Playing Catch-Up — The Hero; Paddington 2; Deepwater Horizon

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The Hero (Brett Haley, 2017). Brett Haley conceived of this character study after working with Sam Elliott on a previous effort. The genesis of the project is clear in the finished product, if only because there’s barely any purpose beyond giving the veteran actor a chance to flash his laconic charm with a dose of uniquely stolid vulnerability. Elliot plays a cowboy actor of middling success who earns his living with commercial voice-over work. He’s feeling his mortality for reasons having to do with age and some dire medical news. And that’s about it. There’s not much story, making the film into a character study that’s paper thin, more warm tribute than sharp analysis. Elliott is a fine presence and acquits himself well in moments that are more emotional that what he’s usually provided, but he doesn’t dig all that deep. The performance is fine and admirable without ever feeling essential.

 

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Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2018). Elevated by the warm, inventive visuals of director Peter King, this sequel is a unexpected, lovely delight. The titular bear (voiced with sweet care by Ben Whishaw) with a taste for marmalade and a gentle life with a human family in London finds himself imprisoned when he’s framed in theft of a rare pop-up book worth a fortune. Paddington’s family tries to free him by identifying the real criminal (a washed up actor, played with zippy gusto by Hugh Grant) as he befriends — and somewhat tames — a group of roughneck fellow inmates, including a gruff chef (Brendan Gleeson, marvelous in a role that winks at his usual typecasting while still giving him a chance to do something completely new). The screenplay (co-written by King and Simon Farnaby) is smart, dense, and economically makes certain every detail counts. King’s astonishing approach to the film’s look that takes Paddington 2 to another level. The charms are boundless.

 

 

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Deepwater Horizon (Peter Berg, 2016). Drawn from massively impressive New York Times reporting on the 2010 disaster involving a offshore drilling rig that killed eleven people and leaked countless gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, this film is obviously well intentioned. It’s also deeply flawed. For all his clear skill as a director, Peter Berg defaults to a muscular bluntness that can sometimes make him seem like Michael Bay with taste and a conscious. Instead of providing plainspoken authenticity to the procession of details of the fateful day, Berg’s approach strips away all tension. The film resembles any generic, explosion-filled action movie, problematically undercutting the real life tragedy depicted. There’s laudable authenticity to the scenes of regular guys just doing their jobs in the lead-up to everything falling apart, though the depiction of the BP executives (especially in the performance by John Malkovich) is grounded in an oily villainy that tilts toward the manipulative.

Playing Catch-Up — A United Kingdom; Downsizing; Girls Trip

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A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016). It’s almost jarring to see a modern movie as staid in its dramatization of noble societal perseverance as A United Kingdom. Based on real history, the film follows the heartbreaking travails of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), member of the royal lineage of the Bechuanaland Proctectorate in Africa whose rightful ascendancy to leadership of his people is denied by the British government after he marries a white Londoner named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The couple endure brutish bigotry, often delivered with the added weight of government authority by figures of sneering, suit-jacket, administrative evil, including one played by Tom Felton, trapped forever as a angry, simpering Malfoy. Oyelowo and Pike both give nice, nuanced performances — and, not incidentally, there are utterly charming in their courtship and comfort as a couple — but the film moves with the clacking dramatic reticence of any of the well-meaning dramas of slow-but-sure social justice on the African continent that peppered art house calendars twenty to thirty years ago. Amma Asante directs as if she’s making a product suited for the genteel trepidation of the classroom rather than the more emotional landscape of true cinema.

 

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Downsizing (Alexander Payne, 2017). Following a successful string of films in which director Alexander Payne found wry humor in the simplest human stories, the Nebraskan creator returns to the brand of stealthy, in-through-the-side-door satire of his first features. In the near-future, scientists combat the calamity wrought on the planet by clumsy humanity by shrinking a portion of the population down to roughly action figure size. Around that basic premise, Payne and his usual screenwriting collaborator, Jim Taylor, brick up a teetering tower of plot. There are interesting ideas throughout, but the entangled complexities ultimately become too unwieldy. It’s as if Payne tried to compress a full season of an HBO series into a couple hours. The methodology undermines the film’s strongest element, the generally strong supporting performance by Hong Chau, as an refugee who lost her leg in a gruesome human smuggling event. The screenplay defaults to often to brash generalities in the character. That Chau plays them with sprightly conviction doesn’t fully redeem the troubling shorthand.

 

 

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Girls Trip (Malcolm D. Lee, 2017). This comedy about college friends reviving their annual vacation together with a raucous trip to New Orleans has only a wisp of a story, the post-Bridemaids conviction that females being bawdy is all that’s needed to generate laughs, and characters so confined to their basic types that its hard to fathom how the camaraderie every developed in the first place. It’s also got a performance from Tiffany Haddish that demands the coining of a term stronger than “star-making.” That’s plenty to give the film a reason for being. She’s utterly magnetic in the film and mercilessly funny in her fearless bravado. Much as Malcolm D. Lee deserves credit for smartly tilting Girls Trip to Haddish’s considerable strengths, he also takes a pedestrian approach to the visuals and pacing, which grow more problematic as the film adheres to the recent movies comedy trend of sprawling to a running team that’s at least twenty minutes too long.

Playing Catch-Up — Clouds of Sils Maria; 13 Rue Madeleine; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). In this wryly funny and wise rumination on aging and celebrity, the grand Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a movie star who is coaxed into a production of the play that made her a star, albeit now playing the older role while her former ingenue part is giving to a credibility-seeking starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). As Maria goes through oscillating moods on the way to the production, she confides in her ever-present assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Assayas indulges in some arthouse pretension here and there, but Clouds of Sils Maria is mostly a set of straightforward character studies, each a gift to the performer. Predictably, Binoche is strongest, working little marvels in every scene.

 

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13 Rue Madeleine (Henry Hathaway, 1947). An espionage drama produced while the memories of World War II were still mighty fresh, 13 Rue Madeleine is about a group of agents developed under a new U.S. military initiative. As it happens, one of the trainees is an undercover German spy, and an European mission gone awry forces instructor Ray Sharkey (James Cagney) to dispatch himself to solve it. Henry Hathaway brings an admirable sturdiness to his direction, striking the right balance between stern seriousness and pulpy glee. Cagney brings his trademark intertwining of deft and brutish qualities to the lead role, giving the proceedings a grand boost. And the ending, in its rare and peculiar celebratory grimness, feels like it’s straight out of the Cagney guidebook, too.

 

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939). Frank Capra’s film about a regular gentleman appointed to the U.S. Senate with the mistaken expectation that he won’t disrupt the order of slippery ethics in the U.S. capitol building is often tagged as an exercise in aw-shucks patriotism. The actual mechanics of the narrative are far trickier than that, especially in a tone that slaloms into earnestness, bustling comedy, and half-hearted romanticism. James Stewart is in his comfort zone as the titular character, especially when it comes time for the famed filibuster scene, which Capra plays out with impressive patience. The best performance, though, belongs to Jean Arthur, playing Smith’s office manager who’s grown jaded with Washington until she gets a dose of her new boss’s brand of sterling integrity. She strikes the exact right balance, showing how sardonic appraisals of the world can still leave room for glimmers of hope that can transform an outlook. The film’s trajectory can easily stir skepticism, but she makes it believable. And she has a great drunk scene, too, itself a minor master class in crafty comedic acting.

Playing Catch-Up — Darkest Hour; The House; Dear Heart

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Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017). Director Joe Wright does his damnedest to pump up Darkest Hour with tricky visuals and little jolts of energy, but the stodginess of this drama is finally overwhelming. The film depicts the early tenure of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as British Prime Minister, with particular attention to how he bucked political pressure when his nation’s soldiers were stranded at Dunkirk, trying to bring them home without engaging in peace talks with Nazi Germany. Oldman is fine as Churchill, though I feel he sometimes lets the makeup do the heavy lifting on the performance. More problematically, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten trudges along as a dull history lesson dressed up with rudimentary narrative trappings, like the plucky newcomer (Lily James) who serves as a sort or audience surrogate and the wry wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s wistfully supportive at just the right time. Churchill is a towering figure in world history. Darkest Hour suggests he might be too big for the screen.

 

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The House (Andrew Jay Cohen, 2017). The premise of this comedy is woefully thin, and Andrew Jay Cohen shows little concept of how to effectively pump it up. A middle class couple (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) are blindsided by the cancellation of a scholarship they were counting on to send their daughter (Ryan Simpkins) to a pricey private college. They land on a scheme, cooked up by an emotionally reeling friend (Jason Mantzoukas) to open an underground casino in their idyllic suburban neighborhood. Besides the inevitable appearance of comically threatening gangsters, that’s really about it. There are ringers throughout the cast, but no one can really make a joke land, a flaw that is probably less on them than on Cohen’s wobbly directing. As co-writer of the recent Neighbors comedies, Cohen evidenced at least a little interest in slipping actual ideas amidst the scatalogical banter. There’s none of that here, leaving just a joyless romp.

 

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Dear Heart (Delbert Mann, 1964). Geraldine Page plays Evie Jackson, a small town woman who journeys to New York City for a postmasters convention. As conceived by writer Tad Mosel (who adapted his own short story for the screen), Evie is a vivid crafter of flattering fictions about herself. In many stories, that quality would intertwine fingers with a pitiable neediness, but that’s not quite the case here. There’s fortitude to Evie, too, and Page prospers in exploring the character’s layers. Mann also offers witty, withering portrayals of the default gruffness of New Yorkers and the unfettered social debauchery of the civil servants away at their annual boondoggle, all of which Mann depicts with a keen eye for detail. The plot sags a bit in the third act as it skews towards the conventional in Evie’s budding relationship with a greeting card salesman (Glenn Ford, out of his depth against the sparkling inventiveness of Page), but overall Dear Heart is steely and cunning.

Playing Catch-Up — Murder on the Orient Express; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; A Cure for Wellness

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Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017). This adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famed novels finds Kenneth Branagh in his happy showman role, both in the officiously constructed visuals and in his leading performance as detective Hercule Poirot. The famous sleuth is pressed into service when a brutish train passenger (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his cabin. The screenplay by Michael Green (whose packed slate of 2017 releases also included a justly lauded superhero reinvention and a couple lousy science fiction brand extensions) obediently follows the rhythms of the nearly inscrutable mystery story, with colorful suspects pleading their innocence right up to the big reveal, which of course includes a snarled admission of guilt. It has the makings of grand, theatrical fun, but only Michelle Pfeiffer seems to realize the best approach is to swing for the fences with every line reading. Between this and mother!, Pfeiffer is showing that if she’s destined to age into less glamorous roles, she’s damn well going to do it with admirable gusto.

 

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Dan Gilroy, 2017). In the sociopolitical push and pull of Academy Awards nominations, the voting body of the MPAA could certainly have done worse than a citation of merit they gave to Denzel Washington’s work as the titular character in Roman J. Israel, Esq. The performance certainly doesn’t rank among the very best from the screen titan (and, being honest, probably isn’t as strong as that of the Oscar hopeful he likely displaced, freshly reestablished problem child James Franco), but it’s at least markedly, blessedly different, giving Washington the rare opportunity to call on some character actor inventiveness. To the degree that Washington flounders as an unorthodox, socially maladjusted lawyer, it’s most attributable to the rickety efforts of writer-director Dan Gilroy, who follows the well-meaning but eye-rolling inanities of Nightcrawler with a similarly compromised exercise in eager plumbing of slippery modern morality. Gilroy’s storytelling isn’t as twisted and daring as he seems to think it is, giving the film an ugly sheen of smug self-congratulation.

 

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A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2017). This utterly wackadoodle horror-thriller suggests what Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island would have been if it had no interest in — or maybe capacity for — psychological gamesmanship. Certainly that impression is only heightened by the presence of Dane DeHaan, resembling more than ever Leonardo DiCaprio recovering from a bout with tuberculosis. And then there’s the decision to defer to bygone costume and art direction styling at every turn, despite the contemporary setting of the story. It would be baffling, except so little of the film makes any sense at all that quibbling over mildly incongruous storytelling trappings is like clucking about wallpaper design as the house burns down. Before he set sail with the Jack Sparrow money machine of diminishing returns, Gore Verbinski was an intriguing director, albeit with a troubling tendency towards the hyperkinetic. Now his artistry is as sadly confused as the various characters flailing in circles in A Cure for Wellness.

Playing Catch-Up — From Beyond the Grave; The Family Fang; Black Mass

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From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974). Drawn from the horror short stories of British author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, this anthology film from the macabre minds at Hammer Studios offer a quartet of twisty tales of supernaturally-charged comeuppance, all of them stirred into being after individuals engaged in ethically-challenged transactions with an antique store proprietor (Peter Cushing, gleaming menace). As in all but inevitable given the format, some stories work better than others. But each segment has at least one element that works wonderfully, such as David Warner’s mounting exhaustion as he’s compelled to murder by a haunted mirror, or the delightfully loopy performance by Margaret Leighton as a clairvoyant who offers her services in expelling an invisible demon from an otherwise humdrum home. A story entitled “An Act of Kindness” is the strongest, due to especially creepy performances from Donald and Angela Pleasance (father and daughters thespians playing, appropriately, father and daughter) and a twist ending that’s actually surprising. Kevin Connor brings a playful sense of humor to the staging without ever skewing into condescension.

 

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The Family Fang (Jason Bateman, 2015). It was probably the darkly comedic elements of this story that made Jason Bateman seem like a viable choice for director, as if it could be an extension on the tone he employed in his reasonably promising feature debut as a helmer, Bad Words. But there are far more layers to this examination of the lingering repercussions of growing up in a colorfully troubled clan, and Bateman delivers a muddled mess almost entirely devoid of emotional authenticity. Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman, who also isn’t up to the acting task he’s undertaken) are smarting from their wild childhoods as pawns in the social stunt performance art of their parents (played in their younger years by Jason Butler Hamer and Kathryn Hahn, and in pending dotage by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett). There’s nothing psychologically astute about the film. It’s so inert that it practically disproves Leo Tolstoy’s famed quote about the individualized uniqueness of unhappy families.

 

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Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015). This biographical fiction about infamous Boston organized crime figure James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) desperately wants to be a the second coming of Goodfellas, with a bit of The Departed cross-stitched in for good measure. Instead, Black Mass offers convincing proof that Scorsese’s mobster masterwork would have been incredibly dull had each entry in the famed procession of retribution killings set to “Layla” been instead fully dramatized, complete with predictable fake-outs of mercy before each trigger pull. Perhaps the only element of Black Mass that’s surprising is the remarkable array of affected Boston accents, no two alike and yet all equally atrocious. It’s like a Whitman sampler of drawn-out vowel sounds. Scott Cooper assembles a cast stacked with names and then leaves most of them stranded, gaping at proceedings with a level of stern seriousness so heightened that it reads as befuddled worry. Depp, in the dire downswing of a once promising career, is terrible in the main role, but he has plenty of company in acting ignominy, including Dakota Johnson, who delivers one of the least convincing line readings of the word “motherfucker” ever committed to film.

Playing Catch-Up — A Ghost Story; I Am Not Your Negro; Mudbound

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A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017). There’s been some chatter lately about the divide between film critics and general audiences. I thought about that quite a bit while finally catching up A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s ruminative tale of grief and holding on too long. The feature showed up on plenty of lists tallying up the year’s best movies, but I imagine most viewers would regard the 90 minutes spent with its deliberate, spare storytelling as a form of punishment. I’m somewhere in between. I admire Lowery’s unyielding commitment to his concept, but I don’t exactly warm to it. In depicting a household marked by loss, in which the dearly departed (Casey Affleck) haunts his former romantic partner (Rooney Mara) in a spectral form straight out of a Peanuts strip, Lowery is so reserved that he leaves barely any room for character — and therefore emotion — to infiltrate the proceedings. The result is a movie that’s a fascinating feat, but its ultimately too arid to sustain feature length. As a short, I might very well have been spectacular.

 

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I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016). The spine of this documentary is derived from writing James Baldwin did in the nineteen-seventies, as he tinkered with a proposed book project reflecting on the lives and impacts of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Raoul Peck’s film takes its cues from Baldwin as it expands from there, endeavoring to take in the whole of the famed writer’s life and influence as more of a thoughtful, exploratory cinematic essay rather than some dutiful trek through career highlights. It is dizzying and powerful, especially in the resonant delivery of Baldwin’s words by a atypically understated Samuel L. Jackson. Mostly, it stirs regrets about the ways public discourse has degraded over the years. It’s only been fifty years or so since Baldwin was invited to go on national television and expound on the issues of the day with profound intellectual force. Even with a vastly expanded landscape, there’s practically no room in the clattering modern discussion for someone who addresses the nation’s shared challenges with such articulate assurance.

 

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Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017). A fantastic example of serious-minded, large-scale filmmaking, Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound is an emotional powerhouse. Set in small town Mississippi shortly after World War II, the film concentrates on two different families. The McAllans, who have purchased a downtrodden farm, and the Jacksons, who work that lands ostensibly as employees, but really under the imposed servitude of a bigoted South. The film’s dense complexities are reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — and the underrated 1980 film version, directed by Milos Forman — and Rees rises to meet the challenge, handling the overlapping and intersecting plot lines with astonishing skill. The cast is terrific across the board, with especially strong performances by Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, and Garrett Hedlund. And Rachel Morrison’s cinematography — which has already earned her a place in Academy Awards history — is a pure artistry, tapping into the natural majesty of rural America. It calls to mind Haskell Wexler’s Days of Heaven photography, but with a dose of brutal realism, like a heavy leather bible that gives off a certain glow, but is rough to the touch.