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The Front Runner (2018)
A worthy, if a bit bumpy, political film with solid performances
Jason Reitman's film (shot on 35mm by Eric Steelberg) starts off as a Fly On The Wall treatment of Gary Hart's 1988 campaign for President, before dissolving into a typical docu-drama crawl. Too bad, as the early scenes have a certain rush of excitement and even verisimilltude. The momentum gets strangely derailed just when it should be peaking - when the Donna Rice / 'Monkey Business' sex scandal hits.
Hugh Jackman is good as the candidate, even if he never quite nails Hart's voice (and, while Hart was a handsome well built guy, he didn't quite have the physique of Wolverine! - especially amusing in the lumberjack scene). Vera Farmiga and JK Simmons provide solid support as Hart's wife and campaign manager respectively. Sara Paxton gives Donna Rice a sympathy beyond the typical 'victim' stereotype, even she doesn't really look the part.
It's been well chronicled that Hart's sexual escapades helped clear the path for Bill Clinton to clear that hurdle when his scandals hit (not to mention the current Prez). What THE FRONT RUNNER also shows is that Hart lacked the empathy and human dimension that Clinton had that lead to his winning the Presidency. Both Hart and Clinton were policy wonks, but, 'Slick Willie' was a fully rounded personality - love him or hate him. Hart came off like a stolid Senator from flyover country.
THE FRONT RUNNER doesn't break any new ground (and offers little that will appeal to anybody under 50 who isn't a political junkie), despite it's fine start. Still, as an addition to the library of political films, it's an asset.
Boy Erased (2018)
Performances carry Conversion Therapy drama
BOY ERASED - Well meaning true story about Jared Eamons' (Lucas Hedges) experience with conversion therapy. Being a gay young teen is hard enough for Jared, but, its compounded by growing up in the South and having a Preacher (Russell Crowe) as a father. Jared's mom (Nicole Kidman) tries to be both protective of her son and loyal to her husband. Jared's instructor at the conversion retreat is Sykes (played by Joel Edgerton, who also Directed and Co-Wrote the screenplay (with Gerrard Conley)).
It's all ably performed, but, until the final act, curiously lacking in gripping drama. Forming an unintended double bill with the also current BEAUTIFUL BOY (Beautiful Boy Erased anyone?), both movies share the concept, based on true stories, of teens struggling with a 'social problem' as defined by the general public. BEAUTIFUL deals with drugs, while ERASED is about sexuality. Unfortunately, they also both share structures which are akin to illustrated 12 Step Programs more than genuine story arcs. The acting is what elevates the pair from TV movie territory, but, with such critical issues at stake one wishes for more. Tell the viewer a real story - not just step by step details.
Hedges is genuinely terrific despite the dullness of much of the screenplay. Edgerton has given himself a fairly one dimensional role, and does little to elevate it. Crowe and Kidman are solid as Aussies playing Southerners, and the final scenes give the movie some of the shape it needed all along.
Mostly an actor's piece by debuting Paul Dano
Although based on a novel of the same name by Richard Ford and set in the hinterlands of Montana, Paul Dano's directorial debut, WILDLIFE, could almost be a stage play - as is often the case with actors turned first time directors. Set at the dawn of the 60s, Dano's adaptation (co-written with another thespian, Zoe Kazan), could also be read as exploring the darker underside of the Eisenhower era. The core family here is a married couple Jeanette and Jerry (Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal) and 14 year old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould - who somewhat resembles a young Dano).
The most interesting character is Jeanette, who, tries to uphold the image of a sunny nuclear family, even while her husband stumbles about searching for a meaning to his life's work. On a whim, Jerry takes off to work as a low-paid fire fighter laborer, leaving the mother and son to fend for themselves (Wild Fires might have been a more appropriate title). While dad's away, Jeanette starts to explore her own destiny. It's a touch of incipient feminism, even if the character wouldn't even comprehend what that is. As fascinating as Jeanette is, the central character remains Joe, the child. Oxenbould is quite good as an actor, but, Joe isn't a very well developed role. He's more of a cipher - things happen around and to him. He has a sort of a girlfriend, but, she comes and goes without much impact on him, or the story.
The movie forces in an overly dramatic climax which is neither terribly effective, nor in keeping with the chamber piece that the movie is otherwise. Dano does solid work with the actors, and displays a certain eye for composition. On a limited budget, the movie's tech credits are solid in evoking the time and place. A good calling card for Dano behind the camera, but, any future efforts will have to take more risks to confirm his talent.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Strong performances buoy true story
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
This fact-based story of biography author Lee Israel's fall into a life of forgery is a fascinating one. Marielle Heller's movie (based largely on Israel's own account) takes a subdued approach. Set in the early 90s, the movie is an almost bucolic version of New York City with warm digital photography by Brandon Trost, and, largely, a retro soundtrack full of Cole Porter, Peggy Lee and Dinah Washington tunes. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's script similarly tries to warm up the often prickly Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy).
Despite some success in the past with Biographies of Dorthy Kilgallen and others, Israel's career is in a downward spiral after her flop book on Estee Lauder (the makeup tycoon rushed her own tome out to crush Israel's). Further, Israel's personality is so caustic that she literally has become the crotchety old cat lady - unemployable and unlovable. Fate intervenes when, while researching a future book, Israel stumbles upon authentic letters by well know writers and personalities. She steals them and sells them to collector's. On the personal front, she meets up with a gay habitue of the scene, Jack (Richard E. Grant). Together, they strike up an odd relationship based as much on mutual misery (and drinking) as any real affection. Once Israel discovers that she can pay her bills by selling purloined letters, she sets up an even larger scheme - outright forgery (the amount of outright thievery of legit letters is downplayed).
The screenplay lays things out in a neat and orderly manner, even if none of it really gains any momentum. Heller's direction is fine, if unfussy, but makes some curious choices later in the movie with jarring music choices, including a tune by the hard-rocking The Pixies. Great band, but, those more modern sounds seem to come from nowhere stylistically wise (everything else in the movie remains as subdued as before).
What keeps the movie flowing are the performances. McCarthy has been justly lauded for her sympathetic acting, if a bit too much (some have fallen into the trap of over-praising a "comedian playing straight"; haven't these folks seen here fine work in ST.VINCENT just a couple of years back?). While you can sometimes see the seams in McCarthy's performance, Grant glides with ease. While both individuals are clearly gay, only Grant's Jack gets to be overtly so. I guess it's more 'enjoyable' to the arthouse crowd to watch his flamboyance as opposed to Israel's dowdy repression. Dolly Wells is excellent as a mousy bookseller.
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? tells its basic tale well, even if its a bit too orderly (ironic, because one of the critiques of Israel's own writing was that it lacked personality), but McCarthy and Grant make it worthwhile.
Den skyldige (2018)
Powerful one-set crime thriller
Gustav Moller's crime thriller is a strong piece that takes place entirely in a Copenhagen police station and is virtually a one-man show for actor Jacob Cedergren. Sort of a companion piece to Tom Hardy's solo LOCKE and this year's Jon Cho starring SEARCHING, the story involves a policeman Asger (Cedergren) who is taken off the streets and assigned to duty in the emergency call center.
With access to instant cell-phone tracking, he takes a call about a possible hostage-taking and tries to get the situation resolved. At a tight 85 minutes, THE GUILTY manages to keep the stakes high despite it largely taking place on the phone. Even more so than LOCKE and SEARCHING, Writer-Director Moller (along with co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen) creates indelible word pictures with the dialogue. The voice actors are impeccable, as is the sound mix. Even several days afterwards, I can still vividly "see" what is only expressed in conversation. The movie leaves us with no easy answers as the theme of one man trying too much, no matter his intentions, isn't a simple one to swallow.
First Man (2018)
Fine, inward looking NASA epic about Armstrong & Moon Landing
FIRST MAN - I am a child of the space race who grew up watching the Jetsons, drinking Tang (because the astronauts did!) and having posters of the Astronauts (including Neil A. Armstrong) on my walls. I give FIRST MAN a titan sized thumbs up for authenticity and accuracy (a few quibbles).
There is no question that the NASA moon program of the 60s and early 70s was one of the greatest explorations of human history, crowned with the successful landing of Apollo 11 nearly 50 years ago. As the Lunar Module pilot and, of course, the first man to walk on the moon, Armstrong has always been at the center of attention. But, as FIRST MAN ably displays, that is NOT where Armstrong wanted that focus to be. He was mission driven and not one to bask in the glory. Anything but. (One of the reasons Armstrong has long been such a hero is that he never cashed in on his fame)
Armstrong's insular ways presented Screenwriter Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) and Director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND) with a daunting task: How to capture one of mankind's greatest feats through the lens of such a quiet man? To their credit, the filmmakers approached the challenge head on. Rather than add all kinds of external details (no matter how accurately) and colorful side characters, the film focuses like a laser on Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife (a strong Claire Foy). There are other characters, of course, but, they never take away from Armstrong and his family. Indeed, the taciturn Armstrong is portrayed as so 'ordinary' that he could just as well have remained a behind-the-scenes engineer if it weren't for his extraordinary pilot skills.
Gosling is often a wiry actor, but, he jettisons all that for his intense, yet internalized, performance here. No matter how vast the scale of Armstrong's two missions in space, the film never really wavers from being from the Armstrongs' point of view.* Even while on the moon, there are times you forget Buzz Aldrin is there on the lunar surface with him**. Armstrong's skills, attitude and level-headedness are what made him an ideal candidate to be a commander of an Apollo mission within NASA (although it must be noted that when Armstrong was tapped for Apollo 11, there wasn't a guarantee it would be the FIRST moon-landing flight - the film fudges that).
The technical aspects here are well handled including the special effects and Linus Sandgren's cinematography (a combination of 16mm, 35mm & 65mm film), and a joy to see on as big a screen as possible (although the jiggly hand-held nature of the camera operation might be cause to sit a bit further back). The supporting cast are fine, even if they are given little room for well-rounded performances. The one quibble is Justin Hurwitz' score. It zings and soars at times, in almost complete opposition to the somber tone of the rest of the film, which points out one of the conundrum's of FIRST MAN: While it's laudable that the movie is so intimately rendered, there are times it borders on the lugubrious. Yes, by all accounts, Armstrong was an intensely quiet man, but, in his public interviews his pride in his accomplishments were palpable, and there were twinkles in his eyes. He even smiled. Nobody but the fools who demanded more literal 'flag-waving' (usually not having seen the film), should have expected huge displays of emotion from Armstrong, but, a little more personality wouldn't have hurt. While the Just The Facts Mam screenplay is well executed, a few more colorful insights and details would also have fleshed it out***
FIRST MAN is a solid entry into the space filmography. It doesn't have the balls out zing of THE RIGHT STUFF, nor the emotional pull of an APOLLO 13, but, it works nicely as an intimate tale all its own. On that score, I believe Neil Armstrong would be proud to be the center of attention - if only for a couple of hours on screen.
*Making the brief anti-Apollo program montage (featuring Gil Scott Heron's "Whitey on the moon' song) stick out even more. It's not that such a protest isn't worth discussing, but, that it literally comes from nowhere in the context of the rest of the 141 minutes
** Aldrin is well known for his cantankerous behavior, but, even so, is portrayed a bit too heavy-handily here. The denouement of Armstrong's walk is one of the film's few exaggerations. It almost certainly didn't occur that way.
*** The Agena spacecraft Armstrong docked with on Gemini 8 was nicknamed 'The Angry Alligator' by one of the astronauts, for example. The Zero G Force training unit was dubbed 'The Vomit Comet'. Etc.
Sandome no satsujin (2017)
Koreeda's gentle and excellent movie about killing
THE THIRD MURDER is a gentle movie about killing. While that may sound contradictory, it isn't in the hands of Japanese master Hirokazu Koreeda, one of our most humane filmmakers.
The movie begins with the brutal murder, robbery and immolation of a factory manager. The accused killer Misumi (Koji Yakusho) immediately confesses. His lawyers, led by Shigamuri (Masaharu Fukuyama) try to convince him to at least not to confess to premeditated robbery (Japanese law mandates the Death Penalty for Murder in those cases). After several machinations, the case goes to trial.
That is the 'plot' of the movie, but, it's not what Koreeda (who also wrote and edited the picture) intends the movie to be about. Instead, Koreeda explores what are the psychological and practical reasons for murder. Whether murder is ever justified. And, even whether a murderer like Misumi has value as a human being. For the lawyer, it isn't about 'the law' or even representing his client, as much as the movie delves into whether the truth matters as all to his defense work - or, even if it's important that he knows for certain his client's guilt or innocence (there's a marvelous overhead shot of Shigamuri that concisely symbolizes the various threads his character goes through). While THIRD MURDER isn't as plot and twist driven as a John Grisham novel, neither is it simply a philosophical art-house film. There are plenty of angles and turns in story (no spoilers here). The cat & mouse between the accused and even his own lawyers is fascinatingly drawn. Fukyama and Yakusho (who won the Japanese 'Oscar'*) deliver fine performances. The photography and editing in their scenes together (especially when they at head to head through a prison glass window) are a master class in mounting tension.
THIRD MURDER never takes the easy way out. There is no 'Perry Mason' moment where it all clicks into place. One has to be an active participant in unlocking the story's mysteries and meanings. Koreeda isn't a showy filmmaker (OUR LITTLE SISTER, Cannes Palme D'or winner SHOPLIFTERS), but he uses the camera, sound, editing and music to create an almost hypnotic air. About half-way through there's an amazing sequence which begins as a flashback and then melds into another character's projection -- seamlessly. THIRD MURDER is another exemplary entry in Koreeda's filmography. Also, seamlessly.
Free Solo (2018)
Inspired breathtaking photography sets it apart from standard sports Docs
Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth C. Vasarhelyi's Documentary on Rock Climber Alex Honnold and his pursuit of 'free soloing' Yosemite's daunting El Capitan Wall. In many ways, it's a standard 'Sports Movie' - Meet the athlete and his family. Meets a girl. Faces ups and downs, and then there's the Big Game at the end (here, it's the climb).
Honnold is a difficult subject to make a movie around because he's so unemotional - even with his girlfriend around. Of course, his fearlessness is what makes him a great climber (there's a catastrophic rate of deaths in his sport). Still, the filmmakers insist on trying their best to flesh out what makes Alex tick, including a five minute sequence of him buying appliances seems excessive.
Of course, what sets FREE apart is the photography. To the Directors' credit, they do delve into the ethics of whether documenting Alex' climbs interferes and changes that endeavor. It's a tricky balance, but some of the shots they capture are truly breathtaking. Especially, if one sees it on the big screen.
Beautiful Boy (2018)
Strong earnest performances
Fact-based tale of drug addiction has some stylish touches by Belgian Director Felix Van Groeningen, but ultimately falls emotionally flat. Timothy Chalamet plays the title character, the son of Steve Carell and Amy Ryan (the couple is divorced, and Maura Tierney plays the Step Mom). All three are supportive, but the 'Boy' keeps falling deeper and deeper into the drug hole.
The get clean/ relapse/get clean/replapse cycle may be true to life, but, it doesn't represent a true arc as presented here. The performances are all earnest (Carell, perhaps too much so, at times) but they alone aren't enough to elevate the movie above average. Like Van Groeningen's Oscar nominated Belgian film BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN, music plays a key role here in trying to signal the emotions of the characters but its only partially successful (of course, in BROKEN CIRCLE, the characters were on screen musicians). No amount of Bowie, Mogwai and Lennon (plus, an extended Bukowski quote) can make up for the screenplay's deficiencies.
Studio 54 (2018)
Well made and likely definitive Doc on the famed Disco Club
Matt Tyrnauer's fine documentary about the famed NYC Dance Club. I liked that they didn't make it simply about the "glory days" of the club (complete with wall to wall disco music; The tunes are there, but, they are tastefully integrated). It is more a portrait of club owners Steve Rebell and Ian Schrager with Studio 54 as the hook. The fact that Schrager is there to tell the story (although, he remains coy about certain details) is what elevates above other docs on the club, and it will likely remain the most definitive movie on the club for that reason.
Also, credit that it doesn't spend the bulk of its runtime covering the 'glory days' and the celebrity culture aspects (although there's plenty of both). It shows the birth of the club all the way from it's conception to the fall - and even afterwards.
P.S. Bonus points for largely respecting the Aspect Ratio of most of the vintage footage.
A Star Is Born (2018)
Okay version of the familiar story
A STAR IS BORN - Officially, this is the 4th version of the oft-told tale, but, it's more directly a re-do of the 1976 Streisand edition (all three prior versions get credit).
It's a familiar story of a rise and fall of a musician/actor/painter/author etc. With Lady Gaga as the riser and Bradley Cooper as the fallen (curiously, the movie never truly makes clear how successful Cooper's character's career is when the story begins). As clichéd as the plot is (oh, and there's a welter of them), there's enough innate charm with Gaga's Ally that it carries the picture through the rough patches and dull sections.
While Gaga has charisma, and, obviously, on-stage talent, her acting is passable at best. She's most comfortable when just being a natural, but, when the movie demands more of her during the more heavily dramatic scenes, it surpasses her abilities (a couple of times you can even catch her consciously 'hitting her mark'). Cooper's Jack is so obviously a nod to Kris Kristofferson's John Howard from the 70s version that it hampers his acting (it's doubly amusing because the movie makes several references to Jack's 'voice' being indebted to his brother Bobby (Sam Elliott)). Cooper fares best in the last act. After some awkwardly bumpy scenes, Elliott's performance may be this version's best. Cooper's Direction gets the job done, but, the use of close-ups is excessive, carrying on into scenes where such tight framing isn't needed. Matthew Libatique's cinematography is so sharp and brightly lit that you can see the makeup caked on Gaga's face (digital photography will do that if not careful), although he achieves some fine visuals elsewhere.
The new STAR IS BORN is an adequate enough production. But, the fact that it and Lady Gaga are being touted for Best Picture and Actress says a lot about the current state of the cinema.
L'empire de la perfection (2018)
Not a biographical nor a standard sports Doc on the famed Tennis champion
Released just as the Serena Williams controversy broke out over her confrontation with a court-side umpire at the U.S. Open (and McEnroe was directly cited by Serena defenders as an example of how male tennis players get away with similar behavior) McENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION would have seemed like a perfect time to debut a Documentary on the infamous bad-boy of 80s tennis: John McEnroe. But, REALM isn't a biographical Doc. Nor, is it a standard Sports Doc (despite ending with the 'big game/match'). Indeed, REALM is more of a deconstruction than anything else (complete with quotes from Jean Luc Godard).
Renowned French Documentarian Gil de Kermadec made a series of films in the 70s and 80s on tennis. He and his team shot hours and hours of footage, including for a 'portrait' movie on John McEnroe that was released in 1985. REALM Director Julien Faraut dug into the vaults and created this movie largely out of that unused footage. But, Faraut isn't primarily focused on creating a movie about McEnroe or the sport, rather, he explores how cinema can be used to cover those topics.
For the first half hour or so, REALM is a heady exercise. We see how raw footage can be molded with editing, sound, narration and other manipulations. It's a fascinating, if academic, exercise. About half-way through the relative shapelessness of the Documentary can get a bit wearying. The Narration by actor Mathieu Amalric isn't there to 'explain' as much as it becomes another tool for Faraut to dissect the form. Some of the music and sound effects are more distancing than illuminating. And, we don't truly learn the meaning of the title until the very end of picture. Some of this is inherent in the footage Faraut 'inherited' from de Kermandec, for, he was also not interested in giving his viewers a full picture of McEnroe (indeed, much of the what was shot in the 80s focuses on only on McEnroe's half of the court. By design, of course).
Still, for all the arty techniques, a portrait does emerge of the prickly McEnroe (Faraut 'cheats' a bit here by including enough outside footage to bring some narrative meaning to the enterprise). Were his rants and outbursts just tools for him to not only let off steam, but, also to manipulate and otherwise intimidate his opponents, and, yes, tennis officials? REALM does climax with a fairly straight-forward (by comparison) depiction of the 1984 French Grand Slam final between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. The tension of the match gives the viewer not so much pleasure, as relief that one is able to follow the Documentary is a conventional manner and not feel that they are watching an scholarly exercise. But, it is the rigorously examination of form that marks REALM as one of the year's most fascinating, if, at times, frustrating Documentaries.
A Simple Favor (2018)
Liteweight comic mystery; Kendrick and Lively shine
Making a comedy-mystery isn't so much about delivering jokes or thrills as it is about tone - and, that can be a devilishly tricky thing to pull off well. Director Paul Feig has a solid background in bringing the funny, but, his whodunit skills are a work in progress.
A SIMPLE FAVOR revolves around perky single parent mom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) who is the kind of woman who over-volunteers at school. Naturally, she spreads her zeal online in the form of a video blog ('Vlog') where she dispenses her homemaking tips. After class one day, she runs into beautiful ex-model and current fashion designer spokesperson Emily (Blake Lively). They quickly bond over confessions of their sexual pasts over drinks and become "best friends" (more like "only"). Emily immediately takes advantage of eager-beaver Stephanie and dumps her kid on her as she goes out of town on a 'business trip'. And, then promptly disappears. Stephanie reports her as missing, all the while commiserating with Emily's hunky hubby Sean (Henry Golding, of CRAZY RICH ASIANS). It's at this point where the story shifts into mystery mode. Despite some pretty dark twists and turns, A SIMPLE FAVOR never really cuts deep. The thriller aspects are never truly believable (it doesn't help that Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer include some of their goofiest material for this half of the picture). Further, the developments are often straight out of the missing person cliche handbook. Kendrick's performance is what carries A SIMPLE FAVOR for most of its run-time. Her acting is so good at times that its actually TOO effective - Stephanie's character simply wouldn't be able to pull off those modulations. Lively, on the other hand., gets to chew the scenery with impunity. Emily is such a broad personality that anything goes - and Lively savors that opportunity.
Feig has said that he wanted FAVOR to be his "Hitchcockian" picture. Well, his comedy chops are still intact, but, he has a long way to go to match Hitch's indelible tone. FAVOR is best seen as a lite-weight farce with a few decent twists and some amusing acting.
Odd hybrid between Noir and Disease tale; Keyes is intense
THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950) Film Review. An odd hybrid between Film Noir and an epidemic disaster film (see also PANIC IN THE STREETS), STALKED follows the story of a jewel thief Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes) who returns to NYC from an excursion to Cuba, infected with smallpox. She in turn, infects several others causing an outbreak. Initially, the law in the form of Agent Johnson (Ben Kelley) are on her trail for her thievery, but end up on her trail when tipped off by Doctor Ben Wood (William Bishop) of her possible link to the disease epidemic.
The two halves of the picture never really work together to become greater than the sum of the two halves. Sheila's story is more interesting from a crime psychology view (buoyed by Keyes' intense performance) than as a carrier. While there is certainly interest in the outbreak story (based on a true 1947 incident; although not linked to as colorful a spark as a gem robber!), that part of the film can't help but come off as a pretty rote disease of the week telling. There are a couple of decent passages in the screenplay, but, Harry Essex' script is fairly ordinary overall with much flat exposition.
Still, STALKED is a fair melodrama with enough dramatic moments to carry it through. Whit Bissell, Jim Backus and Walter Burke (the latter two uncredited), have solid supporting parts, particularly Burke. Keyes' intense 'live for revenge' mania near the climax is pretty intense, but even that is let down by a quick wrap up narration track that tells, rather than shows, her fate. Lurid title and all, STALKED is a an average thriller.
Solid B Noir with key contributions by Burr and Mann
From it's generic title (could be used on just about ANY noir!), to it's second tier cast (if capable), to it's sometimes threadbare production values (you can see the seams in some sets), DESPERATE epitomizes a 40s B Movie crime feature. Still, with some crafty filmmaking and a decent enough plot hook, it rises about the commonplace.
Trucker Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) gets a call to do a night-time haul at well over his usual rate. Ignoring the dictum that if an offer is too good to be true it probably is, Steve accepts. He ends up in the middle of a robbery heist by a group of thugs led by Walt Radak (Raymond Burr). Despite his efforts to get out of the situation, Steve ends up caught between the law and the criminals. "Desperate', he ends up on the lam with his new wife Anne (Audrey Long). Of course, Radak and his boys aren't going to just let Steve and his bride go scott free and they set out to get him. The cops, in the form of Detective Ferrari (Jason Robards Sr.), trap the couple from the other side of the law.
Despite it's lean plot, DESPERATE at times lacks urgency. Radak seems content to let others do his bidding including weasely investigator Pete Lavich (enjoyably played by Douglas Fowley). Ferrari too, dithers in his quest to catch the bad guys. It adds up to a lack of urgency at times despite the title. Even at a trim 73 minutes the move plods along in the middle act. Brodie was never a major star despite his long career, but, fits the part of an everyman. Long is a bit bland, but the part isn't sharply written. Burr, playing the first of his long line of Noir heavies is very good, particularly during a tense 'countdown' sequence. Cinematographer George E. Diskant was a Noir expert (ON DANGEROUS GROUND, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, NARROW MARGIN), and composes some extremely well chosen shots despite the limited budget. Director Anthony Mann (another Noir vet) does a solid job and contributed to the script (credited to Harry Essex).
What really raises DESPERATE a tick above the mediocre is the smashing climax. The resolution of the story isn't really a surprise, but, it's well staged and performed, with a rising tension -- all building from the aforementioned 'countdown' scene. A B movie through and through, but not a bad second feature, with the added stature of being a key building block to the careers of Burr and Mann.
A Digital thriller for our times
Due credit to Director Aneesh Chaganty for following through to the very end with his artistic vision for SEARCHING. The entire movie* is seen on screens - Computer, Laptop, Cell-Phones etc.. It's essentially an off-shoot of the 'found footage' sub-genre, but, it is more doggedly consistent than the vast majority of such ventures.
The movie stars John Cho as David, a single dad who's teen daughter Margot (Michelle La) has gone missing. Their backstory is covered in an UP-like montage which follows Margot from birth to the present (keep an eye out for the team mascot animal seen in a photo outside a school. Wink, wink). Police Detective Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the missing persons case. Most of the first two thirds are the movie are given over to Cho interacting with his various screens as he searches for clues in his Daughter's digital history, while all the while speaking with Det. Vick and others.
Once solid clues are discovered, Cho breaks from his home and we see news footage of him outside. Again, while it's admirable that Chaganty keeps with his mis en scene, one begins to question whether the strategy is the most effective in presenting the story. At times, the acting by minor players gets a bit loose and clumsy - as if the actors were conscious of performing for the small digital screens as opposed to the big theatrical projected one. And, while there is an element of the digital world that plays a crucial role in Margot's disappearance, it doesn't necessarily justify the conceit (Some will consider it Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian's way of commenting about how young people live their lives on devices, but, the movie isn't persuasive enough, particularly considering that the main characters are a 40-something Dad and a 50ish Detective). That aesthetic discussion aside, the bigger issue are the twists and turns that occur late in the movie, which become more and more far-fetched as they go along.
Issues of style and plot points aside, the reason SEARCHING remains effective is due to the intensity of Cho's performance. He carries the movie through it's rougher patches, even though he is usually scene in unflattering digital close-ups, wide angle lenses and off-kilter framing. Messing, too brings a bit of gravitas to even some of the more outlandish sequences. A tech thriller for our times, if only the plot were a bit tighter.
* There are a couple of very brief establishing shots that don't seem properly framed as such. Will have to re-watch to confirm
The Little Stranger (2018)
Mild Gothic Ghost Story melodrama
Lenny Abrahamson's glum follow-up to the Oscar-winning ROOM (Brie Larson), is another story largely told within the confines of a single location. But, here, it's a huge rural English mansion that has fallen into disrepair in the 1940s. Like their home, the family of three that still resides there has also seen much better times. Called to attend to the family's maid Betty (Liv Hill) is a country doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson). There he meets the matriarch Mrs. Ayers (Charlotte Rampling) and her daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and son Roderick (Will Poulter). By happenstance, Faraday had visited the mansion as a child during a party during the Ayers Estate's heyday (seen in flashbacks) and fixated on their youngest daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) - who died tragically, shortly thereafter.
In keeping with the tradition of period ghost stories, THE LITTLE STRANGER unfolds slowly. The details unveiled parsimoniously. There is a fine sense of period details, and the cast acquits themselves well, particularly Poulter in what could have been a clichéd role as the bitter son. The decaying mansion is a character upon itself (in one nice detail, we see Caroline literally try and patch a bit of fraying wall decoration in preparation for a small party). The tale contains some kernels about memory, loss and class, but none of them are ever truly compelling. It's less a horror film, than a gothic melodrama.
As noted, the genre is marked by its deliberate manner of story-telling. Unfortunately, Director Abrahamson mistakes glacial pacing for a sense of impending dread. Here, it deadens the suspense instead of accentuating it (there were a handful of walkouts; bored, no doubt). The music and photography are similarly tame. Even though the ending (based upon a novel by Sarah Waters; screenplay by Lucinda Coxon) leaves open some intriguing questions, one is still left feeling let down by the endeavor, rather than encouraged to delve deeper into its mysteries.
We the Animals (2018)
Small details add up to a powerful tale
WE THE ANIMALS lulls you into thinking it's a mere memory piece. Much of the film is made up of short scenes that are more snatches in time, than anything resembling a tight narrative. Jeremiah Zagar's debut film follows three young Hispanic boys as they grow up in the 80s in upper state New York - Manny, Joel and Jonah (Evan Rosado; who also narrates). Their parents Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raul Castillo) struggle not only with making ends meet, but, also in their volatile relationship. Although the family has moved from NYC to the more bucolic rural suburbs, their move isn't necessarily a happy one.
While the film may seem formless at times, the vibrantly shot and directed segments (lots of hand-held; grainy earthy 16mm film stock), accumulate over the course of the movie. A flashback might just seem like a fuzzy thought when it passes by earlier in the film, but, pays off later. Zagar's stylistic touches don't always work. Jonah's drawings in a sketch book get animated at certain points in the film, but, never really feel all too well integrated. What does emerge is a larger picture of a family battling both within and without. Paps' macho Latino father dominates not only the mother, but, also causes frissons within the trio of brothers.
WE THE ANIMALS can be taken as simply a flashback reminiscence (it's based on a memoir by Justin Torres), but, once you let it roll over in your mind, a more complete 'story' takes hold. And, it it's a powerful one. Zagar's film is a refreshing, if at times, painful feature.
The Wife (2017)
A sublime Glenn Close makes The Wife worth a look
As the expression goes, behind every great man there is a great woman. THE WIFE takes that phrase as its jumping off point. The movie begins with novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) getting the momentous early morning call from Stockholm that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature. With him is his wife, Joan (Glenn Close). The couple is jetted to Sweden for the official ceremony. Along for the trip is their son David (Max Irons), a budding writer himself. On the flight, they are accosted by a journalist Nathaniel (Christian Slater), who is intent on writing Castleman's biography - authorized or not.
Once the action shift to Scandinavia, the simmering tensions in the Castleman's marriage emerge even as we follow the Novelist going through preparations for the crowning ceremony where he will be feted by the King of Sweden (Nick Fletcher), along with the other Nobel winners. Interspersed with the present day story are flashbacks to the Castelman's courting and marriage, which, if more than a bit clunky, are intended to show how their relationship has devolved (when you have actors as fine as Close and Pryce, those visual representations aren't truly necessary). The whole setup, while intrinsically interesting on paper, come off as more than bit hackneyed.
What isn't tired, is Close's performance. It's a marvel of intensity, primarily conveyed with her eyes, her slight body movements and mostly sparse dialogue. One senses the decades of pent up emotions, even if they don't boil until a couple of more intense flare-ups late in the proceedings. But, it's the quieter moments that make Close's portrayal - not, the more shows 'Awards scenes'. Pryce is very much Close's equal even if he doesn't quite have the opportunity to show as wide a range of emotions. Annie Starkle (Close's actual daughter) plays the younger Joan in the flashbacks and acquits herself well. The two younger males don't come off as well. Irons has a hapless role as the pouty son, and Harry Lloyd is simple miscast as the younger Joe (he comes off as too callow to believe he grows into Pryce). Elizabeth McGovern has a memorable bit as a bitter female writer.
THE WIFE is very much an actor's piece. For a movie based on a novel, and about a writer, the screenplay simply isn't up to the cast. It comes off as more a theatrical play, than a full-fledged feature film - alluring images of Sweden and all. Director Bjorn Runge does an admirable job with the cast, but does little to dispel the notion of a semi-inert stage production. Production defects and all, THE WIFE is still memorable for Close's indelible title character.
Madeline's Madeline (2018)
Semi-experimental improv for adventurous viewers; Howard is a find
Interesting semi-experimental movie which tries to take us inside the mind of a young teen who is going through psychological issues. Madeline (Helena Howard) is the young woman. She is taking an improvisational acting class taught by Evangeline (Molly Parker). The play they are preparing incorporates Madeline's life as an inspiration including the challenging relationship she has with her mother Regina (Miranda July).
That synopsis takes a full half of the movie to come into focus. Rather than follow that story, Director Josephine Decker plunges the viewer into Madeline's emotions from her POV. Distorted camera angles, discordant sounds, snatches of music and jagged cutting are all used to make her internal thoughts manifest on screen. It's a daring technique and it will certainly turn off viewers expecting a more traditional approach. For much of the movie, it works as a experiential enterprise. When the movie tries to be more concrete it falters a bit. One wishes Decker followed her muse all the way, rather than try so hard to add a standard narrative. Equating mental illness with an acting class is a bit disquieting, although Decker does a nice job exploring the duality of Madeline's mom and her teacher.
The acting here is solid. Howard is a genuine talent and keeps the movie engrossing even when it stumbles. Decker worked out the material along with a real theatrical troupe (it's called "immersive", rather than improv) and it certainly adds a layer of verisimilitude to the enterprise. MADELINE'S MADELINE is certainly a niche project, but, adventurous viewers should seek it out.
Solid Noir with some unexpected turns
TENSION is an oddly structured Film Noir. The mystery/crime is 'solved' for the viewer just past the half-way point. Save for a brief pre-credit bit (and an odd cameo*), the cops don't enter the fray until then. The fact that John Berry's film manages to keep to its title noun most of the way nonetheless is an accomplishment.
The set-up is an old standby for the genre: a spouse plots a crime against their marriage partner. Here, we have a meek pharmacist, Warren (Richard Basehart), whose wife Claire (Audrey Totter) cuckolds him right under his nose. Jilted, Warren decides to change his image. Once the crime is committed, the police enter in the form of Lt. Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) and Lt. Gonsales (William Conrad). Casting a bit against type, Cyd Charisse plays a young woman who inadvertently gets caught up in the potboiler (while she doesn't dance, Charisse shows off her limber moves when she takes some amateur photographs).
Basehart is terrific here with more nuance and guile than first appears. Sullivan and Conrad make for an entertaining and duplicitous duo (they set police ethics back several decades). Charisse is winning in her supporting bit. Audrey Totter was one of the great Noir Femme Fatales, but, here, casting her may have been a bit too on the nose. She is such a conniving and amoral caricature right from the get-go that you can't imagine this couple ever being attracted to one another. Even later when Claire is trying to bait her next honey trap, there is far too much sour and precious little sugar. A little subtlety would have gone a long way to making the story more credible.
TENSION is a solid middle of the road Noir. Even if it never ratchets up the suspense to the breaking point, it's a diverting cat and mouse game with some nice, if unsurprising, twists. And, who knew the power of Contact Lenses!? (Optometrists must have seen a spike in sales when this got released!)
* - In one of the strangest scenes I can recall, we see the two Policemen enter the pharmacy about 10 minutes into the film (just as Basehart walks out looking for Totter). They are out of focus and there are no clear shots for the viewer to ID them (I recognized Conrad, but not Sullivan, at first. I replayed the scene a couple of times). It's almost as if there were more to the scene but in-focus shots of the Police were cut. There is a line later about how much Sullivan's character likes the coffee at the pharmacy, but, seems like a stretch to justify a blurry background cameo. This was before TV, so it would be extremely odd to have such an 'easter egg' in a movie that was likely to be seen once and then sent to the studio archives.
Very much SPIKE LEE's take on Ron Stallworth's amazing true story
Despite being based on a true story, and having three other credited screenwriters (plus, a book), this is very much SPIKE LEE's Blackkklansman (note also the added K which is not on the book). The basics of detective Ron Stallworth's memoir are still at play. Detective Stallworth (John David Washington) was the first black office hired in Colorado Springs in the 1970s. Stallworth did "join" the KKK and carried on conversations with them. When the time came for a face-to-face meeting, a white officer here called Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver; although the real Stallworth has kept his true identity secret). Together they infiltrated the local Klan and helped foil some of their racist deeds. Spike Lee does a decent job with the main storyline, although, it can come off as a bit dry and overlong.
Clearly, the mundane details didn't engage Lee's filmmaking juices. So, with the other screenwriters, the story is embellished. Stallworth's girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) isn't just a local, but, now she's the head of the local Black Student Union - and, ta da! -- now a chief target of the local KKK. Zimmerman isn't just white, he's now also Jewish - AND, has problems with his identity as such. There isn't just racism in the police force, but, there's also a singularly hateful specimen named Landers (Frederick Weller) who is ripe for a comeuppance. Astonishingly, the most "unbelievable" part of the film is actually TRUE -- Stallworth did strike up a correspondence with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace; excellent) AND did get assigned to protect the bigot when he came to town! Nobody expects to see a Documentary when you go to a Hollywood treatment of a true story, and every viewer will have to decide for themselves if and/or to what extent the liberties taken here go too far. Most are somewhat understandable, but one is kind of a head-scratcher -- moving the story from 1979 to 1972. Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture)'s speech in town was in '72 and , yes, Stallworth did cover it as a cop. Perhaps, Spike also wanted to set the story closer to the 60s civil right protests, the height of the Black Panthers and to include his fun tribute to Blaxploitation cinema (although, it renders references to COFFY and CLEOPATRA JONES as anachronisms since they came out a year later)?
BLACKKKLANSMAN still stirs. It's full of Spike's righteous anger and that clearly inspired him. Some of the Spike-isms go a bit far with the lampooning of the local KKK members as Southern Style racist goons (you'd swear those characters were 'imported' from David Duke's South into the Midwestern Colorado locale). He also can't help but take a virtual highlighting marker to references to President Trump -- and, that's AFTER said references were already underlined, to boot (the word "subtle" is rarely mentioned in the same sentence with"Spike Lee"). The cross-cutting of the Klan watching BIRTH OF A NATION with a talk by Harry Belafonte (grand) is powerful if far too long.
The acting is across the board fine, but Adam Driver falls flat. Driver has been solid in pictures like PATERSON and WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, but, as in the Star Wars films he can fall into a dull monotone. It's also hard to believe that the Klansman would take him in as one of their own. He simply doesn't pass the Redneck test (fellow cop Jimmy (Michael Buscemi) would have been far more credible. The cinematography by Chayse Irvin (on 35mm film, which does give it a gritty 70s feel) is quite good. Terence Blanchard's score is adequate, but the soundtrack is carried by the period songs.
Released the same weekend as the anniversary of the white supremacists killing of civil rights protester Heather Hyer gives BLACKKKLANSMAN yet another contemporary resonance. The actual footage of which may have been more appropriate after the closing credits, but, that's a quibble. It's a powerful coda to a very angry, if inconsistent, film.
Fine socially conscious Noir
CROSSFIRE is an unusual film in that it is considered both a standard of the Noir genre, while also attaining mainstream success both critically and commercially, having been nominated for Five Oscars including Best Picture, Screenplay (John Paxton) and Director (Edward Dmytryk). Supporting performers Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame were also nominated. The Academy Awards attention is more attributed to it's social consciousness than for its crime elements. Indeed, the Best Picture that very same year was the similarly themed GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT. The concept of a military murder has been the premise of a couple of later notable Academy Awards nominated pictures - Norman Jewison' A SOLDIER'S STORY and Rob Reiner's A FEW GOOD MEN.
Make no mistake about it, topical subject matter or not, CROSSFIRE is a fine Noir - particularly the first hour or so which takes place over one long night. The set-up is simple enough as four friends, including Montgomery (Ryan) from military backgrounds go to a bar where they meet two strangers including Sam Levene (Joseph Samuels). As the bar scene winds down, a group of them split off and end up in a hotel apartment. One ends up dead. The police join the scene of the crime in the form of smooth detective Finlay (Robert Young). Questions are asked and not always directly answered. During the night, one of the soldiers Mitchell (George Cooper) wanders off and ends up in the arms of pay-per-dance bar girl Ginny (Grahame). Robert Mitchum plays Keeley, the roommate of the missing soldier, who also gets questioned.
The long night sequence is Noir at its finest. Dark, smoky and full of a heavy atmosphere where the longueurs of the evening weigh heavily upon all the characters. Grahame's has a sort of admirer/stalker (Paul Kelly). He's not even given a name, just called "The Man" in the credits. But, Graham (in a star-making performance) and The Man are the kinds of peripheral characters that make great Noir so indelible. Bitter, despondent people with little to look forward to, let alone live for.
When day breaks, a couple of problems arise with the film. The first is the long-held belief that the anti-Jewish motive for the killing is 'preachy'. One does have to keep in mind that prejudice was a touchy subject at the time. The novel (by acclaimed filmmaker Richard Brooks) the screenplay is based on actually had homosexuality as the motive - but, that was even more verboten a subject for the era. One can defend the prejudice angle while also wishing that it were presented more cinematically. As fine a performance as Young delivers, it does come off as speechifying. If screenwriter Paxton and Dmytryk had found a way to have woven that subplot into the the investigation scenes it would have flowed more organically and excitingly rather than just watching folks sitting in an office (plus, you have a fine actor like Mitchum basically just looking on and nodding - have him interact somehow). The even larger qualm is that the mystery to be solved isn't that thrilling. Brooks, Dmytryk et al. weren't trying to make the most intricate of murder plots, but, here, it's so obvious who did it that the last act of the movie drags a bit. Although, it must be noted that the final scene is quite well handled. Still, one can't help but feel that the spell cast by first hour of the film is broken by the daybreak (it would require a bit of a re-write, but, I'd love to see a version where the entire story takes place in that one night).
Flaws aside, CROSSFIRE is still a fine film. There is a reason it has become a touchstone of the Noir genre as well as a Best Picture nominee that has endured for over 70 years - something which can't be said about a lot of fellow nominees over the decades.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Nice Slice-Of-Life indie about a 13yr old graduating Middle School
EIGHTH GRADE: Limited release. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as it covers only the last couple of weeks of 13 year old Kayla's school year. Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is, in many ways a typical young girl, with all the usual insecurities, ambitions and goals. Although more than a bit shy, she regularly uploads video diaries on youtube - low hit totals or not. In those videos, we glimpse the Kayla she would like to be - assured, outgoing and, hopefully, popular. She is being brought up her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who tries a bit too hard to connect with his daughter. At school, Kayla can't help but try to fit in with the cool kids, especially Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere).
Director Bo Burnham brings a nice low key sense of realism to this dramedy (realistic enough from the perspective of a 27 year old male). Burnham himself was a young youtube star so it's little surprise that he has his main character express herself through social media (there is a noticeable lack of critique as to whether it is a positive to have these young sensitive souls to be so attached to the form). There are a few life experiences and learning moments along the way, but Burnham isn't really interested in giving a fully dimension portrait here. It's more slice of life than plot driven. For the most part, it works, largely because of the well-cast ensemble. Still, one wishes that a slightly more tightly constructed screenplay. There are a couple of 'endings' after the obvious emotional endpoint. The music, while it could be read as Kayla's inner voice, is too overwhelming at times, and often simply not very good. But, Fisher's performance carries the movie over most of its bumps.
It's kind a sad comment on our cinema landscape, that a mainstream coming of age teen tale is tagged as "arthouse". To see half the audience on opening night being made up of folks old enough to be Kayla's grand-parents shouldn't be its fate. Hopefully, the good word of mouth will get EIGHT GRADE the expansion into a more diverse set of theaters that it deserves.
Three Identical Strangers (2018)
An emotional roller-coaster with some questions left lingering
Stories about Twins (and other pairs of siblings) separated at birth aren't all that uncommon - but, triplets? Director Tim Wardle takes that rare occurrence and runs with it in the breathless and highly entertaining first section of his Documentary THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS. Wardle also cleverly edits his footage (including the interviews) in order to preserve as many surprises about the secrets and lies to come later in the movie. Some might argue that Wardle's technique is a bit of cheat, but, for those who enter without knowing the full story it enhances the viewing, even if it does cause some issues later on.
The story is told quite sequentially, and, again, that is in service of providing more drama as the Doc unfolds. Because the events go back to the 60s, many of the participants aren't around any longer to speak for themselves. Still, Wardle and his team managed to assemble a good cross-section of survivors to go on the record. Because the story was such a cause celebre in the early 80s (and in the NYC area to boot) we are also able to see a decent amount of historical footage of the triplets and their rise to fame including trips to the Today show, Donahue and a brief cameo in Susan Seidelman's DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (supposedly at the behest of star Madonna). Some fairly minor dramatic re-enactments are also employed, and aren't distracting (Wardle also maintains the proper aspect ratio in much of the vintage footage - to his credit).
As the true tale turns darker, a few issues with the filmmaking arrive. I won't delve into spoilers (I avoided them myself in order for the Doc to have maximum impact), but, the old Nurture vs. Nature debate becomes a key point of contention - as it does with all of these 'separated at birth' cases. Because of the way Wardle structures his editing, we mostly get the 'Nature' perspective until very late in the process. Further, a major cache of evidence is dropped in at the very last moment, and isn't sufficiently analyzed. It's understood that after five years in the making, Wardle, Raw, Neon and other production entities wanted to get their movie done and released, but one can't help but feel the editing was wrapped up in order to get a prized Sundance Film Festival spot. Wardle also includes a couple of curious montages repeating what we've seen earlier as if he had an eye on TV showings (CNN is set to show it). But, these problems pale compared to Wardle's casting a light on some highly unethical behavior that effected the triplets' lives.
These relatively minor issues aside, THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS again shows why there is a bit of Documentary boom going on. In a cinema dominated by Superhero and Animated flicks, there is a yearning among some adults for movies of substance and reality. STRANGERS is a true emotional roller-coaster.