Then Playing — American Animals; Madeline’s Madeline; No Time to Die

American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018). Bart Layton’s heist drama is drawn from an actual crime perpetrated by a group of young men in the early two-thousands, and the filmmaker creatively incorporates documentary — and documentary warping — contributions from the real-life perpetrators. He also directly tweaks a legion of stylish crime movies that precedes his, a rascally touch forecast by the tumbledown pack of DVDs on a foreground shelf early in the proceedings. The visual and narrative dynamics don’t leave behind other fundamentals; the characterizations are sharp and the performances uniformly strong. Evan Peters is especially good as the delinquency-inclined leader of the ad hoc band of thieves, astutely showing the way his bravado thins to reveal agitated insecurity underneath. American Animals is boldly entertaining.

Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker, 2018). Madeline (Helena Howard) is a glum teenager living in the big city, engaging in emotional skirmishes with her slightly dotty and emotionally volatile mother (Miranda July). About the only solace Madeline can find is with the experimental theater troupe she’s involved with, engaging in exercises with an attentive teacher (Molly Parker). Eventually, the teacher’s interest in Madeline takes a troubling turn as the youth’s life is exploited to feed the work-in-progress play the band of thespians is putting together. Writer-director Josephine Decker is consistently daring with her own experimental storytelling. She gives Madeline’s Madeline an impressionistic feel, with tone, visuals, and the very narrative shaped to subtly mirror the tremors of mental illness that are part the lead character’s struggles. Howard is measured and quietly intense in her performance, absolutely commanding the screen and effectively inviting the viewer to live the experience of the character right beside her.

No Time to Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2021). Daniel Craig’s closes his tenure as the most famous agent under the employ of MI6 with a film that has many of the same strengths and weaknesses that have been present throughout his five film run. Craig remains a brutish, assured presence as James Bond, distinguishing himself from his predecessors with the battered muscularity he brings to the role. Another consistency is the wavering lack of commitment to a tone. The filmmakers can’t decide how much they want to adhere to the weatherbeaten tropes of the franchise that’s run for decades — such as the corny one-liners, the icy, empty beauties, and the jet-setting romps through exotic locales — and how much they want to update those sensibilities into taut spycraft more akin to the Jason Bourne films or the work of John le Carré. They wind up landing in a mushy middle that blunts both options. A strong valedictory feel means No Time to Die relies on a lot of accumulated affection for the Craig era that, for me, simply isn’t present. As the main antagonist, Rami Malek traffics in a predictable mannered menace. The only performer who pops is Ana de Armas, playing an agent Bond briefly partners with in Cuba. She bring a zing of liveliness to the film and then disappears far too quickly. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is solid enough without elevating the material.

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