Playing Catch-Up —The Girl in the Spider’s Web; Old Boyfriends; Hotel Artemis

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Fede Álvarez, 2018). I have no firsthand familiarity with the Lisbeth Salander novels penned by Stieg Larsson, but I’m beginning to suspect, whatever their merits, they might repel earnest efforts to turn them into Hollywood entertainment. First, the series felled director David Fincher, who got utterly lost in the lurid mechanics of the story in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The most recent attempt is an even bigger miss. Adapted from the first novel written by David Langercrantz, chosen by Swedish publisher Norstedts to keep the money machine going after the death of Larsson, The Girl in the Spider’s Web finds Lisbeth (Claire Foy) routinely performing acts of vengeful justice against bad men. She is hired by a computer programmer (Stephen Merchant) to retrieve a powerful piece of software that can access the full arsenal of major weaponry around the globe. That assignment draws her into a tangle of dueling international factions and makes her a target, necessitating a reunion with her old journalist pal, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, making practically no impression at all). The film is plodding and borderline nonsensical, desperately cloaking its potboiler soul in an arch aspirational coolness that plays as deadening self-regard. Director Fede Alvarez’s provides workmanlike oversight and little else. Even inspired chaos agent Lakeith Stanfield, as an NSA agent on his own mission to retrieve the computer program, is reduced to an interchangeable game token, in service of tedium.

 

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Old Boyfriends (Joan Tewkesbury, 1979). The sole feature directorial effort from Joan Tewkesbury, co-writer of Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us and Nashville, this odd drama casts Talia Shire, between Rockys, as Dianne, a woman going through her old diary and visiting some of the males who once occupied her time, leaving emotional scars in the process. The film has a bedraggled cynicism of the late-nineteen-seventies, whatever insurrectionist hope that once beat in the heart of young U.S. citizens rotted to a rueful resignation. It’s never entirely clear — perhaps intentionally, without a doubt effectively — what motivation drives Dianne, in part because it seems fairly fluid, less out of adherence to an internal narrative logic and more to suit an interest in covering a lot of dramatic ground. The thesis of Old Boyfriends grows more confused when it slumps to an entirely unconvincing conclusion, though it’s hard to fathom exactly what ending would be completely satisfying given the episodic nature of the film. Shire has some fine moments, but the role begs for an actress that could bring a greater capacity for depth to the performance. Still, there’s plenty of insight and cunning to Tewkesbury’s work. It shows promise. That the readily evident possibility went unfulfilled is an indictment of the film industry’s longstanding aversion to female auteurs.

 

hotel artemis

Hotel Artemis (Drew Pearce, 2018). I’ll can see how Hotel Artemis might have been enticing in screenplay form, pages begging to be turned as an amalgamation of a Tarantino-style assemblage of wisenheimer thugs and glum, stylized near-future science fiction unfolded. In execution, it’s a dismal slog through tepid posturing and strained backstory anguish, portrayed by an overqualified cast flailing for any sense of purpose like lumbering bears trying to retrieve salmon lunches from a briskly flowing stream. A decade in the future, society teeters on a steely edge. Serving a criminal element prone to workplace injuries that are best not taken to conventional elements, the Hotel Artemis is presided over by a woman known only as the Nurse (Jodie Foster, whose genuine greatness as an actress seems as distantly past as the Gettysburg Address). On a particularly busy night, a multitude of conflicts come to a head, including the personal hardship she’s long buried. In his feature directorial debut, Drew Pearce offers a style that is frenetic and pushy, exposing the glib superficiality of the whole endeavor. Only about ninety minutes long, Hotel Artemis is the rare modern film that feels a little too short. Unfortunately, character development and logic were the main sacrifices to the digital editing software’s delete function.

Playing Catch-Up — High Life; The Long, Hot Summer; The Hate U Give

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High Life (Claire Denis, 2019). For her English-language debut, French director Claire Denis doesn’t play it safe. High Life is a science fiction film about a small group on a shoebox-shaped spaceship that has an exterior vaguely resembling a wood paneling and hi-fi equipment combo, making it seem like a nineteen-seventies bachelor pad pirouetting through the cosmos. Treating chronology pliably, Denis reveals the film’s secrets with an intense European restraint, burrowing into the wounded psychologies of the assorted passengers with ferocious cunning. She is yet more ruthless in her attention to physicality. There are enough bodily fluids — of just about every imaginable sort — flowing through the movie to fill a fleet of tanker trucks, and lingers on bodies pushed to distortion with an unblinking attentiveness that rivals David Cronenberg. Her cast is game — Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and Mia Goth are equally strong in their respective roles — but High Life is so clearly a realization of Denis’s troubling vision that most of her collaborators, despite their best efforts, start to feel like mere cogs in an especially greasy machine.

 

long hot summer newman

The Long, Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958). In the same cinematic year he played Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, earning his first Oscar nomination, Paul Newman took on the lead role in this similarly Southern-soaked tale of familial discord and charismatic caddishness. Adapted freely from a trio of works by William Faulkner, The Long, Hot Summer features Newman as Ben Quick, a totem of mildly menacing masculinity who arrives in a small Mississippi town, the cloud of personal and family reputation trailing him. He falls in with the Varner family, whose name is on practically every business in the community, and he’s soon working for the clan’s bullish patriarch (Orson Welles) and slyly testing its favored, circumspect daughter (Joanne Woodward). Martin Ritt directs with characteristic clarity, favoring simplicity over thematic or visual adornment. That suits the material well, allowing the tension to build slowly. Narratively, the film falls apart in the third act. Characters become beholden to contrivances of plot rather than established beliefs and motivations, and the whole endeavor slumps to an unsatisfying conclusion. This is the film Newman and Woodward worked on when they embarked on their laudably enduring relationship, and it’s a true joy to watch them work together, locking into an uncommon rhythm. There’s also a nice supporting performance by Lee Remick, but Welles, playing a character roughly twenty years older, is in his occasional mode of indulging in hammy stage acting that is ill-suited for the medium in which he’s actually working.

 

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The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr., 2018). Based on the 2017 young adult novel of the same name, The Hate U Give sets itself lofty goals. At its foundation, the film is about the pervasive acts of police brutality against U.S. citizens with darker skin color and the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen in protest. But its ambitions don’t stop there, and it sometimes seems as if director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells (adapting Angie Thomas’s novel) are trying to wedge in every last pervasive challenge faced by members of current black communities. The ambition is admirable, but it is hindered by a didactic approach that, while wholly understandable, serves to undercut the effectiveness of the drama. At the center of the film is Starr (Amandla Stenberg), a high school student who witnesses her childhood friend killed by a police officer during a traffic stop for a minor infraction. Her struggles in the aftermath — weighing self-protection against activism — are rendered with empathy, and Stenberg is very strong in the biggest, most intense moments, like an angry schoolyard confrontation with a callous classmate (Sabrina Carpenter). Although flawed, the film is important and powerfully acted (Russell Hornsby excels as Starr’s father). Tillman is notably unflinching, and therefore properly devastating, in his depiction of a law enforcement culture that operates too often with the the vile assumption of criminality among a portion of the population, employing a trigger-happy response with tragic results.

Playing Catch-Up — Cop Car; The Predator; The Case Against 8

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Cop Car (Jon Watts, 2015). Like the product of a mysterious third Coen brother who got some of Steven Spielberg’s DNA spliced into him in utero, Cop Car begins with a simple premise, predicated on the wonderstruck and cloddish decision-making of young boys. While running away from home, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) come across an empty police cruiser on the side of a remote road. They decided to take it for a joyride, which causes consternation for the crooked law enforcement officer (Kevin Bacon) who should have locked his doors before wandering out to engage in some foul doings in the woods. Director Jon Watts (who’s co-credited on the screenplay with Christopher Ford) demonstrates a smart, clear storytelling style, and he does well with the young actors. Bacon leans on the villainy of his character a little too hard, but there’s an effective supporting turn from Shea Whigham, who continues to build an impressive repertoire of mildly cloddish men in over their heads.

 

the predator

The Predator (Shane Black, 2018). The compulsion to reanimate every last cinematic property from the nineteen-eighties that has even a shred of name recognition comes around, yet again, to the marauding space monsters with a talent for blending into their surroundings. There are a few fun passages in the first half, mostly due to Shane Black’s whole Joss-Whedon-with-a-dirty-mouth approach to scripting. Mostly, though, I want to concentrate on the performance of Olivia Munn, as Casey Bracket, an evolutionary biologist plucked off the campus of Johns Hopkins to help study the fearsome creature. In addition to the multitude of well-documented indignities she faced during the shoot and the later press rollout, Munn is laden with line after line of absolutely impossible dialogue, including:

  • “Guys, guys, guys, guys, I get it. I get it. You wanna know if someone fucked an alien.”
  • “New rule: No one shoots my fucking dog.”
  • “Getting the fuck out of here is my middle name.”
  • “He’s right. It’s their M.O. Grow a dick, will ya?”

Munn doesn’t exactly make any of these lines work, but they don’t sink her either. And fighting to a draw seems the best possible outcome under the circumstances. So bravo to Munn, the one true hero of The Predator.

 

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The Case Against 8 (Ben Cotner and Ryan White, 2014). This finely constructed documentary benefits enormous from candid access to the four plaintiffs who came together to legally challenge California’s regressive, bigoted Proposition 8 after it passed in the 2008 election. Directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White also give a significant amount of screen time to off couple attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson, who were on opposite sides of the deeply destructive Bush v. Gore before improbably teaming to fight on behalf of same-sex marriage. For all its admirable qualities, The Case Against 8 can often come across as only surface-deep, in part because it assumes an automatic political alignment between the filmmakers and the viewers. The theory is probably sound, but it’s just as deadening a filmmaking choice here as it is in one of those pieces of offensive agitprop made by right wing nuts. There’s undeniable value in simply capturing the steps taken by everyone involved on the correct side of this litigation, and the film does that with a keen attention and an honorable sympathy. The documentary stands as a useful piece of a larger lesson.

Playing Catch-Up — Pather Panchali; Pocketful of Miracles; Free Solo

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Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955). The debut feature from Bengali director Satyajit Ray is a marvel of deep empathy and refined visual storytelling. Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali focuses on the struggles of a rural family living in poverty in the nineteen-tens. Ray adeptly captures the breadth of the challenge the family faces, largely through the perspective of its two children, Durga (Runki Banerjee when the character is a child, and then Uma Dasgupta when she moves into her teen-aged years) and Apu (Aubir Banerjee). Without shortchanging the grim realities of an existence on the edge of the most basic solvency, Ray finds moments of grace in the kids’ fascination with the smaller treasures of life. Eventually, tragedy intrudes, and Ray’s approach allows the resulting sorrow to feel narratively and thematically proper rather than harshly exploitative. Aligned with Italian neorealism, Pather Panchali is especially impressive because it was crafted by relative novices, including most of the actors, miracle-working cinematographer Subrata Mitra, and Ray himself. The film is a compelling testimony to the value in democratizing access to the tools of cinematic art.

 

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Pocketful of Miracles (Frank Capra, 1961). The final feature from storied director Frank Capra exhibits a surprising deftness given the length of his career’s tooth at the time. It might have helped that Capra had already take a pass at roughly the same material once before. Pocketful of Miracles is based on the Damon Runyon story Madame La Gimp, which Capra had previously adapted for the screen in the the 1933 comedy Lady for a Day. The story centers on a destitute woman named Apple Annie (Bette Davis) who sells fruit on the street while presiding over a small crew of fellow small-scale hustlers and panhandlers. Her wares are viewed as the ultimate good luck charm by local gangster Dave the Dude (Glenn Ford), who is on the cusp of securing a major alliance as Prohibition falls. To keep Annie happy — and those lucky apples coming — Dave has to help orchestra a ruse upon the occasion of a visit by Annie’s daughter, Louise (Ann-Margret, in her first film role). Capra structures the film like an farce, though one that never spin off into frenetic tomfoolery. With a crispness to the visuals and the narrative, Capra keeps the proceedings grounded in emotion and smartly leans on the skilled cast. This is one of the better performances I’ve seen from Ford, and there are fine supporting turns from Edward Everett Horton and Peter Falk, the latter earning an Oscar nomination, his second in as many years.

 

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Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2018). Last year’s Academy Award winner in the feature documentary category mostly succeeds because of the ways it subverts rules and therefore expectations. On its most basic level, Free Solo follows the quest of Alex Honnold to become the first person to scale El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, with the aid of ropes or other mountaineering support gear. The film marvels at the death-defying feat without ever fully celebrating it, leaving plenty of room for the viewer to draw negative conclusions about Honnold’s choices. Amy Poehler says the movie should be called White Nonsense, and that seems reasonable to me. Co-directors Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin capture several small, telling moments — such as Honnold’s amusement in filling out a psychological profile questionnaire being stopped dead what he hits the entry that asks about depression — and use them shrewdly and strategically to build a fuller picture of the climber and those around him. The most impactful choice involves the gradual incorporation of Chin and his camera crew into the film’s narrative. They are not simply pointing their camera, but preemptively weighing the guilt and horror they will feel if their footage includes Honnold falling from a dizzying height, sustaining grave injury or death. What could have easily been a rote sports documentary with some stunning nature photography for flavor becomes instead an unexpected modern morality play.

Playing Catch-Up — Marty; A Kid Like Jake; The Lego Batman Movie

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Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955). Boasting an exemplary Paddy Chayefsky screenplay of downbeat eloquence, Marty manages to examine small-scale lives without a whiff of condescension. Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a thirty-four-year-old butcher who lives in the Bronx with his mother (Esther Minciotti), her constant fretting about his perpetual bachelorhood providing an unwelcome soundtrack. Delbert Mann directs with a kind plainspokenness that’s an ideal match for the material, and Borgnine builds his performance with deep wells of feeling and a laudable absence of easy pathos. The film captures a certain time and place with the level of precision that lends the story an uncommon timelessness. The particulars may be dated, but the film’s emotional honesty resonates brightly.

 

jake

A Kid Like Jake (Silas Howard, 2018). This family drama has the proper intentions and a certain stiffness, which means it’s probably a fine introduction to gender fluidity for viewers just becoming acquainted with the concept. In New York City, middle class parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) are in the midst of the process to set their four-year-old (Leo James Davis) on a productive educational path with a place in the right kindergarten. In the midst of that stress, they also struggle with the suggestion that the pushing against gender stereotypes exhibited by their child, Jake, might be an indicator of more pronounced identity concerns. Both Danes and Parsons are strong in their roles, and screenwriter Daniel Pearle (adapting his play of the same name) gives them scenes of sensitivity and small, occasionally brave insights. It particular, the ways in which anxiety manifests as instinctual partner blaming in a relationship is effectively rendered. In its totality, A Kid Like Jake is more earnest than memorable. Still, there’s a value to its directness and care, even if it can occasionally feel a little pat.

 

lego batman

The Lego Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017). What a strange world we all live in. Following the unlikely critical and commercial success of The Lego Movie, spinoffs and sequels abound, including this adventure of the blocky, plastic version of the caped crusader. Where the computer-animated feature that launched it all was driven by a relentless ingenuity about the building blocks virtually snapped together to make a world, that Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) and his cohorts are made of Lego is almost incidental. Instead, the movie offers a mildly clever deconstruction of the messy mythos around the DC Comics superhero. With only the most minor of script tweaks, this film could have been presented with the same characters in a non-Lego form, which strikes me as a flaws that drains the whole endeavor of purpose. The storytelling is sometimes amusing, but Chris McKay’s directing and staging is overly frenetic, too often letting the visuals collapse into incomprehensible explosions of kaleidoscopic color.

Playing Catch-Up —The Kid Who Would Be King; Total Recall; The Old Man and the Gun

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The Kid Who Would Be King (Joe Cornish, 2019). After his feature directorial debut, Attack the Block, Joe Cornish seemed positioned to jostle with a few others — including Edgar Wright, one of that film’s producers — for the distinction of evolving into a Spielberg for the new millennium, delivering rousing entertainments built with a zippy panache and a bold, cunning visual sense. Active courting of Cornish commenced, but he was evidently having none of it (a choice likely influenced by the experience of working in futility on Marvel’s Ant-Man with Wright), choosing instead to retreat from the business for a while. His return is a chipper oddity, a film about a bullied schoolboy named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who is set upon a quest when he finds Excalibur on a construction site. With similar scrappy chums in his impromptu band of modern knights, Alex has to thwart the malevolent machinations of Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and save the world from the demonic army she’s roused. The Kid Who Would Be King is pleasant enough, but there’s also an old fashioned quality to the storytelling that is more deadening than nostalgically charming. The movie feels like it could have been plucked from a major studio’s lineup of kid-friendly fare circa 1995. Generously, that quality could be seen as imparting a timelessness of the film. In practice, it feels disposable.

 

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Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990). Like most adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s mind-bending fiction, Total Recall endured a torturous development process that pummeled out all the complexities leaving a gimmick upon which a pedestrian action story could be draped. In 2084, people can take faux vacations by getting memories injected. When a construction worker named Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) give it a go, opting for Mars as his destination, he has a strange reaction, eventually being told it triggered the emergence of his real identity of a crafty super-spy. Following up the far superior RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven carries over some of the boisterous imaginings of a cluttered future society, but loses the keen satire. Schwarzenegger’s pronounced limitations as an actor are a major issue, eliminating any of the nuanced intrigue of flexible identity and plopping in basic action movie platitudes in the resulting vacancy. As Quaid’s wife, Sharon Stone flashes the flinty, enticingly dangerous star quality that would push her to the pop culture stratosphere a couple years later.

 

old man

The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery, 2018). Drawn from the real exploits of an aged bank robber, The Old Man & the Gun is expertly designed by writer-director David Lowery to fully exploit the limited yet formidable acting talents of Robert Redford. As Forrest Tucker, Redford moves through the film with the relaxed charisma that’s always been his strongest attribute. He’s especially engaging in the handful of scenes pairing him with Sissy Spacek, as a sweet widow courted by Forrest. Lowery gives The Old Man & the Gun the unhurried pace and twilight glow of a small-scale nineteen-seventies drama, further emphasizing the elegiac sense that a whole era of good-natured movie stars and refined, human cinematic storytelling is flickering out to a regrettable extinction.

Playing Catch-Up — Tortilla Flat; Serenity; The Meg

tortilla flat

Tortilla Flat (Victor Fleming, 1942). Not long after presiding over Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the same calendar year, director Victor Fleming went far more small-scale with this loose adaptation of a typically scruffy John Steinbeck novel. The skillfully aimless plot is put into motion when Danny Alvarez (John Garfield) unexpectedly inherits two houses from his grandfather, but it’s really about the ways in which a loose-knit band of cohorts revolve around each other with interchanging schemes and affection. The prime hustler is Pilon, played by Spencer Tracy with his trademark stammering naturalism that was almost entirely unique for the era. The constancy of Pilon’s machinations is an especially good match for Tracy’s whirring mental gears approach, and he (like everyone involved) thankfully keeps any affectations that might have been at the time associated with the character’s Mexican heritage to a minimum. There’s also a nice, Oscar-nominated performance from Fleming’s wizard, Frank Morgan, playing a trusting, pious vagabond. Tortilla Flat has its charms, but it occasionally strains for a level of importance and poignancy that simply aren’t there. And the filmmakers stick Hedy Lamarr with a role that is tonally inconsistent, flipping from fiery and defiant to soft and simpering with little narrative justification.

 

serenity

Serenity (Steven Knight, 2019). Stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway were reportedly angry that fledgling distributor Aviron Pictures didn’t mount a more expensive and effective marketing campaign for Serenity. Their ire should instead be over the fact this screwy neo-noir was released at all, since its self-satisfied incoherence can only damage the reputations of all involved. Writer-director Steven Knight’s screenplay assembles all sorts of familiar pieces — the grimly haunted protagonist, the seductive blonde dangling dangerous offers, the hardscrabble setting — and gives them a shiny update, while also hurling in a swooping meta curveball. Hathaway looks consistently ill at ease, as if she’s still a couple takes away from settling into the scene, and McConaughey is locked onto the most painful setting of his gruff hambone mode. Knight’s directing is as fussy as his writing. The movie is constantly jabbing the viewer hard in the rib cage, seeking validation of its supposed cleverness. It’s exhausting.

 

the meg

The Meg (Jon Turteltaub, 2018). Big, dumb fun minus the fun, this monster-shark action-thriller tries to push all the buttons of bygone summer blockbusters, but instead mashes a slabby fist onto the control panel over and over again. I suppose mileage may vary depending on how much appeal star Jason Statham hold for the individual viewer. Without exception, I’ve always found him to be a deadening presence in any film. The Meg doesn’t alter that impression one iota. Even as the movie pushes deeper and deeper into gleeful absurdity, there’s no spark of spirit to it. Director Jon Turteltaub simply grinds it out, comfortable he’d stuck his harpoon into a foolproof property. At least in terms of earning power, he wasn’t wrong.