Playing Catch-Up — Panic in Year Zero; Searching; Stronger

panic zero

Panic in Year Zero (Ray Milland, 1962). This Cold War drama, one of a handful of films directed by Ray Milland, takes a fascinating approach to its tale of U.S. society in the immediate aftermath of nuclear weapons leveling a few major cities. Milland plays the patriarch of a family that’s off to a fishing weekend when the bombs fall, and he sternly leads them through a survivalist withdrawal from the increasingly tense social breakdown across the land. Milland’s visual sense is fairly stiff and clumsy, but the screenplay — co-credited to John Morton and Jay Simms — is psychologically astute in its depiction of rapid erosion of morals and national camaraderie as self-preservation takes preeminence. Far from alarmist or sensationalistic, the film is quietly insightful and thoroughly convincing.

searching

Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018). Usually a similar technique to the horror film Unfriended, director Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut confines its perspective to material that appears on a computer screen. In Searching, John Cho plays David Kim, whose daughter, Margot (playing primarily by Michelle La), goes missing, sending him on a desperate scramble through her online history to determine what malfeasance might have been perpetrated against her. There are clever elements, including spot-on depictions of the sometimes destructive ways information travels across web-based platforms. Cho is very good in the lead role, but the performances are shakier across the supporting roles, especially when they’re relying on just voicework, as if Chaganty neglects to value the importance of emotional veracity when the dialogue is delivered in a recording booth rather than before a camera.

 

stronger

Stronger (David Gordon Green, 2017). This adaptation of the memoir of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a survivor of the bomb attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, wavers between daring authenticity and numbingly familiar biopic beats. Director David Gordon Green is leans toward the unsparing in depicting the physical and emotional trials enduring by Jeff after his proximity to the explosion results in the amputation of both of his legs below the knees. And Gyllenhaal is more than game to writhe in rage and agony, honking his lines in a thick Boston accent. The script and the performance both lack the depth needed to lend authenticity to Jeff’s eventual, inevitable healing and conversion into a better person. The result is a work that is well-meaning, professionally rendered, and hollow at its core. Tatiana Maslany does nicely understated work as Erin, Jeff’s long-suffering girlfriend.

 

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

m 1951

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.

 

halloween 2018 2-001

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).

 

fonda five

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 — The Sisters Brothers; Our Brand is Crisis; A Bigger Splash

sisters

The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, 2018). The English-language film debut of French director Jacques Audiard rambunctiously tinkers with one of most storied Hollywood genres without ever quite figuring out what sort of neo-Western it wants to be. Sometimes it aims for the glum myth-busting of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and sometimes it engages in the parody-skirting assertion of more modernized sensibilities favored by Quentin Tarantino. Predictably, then, the film doesn’t quite cohere, proceeding as a fitfully engaging tale with a muddled purpose, thematically and narratively. Both Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are solid as the title siblings, but the most distinctive acting comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, who continues his recent trend of committing to an accent of inscrutable geographic derivation like a determined unicyclist atop an oval wheel. The performance is quite strong otherwise — nuanced and deeply felt — only strengthening its status as the film’s most diverting sideshow.

 

crisis

Our Brand is Crisis (David Gordon Green, 2015). A fictionalization of the fierce, superb Rachel Boynton documentary of the same name, this drama about U.S. political consultants running roughshod over truth and decency while working for candidates a Bolivian presidential election is sadly tame, mistaking platitudes for profundities. Sandra Bullock works hard as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a disgraced campaign guru trying to get her groove back, but the script (credited to Peter Straughan, who was an Academy Award nominee for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also signed his name to The Snowman) is haphazard about the character, eschewing consistency in favor of the narrative needs of the moment. Bullock never had a chance. The directing job by David Gordon Green is smooth and perfunctory, showing no interest in teasing out the fraught complexities of the scenario. This represents at least the second time Billy Bob Thornton has been called upon to play a James Carville avatar. Understandably, he seems colossally bored the entire time.

 

bigger

A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015). The most interesting thing about this restless mishmash of a movie is the way it foreshadows the Luca Guadagnino joints to come. The film’s orbiting of heightened hormones at a picturesque European estate can’t help but call to mind Call Me By Your Name, but I didn’t expect a hard turn into the sort of florid, intensely dramatic human danger that inspired Guadagnino to remake Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And then there it was. The film settles in with a rock star (Tilda Swinton) recuperating after throat surgery and receiving a visit from a former lover and music business cohort (Ralph Fiennes), with his newly discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson) in tow. As an acting playground for Swinton (delightfully expressive to compensates for her character’s near inability to talk) and Fiennes (give a Jeff Bridges-style eager free spirit a slightly manic twist), the film is fun. Viewed from nearly any other angle, it’s an untended shrub of confused notions.

 

From the Archive — Pineapple Express

express

The arrival of the tenth anniversary of the release of Pineapple Express has led to a small batch of articles reflecting on the comedy-action film as if it’s some significant artifact. I guess. For me, it’s just another entry in the long line of films that demonstrate the dismal effect that Judd Apatow has had on modern film comedy. I actually like Apatow a lot (and owe him eternal gratitude for his central part in making Freaks and Geeks happen), but has he ever brought a proud sloppiness to a genre that benefits from razor-sharp precision. Anyway, this was written for my former online home.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about Pineapple Express and, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I keep coming back to Judd Apatow. I’d rather a different angle because I’m not likely to center evaluation of any other film this year around the perceived contribution of the producer. Directors and actors I’ll bring up for certain, and I’ll often consider the screenplay. Cinematography, music scores, editing: these are all fair game. Once I even offered praise for especially interesting and effective sound editing in a film that was not of the sort that usually gets singled out in such a way. But a producer. There are not many instances where I’d be likely to bring up a contributor whose role is nebulous enough that its hard to spot their fingerprints while sitting in the theater.

Then there’s Judd Apatow. Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he also directed, there have been a whole group of films — Knocked Up (in the director’s chair again), Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall — that feel of the same set. David Gordon Green may have directed Pineapple Express and the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg bear the predominant screenplay credit (Apatow has a story credit that, according to Rogen, amounted to little more than coming up with the shell of a premise), but its tone, rhythms and shape (or, more accurately, shapelessness) feels scissored out of Apatow’s well-worn cloth. His influence as a producer is evidently strong enough to make all these films feel like they belong to him as much as anyone else. I can’t immediately recall any other producer skewing the authorship of films to such a degree since Steven Spielberg started amassing producing credits in the eighties and every film seemed to represent some variation on his then-twinkly worldview. This is the kind of impact Brian Grazer dreams of every morning as he civil engineers his ridiculous hair into place.

Pineapple Express is about a pot-smoking summons server and his friendly neighborhood drug dealer who inadvertently find themselves…well…inside an action movie. I don’t mean that literally — this isn’t some sort of meta romp like The Last Action Hero — but the actual plot is so thin and lacking in any sort of compelling intricacies that it’s simply easier and more accurate to talk about the film in terms of its premise instead of its storyline. Besides, it’s not really about that. Like all of these Apatow films, it’s about that fleeting opportunity when a male can reject his own orchestrated arrested development and decide to grow up and take responsibility. This time it’s just framed around rescuing your cohorts from gun-wielding drug gangs instead of devoting yourself to the unexpected mother of your child or the cute girls you hung out with at last night’s party.

There are laughs to be extracted from the situation, mostly from exploiting the contrasts inherent to slobby, clumsy guys who recoil from the very carnage they’re creating or rapidly fold under pressure when playing the hero role isn’t as effortless at it seems onscreen. James Franco is especially good as the generally amiable drug dealer prone to mental wandering. He’s loose enough in this role that it does feel like a liberation from the sort of dour leading man stuff he’s concentrated on since he was the first Freaks and Geeks cast member to achieve visibility apart from the cult fandom of the show. It’s an agreeably scruffy performance in a sometimes disagreeably scruffy film. Overall, it’s still entertaining and has memorable moments, but Apatow is fast approaching the point where he’ll face a similar decision as those thrown at the characters in his films. Does he want to grow up enough to add some focus and discipline to the films that bear his name, or is he satisfied softly plodding along, making movies that pass like a thin, dissipating haze?

Ford, Fukunaga, Green, Minnelli, Stahl

Designing Woman (Vincente Minnelli, 1957). This blithe, airy comedy about a mismatched couple is laced with some mild battle-of-the-sexes commentary. For the most part, though, it’s a procession of problematic friends and crooked boxing promoters. In other words, it’s the sort of romantic turmoil that only happens in the movies, and happened all the more frequently when the standard Hollywood product was made monumentally more colorful to compete with the hugely successful new medium of television. The film is directed with typical skill and panache by Vincent Minnelli, but the film works to the degree it does mostly from the flinty movie star pairing of Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck. Both performers brought a certain snap and impatience with fussiness to their work, which makes their scenes together take on a special fond frankness. It would have been fun watching them wrestle with material that actually challenged them instead of this relative trifle.

Your Highness (David Gordon Green, 2011). Good lord, this is abysmal. The screenplay by Danny McBride and his regular writing partner Ben Best has exactly one joke, told over and over again, and it’s not a very good joke, either. The film presents a fairly standard sword and sorcery sorcery with an evil wizard, noble knights, an imperiled maiden and a fiery warrior woman and peppers it with modern language. Anyone who finds the notion of a Tolkienesque swordsman repeatedly using the word “motherfucker” uproariously funny will be in endless bliss. All others are advised to back away slowly. David Gordon Green used to devote himself to high cinematic art, and now he apparently prefers to slap together broad, idiotic comedy in a haphazard manner. The paycheck is undoubtedly better.

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011). Cary Fukunaga falls into the very current trap of trying to inject life and spirit into a terse-lipped period drama by defaulting a little too often to jolting cuts and distracting camera angles, but he otherwise does well by Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel about a governess who’s endured a fairly miserable life. Mia Wasikowska is sharp and fine in the title role, nicely evoking a sense of a woman building up the dignity that she’s spent her life being brutally told was not something she deserved. The strongest work in the film comes from Michael Fassbender, the domineering boss who eventually comes to love her. He’s fiercely committed to the character’s ferocious, unforgiving nature and yet offers enough glimmers of consideration and even vulnerability that it makes the journey he undertakes seem understandable rather than arbitrary. Fassbender was in a slew of high profile movies last year. Was there any one of them that he wasn’t the very best part of it?

Holy Matrimony (John M. Stahl, 1943). This odd comedy was based on a 1908 novel. The story is about a deliberate, orchestrated case of mistaken identity involving a reclusive English painter who is given the unwelcome honor of being knighted. On the journey there, the painter’s longtime valet dies and the famed but unrecognized artist uses the opportunity to adopt the humbler role, letting the world believe that it is he who had died. He eventually finds love and is pushed to prove his true identity several years later. The screenplay by Nunnally Johnson is unapologetic in its restless intelligence and Monty Woolley gives a fine, blustery performance as the undercover painter.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962). John Ford’s last western with John Wayne is a stark, smart deconstruction of the way myths take hold and become their own sort of truth. Wayne plays a rough, boisterous rancher who sometimes stands in for the local town’s inept sheriff in defending his fellow citizens against a vile gunslinger named Liberty Valance, played with full ugly boil by Lee Marvin. Jimmy Stewart plays a frail lawyer who comes to set up a practice and immediately runs afoul of the villain. The film follows the back and forth between the various characters, paralleled by the political considerations taking place as the region moves towards statehood. The film is shot in splendidly shadowy black-and-white, accentuating the darkness that snakes through the story. Ford’s mastery of the mechanics of cinematic narrative had a way of making the small feel epic and the epic become delicately intimate, and he simultaneously achieves both in this film. Even though the story is largely told in flashback as most of the characters gather for the funeral of another, it doesn’t feel like it’s one of those films that become fairly typical a few years later, striking the death knell for an entire genre. Instead, it’s simply about rendering a strong story in the finest fashion possible, allowing a leveling moral ambiguity to give the film a greater, graver weight.

Apted, Ashby, Cammisa, Green, Soderbergh

Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, 2008). A grim, atmospheric drama about people living small, desolate lives and the way a family tragedy accentuates the levels of their dismay to such a point that bad choices begin to take over. Green handles the film with an elegant restraint that sometimes veers close to bloodlessness, but overall gives it a hard, tense sheen. Adapted from a novel, the film sometimes feels as though it’s missing out on the deeper psychological understanding that’s far easier to realize on the page than on the screen. It offers up nice actorly moments for Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale as the two leads and they hit their big emotional moments with gratifying force. Still, by the time the plot gets to the hard logic of its conclusion, you feel like you don’t really know these characters, especially Beckinsale’s, quite enough to make the ending feel as chilling as it should. As he demonstrated with earlier features like George Washington and All the Real Girls, Green’s greatest strength is crafting a depiction of small time life in all its grinding loneliness and interconnections that is equal parts authentic and poetic.

Which Way Home (Rebecca Cammisa, 2009). A documentary about the dangerous journey undertaken by central American children traveling alone in a quest to cross Mexico for the happy illusion of the United States promised land. The film meanders as much as the tired old train tracks that the kids follow, but Cammisa’s devotion to following these kids, getting in the durable tragedy of their lives and asking them about their dreams of a better future leads to a film that is consistently heart-rending. As blustery proclamations that “illegal means illegal” continue to dominate the dwindling discourse on U.S. immigration law, Cammisa puts a human face–a child’s face–on the issue. Attempts to discard any hint of humanity in favor of keeping the debate safely in the abstract seem especially cruel in the reflected light of this earnest piece of filmmaking.

Incident at Oglala (Michael Apted, 1992). This documentary from English director Michael Apted examines events surrounding the killing of two FBI agents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. It is a thorough and unfussy act of scholarship, an attempt to get at all the angles of an uncertain event and consider whether or not justice was properly rendered. Apted lays it all out, like a man trying to get every puzzle piece on the table because staring at the entirety of it will be the only way to spot the solution. He makes a compelling case that conclusions finally arrived upon by those investigating and prosecuting the case were of dubious merit, and provides the level of background needed to understand how the inclination to reach those conclusions was developed, grown out of animosities stirred up by the burgeoning movement to achieve civil rights victories for Native Americans. It does what the finest documentaries do: it stirs you with the sturdiness of its facts instead of the bombast of its opinions.

Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975). Eight years after the sublime Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty offered up his second film as a producer with this utterly unique film, meshing slyly satirical irony with the story of a hairdresser Lothario who’s enduring a particularly hectic spell on Election Day 1968, bounding between partners like a rapidly racing pinball in the hours leading up to the moment Richard Nixon is the 37th President of the United States. This also marked Beatty’s first screenwriting credit (along with Robert Towne, one year after Chinatown) and it’s hard to avoid seeing a hefty dash of autobiography in the stressed Romeo he’s polished up for himself. Beatty is predictably terrific in the role, and there’s an equally strong supporting performance by Jack Warden as a cuckolded husband who takes a break from anticipating the anointment of his preference presidential candidate to dabble in the Los Angeles counter-culture. The movie is filled with nice, seemingly offhand touches that flesh it all out, give a sense of a whole set of conflicts, concerns and histories taking place outside the frame, a quality that perfectly suits the cerebral care of director Hal Ashby.

The Underneath (Steven Soderbergh, 1995). This bit of film noir playfulness anticipated Soderbergh’s strident, inspired return to the forefront three years later with Out of Sight. Based on an old Don Tracy novel, The Underneath follows a man of questionable repute who returns to his hometown for his mother’s wedding. He winds up sticking around, in part because his new stepfather helps him get a job with a local armored car company, an occupational opportunity that will clearly offer problematic temptations. Besides building a smart, lean, toughly clever screenplay out of the material, Soderbergh takes on the film as an extended excuse to experiment with different techniques, dabbling in deep focus or washing scenes with color as if its all being scene through the vibrant tinted glass accenting the suburban homes the characters move through. Much of Soderbergh’s career has been marked by him trying on different approaches, different voices. He’s often referred to one of the films he made shortly after this one, Schizopolis, as being the point when he started markedly moving the boundaries of his work, but I think you can see some of that pending movement in the fringes of The Underneath.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)