Playing Catch-Up — Greta; A Warm December; Veronika Voss

greta

Greta (Neil Jordan, 2019). Neil Jordan’s first feature film in six years is a trashy, inane thriller that’s miles removed from his best work. Except for the requisite appearance by Stephen Rea, it doesn’t even bear much resemblance to the Irish auteur’s previous gigs that seemed driven by paycheck considerations above all. In Greta, a New York City waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) finds an unattended purse on the subway. Her good samaritan instincts kick in, and she returns the handbag to its owner (Isabelle Huppert), gleaned from identification found inside. Lonely since the death of her mother, the young woman accepts the overtures of friendship put forth from the grateful older lady who misplaced the bag. The situation quickly turns dark. Still in her early twenties, Moretz is an old pro at being terrorized onscreen, and her put-out exasperation plays well against Huppert’s default cold indifference. Jordan has a moment or two that he stages with amusing floridness, but most of Greta is remarkably rote.

 

warm december

A Warm December (Sidney Poitier, 1973). The second features directed by Sidney Poitier, A Warm December fits right into the template of dewy-eyed, tragedy-tinged romance that was set for nineteen-seventies filmmakers the moment Ali MacGraw tearfully explained to Ryan O’Neal that love forestalled the need for apologies. Poitier casts himself as Dr. Matt Younger, an altruistic physician with a penchant for dirt bike racing. On a trip to London, the good doctor meets Catherine Oswandu (Ester Anderson), the niece of an African diplomat. Her initial reluctance to bond too closely with the doctor falls away, and a whirlwind romance begins. Poitier is relentlessly charming in his role, and Anderson is radiant. As a director, Poitier’s visual language is sometimes overly reliant on bland, interchanging close-ups, but there’s a laudable sincerity to his storytelling. The film shifts into lesson mode as Catherine’s medical backstory emerges. Once again, it’s Poitier’s earnest nature as a storyteller that elevates the material above mere didacticism.

 

veronika

Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982). German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder overdosed on barbiturates and cocaine three months after Veronika Voss debuted, making it his final directorial effort to be released in his lifetime. (The drama Querelle opened in his home country a little more than three months after he died.) Inspired by the life of German actress Sybille Schmitz, is like a cross of Sunset Boulevard and Frances (the latter was released out the same year) with arch, European arthouse stylings thrown in. Veronika (Rosel Zech) is a movie star past her prime who desperation is further complicated by drug addiction. She’s basically incarcerated by ruthless figures posing as therapists, stringing her along with morphine shots in a long con to take all her money. Fassbinder’s storytelling is adequate, but it’s mostly a means to stage images so sharply beautiful and inventive in their manipulation of light that they’re practically magic tricks. Xaver Schwarzenberger provides the magnificent cinematography. Zech is impressively committed in the title role, but the film’s best performance belongs to Cornelia Froboess, who finds endless reserves of amused animosity as the girlfriend of a sportswriter (Hilmar Thate) who becomes wrapped up in Veronika’s damaged life.

Playing Catch-Up — Aquaman; Dolemite Is My Name; Green Room

aquaman

Aquaman (James Wan, 2018). The relatively cinematic merits, or lack thereof, of Marvel Studios’ blockbuster epics has been a mostly mortifying public debate in recent weeks, evidently requiring every director of note to weigh in. While the fact that Martin Scorsese is pressed by every interviewer to expand upon or clarify his original comments is enough of an embarrassment, as someone who is fairly well-versed on this slice of the entertainment industrial complex I feel compelled to note that the poison-tipped arrows have been aimed at the wrong target. The true affronts to the art form are the bursting piñatas of eyesore spectacle released by Marvel’s distinguished competition in the superhero space. Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman looks more and more like a rare and beauteous aberration with every new stab at expanding the DC Cinematic Universe. Among DC’s stable of costumed do-gooders, Aquaman was always going to be the character with the most built-in goofiness to overcome in any big screen adaptation. To their credit, the filmmakers behind Aquaman basically lean in to the lunacy. Mostly, though, their attempts at rambunctious tomfoolery are limited to action hero quips that would have been stale twenty years ago. The plot is a snoozy tangle of a gruff rapscallion finding his inner heroism and palace intrigue about as intriguing as a fishbowl’s little plastic castle. Director James Wan hews closely to the Zack Snyder template of visuals rendered with garish artificiality and action scenes are kinetic nonsense. About the only pleasure in Aquaman is watching performers accustomed to more serious fare (Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman, most notably) try vainly to find their sea legs on this roiling vessel.

 

dolemite

Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019). Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have shown a unique talent for offbeat biopics over the years, with Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt as the standouts. Their sensibility — impish yet deeply grounded by smart, telling details — elevates Dolemite Is My Name, a survey of the odd, unlikely rise of entertainer Rudy Rae Moore. In a performance of surprising insight and restraint, Eddie Murphy plays Moore. What could have easily been bawdily comic is instead underscored by an especially vulnerable ambition, Murphy adeptly capturing Moore’s earnest attempt to make a place in a showbiz world set up to reject the likes of him. Murphy’s performance is sensitive without ever lapsing into easy pathos. The film is also a celebration of the flashes of ingenuity that often arise when the creative environment is particularly hardscrabble, and director Craig Brewer does a nice job capturing the camaraderie of Moore’s circle of determined amateurs. The whole cast is dandy (especially Wesley Snipes, as an actor with big Hollywood credits who’s reduced to working on one of Moore’s productions), but it must be noted that they’re all operating with the booster shot of Ruth L. Carter’s costumes, which are vibrant crazy-quilts of nineteen-seventies fashion.

 

green room

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015). At the end of a miserable concert tour, which was such a low-paying professional endeavor that siphoning gas was a regular requirement to get to the next gig, a punk band picks up one last date. The show is at a remote warehouse space, and the band quickly gleans that they’re one of a procession of amp-rattling acts soundtracking the aggressive posturing of a group of white supremacists. The band taunts danger by leading their set with a cover version of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” and things get markedly worse from there. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier constructs the story with cunning panache, and he displays a gift for maintaining an almost diabolical level of tension. The quantity and intensity of the film’s gore arguably betray a different sort of sadism on the part of the filmmaker. Green Room is as brutal as the punk rockers at its center.

Playing Catch-Up — Hagazussa; The Whip Hand; Gloria Bell

hagazussa

Hagazussa (Lukas Feigelfeld, 2019). An oily stew of a movie that has some aromas familiar from Robert Eggers’s The Witch, this German horror film  is set in the verdant, unforgiving mountain in the fifteenth century. An odd, withdrawn woman named Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) is a single mother living in relative isolation, her few encounters with others usually mired in misery. An overture of kindness gives her a touch of hope, but darkness looms. Director Lukas Feigelfeld crafts visuals that are equal parts lovely and unsettling, developing intensity out of restraint. The film’s nightmare escalating luridness continually escalates, eventually approaching the conceptual cataclysm of mother!, without the silk scarf pretension that sunk Darren Anofsky’s film. (Although Hagazussa didn’t arrive in U.S. theaters until earlier this year, it was released in Germany as roughly the same time mother! hit.) There are satisfying elements, including the film’s daring, but the characterizations are ultimately too thin, making the finished product feel like an experiment more than a properly realized piece of cinematic art.

 

whip hand

The Whip Hand (William Cameron Menzies, 1951). This B-movie from RKO exploits post-war anxiety over both the mounting Communist threat and the scattered remnants of Nazi evil. A magazine reporter (Elliott Reid) is on a fishing vacation in Northern Wisconsin when he stumbles upon a town where the locals are leery of strangers and generally edgy. As he snoops around, he begins to suss out a troubling conspiracy. The storytelling is leaden, and William Cameron Menzies stages the drama with a tottering ineptness that makes it seem as though he was afforded only one rushed take per scene. The Whip Hand has the makings of a scrappy, rambunctious thriller, but there’s no energy to it. Even allowing for the built-in restraints of the era, the movie is a clunker.

 

gloria bell

Gloria Bell (Sebastián Lelio, 2019). Remaking his own 2013 film, Sebastián Lelio traces the experiences of a middle-aged woman named Gloria (Julianne Moore) as she tries to grab ahold of a little bit of happiness. The storytelling is sometimes too fragmentary, giving fleeting moments that same weight as more complex, dramatically scenes. That’s a familiar approach in independent film, and it often works well. With Gloria Bell, the balance is thrown out of whack, mostly because the briefer pieces don’t feel like they’re adding up to anything. They’re instead diversions from more fully realized segments, such as a dinner party where a flurry of interpersonal issues encroach. The film’s main strength is the performance of Moore in the title role. She finds the wounded dignity of Gloria and uses the subtlest emotional gestures to show how the character achingly strives to heal herself, finding solace in the small pleasures she accumulates.

Playing Catch-Up — La Pointe Courte; Boy Erased; Stan & Ollie

la pointe

La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, 1955). Three years before Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, the film usually cited as the beginning of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda delivered this film that certainly flaunts a lot of the hallmarks of the influential cinematic movement. In a small waterfront town, Lui (Philippe Noiret) meets his wife, Elle (Silvia Monfort), who’s journeyed from Paris. The two stroll through town discussing their relationship in the most way possible. The residents of the town go about their modest business, mostly centered around pulling seafood out of the water, sometimes in defiance of regulations. Varda made her debut film with only the barest sense of how narrative cinema was supposed to work. By all accounts, she wasn’t even an especially avid film fan at the time. And yet La Pointe Courte is brightly alive with inspired reconstructions and elegant visuals. There’s a hardscrabble realness to the scenes of the townspeople that contrasts marvelously with the more refined, restrained portions of the film intently focused on the couple. It’s a grandly great film.

 

boy erased

Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton, 2018). Adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased delves into the harrowing, cruel culture of gay conversion therapy. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is from a deeply conservative and religious Southern family, and he willingly enters the perversely named Love in Action program after going away to college unearths portions of himself he’d been denying. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who also plays the leader of the gay conversion program, the film tracks through the ugly faux therapy with painstaking attention to the brutality of it all. If anything, Edgerton is overly reliant on the program’s particulars, unfolding the therapy sessions with mounting misery that feels false, adhering to the dramatic need to escalate stakes rather than a believable progression. The approach has the unfortunate effect of deadening the piece’s emotions. The film’s strongest scene centers on a conversation between Jared and his father (Russell Crowe), mainly because its one of the few instances of the storytelling stretching away from the expected norm, allowing that familial conflicts and pain often don’t wrap up with a tidiness that audiences desire.

 

stan and ollie

Stan & Ollie (Jon S. Baird, 2018). This biographical drama about the beloved comedy team Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) is kind, well-meaning, and dreadfully dull. Mostly set during a tour of the U.K. the duo mounted late in their career, Stan & Ollie is about little squabbles and minor struggles, the latter escalating somewhat as Oliver’s health worsens under the rigors of performing. There’s not enough there to give the movie any momentum or real sense of purpose, a problem director Jon S. Baird compounds with his plain visuals and sluggish pacing. What the film does have are very nice performances. Coogan and Reilly are both very fine as familiar figures, but the scene-stealer is Nina Arianda as Stan’s brusque, headstrong wife. She seems airdropped in from a different, far livelier movie.

Playing Catch-Up — Man Hunt; All I Desire; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

man hunt

Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941). Man Hunt was released six months before the U.S. officially entered World War II, making its animating incident fairly remarkable. A British adventurer (Walter Pidgeon) is traveling across the German countryside with his firearms and briefly has Adolf Hitler lined up in the telescopic sight of his long-distance rifle when he’s tackled and captured by a German soldier. A half year ahead of the nation, Hollywood declared a foreign head of state as a significant enough enemy that assassination could be depicted as a heroic act in the service of a fairly basic action-thriller. Most of the film portrays the protagonist’s attempts to flee German pursuers, bringing him in contact with multiple individuals, including a bold young woman named Jerry (Joan Bennett, appealingly snappy). It’s the sort of story Alfred Hitchcock would have told with clockwork efficiency. Directed Fritz Lang instead favors mood, building the film with a rich, moody visual palette that emphasizes the dark cloud of history engulfing the globe. It’s amusing to watch Pidgeon play a very American Brit up against George Sanders as a very British Nazi, but the film’s best performance might belong to Roddy McDowall, twelve years old at the time of the film’s release, as a crackerjack cabin boy who aids in the escape.

 

all i desire sirk

All I Desire (Douglas Sirk, 1953). Douglas Sirk reportedly made several unhappy compromises in directing this adaptation of the Carol Ryrie Brink’s novel Stopover, but most of them arguably improve the film. He wanted to film in color, but the lovely black-and-white cinematography of Carl E. Guthrie enhances the stark emotions of the story and inspires some especially lovely shot construction by Sirk. And Sirk’s favored darker ending is arguably less daring than the Hays Code–defying final shot that allows a spot of forgiveness for a woman whose done wrong. All I Desire follows Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) as she returns to her small, Wisconsin hometown ten years after abandoning her husband (Richard Carlson) and three children (Marcia Henderson, Lori Nelson, and Billy Gray) to pursue a career on the stage. It turns out Naomi was also fleeing a creeping shadow of unsavory — and basically accurate — town gossip, so her unexpected reemergence revives that complicated culture of chatter. As always, Stanwyck is a force of nature, demonstrating she’s almost alone among her contemporaries in making matchstick flare shifts between brashness and vulnerability while somehow playing the extremes with both grand emotiveness and intricate authenticity. Sirk’s positions his camera like an voyeur, regularly peeping through windows of looking down on action from a distance above, enhancing the film’s theme of consuming secrets.

 

umbrellas

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964). Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are a young couple aswirl in their romance, which must have been an easy state to fall into while living in nineteen-fifties France. To convey their lovestruck existence, Jacques Demy figures only singing will do. Every word of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is delivered by actors who are simultaneously carrying a tune. Rather than actual songs, though, the musical is structure entirely around completely mundane conversations, which is remarkably delightful (results would likely be very different if the film were in any language other than French). Beyond the inventive conceit, Demy structures the film beautifully, with long, lovely shots and a visual panache in the overall style that stood almost unrivaled until Pedro Almodóvar reached full bloom.

Playing Catch-Up — Panic in Year Zero; Searching; Stronger

panic zero

Panic in Year Zero (Ray Milland, 1962). This Cold War drama, one of a handful of films directed by Ray Milland, takes a fascinating approach to its tale of U.S. society in the immediate aftermath of nuclear weapons leveling a few major cities. Milland plays the patriarch of a family that’s off to a fishing weekend when the bombs fall, and he sternly leads them through a survivalist withdrawal from the increasingly tense social breakdown across the land. Milland’s visual sense is fairly stiff and clumsy, but the screenplay — co-credited to John Morton and Jay Simms — is psychologically astute in its depiction of rapid erosion of morals and national camaraderie as self-preservation takes preeminence. Far from alarmist or sensationalistic, the film is quietly insightful and thoroughly convincing.

searching

Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018). Usually a similar technique to the horror film Unfriended, director Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut confines its perspective to material that appears on a computer screen. In Searching, John Cho plays David Kim, whose daughter, Margot (playing primarily by Michelle La), goes missing, sending him on a desperate scramble through her online history to determine what malfeasance might have been perpetrated against her. There are clever elements, including spot-on depictions of the sometimes destructive ways information travels across web-based platforms. Cho is very good in the lead role, but the performances are shakier across the supporting roles, especially when they’re relying on just voicework, as if Chaganty neglects to value the importance of emotional veracity when the dialogue is delivered in a recording booth rather than before a camera.

 

stronger

Stronger (David Gordon Green, 2017). This adaptation of the memoir of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a survivor of the bomb attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, wavers between daring authenticity and numbingly familiar biopic beats. Director David Gordon Green is leans toward the unsparing in depicting the physical and emotional trials enduring by Jeff after his proximity to the explosion results in the amputation of both of his legs below the knees. And Gyllenhaal is more than game to writhe in rage and agony, honking his lines in a thick Boston accent. The script and the performance both lack the depth needed to lend authenticity to Jeff’s eventual, inevitable healing and conversion into a better person. The result is a work that is well-meaning, professionally rendered, and hollow at its core. Tatiana Maslany does nicely understated work as Erin, Jeff’s long-suffering girlfriend.

 

Playing Catch-Up — Leaving Neverland; Blaze; Denial

finding neverland

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.

 

blaze

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.

 

denial

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.