Then Playing — Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Judy; For Sama

portrait

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019). Set near the close of the eighteenth century, Céline Sciamma’s achingly refined, French drama is about a female artist (Noémie Merlant) who is recruited to surreptitiously paint the portrait of a difficult subject (Adèle Haenel) as a gesture on behalf of her absent fiance, a Maltese count she has been handed off to against her wishes. Coexisting in a sprawling seaside home, mostly with only a servant girl (Luàna Bajrami) as company, the two women gradually form a bond that further blossoms in tender, hungry romance. Aided by Claire Mathon’s enticing cinematography, Sciamma crafts a lovely film that takes great care with its central relationships. If Portrait of a Lady on Fire is occasionally a little chilly and stilted, that only places it properly on the continuum of French cinema. At its most piercing, the film depicts the firm solidarity developed by women in a society that too often disregards them. Sticking together — in a variety of ways — is the only rational response.

 

judy

Judy (Rupert Goold, 2019). This biopic of Judy Garland uses the framework of a late-career stint delivering concert performances in London in an attempt to scratch together some meager earnings after Hollywood abandoned her. Most of the film is given over to Renée Zellweger twitching, reeling, and seething as the older Garland, with the occasionally flashback to her days as a teen star (Darci Shaw plays the younger Garland), suffering the casual cruelty of studio control. The abuse of the past helps explain the pill-popping of the future. Zellweger brings the gusto of revival to her performance, including several scenes of singing from the stage in which she does a laudable job of capturing Garland’s signature vocal phrasing and sheer power (diminished as it was by the time in question). It’s a showcase part, and there’s listen of interest in the film beyond it. Rupert Goold directs with a workmanlike blandness, and most of the side characters are mere cogs, though Finn Wittrock manages a few sharpened moments of genial hucksterism as Mickey Deans, Garland’s fifth husband.

 

for sama

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019). Appropriately harrowing and heartbreaking, this documentary provides an unflinching look at what it was like to be on the ground in Aleppo when the city was being ruthlessly bombarded by Syrian military forces and their international supporters. Still a teenager and a college student when the extended Battle of Aleppo began, Waad al-Kateab was also a budding visual journalist. She trained her camera on the mayhem around her, the most powerful footage arguably shot in the hospital operated by her romantic partner, a physician sympathetic to the Syrian rebels protest the nation’s morally corrupt leadership. Working with English filmmaker Edward Watts, Al-Kateab assembles her material with a smart balance between the personal (particularly the birth and infancy of her daughter, who lends the film its title) and the broader impact of blithe geopolitical marauding. For Sama shows the devastating results of war without ever tipping over into exploitation. And the storytelling and the images are so compelling, it’s almost a surprise — and definitely rouses a flare of anger over injustice — that the film doesn’t end with a graphic explaining exactly which government officials were hauled to The Hague to answer for their war crimes.

Then Playing — Under the Silver Lake; Apollo 11; Joker

under silver

Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell, 2019). No one quite knew what to do with writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the indie horror hit It Follows. A shaggy modern detective story, Under the Silver Lake plays like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye if it were made in our current era, when information overload sends vulnerable minds spinning like turbines as they mentally map all manner of conspiracy. Andrew Garfield plays Sam, an idle Angeleno whose attraction to one of his neighbors (Riley Keough) — and her mysterious disappearance — leads him to scuffle around the city in search of answers, finding cryptic clues that heighten his suspicions of a stealth system perpetuating society’s nasty power imbalance. Purposefully unwieldy, the film occasionally falls out of Mitchell’s control and letting the running time edge close to two and a half hours feels less like a reasoned choice and more like an exasperated concession to the impossibility to drawing all the ideas together into a smart, tight narrative. And yet when one of Mitchell’s notions really clicks — as in the scene with a character billed only as Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb) — Under the Silver Lake sparkles with kooky originality.

 

apollo 11

Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019). Gifted with the discovery of ample previously unreleased footage shot around NASA around the time of the mission that first sent astronauts cavorting across the surface of the moon, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller stitches together a documentary that depicts the monumental undertaking. There’s no narration or explanatory commentary. Instead, Miller relies almost entirely on the old footage, which effectively expresses the enormity of the achievement while focusing on the simple, human element, notably that this feat was accomplished by a large group of government employees (admittedly quite exceptional government employees) just doing their jobs. The lack or adornment is admirable, but it also causes the film to occasionally drag. Sometimes a little added context — a touch of retrospective marveling by someone with the knowledge base and communication skill to explain the precise scale of what happened, for example — is a net positive. As a museum piece, Apollo 11 is impressive. As a film, it could use a booster rocket here and there.

 

joker

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019). There’s a decent movie lurking deep inside Todd Phillips’s self-consciously grim reimagining of Batman’s arch enemy. There’s also little indication Phillips knows how to emphasize the best elements. Insights about class-based condescension and the ways a crumbling social safety net causes harm to the most vulnerable members of a community are brushed impatiently aside so Phillips can slavishly ape superior Martin Scorsese antihero dramas from decades past. Borrowing from one of the most masterful filmmakers of the past fifty years at least inspires Phillips to raise the level of his bare craft. Joker is strewn with striking images, and the contributions of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, editor Jeff Groth, and score composer Hildur Guðnadóttir are all first-rate. It’s Phillips’s script (co-credited to Scott Silver) that ultimately sinks the film. The writing is glib and simplistic, the cheap boundary-pushing of Phillips’s Hangover films transferred to a comic book movie setting with only the barest attempt to add depth that could give the film a reason for being beyond bland audience shock. And any time Phillips wedges in lore related to the famed denizens of Gotham City (the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents is depicted for the umpteenth time), the film grinds with tedium. Joaquin Phoenix gives it his all in the title role, but the film conspires against him, making his committed performance feel like one more motorcycle jump in a rattletrap stunt show.

The Playing — Hustlers; The Lighthouse; Shazam!

hustlers

Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019). Based on a New York article, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is like Magic Mike with a low-level heist drama applied like glittery eye shadow. A group of exotic dancers at a high-end New York club need to make up for the abrupt drop in revenue when Wall Street high rollers are left with less disposable income due to the 2007 financial crisis. They target men who still have well-stocked bank accounts, drugging them and swiping cash off their handy credit cards. Naturally, the criminal scheme escalates and trouble follows. Among the cast, Jennifer Lopez has drawn the most accolades, and she impressively brings depth to the role while maintaining a useful layer of star power. Constance Wu is even more impressive in the true leading role, and there’s a dandy supporting turn by Lili Reinhart as a member of skimpily-clad crew who has a weak stomach, literally. Scarfaria brings immense panache to the directing, driving Hustlers with a vibrant energy that helps it overcome some its clunkier plot points and more tired framing devices.

 

lighthouse

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019). For his follow-up to The Witch, sticks with horror in the distant past. In the late eighteen-hundreds, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) row out to an isolated island to man a lighthouse for a multi-week stretch. The two are in conflict almost from the beginning, largely because Thomas takes his position as Ephraim’s superior as a mandate to deliver abuse. As their stint in the lighthouse goes on, cogent thinking and emotional checks start to dwindle. Then their relief doesn’t arrive due to a storm, and all hell breaks loose. The tight control of Eggers’s previous feature is also less in evidence, as he gleefully indulges in sordid imagery and bonkers behavior. Dafoe, in particular, is game for the mania, playing his peg-legged former tar as if he’s been asked to use his scenery-chewing abilities to strike the entire set. The Lighthouse is ultimately too unhinged to be fully effective, but the level of commitment from all involved is undeniably impressive.

 

shazam

Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019). Infused with joy and pronounced sense of playfulness, Shazam! should be put on the inspiration board next to Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman to give filmmakers a useful guideline for future screen adaptations of DC comic book stories. When fleeing bullies, young foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel) stumbles upon the underground home of a wizened wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Judging Billy to be true of heart, the wizard bestows special powers upon him. Speaking the word “Shazam” summons a lightning bolt that transforms Billy into a ludicrously buff costumed superhero. Henry Gayden’s screenplay derives knowing comedy from a child’s goofball innocence being applied to feats of physics-defying derring do, and director David F. Sandberg handles those stretches with a winning deftness. As Billy’s foster brother, a hero-obsessed boy who helps test the limits of the newly bestowed powers, Jack Dylan Grazer brings the same crack comic timing that made him one of the highlights of It. As is the case with most superhero films, the last act of Shazam! is a tedious pile-up of incoherent CGI action, stripping away some of the film’s cheery sheen.

The Playing — Love, Simon; Ad Astra; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

love simon

Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018). In adapting Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda to the screen, director Greg Berlanti and his collaborators honor the story of a gay teenager coming into his own by structuring it like any number of other sweet, mundane high school comedies. The largely unremarkable tone and presentation of Love, Simon is what makes it remarkable. In the film, Simon (Nick Robinson) is worried about revealing himself as gay, even to his closest friends. Then a correspondence with another gay teen, who posted anonymously on a message board, starts to prompt Simon to come to terms with what he really wants out of life. Berlanti stages the drama smoothly and finds gentle comedy in the scenarios. The film is nicely ingratiating, even if it lacks the depth that would lend added poignancy.

 

ad astra

Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019). Positioned somewhere between the icy precision of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the adventure story romp of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, director James Gray’s latest film aims for arty only to wind up clumsy. In the near future, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is charged with a secret mission, retrieving his father (Tommy Lee Jones), previously believed missing, from Neptune, where a project has gone terribly wrong. Gray combines science fiction with anguished family drama, throwing in a moon buggy chase and murderous spaceship monkeys for good measure. Despite the various attempts to jolt Ad Astra to life, the storytelling is problematically ponderous, in part because the protagonist is so intensely withdrawn. Pitt plays the role well, but he can only inject so much genuine emotion into the piece, leaving the film to grind mechanically in its pretensions. Striking imagery and a typically flinty turn by Jones similarly aren’t enough to compensate for the film’s shortcomings.

 

mabuse

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933). The last film Fritz Lang directed in Germany before fleeing the Nazi regime, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a blissfully bonkers thriller about a evil psychologist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) with extremely potent mentalism powers that allow him to serve as kingpin to a booming crime syndicate, even while he’s locked in an asylum. A sequel to the 1922 silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, also directed by Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is stacked with dazzling shots and moves with a headlong impish energy. The film also boasts an extremely fun performance by Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann, a police detective trying to crack this especially weird case. He operates with squirrelly energy and a clacking curiosity that’s a nice mirror of the restless ingenuity Lang brings to the whole film.

Playing Catch-Up — Crawl; Her Smell; The Commuter

crawl

Crawl (Alexandre Aja, 2019). To his credit, director Alexandre Aja clearly understands the lean and lowdown appeal of the premise to Crawl. With little fuss and effecticely shorthand character-building, Aja races headlong into the telling the story of a flooding Florida house during a raging hurricane and the hungry alligators that come sloshing in with the rising waters. Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) departs from her college swim team locker room to check on her father (Barry Pepper), a contractor on the coast. He’s had a nasty accident, trapping him in a roomy crawlspace under his house, and most of the film’s blessedly compact running time is devoted to Haley’s efforts to extricate herself and her pops from danger. Crawl has only modest aspirations (it’s a charming notion that Aja and his collaborations are offering profound commentary on climate change, but the film suggests the global calamity is little more than a handy gimmick for them), but it achieves its plain, rough goals with suitable verve.

 

her smell

Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry, 2019). Writer-director Alex Ross Perry reunites with his Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth star, Elisabeth Moss, gifting the actress with the part of a wild child, indulgently self-destructive rock star. The film’s nineteen-nineties setting is only one part of the reason main character Becky Something suggest Courtney Love at her most dangerously unhinged. It’s a juicy part, and Moss tears into it with trademark gusto. The other performers are largely relegated to reacting with differing ratios of fury and exasperation. The film is admirably raw in its emotional content, and Perry has a remarkable patience with the most tender moments. In the end, though, the film is a character study stretched thin enough that holes rip open. Perry has interesting ideas, but not enough of them to fill up two and a quarter hours.

 

commuter

The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018). Liam Neeson is back on the unwilling vigilante beat, put there by the Jaume Collet-Serra, the director who’s put him in that place repeatedly. At least The Commuter has a more offbeat angle that employs the everyman-in-extraordinary-circumstances tool from Alfred Hitchcock’s old kit. Riding the train home one day, Michael MacCauley (Neeson) receives an offer from a stranger who introduces herself as Joanna (Vera Farmiga). She asks him to draw on his old history as a police detective to sniff out which fellow passenger on the train who is smuggling a stolen item, promising him a big payday if he’s successful in his sleuthing. It becomes quickly apparent to Michael that there are nefarious operators manipulating the situation, and the film is is structured around his attempts to think and punch his way out of trouble. The Commuter is leaden and strained, as the filmmakers seem unwilling to charge ahead with the kind of freewheeling abandon that could take them into big, dumb fun territory.

Playing Catch-Up — The Souvenir; Atlantics; Long Shot

souvenir

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019). Drawing heavily from her own experiences, Joanna Hogg crafts a film that captures the slippery ways problematic relationships become prisons of the participants’ own making. A student filmmaker named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) falls into a romance with Anthony (Tom Burke), who works for the British Foreign Office. Their lives are thoroughly intertwined before Julie realizes Anthony is struggling with a serious drug addiction. The film largely traces the contours of their time together, with special care and empathy for Julie’s persistence as Anthony succumbs to intensifying destructive behavior. Hogg’s filmmaking is a feat of measured intensity, depicting small and large skirmishes honestly without ever edging into overt dramatics. Befitting its status as a sort of cinematic memoir, The Souvenir is devoted to an honest depicting of love experienced on a fault line. Both leads are strong, with Burke doing especially fine work as the crumbling partner. The layered power of the performances combined with the delicacy of Hogg’s direction to give the film a lasting profundity.

 

atlantics

Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019). The feature debut of director Mati Diop is set in the outskirts of Dakar, where a giant, modernist skyscraper is being constructed by exploited laborers. Shortly after the men go missing at sea, the women from their social circle regularly fall into trances at night. Apparently possessed by the departed workers, the women walk to the home of the local real estate magnate who was errant on delivering paychecks and demand the back wages. Those are the plot particulars of Atlantics. The fascinating overlay of working class drama and spooky mysticism serves as a platform for remarkable imagery, shot by miracle-working cinematographer Claire Mathon. Diop is adventurous in her creativity, shaping the film with an enticing, almost hypnotic tone. Adding to the sense of allure is a haunted love story at the core, which hinges on the delicate performance of Mame Bineta Sane, playing a woman in mourning who finds herself with an unexpected chance to revive her romance.

 

long shot

Long Shot (Jonathan Levine, 2019). A stab at a modern romantic comedy, Long Shot places its seemingly mismatched lovebirds in the realm of geopolitical negotiation. Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is the U.S. Secretary of State, eyeing a run for the presidency. Told there’s a need to loosen up her image, she hires a scruffy, newly unemployed muckraker journalist (Seth Rogen) as a speechwriter. They’ve known each other since they were children, when she was his babysitter, and he’s pined for her ever since. The attraction gradually becomes mutual, but the complications of political responsibilities, and the attendant caution about public image, interfere with the budding relationship. If the film is rarely convincing, there’s at least a very evident gameness for all involved. Even when the comedy is strained, it’s weirdly appealing to see everyone trying so hard — and, it seems, good-naturedly — to get the laugh. Rogen and Theron both have fine individual moments, without quite jelling as a team. The film’s best performance belongs to June Diane Raphael, cracking off sharp, angry lines as a sardonic staffer. Jonathan Levine directs ably, though he surely deserves the blame for the film running at least twenty minutes longer than it should.

Playing Catch-Up — The Fugitive; Little; The Odd Couple

fugitive

The Fugitive (John Ford, 1947). This drama resulted from an innovation production mounted in Mexico. In collaboration with the country’s largest production facility and using a crew mostly made up of local residents, director John Ford relates the story of a priest (Henry Fonda) living in secret because of brutal law enforcement efforts against religious figures. Ford’s usual high craft is in full evidence, but there’s a markedly different tonal approach. The movie has the pronounced restraint and emotional ache of European cinema of the time, as if Ford wanted to take a crack at his own version of the emergent Italian Neorealism style. The depiction of oppression is rendered with admirable bleakness, especially for an era when timidity outside of melodrama was far more common. The film’s chief attribute is the cinematography, a feast of shadows and artful intrusions of light shot by Gabriel Figueroa.

 

little

Little (Tina Gordon, 2019). Famously first pitched by young star Marsai Martin, who was fourteen years old at the time of the film’s release, Little is ingenious in its hooky simplicity. The film spins Penny Marshall’s Big on its axis, imaging the comic repercussions if a bit of inexplicable magic spurred the transformation of a high-powered, adult executive (Regina Hall) into her younger self (Martin). Naturally there are lessons to be learned, mostly related to the beastly bullying of her underlings, behavior stemming from humiliations suffered during her school years. Simultaneously, the boss’s beleaguered, undervalued assistant (Issa Rae) comes into her own. While smoothly executed by director Tina Gordon, there’s simply nothing about Little that takes it beyond the generic. Practically every storytelling beat is obvious, the jokes are uniformly flat, and there’s no emotional heft to any of the character development. Except for the trivia question fodder of Martin becoming the youngest person to nab an executive producer credit on a major Hollywood feature, Little is thoroughly unmemorable.

 

odd couple

The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968). Neil Simon adapted his own hit play for the screen, bringing to the masses the tale of two cast-aside husbands with markedly different approaches to cleanliness. Most of the structure of the original work is maintained, with only cursory attempts to move the action of the New York City apartment the men share. Preventing the film from feeling overly confined, Gene Saks makes fine use of the sprawling space, sending leads Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau zipping through and around different rooms as they bicker almost relentlessly. It’s not just the endless recycling of the premise that makes some of The Odd Couple feel sitcom basic, but there’s also no denying Simon’s mastery at setting up a comic target and then shooting an arrow straight at the center of the bullseye, sometimes splitting the previous arrow with his next shot. Lemmon and Matthau worked together in the ten different films over the years. In every instance, they were swinging a bottle in the hopes they’d catch something remotely resembling this bolt of lightning.