Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (Marina Zenovich, 2013). Richard Pryor had a life that was singularly amazing (deeply troubled childhood, an impact on the art of stand-up comedy like no other, and a personal life fraught with peril and bad decisions), so much so that it seems almost impossible to contain it within a single film. He couldn’t do it with the thinly fictionalized Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, and Marina Zenovich–inadvertently, no doubt–does her level best to prove that the documentary feature format similarly has no hope of containing the man’s unbalanced magnificence. She clicks through the basic data points of Pryor’s life adequately, but he never comes vividly to life, an especially problematic given that unbridled vividness was among Pryor’s greatest gifts. Zenovich built her most notable previous documentary, again a portrait of troubled celebrity, on building a case of faulty absolution. Without a similar end goal, the director almost seems disengaged, sinking her film with a dearth of passion.
Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011). Sarah Polley’s feature directorial debut, Away From Her was tender, intelligent and empathetic. Her sophomore outing is, in some ways, the complete opposite. Creating an original script (rather than adapting an Alice Munro story, as she did with Away From Her) proves more difficulty. Lacking the structure and insights provided by a skilled writer (a Nobel Prize-winner, no less) Polley winds up with a meandering, emotionally rickety tale of a marriage splintering, in part because the wife becomes infatuated with another man. The story is so muddled that it even humbles the heroically inventive actor Michelle Williams, whose usual capability to share the deepest nuances of her characters can’t rescue the material. That she has to play key, heavily dramatic scenes against badly miscast costars like Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman only compounds the problems, though not as much as Polley’s most poorly judged diversions. The worst of these is a bizarrely unnecessary extended montage of experimental sex engaged in by the two lovers.
Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953). The tenderest of films, Tokyo Story is widely considered to be not only Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece but indeed one of the historic peaks of cinema (ranked third on the most recent iteration of the vaunted Sight & Sound poll). It’s undoubtedly a careful, beautiful work, depicting an elderly Japanese couple’s excursion to visit their grown children and the unexpected, quietly heartbreaking aftermath. Ozu focuses on the ways that distance builds up between the people who are theoretically supposed to be the closest–the kids find ways to avoid spending time with the parents, the parents ruefully discuss the ways the children have wound up as disappointments–which only serves to make his depicting of the uneventful progression through life all the more melancholy. The small connections–made for whatever reason, under whatever circumstances–are the finest grace that can be achieved, something Ozu acknowledges without feeling the need to underscore it, a restraint the elevates the beauty of the whole piece.
Special When Lit (Brett Sullivan, 2009). The history and enduring nostalgic culture of pinball games is especially fertile ground for a documentary, and Brett Sullivan heaps an admirable amount of material into his film, from the disrepute of the device for many years to the freakishly devoted collectors and competitors of today. Eventually, he puts a little too much weight on an annual pinball tournament, undoubtedly hoping for the same sports film structure that once bolstered the entertainment value of Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. With Special When Lit, though, it’s a misstep. The individual participants and their respective sagas haven’t been developed enough to make the outcome truly matter, from a dramatic standpoint. The film is far better when it’s dishing out widely different slices of life, all beholden to the trajectory of a silver ball.
Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957). A characteristically moody and unnerving horror film from a director greatly adapted at painting with shadows. Dana Andrews plays an American skeptic who comes to London for a conference where he’s prepared to debunk stories of the nefarious mysticism of a satanic cult. Naturally, he begins to find the reality a touch more troubling than he expected, especially when he partners with a lovely young woman (Peggy Cummins) to get to the bottom of the suspicious death of her professor brother. Jacques Tourneur wanted to build the film on mounting darkness and relative subtlety, but, being the nineteen-fifties, the producer and studio were more invested in getting a monster in there. The beastie they imposed on Tourneur is actually pretty spectacular in its design, even if it had the rubbery stiffness typical of the era (then again, so does Andrews). The bigger problem is that the creature is revealed far too early, eliminating uncertainty about whether its hucksterism or truly paranormal problems that are besetting the protagonists. It’s a compromised film, to be sure, but Tourneur’s stylish gloom makes certain that it’s at least interesting.