Playing Catch-Up — Leaving Neverland; Blaze; Denial

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Playing Catch-Up — Bad Company; Abacus: Small Enough to Jail; Son of Saul

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Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972). A relatively obscure entry in the legion of films from the late-nineteen-sixties and early-nineteen-seventies that sought to strip away the romanticizing so entrenched in the Western genre. A young man named Drew (Barry Brown) flees conscription in the Rebel Army during the U.S. Civil War, falling into cahoots with a band of ne’er-do-well wanderers as an act of self-preservation. The group’s leader, Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges, just one year past The Last Picture Show), is an especially crafty huckster, working every angle with jabbering fervor. Director Robert Benton borrows some of the bright-eyed scrappiness of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and offhand visual elegance without indulging in the same anachronistic comedy. Bad Company doesn’t strip the veneer off the Western with the same ruthlessness as some of its peers, but it’s consistently engaging and peppered with sharp details. Among the strong performances, there’s an especially amusing turn by Joshua Hill Lewis as a pie-loving ten-year-old who’s a member of the gang. Brash, short-tempered, and verbally profane, he basically sets the template for young Chris Barnes’ performance as star infielder Tanner Boyle four years later.

 

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, 2017). A model of contained outrage, this documentary tracks the unique prosecution of a small, family-owned bank that primarily served the resident’s of New York City’s Chinatown district. Accused of playing fast and loose with mortgage loans, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was the only financial institution hauled into court to defend themselves for crimes related to the subprime mortgage crisis which wreaked havoc on the global economy. Director Steve James embeds with the family under siege, basically making the argument that the fairly modest business was unfairly persecuted while major banking institutions — that were demonstrably more purposeful in their infractions and caused incalculably greater damage — were left to skip merrily away with no ill consequences, sure to perpetrate fraud on the public again. Although he employs the usual straight-to-camera interviews with his subjects and knowledgable journalists, James’s true mastery is in identifying the telling moments his camera captures and stitching them into the overall film without overt added commentary. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail makes compelling points about the intentional perversion of U.S. justice to disproportionately punish the vast middle for the unchecked immorality of the wealthy, but it is resonant filmmaking because of the thoroughness of its portrait of a family pushed to their emotional and financial limits.

 

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Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015). As bruising and brutal as it should be, this Holocaust drama from director László Nemes follows — very tightly follows, in fact — a prisoner in Auschwitz who takes it upon himself to seek a dignified burial for a boy murdered in the camp. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is one of the Jewish men who is forced into laboring in the camp, ushering his fellow captives into the gas chamber and cleaning up afterward. Nemes is unflinching in the portrayal, but also frames his shots in a clear effort to block out the most horrid images. The obvious intent is to avoid exploitation, even if the result is also a bit of narrative distancing from the historic acts of human cruelty. The trade-off is fair. Son of Saul is a fascinating piece of cinematic craft that carries a heavy emotional load with reasonable assurance. The film has a power, and that power is well-earned.

Playing Catch-Up — The Immortal Story; Operation Finale; The Blue Gardenia

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The Immortal Story (Orson Welles, 1968). Funded by French broadcasters, The Immortal Story was one of the featured directed by Orson Welles after he’d been effectively exiled from Hollywood. Under thick makeup better suited for the stage, Welles also plays the lead role, a wealthy recluse named Charles Clay living in Macao in the nineteenth century. In idle discussion with his bookkeeper (Roger Coggio), Charles recounts a well-worn yarn shared by sailors and immediately becomes committed to orchestrating the realization of the bit of lore, a compulsion that involves the recruitment of strangers to engage in sexual relations. The visual approach of Welles teeters between staid classicism and vivid innovation (a few shots anticipate the dreamlike seductions of David Lynch), but the narrative energy leans toward the former. Adapted from a Karen Blixen story, the film has all the drive of an in-class reading by disengaged undergrads. The Immortal Story is mostly notable because of its status as the last fiction film directed by Welles, at least that was released in his lifetime.

 

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Operation Finale (Chris Weitz, 2018). This well-meaning and inert drama depicts Israel efforts to bring to justice escaped Nazi Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), retrieving him from Argentina to stand trial for his crimes against humanity as one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. A group of Mossad agents, led in part by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), journey to the South American nation Eichmann escaped to and engage in ad hoc espionage that also includes significant time in which Eichmann is held as a secret prisoner in a safe house, engaging in devious mind games with the team that found him. Chris Weitz directs with a measured seriousness and little inspiration, making even the most harrowing, horrible details into rote plot points. With little to do beyond play familiar beats of misery and outrage, the actors are stranded in place where progressing beyond mere adequacy is all but impossible.

 

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The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953). A Los Angeles switchboard operator (Anne Baxter) is thrown for a loop when she gets a break-up letter from her boyfriend who’s off fighting in the Korean War. She impulsively goes out for the evening with a wolfish artist (Raymond Burr) who’d telephoned her boarding house looking for one of the other residents. Floating on a sea of boozy cocktails, she accompanies the man to his home, where she needs to fend off his advances with a fireplace poker. The next day, she has little recollection of the evening gone wrong, but the man’s murder is all over the newspapers, leaving her wracked with guilt. Director Fritz Lang gives this adaptation of a Vera Caspary novella the proper seamy charge. He revels in the bleakness of the story, especially the cynical opportunism of the press, personified by angle-playing columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte, giving a devilishly fun, fast-talking performance). The ending is too pat, a flaw fairly common to the era, but the film otherwise crackles like a downed power line.

 

Playing Catch-Up — The Uninvited; The Last Black Man in San Francisco; Tickled

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The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944). Based on a Dorothy Macardle novel, director Lewis Allen’s feature directorial debut is widely cited as the first movie to depict ghosts as spectral entities that might actually exist in the world, moving amidst living beings because of some elusive unfinished business in the world. To at least some degree, every subsequent film that treats ghosts seriously can be traced back to this effort. In the film, siblings Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) impulsively purchase an abandoned manor on the coast of Cornwall, seeing it as a welcome refuge from the hustling stresses of the city. They soon find the house comes with a chilling added presence and launch efforts to determine how the troubled history of the previous owners might help explain the haunting. Allen achieves a nice gloomy atmosphere with the house, and the script — co-credited to Frank Partos and The Hundred and One Dalmatians novelist Dodie Smith — properly balances rapidly eroding incredulity with mildly exasperated wit. The leads are fine — both Milland and Hussey opt for a bland, capable approach fairly common in the nineteen-forties — but the supporting cast is peppered with wonderful, idiosyncratic turns, led by Alan Napier as a local physician roped into the supernatural sleuthing and Cornelia Otis Skinner as a menacing sanitarium operator.

 

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019). Scraping by the in the money-draining city of San Francisco, Jimmie (Jimmie Falls) is obsessed with the upkeep of a large Victorian house, causing him to sneak onto the property to tend the garden and touch up the paint when its residents are away. In this strange endeavor, he’s usually joined by his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken man always surveying his environs and then scribbling in his notebook, engaged in a seemingly permanent creative process. That’s the set-up of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the feature directorial debut of Joe Talbot. Drawn from the real experiences of Falls, the film is elegant and insightful, calling back to independent films of the nineteen-eighties and -nineties that delved deeply into characters existing in a distinct place and time. Talbot displays a talent for image construction that’s almost startling in its ability to find beauty in the mundane, and every bit of the film’s mechanics — Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography, Emile Mosseri’s music, David Marks’s editing — is utterly superb. Both main actors are vibrant in their roles, with Majors proving especially inventive in keeping the humanity prominent in a character that could have easily been reduced to an actorly stunt. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is absolutely extraordinary.

 

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Tickled (David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, 2016). In this documentary, New Zealand reporter David Farrier, who specializes in offbeat stories, is tipped off to the presence of tickling videos online featuring young adult men bound and subjected to skittering fingertips against sensitive areas likely to provoke giggle fits. Branded as if they’re part of a loopy sports league, the videos raises suspicions in the Farrier, and he quickly determines there might be more insidious motivations behind the fetishistic clips. He partners with producer Dylan Reeve for his onscreen detective work, including the occasional ambush interview, taken straight from Michael Moore’s now dog-eared playbook. Tickled is constructed with practiced looseness and unconvincingly feigned jolts of surprise reminiscent of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish. The basics might be true, but the presentation is overly reliant on cinematic hucksterism. There are callous opportunists to be found here, well worth exposing. But Tickled is wobbly in terms of its own creative ethics. The film undercuts itself.

Playing Catch-Up — M; Halloween; Jane Fonda in Five Acts

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M (Joseph Losey, 1951). Twenty years after the Fritz Lang film of the same name became a breakthrough for actor Peter Lorre, Hollywood took its crack at the very sordid tale of a child murdered hunted by both the police and the local criminal syndicate. David Wayne plays the compulsive killer with a fraught intensity aligned with the psychological theories of the day, when murderous impulses were often treated dramatically as a sort of migraine-induced fever dream. Director Joseph Losey gives the film a proper sordid feel, emphasizing the grit of the city and the muscular jockeying of the men who operate in it, on both sides of the law. A methodical approach to the storytelling works well, at least until the denouement, which feels drawn out as Wayne’s performance slips fully from measured intensity to the brink of floridness.

 

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Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018). Representing the eleventh Halloween film, and at least the third attempt at significant relaunch erasing much of what precedes it, this horror film positions itself narratively as the sole follow-up to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic. The murderous Michael Meyers (James Jude Courtney, with Frank Castle, the originator of the role, pitching in) has been incarcerated for the whole of the four decades since he weaved through trick-or-treaters to terrorize the town of Haddonfield. And the most famous survivor of his killing spree, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), has been living in self-imposed isolation like a doomsday prepper, though her version of the end of the world wears a largely featureless mask. On an ill-timed and ill-fated transfer of patients from one sanitarium to another sets Michael loose on the anniversary of his last bloody romp. Fangoria-approved carnage follows. The film is directed by David Gordon Green, whose directorial career has been all over the place since his poetic debut, George Washington. He proves adept at mood-setting and is even more impressive at using smart, jolting edits to heighten the tension. As enjoyable as it is to see Curtis offer her own version of Linda Hamilton’s radical Terminator 2 transformation, the story is a little too thin. It hits all the expected beats without much reinvention, which means it inevitably gets dull. One of the strongest compliments I can pay the film in this era of endless recycling is to note the fan service is thankfully kept to a minimum (and what’s there is, admittedly, clever and entertaining).

 

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Jane Fonda in Five Acts (Susan Lacy, 2018). There are few Hollywood lives more deserving of a feature-length documentary than momentous, contradiction-laden journey of Jane Seymour Fonda. Director Susan Lacy has direct access to the star and a few of her close compatriots, but avoids letting the film descend into hagiography, even as her sympathies for Fonda as a survivor are very clear. Fonda’s most controversial actions as an activist in opposition to the Vietnam War are addressed directly and in depth, as is the familial pain she endured and caused. But her astounding acting talent and focused intelligence are also given their due. And then the film offers a reminder of the true blockbuster levels reached by Fonda’s workout products. To say Fonda contains multitudes is like gazing out on the Pacific and saying, “Well, there’s probably a drop or two in there.” Lacy uses her windfall of archival footage and photography well. If there’s a shortcoming to her approach, it’s a lack of proper astonishment at the condensed timeframe of some of Fonda’s most impressive achievements. From 1978 to 1981, she developed and starred in Coming Home, The China Syndrome, 9 to 5, and On Golden Pond, with a couple other starring roles mixed in. And Jane Fonda’s Workout Book was published in that span, too. That’s a career’s worth of highlights within a bushel of months. It’s remarkable.

Playing Catch-Up — Keeper of the Flame; A Star is Born; The Front Runner

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Keeper of the Flame (George Cukor, 1943). Only the second film to boast the famed pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Keeper of the Flame is a stern, stout-hearted drama that too often has the life knocked out of it by a pummeling seriousness. Tracy plays Stephen O’Malley, a well-regarded war reporter who investigates the car crash death of a beloved political leader. In the process, he becomes acquainted with the man’s widow, Christine Forrest (Hepburn). She’s reticent about sharing details of her life with the departed rabble-rouser, and, naturally, suspicions mount and dark secrets begin to emerge. All of the performances are delivered with a hushed intensity, an approach that become tedious quickly. More problematically, director George Cukor never quite gives the film a solid footing. Sometimes he tilts toward a gloom-filled thriller like Alfred Hitchcock might make with the material, and sometimes a Frank Capra-style fable of oppressive systems impeding the mission of true-hearted citizens seems to be the desired tenor. The film was a passion project of Tracy’s. He felt it dramatized an encroaching fascism in the United States and argued fiercely against it. The mission of the film is noble, but the final product is dreadfully dull, unlikely to rouse spirits to take up any cause.

 

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A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954). Officially the second big screen version of A Star is Born and the first to shape the material into the form of a musical, Cukor’s film is a prime example of the resplendent entertainment constructs Hollywood could dish out with startling expertise in the middle of the twentieth century, after the new art form of cinema had properly grown up and before the brilliant, rebellious reinventions of the late-nineteen-sixties and early-seventies. In this version of the movie story that’s been shared and re-shared to point of fable, alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) becomes enamored with Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a singer scuffling on the margins despite her knockout voice. Norman mentors and champions Esther, spurring her to an ascendent career even as his starts to crumble, the opposite trajectories complicating a romance that arises between the two. Cukor’s usual deftness is in full evidence here. He uses elegant, extended takes and astute, meticulous depictions of the worlds the main characters move through to craft a vivid, lived-in, emotionally rich spectacle. Mason and Garland are both marvelous, balancing their characters perfectly on the line between archetype and distinct individual. Garland in particular demonstrates how raw star power can be leveraged into a deep, thoughtful acting.

 

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The Front Runner (Jason Reitman, 2018). Jason Reitman’s film about the collapse of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign is almost entirely devoid of substance, relying on the most facile observations about the U.S. political process. Hugh Jackman plays Hart with the lightning flash aggrieved offense of a man accustomed to getting his way, but he misses the combination of hefty intellect and forceful charisma that made the senator’s hubris-driven self-immolation into a compelling story rather than a mere footnote. The film’s rote, remote nature means an aces supporting cast — J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga, and Kaitlyn Dever among them — is squandered. The most notable performance comes from Sara Paxton, who responds with deep honesty to the script’s small, valuable attempt to give Donna Rice a level of personhood beyond her role as “the other woman” in the scandal that ended Hart’s campaign. Other than that, The Front Runner is more re-creation than drama.

Playing Catch-Up — It Came from Outer Space; The Fastest Guitar Alive; At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal

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It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953). From the boom years of modestly budgeted, big studio science fiction, this tale of space creatures who alight on Earth is based on a story cooked by no less a luminary in the genre than Ray Bradbury. A spacecraft crashes in the Arizona desert and the shuffling, shaggy globules that emerge start body-snatching the locals as they work to repair their vessel. Characterizations are thin, the acting is stiff, and director Jack Arnold stages most scenes with a perfunctory efficiency. The film strives for social commentary on flaring prejudice against outsiders, but screenwriter Harry Essex lacks the acute sense of human psychology and adeptness at layering in moral underpinnings Rod Serling brought to similar storytelling in The Twilight Zone, which launched a few years later. There are definite charms to It Came from Outer Space, but they are entirely dependent on nostalgia. The film plays best as an artifact of a certain style and era.

 

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The Fastest Guitar Alive (Michael D. Moore, 1967). This dippy western likely contributed to Hollywood abandoning the notion of banging out star vehicles for rock ‘n’ roll singers. Roy Orbison plays Johnny Banner, who travels the range with a guitar equipped with a retractable rifle barrel. With his partner, Steve (Sammy Jackson), and a small fleet of dance hall girls, Johnny is on a spy mission for the Confederate Army in the waning waning days of the U.S. Civil War. There are double-crosses and other shenanigans galore, and the film stops dead every few minutes for a musical number, most co-written by Orbison. Predictably, Orbison isn’t a very good in the film (though his gentle urgency and halting cadence calls to mind the delightful William Sanderson at times), but his thespian talents don’t lag all that far behind those of his castmates, who claimed acting as their day jobs. The Fastest Guitar Alive is most painful in its flailing attempts at comedy, notably the downright embarrassing depiction of a Native American tribe that includes comedian Ben Lessy as its befuddled chief.

 

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At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (Erin Lee Carr, 2019). As it should be, this documentary about the abuse of girl gymnasts at the hands of a trusted and  institutionally protected team trainer is a lingering gut punch. The crimes of predator Larry Nassar are duly detailed, but director Erin Lee Carr also provides plenty of space for the raised voices belonging to the survivors of his fiendish manipulations and appalling physical intrusions. And she brings an equally sharp, journalistic attention to the broader culture around the sport of gymnastics, which thrives on abusive power dynamics and borderline abusive coercion of eager girls at its most innocent, pummeling athletes into shape before they’ve reached their teens, obsessively eying future Olympic gold all the while. Carr expertly relies on classic documentary techniques — straight-to-camera interviews, extensive use of dramatic archival footage — and the result is sturdy rather than staid. At the Heart of Gold is agonizing and vital.