Now Playing — Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s side career as a documentary filmmaker has largely been a verification of all the stuff anyone would suspect he adores, from the Rolling Stones to erudite New York institutions. A director with nothing truly left to prove, but also, as all evidence presented over the years indicates, a surplus of energy, Scorsese has regularly circled around to excavations of cultural touchstones and artists who enjoyed heydays in the latter half of the twentieth century. Music artists have been a regular source of fascination, including a lengthy film biography of George Harrison and Bob Dylan. nearly fifteen years after his first pass at the latter, Scorsese has returned to the most famous person to grow up in Hibbing, Minnesota.

As the title suggests, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese narrows in on the icon’s mid-seventies tour of the same name, liberally employing rarely seen archival footage of both concerts and backstage shenanigans, and joining the old material with more current talking-head interviews. The Rolling Thunder Revue was set up as a traveling jamboree, with a fleet of other famed performers — Joan Baez among them — sharing the stage and a freewheeling air about it. Dylan insisted on smaller venues and less typical towns, perhaps to revitalize his people’s poet persona or maybe to lessen the pressure since it had been almost a decade since he’d toured as the clear main attraction. Regardless of the motivation, the vibe of the tour was a fine match with the post-Watergate U.S., marked by confusion and a sense of irreparable rupture to all sorts of norms. The circus was arriving to entertain the rabble as the ship went down.

Scorsese opens the documentary with vintage footage of a magician performing an illusion, aided mightily by obvious camera trickery. That’s the throat-clearing warning that not all is at it seems. Dylan has been a expert myth-maker at least since the day he decided the first name of a revered Welsh poet would serve him better that his given surname of Zimmerman. Scorsese’s documentary follows the model, sprinkling in completely fabricated details in the modern reminisces, up to and including the casting of actors to portray certain key figures in the carousing caravan. If it seems like too wild a coincidence that one of the stars of Scorsese’s Casino had a previously undisclosed stint as a hanger-on member of Dylan’s troupe, well, that’s a sound instinct. And Dylan’s corroborating testimony can be disregarded by the jury.

If the folderol of fictions had a clear purpose — if it were indeed commenting on Dylan’s propensity for tall tales and image building, or were being held up as a mirror to the vaudevillian looseness to which the Revue alluded — the choice would be sound, or at least reasonable. Instead, it’s wan nonsense that distracts from the solid pleasures of the unearthed film of the tour. Dylan led the musicians and fellow artists he assembled with a ferocious sense of purpose, and Scorsese is characteristically unerring in his skillful deployment of music. He gives the performances the time to register deeply, as with the blazing version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which lands like a deluge of blows. Equally winning moments are found away from the spotlight, as Joni Mitchell runs through her new song “Coyote” backstage or an assemblage of punch-drunk music makers harmonize on an impromptu “Love Potion No. 9” in the narrow hall of the tour RV.

Why Scorsese and his cohorts feel the need to incorporate doses of flim-flam is a mystery to me. To my eyes, the older, authentic footage includes more than enough to divert, dazzle, and delight.

 

 

Now Playing — Booksmart

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For her feature directorial debut, Olivia Wilde wanted to up the intensity of a high school movie. Screenwriter Katie Silberman was brought in to rework a script that had already passed through a few word processors, and she says Wilde’s vision was to pitch the level of emotion and import somewhere in the vicinity of Training Day. The resulting film, Booksmart, strikes me as falling short of that stated goal, but the aspiration does offer a hint as to why it works more often than it doesn’t. As familiar as many of its particulars are, Wilde and her collaborators are striving to create a movie just a little sharper than its antecedents.

The film’s main narrative gets properly when student government president and proud valedictorian Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that her relentless academic overachieving at the expense of a social life hasn’t delivered the expected outcome of her significantly outpacing her classmates, many of whom indulged in rambunctious teen frippery and still managed to secure entry to elite colleges and universities. On the eve of graduation, Molly decides to make up for lost time-killing, enlisting her best friend and fellow brainiac, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), in a plan to crash the biggest party of the night. The duo has only the barest idea of what decadence might be had at the bash — despite social media video attests to ghost pepper consumption and pizza box karate — but there’s a conviction that it is an experience unmet, a box to be checked with paper-tearing vigor.

As a director, Wilde has a nice visual sense. She also exhibits some of the most common first-timer symptoms, including some anxious editing, overly fussy shots, and a compulsion to shove too many ideas through the door at once. On the last point, too many ideas still makes for a better movie than too few. Booksmart follows the model set forth by Superbad, Can’t Hardly Wait, and a bevy of other films in which anarchic revelry leads to the stealth wisdom that comes with growing up and maybe a touch of self-actualization. and Wilde has an admirable ability to come by her more insightful moments honestly. She largely avoids easy heroes and villains, or even shorthand brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals. With cunning deftness, Wilde allows every character to play out with levels of complexity and contradiction. She trusts her youthful cast to settle into a bright truthfulness. Longtime ace Dever is the strongest, but there are also nice supporting turns from Molly Gordon (as a classmate tagged with a nickname connoting promiscuity), Skyler Gisondo (as wealthy student overeager for friendship), and especially Billie Lourd (as a child so wild the behavior transforms into a sort of strange magic).

Booksmart is messy, peppered with comedic diversions that work only fitfully. But it’s also warm and empathetic, reaching for uncommon nuance with determination and verve. Wilde might have issue an imperfect opening salvo as a filmmaker, but it’s still an exciting start. Like her two protagonists, she clearly has a lot to say and every bit of it is worth hearing.

Now Playing — Avengers: Endgame

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Avengers: Endgame is absurd. I’ve previously declared myself agog that movie screens are routinely turned over to these vibrant figures that dominated my youthful years, enveloping my fragile psyche in the protection of costumed titans who take the strange misfortune of enhanced physical attributes as a mandate to restore justice to an uncertain universe. A little more than a decade into the cinematic era launched by Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the dazzling showmanship of Marvel Studios is so thoroughly enmeshed into the cultural conversation that the sheer scale of the latest entry in the vast ongoing saga can almost be taken for granted. It is a three-hour spectacle that can be reasonably characterized as three different films stacked upon one another. By one tally, there are fifty-four major performers in credited roles, and twenty-one prior films are drawn from liberally, like a spice rack of superheroes. Completely the circle of excess, Avengers: Endgame has made money faster than the most efficient and well-staffed production facility of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Avengers: Endgame is, in its simplest description, a direct follow-up to last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. As the new film begins, the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are distraught in the wake of the successful implementation of a galaxy-wide genocide perpetrated by cosmic baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin) with the snap of his gauntlet-clad and jewel-bedecked fingers. Grieving for their fallen allies and guilt-stricken over their failure to stop the supervillain, our heroes gradually assemble their might in the hopes of somehow, some way undoing the damage.

The mechanics of the story require the twisting of the known laws of, well, everything, and it’s to the enormous credit of the filmmakers that disbelief is reasonably easy to suspend. Or at least the riotous romping through a sharply, intricately drawn mosaic of established, interlocking fictions is imbued with such a ceaseless sense of joyful inspiration that pulling at stray threads carries the sourness of entirely unnecessary self-inflected spoiling of sport. Where Infinity War was burdened by dour narrative duty curdling into blatant acts of manipulation, Endgame is a cohort-like exaltation of every last thing intrinsic to the superhero archetype — and Marvel’s decades of specific storytelling mastery, in particular — that positioned it to become the inescapable foundation of current pop culture, much to the surprise of people like me, who once hid their colorful comic books in tepid shame.

I don’t intend to absolve Endgame of its flaws, and they are there. In the warm afterglow, I find myself thinking more on the elements that tickle my longtime fandom: the artful ad hoc partnerships between established but previously distant characters, the happy moments of loving fan service, the genial callbacks, and the victory laps for the actors who’ve carried the weighty Marvel brand on their backs for years, practically making service to the cause a full-time profession. As a discerning cineaste, I might quibble with narrative cheats, the fairly pedestrian shot construction, or the lack of thematic heft and insight. As someone who still wants more than anything else to be transported when the theater lights dim, I’m grateful for a myriad of the film’s clicking cogs. There are moments belonging to individual actors (particularly Chris Evans, who merits some sort of lifetime achievement award for the improbably feat of humanizing Captain America, probably the trickiest character in all of the pantheon) and characters that made me beam like a kid before a freshly stocked spinner rack. I acknowledge that Avengers: Endgame is as much machine as film, but, my oh my, it purrs and gleams. Does it ever.

Now Playing — Us

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It’s not all that unusual for a filmmaker to establish themself as a vibrant new voice within their first couple of features. But I can’t think of another recent instance in which a creator who was already a known quantity in the entertainment field turned to directing and so thoroughly transformed the entire perception of their abilities and sensibility as Jordan Peele has done. It’s been only two years since Get Out, his feature debut as a writer and director, became nothing short of a sensation, and yet it already feels like he’s practically a brand unto himself, like Steven Spielberg at his commercial peak or Wes Anderson as a creator. In offering that observation, I’ll add that Peele’s commitment thus far to a preferred genre (extended to a notable new streaming venture) is the least of what defines his piercing individualism. Instead, it’s the confidence embedded in Peele’s craft that makes his emergence as a cinematic force so thrilling.

Peele’s second film, Us, is even more ambitious than its predecessor. A fierce thematic focus has been supplanted by a sprawl of social commentary, making the new effort trickier to pin down. As in Get Out, the trouble is reached via road trip. A family headed by Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) journeys to Santa Cruz for a family vacation. The couple’s two children, teenage Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and  younger Jason (Evan Alex), meet the annual excursion to the family lake house with typical grouchy indifference. There’s little reason to believe the vacation promises anything more dire than an occasional squabble. But Adelaide has a secret past, and one night it comes calling with faces that are familiar, but unsettlingly askew. And scissors. There are some very sharp-looking scissors.

The title Us — and its similarity to U.S. — signals that Peele is again binding social commentary to his chill-inducing story. The sheer breadth of the subtextual editorializing sometimes grows vaster than the film can reasonably contain. It really seems as if Peele is settling for no less than commentary on every caustic element of the national character, encompassing a teeming mass of contradictions into a single booming narrative. The film is dazzling in its ambition and occasionally mildly confusing in its execution, especially when the film pushes to some final twists which are substantiated without being wholly convincing or satisfying. Peele is spinning his story so fast and furiously that it sometimes gets a little dizzy.

Even if the tale slips toward the unwieldy, Peele’s directorial craft is consistently exemplary. He has a striking visual sense that’s especially welcome in a horror film, where the plain facts of where characters physically reside in a scene are crucial. And he knows to give the actors the authority to carry the emotional impact. It’s much easier to rely on a thesis like that when the talent of Nyong’o is at the center of the film. Even before the script gifts her with a literally doubling up of characteristics to play, Nyong’o is marvelous, bringing a deep humanity and flinty charisma to the performance.

If Us isn’t quite the knockout that Get Out was, it similarly unfolds with fascinating layers and invites full-hearted admiration of everything it gets perfectly right. And like the earlier film, I suspect it will only grow stronger as time passes. As Us settles into the memory, its imperfections start to look beautiful, too.

Now Playing — Captain Marvel

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As a longtime (if occasionally lapsed) fan of superhero comic books, I’ve had mixed emotions about the mighty Marvel age of cinema. Close as it has sometimes come, the Marvel Studios machine hasn’t yet made a wholly satisfying movie, in part because of the ways in which it is constantly serving a massive blueprint that can sometimes value — at least in part — formula over individual inspiration. There has been one aspect that has been continually satisfying as I’ve watched these costumed titans brought from the page to the big screen. I am always emotionally moved by the block of comic book writer and artist names that arrive at some point in the lengthy closing credits, recognition that even as the first writer and artist associated with a character are due a “created by” credit, the nature of the form means many of the defining stories arrived later. Black Panther, for example, may have been first conceived by the peerless team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but the character who arrived on the screen had additional DNA provided by Don McGregor, Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, and many others.

Captain Marvel, the latest movie from the comics publisher turned entertainment juggernaut, has the customary hat tip to the myriad creators who’ve had an especially notable influence on the character Carol Danvers since she was introduced, in 1968. For me, though, the most telling and rewarding appearance of a comic book creator’s name was set slightly aside, under the heading “Consultant.” And that’s because the writer in question, Kelly Sue DeConnick, was instrumental in helping Carol — who had previously toiled for the forces of good as Ms. Marvel, Binary, and Warbird — take the mantle that probably should have been bequeathed to her decades earlier. For all practical purposes, the character Brie Larson plays in this new Marvel movie (referred to as Vers and Carol Danvers, but not yet by the more superheroic moniker in the title) is the one that DeConnick realized with various collaborators on art duties. When Captain Marvel is most true to the spirit of DeConnick’s admirable run with the character, the movie soars.

And it is indeed more the spirit than the particulars being adapted for the screen, as liberties are taken, often to jigsaw this puzzle piece into proper shape to snap into place among the twenty official Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that have come before. To begin with, this iteration takes place in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when Nicholas Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, given convincing Oil of Olay treatment by some skillful CGI) was a comparative pup who didn’t yet need to shop for eyepatches. Carol is a warrior hero among the alien race the Kree, soldiering in a ceaseless battle against the shape-shifters known as Skrulls. A mission gone sideways sends her crashing down to Earth, and she gradually becomes reacquainted with a personal history that’s been hidden from her.

Co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (they also figure in the complicated screenwriting credits), Captain Marvel trades on the some of the same girl power satisfaction that gave Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman an energizing jolt. If subtlety is sometimes sacrificed in favor of a good old fashioned stand-up-and-cheer moment, then so be it. The wait has been long, and the continued necessity of more didactic lessons is proven by the futile, obnoxious nattering of misogynistic nitwits who cloak themselves in the unearned piety of their supposed fandom. When Carol declares her independence, I want her to do it with the clearest possible refutation of the cads who try to control her.

Larson is terrific in the title role, bringing her wellestablished acting chops to Carol’s internal conflicts while also acquitting herself nicely in charismatically holding the screen, which is, let’s face it, a primary requirement of these roles in these movies. The other cast members are solid enough, if clearly secondary to our captain, though Ben Mendelsohn has some marvelous moments as the Skrull Talos, at least when the narrative shifts in such a way that he’s allowed to start underplaying. Boden and Fleck sometimes get tangled up as they try to service the film’s multiple needs, especially faltering whenever the significant tests of the action sequences come around. Even so, their deft touch with character and comic moments goes a long way toward forgiving the scenes that clank with franchise necessity.

These Marvel movies can be fairly measured on different scales. That can seem like lowering expectations because of their blockbuster status, but it’s also about acknowledging the greater degree in difficulty in mounting new adventures as the latest entry of a major ongoing saga of interconnected films. As the ample wreckage of bumbled attempts at cloning the Marvel model demonstrates, it is no small feat being accomplished by producing mastermind Kevin Feige and his assembled filmmaking avengers. Captain Marvel is a solid movie, but it’s in the upper tier for Marvel, the latest positive example of the studio’s recent success in trusting the unique visions of its somewhat iconoclastic directing hires. As was the case with DeConnick in the comics, there’s immeasurable benefit to fully committing to creators who clearly love and want to honor a character. They’re the ones who can take these heroes higher, further, and faster.

Now Playing — Fighting with My Family

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When expressing admiration for an actor’s talents, it’s common — even hackneyed — to note a willingness to follow them anywhere. I’ve made this pledge, but I’ve rarely honored it. There was a time when I was prepared to make such a claim about Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example. Yet no amount of certainty that he was among the finest actors of his generation was going to make me buy a ticket to Along Came Polly. My general selectivity and the increasing need for even the most fiercely serious actors to stoop to dismal bill-paying roles means I’m especially disinclined to to follow any individual performer’s pied piping nowadays. And yet there I sat in a darkened theater pondering the unfamiliar emblem of the WWE Films logo preceding a feature film viewing experience I’d willingly sought out. So I guess this is where I’m currently at with Florence Pugh.

As was the case with many, Pugh seized my attention with her sharp, probing performance in the 2017 film Lady Macbeth. Further assurance that she’s the real deal came, for me, with last year’s miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, which flashed enough range to hint that she could ply her cunning performing chops just about anywhere. As a young, British actress, though, there was a strong chance she’d bound from one costume drama to another. There are far more dire outcomes, but a dearth of variety struck me as a particularly unfortunate turn for someone flaring with rare charisma and ingenuity. Thus, the prospect of Pugh playing, of all things, a recent a professional wrestler is nothing short of a joyous gift.

Fighting with My Family is a biopic of Saraya-Jade Bevis (Pugh), who wrestled for WWE under the name Paige. Adhering the preferred sports movie trajectory, Paige comes from hardscrabble beginnings, wrestling in bargain bin matches as part of the family business in the English city of Norwich. She and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) both dream of breaking into the biggest show in the world, but their tryout yields the bond-rupturing result of only one advancing. Saraya adopts the ring name Paige and grinds through the tough, demoralizing process of training with other hopefuls in what is essentially an ongoing audition process.

Stephen Merchant wrote the screenplay and presided over the film in his first solo feature directing job. His work is sturdy enough, but also slightly wobbly as he never quite locks fully into a tone. Sometimes the film is sincere, sometimes it’s broadly comic, and it occasionally lapses into an almost sitcom cadence of obvious setup followed by an equally expected punchline. He’s on far more certain and effective ground when he honors the value of the final word of the title, earnestly exploring the dynamics of a misfit family (the parents are played with appropriate verve by Nick Frost and Lena Headey) and the daughter pursuing a unlikely professional path.

As for the person who lured me to the film in the first place, Pugh is highly enjoyable as Paige, leveling a born brawler’s scowl at the world around here while simultaneously acknowledging the vulnerability a hard luck kid would feel when set before the vastness of a massive money-making enterprising built on strobing showmanship. Even so, there’s only so much she can do within a story that rarely ventures deeper than surface level, missing opportunities in the process. In particular, the requisite triumphant ending is undermined by a feel of phoniness, perversely because it treat pro wrestling like any other sport, its final reckoning determined as much by luck and fate an anything else. Since Fighting with My Family has already acknowledged the artifice in the form, no one’s trying to preserve an illusion. The question when Paige crosses the ropes for her first big match isn’t really about whether she can win, it’s about whether she can perform, a far more complex — and therefore fascinating — challenge that the filmmakers basically ignore. In the end, the WWE narrative is knocked aside by the standard issue Hollywood sports movie underground trope. To my surprise, it turns out the pro wrestling approach is more authentic.

 

 

Now Playing — If Beale Street Could Talk

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James Baldwin published If Beale Street Could Talk, his fifth novel, in 1974. In the new film adaptation, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the action takes place in the era of the book, but there’s a fierce modernity to the concerns raised by the story. Centered around the romance of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne), the film addresses the myriad of way in which young black and women in U.S. society are told they don’t belong, they are not valued, their rights are lesser, their freedoms are subject to immediate and permanent revocation. Jenkins and his skilled collaborators include the proper period trappings — soulful music, florid fashions, and a New York bereft of tourist-friendly gussying — but they are not making a period piece. Jenkins knows that Baldwin’s thesis of oppression sanctioned by the apparatus of the state is persistently pertinent. He uses his film to reargue it with passion and empathy, underlining with permanent ink.

I don’t really mean for my descriptions to imply that the film can tilt toward the didactic. But it can. Although he wrote several novels, Baldwin is arguably now best known for his politically-minded essays and corresponding willingness to step forward as a public intellectual (when the country still valued such individuals) and engage all manner of contrary fools. And If Beale Street Could Talk sometimes comes across as rueful rumination on the state of society adorned in the mildly convincing costume of fiction. Consistently admirable in intent, the film occasionally relies on contrivances of character to heighten the drama. A scene in which Tish reveals a piece of notable personal news to Fonny’s family is staged, shot, and acted marvelously — calling to mind a stage play of pugnacious emotion —  but it also relies on an alignment of people that strains credibility, calling into question how their paths could have ever started to converge. Similarly, a pivotally placed racist police officer (Ed Skrein) is portrayed with such abject villainy that it undercuts the film’s argument about the inborn prejudices that corrupt true justice.

Despite the flaws, the film remains compelling, convincing, powerful. Much of that is due to the work of Jenkins, whose style invites ready comparisons to poetry. The music peppered through If Beale Street Could Talk brought me to realize the proper corollary is jazz, where the space between the notes can be the most important part of the music. The film operates by mood, by feel, by intricate consideration of the moment. There are strong performances throughout — particularly by James, Regina King, and, building a whole person in essentially one long scene, Brian Tyree Henry — but it is the elegance with which Jenkins pulls everything together that imbues the film with pained beauty. The work doesn’t approach the deep and contained accomplishment of Moonlight (few films do, it must be noted), but If Beale Street Could Talk is clearly from the same immensely skilled cinematic author. Even its flaws help to illuminate greater truths.