November 29, 2015

Manhunter


Based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, Manhunter (1986) has a lush veneer but nothing underneath it. The film follows a detective named Will Graham (William Petersen) as he tracks a serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) with the help of incarcerated murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). Manhunter looks cool: Michael Mann has an eye for framing a scene, and he’s adept at using lighting and modern architecture to full effect. But there’s something soulless about his films. When Brian De Palma gives in to his urges for heavy stylization, we profit by it: De Palma’s best thrillers are fun to watch, and there’s some kind of pathos amidst the swirling camera and garish colors. Michael Mann has learned the skills of filmmaking without any particular understanding of how to make us care. So the best I can say about Manhunter is that I admired the craftsmanship and liked the music—a synthsezied score by Michel Rubini and The Reds. The protagonist is supposed to be a skillful detective because he can get into the heads of the killers, which put him over the edge before. But somehow, the emotional weight of that never affects us. Petersen gives a good performance (he looks like he was lifted from Miami Vice), and so does Dennis Farina as his superior, who drags him back into investigative work after a much-needed sabbatical. With Kim Greist, Joan Allen, and Stephen Lang.

November 22, 2015

Julia Roberts as Grim Reaper

As depressing as it is to see an actress like the ebullient Julia Roberts transformed into a droopy-faced, grief-stricken shell, her new movie, Secret in Their Eyes is pretty entertaining. In fact, she's sort of the female equivalent to one of those characters played by Liam Neeson of late (in films such as Taken and Non-Stop). Roberts plays a Los Angeles detective whose daughter is murdered. By a cruel coincidence, Roberts and her partner, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) are the detectives called to investigate the crime scene, never suspecting the identity of the victim. The film jumps back and forth between 2002, during the immediate investigation of the murder, and the present day, after the case has gone cold.

Secret in Their Eyes isn’t by any means a perfect thriller. And it’s hard to say if anything you’ll see in this grim procedural drama will differ much from any number of investigation-themed television dramas like Criminal Minds. But the yarn it unspools is compelling enough, and the film is bolstered by the performances of its three leads, especially Nicole Kidman as the district attorney who’s caught between her obligation to follow the law and her devotion to her friend and colleague.

Secret in Their Eyes is in essence a revenge fantasy. As a culture, we've been primed for this kind of movie based on our incessant consumption of true crime TV. We're constantly fascinated by stories of murder and the devastation wrought on the victims' family members. We yearn for justice, yet we know that not even execution of the killer will bring back the dead. Revenge fantasies are deceptive, because they're a heightened version of a longing that cannot be fulfilled. Writer-director Billy Ray understands the double-edged nature of revenge, but he's also happy to milk the fantasy all the way to the bank.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this movie is the role of the September 11th attacks in halting the investigation. The prime suspect in the case is a valued informant, who’s been feeding info to counter-terrorism detectives about a local mosque, a hub for suspected terrorists. The film tries to delve into a surprisingly complex moral problem: Is it morally right to keep a killer on the streets if doing so can prevent more deaths? (I'm not sure the movie satisfactorily answered this question; but it gets points for asking.)

Billy Ray favors convenient plotting, so every scene is primed for maximum plot juice, like an overripe orange. Ray likes his pulp extra-pulpy, and so we get such dramatic wallops as Julia Roberts sobbing over the dead body of her daughter, inside a dumpster; or the ongoing plot complication of a conflicted crush between Ejiofor and Kidman, who’s married; or scenes of Roberts, now hardened by her grief, contemplating a little vigilante justice. “My daughter was the thing that made me me.” This logic is unhealthy, and what’s more, I think it is a truthful observation about too many parents. Of course, the loss of a child is a tragedy that probably no one can recover from fully, but the idea that your kids define you is troubling nonetheless.

Nicole Kidman stands out in her controlled, commanding performance as the D.A. In a scene in which she chides her colleague (Ejiofor) for badgering a suspect despite having no sufficient evidence against him, she goads the suspect into angrily striking out at her. It’s a masterful bit of manipulation, and a reminder of Nicole Kidman’s particular brand of deceptive power. She’s seductive and the smartest person in the room. (But it's also decidedly sexist, because she insults his manhood, hoping it will anger him. When it does, he whips out his member in an act of pure brutishness. Earlier, though, Kidman congratulates Ejiofor on his gender sensitivity.)

Julia Roberts is very good—she has always had an earthy quality that’s made her someone you can root for under any circumstances—but this character feels like a downer in light of her repertoire. It would be like seeing Cary Grant play the creepy pedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita. We love Cary Grant for being Cary Grant, and we love Julia Roberts for being Julia Roberts. There’s a little bit of that Julia Roberts here, but not much. And even though it feels wrong-headed to criticize an actress for doing something different, especially if she's proficient at it, I always wonder about the motivations of taking on such a role. Are we as a culture so dead to the Julia Roberts of Pretty Woman and Erin Brockovich (a great performance)? Will we turn Julia Roberts into an angry sociopath as we have done Liam Neeson, who went from saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust to becoming a taciturn, rich man's Rambo?

But all of these quibbles don't undercut the fact that I had a good time at this movie. Secret in Their Eyes has surprising moments of humor and some well-staged moments of suspense, even if it’s an essentially dumb and emotionally manipulative experience. But the dumpster scene gave me chills; but I also felt irritated by it. Which kind of cinematic manipulation is acceptable, and which crosses a line? I’m not sure myself.


With Dean Norris (who’s funny as Ejiofor’s scrappy counterpart), Michael Kelly, Alfred Molina, Zoe Graham.

November 21, 2015

'Spotlight' is an unflinching, urgently needed examination of power and abuse in the church.

“I thought that some day I would come back to my faith. But something cracked,” says Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo in the new film Spotlight. For Rezendes, the truth that the Catholic Church covered up untold cases of abuse perpetrated by clergymen is the wrecking ball that decimates his already derelict faith. When you’re raised Catholic, you’re a Catholic for life, whether you believe in God or not. But to see firsthand the Church covering up its own dark sins is to have the very fabric of your soul ripped from you. It’s gut-wrenching and permanent.

Spotlight is a perceptive, unflinching new look at how the Church's power made an entire city complicit in unthinkable crimes. It’s a compulsively watchable, fascinating yarn in the nature of All the President’s Men, and its focus is as shattering as Watergate, perhaps more so, because it hits you on a deeper, more personal level than All the President's Men. We expect our governments to lie to us, to some extent. But, we have naively trusted the Church to be free of deception for far too long. 

The film dramatizes the Boston Globe “Spotlight” team's investigation of the case nearly fifteen years ago. The film is set in 2001, although it opens in 1976, where we see, in hushed voices, somber Church officials begging the mother of an abused child not to say anything against the Church, because the world needs the Church. These "men of God" assure the mother, who's still clinging to this institution as a source of truth, that the pedophile priest will be sent away, that it won’t happen again. But it happened again. And again.

Director Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, zooms in on the investigation, minimizing the personal lives of the main characters. The “Spotlight” team—Michael Rezendes, Robby Robinson, Sacha Pfeiffer, Ben Bradlee, and Matt Carroll—played by Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Brian d’Arcy James—are the heroes of the film, if indeed we can call them heroes. As much as Spotlight ultimately maneuvers itself into a pro-journalism stance, this movie isn’t a shameless plug for journalism. The Globe has to reckon with its own demons: It too is complicit in the cover-up by ignoring the case for years, despite the efforts of victims, now grown up, to contact them.

Michael Keaton, who was admittedly very good in last year’s much flashier Birdman, is exceptionally good here as Robby Robinson, the head of “Spotlight”. The performance isn’t flashy at all, and Keaton’s subtlety has its own kind of dramatic weight and import. What humanizes him, and all the other reporters, is their very personal stake in this investigation. Boston is a Catholic town in many ways; the culture is Catholic just as the culture in the South is Evangelical, and this culture affects you no matter your own personal religious beliefs (or unbeliefs). When Robinson confronts administrators at his alma mater, who don't want to investigate allegations of abuse against a priest-faculty member, he tells them about the man, now in his 40s, who was molested by the priest. He was a hockey player, and the priest was the hockey coach. Robinson glibly observes, "I guess we were just lucky we didn't play hockey." It's the kind of shattering remark that needs to be said.

Even as Spotlight rightly brings down the hammer on the abuses, and gives voice to the abused, the film maintains a refreshing graciousness toward belief. All of the “Spotlight” reporters were raised Catholic, and many of them went to Catholic schools. Spotlight reminds us that belief isn’t necessarily the problem. It is, however, the reason many believers are unable to deal honestly at this institution. It’s the power of moneyed institutions cloaked in religious authority, especially when those moneyed institutions can throw their weight around a city, absconding with evidence that damns them, leaning on people to protect the Church “for the good of the city.” When the Cardinal tells Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), “It’s good for the institutions of the city to work together,” Baron responds, “I think for us to do our job we have to work alone.”

Schreiber, it should be noted, gives a fine performance as the Globe’s editor. Schreiber approaches the Marty Baron character with a kind of laconic humility. Baron is always thinking about the bigger story, and he finds moral purpose in bringing systemic corruption to light. McCarthy establishes Baron, a Jew who had previously worked at papers in Miami and New York, as the necessary outsider who sees through the local politics and the mutual good feelings of Bostonians. It’s his sharp focus that enables him to push the “Spotlight” team further, to root out the heart of the scandal.

Spotlight is also an interesting bit of time travel to the not-so-long ago world before the Internet had totally reshaped journalism, before our current, almost total, transition from print to digital. In this way, we see yet another shard of complexity: The “Spotlight” reporters are tasked with finding stories that will sell. (There’s talk of future job cuts, because even then circulation was diminishing.) McCarthy deftly balances the self-serving nature of journalism (you have to find compelling stories to sell papers) with the moral burden of journalism (people need to hear these stories). It may be the best movie of the year; it nothing else, it's one of the most urgent and perceptive films on religion, the press, and power.

With Stanley Tucci, Gene Amoroso, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, and Billy Crudup.


November 20, 2015

Six Degrees of Richard Nixon


Three Days of the Condor, which was directed by Sidney Pollack, has at least one thing going for it: Robert Redford. Redford in his day was a terrific hippie-everyman. He was conservative enough in his demeanor to be mainstream, but progressive in his politics. But Redford loses some of his appeal when he starts to fancy himself a martyr for whatever cause his movies are about. In Three Days of the Condor, it's Robert Redford against the world, and it's a bit hard to take. I like him better when he's charming the world into compliance. 

Condor
 begins well: Pollack is a slick filmmaker, and the modern-jazz-funk score by Dave Grusin works for the opening shots, sounding more than a bit like the music by Weather Report from the same period. The film is set in New York, where a reader at the American Literary Historical Society named Joe Turner (Redford) is terrified to discover all of his colleagues have been gunned down while he was out to lunch. Turner pretty quickly realises that he missed death only by sheer coincidence, and that the party responsible (the CIA) isn't likely to make the same mistake twice. Soon he's hiding out in the Brooklyn Heights apartment of an icy photographer named Kathy, who's played by Faye Dunaway.

Pauline Kael criticized the casting of Dunaway as a mistake, but I'm not sure it's the casting so much as the character herself. There's a heady sort of macho intuition in the script that bungles the movie irretrievably: Turner, who's holding the terrified woman at gunpoint, looks around at her many pictures (all of them dreary black-and-white photos of autumnal trees and empty park benches: death and isolation and such) and basically pronounces her a frigid bitch. Where on earth does he get off? What's most distressing about this is that within twenty minutes of all this, they're in bed together. So I can't really fault Dunaway for what is decidedly silly writing.

Movies are supposed to be improbable, unlikely concoctions of fantasy, but this shacking up with your hostage business smacks of an improbability that only weakens the movie. Now that Kathy is on Joe's side (a new kind of putting the screws on your audience), she agrees to help him rough up a CIA desk jockey so he can find out what's really going on behind closed doors. It's depressing to realize that Dunaway had to settle for such a flat role, especially since she was one of the reigning queens of 70s cinema for a little while.

Meanwhile, Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (released a year earlier, in 1974), is equally muddled. Warren Beatty plays a reporter who witnesses the assassination of a politician in the Space Needle. Within a few years, six people who witnessed the murder have died mysteriously, and a frantic reporter (Paula Prentiss) turns to Beatty for help because she's convinced she'll be next.

Pakula doesn't have much facility for directing action sequences. In one case, Beatty's character deflects a gunshut with a fishing rod--by wrapping the wire around the would-be shooter's legs. It's a clumsily staged moment. Pakula's better thrillers--Klute and All the President's Men--didn't have scenes like this. He's better at transmuting static material than translating physical action to the screen.

Beatty's character, also named Joe, is a prototype for the smart-ass investigative reporter that Chevy Chase played so well in Fletch. Beatty doesn't exhibit contempt for his audience, but he does imbue Joe with a certain degree of hardness to the world. He doesn't seem particularly affected by any of the disturbing things he uncovers, particularly the strange mission of the ominous Parallax Corporation, which is apparently in the business of training assassins. If only it were as clever and interesting as The Manchurian Candidate. Instead, it's a rather obvious attempt to throw some doubt on the Warren Commission's investigation of JFK's assassination. 

Of course, all of these movies are inherently connected to the Nixon Whitehouse. Without Nixon (and Vietnam), we wouldn't have likely had such an interesting spate of paranoia thrillers. (The best of them, aside from All the President's Men, are less obvious, like Philip Kaufman's terrific remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) But has any other President spawned a whole sub-genre? These films are carriers of a Nixonian spirit that is quite unsettling and altogether fascinating. The fact that the movies themselves don't really hold up doesn't negate their relevance in the culture, because they're ultimately more interesting as reactionary objects, put forth to question authority.

The most successful movie to directly address Nixon may be, surprisingly, a kooky little Hal Ashby comedy called Shampoo, which also stars Warren Beatty. I remember watching it on television many years ago. But seeing a movie divided into segments by commercial breaks (and edited for cable) is no way to live. Shampoo is about an anomaly: a straight hairdresser who services unhappy rich women in Hollywood. (And he services them in more ways than one.) His name is George, and it's been suggested that he was inspired by Jay Sebring, the man who revolutionized men's hairstyles before being butchered by the Manson family at Sharon Tate's house in August 1969.

Shampoo is glib but sweet, and director Hal Ashby manages to make a film about unhappiness and moral decay without turning moralistic. George is bedding both the wife and the mistress of a big money businessman (Jack Warden) from whom he's hoping to finance his own salon. The ladies are both unhappy, but unwilling to forgo the various pleasures afforded by George's services. (The wife, Felicia, is played by Lee Grant, and the mistress, Jackie, is played by Julie Christie.) Meanwhile, George's official girlfriend, Jill (played by the sunny, wide-eyed Goldie Hawn, who's a willowy flower with a spark of fire inside her), is equally muddled and dissatisfied with her boyfriend. 

Warren Beatty looks perpetually stoned in Shampoo. (He looks more lucid in The Parallax View.) This is the right look for his character, a man who concludes that he's basically happy--even despite his career failings--because he gets to sleep with a lot of women. We feel for George, genuinely, when he's left alone at the end, a consequence of prior indecision.

Shampoo is set during Election Day and Night 1968, and at the end, we see actual footage of Nixon making his victory speech. It's easy to see how he won in `68--a slick and skilled politician playing against someone his own age, Hubert Humphrey--despite a blistering loss in 1960 to the suave John Kennedy. Shampoo thus signals the death knell of the Peace and Love Moment. It was, after all, Nixon and Manson who signaled it. 

November 17, 2015

Tangerine

Tangerine follows two Los Angeles prostitutes—who happen to be transgender—as they traverse the sun-baked sidewalks of their L.A., the L.A. that reminds me a lot of Orlando: It’s a concrete jungle of endless traffic and punishing heat. It's a city of exhaust fumes and sweat and blood and a kind of grittiness that would give John Waters' Baltimore a run for its money. Tangerine brings new meaning to the word “earthy.” It is audacious and unpredictable and unkempt, because it takes place in a world of impoverished people, the kind of people that we don’t often think about when we think about Hollywood. This movie is unapologetic in its brashness, and the performances by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, two diamonds in the rough if ever there were any, seem to have been plucked from the world of reality television.

In fact, Tangerine retains the sensibility of reality TV too. It thrives on drama and outrageousness, and these ladies thrive on it too. They are very much the embodiment of the stereotypical drag queen, from their pointed exaggeration of femininity to their intense emotional responses, which have the explosive power of dynamite in a coal mine. Etiquette is for the privileged, and these ladies, whose names are Sin-Dee and Alexandria, are barely hanging on. They don’t have time to be nice, their lives are too hardscrabble for them to value the veneer of decorum that people with moneyand their own transportation— take for granted.

So when Sin-Dee, just out of jail, learns that her boyfriend has been cheating on her (with a lady who was born a lady), she becomes obsessed with tracking the girl down. Alexandria accompanies her, but insists that she will not partake in any drama, as though she could avoid it. Sin-Dee tracks down the "bitch" (a word whose meaning is delightfully fluid in this movie), named Dinah, at a makeshift bordello run inside a dank-looking motel room. To call it sleazy would be too kind, because this motel exhausts the parameters of sleaze. Sin-Dee kicks in the door as if the motel belongs to her ("You forget, I got a dick too!" she later preens to a stingy trick, before beating him up, and it's this same triumphant self-possession with which she breaks into the motel room). She proceeds to drag Dinah kicking and screaming across town to confront Chester, a drug dealer who does his business at Donut Time, on an iPhone. The Donut Time confrontation becomes complicated by Alexandria's own disappointment (she's been promoting a little show of hers that almost no one attends) and the arrival of an Armenian trick named Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who's married but secretly yearns for the trans women. 

Incidentally, Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S with the help of a handy anamorphic lens. This gimmick, if indeed it can be called a gimmick and not simply a harbinger of the future, allows director Sean S. Baker to keep our noses up against the glass of his sideshow. We’re encouraged to tap on the glass, but there’s no guarantee that we won’t get bitten. That’s what makes Tangerine stand out, what makes it not just a novelty picture that happens to incorporate two trendy topics—trans people and modern technology's complete intrusion (or integration) into our lives. This movie feels delightfully transgressive, and simultaneously like watching your trashiest relatives fighting at a family reunion after too many beers.

There's something utterly tangible about this movie experience, as sensory as the Odor-rama cards that theater-goers received at the premier of John Waters' film Polyester in 1981. But there's no tangible object for us to scratch and smell. It's more ingrained. Tangerine is so attuned to filth that we feel it, we smell it. Sin-Dee is told to pop a Tic Tac (by Dinah, who looks like she hasn’t seen a hot bath in days, and who is forced to parade around L.A. with only one flip flop). Afterward, every time Sin-Dee screams in someone's face, it's hard not to imagine the stench of bad breath. Later, two would-be tricks douse Sin-Dee with urine, and we see Alexandria wiping her down with a wet paper towel. (This moment comes after a huge fight between the girls, and it deepens their friendship and our emotional identification with them.) 

Of course, it’s a disgusting and degrading moment for Sin-Dee, but she gets over it quickly. She’s accustomed to a certain degree of griminess that comes with being on the street, with having to walk everywhere in the hot sun, with doing business in sweaty cars with sweaty dudes. Baker plays it not as tragedy, but as one more notch in her belt, one more thing that Sin-Dee has had to survive. What's so surprising is how much this movie stays with you, and how much the friendship between these two endears itself to you long after the movie is over. The title sums up the movie: It's tart, sweet, messy, and refreshing.

November 08, 2015

Spectre

The new James Bond, Spectre, is an enthralling good time, one of the most exciting big movies to come out this year. It has one major flaw: a wrong-headed need to understand and reform its hero; but this I can forgive for a movie as entertaining and well-made as Spectre. Daniel Craig, who has talked recently of exiting the role of 007, has sometimes been criticized for being an overly serious Bond. There is something shell-shocked about Daniel Craig’s appearance: He always looks to me like he’s just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. But he’s a remarkably fit actor, and he’s subtly funny, cautious never to venture into Roger Moore territory. Craig himself exudes a kind of enigmatic persona that works for the character.

Spectre opens with a sweeping shot of Mexico City on El Dia de los Muertos. We watch a man and a woman—both wearing masks—make their way through a crowded street, into a hotel, to their room, where they embrace. Then the man takes off his mask: It’s James Bond. Bond is always ready for a bedroom scene, if only the lady will wait a moment while he shoots someone. “Excuse me for a moment,” he says, and with sniper rifle in hand, climbs out the window of the hotel room. We follow, looking down on him from above as he maneuvers from rooftop to rooftop until he finds his perch and takes aim.

The scene is visually thrilling, in part because director Sam Mendes cares about craftsmanship, and in part because all this precision and attention to Bond’s spatial geography builds the tension: By the time Bond pulls the trigger, we’re totally invested in what he’s doing. The building that subsequently explodes (not because of the gun shot) would otherwise have been another numbing moment of cinematic destruction. When Bond, unable to escape the debris and the enveloping cloud of smoke and gas, falls down, down, down, he plops right onto a couch. This punctuating bit of humor sealed the deal for me. The rest of the film (until the end) is pure delight.

One of the most interesting parts about Spectre is its fascination with/anxiety about surveillance. Surveillance is the chief bogey of this movie, the thing the villains treasure because it begets them unadulterated power. But it’s also a fact of life, especially in Europe, where counter-terrorism measures have increased the number of cameras in public places, and, we assume, the number of phone conversations being listened-in-on. In the film, the 00 program is threatened by a new intelligence division, headed by Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who sees data collection as the wave of the future, and agents like Bond as relics of the past. The movie opens with the text, “THE DEAD ARE ALIVE,” and insinuates that indeed James Bond himself is a kind of ghost who visits us in our pop culture fantasies. Perhaps this explains our fascination with him, and why the current iteration of the series so desperately wants to “solve” James Bond, to know the unknowable.

Sam Mendes seems aware of our culture’s current need to psychoanalyze movie heroes to death. He makes light of this in a scene in which Bond is being evaluated by a shrink (Dr. Madeleine Swann). She doesn’t know that he’s actually there to save her from an assassin. But her questions are the questions we may have found ourselves asking—against our better judgment—over time: We want to know what makes James Bond tick, yet to understand the mystery is to take the fun of the mystery away. Unfortunately, the film can’t resist its own urges to investigate and domesticate its hero. It's a symptom of a larger pop cultural urge, this need to know everything, to fix everything, this inability to accept flaws as somehow fundamental and unchangeable and, sometimes, desirably human.

One of my favorite things about these movies is when they turn into a North By Northwest-style world geography tour. Spectre does not disappoint in this arena: We go from Mexico City to London to Austria to Tangier. Sam Mendes, with help from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, captures the lushness of these disparate venues for the usual James Bond spy-movie hijinks, and lets the camera linger on them enough for us to savor the image. And the chase scenes, which are generally very well-choreographed, have been carefully wrought in conjunction with their locations. Probably the best one is the fight between Bond and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), the great, hulking moose of a henchman who is this movie’s Jaws. Their tussle on a train somewhere near Tangier (if memory serves) is tense and exciting, and again, capped with a bit of throwaway humor (that doesn't work quite as well as one would hope). 

As the chief villain, Blofeld, Christoph Waltz is appropriately creepy. Waltz, like Javier Bardem before him, seems made for these kinds of megalomaniacal characters. He reminds me of that great, sinister character actor Henry Gibson. But there’s something too easy about Waltz as a villain. It’s as expected as having Paul Giamatti play a weasel. And though I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise (because Waltz is really great at what he does), there’s so much else to look at and love about Spectre that the villain pales in comparison. 

Perhaps the one truly lackluster note in characterization is the Bond girl, played by L√©a Seydoux, Dr. Madeleine Swann. Her father was part of the ignominious SPECTRE ring, and now she’s a walking target, whom Bond has vowed to protect. Seydoux is a lovely mousy thing, and even gets to partake in the action during the extensive train fight scene. But James Bond is always more interesting when he’s being sexually one-upped by his female counterpart. Madeleine Swann is too mopey and soft, and in the end, she’s little more than a pawn (in the film’s needless final act). This is where the movie’s project to reform James Bond—by domesticating him—seems particularly idiotic. I’m not necessarily in favor of the more disposable Bond women; I just prefer Bond girls who hold their own. When Bond looks at the disarmed Blofeld at the very end and says, “I have something more important to do [than killing you],” I laughed at what until now would have been a bad sexual pun in a Bond movie. Now it’s a thesis defending Bond’s new stance on marriage as he walks off into the night with his uncharismatic lover. (He and Seydoux do generate some heat, however brief: When they engage in a passionate kiss, earlier in the film, Daniel Craig’s lips take on a life of their own.)

With Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Rory Kinnear, and, briefly, Dame Judi Dench. 

November 06, 2015

Steve Jobs

Maybe there’s something vain about making three Steve Jobs movies in two years. In fact, this over-saturation is in keeping with the man himself. According to the new film, Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, the pugnacious CEO of Apple Computers esteemed himself higher than anyone else. When we meet him in 1984, he’s about to unveil his latest gadget: the Mackintosh computer. In 1984, Apple products looked like every other clunky, ugly device (vaguely futuristic in the way of 2001: A Space Odyssey), and this may be the filmmakers’ greatest joke on a company known for its beautiful electronics. Sure, they’re beautiful now. But Steve Jobs never makes it past 1998, and the original iMac is so ugly that Lisa Jobs (Steve’s daughter) quips, “It looks like Judy Jetson’s EasyBake Oven.”

If we have to sit through another movie about this arrogant bastard—whose company created a lot of amazing devices that I love—at least we get a somewhat unconventional movie, with some truly good performances. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin structures the film like a three-act play, not a traditional biopic. Every time I sit down in front of one of those biographical dramas—even a good one—a little part of me dies of boredom. I went in expecting that same tired formula: Steve Jobs the kid who couldn’t relate to the other, normal children, Steve Jobs the kid who couldn’t resist taking things apart and putting them back together, Steve Jobs the smartest, ballsiest guy in the room. Then we would eventually get to Jobs's fall from grace and resurrection, the most interesting parts of his career. The structure frees director Danny Boyle, too. He doesn't have to honor the constraints of a traditional bio. What we have here is a stripped down drama that puts its actors under the microscope to see what they can do. It's immensely entertaining. 

Aaron Sorkin treats us to a highly concentrated airing of grievances, where we learn how justified was our disdain for Steve Jobs (but please, take more of my money!), but where we also learn that Steve Jobs was a human being. Michael Fassbender, the automaton of Great Acting, turns in a surprisingly lively and funny performance as the Master himself. Fassbender doesn’t chew up the scenery; He approaches this character as a flawed human being, and he controls our need to hate him with precision. By the end, that hatred has simmered to mild dislike with a touch of fondness.

Like The Social Network, Steve Jobs has a weight to it that feels slightly out of proportion with its subject matter. I think that’s because we still don’t fully understand how radically these technological gurus have reshaped our culture. And, perhaps, these two men in particular won’t be the ones we remember one hundred years from now. (It seems especially likely with Zuckerburg, as teenagers increasingly abandon the Facebook ship for other hipper social media sites.) But these movies put their fingers on the culture in an interesting and bold way: They force us to confront the reality that we’ve given our lives over to companies run by men who aren’t always very good human beings. And yet, these men are more human—not less—by the end.

Kate Winslet, who plays Steve Jobs’s right hand, Joanna Hoffman, gives an equally strong performance. Hoffman seems always trying to save Jobs from himself. In the many instances when Jobs deliberately shatters the relationship between himself and any number of his coterie, it’s Joanna who’s desperately picking up the pieces, who’s appealing to a version of Steve Jobs that she loves and respects. It’s through her that we feel any connection to Jobs at all. Winslet’s best accomplishment in this film is that she makes Joanna strong and appealing, not weak and slovenly. You feel that she could walk away at any moment, but chooses loyalty.

The electric force of the drama in this movie is reason enough to see it. I think that’s why Sorkin opted not to give us the grand sweep of this man’s life. A grand narrative would have deified him and taken all the excitement out of the story. This movie shows Steve Jobs—as far as I can tell—as he was: arrogant, myopic, cowardly, brazen, sharp, funny, and flawed. 

With Seth Rogen (as Steve Wozniak, Jobs’s partner and the man who did much of the brain-work of Apple), Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston (as Steve’s troubled girlfriend), Michael Stuhlberg, and playing Lisa Jobs at different ages, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Mackenzie Moss. 

November 02, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies has such exquisite craftsmanship that I can forgive most of its flaws. I found myself gawking at the beauty of this Cold War spy movie, one of the few in recent memory that doesn’t rely on exhausting action sequences. It’s interesting to note that Steven Spielberg, one of the filmmakers responsible for the mind-numbing blockbuster pictures that ubiquitously bombard us, is capable of making thoughtful, meticulously detailed, deliberately paced films. (And really, he’s much better than most of his peers at the mindless action stuff too.) Bridge of Spies lets us drink in every scene, and despite being overlong, it doesn’t have the veneer of self-importance of Lincoln, which was Spielberg’s tedious dissertation about the Civil War. It’s the most adult Spielberg film I’ve seen in recent years that does not equate “adult” with boredom.  

In Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays insurance lawyer Jim Donovan, who in 1960 was tasked with defending an alleged Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel (played by Mark Rylance). Donovan feels ill-equipped for the job, but resolves to follow through to the end. This is a very good part for Tom Hanks, because there isn’t a lot of grand-standing involved. Hanks, whether we like it or not (and I don’t much like it), became the Everyman of American cinema in the 1990s. Now he’s turned into the Everygrandpa, and it’s often difficult to see the character through the star. But in Bridge of Spies, he’s believable, and he imbues the part with a welcome sense of humor. Hanks isn’t out to prove anything to anybody, which is perhaps the most gracious and generous thing he can do at this stage in his career.

The film explores the U.S. legal system and the fact that Donovan becomes a Pariah because he believes in the concept of due process, even when it’s a Russian spy being tried. Over the course of two hours and some change, Donovan and Abel develop an unexpected friendship. Abel is the consummate gentleman, a meek and even-tempered man in his 60s, who paints beautiful landscapes and portraits. Is this the face of the Red Menace? But Americans want to see him hanged, regardless of how nice he is. Spielberg grapples fairly competently with these complexities. So often, his films treat Grand American heroes and their respective mythologies with mindless, sugar-coated kid-friendly simplicity. With Bridge of Spies, Spielberg embraces moral complexity with confidence that sustains itself almost to the conclusion.

Of course, there’s always a moment in a Spielberg film where the director errs on the side of optimism, and in general, on the side of American exceptionalism. Much of the second half of the film involves an exchange of prisoners between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Donovan travels to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange, and there he is confronted with the horrors of the Berlin Wall. We see Communist worker-soldiers laying bricks and slathering mortar between them, erecting this very physical metaphor for the schism between Communism and Capitalism, between freedom and slavery. (These are the big, inflated, black-and-white themes that Spielberg both subverts and reaffirms in this picture.) Seeing the wall in that way, as an object under construction, not yet fixed but representing a chilling obstruction to freedom, was striking enough to give me pause. At the end of the film, as Donovan rides the train back to his home in Brooklyn, he sees some kids jumping over a fence. Not long before, Donovan had witnessed the execution of three people trying to jump the Berlin Wall. Now we see children, happily jumping over a fence that separates not two countries or two worldviews, but two houses. This moment of parallelism feels more than a little self-satisfied: We triumph with our Americanism, and here fences are just fences. It’s perhaps the one disingenuous note in the film, and yet it’s beautifully poetic, as propaganda. (I’m not suggesting that life in East Berlin was better with the Wall; merely that it’s an oversimplification to assume that fences in America aren’t doing the same kind of segregating work.)

The script is co-written by the Coen Brothers, who manage to reign themselves in without forgoing a sense of humor. Matt Charman shares script credit with them; perhaps he did the tempering work of linking Team Coen with Team Spielberg: It’s hard to imagine two more different sensibilities merging together for the same movie. But Bridge of Spies works; it's a good, not great film, and it's skillfully made. 

With Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell (as the American pilot being held prisoner by the Russians), Scott Shepherd, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, and Will Rogers. 

November 01, 2015

Where in the World is Sandra Bullock: Our Brand Is Crisis

Our Brand Is Crisis is like those lost presidential candidates who aren’t sure if they even want to be President, who soldier on as if by force, operating disinterested campaigns. Our Brand Is Crisis isn’t very sure of what it’s selling either. This film’s problem is every bit a structural one. Director David Gordon Green doesn’t know what this movie is, what it wants to be, or what it needs to be, to work. Green has a trump card—Sandra Bullock—but keeps her at bay as if afraid to overuse her star power. Considering how bland and forgettable this movie is, a little star power would have helped.  

Our Brand Is Crisis, which is based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, purports to show us the dastardly tactics of political strategists like James Carville, famous campaign manager for Bill Clinton. Carville is the closest thing to a pop political advisor, one who is almost as famous for his bald head, his Cajun accent (beautifully self-parodied in 30 Rock), his acerbic wit, and the fact that he’s a left-winger married to a right-winger, Mary Matalin. While James Carville is a fascinating character for a movie, this film is utterly un-fascinating. Carville—renamed Pat Candy for the film—is played by Billy Bob Thornton, who’s the perfect-looking choice. But Thornton is, like Sandra Bullock, kept in check by the director, so he doesn’t project the same brassy, larger-than-life image as the real Carville. Pat Candy is more of a comic foil for the main character, campaign strategist Jane Bodine, who’s played by Bullock.

Jane Bodine has acquired the nickname “Calamity Jane” during her long tenure as a campaign strategist. She’s propelled many politicians into a blaze of glory, and plunged just as many into the ground. Now, Bodine lives in voluntary exile in the mountains, trying to get over the last painful election, when she’s enlisted by the campaign managers of a Bolivian senator named Pedro Castillo. Castillo’s presidential run is barely viable: He was President years before and earned nothing but disdain from the Bolivian people; so Jane Bodine is tasked with transforming Castillo from a frog to a prince. Meanwhile, Jane’s arch nemesis Pat Candy happens to be working for Castillo’s opponent, the frontrunner. Candy and Bodine have a history fraught with dirty tricks, and the election becomes a stage to enact their personal vendettas against each other. (Of course, it’s not quite as serious as all that: there’s a semi-good-natured rivalry at the heart of their despicable mug-slinging tactics.)

The trouble is, Our Brand Is Crisis never rises above the level of a conventional political drama. David Gordon Green gets lost in developing a plot that doesn’t feel particularly urgent or interesting. That leaves us with the film’s perceptions about corruption in campaigns. But its perceptions are myopic and obvious: Crisis deals in generalities (the system as we know it is fundamentally broken and corrupt) and as such says nothing we don’t already know. And when he senses the movie has gotten away from him, Green throws in a few random scenes of comic lunacy to enliven things, unsuccessfully. Two examples: 1) When Bodine befriends some young Bolivian men and brings them back to her hotel room for a night of drunken reverie. After multiple rounds of drinks, they turn her bed sheet into a catapult, which they aim at Candy’s hotel room across the balcony. 2) When Castillo’s campaign bus tries to race the bus of the frontrunner, Rivera, and Bodine moons them. These scenes reek of desperation, and clash with the film’s naturally high-minded tone.  

When Sandra Bullock is allowed to command the screen and appear competent and in-control of herself, the movie improves; but Green keeps her on a tight leash. For the first twenty minutes after Jane arrives in Le Paz, she has intense nausea from the elevation, and so her character sits on a couch quietly while the others argue about how to resuscitate Castillo’s future. At times, Bullock is noticeably absent from a scene, or confined to the background until she suddenly and violently draws our attention to her, does something outlandish, and exits. During a campaign rally, a masked spectator smashes a raw egg on Castillo’s forehead, and Castillo decks him in front of the crowd and the news cameras. Green uses Sandra Bullock much like this egg-lobbing heckler. She is all shock value, and when the movie gets back to unraveling its plot, she returns to the foreground.

Why did David Gordon Green decide to keep his star at bay? The answer may be in Green’s intentions. It is conceivable that he wanted to make an insightful movie about the corruption of political campaigns, not just another Sandra Bullock vehicle. But without Sandra Bullock, the film is genuinely dull. None of the other characters develop into interesting people, except for Anthony Mackie, who transcends his role with his natural charm (he’s given no other tools to humanize his character). The characters in Crisis begin and end as the jaded, cynical worker bees of a miscarried political campaign.

Moreover, the film doesn’t make good on its attempts at criticizing the status quo. It waffles—like a politician finagling for votes—between high-minded drama and witty satire. Because none of the characters except Bodine has any life or humanity to them, it’s hard for us to care about the drama, and the film’s satire fizzles out from sheer laziness. We all know that politicians are liars, don’t we? Our Brand Is Crisis bandies that argument about as though it were a truly shocking expos√©. As though that alone made for sharp satire.

On top of everything else, Green wants redemption for a world that is inherently unredeemable. In the end, Jane Bodine experiences a crisis of conscience that pushes her into a new career—the non-profit industry. I found it inspiring that Bodine had such a change of heart, but this did nothing for the movie, which emerges as a lackluster critique of politics in a world inundated with smart polemics about political corruption. I’m especially reminded of the 2009 film In the Loop and the HBO show Veep (both helmed by Armando Ianucci). In terms of incisive satire, Veep comes to the table brandishing a machete, where Our Brand Is Crisis is left wielding a butter knife. 

Written by Peter Straughan, who presumably shares some of the blame for the lackluster results. With Scott McNairy, Ann Dowd, Joaquim de Almeida, and Zoe Kazan.