Saturday, October 31, 2015

Truth



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

Steve Jobs



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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Crimson Peak (mild spoilers)



In a world where the franchise is King, referring to a filmmaker as a “genre director” means their career is headed in the right direction. There was a time when studio directors churned out Westerns and gangster films and were regarded as nothing more than assembly line workers until the French gave us the auteur theory. Now, a degree of success with a small, personal film means a shot at resurrecting a major franchise and maybe even bigger things after that. (I’m looking at you, Colin Trevorrow.) The career arc I’ve just described could easily have been that of Guillermo del Toro, whose early work (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone) led to a shot at the Blade series and eventually to the never-realized The Hobbit. It isn’t too hard to imagine del Toro - burnished by the success of Pan’s Labryinth  and the affection bestowed upon the Hellboy films - with a comic book movie directing gig of his own. It would have been a joy to see a filmmaker with del Toro’s love of myth, visual imagination, and ability to recast familiar tropes take on the Marvel universe. What would del Toro’s Hulk have looked like?

But del Toro has kept to his own path: writing books, turning one into a TV series (The Strain), and now returning to the director’s chair with Crimson Peak. What a pleasure it would be to report that del Toro’s imagination has broken new ground once again, but the underpowered Crimson Peak is the director’s most disappointing film to date. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a shy young woman with literary aspirations in early 20th century Buffalo. Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) is a wealthy builder who made his own way in the world. When English aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in town with a business proposal Carter’s distaste is obvious, but the intervention of fate finds a smitten Edith married to Thomas and living in the Sharpe mansion alongside Thomas's sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). It isn’t giving too much away to reveal that Thomas and Lucille aren’t what they seem. They’re con artists, but to what end? The Sharpe family home is a remarkable affair, crumbling into the earth above the family’s clay mines and with a rotting roof that lets snow pile up in the front hallway. Thomas E. Sanders’s production design is an unqualified success, but when Edith starts seeing ghosts in her new home the film begins to lose its way.

What del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins have come up with is the kind of story that, if it were a novel, the characters in an E.M. Forster novel might have read as a guilty pleasure. The movie can’t support the weight of del Toro’s need to insert supernatural goings-on, especially since Edith is quite capable of figuring out something’s wrong on her own. (The elastic actor Doug Jones turns up as one of Edith’s visitors.) The ghosts feel imposed rather than organic to this material. Back in Buffalo there’s a doctor (Charlie Hunnam) who’s also learning how much trouble Edith is in, and when he turns up at the mansion the Sharpes’ plans are revealed in their full horror. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t have much to play here as Thomas; he’s charming enough but isn’t given a scene to act in which we see his allegiances begin to change. Jessica Chastain gives a performance of exquisite control as the troubled Lucille, and I badly wanted Crimson Peak to turn into a battle of wits between her and Edith. Indeed, my biggest issue with del Toro here is that he has cast two of the best actresses currently working in film and he can’t think of anything for them to do other than fight with knives at the end.

Crimson Peak is a very good-looking film that never transcends the genre limitations of the script, It should have mattered much more that Edith is a writer, for instance, and why doesn’t Edith play the secret cache of wax cylinder recordings the first time she finds them? Del Toro has earned the benefit of the doubt though. A few years ago on Charlie Rose I heard him discuss his creative process - dreams were a big part - and even now I’ll bet he’s working on taking us somewhere new.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bridge of Spies


Bridge of Spies is the new Steven Spielberg film, co-written by the Coen Brothers with an assist from history. It's a very satisfying entertainment that demonstrates Spielberg can still do several familiar things well. There are set pieces brought off with great skill, like the opening sequence in which a group of FBI agents pursue Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) through the New York subway system of 1957. The immersion in the period is complete thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the design team, and a set of broadly humanist values is affirmed with neither cloying nor sentiment. That last achievement is due in large measure to the performance of Tom Hanks as James Donovan, the Brooklyn insurance lawyer assigned to Abel's defense after the FBI charges him as a Soviet spy. Donovan, a family man whose wife (tart Amy Ryan) is nervous about the Abel case, believes there are grounds to challenge Abel's arrest, but the judge (Dakin Matthews) isn't buying it and the CIA (personified by Scott Shepherd's Agent Hoffman) expects Donovan to agree not to try too hard.

James Donovan is a terrific role for Tom Hanks. The script conceives of Donovan as man grounded in decency, determined to do his job despite public disapproval and the displeasure of his boss (Alan Alda). "Every person matters" is Donovan's credo, and driven by that idea Donovan convinces the court not to impose the death penalty on Abel. Hanks is allowed to use his natural earnestness and good nature to great effect, both in scenes with Abel (whom Mark Rylance underplays marvelously) and with Donovan's family. Bridge of Spies is strongest when it views the Cold War as a series of moving parts. Donovan argues that a living Abel could be traded for a potential American captured on Russian soil, and early on the film cuts away from Abel to tell the parallel story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers was the U-2 spy plane pilot shot down in Soviet skies and convicted in a show trial, and Donovan is asked by CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Powers and his fellow pilots aren't individualized too much, and that choice serves the film's idea that all the characters have jobs to do against the larger political backdrop. At the same time more could have been done to differentiate Powers from Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a graduate student detained in East Berlin whom Donovan also wants to bring home over the CIA's objections. 

The last section of Bridge of Spies involves a series of meetings in a divided Berlin, with Donovan shuttling between Soviets and Germans who present a series of competing agendas. The most Coen-like moment of the film occurs here, when Donovan meets a loud collection of Abel's "relatives", but again these scenes are really a testament to the keen ability and presence of Tom Hanks. Donovan, stricken by a Berlin cold in a great humanizing touch,  is warned by Agent Hoffman that he must present himself to the Soviets as acting independently. Hanks makes Donovan both shrewd and scared, and the script doesn't gloss over just how much improvisation was involved in his mission. Bridge of Spies ends with Donovan back home and on the train. He sees some children climbing a fence, a shot that alludes to something he saw in Berlin. The sight seems to disturb him, and the moment goes to heart of the film's message. People aren't the problem, but rather the walls that keep us apart. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Book I Read: Going Into The City by Robert Christgau


Going Into The City is Robert Christgau’s memoir of a post-World War II New York childhood and decades as a rock critic. The book is full of a hungry, scattershot energy that anyone who has spent even a short time in New York can’t help but recognize. It is also a book that could have been written for me, and if I’d read it at 22 instead of 42 I wonder if it might have changed the direction of my life. Born in 1942, Christgau was- and is - a voracious reader. He describes a fast journey from Dick and Jane to reading Book-of-the-Month Club fare (Kon-Tiki) by age nine. As a young reader I shared Christgau’s velocity but mostly lacked his ambition, though I do remember putting away 1984 in fifth grade (the year of the title, it was in the air) and also an infatuation with The Making of the President books a little later. I was notorious for rushing through assignments so that I could read, a habit that was greeted with mostly good-natured chagrin by my teachers. In the same 5th grade year the only thing that could interrupt my extra reading was a trip to the school library, where a primitive “computer lab” allowed me to play state capital games and write programs in BASIC.

Christgau went to college at Dartmouth and began to discover a few things about himself that would define the rest of his life. Again, I relate. There’s a reoccurring attraction to smart women that would continue right up through his (still extant) marriage. The joys and trials of both Christgau’s marriage and his previous long relationship with the critic Ellen Willis are described in great detail, with evaluations of sexual taste and ability (including his own) made as perhaps only someone who came of age in the 1960’s could pull off. More germane to Christgau’s writing career is the idea of “contingency”, an idea he discusses at length that seems to have come from the waning of his Christianity and a liberal arts-fed dislike for “-isms” of any kind. Christgau’s contingency becomes clearer as he arrives in New York and finds work as a journalist: a distaste of elitism and theory, a healthy populism, and a lack of interest in labels are all a part of the superstructure that Christgau outlines. I wrote too serious movie reviews in college before I’d read much or any Sarris, but the auteur theory never made much sense to me. Kael all the way, though for a time in my 20s I did sit through too many bad action movies in the hope that something profound about the director would reveal itself to me.

The purpose of these few words isn’t to draw parallels between my life and that of Robert Christgau, nor is it to suggest that my nonprofessional writing in any way approaches the skill or insight of the “Dean of American Rock Critics”. (Christgau has been published in many outlets but is most closely identified with The Village Voice.) Rather, it’s to express my pleasure at finding connection in a book that evokes what it was like to have a press pass in New York City of the 1960’s and ‘70s. Christgau saw and listened to music constantly of course; the book is full of thoughts on pop, rock, jazz, disco, rap, and the “alternative” rock of the ‘80s and beyond. But there were also film and theatre, and outsized personalities like Patti Smith and David Johansen. Christgau’s enthusiasm for art bubbles over these pages; he stops the narrative of his life for mini-essays on personally meaningful works from Crime and Punishment to Jules and Jim to Sister Carrie. I’ll spare you what my list would include, but the exhilaration on display in Christgau’s writing about these favorites is irresistible to anyone of a similar mind.

Christgau’s central metaphor is, of course, “The City”. Christgau grew up in Queens, and his Manhattan is both the center of the world and the home of frontiers both personal and creative. I don’t have the same connection to New York, but in my desire to describe art on paper I am part of a great tradition.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Martian


Ridley Scott's The Martian is a film about rolling up one's sleeves and getting to work; it's set in a world where phrases like "Work the problem" are currency among the characters. The Martian might just be one of the best films ever made about the value of a good education, but in an odd way the script's insistence on order is also what prevents the film from being a classic work of science fiction. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist who's part of a NASA team on Mars; we eventually learn the mission is part of a larger series of Mars missions known as "Ares". A storm forces the astronauts to quickly evacuate, and during the confusion Mark is struck by debris and presumed dead. The story (Drew Goddard adapted a novel by Andy Weir) then splits into three parts: The very much alive Watney must use his scientific training to survive inside the NASA habitat on Mars, the other astronauts begin their journey home on the Hermes under the command of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and the NASA director (Jeff Daniels) attempts to deal with the fallout from the apparent death of an astronaut.

Watney narrates his days on Mars into the log at the NASA habitat, and with the possible exception of Tom Hanks there isn't a better actor suited for the role of a galactic Crusoe than Matt Damon. Damon gives Watney a steadiness and good humor we all wish we could have in such a situation, and he's perfectly credible as a man smart enough to invent agriculture on another planet. Much time is spent on how Watney grows food and establishes communication with Earth, but Goddard's script forgets to tell us what if anything Watney has to go back on Earth. There are jabs of emotion when things go wrong, but Watney the man is never put in relief against the enormity of his situation. To put it another way: In The Martian Mars isn't another world, it's a problem to be solved. The crew of the Hermes (which also includes Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and Sebastian Stan) is so resolutely professional that the scene in which they consider whether to attempt to rescue Watney almost feels superfluous. Like everyone else in The Martian, these astronauts are team players who wouldn't think of not doing their jobs.

No one involved in The Martian meant for the audience to leave the theatre wondering about the purpose of the space program, but that's a question the scenes involving Jeff Daniels and the NASA employees on Earth bring up. Here the financial and technical effort required to save Watney is balanced against Congressional support for future missions. Leading the charge to save Watney are two scientists (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong) and a touchy-feely flight director (Sean Bean); their work is monitored by Daniels and a press agent (Kristen Wiig) who don't have much to do except say "Hold on a minute." It's a far cry from the scene in Apollo 13 when Ed Harris pours a box of stuff on a table and says "Figure this out." The idea of NASA as an institution to be protected as opposed to a knockabout group of test pilots and scientists is depressing, and it doesn't serve the film well at all. The closest we get to old-school NASA invention are Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davis (both believable as science geeks) as younger NASA employees. Glover has an especially good scene where he outlines a rescue plan, and The Martian could use more of his spirit.

Complaining about The Martian leaves a slight bad taste. The film is extremely well-cast, and Scott makes the empty terrain of Mars feel as alien as he can. There is a genuine appreciation for science and scientists and Matt Damon gives a fine, low-key performance that is without doubt the work of a movie star. Shouldn't we be happy with all of that? Maybe, but the schematic nature of the story becomes numbing after a time. More importantly, I missed those early NASA guys and their incredible desire for discovery.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sleeping with Other People



Sleeping with Other People, written and directed by Leslye Headland, is an odd misfire of a film. It’s a romantic comedy that wants to be both edgy and traditional, and Headland’s script winds up skirting a lot more tropes of the genre than she would probably like to admit to. Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) meet in college when Lainey’s desired hookup is missing in action. The two enjoy a night together - the first sex for both - and then don’t think about each other much until the film jumps a decade forward to present-day New York. Jake has become a womanizer who’s on the cusp of selling his company to a woman (Amanda Peet) whom he wants to bed. Lainey is a teacher still in the thrall of that missed hookup from college; he’s now an OB/GYN played by Adam Scott (admirably playing against type) who in his first scene takes a willing Lainey on his office desk,

Did I mention there’s a lot of sex? Jake and Lainey agree to become platonic friends with a large helping of sex talk on the side. A code word (“mousetrap”) is established for when the two become aroused in each other’s company, and at about this point the film’s central question becomes clear: Can men and women be friends? We’ve been here before, although Harry and Sally never talked this dirty. The script keeps setting up obstacles for Jake and Lainey to be together, including Peet’s businesswoman, a single dad (Marc Blucas) who meets Lainey at an Ectasy-laced child’s birthday party (Edgy!), and Lainey’s admission to medical school. For a moment I even thought Headland was setting up jake to be both a Manic Pixie Dream Guy and the 2015 equivalent of Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, but she wisely turns a corner before things get that bad. The script winks at the idea that Jake and Lainey are sex addicts, but in fact they’re just bad at relationships and also at seeing what’s in front of them. Alison Brie makes something sad and human out of Lainey’s conflicts. Lainey might be the most fully realized role Brie has ever had, and she responds with a fearless performance while Sudeikis is largely trapped by the conventionality of his role. A funny supporting cast (Jason Mantzoukas, Natasha Lyonne, Andrea Savage, Katherine Waterston) helps make Sleeping with Other People watchable, but finally this film is a commuter train that’s hitting all the stops.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Sicario


Sicario is a well-made and unremittingly intense drama about fighting drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexico border. Somewhere in the middle, I realized what was missing: politicians. Director Denis Villeneuve includes neither stock footage of U.S. Presidents declaring no-nonsense policy about drugs nor a character meant to stand in for the idea that America not only fights the spread of drugs but holds the moral high ground in doing so. The highest ranking official we meet is a bureaucrat played by Victor Garber who, when his agent Kate (Emily Blunt) questions the legality of an operation, can only say that “the boundary has been moved”. The boundary is in fact invisible for most of Sicario, which operates from the premise that Mexican drug cartels can now only be fought in the shadows via guerrilla tactics.

Taylor Sheridan’s script begins with a grabber of a sequence in which Kate and her F.B.I. colleagues stage an Arizona raid that leads to the discovery of a cartel mass grave. The shot of a government personnel vehicle smashing through a wall is a tidy way of summarizing the blunt U.S. policy that hasn’t worked to this point; indeed Kate later acknowledges to her skeptical partner (Daniel Kaluuya) that the Bureau’s anti-drug activities are ineffectual. Kate is tapped for a task force by an operative (Josh Brolin, with a wonderful sense of workaday optimism) whose motives aren’t immediately explained. She is soon across the border in Mexico with a team bringing back a high-value cartel target to the States, and helping (in a sequence of exquisitely controlled tension) fight off an attack at a crowded border crossing. Also on the team is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro in his best role in years), a sober Mexican who seems to be able to anticipate the cartel’s moves. Emily Blunt is well-cast as Kate, a pro who’s out of her depth in a world where she can’t show weakness. Blunt has played many types of roles in her career, but her recent reset as an action star would seem to be a positive development in regards to the types of stories we see onscreen. Kate’s frightening encounter with a seemingly friendly cop (Jon Bernthal) is one of Blunt’s best scenes, as it’s the moment the cartel’s reach becomes clear while also being proof of the physical work Blunt did for this role.

Denis Villeneuve directed the very dark films Prisoners and Incendies, the second of which I thought tipped over into silliness. Here a bleak worldview is hidden behind a sheen of government-sanctioned ordinariness, and Villeneuve is helped greatly to achieve this feeling by the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. The varieties of types of light in Sicario (a Mexican term for “hitman”) almost can’t be counted, from the institutional glare of a border turnaround point for immigrants to the evening glow outside a Texas bar. Sicario could easily disappear under a flurry of plot twists and scenes of interagency conflict, but Deakins grounds the movie in something specific while at the same time making the border battlegrounds feel like an alien world.

My only quarrel here is with a subplot involving a Mexican cop (Maximiliano Hernandez) that the script ties too neatly into the story of Alejandro, who of course has his own agenda. Alejandro’s story, when we hear it, is both too conventional and too thin. It’s explained rather than dramatized and it’s why the last act of Sicario doesn’t work quite as well as it could despite another well-done action set piece. Perhaps the comparison is too pat, but Sicario feels like the anti-Traffic in the way it suggests that humanizing the people on both sides of the drug war really makes no difference. The business will continue; the only surprise is how well we’ve all adapted to it.