Now Playing — 1917

1917

What hath Alfonso Cuarón wrought? When the director peppered his masterful film Children of Men with action sequences that unfolded in long, unbroken takes (or at least appeared to so), he was hardly the first director to employ the technique. But he launched the modern version of single-shot storytelling, using tight control and rapidly advancing technology to make the viewer feel immersed in the tense travails of the characters, getting a real-time sense of how an ambush played out or how a battle across an urban landscape would feel, inch by perilous inch. Others have drawn on the lessons of that film in varying degrees, most notably Cuarón’s friend and countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu, who flew his seemingly seamless Birdman all the way to the top prize at the Oscars.

With 1917, director Sam Mendes takes the feature-length evasion of obvious edits and applies it to a story of war, presumably with a motivation akin to Cuarón’s quest the heighten the verisimilitude of his most dramatically fraught scenes. Set during the First World War, the film begins as two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay), are charged with a unique mission. They need to travel by foot across the ravaged French countryside to warn other British troops that the attack they are about to launch is doomed to failure. With little time and fewer resources, the pair cut across unfamiliar territory, scarred by assaults and littered with corpses.

Although Mendes drew on tales he heard from his grandfather, a World War I veteran, in shaping the screenplay (he shares a writing credit with Krysty Wilson-Cairns), 1917 smacks of most familiar war-time fiction. The task is simple and the stakes are clear, and any need to develop the characters beyond bland archetypes is shored up with emotional shortcuts, such as putting Blake’s brother among the uniformed men in grave danger. The brutality of war is of course bad enough all on its own, and Mendes clearly strives to accentuate the appalling futility of pitting armed individuals against one another to settle some conflict well removed the personal interest of those firing and being felled by the bullets. There’s a sad savagery to it all, and the century since the film’s setting clearly hasn’t imparted the wisdom needed to move beyond such insane aggressions.

If Mendes’s aim is to make the ordeal of the soldiers more forceful dramatically, the continuous-take tactic actually undermines the goal. Mostly, Mendes inadvertently makes the case for artful editing. Slack scenes of men walking from one test to another offers the reminder that cutting away the superfluous material heightens tension and added power to a piece of cinema. The technical feat is impressive, without a doubt. The management of narrative is far less effective. The mechanics of the filmmaking become central, pushing the worries, challenges, and fleeting triumphs of the characters to the margins.

As usual, it’s a pleasure to gaze upon the cinematography of Roger Deakins, particularly when Mendes orchestrates the plot to allow for some of Deakins’s typical wizardly in lighting and shooting battles at night. And a cameo by Andrew Scott, playing a commanding officer who’s clearly fed up with the war, offers a jolt of personality in a cast defined by sternly serious performance. These attributes enhance the film while simultaneously feeling somewhat apart from the whole experiment, as if they insinuated themselves accidentally and Mendes had to leave them in place so as not to collapse the scheme. For all its forthright boldness of execution, 1917 is an oddly fragile artifact. There’s a hollowness to it. I recognize Mendes’s attempt at poignancy, but I don’t feel it. A movie should be more than a feat of craftsmanship.

Now Playing — Uncut Gems

uncut gems

It is an odd, daring experiment to build a film around a protagonist who unfailingly does the wrong thing. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York City jewelry store proprietor whose skill at garish hucksterism is matched only by his compulsion to gamble away every modest stack of riches that comes him way, certain that windfalls are out there for the taking. As the film begins, Howard is beset by problems, the most menacing of which arrives in the form of hired goons insisting debts are coming due. But Howard also has a rock the size of a generous hunk of bread. Imported from Ethiopia, it contains black opals, and Howard is certain the stone will deliver him a payday of over a million dollars.

The wise course of action is to sit tight and see how the potentially life-changing situation plays out. That doesn’t work for Howard. He’s a hustler with no off switch, and the film revolves around his mounting desperation as he buckles himself into situational straitjackets beyond his meager escape artist capabilities to extricate himself from. Sibling directors Benny and Josh Safdie craft the film with a clear intent to transfer the tension Howard feels to the audience, pressing in tightly on Howard’s anguished face and thumping the soundtrack to almost unbearable levels. It’s bravura filmmaking, so relentlessly pushy that it becomes exhausting in the wrong ways. Although the character sketch is rendered with narrative consistency, the trials of Howard come across as screenwriting machinations rather than a wholly believable progression of events. There’s no suspense in waiting for the other shoe to fall when there’s a relentless downpour of footwear.

The most notable choice in the film is the casting of Sandler, making one of his occasional attempts at more substantive fare than his usual inane comedies built on obnoxious clamor and cartoon logic. As was the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, released almost twenty years ago, the new film provides the strange sensation of seeing Sandler basically play his signature onscreen persona in a serious way. Howard is a troublesome man-child with no regulator on his temper who also fumbles into moments of wounded vulnerability, all of which somehow makes him appealing to attractive women. With no finessing, that same description could be applied to any number of roles churned out under Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions banner. Sandler is suitable, but also can’t find a way to push deeper into the role. As a result, the baggage he brings makes Uncut Gems feel too much like a version of his typical movie where the slapstick happens to leaves a mark.

Now Playing — Little Women

little women

In breaking down Greta Gerwig’s new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to its individual components, the natural starting point for evaluation is the faithfulness of the adaptation. Alcott’s novel made its bow a few decades before there even was cinema, and it was already a beloved standard when director Alexander Butler became the first to bring it to the screen, in 1917. It has been made over and over again, by formidable figures such as George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, and Gillian Armstrong. By official count, Gerwig’s version is the seventh to grace movie theaters, and it comes at a time when there is arguably less patience for taking liberties with the classics in adaptation. Fidelity is a selling point, and Gerwig is remarkably true to the book, often pulling dialogue verbatim from Alcott’s pages.

And yet Gerwig’s Little Women is also immediately notable for the way it scrambles those pages. Alcott follows strict chronology in moving through the story of the four March sisters and those in their orbit, making one sizable leap forward in time at the halfway point. Gerwig moves back and forth between the two major time frames of the novel, finding the characters alternately in the throes of childish impulse and easing into the demands of young adulthood. Other cinematic storytellers using such a device often scramble events according to where they believe the dynamics of the plot best suit the needs and interests of the audience (when Tarantino has done it well, in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Volume 1, this is what he’s pulling off). With Little Women, Gerwig instead does it by feel. She might be shrewd and tactical in her decision-making, but the effect is to swoop scenes together according to their defining emotions. It’s easy to believe that the film is assembled the way Gerwig holds it in her heart, reconfigured after years of rereading and internalizing.

As much as the film feels like a pure expression of Gerwig’s relationship with the book, her enthusiasm manifests in a way that is expansive and generously collaborative. She assembles a wonderful cast and creates the room for them to incisively build the characters. Gerwig’s Lady Bird lead, Saoirse Ronan, has the plum role of Jo March, and works marvels with her adeptness at shifting back and forth between bravado and vulnerability, and sometimes showing how both divergent sensations exist in the same space at the same time. Eliza Scanlen captured Beth’s decency and fragility, Timothée Chalamet aches through the slow growth of next-door dreamboat Laurie, and Tracy Letts is vividly alive in a small role as Jo’s publisher. More than anyone, though, Florence Pugh commands the screen, playing Amy with a stirring forthrightness and blazing creativity.

Every scene is staged with an easy deftness and beauty, which builds up the internal credibility of Gerwig’s approach to the narrative until she takes an especially ingenious pivot in the closing scenes. Little Women, Gerwig’s film, is truest to Little Women, Alcott’s novel, by operating in a sort of dialogue with it. The movie ends as a celebration of storytelling itself, a testimony to the specialness of the original work. In doing so, Gerwig solidifies the certainty that she, too, is an uncommonly talented creator. Gerwig’s work is also destined to thrill, inspire, and endure.

Now Playing — Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

star wars skywalker

It’s difficult to weigh in on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker without rhapsodizing on the entirety of the intergalactic saga George Lucas launched over four decades ago, seemingly with a guilelessness that would quickly be eradicated by unexpected merchandising riches. That’s a natural impulse, I suppose, given the relentless marketing aimed at reminded the masses that this new film, officially Episode IX for those who prefer to tally them such, is the final, no-foolin’ conclusion of the epic story begun with a little thimble-shaped robot charged with delivering a video message. Maybe more pertinently, The Rise of Skywalker, as envisioned and executed by J.J. Abrams, is engaged in active conversation with every Star Wars film that has come before it. For better or worse, it’s also overtly communicating with — and perhaps beholden to — the fan base

Abrams returns to the core Star Wars series after relaunching the ongoing story with the deliberate echo The Force Awakens and ceding the screen to the superior — and exhaustingly controversialThe Last Jedi. His thin plot rehashes much of what’s come before, most notably a simplistic conflict of good and evil, with plucky heroes and proudly malevolent villains. There are gentle callbacks to what’s come before, especially other outings that landed in the third position of segmented trilogies, accidentally arguing that there might not be much of a difference between reverent and slavish. A consensus is already forming that Abrams overly acceded to squeaky wheel fandom in wiping away much of the ingenious deconstruction introduced by writer-director Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi, but Rise of Skywalker smacks more of churlish reasserting of earlier bad ideas that were kindly, deftly replaced by improvements. Johnson took Abrams’s inventions and made them better. Abrams misguidedly puts the discarded pieces back in place, contorting the narrative beyond all reason to do so.

On its own, though, The Rise of Skywalker is a reasonably engaging space adventure. Freed from the heavy baggage of the franchise’s preeminence in entertainment culture, it might be possible to find attributes in the archetypal storytelling. That doesn’t forgive the base mechanics of the film too often being executed in a manner that surprisingly clumsy (several action sequences are edited into a confusing hash of images), and the apparently sincere desire to give the whole sprawling endeavor a proper sendoff doesn’t automatically instill genuine emotion. If I was occasionally entertained, I was rarely moved. In trying to please a fervent few and ruffle no one, Abrams made a film devoid of passion. The hope is stale.

Now Playing — The Two Popes

popes

The world is so filled with knockabout absurdities nowadays that it’s easy to lose sight of the momentous circumstances that demand less immediate and constant attention. There are budding fascists to oppose and life-sustaining ecosystem roasting away due to criminal negligence of global leadership, so the wild circumstance of two different living popes kicking around this mortal plain is almost quaint, a mere curiosity instead of a wild historic aberration that speaks to the strangeness in a religious institution that seems perpetually on the verge of accidental self-immolation from a succession of scandals. Even before any specific contrasts between the two individuals are addressed, the simultaneous existence of a pope and an ex-pope is the stuff of mighty drama.

The Two Popes, the new film from director Fernando Meirelles, imagines the relationship between Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), who served as Pope Benedict XVI, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who succeeded him as Pope Francis. The film gets into some of the ecumenical intrigue around the selection of new popes, exploring the daunting dynamics of a religion struggling to avoid being defined by horrific scandal. Mostly, it concerns itself with these two men from different places and with different mindsets engaged in conversation. The film is strongest when it skews this direction, almost turning into a modern My Dinner with Andre with a pair of creaking religious figures rather than intellectual New Yorkers.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten doesn’t quite have the confidence to keep the film as a strict two-hander, though. Eventually, the conventions of standard biopics intrude, little by little. As the men share their views and experiences, The Two Popes becomes more clearly Jorge’s story, with significant portions of his history depicted in flashbacks. (Juan Minujín plays the future pope as a younger man.) What started at a sprightly crackle grows duller, mostly because Hopkins and Pryce are forced to cede the screen. Together, the veteran actors demonstrate the faultiness of the old adage about showing rather than telling. In their verbal jabbing at each other — and the slow-simmering mutual appreciation that develops — Hopkins and Pryce are far more evocative than the Argentinian landscapes and posh Catholic decor captured by Meirelles and cinematographer César Charlone.

Despite the stumbles, The Two Popes is often engaging. The film finds gentle humor in the strained attempts by the central figures to bond, and it warmly observes the clumsiness of highly spiritual men operating in a modern culture they don’t fully grasp. Meirelles and his collaborators probably don’t proffer anything all that unique or insightful about the Catholic faith, but their kind attention to the common contours of human nature has value. Under the fussy adornments, we are all merely people trying our best to get by. That’s even true of popes, plural.

Now Playing — Black Christmas

black christmas

Whatever its flaws, the new version of Black Christmas makes a strong argument for the importance of having a motivation beyond exploiting brand recognition when remaking a movie. In truth, there may not be all that many current moviegoers familiar with the 1974 original, directed by Bob Clark, and the 2006 remake probably has fewer fans. Similar wan nostalgic interest in other properties — especially old horror titles — hasn’t dissuaded studios from taking drably unimaginative new passes at material, believing there’s money to be made by tacking up new, blood-speckled sheetrock to an established framework. Director Sophia Takal takes a different approach.

Takal’s Black Christmas (besides directing, she’s credited alongside April Wolfe on the screenplay) takes place at fictional Hawthorne College, an elite institution starter over a century ago by open misogynist and rumored occultist Caleb Hawthorne. As winter break gets underway, women on campus receive menacing text messages from a figure mysteriously posing as the school’s nasty founder. The threats are not idle, and a body count starts ticking upward like the odometer on a speeding car. Some sorority sisters, led by quickly wary Riley Stone (Imogen Poots), suspect the perpetrators might be connected to the campus’s most notorious fraternity, which is known for covering up sexual assaults in their house. Or maybe the notably sexist classics professor (Cary Elwes) has something to do with it.

Even before the truth of the menace is revealed, Takal makes it clear that all of modern society bears some responsibility for the misery endured by young women. The handy association to make is to the Me Too movement, and there are certainly satiric barbs aplenty hurled at the piggish, reactionary men who’ve met the campaign with whiny self-defensiveness. But the feminist underpinnings Takal brings to the story extend beyond the recent awareness efforts. Black Christmas convincingly and compellingly makes the argument that gender-based discrimination is a constant hindrance for women.

The clear point of view boosts Black Christmas. The overly familiar horror structure drags it down somewhat. Takal misses opportunities to elevate the basic mechanics of the story. The slightly spooky feel of a bustling college campus emptied out for a holiday is barely touched upon, for example. While crackling with attitude, the film is short on mood. The gift of Takal’s perspective remains special. It would still be nice if the wrapping held a little more appeal.

Now Playing — Dark Waters

dark waters

I have no information about the development process of the new muckraking film Dark Waters, but I know just enough about Mark Ruffalo’s social media presence to hatch a theory that begins with the actor reading Nathaniel Rich’s article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”and puffing up, Hulk-like, as he imagined using his Marvel-built clout to fill movies screens with this tale of environmental activism in opposition to loathsome corporate malfeasance. Surely the time is right for a new Erin Brockovich.

In the film, Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, a corporate lawyer who specializes in defending polluters trying to elide regulations laid out by the EPA. When a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), from Robert’s West Virginia hometown, shows up looking for assistance, Robert’s initial reluctant turns into a welling responsibility to seek justice. The animals on Wilbur’s farm are beset by illness, and he blames a nearby DuPont plant. Robert seeks information from the company, first to assure Wilbur the company can’t be the culprit. Soon, though, Robert becomes convinced some of the products and byproducts coming out of the plant are spreading cancerous poisons. Worse yet, evidence emerges that DuPont knows about the dangers and is actively engaged in hiding the truth.

As Dark Waters focuses on the long discovery process behind the case, it’s impressively engaging. In part because of the occasional slyly unorthodox visual slipped in by director Todd Haynes, working on the most conventional film of his career, the scenes that are most mired in exposition designed for maximum educational impact are also the strongest. The film is as locked into the cause as Robert (and Ruffalo), and the energy of that engagement shows. The more the screenplay (co-credited to Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) layers in obvious attempts at heightened drama, the more strained it becomes. Aside from Robert and Wilbur, the other characters are so loosely drawn that they careen between world views, depending on the fleeting needs of the script. Poor Anne Hathaway, as Robert’s wife, is burdened with playing about five different characters with no connective personality in sight.

Dark Waters is flawed. It also feels valuable. Agenda filmmaking is difficult to pull off, hopelessly prone to becoming a leaden procession of arguments, like a high school debate competition. By treating his unruly sensibility and a more straightforward approach as if they’re so similar that they overlap without causing a riffle of discomfort, Haynes elides the sullen self-satisfaction that so often sinks this kind of film.