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

justice-league(2017)_5969

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.

Playing Catch-Up — Ocean’s Eight; Only the Brave; Brigsby Bear

eight

Ocean’s Eight (Gary Ross, 2018). In concept, this stab at reviving the Ocean’s heist film franchise is clever, especially in the way it reshapes the fundamentals to reflect the gender-swapped crew. Maybe it relies on stereotypes, but I like the wall the masculine garish flash of Las Vegas has been supplanted by the Met Gala, to cite one example. In execution, though, Ocean’s Eight is surprisingly drab. The long con has no snap to it, and the cast of aces is left stranded in characters that haven’t been fleshed out past their introductory traits. Gary Ross was once a filmmaker of some promise, but here he takes the material and practically embalms it.

 

only the brave

Only the Brave (Joseph Kosinski, 2017). Adapted from a GQ article about the firefighter who lost their lives in the blaze that took over the landscape outside Yarnell, Arizona in 2013, Only the Brave is the sort of serious-minded docudrama that used to be well-represented on the major studios’ release schedules. The rarity of such a thing in this time of cinematic gods and monsters makes it tempting to overpraise it. The mere existence of the film is a triumph. And Only the Brave is commendable in many ways. The lead performance by Miles Teller engages a lower working class stiff grinding his way out of self-inflicted hardship with tough honesty and a welcome lack of condescension. And the film deftly avoids sensationalizing its central deadly cataclysm, the fatal flaw of the similar Deepwater Horizon. Even so, the script is peppered with problems, including a dream sequence that haunts crew leader Eric “Supe” Marsh (Josh Brolin) and a pervasive sense that it’s sanitizing the culture of these rough men who face down death for a living. Liberated from the nonsensical science fiction myth-making of his previous features, Joseph Kosinski directs with a commendable respect for the emotional and narrative clarity.

 

brigsby

Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2018). In this odd indie comedy, Kyle Mooney stars as James Pope, a young man who spent his whole life in a secluded bunker presided over by parental figures who kept him diverted with a steady stream of videotapes featuring the adventures of a fictional bear who looks like he started on his quests after being kicked off New Zoo Revue. When James is liberated from his captivity, the confusion of the real world makes him fixate on his childhood hero Brigsby Bear even more, because it’s the core of his identity and therefore his only hope for rebuilding a sense of self. Brigsby Bear almost finds its way to insightful observations about the ways in which art and the creative process — especially in the service of lighter fare — can provide a mechanism for dealing with trauma. Dave McCary doesn’t quite seem to know how to instill the necessary weight into the film’s ideas, leaving a finished product that too often feels like a gimmick that hasn’t quite developed into a story.

Playing Catch-Up — A Quiet Place; All Fall Down; New Wave: Dare to Be Different

quiet

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018). Writer-director John Krasinski’s horror film about sonically-attuned, carnivorous creatures is a splendid analogy for the anxieties of child-rearing. It’s also wildly implausible within the confines of its own fictional world, largely because the threats are made so fearsome that survival is basically impossible for even the most cautious being. One errant sneeze, sniffle, cough, stumble, or hiccup and the family is monster chow. The script — co-credited to Krasinski, Scott Beck, and Bryan Woods — smartly keeps the plot lean, and Krasinski shows a real facility for shaping mood and building tension. He’s less commanding playing the patriarch of the story’s besieged family, but he’s got a couple ringers in Emily Blunt and young Millicent Simmonds to give A Quiet Place the emotional heft it needs.

 

All-Fall-Down

All Fall Down (John Frankenheimer, 1962). Based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy, All Fall Down is the first of three films directed by John Frankenheimer that saw release in 1962 (the others are Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate). A family melodrama in its bones, Frankenheimer brings a nineteen-sixties edge to the film that enlivens the whole project. The film contains a very early performance by Warren Beatty, as ne’er-do-well son Berry-Berry Willart, but he’s notably ill at ease with the James Dean explosive anguish he needs to play. The other performances are far stronger, including deeply felt turns by Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Angela Lansbury (playing Beatty’s mother despite a mere twelve years difference in their ages, an infraction against reasonable biological chronology that Frankenheimer infamously compounded in The Manchurian Candidate). There also a nice turn from Brandon deWilde, playing the introverted, slightly odd younger son of the family. He brings a intriguing depth of feeling to a role defined by a placid naïveté.

 

wlir

New Wave: Dare to Be Different (Ellen Goldfarb, 2017). The ostensible focus of this documentary is the relatively short-lived but influential tenure of Long Island radio station WLIR as a rare commercial broadcast purveyor of challenging new music. From the time of a format change in 1982 until the loss of their FCC license in 1987, the station championed emerging artists while in a perpetual underdog station in a highly competitive media market. (Former staffers recount racing to the bank with their paychecks, sure whoever was last in line last would get a shake of the head and a report of insufficient funds). The film also gives ample screen time to the transformational music of the era, too often to the diminishment of the radio station’s story. I’m hardly the person to argue against eager excavations of songs and stories from college rock’s most fertile period, but director Ellen Goldfarb sidetracks to her interviews with nineteen-eighties artist with such frequency that the character of the station and its collective personnel gets lost. The movie becomes a scrapbook: delightful for those who experienced the time and place firsthand, short on meaning for everyone else.

Playing Catch-Up — Devil’s Doorway; Split; Isle of Dogs

doorway

Devil’s Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950). This nail-tough western from the heart of Anthony Mann’s career (released the same year as Winchester ’73) boldly examines vicious bigotry against Native Americans at a time when most Hollywood Westerns still cheerily trafficked in cowboys-vs.-Indians simplicity. Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) is a Shoshone who returns to his Wyoming home after serving honorably in the U.S. Civil War. The sense of respect and equality he experienced while fighting for the North isn’t mirrored by much of the population of Medicine Bow, led by villainous lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who rouses the aggrieved populace to lay claim to ranch land that is rightfully Lance’s. Guy Trosper’s screenplay is uncompromising in depicting the obstinate outlooks developed on the punishing edge of the nation’s frontier, and Mann films the material with his trademark bruising elegance. Taylor is awkward in the leading role, not only because of the unfortunate — and, worth noting, very much of the era — cross-cultural casting. He plays the harshly treated character like any other Western hero, missing the opportunity to explore the nuance of a humble, dignified individual treated unfairly by society because of sad prejudice. The film is admirable, but a more insightful performance could have made it resonant.

 

split

Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2017). The latest exercise in gimcrack narrative sleight of hand from M. Night Shyamalan is his best in ages, which is admittedly praise so faint as to be translucent. It’s loopy nonsense, but also highly watchable, which is a significant step up for the filmmaker once prematurely hailed as “The Next Spielberg.” James McAvoy plays a young man struggling with an overabundance of distinct personalities jostling for control in his head, a dilemma exacerbated by the inconvenient detail that those more prone to ill deeds are beginning to win the battle. The role calls for an abandonment of delicacy and restraint, and McAvoy obliges. He gives it his all, and if it’s not necessarily a great performance, it’s certainly admirably, unashamedly committed. To his credit, Shyamalan is, too, and the resulting movie is a eagerly playful potboiler. Anya Taylor-Joy merits special praise for her serious, probing performance as a teenager abducted by McAvoy’s troubled soul.

 

isle

Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018). Returning to the stop-motion animation he first employed in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson crafts a sweet, melancholy fable set in a quasi-futuristic Japanese dystopia where canines have been exiled, purportedly on the basis on a mysterious ailment, but really because of an ancient grudge. I’ll leave assessments of the cultural appropriation elements of the film to more qualified analysts and not that, strictly as a piece of storytelling, Isle of Dogs is genial, amusing, and of such mild consequence that it starts receding from memory before the closing credits are over. The precision of Anderson’s images is well-suited to the animation form and he and his collaborating screenwriters develop strong humor out of the normal behavior of dogs without ever belaboring a joke. In a stellar voice cast, Bryan Cranston and Edward Norton are the standouts.