Saturday, November 28, 2015
Brooklyn would seem on the surface to be a film almost deliberately small in its concerns. A young woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) arrives in 1950’s Brooklyn from a small and sleepy Irish village. Eilis has a department store job lined up and a priest (Jim Broadbent) who’s acting as her sponsor and guide. A period piece about a young woman growing accustomed to New York and discovering herself would go down very easily with Ronan playing the lead, but the filmmakers - director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby are working from a Colm Toibin novel - push through to something richer and more specifically about the American immigrant experience. Brooklyn is a film about two places, New York and Ireland, but to an even greater degree it’s about how the world only spins one way.
Before Eilis leaves for America, we follow her and her girlfriend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins) to a village dance. Nancy leaves to dance with an admirer, and Crowley holds a shot on Eilis that Saoirse Ronan turns into a great little bit of acting. Ronan manages to put all of Eilis’s boredom, frustration, jealousy of her friend, and thoughts of the future into one close-up, and for a few moments we can’t wait to leave for America with her. What does it mean then that Eilis’s departure for America is played as a sad occasion? It’s more than just loved ones saying goodbye to each other; Hornby’s script is very clear that Ireland holds nothing for Eilis but also that her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan) have no realistic possibility of leaving,. Crowley pans the crowd on the dock to show a host of mothers and fathers and siblings, each saying goodbye to someone on Eilis’s boat. This is what a country losing its future looks like. Eilis’s first weeks in America are marked by extreme homesickness; she can’t fake the necessary effervescence at her salesgirl job (Jessica Pare is perfectly cast as the manager) and doesn’t fit in with the other young women at her boarding house. The boarding house scenes are the closest that Brooklyn comes to a sort of conventional broadness, but Julie Walters is very funny as the landlady and Crowley and Hornby take care to make sure each of the other women is individualized. These scenes make up a small part of the film, but they’re carried off with great wit and are the first step towards Eilis changing her definition of the word “home”.
A further step occurs when Eilis meets a sweet Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen) at a dance. He takes Eilis to Coney Island - recreated with the same stylized attention to detail as the rest of the film - and eventually to dinner with his warm but not overplayed family. But when a major life event calls Eilis back to Ireland it’s an open question just how strong the pull of home will be. Ireland offers Eilis a reunion with Nancy, a job, and perhaps a future with the financially secure Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Hornby’s script doesn’t shortchange just how gossipy and provincial Eilis’s life might become though. The way that an old woman whom we only see in one scene becomes excited about Eilis saying “Jim and I” is a perfect example of the nuanced way that Brooklyn separates the two societies available to Eilis. It would be unfair to discuss any more of the plot, but when Eilis makes her choice it is both difficult and honestly moving.
Brooklyn looks back with perfect clarity to contrast the openness and promise of America with what was then a narrow future in Ireland. Yet America isn’t presented as a blur of brands and skyscrapers, nor is Ireland a nightmarish backwater. The sensitivity of the filmmakers is only helped by the performance of Saoirse Ronan, whose emotional pitch never wavers from what’s needed at any given moment. Last week I referred to Spotlight as an “American” film in the way it approaches its subject, and though I hesitate to repeat myself I think the word applies here in a different way. The possibilities of America are presented as a means to a way of life, but their superiority is never asserted because the filmmakers remember something true about this country. We all come from somewhere else.
Saturday, November 21, 2015
Spotlight is a measured but powerful film about how The Boston Globe researched and reported the 2001 story of the Boston archdiocese and its handling of sexual abuse by priests. Directed by Tom McCarthy (who cowrote with Josh Singer), Spotlight is also the story of a how an American institution thought to be in decline - the daily newspaper - took on another institution that one character in the film describes as “thinking in centuries”. “Spotlight” refers to the Globe’s investigative team, a unit headed by “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) whose star reporter is the dogged Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). The Spotlight team is used to picking their own stories and not working under time pressure, but new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, committing to an unshowy role) pushes the reporters towards the story of abuser priest John Geoghan and the question of whether Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) knew of Geoghan’s behavior. The investigation quickly expands as the team learns of new abuser priests and meets new victims.
The cast of Spotlight is full of familiar faces and strong performances; Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James also play reporters on the Spotlight team. But the film’s best performance is given by the actor playing a character who serves to highlight just what a small town Boston really is. Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer representing victims who is outside the city’s legal establishment. (Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan play high-end lawyers whose allegiances are called into question.) Garabedian, who Tucci plays with a wonderful, harried dignity, is at first reluctant to speak to Rezendes but eventually puts him in touch with some of his clients. While Robinson and the other Spotlight reporters uncover the Church’s practice of settling abuse claims outside the court system it’s Garabedian who points out just how much the Church influences Boston society. In one conversation Garabedian asks Rezendes, “How many Armenians do you know in Boston?” It’s the outsiders like Garabedian who sound the alarm in the Boston case, but the city’s sons and daughters on the Spotlight team - Robinson calls the Globe a “local” paper - are charged with spreading the word about just how much damage was done. Stanley Tucci is brilliant in this role; it’s a master class in character acting, as Tucci conveys volumes about the way Garabedian approaches his work just by the way he eats a salad or sits at his desk.
Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer aren’t afraid to detail the laborious work of reportorial process. Their script eschews almost all melodrama and aren’t-we-noble backslapping for a series of phone calls, hushed conversations, and internal debates about how much time and latitude the reporters have to work with. It’s Schreiber’s Baron who pushes the team to go beyond the issue of identifying abuser priests to look at systemic corruption in the Church, while Robinson’s boss Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) looks for vulnerabilities in the reporting. A scene in which one of the reporters learns a Church “treatment center” for priests is in his neighborhood threatens to become indulgent, but McCarthy cuts the moment off with a restrained button shot. The Spotlight team is urged by one prominent citizen (Paul Guilfoyle) to “get on the same page” with the Church, but the scope of the story and the number of people affected are too big to ignore. McCarthy wisely cast unknown actors as victims - and in one case as a priest the reporters stumble across- and the ensemble puts a human face on decades of abuse.
With it’s detail-oriented approach to journalism and its view of how a large institutions work with and against each other, Spotlight recalls such wide-angle lens works like All the President’s Men, The Wire (Thomas McCarthy played an unscrupulous reporter on that show), and the nonfiction book A Civil Action. Like those works Spotlight is a triumph of storytelling, with the script maintaining the broad framework of the investigation while not losing focus of the people affected. McCarthy, who has previously directed small character studies like The Station Agent and Win Win, has made a mature and vital American film which is certainly one of the year’s best. The last shot of Spotlight takes place after the team’s story has been published, and it suggests just how many more stories of that kind remain to be told.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
It’s easy to laugh at Persona now. The black-and-white cinematography, the direct address to camera, the stylized movements, and the meta-cinematic touches all suggest a seriousness that we no longer stomach these days in our “art” cinema, and here I’m using “art” to refer to anything outside the run-of-the-mill studio product. Even niche films or films given the highest level of attention in American independent cinema must with very rare exception come to market through a studio pipeline, and so often those films are content to answer questions instead of ask them. Take two 2015 releases, While We’re Young (which I liked) and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which I didn’t). Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is a skillfully executed comedy that suggests that even in one’s 40s it is still possible to live and to love well, and that there’s room for an occasional hip-hop dancing class. I’m doing the film a disservice; it’s very funny and also insightful about the reasons that people in their 20s are interested in cassette tapes and like to use the word “artisanal”. But at heart Baumbach wants to make his demographically narrow audience comfortable, and when the result is this much fun there’s nothing wrong with that. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance winning Me and Earl and the Dying Girl wants to reassure that we can always grow and change and become better people. (Spoiler ahead) A teenaged boy stands in the room of a girl who has recently died, and among her things he discovers some art projects that reveal a talent that he didn’t know she possessed because he never bothered to ask. Our hero is affirmed in his self-absorption even in a time of tragedy; the memory of his friend is still alive and he didn’t even have to do any work. This is what passes for challenging.
I’m not going to pretend I understand Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film about an actress (Liv Ullmann) who has stopped speaking and the nurse (Bibi Andersson) hired to care for her at a seaside house. We’re told that Elisabet Vogler, the actress, is “healthy”. There are no modern notions of mental health at play here; Elisabet, confronted with career, motherhood, and (in one scene) images from Vietnam, has made a philosophical choice to retreat. The lack of a psychological explanation for Elisabet’s behavior is part of why I think Bergman doesn’t mean the film to be viewed in strictly realistic terms. The other reasons are the constant reminders we are watching a film, from the surreal prologue (the image of a boy looking at the projected image of a woman becomes meaningful) to the moment in the middle when the film appears to disintegrate in the projector. Persona is, formally, a work of art designed to advance a view of the crushing effects of being alive. Bibi Andersson’s Alma is the audience for Elisabet’s non-performance, and Andersson is brilliant at charting Alma’s slow attraction to and then duel with her patient. Elisabet is a blank slate onto which Alma can spill her story of a bizarre sexual encounter, her feelings about her career, and a possible future with an unseen boyfriend. As the connection between the two deepens Alma begins to teeter on the edge of choices that frighten all her assumptions about herself.
What does life mean? How does one cope? Is engaging with friends, family, or lovers really a meaningful act? The “drama” in Persona comes from how Alma answers these questions and it’s to Bergman’s credit that he leaves much to us to figure out. The film isn’t about two personalities “melding” or switching - an idea made famous thanks to one of the most sensual shots in the history of cinema (see the top of this post) - as it is about making a choice to live in the world. That universality is the reason the film has endured despite the trappings that now seem dated. Persona, like all great works of art, holds the mirror up to anyone lucky enough to discover it.
Saturday, November 14, 2015
The best films about political activism put a human face on to a cause, and by that standard the energetic Suffragette is a success. The new film, directed by Sarah Gavron, begins in 1912 when the fight for women’s voting rights in England was changing tactics from civil protest marches to a more aggressive form of disobedience. Laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, with her usual intelligence and deep sensitivity) is caught in the middle of one demonstration, but initially she chooses to forgo the movement in favor of her job and life with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and son. What Suffragette - written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) - is very smart about is the way that personal circumstances can determine political choices. For Maud, the way her boss (Geoff Bell) leers at the teenage laundry girls and the fact that Sonny takes their life for granted are fuel for her interest in woman’s suffrage. Morgan’s script doesn’t ignore class differences; the shot of Maud walking in to testify in Parliament is all we need to be reminded just how far she and her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) are removed from power.
Maud’s choices begin to have real consequences at home, but she has begun to perceive injustice in the world and is inspired by the commitment of women like Edith Ellyn (an understated Helena Bonham Carter). All of the women view real-life activist Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a very brief performance) as their leader, and the most conventional scene in Suffragette is the speech Pankhurst gives to rally her supporters. That speech is interrupted by the police, and the movie keeps cutting away from the women to follow the cop (Brendan Gleeson) who is charged with tracking their activities. It’s questionable how much the film needs this alternate point of view, since the time spent with the police could be used for more scenes of the women’s experiences, but Gleeson - a big man who doesn’t act like one - is the right actor to play a man who’s watching the world around him change. The climax of Suffragette is based on an incident involving Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), an activist who planned to disrupt the Epsom Derby with a pro-suffrage message. The film suggests that Davidson’s actions turned the country around on women’s suffrage, but an epilogue reveals full voting rights were not in fact granted until 1928.
Suffragette is saved from being just another period piece by the strength of its cast and by the direction of Sarah Gavron, who favors hand-held cameras and has an interest in what people reveal behind their eyes. Gavron’s choices gives the film a vitality that speaks to the present day; it’s easy to imagine Occupy protestors in small meetings like these or in confrontation with the police. The women of Suffragette are as human and as scared as anyone would be in their situation. The fact that Suffragette tells that truth is the greatest strength of the film.
Saturday, November 07, 2015
Spectre is meant to provide a Grand Unified Theory of Daniel Craig-era James Bond; it wants to be the film that both explains Bond the man and that connects the storylines from Craig’s previous Bond outings. Given the care taken by director Sam Mendes (currently overseeing the franchise) and the other filmmakers to serialize the last few Bond films, it’s then disappointing that Spectre turns out to be such a desultory offering. Mendes still knows how to pull off an action set piece, but two central performances display a surprising lack of urgency while the all hands on deck script huffs and puffs to give Bond his dark side. It’s impossible to say how much Daniel Craig’s public reservations about continuing to play Bond may have affected the making of Spectre, but maybe the Bond franchise should take the out given here and prepare to move on.
The British intelligence services are still reeling from the events of Skyfall. Judi Dench’s M has been replaced by Ralph Fiennes’s, a character who worries about the future of human intelligence in the new surveillance state. M has a new rival in a character called C (Andrew Scott), who’s pushing British participation in a new global surveillance system that will mean the end of Bond and his fellow “double-Os”. Does this sound familiar? The similarities of Spectre to elements of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Kingsman, and even Furious 7 suggest the need for a weekly conference call for franchise screenwriters. Omniscient surveillance will quickly become a hackneyed plot hook unless filmmakers figure out a way to put government overreach on a human level, and even Edward Snowden couldn’t do that. Where does all of this jockeying for position leave James Bond? We find him in Mexico City, where his efforts to foil a terrorist plot lead to a chase and a helicopter fight that disrupts festivities on the Day of the Dead.. Bond is grounded by an angry M but soon takes off for Rome to discover the meaning of a mysterious symbol he found in Mexico. A harried M can’t offer support, so Bond is on his own with only Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) aware of his movements.
A description of the plot of Spectre doesn’t convey the strange fitfulness of the film. Action sequences - my favorite being a plane vs. car chase over snowy countryside - alternate with slow scenes of exposition and an couple of rushed romantic interludes. (Monica Bellucci has a too-brief role as a not very Merry Widow.) When SPECTRE (the criminal enterprise, not the movie) reveals itself it comes in a scene that’s played so slowly it’s as if a sketch troupe had invaded the film and were rehearsing off book for the first time. SPECTRE is a clearinghouse for a variety of criminal activity; it’s led by a man called Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) whose favorite topics are global surveillance and the movements of James Bond. Waltz is the only actor in the film whose performance is worse than Daniel Craig’s. Oberhauser’s motivations are admittedly sketchy but Waltz seems too tired to find any wit in his role and in one scene is upstaged by a rolling office chair. Daniel Craig seems thoroughly disinterested in his work as Bond, and if his performance here is meant to convey the character’s soul-sickness then the choice doesn’t work. Craig does take energy from Lea Seydoux; she plays the daughter of a former SPECTRE agent and the way she allies with Bond on her own terms feels downright refreshing. Other bright spots include Dave Bautista as a SPECTRE heavy (his fight with Bond on a train is the film’s high point of physical exertion), Monica Bellucci, and Whishaw’s dry work as Q.
Wherever James Bond goes from here it is hard to see the franchise moving forward with Daniel Craig. The decision to give Bond a real backstory was a bold one, but Spectre offers little in the way of payoffs and it’s unclear what another Craig turn as Bond would offer either audience or actor. Let Idris Elba or Clive Owen or Hayley Atwell or Doctor Who be the next James Bond. The future is now.
Saturday, October 31, 2015
Truth takes place in the weeks before the 2004 election, when a 60 Minutes report alleged that President George W. Bush had gone AWOL from the Texas National Guard in the early 1970’s. The documents that CBS News used to support the story were almost immediately called into question, and CBS subsequently apologized for the story. 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) was fired after an investigation, and iconic anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) left the network a few months later. If writer/director James Vanderbilt - working from Mapes’s book about the story - had let us play reporter along with his characters then Truth might have been a thoughtful piece of entertainment. However, Truth is too hung up on its characters’ ideals. Vanderbilt’s screenplay becomes didactic on the notion of what constitutes “journalistic integrity” and the result is a frustrating missed opportunity.
Mary Mapes was a well-established producer at the time that the Bush story came up; Truth opens with 60 Minutes airing the Mapes-produced story of U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and then being given free reign by her bosses to report whatever story crosses her radar. The idea that Mapes, Rather, and their colleagues all went to a bar after the story aired feels like a Sorkinesque touch, but more on that later. The true provenance of the Bush documents, especially a memo in which a commanding officer refuses to evaluate Bush because he hasn’t been on base, will probably never be known. Truth hints at a hidden world of Texas good-old-boys with an axe to grind against the Bush family, but the colonel (Stacy Keach) who hands over the documents to Mapes and her researcher (Topher Grace) is the only one who’s individualized. Vanderbilt chooses instead to stay with the slowly eroding certainty of Mapes and her team (which also includes characters played by Elisabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid) that the documents are genuine, even as the right-wing blogosphere charges that they could have been recreated on Microsoft Word.
Near the end of Truth Mapes is made to appear before a panel investigating the way CBS reported the Bush story. She denies a question about whether she and her team found Bush “guilty until proven innocent”, but the charge sticks. The central error that Truth makes is its insistence that asking the question is paramount. There’s little sense of the process that Mapes’s team went through to arrive at the decision to run the story other than the involvement of a couple of document experts, one of who is skeptical about their veracity and one who is cut out of the story because he isn’t a good interview. Blanchett’s Mapes is a harried everywoman who as the film goes on becomes increasingly unstrung. It’s a carefully worked out performance, but again Blanchett is done no favors by a script that gives her character a single motivation. Vanderbilt’s version of Mapes is a woman in search of a father figure who unintentionally ignores her husband (John Benjamin Hickey) and lives to please Dan Rather. The casting of Robert Redford as Rather is an odd choice since Redford - All the President’s Men excepted - isn’t an actor known for disappearing into the role of a living person. Still, Redford gets at the weird, detached quality Rather sometimes has, and his fall from grace at CBS now feels like the end of era.
Both Mapes and Rather are given speeches about journalistic values in the last scenes of Truth that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Newsroom episode. If only James Vanderbilt hadn’t felt the need to teach us a lesson, because there is a good movie to be made about the Bush documents and the way that CBS handled (or mishandled ) the story. The irony is, it’s the questions that CBS didn’t ask that mean we’ll probably never know the truth.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
We think we know Steve Jobs already. That fact represents the challenge faced by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle in turning Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) the man into Steve Jobs the movie. Depending on one’s point of view, Jobs was either a visionary with an uncanny ability to anticipate our desire for good-looking technology or a huckster whose ascent into the American Free Market Hall of Fame was the result of piggybacking on others’ work. How to film such a life? Sorkin has arrived at a sort of insistently theatrical structure that almost demands a second viewing, one that puts the important details of Jobs’s personal life in relief against the background of professional high- and lowlights. The result is a film of dizzying intelligence that captures a - not The - version of an inscrutable man.
Steve Jobs takes place on the days of three important product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the ill-fated NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac a decade after that when Jobs came back to Apple as CEO. On each day, minutes before going onstage before an eager audience, Jobs is forced into a series of conversations he’d for the most part rather not have. Jobs’s Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (an excellent Seth Rogen) wants him to acknowledge the importance of the Apple II computer since that machine kept the company afloat while the Macintosh struggled. Right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) urges Jobs to manage expectations for each new machine and is the only one close enough to lecture him about his personal life. CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) is on hand to celebrate and argue with Jobs by turns as each man’s fortunes change. Most important is Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), whose daughter Lisa (played by Perla Haney-Jardine as a young woman and two younger actresses) Jobs eventually accepted as his own. Were all these people there each time? It doesn’t matter, because Sorkin (working from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs) is using the people in Jobs’s orbit to shine light on the man’s contradictions.
Steve Jobs is the best role Michael Fassbender has had in a studio film, and Fassbender makes the most of it. His Jobs keeps ego, ambition, and self-doubt in play at all times and - in a film that doesn’t brake for sentiment - is very moving in a scene when Jobs confronts just how badly he may have failed Lisa. The climactic argument between Jobs and Wozniak is a stunner of a scene, and the way Boyle stages it (two men yelling across a large auditorium) supports my theory that Steve Jobs could work just as well if staged as a play. Wozniak wants Jobs to acknowledge Apple II, and by implication the idea that Apple for a time survived despite Jobs. Fassbender’s Jobs, on the verge of a rebirth, can’t do what Wozniak asks, and in the performance we can see how much denying a friend cost Jobs. (By the way, there’s still a great movie to be made about the early days of Silicon Valley.) The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Jeff Daniels particularly good as a man who knows when he’s outgunned and Michael Stuhlbarg finding offbeat notes as a colleague who treads into Jobs’s relationship with Lisa. Kate Winslet’s role is primarily to move the film along, but she manages to infuse Joanna with great good humor and some needed jolts of anger. Each of these supporting characters is written in relation to Jobs, but all of the actors fill out their roles and suggest people with their own lives and concerns.
Picking out details from Steve Jobs obscures the fact that Sorkin doesn’t crack the mysteries at the center of his hero’s heart. There’s an expository arc about Jobs’s childhood that I think is meant to serve as motivation, but while Steve Jobs is structurally daring and terrifically acted (Danny Boyle’s direction is largely unobtrusive) it is also a film about a man who fetishized presentation. Maybe that’s the point. Steve Jobs gave us the future and then went away before we knew how or why he did it.