Lion (Garth Davis, 2016). The feature debut from Garth Davis — who has major cred in my book for directing half of Jane Campion’s great Top of the Lake — looks like the same achingly earnest, self-consciously award-hungry cinema the Weinsteins have been delivering since their Miramax days. For the first half of the film anyway, it’s far sharper and more compelling than that. When five-year-old Indian boy Saroo (played at that age by Sunny Pawar) gets separated from his family after boarding the wrong train, his travails lost, alone, and unable to effectively communicate about where he’s from are heartbreaking. Working from a screenplay by Luke Davies (based on the memoir A Long Way Home, written by Saroo Brierly with Larry Buttrose), Davis crafts the film with a honest commitment to the harrowing particulars but also a welcome dose of restraint. He understands the small emotional tremors loom as large as the seismic tragedies and develops the narrative accordingly. The film is especially clear-eyed in acknowledging that the rescue afforded by international adoption is far trickier than most depictions allow. The second half of the film, in which a grown Saroo (Dev Patel) uses the snappy new technology of Google Earth to obsessively search for his childhood home, isn’t nearly as compelling, in large part because Davis becomes overly reliant on suspense and conflict that isn’t really there, not in a meaningful way. From start to finish, though, Davis collaborates with cinematographer Greig Fraser to craft beautiful images that simultaneously serve the needs and purposes of the story.
Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950). The ailment of the title afflicts Bart Tare, who compulsively steals a pistol as a fourteen-year-old (Russ Tamblyn) and then grows into a Army marksman (John Dall) who gets mixed up with the wrong gal, a carnival sharpshooter (Peggy Cummins). She correctly determines that their mutual talent for firearms would be far more lucrative on the robbery circuit than in impressing rubes with snappy tricks in traveling tents. Bart’s pacifist preferences keep getting in the way as the duo go on their crime spree, culminating with the classic one last job, robbing the payroll of a meat processing facility. Joseph H. Lewis directs the film with the requisite sense of sweat-soaked luridness, setting the characters into pirouettes of wanton self-destruction. It’s ultimately a little too pulpy, eschewing nuance so thoroughly that it finally comes across as a stiff artifact of a certain era in Hollywood, when the audience desire for feverish crime sagas ran up against industry dictates that criminals always met their comeuppance.
The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2016). Jaume Collet-Serra has spent much of the past decade directing Liam Neeson films that aren’t Taken but look just like Taken. That habit of striving for creativity within the limiting and repetitive presumably served him well with The Shallows, a high-concept thriller that primarily takes place after a surfer (Blake Lively) has become stranded offshore with a ravenous shark providing a significant discouragement from swimming for safety. Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay tacks toward the grueling minutiae of the survival story and Collet-Serra shapes it with admirable patience. Lively is similarly committed, but there’s barely a character to play. It makes for a middling story, but a solidly engaging filmmaking stunt.
The Night Before (Jonathan Levine, 2015). This raucous and gently ribald holiday romp offers a sample of what modern ramshackle Hollywood comedies could be if they were approached with a little directorial discipline, or at least an occasional willingness to dial in excess. It might seem like a minor accomplishment, but a running time of just over one hundred minutes is itself a feat. The story follows a trio of old pals (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, and Seth Rogen) whose tradition of Christmas Eve bar-crawling seems poised to come to an end as they edge into divergent versions of adulthood. The movie riffs on other Christmas classics, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Die Hard, but does so with just enough creativity and wit to elevate it above empty referencing. Rogen is very funny in a series of scenes involving his character’s misguided reintroduction to the freewheeling drug use of his youth, and there’s a marvelous supporting turn by Michael Shannon that exploits his reputation for intensity while illuminating surprisingly deft skills as a comic actor.
The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler, 1942). A hard-boiled film that piles betrayal upon betrayal in a story involving crooked political leaders, opportunistic dames, and lumbering thugs pummeling each other between belts of brown liquor. In adapting a Dashiell Hammett novel, screenwriter Jonathan Latimer tries to wrestle a snarl of characters with slippery motives into a coherent narrative. It all gets the better of him, but there’s some snappy interplay amidst the confusion. Stuart Heisler makes it into a muscular film noir without quite developing the gloomy panache that is the true totem of the subgenre.