California Suite (Herbert Ross, 1978). Adapted by Neil Simon from his 1976 play of the same name (a sequel to the 1968 hit Plaza Suite), this comedy sets a posh Los Angeles hotel as its home base. A series of couples in different states of disrepair move through the narrative, exchanging barbs and sometimes blows. Simon and director Herbert Ross can’t defeat the built-in challenge of this sort of anthology-driven film, where the different segments waver significantly in quality. They’re further hamstrung by the need for some stories to play out more and less intact while others are broken into multiple, interspersed fragments. This leads to the strongest segment in California Suite — featuring Jane Fonda and Alan Alda as exes engaged in a seething conflict about custody of their teenage daughter (Dana Plato) — dominating the first act and then all but vanishing until the closing scenes. Maggie Smith won her second Academy Award for her portrayal of Diana Barrie, an acclaimed stage actress who snagged an Oscar nomination for a dippy comedy, but that seems more a case of the award-giving body’s reflexive appreciation of films that give attention to the entertainment-industrial complex with the kindest of satire. As a wife who makes a dismaying discovery about her husband’s (Walter Matthau) exploits in town, Elaine May deserves extra credit for somehow making comedy magic out of two different punchlines that hinge on little more than her casual use of the word “hooker.”
Good Time (Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, 2017). The film Good Time depicts only one fraught slice of the life of Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson), but it’s clear he’s been a human disaster for a long, long time. Much of that certainty comes from the skilled performance of Pattinson, who finds an abundance of subtle ways to signal that Connie is person highly accustomed to desperation. The film starts with Connie looping his mentally challenged brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), into a haphazardly planned bank robbery. After things predictably go sideways and Nick is arrested, Connie engages in a flailing quest to get his brother free. As would be the case with their next feature, Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers absolutely drench the film in the same intensity that comes from decision-making so questionable that the only course of its river it to more bad decisions. The construction of the film is impeccable, every edit, music cue (the score is by Oneohtrix Point Never), and acting tic merging together to create an experience that feels like an oncoming heart attack in narrative form.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang, 1956). This cynical film noir is Fritz Lang’s last Hollywood feature before returning to Germany for the coda to his monumental cinematic career. The story follows Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), a novelist and former reporter, as he conspires with newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), to frame himself for a recent murder in attempt to prove the death penalty is a dangerous example of governmental overreach. The scheme doesn’t make much sense, especially as Tom has to commit some real crimes, such as perjury, to keep the ruse going. In particular, the film’s final twist is a real howler. More problematically, Lang’s direct is uncharacteristically flat and indifferent. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt feels like a movie made by someone running out of creative energy.