Landis, McDonagh, Nichols, Parks, Trevorrow

The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980). I routinely think of this musical-action-comedy as the strongest film of the many that have been spun off from Saturday Night Live recurring characters, though we’re admittedly looking at a shallow, fetid pool. A recent fresh viewing suggests I might have been inflating in, undoubtedly on the basis of how freely I and my cohort of dopey high school friends quoted it, as if reciting a bar order of “three orange whips” at a purportedly clever moment would position us as comic geniuses. The movie is more slapdash than I remembered and spotted with painfully flat line readings across the cast. It’s not unreasonable that, say, lifelong musician Matt Murphy might not flash the chops of a great actor, but even co-leads Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi drift through certain scenes with amateurish indifference. Director John Landis stages the varied material — not too many other films have both musical numbers and densely populated car chases — with reasonable deftness, but he falters in the pruning process. Stretching comfortably past the two hour mark, the film is overlong. It’s hampered by trying to do too much, as if everyone involved was defensively trying to prove the worthiness of spinning a feature out a couple sketch comics’ vanity tribute to their favorite music.

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016). At the time of its release, this tricky drama from Jeff Nichols got attention as a indie-sensibility corrective to superhero movies. The strange powers exhibited by young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) aren’t exciting or inspiring. They’re terrifying, a symptom of an existence out of control. Maybe even more potently, the film offers up a more realistic depiction of a Spielbergian story pitting small-scale people imbued with sudden fantastical threads to their life against forbidding authorities. It is grim and pained, offering a pointed assessment of humanity’s rapidity in collapsing all empathetic camaraderie in the face of a threat. Rod Serling would undoubtedly find it satisfactory. It’s a strong film, but the mechanics sometimes grind too loudly. And most of the actors, including Michael Shannon as the boy’s father, seem to operate at a slight remove from the inner layers of their characters. The best performance comes from Adam Driver, playing a scientist who is simultaneously wary and intrigued, which is precisely the right combination of reactions facing the circumstances with the film.

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014). I’m lukewarm on John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to The Guard, but I suspect my disconnect is a result of the film’s greatest strength: a deep immersion in the culture it depicts. Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, an Irish priest who’s somewhat worn down by hiss community’s fraying connecting to the church, and that’s before he receives a threat on his life from the other side of the confessional. The film depicts the fraught few days leading up to the named time of the murder, exacted on this priest because he’s a good man, meaning the shock will be greater. McDonagh weights the film with the mood of burden, often letting it play with dreamlike shimmers of sensation rather than grounded narrative. This approach almost excuses some of the creakier elements of the drama  — like a tendency towards callousness among the townspeople that rings false – but not quite. If McDonagh wants to make Calvary carry the numbing feel of moving hopelessly through an existential dilemma, he accomplishes it. Me, I could have used a little more attention to the rigors of narrative.

The Super Cops (Gordon Parks, 1974). Man alive, did filmmakers in the nineteen-seventies love making movies about honest police officers who chose to not play by the rules in orde to buck a corrupt system or what? One year after Serpico mined similar territory, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and director Gordon Parks adapted the nonfiction book  The Super Cops: The True Story Of The Cops Called Batman and Robin into another brusquely dismaying and wryly comic police drama. The film has its charms, but it’s also fairly indistinct, save for the performance of Ron Leibman, who maybe never had a better showcase for his unique brand of fuming, amused self-regard.

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015). Putting aside that the human characters who populate the films that follow Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park are problematically  committed to not learning a thing from a carnage-filled past, the revival of the franchise that taught average moviegoers about chaos theory makes for a decent entertainment. Reminiscent of Roland Emmerich’s underrated White House Down, Colin Trevorrow’s first stab at big, big budget filmmaking hits extremely familiar notes, but does so with just enough verve and commitment to make the finding of flaws in the proceedings feel like part of the fun instead of evidence that everything’s gone terribly wrong. Unlike other recent efforts at restarting old franchise engines, Jurassic World touches on its cinematic history lightly and with occasional flashes of welcome wit. If nothing else, it’s a damn sight better than either of the other two Jurassic Park sequels, the worst of which, don’t forget, was directed by Spielberg,


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