Monday, February 29, 2016

Son of Saul

This year’s Foreign Film Oscar went to Son of Saul, a first feature from Hungarian Laszlo Nemes which follows an Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz through several hellish hours. We know almost nothing about Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) except that he is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist in the movement of other prisoners into the gas chamber and with the subsequent disposal of their remains. One day Saul finds a young boy barely alive after the gas; the boy dies during an examination but Saul believes the boy to be his illegitimate son and decides to bury him. The rest of the film is his quest to do so. Much of the discussion around Son of Saul has been about Laszlo Nemes’s shooting style; for almost the entire film Nemes shoots Saul in close-up or shows us only what the character sees. This choice means we only hear scattered references to what other prisoners are doing - a group is planning an uprising - and that various atrocities take place out of focus, at the edge of the frame, or are conveyed only through sound. Other prisoners are barely individualized except for Warszawski (Levente Molnar), a man whose lack of understanding of Saul’s behavior seems to represent the feelings of everyone else.

Son of Saul is not an easy watch. Nemes’s determination to avoid false uplift or aesthetic distance (there’s not a master shot to be found here) keeps us firmly within the realm of Saul’s perceptions. That’s a frightening place to be but also a tiring one, as Rohrig’s inexpressiveness makes Saul’s refusal to engage with his fellow prisoners hard to read. Whether the boy is actually Saul’s son is called into question - another prisoner tells Saul “You have no son.” - but a bigger issue is the film’s lack of a moral framework. Nemes wants to put the poignancy of Saul’s desire to bury his son in opposition to the other prisoners’ efforts to organize and fight, but the film only sets up the situation without investigating it. Indeed, it isn’t clear why the other men would enlist Saul in their plans for an uprising; his mission to transport materials that the men need goes wrong when he wanders into a group of new prisoners in search of a rabbi. The other prisoners in Son of Saul haven’t forsaken religion; the first rabbi that Saul approaches tells him he will say the Kaddish for his son but that a proper burial is logistically impossible. But Saul’s fellow prisoners see survival as an imperative that Saul never seems to consider. We’re told in the opening titles that members of the Sonderkommando were executed after a few months as a matter of course, and Warszawski and the other prisoners feel their time running out. “You failed the living for the dead,” Warszawski says to Saul, and later when another prisoner comes back for Saul during the escape it’s a pointed contrast to the image of Saul almost being dragged underwater by his son’s remains.

I recently watched another Oscar-winning film set in a concentration camp, Stefan Ruzowitsky’s The Counterfeiters. That 2007 film told the story of “Operation Bertrand,” a Nazi plan to destabilize Allied economies by flooding them with counterfeit currency. The Jews forced to produce the fake money lived in relative comfort in the camp, and the film establishes their role in the infrastructure of the Nazi war effort while also dramatizing why they needed to resist. In Son of Saul, giving the audience the eyes of one prisoner - the film most definitely does not “get inside his head” - heightens the emotion but also elides the particular systematic nature of the Nazi evil, and that is a mistake I can’t ignore. When we last see Saul he is experiencing a moment of connection that the film hasn’t earned. While I respect Nemes’s stylistic choices I also don’t think they work; Son of Saul is finally a film where artistic ambition gets in the way of lessons that we should never stop learning.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Triple 9

The new cop film Triple 9 (the title refers to police radio code for the shooting of an officer) is an entertaining enough way to pass two hours, but it also raises a number of unusual questions. Did writer Matt Cook set his story of Russian mobsters and dirty cops in Atlanta, or does the film take place there because the production received generous tax incentives? Does shooting in Atlanta come with a coupon for a free supporting turn from Walking Dead star Norman Reedus? How did director John Hillcoat persuade Kate Winslet to play a Russian mob queen? Most importantly, who’s the main character? Hillcoat begins the film with a bank heist that leaves it to us to figure out who the players are, but it’s clear that Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the one in charge. Atwood and his ex-military buddy Russell (Reedus) are running things, but the crew is filled out by cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) as well as Russell’s ex-cop brother Gabe (Aaron Paul in full-on sad sack mode). Spoiler alert: Even heavily armed bank robbers have trouble in Atlanta traffic.

The goal of the heist is the contents of a safe deposit box which will be delivered to Irina (Winslet), whose jailed husband needs it to secure his release. Did we mention that Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot) is the mother of Atwood’s young son? All of this plot highlights the main problem with Triple 9, which is the film’s lack of a center. An obvious inspiration for Triple 9 is Michael Mann’s 1995 Heat, but where that film had DeNiro and Pacino as two equally obsessed opposite poles, Hillcoat has to find room for Atwood, Marcus, Gabe, as well as Marcus’s new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) and Chris’s detective uncle Jeff (Woody Harrelson). The germ of the movie that Triple 9 wants to be lies in Harrelson’s turn as a dogged detective who appears to be slowly losing a battle with addiction. It’s a terrific performance of a piece with Harrelson’s best character work, but the film keeps pushing him aside in favor of scenes of Chris with his doting wife (Teresa Palmer). Casey Affleck isn’t bad here, but he doesn’t have much to work with. Chris is ex-military, just like Atwood and Russell, so what keeps him from going dirty? Triple 9 doesn’t have time to answer. The film is so busy that it doesn’t allow the pleasure of watching Chris or Harrelson’s Jeff figure things out, because we’re already so far down the road of watching Atwood and the others plan out another robbery that serves as the film’s climax. That robbery is staged and shot with great precision, as is an earlier shootout and chase through a series of low-rent apartments. All of the craft that Hillcoat and the cast bring would matter more if the characters were doing more than servicing an overcrowded story.

A clearer example of what’s wrong with Triple 9 can be found in Kate Winslet’s performance as Irina, a woman who thinks nothing of using her nephew as bait in order to get what she wants. Winslet gives a master class in what happens when great actors play roles in genre movies; she makes Irina incredibly specific, both ruthless and bored out of her skull at the same time. (What does Irina do in Atlanta on weekends, go to the Aquarium?) So why isn’t Irina the least bit memorable? Because Hillcoat and Cook can’t quite figure out just what story they want to tell. At times Irina appears to be sitting around just waiting for the film to happen to her. The well-cast Triple 9 will make a great Sunday afternoon cable movie someday, but it could have been quite a bit more than that.

Saturday, February 20, 2016



Race, directed by Stephen Hopkins, is the story of Jesse Owens (Stephan James) and his four track and field gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens’s triumph is remembered as a repudiation of Nazi ideas about racial purity and as an early blow in the struggle for racial equality in the States. A film about Jesse Owens, who came from humble beginnings in Cleveland to become a track star at Ohio State, should feel like a classic American story about the pursuit of dreams and the realizing of potential. So why does Owens at times feel like a supporting player in his own movie?

Race is in dialogue with itself about the degree to which politics and sports should intersect, and Hopkins (working from a script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) keeps cutting away from Owens to the place of the Olympic Games on the worldwide stage. It was an open question whether or not the U.S. should compete in Berlin at all, and the film suggests that the U.S. sent a team because Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) believed that giving athletes a chance to compete trumped moral objections to what the Nazis were doing. (William Hurt plays the leader of the pro-boycott forces and then disappears from the film.) Avery Brundage - a figure in the Olympic movement until the 1970’s - was no altruist however. Race paints Brundage as a man whose support for American athletes going to Berlin was for sale to Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat). Owens got a chance to win his fourth gold medal in a relay because Brundage removed two Jewish runners from the U.S. team to protect his own interests.

All of this detail would be a good deal more interesting if the script positioned Owens in contrast to Brundage, but Owens appears to have been caught instead between politics and his own opportunity for greatness. Owens already had a daughter when he started Ohio State, and he later married the child’s mother (Shanice Banton), but his most important relationship in the film is with his coach Larry Snyder (a miscast Jason Sudeikis), Owens decides not to attend the Games after being approached by a politician (Glynn Turman), but Snyder and others change his mind. In Berlin Owens threatens again to walk away after dealings with another coach, but he’s won back when Snyder is given access to the Games. Race certainly wasn’t released during Black History Month by accident, so the degree to which the film depicts Owens as not having a political consciousness is a surprise even if it’s true.

The other major historical figure in Race is German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who here is portrayed as an artist struggling against government interference but who is more generally remembered as a brilliant director and Nazi propagandist. Characterizing Riefenstahl favorably serves no purpose I can think of other than to punch up the importance of remembering Owens’s medals, but it’s a bizarre choice nonetheless. Race tells a great story in fits and starts; it’s a film with a hole at the center - it doesn’t help that Stephan James is a bit blank as an actor - that speaks in slogans when human moments would have done the job.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Smugness is the default setting for Ryan Reynolds. He is capable of more, but an actor can only take what’s put in front of him and the title role of the wisecracking superhero in Deadpool suits Reynolds awfully well. Deadpool, aka Wade Wilson, is a second-generation Marvel character whose backstory, should you choose to look for it, covers a swing from villainy to a sort of heroism and a penchant for direct address - a stylistic choice the film retains. Ryan Reynolds also played the character in the film Wolverine, but here he’s working from a script (by Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick) in the spirit of the Fabian Nicieza/Rob Liefeld comic. The plot is an origin story: Wade Wilson is hired muscle who’s diagnosed with cancer shortly after meeting his true love Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, getting to smile for once). Wilson makes a fateful alliance with Ajax (Ed Skrein), a man who can cure his cancer, and the result is a newly minted set of mutant superpowers including regenerative healing. That’s right, mutant. Deadpool - who takes his name from a macabre bar bet with his friend (funny T.J. Miller) - is nominally one of the X-Men, though his agenda is a good deal more selfish and bloody than Professor X would be comfortable with. The X-Men are represented here by a philosophical Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and the moody Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who I assume is getting her own CW series soon. Ajax puts Vanessa in danger, and we’re on the road to revenge.

Deadpool would feels stale if it weren’t for the way that Reynolds and director Tim Miller relentlessly wink at the camera from the opening titles onwards. Deadpool knows he’s in a movie, and in particular an off-season franchise picture that doesn’t offer the familiar comforts of a Jackman (who gets some ribbing) or a Lawrence. Reynolds nails the jokes - and there are some good ones - but as Deadpool’s search for Ajax gets bloodier the jokes begin to feel forced. By the time Deadpool is rooming with a blind woman (Leslie Uggams) and gathering his guns for the final assault it feels like we’ve already seen everything that the film has to offer. What do we want from our superhero films? For all of the nodding at genre tropes, Deadpool contains just as much stylized violence as garbage like Kingsman and when it’s all over it isn’t clear that our hero is much more than a sociopath - albeit one with a romantic side. There will doubtless be more Deadpool, a post-credits scene and a record opening weekend guarantee it, but we can hope the next installment is made with a larger helping of soul.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

If your favorite Coen Brothers’ films are the early ones, the ones that got knocked for choosing dark screwball humor over characters that one could empathize with, then the new Hail, Caesar! might be for you. Hail, Caesar! is a vinegar-spiked valentine to the movie business, one made by directors whose last film (Inside Llewyn Davis) was critically lauded and publicly unappreciated. It’s telling that the Coens set their film in the 1950’s, a time when even the best directors worked at the studios’ pleasure and no one with the Coens’ point of view could ever have had a career. Look at us now, the Coens seem to say. Look at the things we can do. We first meet studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) in a confessional booth. Eddie is troubled by his dishonesty about his smoking, but his worries about tobacco mask a deeper concern. As much as Eddie loves the movie business, a job offer from Lockheed could bring plenty of money and a more stable home life. Part of the story of Hail, Caesar! is the story of how Eddie makes his decision.

Christian imagery reoccurs through Hail, Caesar!. Eddie, a devout man, goes to confession and later prays over his future while holding a rosary. Eddie works for Capitol Pictures, a studio that’s producing a sword-and-sandals picture called “Hail, Caesar!” in which Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, always good as a dumb guy) plays a Roman who gradually comes to Christian beliefs. Representatives of various faiths appear in Eddie’s office; Eddie wants to be sure no one will be offended by the way his studio depicts Jesus. When the men bicker about the extent of Jesus’s divinity the scene is funny, but the Coens’ trump it by lacing Hail, Caesar! with narration (by Michael Gambon) that the film’s last shot suggests just might be the voice of The Man Upstairs. Spoiler alert: God loves the movies. Eddie’s spiritual struggle is pretty uninvolving, especially since there is so much comic energy at the fringes of the film. Baird is kidnapped and held for ransom by a group of frustrated screenwriters, and it’s not giving too much away to say Clooney gets funnier the more that Baird becomes receptive to their political ideas. Scarlett Johansson plays a bathing beauty whose smile masks a deeper pragmatism, and Channing Tatum gets a fully staged musical number. Tilda Swinton plays twin-sister gossip columnists, and best of all is Alden Ehrenreich as a singing cowboy thrust into a high society picture. The scene between Ehrenreich and a horrified director (Ralph Fiennes) is the film’s comic high point. (I also wanted more of Frances McDormand as a klutzy editor.) All these good actors and funny scenes feel stranded though, because the Coens’ overarching lack of humor about the movies and maybe about themselves as artists too leaves Hail, Caesar! tasting a little sour.

In Preston Sturges’s 1941 Sullivan’s Travels, a film director rediscovers his purpose while watching a group of convicts enjoy a cartoon. Hail, Caesar! arrives at a similar place but works much harder to get there. Eddie and the stars of Capitol Pictures look forward to the future of the movies, but Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens looking back in anger.