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

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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.

 

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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

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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.

 

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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.

 

downsizing

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.

 

 

girls

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.

 

house

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.

 

dear heart

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.