Ricki and the Flash (Jonathan Demme, 2015). By the last third of the film, it seems clear that Demme’s chief motivation for taking on this project is the opportunity to apply his extensive experience directing concert films to this fictional story of a derelict mother (Meryl Streep) who fronts a bar band. He certainly demonstrates only passing interest in the tepid familial drama in the script, written by Diablo Cody with a equal freedom from her previous dialogue quirks and recognizable humanity. When Streep’s bedraggled singer returns to her former home, responding to a suicide attempt by her daughter (Mamie Gummer), every bit of the story plays phony, completely derailing Demme’s typical adeptness with finding resonant honesty. He’s more engaged when the last act. If the director is more engaged when the last act is essentially a series of cover song performances briefly interrupted by offhand resolution of earlier character disputes, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film notably improves. This winds up as one of least consequential entries in Demme’s filmography.
Heaven Knows What (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie, 2015). Based on an unpublished memoir by Arielle Holmes, who also plays the lead role, this depiction of the lives of homeless drug addicts in New York City is bruising and effectively intense, at least until the some needlessly bombastic plot turns in the closing stretch. In particular, the film offers a harrowing view of the difficulty of ever breaking free from such a life, with the constant need to reinvent the means for temporary survival creating a stasis of misery. The Safdie siblings handle the material with an empathetic approach utterly free of judgement, staging individual scenes with an attentive understatement that’s ideal. At its strongest, the film is quietly devastating.
No No: A Dockumentary (Jeff Radice, 2014). By now, Dock Ellis hurling a Major League no-hitter while high on LSD, in 1970, is such a broadly known piece of baseball lore that even those with no interest in the sport are like to know about it. While Radice’s documentary clearly trades on that notoriety, most plainly in the very title of the film, the director’s clear intent is rescuing the ballplayer’s reputation from those who give him no more consideration than a caustic chuckle. Ellis was also a skilled pitcher apart from that somewhat flukey feat, an outspoken advocate for civil rights at a fairly complicated time, and, maybe most admirably, a passionate, tireless advocate for those struggling with addiction, as he himself once did. The acid trip no-hitter wasn’t a funny story to him. It was evidence of his own struggles stamped into the record books. Radice’s documentary has powerful moments — Ellis’s emotional reaction when reading aloud a letter sent to him by Jackie Robinson is the clear highlight — but it also winds up just a touch scattered in its attempts to get everything in. Still, it does its job, laying out evidence that Ellis, who died in 2008, deserves to be more than a comic footnote in sports history.
Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960). Truffaut’s second feature as a director is less dazzling that his debut, The 400 Blows, but is still an impressive piece of the opening salvo of the French New Wave. Adapted from the novel Down There, by United States writer David Goodis, the story about a pianist who gets drawn into muddy mingling with the local criminal element plays like a detached film noir, delivered with a French shrug instead of the more familiar stateside grim fortitude. Truffaut employs some the playful technique — expertly on point and cheekily deconstructionist at the same time — that would turn his next film, Jules and Jim, into the textbook example of his country’s revolutionary approach to cinema. Here, the approach is used more sparingly, making it more jarring but also a little less satisfying. The film winds up playing like a key transitional piece rather than it’s own wholly realized work.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper (Nick Broomfield, 2014). Even though director Broomfield is the most problematic part of this documentary about a Los Angeles serial killer, he deserves credit for getting at highly problematic social truths that elevate the film above its lurid, true crime story trappings. The controversial filmmaker, still probably best known for the controversial documentary Kurt & Courtney, is a strange presence throughout, coming across as casually predatory and strangely baffled as he walks through low income L.A. neighborhoods with his boom mic and bulky headphones. And yet Broomfield also manages to offer a sharp consideration of the dearth of attention paid to this horrid murder spree that spanned decades, by both the national media and the local authorities, convincingly chalking it up to the darker skin color of all of the mass murderer’s victims. Had it been a countless blonde, white women who were disappearing over the years, vicious witch woman Nancy Grace would have led the charge as CNN caved in to single-topic, round-the-clock coverage. Much as the film takes the time to track through the horrific details of the so-called Grim Sleeper’s crimes, the most detestable tales it tells are of the whole of society, paying no mind as a long series of women vanished without a trace.