Playing Catch-Up — Murder on the Orient Express; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; A Cure for Wellness

murder

Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017). This adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famed novels finds Kenneth Branagh in his happy showman role, both in the officiously constructed visuals and in his leading performance as detective Hercule Poirot. The famous sleuth is pressed into service when a brutish train passenger (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his cabin. The screenplay by Michael Green (whose packed slate of 2017 releases also included a justly lauded superhero reinvention and a couple lousy science fiction brand extensions) obediently follows the rhythms of the nearly inscrutable mystery story, with colorful suspects pleading their innocence right up to the big reveal, which of course includes a snarled admission of guilt. It has the makings of grand, theatrical fun, but only Michelle Pfeiffer seems to realize the best approach is to swing for the fences with every line reading. Between this and mother!, Pfeiffer is showing that if she’s destined to age into less glamorous roles, she’s damn well going to do it with admirable gusto.

 

roman j

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Dan Gilroy, 2017). In the sociopolitical push and pull of Academy Awards nominations, the voting body of the MPAA could certainly have done worse than a citation of merit they gave to Denzel Washington’s work as the titular character in Roman J. Israel, Esq. The performance certainly doesn’t rank among the very best from the screen titan (and, being honest, probably isn’t as strong as that of the Oscar hopeful he likely displaced, freshly reestablished problem child James Franco), but it’s at least markedly, blessedly different, giving Washington the rare opportunity to call on some character actor inventiveness. To the degree that Washington flounders as an unorthodox, socially maladjusted lawyer, it’s most attributable to the rickety efforts of writer-director Dan Gilroy, who follows the well-meaning but eye-rolling inanities of Nightcrawler with a similarly compromised exercise in eager plumbing of slippery modern morality. Gilroy’s storytelling isn’t as twisted and daring as he seems to think it is, giving the film an ugly sheen of smug self-congratulation.

 

wellness

A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2017). This utterly wackadoodle horror-thriller suggests what Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island would have been if it had no interest in — or maybe capacity for — psychological gamesmanship. Certainly that impression is only heightened by the presence of Dane DeHaan, resembling more than ever Leonardo DiCaprio recovering from a bout with tuberculosis. And then there’s the decision to defer to bygone costume and art direction styling at every turn, despite the contemporary setting of the story. It would be baffling, except so little of the film makes any sense at all that quibbling over mildly incongruous storytelling trappings is like clucking about wallpaper design as the house burns down. Before he set sail with the Jack Sparrow money machine of diminishing returns, Gore Verbinski was an intriguing director, albeit with a troubling tendency towards the hyperkinetic. Now his artistry is as sadly confused as the various characters flailing in circles in A Cure for Wellness.

Playing Catch-Up — From Beyond the Grave; The Family Fang; Black Mass

beyond

From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974). Drawn from the horror short stories of British author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, this anthology film from the macabre minds at Hammer Studios offer a quartet of twisty tales of supernaturally-charged comeuppance, all of them stirred into being after individuals engaged in ethically-challenged transactions with an antique store proprietor (Peter Cushing, gleaming menace). As in all but inevitable given the format, some stories work better than others. But each segment has at least one element that works wonderfully, such as David Warner’s mounting exhaustion as he’s compelled to murder by a haunted mirror, or the delightfully loopy performance by Margaret Leighton as a clairvoyant who offers her services in expelling an invisible demon from an otherwise humdrum home. A story entitled “An Act of Kindness” is the strongest, due to especially creepy performances from Donald and Angela Pleasance (father and daughters thespians playing, appropriately, father and daughter) and a twist ending that’s actually surprising. Kevin Connor brings a playful sense of humor to the staging without ever skewing into condescension.

 

family fang

The Family Fang (Jason Bateman, 2015). It was probably the darkly comedic elements of this story that made Jason Bateman seem like a viable choice for director, as if it could be an extension on the tone he employed in his reasonably promising feature debut as a helmer, Bad Words. But there are far more layers to this examination of the lingering repercussions of growing up in a colorfully troubled clan, and Bateman delivers a muddled mess almost entirely devoid of emotional authenticity. Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman, who also isn’t up to the acting task he’s undertaken) are smarting from their wild childhoods as pawns in the social stunt performance art of their parents (played in their younger years by Jason Butler Hamer and Kathryn Hahn, and in pending dotage by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett). There’s nothing psychologically astute about the film. It’s so inert that it practically disproves Leo Tolstoy’s famed quote about the individualized uniqueness of unhappy families.

 

black mass

Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015). This biographical fiction about infamous Boston organized crime figure James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) desperately wants to be a the second coming of Goodfellas, with a bit of The Departed cross-stitched in for good measure. Instead, Black Mass offers convincing proof that Scorsese’s mobster masterwork would have been incredibly dull had each entry in the famed procession of retribution killings set to “Layla” been instead fully dramatized, complete with predictable fake-outs of mercy before each trigger pull. Perhaps the only element of Black Mass that’s surprising is the remarkable array of affected Boston accents, no two alike and yet all equally atrocious. It’s like a Whitman sampler of drawn-out vowel sounds. Scott Cooper assembles a cast stacked with names and then leaves most of them stranded, gaping at proceedings with a level of stern seriousness so heightened that it reads as befuddled worry. Depp, in the dire downswing of a once promising career, is terrible in the main role, but he has plenty of company in acting ignominy, including Dakota Johnson, who delivers one of the least convincing line readings of the word “motherfucker” ever committed to film.

Playing Catch-Up — A Ghost Story; I Am Not Your Negro; Mudbound

ghost story

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017). There’s been some chatter lately about the divide between film critics and general audiences. I thought about that quite a bit while finally catching up A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s ruminative tale of grief and holding on too long. The feature showed up on plenty of lists tallying up the year’s best movies, but I imagine most viewers would regard the 90 minutes spent with its deliberate, spare storytelling as a form of punishment. I’m somewhere in between. I admire Lowery’s unyielding commitment to his concept, but I don’t exactly warm to it. In depicting a household marked by loss, in which the dearly departed (Casey Affleck) haunts his former romantic partner (Rooney Mara) in a spectral form straight out of a Peanuts strip, Lowery is so reserved that he leaves barely any room for character — and therefore emotion — to infiltrate the proceedings. The result is a movie that’s a fascinating feat, but its ultimately too arid to sustain feature length. As a short, I might very well have been spectacular.

 

i am not

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016). The spine of this documentary is derived from writing James Baldwin did in the nineteen-seventies, as he tinkered with a proposed book project reflecting on the lives and impacts of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Raoul Peck’s film takes its cues from Baldwin as it expands from there, endeavoring to take in the whole of the famed writer’s life and influence as more of a thoughtful, exploratory cinematic essay rather than some dutiful trek through career highlights. It is dizzying and powerful, especially in the resonant delivery of Baldwin’s words by a atypically understated Samuel L. Jackson. Mostly, it stirs regrets about the ways public discourse has degraded over the years. It’s only been fifty years or so since Baldwin was invited to go on national television and expound on the issues of the day with profound intellectual force. Even with a vastly expanded landscape, there’s practically no room in the clattering modern discussion for someone who addresses the nation’s shared challenges with such articulate assurance.

 

mudbound

Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017). A fantastic example of serious-minded, large-scale filmmaking, Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound is an emotional powerhouse. Set in small town Mississippi shortly after World War II, the film concentrates on two different families. The McAllans, who have purchased a downtrodden farm, and the Jacksons, who work that lands ostensibly as employees, but really under the imposed servitude of a bigoted South. The film’s dense complexities are reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — and the underrated 1980 film version, directed by Milos Forman — and Rees rises to meet the challenge, handling the overlapping and intersecting plot lines with astonishing skill. The cast is terrific across the board, with especially strong performances by Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, and Garrett Hedlund. And Rachel Morrison’s cinematography — which has already earned her a place in Academy Awards history — is a pure artistry, tapping into the natural majesty of rural America. It calls to mind Haskell Wexler’s Days of Heaven photography, but with a dose of brutal realism, like a heavy leather bible that gives off a certain glow, but is rough to the touch.

Playing Catch-Up — Payment on Demand; The Florida Project; Money Monster

payment-on-demand

Payment on Demand (Curtis Bernhardt, 1951). Bette Davis was a tough customer from the very beginning, but as she edged into middle age there was a special pleasure in watching her disdainfully browbeat all those wronged her. In Payment on Demand, Davis plays Joyce Ramsey, a doyenne of San Francisco high society who is shocked when her husband (Barry Sullivan) asks for a divorce. The film alternates between Joyce dealing with the fallout of this emotional bombshell and flashbacks tracing the couple’s progress from eager youngsters to husband and wife eventually wounded by their own success. In the retrospective scenes, director Curtis Bernhardt borrows visual tricks imported from the stage, giving them a dreamlike quality. As much fun as it is to watch Davis snap off her lines of aggrieved furor as the dissolution of the marriage is underway, her enormous acting skill is most impressively on display in the flashbacks. She effectively conveys the evolving stages of this woman’s life through demeanor, body language, and the gentlest variations in her voice.

 

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The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017). Following the grand, giddily energetic Tangerine, Sean Baker continues to establish himself as the auteur of the underrepresented with The Florida Project. Set amidst the rundown motels and strip mall businesses anchored in long, cold shadow of Walt Disney World, the film pays caring — but strictly honest — attention to the individuals who exist in the sort of poverty that is practically impossible to escape. The film deliberately skips across the experiences of the characters, favoring impressions over plot. Or so it seems, but the details eventually accumulate into a larger story that’s sternly powerful. Baker gets strong performances out a cast mostly comprised of novices, wisely deferring to the measured certainty of Willem Dafoe, playing a motel manager whose work is never done.

 

money monster

Money Monster (Jodie Foster, 2016). Jodie Foster showed great promise as a director in the nineteen-nineties, but her more recent features are perplexing in their wobbly construction and general lack of insight. At least, Money Monster isn’t as plainly inept as its immediate predecessor, the detestable The Beaver. George Clooney plays the boorish host of a cable business news program who is taken hostage by a gunman (Jack O’Connell) aggrieved over the tanking of a stock that was on championed on air. Ostensibly a pointed condemnation of the callous greed of Wall Street, the film is at once hackneyed and ludicrously convoluted. In a disappointing surprise, Foster — an actress of uncommon skill who’s worked with some of the great directors of her time — presides over a batch of performances remarkable only for their pronounced disengagement, even though she’s working with significant talents like Julia Roberts, Giancarlo Esposito, and Caitriona Balfe.

 

Playing Catch-Up — The Final Girls; Baby Face; Lightning Strikes Twice

final girls

The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015). This send-up of horror films — with special satiric sanctimony leveled at the slasher films of the nineteen-eighties — can’t help but draw comparisons to similar efforts in recent years. And already muddled film looks positively witless when gauged against titles that took the impulse for impish deconstruction to greater heights. Max (Taissa Farmiga) is still smarting from the recent death of her actress mother (Malin Åkerman) when she — for perplexing reasons — attends a midnight screening of the beloved, departed parent’s most famous film, Camp Bloodbath. Max and a few of her friends mystically show up inside the movie, using their knowledge of the plot proceedings to keep themselves safe from masked killer Billy Murphy (Daniel Norris). The film’s spiked taffy tone recalls, of all things, the dismal Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson veers between amused affection for and snide derision of the genre trappings of horror flicks. The highly distracted point of view combines with the surface-level spoofery to result in a film that plays like a clanging mess.

 

baby face

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933). This early showcase for Barbara Stanwyck is arguably best known for a plainspoken salaciousness that ran it afoul of the censors as the Hays Code was ramping up. Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who follows the advice of a cobbler (Alphone Ethier) who frequents the raucous speakeasy run by her louse of a father (Robert Barrat). Lily jaunts out into the world with a scheme to achieve upward mobility by treating lustful, susceptible men as ladder rungs. Unsurprisingly, Stanwyck is fantastic, especially when the script feeds her sardonic lines to fling at the various dolts and dupes who swarm around her (including, briefly, John Wayne, six years before Stagecoach made him a star). Alfred E. Green directs with a flat-footed efficiency that’s a marker of the era when Hollywood was a grinding company town. The film is remarkable in its proud amorality, at least until an obligatory romantic ending that doesn’t jibe with all that’s come before it.

 

lightning strikes twice

Lightning Strikes Twice (King Vidor, 1951). This crime drama is like a freewheeling hybrid of film noir, Gothic horror, and Western. Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) is an actress bound for a dude ranch to recover from the strain of being strangled eight performances per week in a touring company of Othello. She’s diverted into the sphere of Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd), a convicted murdered who was sprung from death row when a retrial resulted in a hung jury. The screenplay (by Lenore J. Coffee, adapting Margaret Echard’s 1940 novel, A Man Without Friends) merely skims its finger gingerly across the florid lunacy it introduces, but King Vidor fully invests in the twisty darkness, playing with encroaching shadows and reflections as a visual motif. He also infuses and sense of constant menace into the film, heightening the unpredictability as Shelley falls for Richard, even as paranoia about his lurking motivations overtakes her. The performances are mostly unremarkable, but Mercedes McCambridge, just a couple years after her Oscar-winning turn in All the King’s Men, brings a zesty oddness to her turn as a dude ranch proprietor wrapped up in Richard’s sordid past.

 

Playing Catch-Up — The Rules of the Game; Beatriz at Dinner; Miss Sloane

rules

The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939). Considered one of unassailable greats of all cinema (or at least a foundational classic that demonstrated the way the spirited form could be applied to weighty social subjects), Jean Renoir’s farcical examination of the cross-crossing trysts of the French upper class remains dishearteningly relevant nearly eighty years past its original release. Renoir captures the illicit tomfoolery of the various characters with a cheeky with and a grandly effective sense of comic timing. His bleak sense of humor reaches its apotheosis in the closing moments, when a cold-hearted punchline lands with the brute effectiveness of the storied films of the nineteen-seventies, when wry cynicism was most valued. There are dandy performances all around, include one by Renoir as Octave, who oscillates between loyalty and an especially genially brand of lechery.

 

beatriz

Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta, 2017). Longtime collaborators Miguel Arteta and Mike White reteam for this drama that drops an unlikely visitor into the midst of dinner party otherwise populated by people whose wealth and privilege have made them callous, even as they occasionally feign sympathy for the less fortunate. Although there are others on hand, the film largely plays as a one-on-one debate between a blowhard developer (John Lithgow) and a physical therapist (Salma Hayek) who’s namechecked in the title. Even as White’s screenplay has a tendency to get a little too pat in its political debate, he has the good sense to keep the verbal combatants at least somewhat balanced. Off-putting as the industrialist might be, the woman representing the working classes can be tedious in her serene certainty, a quality enhanced by Hayek’s strong performance. There’s a sense that Arteta is laboring to prolong a thin premise, and the stretching finally snaps in the last act, when its clear no one has a compelling way to end the thing. The film’s true highlight is the performance of Connie Britton, bringing insight to the role of the woman hosting the party, commanding her world with surface kindness.

 

sloane

Miss Sloane (John Madden, 2016). I saw this film retrospectively referred to as Jessica Chastain’s warm-up for her leading turn in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, which was naturally going to require a facility for delivering buckshot blasts of jargon-laden dialogue. As usual, Chastain is a striking, strident presence, even when the film’s attempt to dress up a potboiler frame with serious social justice trappings proves faulty. Chastain is the title character, a shark-like Washington lobbyist who joins up with a small firm to lead a quixotic fight to get a piece of gun control legislation passed. Her new cohorts’ collective pained bafflement at her roughshod tactics sometimes rings false, but it’s enjoyable to watch Chastain smash through those scenes with an authority reminiscent of her turn in Zero Dark Thirty. Similarly, approaching the machinations of ugly Washington lawmaking — and the associated molding of public opinion — with the convoluted creativity of a heist picture is a fun notion, but director John Madden can’t quite loosen up. He gives the film a too somber of a spirit.

Playing Catch-Up — Storm Warning; Pickpocket; Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Storm Warning

Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler, 1951). This drama about the power of the Ku Klux Klan in a small U.S. town plays as a odd hybrid of courtroom potboiler and lurid thriller. A woman named Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) is passing through the town when she witnesses the murder of a man by a gang of hood-adorned thugs. She’s enlisted by the community’s crusading district attorney (Ronald Reagan), who sees this as his big opportunity to finally levy justice against the hateful organization. It seems primed to become one of Hollywood’s proud exercises in cinematic social justice advocacy. Instead, the characters onscreen are more likely to lament the notorious group’s chicanery with union dues than call attention to their virulent bigotry. With cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie, director Stuart Heisler does craft some striking, shadow-drenched images, especially in the opening portions of the film. In every way, the community is scarred by darkness.

 

pickpocket

Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959). It’s always a little reassuring to snuggle up with a classic French film to find it is indeed très, très French. Robert Bresson’s examination of a crafty ne’er-do-well named Michel (Martin LaSalle) has the thinnest of plots and aching mood to burn. Martin learns the craft of picking pockets, while maintaining a distant but caring relationship with his ailing mother (Dolly Scal) and perhaps developing a soft spiritual connection with one of her caring neighbors (Marika Green). Bresson takes great care in showing the intricacies of the pickpocket trade. The film almost becomes a procedural of petty crime. It’s not exactly riveting material, but Pickpocket has the quality of a restrained dream. So, again: très, très French.

 

bombshell

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean, 2017). Alexandra Dean’s documentary on the glamorous star Hedy Lamarr traces the actress’s journey from her Austrian homeland to the glittery realm of Tinseltown, but it’s primarily intrigued by the growing awareness of her sideline efforts as an inventor. Most notably, Lamarr co-held a a patent for frequency hopping technology (awarded in the early years of World War II) that is foundational to all manner of modern tools, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. With a tumultuous film career, admirably combative relationship with the sexist Hollywood power structure, and staggeringly complicated personal life (she was married seven times in just over twenty years), Lamarr’s life defies even the most heroic attempts to condense it into ninety minutes. Director Alexandra Dean does her level best, taking artful advantage of recently rediscovered audio recordings of interviews conducted for an old magazine profile. The resulting film is fascinating, but also a little staid. That’s certainly not a description that should even be connected to Lamarr.