility that writer-director Craig Zobel would have been better off omitting the worst of it. Although Walker spends most of the narrative in different states of undress, Zobel clearly tries to prevent the images from becoming leering and sensationalistic. He doesn’t always succeed, proving just how difficult it can be for a filmmaker to safely traverse minutely fine lines.

 

bad sleep well

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960). Akira Kurosawa was known — and revered — for taking Shakespearean dramas and reimagining them as samurai epics, but the Japanese master filmmaker could pull of the same astounding trick with more modern fare. With a story that echoes Hamlet, Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well depicts the insidious corruption within the capitalist and political spheres of postwar Japan, couching it within familial drama as a corporate titan’s daughter (Kyoko Kagawa) marries a young man (Toshiro Mifune) with mysterious intent. As usual, Kurosawa insightfully and carefully explores his many themes, while also framing shots with exquisite care that somehow feels naturalistic. There’s a bleak sense of humor laced through the proceedings, as well. If the film lacks the grandeur of Kurosawa’s most famed achievements, it excels at finding the epic within the seemingly mundane.

 

devils bride

The Devil’s Bride (Terence Fisher, 1968). Known as The Devil Rides Out in its U.K. homeland, this entry in the beloved pantheon of Hammer Film horror offerings concerns itself with the scourge of devil worship. Based on a 1934 Dennis Wheatley novel, the film concerns the efforts of two British gentlemen (Christopher Lee and Leon Greene) to rescue a fellow member of the gentry (Patrick Mower) from the thrall of a cult that passes the time by sacrificing farm animals to surprisingly chill satanic figures. The tone is set by Lee’s characteristic performance, disrupting a prevailing air of stern refinement with flurries of aggravated alarm. The great horror writer Richard Matheson penned the script, and it carries markings of authorial sturdiness and wry humor. Director Terence Fisher bring a vigorous craftsmanship to the proceedings, especially when called upon to deliver the film’s climactic temporal tomfoolery that is equal parts delightfully clever and splashily silly.

Playing Catch-Up — Wind River; Ship of Fools; Demolition

wind river

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017). With just a handful of credits for major creative roles behind the camera, Taylor Sheridan is already establishing a pretty compelling philosophical thesis about the way the world works. In Wind River, those who exist outside the power structure are so removed from real safety and justice that the only recourse is personally bloodied hands. While hunting predators in the remote chill of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, a U.S Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of a young Native American woman (Natalie Chow). Since crime-fighting resources are scarce on the reservation — and because of a relevant past marked by tragedy — the agent winds up immersed in the investigation, especially after a neophyte FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case. Sheridan makes powerful points about discarded populations in his writing, but his pedestrian directing makes a compelling case for the valuable contributions David Mackenzie made in shepherding Sheridan’s Hell and High Water screenplay to the screen. Visual panache and an acutely developed sense of timing go a long way towards elevating a film.

 

ship of fools

Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965). Adapted from a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, which had been published just a couple years earlier, Ship of Fools benefits from the readily available storytelling possibilities that come with throwing a big batch of characters together in the confines of a ship on a transatlantic journey. All screenwriter Abby Mann needs to do in order to stir a scene to life is sit a couple people together at dinner or on the deck. Director Stanley Kramer was famously committed to exploring social justice issues in his cinematic efforts, and the timing of the film — a few years before the cataclysmic start of World War II — allows him to make his points in barbed, cunning ways, even if the sensibility on display is ultimately far too modern. Kramer juggles the cross-crossing plots admirably, and is wise enough to approach his skilled actors with obvious generosity. Everyone in the stacked cast performs admirably, but Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret are standouts.

 

demolition

Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015). This drama is so disastrously bad, it boggles the mind that it was Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to the inventive, sublime Wild (not to mention its status as the director’s last big-screen effort before moving on to conquer television). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man working in finance who is reeling after his wife (Heather Lind) is killed in an auto accident, right in front of his eyes. Davis isn’t saddled with grief, though. He’s more troubled by the indifference he feels, and the guilt (or anguish, or something) that stems from that causes his to act increasingly odd, primarily manifesting in a propensity to disassemble machinery, furnishings, and entire structures. He also befriends a women (Naomi Watts) and her troubled son (Judah Lewis). The entire thing plays as if it were constructed by space aliens taking a stab at depicting human emotions after observations conducted over a single weekend, while they were half-drunk. Gyllenhaal tries real hard, but the film is so bereft of anything genuine that his eager portrayal of a man tilting towards madness comes across as tedious showboating.

Playing Catch-Up: Good Morning; The Big Sky; The Witness

good morning

Good Morning (Yasujirō Ozu, 1959). I’ll admit to being underexposed to the work of the revered Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. (It’s not a good excuse, by any means, but I’ve devoted most of my relevant geographically-based cinema self-schooling to films of Ozu’s countryman Akira Kurosawa.) And since my primary connection to Ozu’s oeuvre is through the masterful Tokyo Story, I think of the filmmaker as a crafter of delicate, relatively sedate art. As that preamble suggests, Good Morning proves how wrong I was in my reductive assumption. A loose remake of a film Ozu made over twenty-five years earlier, Good Morning largely concerns a couple of young brothers operating with escalating bratty behavior in an attempt to bully their parents into purchasing a television set. Around that, Ozu expertly stages a subplot that shows how animosity and suspicion moves with stealthy passive aggressiveness throughout tight-knit community. Ozu’s film is bright, cunning, and delightfully rambunctious. It’s also beautifully structured in every way, including unfussy perfection in the staging of shots and depth of psychological understanding of all the characters that evidences warmth and wry judgment all at once.

 

big sky

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This Western centers on a group of ramshackle fellows who race against a menacing trading company to form an agreement with the Blackfoot tribe in the commerce of the day. Along the way, Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) find themselves in a bit of a love triangle with a Native American woman named Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt). The story isn’t always compelling, but Howard Hawks, as usual, builds the film with personality spilling out of its sprocket holes. It’s especially entertaining to see him bring a bleak humor to the depiction of the physical horrors that routinely befell those who took it upon themselves to tame the frontier. Arthur Hunnicutt received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the cynical hand who provides a moral compass, albeit one with a slightly bent pointer. It was a deserving nod; Hunnicutt’s performance is the highlight of the film.

 

witness

The Witness (James Solomon, 2015). Increasingly, I find it likely that Ezra Edelman’s terrific O.J.: Made in America points to the future of documentary filmmaking, if only because so many features seem to be straining for the same exhaustive examination of interconnected concerns. Director James Solomon covers an immense amount of sociological and deeply personal sub-topics in The Witness, but must largely for doing so in a glancing fashion, finishing with a film that is both impressive ambitious and mildly dissatisfying. First and foremost, the film is about the murder of Kitty Genovese, infamous more for the documented indifference of her New York City neighbors to her cries for help than the street-side crime itself. As Solomon painstakingly shows, the circumstances of Genovese’s death have become emblematic of social apathy, help as a metaphorical tool to make points about everything from day-to-day small town lawbreaking to the devastation delivered against the city of Aleppo. But Genovese was more than a social studies lesson. She was a person, and she left behind a heartbroken family. One of those family members, her brother William Genovese, is the heart of the documentary as he obsessively seeks understanding and closure. (The latter goal contributes to the film’s one flat-out terrible stretch, a sequence in which William hires an actress to recreate Kitty’s screams on the street where she was killed, an inexplicable gesture that Solomon treats as so logical it requires no further exploration.) Solomon has an immense amount to say with him film — some of it powerful, some of it challenging, much of it deeply insightful. In the end, more than anything else, I wish he’d had more time to say it.

Playing Catch-Up — The Best Years of Our Lives; The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography; Truth

best years

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). My overwhelming reaction to this drama of post-war turmoil in the lives of U.S. fighting men and their families is a dumbstruck marveling that it was released just one year after the end of World War II. While I tend to think of the Hollywood cinema of the time as assiduously adhering to the notion of noble soldiers and stolid supporters on the home front, William Wyler’s film is far more complicated and ambiguous in its assessment of the aftermath. The returning war heroes struggle to adapt, dealing with troubled memories, an inability to relate to loved ones, the self-medication of alcohol addiction, and employers who aren’t as welcoming as was once promised. It’s painful in its truth and astonishing in its thoroughness. Wyler adepts shifts between multiple storylines (Robert E. Sherwood is the credited screenwriter, adapting the 1945 novella Glory for Me, by MacKinlay Kantor), offering empathy without pandering or exploitation. The film is resolutely daring in its beautifully melded directness and subtlety.

 

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The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, 2017). This documentary focuses on precisely the sort of iconoclastic creator that director Errol Morris clearly adores. Elsa Dorfman is a longtime portrait photographer whose work was often undervalued. She opted for Polaroid cameras, though not typically the variety sold warmly to amateur shutterbugs. Instead, Dorfman’s expertise was with bulky behemoths that more resemble the revolutionary devices trundled out to Civil War battlefields once upon a time. Morris catches Dorfman as she’s drifting into retirement, in part because there’s simply going to be no more Polaroid film available for her to ply her trade. There’s an abundance of ideas for Morris to explore — capitalism’s callous indifference to art, the ruthless march of technological progress, the value of an outsider eye when people armed with smartphones are creating self portraits at an unprecedented rate, the beauty of imperfection when measured against control — but Morris gets at these topics only glancingly. At the same time, he wastes time with uninteresting digressions, such as an almost fetishistic attention to Dorfman’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg. As if commenting on the missed opportunity of The B-Side, the screening I saw opened with Morris’s short documentary The Umbrella Man, which is inventive, witty, and revelatory.

 

truth

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015). Deep into Truth, writer-director James Vanderbilt delivers a scene that should carry a mighty resonance right now. CBS News producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) defends her reporting on a story involving George W. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. She rebels against the notion that her personal politics are to blame in doggedly pursuing the story, which turned out to be partially reliant on a document of questionable origin. In identifying the destructive pattern of viewers and readers dismissing information that doesn’t conform to their personal worldview, all the monologue is missing is the detestable term “fake news.” That the sequence — structured as a moment of bravura defense of the very tenets of journalism — carries no political or emotional weight, even as its grown more pertinent since the film’s release, speaks to the inert quality of Vanderbilt’s filmmaking. Truth dutifully tracks through the details of the pursuit of the controversial news story that essentially caused Dan Rather to step away from his anchor post after decades at CBS, showing some of the procedural rigor Vanderbilt brought to his screenplay for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. In this instance, the approach proves dutiful and boring, reducing the characters to empty figures clicking by. Even the mighty Blanchett is felled by the film’s mechanics, apparently compensating for the lack of depth to her character by overplaying the sputtering intensity that led to Mary’s blind spot assurance in shaping the news story for air.