Playing Catch-Up — An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn; Straight Outta Compton; Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

beverly

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (Jim Hosking, 2018). I’m sure there’s an easier, more lucrative career path to follow than the road chosen by Aubrey Plaza since the end of Parks and Recreation, which makes her spirited commitment to the oddest projects imaginable all the more laudatory. In An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, Plaza plays Lulu Danger, a disenchanted diner waitress who flees from her life to stalk the mysterious performer Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson) when he’s booked for a gig at a nearby posh hotel. Director Jim Hosking’s comic style is flatfooted absurdity, which is amusing when Jemaine Clement (as a hired thug who becomes an accomplice to Lulu) is muttering mildly startled oddities and far less so it’s time for the fart jokes and other scattershot lowbrow riffing. Some of the performances are deliberately amateurish, and then there’s Emile Hirsch as Lulu’s jilted husband, demonstrating this is trademark fuming rigidness isn’t improved by the appropriation of Jack Black’s bombast. It’s Plaza who nearly holds the whole thing together. She has a remarkable capability to lend a thread of the genuine to the most ludicrous scenarios.

 

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Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015). This depiction of the rise, fall, and lasting influence of N.W.A. proves that even gangsta rappers can fit tidily into the well-used template of the pop music biopic. The first portion of the film is strongest. Director F. Gary Gray builds a winning energy as he traces the group’s formation and creative development. These scenes have an astuteness that properly conveys the impact of N.W.A. Some of the details away from the clubs and studios — including the real problem of police harassment in underprivileged communities — are rendered in a style that’s too heavy-handed, blunting the effectiveness. The grows slack as N.W.A. experiences success and splinters apart, as the dividing of the narrative plays less like admirable scope and more as an inability to determine which story is most interesting. That isn’t even a tricky dilemma. It’s clearly Eazy-E who the film should stick with most closely, if for no other reason than Jason Mitchell is outstanding in the role.

 

film stars

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017). Based on the memoir by Peter Turner (portrayed by Jamie Bell in the film), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool covers the later years of Gloria Grahame, an Academy Award winner (famed in Oscar lore for her notably brief acceptance speech when claiming her trophy), who endured indignities sadly common for older actresses. Annette Bening plays Grahame with insight and grace, adopting the actress’s whispery voice, but otherwise not lapsing into overt impersonation. She concentrates on the emotion of the piece. It’s a fine performance, though well down the list of essential Bening turns. Paul McGuigam offers a workmanlike directing job, plodding around with no evident feel for nuance, the sort of quality that could have given the film real depth of feeling beyond its human interest reportorial plainness.

Playing Catch-Up — The Sisters Brothers; Our Brand is Crisis; A Bigger Splash

sisters

The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, 2018). The English-language film debut of French director Jacques Audiard rambunctiously tinkers with one of most storied Hollywood genres without ever quite figuring out what sort of neo-Western it wants to be. Sometimes it aims for the glum myth-busting of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and sometimes it engages in the parody-skirting assertion of more modernized sensibilities favored by Quentin Tarantino. Predictably, then, the film doesn’t quite cohere, proceeding as a fitfully engaging tale with a muddled purpose, thematically and narratively. Both Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are solid as the title siblings, but the most distinctive acting comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, who continues his recent trend of committing to an accent of inscrutable geographic derivation like a determined unicyclist atop an oval wheel. The performance is quite strong otherwise — nuanced and deeply felt — only strengthening its status as the film’s most diverting sideshow.

 

crisis

Our Brand is Crisis (David Gordon Green, 2015). A fictionalization of the fierce, superb Rachel Boynton documentary of the same name, this drama about U.S. political consultants running roughshod over truth and decency while working for candidates a Bolivian presidential election is sadly tame, mistaking platitudes for profundities. Sandra Bullock works hard as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a disgraced campaign guru trying to get her groove back, but the script (credited to Peter Straughan, who was an Academy Award nominee for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also signed his name to The Snowman) is haphazard about the character, eschewing consistency in favor of the narrative needs of the moment. Bullock never had a chance. The directing job by David Gordon Green is smooth and perfunctory, showing no interest in teasing out the fraught complexities of the scenario. This represents at least the second time Billy Bob Thornton has been called upon to play a James Carville avatar. Understandably, he seems colossally bored the entire time.

 

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A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015). The most interesting thing about this restless mishmash of a movie is the way it foreshadows the Luca Guadagnino joints to come. The film’s orbiting of heightened hormones at a picturesque European estate can’t help but call to mind Call Me By Your Name, but I didn’t expect a hard turn into the sort of florid, intensely dramatic human danger that inspired Guadagnino to remake Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And then there it was. The film settles in with a rock star (Tilda Swinton) recuperating after throat surgery and receiving a visit from a former lover and music business cohort (Ralph Fiennes), with his newly discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson) in tow. As an acting playground for Swinton (delightfully expressive to compensates for her character’s near inability to talk) and Fiennes (give a Jeff Bridges-style eager free spirit a slightly manic twist), the film is fun. Viewed from nearly any other angle, it’s an untended shrub of confused notions.

 

Playing Catch-Up — T2 Trainspotting; Game Night; RBG

t2 train

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017). From the moment it was announced, director Danny Boyle’s choice to develop a sequel to his breakthrough film, Trainspotting, seemed highly suspect, a seemingly desperate creative retreat for a filmmaker whose recent projects — even when generally well regarded — just weren’t quite clicking. I was wrong. In peeping back in on the Scottish hooligan drug users twenty years later, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (working with characters created by novelist Irvine Welsh) craft a cinematic effort of stinging emotional bruises, grimly wise humor, and marvelous visual invention. The dabs of nostalgia, in the form of imagery echoes and musical cues (in one perfect moment, literally presented as a needle drop), are consistently presented with jolting ingenuity. It also helps that the various returning actors have all grown stronger at their craft. T2 Trainspotting is equal to its predecessor. It might even be better.

 

game night

Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018). This comedy is essentially a riff on The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 feature that trapped Michael Douglas’s wealthy misanthrope in an enjoyably ludicrous LARP of dangerous riddles and mounting conspiracy. The regular gathering of board games and generous wine pours hosted by married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, respectively) is infiltrated by Max’s hotshot brother (Kyle Chandler), who wants to add a little excitement by hiring a company that specializes in elaborately dramatized mysteries, a little like an escape room place that makes house calls. Then the make believe mayhem coincides with real thugs storming, but the genial suburbanites think its still a harmless diversion. Mark Perez’s screenplay is clever and well-constructed, and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who were shockingly artless in their approach to the Vacation update) handle the plot’s complexities and splintered perspective with admirable skill. It’s the cast that really sells it, though, led by Billy Magnussen, who nails the requisite dumb guy role, and especially Rachel McAdams, who works wonders in a bar scene in which her character is delightfully invested in the whole affair.

 

rbg

RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen, 2018). Rather opportunistically, this documentary grabs ahold of the Supreme Court Justice who’s surged to unlikely superstar status in recent years and squeezes tight with lots of love. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career merits reverence as much for the gender discrimination cases she argued as an attorney before the highest court in the land as it does for her decades served as a justice. Initially a pragmatist, Ginsburg has become a bulwark for progressive values as new colleagues have skewed far to the right. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a survey more than a deep consideration on Ginsburg’s work and legacy, which sometimes keeps the film at such a surface level than it’s almost glib. Despite the flaws, Ginsburg — who gave the filmmakers ample access — shines through as a vital, inspiring presence.

Playing Catch-Up — Crime of Passion; They Live By Night; The V.I.P.s

crime

Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 1957). This sordid little number casts Barbara Stanwyck as Kathy Ferguson, a San Francisco advice columnist who abandons her career after falling love with and marrying a Los Angeles police lieutenant (Sterling Hayden). It turns out Kathy’s not well-equipped to settle into a domestic life of inane chit chat in the kitchen with the other wives of police force members, and her stir crazy energy compel her to psychological manipulations and finally straight out lawbreaking. Gerd Oswald directs the film with a ribald cunning, but it’s of course Stanwyck who gives the film its reason for being. Coming at a point when her career prospects were dwindling, Stanwyck tears into the role with an clear appreciation for its wild character twists, no matter how improbable.

 

they live by night

They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1957). Considered one of the cornerstone offerings of classic Hollywood film noir, They Live By Night has its place in the canon for clear, unassailable reasons. Nicholas Ray’s direction smothers the visuals with shadowy mood and the story of young fugitives in love is hard and brutal as crags of shattered granite. The film is also, I’m duty bound to report, a little bit dull. As great as Ray is at inking in the grim, heavy atmosphere, he’s lax — or maybe disinterested — in twisting the tension ever tighter. That strips the film, for all its richness and steel-eyed fervor, of the sort of narrative drive that makes the best film noir offerings so compelling.

 

the vips

The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith, 1963). The second film to pair Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, reaching theaters around three months after the notorious Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s is built around the crafty conceit of several travelers having their time-sensitive plans dashed when the airport is fogged in. Screenwriter Terence Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith cut between a handful of plots (including one about an Australian business magnate that boasts a very nice performance by Rod Taylor), but the most loving attention is reserved for Burton and Taylor as a couple whose marriage is on the brink of collapse. The combustible, passionate pair were keeping the gossip magazine business afloat at the time, and the Asquith takes evident pleasure in giving their scenes a probing intimacy that truly feels like voyeurism dramatized. But the film largely works, even without the charge of novelty. It’s especially fun to watch Burton, without tempering his approach one bit, level his Shakespearean boldness at emotional contrivances straight out of soap opera,

Playing Catch-Up — The Deadly Affair; Dear Ruth; Breathless

deadly affair

The Deadly Affair (Sidney Lumet, 1967). Only the second film adaptation of a John le Carré work (it’s based on his novel Call for the Dead, although rights reasons prevented the studio from using its main character George Smiley), this espionage drama is a wholly characteristic excursion into complicated duplicity and highly refined emotional agony. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs, an MI5 agent whose cursory investigation into reports of early Communist leanings of an Foreign Office official (Robert Flemyng) seemingly triggers tragedy. As usual in films tied to le Carré, the British reticence is almost to a fault, twisty complexities dispatched with minimal raising of the pulse. The terse, direct style of director Sidney Lumet toughens it up around the edges, though. Mason is very strong in the lead role, as is the ever-fascinating Simone Signoret, who plays a widow of layered secrets.

 

dear ruth

Dear Ruth (William D. Russell, 1947). This shrewd, piercing comedy is set during World War II, when everyone on the home front felt some obligation to support the boys overseas. For headstrong, politicized teenager Miriam Wilkins (Mona Freeman), that’s meant, in part, sending poetry-laden letters to lonely G.I. Bill Seacroft (William Holden). Since she’s a little too young to flirt with a grown man through the post, Miriam poses and her older sister, Ruth (Joan Caulfield). Then, unexpectedly, Bill comes calling. Filled with splendidly sparking dialogue (credited screenwriter Arthur Sheekman adapted a play by Norman Krasna), the film offers a kinder version of one of Preston Sturges’s comedies of society’s foibles. Holden is endearing as the eager soldier, and Freeman is outright wonderful spouting anti-war, proto-feminist with cheerful petulance. Director William D. Russell occasionally betrays the film’s stage origins with a slightly confined feel, but he calibrates the tone perfectly, a trickier and ultimately more important task.

 

breathless

Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). A iconic offering of the French New Wave, enlivened and deadened at the same time by director Jean-Luc Godard’s customary cinematic defiance. The plot fades in and out of relevance, but basically involves a vagabond miscreant (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and the gamine American expatriate (Jean Seberg) who he pursues romantically across Paris. It’s Godard’s squirrelly intellect and brash, buoyant deconstructions that are the real stars of the show. The way he builds in clear yet disarming narrative echoes is a particular fascination, giving the strong sense that the film can be sorted through forever without completely cracking its riddles. Breathless is seductive and yet holds the viewer at a mildly taunting distance. Basically, it’s quite French.

Playing Catch-Up — Ugetsu; Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind; Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

ugetsu

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953). Drawn from stories in the eighteenth century collection Ugetsu Monogatari, by Ueda Akinari, Kenji Mizoguchi’s film proceeds like a hazy dream that’s periodically jarred into wakefulness by jolts of pointed pragmatism. Set in the time when earning a post as a samurai was the height of upper mobility, Ugetsu examine the ways in which people — men, really — became trapped in bad situations because of their own misguided dissatisfaction with perfectly respectable accomplishments. Mizoguchi directs with empathy and wisdom, lingering over scenes in a manner intended to evoke the experience of perusing storytelling scrolls. Though hardly a film that gets the pulse racing, Ugetsu has a weighty power, settling comfortably among that many other achievements of postwar Japanese cinema.

 

robin

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (Marina Zenovich, 2018). Filmmaker Marina Zenovich doesn’t limited herself to documentaries about entertainment figures that scrape away and and all complications, but it’s definitely a specialty. After soft-pedaling Roman Polanski’s crimes and somehow making Richard Pryor seem smaller than life, she turns her attention to the legacy of Robin Williams. As with the Pryor documentary, Come Inside My Mind mostly skims across career highlights, with talking head remembrances that rarely deepen the insight. Zenovich at least has the benefit of ample archival footage of Williams in action, and his live wire performance works particularly well carved into segments. Occasionally, Zenovich couples together the pieces with a kinetic energy that almost mimics the distractible leaps of Williams’s own comedic intellect. That’s probably inadvertent, though, a lucky byproduct of the attempt to smush a forty year career into a two hour movie.

 

valerie

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970). Yes, I think it is fair to say that Valerie experiences a distinctly notable seven days. This signature offering from the Czechoslovak New Wave movement — similar to the roughly concurrent French cinematic trend of the same name, but reacting to a much rougher political and social landscape — is trippy and disturbing. Adapted from surrealist Vítězslav Nezval’s novel of the same name, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders follows the title character (Jaroslava Schallerová) as she endures an especially tumultuous journey of self-discovery, complete with twisty familial discoveries and vampiric predators. The film is vivid, warped, elusive, and precisely the sort of the product that less daring moviegoers once imagined with dread when the possibility of venturing to an arthouse theater was broached. I present the last observation with no ill judgment. Much as I enjoyed it, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is proudly impenetrable. Director Jaromil Jireš fills the screen with so many brashly divergent ideas that he practically encourages intellectual exhaustion.

Playing Catch-Up — Justice League; The Tale; A Monster Calls

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Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017). Where to even begin with this rambling monstrosity? There’s so much to loathe in this desperate attempt to replicate the success of the Marvel movie model by the company’s distinguished competition in the realm of periodicals. The plot of Justice League is grueling apocalyptic nonsense and character development is practically nonexistent, even for the handful of figures who are essentially making their debut. Then there are director Zack Snyder’s trademark eyesore visuals, which look like the sort of thing Terrence Malick might come up with six or seven years into a battle with degenerative brain disease. Maybe the most damning criticism is the inexplicable fact that mere months after her utter triumph in Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot here seems like a performer completely bereft of wit or charm. Joss Whedon was famously recruited to finish the film after Snyder left due to family tragedy. but there are only the lightest evident fingerprints of the filmmaker who first assembled the Avengers. Justice League is dismal and ill-conceived in practically every way.

 

the tale

The Tale (Jennifer Fox, 2018). Powerful as a reflective on hidden trauma, but muddled and occasionally amateurish as drama, Jennifer Kent’s heavily autobiographical film is at its very best when it ruthlessly examines the slippery nature of memory, especially when self-preserving rationalization are in play. A documentarian named Jennifer (Laura Dern) gradually confront her own history, specifically a time in her girlhood (her thirteen-year-old self is played compellingly by Isabelle Nélisse) when she was under the thrall of some adults (Elizabeth Debicki and Jason Ritter) she met while attending a horse-riding camp. The depiction of young Jennifer being groomed for molestation is bluntly precise, making The Tale properly difficult to watch in places. And Kent is deeply insightful in considering the ways in which pain can be repurposed into a warped sense of power by the survivor. Some lamented the lack of a theatrical release when this striking Sundance Film Festival entry was picked up by HBO, but I suspect it works better in the smaller format, if only because of a certain flatness to the visuals and simplicity to the dialogue that occasionally slips over to stilted. Dern is predictably strong, but the best performance belongs to Ellen Burstyn, who adds welcome layers to potentially thankless role of Jennifer’s mother. Fox’s screenplay gives Burstyn a prickly source of conflict, and she goes ahead and plays a full person.

 

monster

A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, 2016). Based on a book by Patrick Ness, this dark fantasy depicts a twelve-year-old named Connor (Lewis MacDougall) whose dismay over his ailing mother (Felicity Jones) seemingly stirs to life an ancient yew tree, which comes to him as a towering, bark-hided monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) bent on telling tales. Visually resplendent and creative, A Monster Calls is a small feat of beautiful sadness, handling the endurance test of watching a loved one slowly die with a piercing honesty. Except for a coda that gets a little too cute, the storytelling is expertly rendered. There is particular depth in the psychology of Connor, often expressed through the reactions of those around him because the character spends so much of the film in a state of fairly passive misery. In the last act, though, his protective walls start to crumble. Across that passage of the film, MacDougall’s acting is absolutely marvelous, full of unguarded truth.