January 27, 2016

Bull Durham

In Bull Durham (1988), Susan Sarandon plays Annie Savoy, a North Carolina girl who’s cultish about baseball. She’s tried all the other religions, she says, and nothing feeds the soul like America’s favorite pastime. Her other favorite pastime, bedding a different minor league player every season, becomes, I guess, her sacrament. Sarandon is one of the great fiery actresses, and in Bull Durham she’s like a horny Julia Sugarbaker: A feisty Southern woman with vinegar and charm in equal doses, and armed with a healthy appreciation for poetry. (She quotes Walt Whitman to rookie pitcher Tim Robbins after she strips him down to his skivvies and fastens him to her bed with rope.)

Written and directed by Ron Shelton, who actually played minor league ball, Bull Durham is a surprisingly charming and delightfully weird sports comedy. Part of its charm is the fact that it focuses on minor league ball, so the world of this movie is smaller and more specific, and this detail allows us to care more about the characters and their often comic relationships. If this movie were made today, it would be set in the world of major league baseball, and the stakes would be higher, the film would be bigger, and none of it would have any charm or wit or frisson. (I'm guessing.) Bull Durham has all three of these in spades. 

Kevin Costner, an actor we’ve probably all made fun of for one performance or another, is terrific here, playing a seasoned catcher named “Crash” who’s brought in to play for the Durham Bulls and coach the Tim Robbins character (nicknamed “Nuke” by his avid fan-girl Sarandon). Crash spent a few minutes in the major leagues, and he’s a good ball player, but somehow he never quite made it. Nuke, on the other hand, throws a ball like a gun shoots a bullet. The trouble is his aim. He's comically bad, but his force is so powerful people keep waiting for the magic and the skill to merge. 

But Nuke is a walking jock strap: all juvenile sexual energy and skill, none of it fully formed. Annie picks him (partly because Crash gives her the brush-off), and encourages him to "blink with his eyelids" and wear her garters during the game to make him think less about the game. (It's the over-thinking, this movie argues, that cramps one's style.) Annie says of Nuke late in the movie, “the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.” She's right, and Nuke moves on to bigger things, leaving the grown-ups behind to reevaluate themselves. Annie's a sexual philosopher who prides herself on improving the games of her chosen paramours. But her joking tone belies a certain disappointment with life: she's not sure of the return on her annual investments. Sarandon perfectly captures the sexy-smart designs of Annie without neglecting to show us her underlying vulnerability.

Bull Durham is fundamentally not about baseball, and yet it’s all about baseball. There’s something utterly American about it in the best way—like Walt Whitman or a great MGM musical or Robert Altman—the film exudes a light, invigorating energy; Shelton is propelled by his own exuberant excitement for these characters and their stories, so the movie never feels hampered by plot contrivances. It’s not necessarily daringly original, but it doesn’t need to be: the performances of Sarandon, Costner, and Robbins are all pitched at just the right tempo and rhythm: they operate beautifully together, like those rare characters on sitcoms who are fully formed, fully human, fully lived in, and who somehow never let depth get in the way of their lightness, or become serious in a deadening way. It’s a delicate balance that the movie walks. The result is a terrific entertainment, a freeform sports movie like none other, one that’s zany and wistful and sexy and sentimental in all the right places.

With Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl, William O’Leary, Jenny Robertson, and Danny Gans. 

January 24, 2016

'13 Hours' is Visually Incoherent, but ... America!

13 Hours dramatizes the Benghazi attacks of September 11, 2012, when Islamic militants ambushed an American diplomatic compound, and six security agents—charged with protecting the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens—tried to hold them off, Alamo-style. As much as director Michael Bay has talked about wanting to honor those six men, his film fails them: it’s visually incoherent and operates on a video game level. At best, 13 Hours is a remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (the one where united L.A. street gangs converge upon a police station and pummel it with bullets), but filtered through the sieve of that laughable cliché “based on a true story.” In fact, 13 Hours goes one better, offering the caption “This is a true story” at the beginning of the film. (The film is based on the book of the same name by Mitchell Zuckoff. As to its accuracy, the reports have been contradictory, so I implore the viewer to do her or his own fact-checking.) 

Michael Bay has made clear his attention: to honor six American heroes whose story got lost amidst the political brouhaha involving Defense Secretary Clinton, who was, as we must surely all be aware by now, criticized for her response, or lack thereof, to Ambassador Stevens’ requests for aid over the weeks leading up to the attacks that left him dead. Bay asserts that 13 Hours is apolitical, that it’s merely a tribute to American heroism. But it’s hard to imagine that viewers will feel the same. Much like American Sniper, 13 Hours bears a sheen of patriotism around it, as though seeing it were one’s civic duty. People flock to movies like this one because they want to know what really happened in the Benghazi situation.  

But politics aside, it’s Bay’s lack of finesse as a maker of movies that derails this film. For well over an hour, Bay tracks the movements of various characters through the crowded, hot, dusty streets of Benghazi, to the compound where the six American security guards are stationed, to the palatial temporary house of the ambassador, and yet we struggle to understand what’s happening on screen most of the time. Bay cannot even master simple movement, relying instead on the shaky camera technique that has been his friend for many a project.

The formula is one of manipulation: Let there be shaky camera, and maybe viewers won’t object to the fact that what’s before them on the screen is visual chaos. Or maybe, they’ll interpret that visual chaos as a deliberate artistic choice, not an artistic failing. But all you have to do is seek out a movie that’s done similar scenes of tension, fighting, chases, quick movements from Point A to Point B, without sacrificing visual clarity. Look at the final half-hour of Zero Dark Thirty, when the Navy SEALS are filtering through Bin Laden’s compound in the dead of night. That’s a tense, incredibly well-made sequence, where we can distinguish what’s going on and, if memory serves, who’s in a given shot.

My objections are not mere cinematic snobbery. I’m not demanding fancy camera-work or stuffy artiness from Michael Bay. I’m demanding visual clarity, and if Bay wants to honor American heroes, he owes it to them to make a movie that makes sense, because only when a movie makes sense can the audience truly engage with it, feel for the characters, connect the dots in their own minds without having to rely on the film to do all the work for them. Bay cheats us with bad filming and hopes that the movie’s intentions will override all its flaws.

What saves this movie is the humanizing performance of John Krasinski, playing Jack Da Silva, one of the six security agents. Krasinski is so familiar from his stint on The Office that it’s a wonder we can accept him as anyone other than Jim, the charming nice-guy. He’s charming in this too, of course, but it’s a testament to his acting skills that we can divorce the actor Krasinski from “Jim” the sitcom character. Or maybe we can’t, and it’s our familiarity and good feelings toward him that ground us emotionally. Without Krasinski—and actually a host of other good performances—13 Hours would be utterly insufferable.

The final hour of the movie, which is the meat of the Benghazi attacks, alternates between this incoherent chaos and moments of clarity, when the fighting has temporarily subsided—a much-needed break for both the characters and the audience—and we can finally distinguish faces, and the actors are given moments to speak to each other without delivering data or shouting orders. In those moments, the movie actually becomes compelling, even if its dramatics are gooey. (The men just talk about wanting to go home to their wives a lot.)

With James Badge Dale, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Matt Letscher (playing Ambassador Chris Stevens), Toby Stephens, Alexia Barlier, and Freddie Stroma.

January 14, 2016

'Carol' is masterfully made and affecting, but a little hollow.

Carol, the latest film from director Todd Haynes, is a wintry tale of waspy lesbianism, culled from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt and adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy. In it, Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird (a name as full of literal allusions as Jane Eyre), an icy-on-the-outside but warm-on-the-inside housewife living in New Jersey. Carol is in the middle of divorcing her demanding husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) when she locks eyes with a girl behind the counter of a department store. It’s Christmas, and Carol’s out buying presents for her young daughter, Rindy. The shopgirl (played by Rooney Mara), a budding photographer named Therese Belivet (a terrific name), sees Carol first, but a mutual attraction blossoms between them as their eyes meet.

The film charts their relationship at a time—the 1950s—when sexuality was understood less as a marker of identity and more as a behavior. And yet, it would be an oversimplification to imply that behavior was the only way sexual relationships and attraction are understood in this movie. When Therese is talking with her sort-of boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), who’s been nagging her to go Europe with him, Therese asks Richard if he’s ever been in love with a man before. Richard’s put off by the question, and responds flatly, “No…But I knew someone like that.”

Haynes handles this material masterfully. He has several difficult lines to walk: As Carol is about a secret relationship set in the past, Haynes has a built-in dramatic pull that’s maybe too easy. In some ways, Highsmith had it easier writing this book in the time period in which it was set. Making a period piece about the plight of homosexuals in the 1950s can result in something overly maudlin or cheap, since viewers can simply say, “thank goodness times have changed.” But Haynes doesn’t milk us for nostalgia-sympathy. The story is straightforward, and doesn’t present itself as some grand statement about a whole group of people. This is a specific love story about two specific women who were caught up in the turbulence of a taboo-laden era.

Maybe the problem with Carol is that, since it’s set in the 1950s and, like Haynes’s previous period piece about a gay relationship, Far From Heaven, recalls actual films from that era, it’s hard not to wish for stars from that era to magically appear on the screen and rescue the film from the pitfalls of prestige. Contemporary stars are probably better actors, but there’s a lack of magnetism to Cate Blanchett and especially Rooney Mara. Blanchett resembles Eleanor Parker, who was also icily sexy and severe (though admittedly provocative), and Rooney Mara looks like an annoyed, self-serious version of Audrey Hepburn. (Her hairstyle imitates the Hepburn-waif look circa Sabrina and Funny Face.) When we remember that we’re getting very somber and serious performances from two admittedly fine actresses, we may start to feel that Carol is medicine, not entertainment. It’s moving and gorgeous to look at (the cinematography is by Edward Lachman and the production design by Judy Becker), but it feels like a wax figure: expertly rendered but hollow on the inside.

Far From Heaven had more feeling to it. (Although I was admittedly a teenager when I saw that movie, and was completely bowled over by the film, especially Julianne Moore’s performance.) But that’s not say that Carol has no feeling. And in fact, because Haynes doesn’t strain for prestige any more than necessary (by virtue of the subject matter and the period piece qualities of the film, and the actors), Carol becomes increasingly more effective and powerful as a story. You do feel for these women, who don’t really even understand themselves in a world that doesn’t seek to understand them.

And there is something absolutely thrilling about the way Carol looks. Todd Haynes is nothing if not a master of the period look: We feel completely immersed in 1952, and this kind of high-grade elegant nostalgic aesthetic isn’t as prolific as you might think. So many period pieces simply do not capture the look and feel as successfully as Carol. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s marvelously well-done, and Blanchett’s and Mara’s performances get better and better as the film goes along.

With Sarah Paulson, Cory Michael Smith, and John Magaro. 

The Revenant: Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?

[Mild spoilers.]

When Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a vengeful fur trapper stranded in the wintry Wyoming wilderness, slides into the eviscerated gut of a dead horse in order to stave off hypothermia (not a reference to The Empire Strikes Back), we might be tempted to confuse intense survival skills with great acting. Indeed, the thrust of The Revenant, the latest film from the dazzling director Alejandro Iñárritu, is to see how hellish DiCaprio’s battle with nature can become, and just how much the actor can endure, on his quest for vengeance. He’s playing Hugh Glass, a real-life fur trapper (although the film has been considerably altered from the actual story) who was left for dead by the rest of his men, all of them weary from a barrage of Indian attacks and the numbing, cumulatively deadening effects of the harsh winter conditions.

Glass barely survives a bear attack early in the film. The attack scene is memorable: the bear looks vividly real (I’m assuming it is the product of CGI), and its viciousness is both fierce and strangely natural, as it stomps on Glass’s inert body and sniffs his face, examining its prey just after mauling him like a side of beef. Glass has too many wounds to name, and he’s rendered speechless after the bear bites his throat, Hound of the Baskervilles-style. When most of the men in the group, including the military captain in charge (the lovely, sympathetic Domhnall Gleeson), move on, they leave Glass in the care of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a gruff, determined, self-serving man if ever there was one. Also sticking behind is Glass’s son Hawk, a half-breed whose mother was an Indian. (This fact doesn’t exactly endear him to the other men in the company.) Flashbacks reveal a devastating attack that left Glass’s wife dead and, as such, infinitely strengthened the bond between father and soon.

But Fitzgerald doesn’t have any feelings of sentiment for Glass or his son, and being held back by them means risking Indian attacks and the loss of precious loot and pay. So Fitzgerald double crosses these two, and leaves Glass in a shallow grave where he will presumably freeze to death, if his injuries or infections or trauma-induced fever don’t get him first. What follows is a pure and simple survival and revenge story, filtered through the majestical gloss of Iñárritu’s cinematic mind and the wonderful camera-work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. (The two collaborated on last year’s Birdman as well.)

Watching The Revenant is like getting beaten mercilessly. When it’s over, you’re not sure what hit you, but while it’s happening you may begin to feel the effects of Stockholm Syndrome: feeling some kind of sick dependence and affinity for your aggressor. It’s particularly hard to be critical of a film like The Revenant, which is ready-made as an Oscar-generating machine. Fans of Leonardo DiCaprio, who feel he’s been unduly ignored by the Academy for years, will likely expect a statuette for him for this, for simply enduring this film. And while DiCaprio is a good actor, this movie doesn’t exactly showcase asking skills. It showcases survival skills. We see a man brought down again and again by nature and by other men, and the vengeance brewing inside motivates him to get up and keep going, like Michael Myers, the unkillable monster of the Halloween movies.

Does such “acting” really merit awards? Does Iñárritu deserve recognition for putting his cast and crew through such hellish circumstances in order to make an admittedly beautiful-looking movie? And even if the beautiful vistas bowl you over, there's plenty of carnage, and plenty of survivalist gore, like when DiCaprio pours gun powder over the hole in his throat. 

Of course, in some primal way, The Revenant is a very powerful and affecting film. Iñárritu makes sure of this: the austere Wyoming setting channels both feelings of awe and feelings of terror. Like that wonderful Jack London story “To Build a Fire,” nature sorts out who’s fit to survive her wrath; but unlike the London story, The Revenant doesn't invest us enough in its plot of revenge. I at any rate did not particularly care what happened to Glass and Fitzgerald. I wanted the suffering to end. The finale, which of course features a showdown between the two, is actually quite frustrating. These skilled marksmen somehow manage to miss each other numerous times, and when Glass finally has Fitzgerald exactly where he wants him, he’s stopped in his tracks by a bit of mysticism—about letting the gods do your vengeance for you—uttered by a friendly Indian from earlier. (That friendly Indian, incidentally, is dispatched in a particularly horrifying way.)

The Revenant is, somehow, both magnificent and mediocre. As beautiful as it is, as primal and as tough and hard-scrabble its tale of survival, the movie doesn’t quite work as entertainment. We can feel the film straining for prestige in an obvious and calculated way, and it represents yet another example of movies demanding our respect by brow-beating us, by whipping us into submission.

With Forrest Goodluck (as Hawk), and Will Poulter.