Thursday, December 17, 2015

November 2015

     If anyone doubts that society is losing something important as newspapers slice staffing to the bone—I write this as the Los Angeles Times loses more than 75 veteran reports and editors in a single buyout—or simply close, this film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into corruption within the Catholic Church should convince them.
    As it follows a group of determined reporters and editors tracking down the facts about priest’s sexual misconduct and the cover-up by the church, its lawyers and Boston prosecutors, “Spotlight” portrays journalism at its dogged best. The Globe’s 2002 story opened the door on the scandal, provoking papers around the country, and the world, to investigate local parishes, permanently damaging the powerful church.
        After the movie introduces the paper’s investigative team (called “Spotlight”)—editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Bryan d’Arcy James)—they meet the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), just arrived from the New York Times. On his first day, this soft-spoken, but perceptive newsman suggests that Robinson’s team look into accusations that the church is quietly settling with victims to keep them from going public.
     I don’t believe any film has captured the manner and personalities of reporters and the atmosphere of a newsroom with more authenticity. Writer-director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”) and co-writer Josh Singer go the extra mile to make sure the details of process and the behavior of the journalists ring true, even for those of us who have spent most of our lives in newspapers.
       The actors, especially Schreiber, Keaton and Ruffalo, completely embody the passion, tenacity and skepticism that made me believe they were real journalists involved in unearthing an important story; a story that needed to be precisely right before offered to a public with deep ties to the Catholic Church.        
     In a smaller, but crucial role is John Slattery, playing Ben Bradlee Jr., a Globe editor who pushes Robinson’s team to nail down every detail of the story before going to press. For non-journalists, he might appear to be just protecting the church, fearful of upsetting readers, but journalists will recognize him as the kind of touch, cynical editor that every paper (and reporter) needs.      
     I’m not sure how interesting moviegoers who aren’t journalists will find “Spotlight,” as it tells a 15-year-old story that everyone is somewhat aware of, while focusing on the reporters and the process. But the film’s complex, highly motivated characters and their tireless efforts in pursuit of the story could have the same broad appeal as “All the President’s Men.”
     Yet the 1976 film had the advantage of getting into theaters just two years after President Nixon resigned and as the nation was still reeling from Watergate. The increased speed of news in the 21st Century makes the 2002 priest scandal seem like ancient history.
       Considering the landscape of Hollywood, the fact that a film like “Spotlight” even gets made, even 13 years later, is a minor miracle. For those of us who remain devoted to newspaper journalism, this film couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Not that it will save any immediate jobs, but the film may inspire investors that this institution isn’t just a failing business model, but an essential part of American democracy that somehow must be saved.

     Tales of immigrants have been a favorite topic of filmmakers since movies were invented—one of Charlie Chaplin’s classic shorts is his 1917 “The Immigrant.” But most are filled with tragedies, disappointments, and bad decisions that lead to a life of crime or, at least, a lifetime of struggles.
     This heartfelt film about a young Irish woman who immigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s unfolds as a coming of age story, in which the change of scenery jolts her life into fast-forward. While facing difficult challenges and choices, Eilis mostly finds the “Land of Opportunity” as advertised.
   On the surface, this sounds like a toothless, inspirational television movie, but the detail-oriented, finely observed script by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “An Education”) and a beautiful nuanced performance by Saoirse Ronan as Eilis keep the picture down to earth, an authentic look at how hard it is to break from the past even when the future appears so bright.
    Her move to American is supported by an Irish priest (the affable Jim Broadbent) now working in Brooklyn. He arranges for her to stay at the boarding house of a sharp-tongue Irish woman, hilariously played by Julie Walters. The dinner table conversation between Walter’s Mrs. Kehoe and the young women boarding with her are wonderful comic set pieces, which also reveals the attitudes and dreams of the 1950s.
    Of course, there’s romance for Eilis, in the form of a nervous, but determined Italian immigrant (Emory Cohen) who spots her at an Irish church dance. Her feelings for him and her family back in Ireland are at the center of her conflicted emotions.
    In 2007, Ronan burst on the movie scene at age 13 with her Oscar-nominated performance in “Atonement” and then, two years later, as the young victim in “The Lovely Bones.” But with “Brooklyn,” the 21-year-old establishes herself as a strong leading actress capable of carrying a film.
     Director John Crowley keeps things simple, allowing Hornby’s sharp dialogue (based on Colm Toibin’s novel) and Ronan’s plain-spoken sincerity win us over.
      At the heart of “Brooklyn” sits the timeless dilemma of choosing between the comfort, safety and familiarity of the known and the excitement, risk and unlimited possibilities of the unknown. Eilis’ struggle with that decision turns this low-keyed, unpretentious film into one of the year’s best. 

     There’s not much to recommend about this film except that it completes the story of Katniss Everdeen, the most complex cinematic hero in quite awhile.
     While the series, based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy but stretched to four films, has grown progressively less interesting after the first, innovative picture, the journey of this child-warrior, brought to life with a gravitas beyond her years by Jennifer Lawrence, makes the film essential viewing.
      The final leg of this dystopian metaphor for the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots again puts Katniss into the action as a propaganda prop. Rebel leader Coin (Julianne Moore) and her right hand man (Philip Seymour Hoffman, still a presence in this film), plan to use the Mockingjay’s mythic status to keep the revolutionaries in lock-step with their plans.
     But, of course, Katniss has other ideas as she plots to get into the Capitol and kill the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland giving another splendidly fiendish performance).
     The only people who will be surprised by the plot turns will be those too young to have seen the past 50 years of action movies. The film also has a clipped-together quality—with Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch popping in and out of the film without explanation.
      The film goes on for at least 20 minutes more than needed as it spells out what was obvious from a single scene at the end of the film. Yet, again, it’s about Katniss/Lawrence, this indelible character who made bow and arrows cool while fighting for truth and justice with the steely fierceness of an Old West gunfighter crossed with a Frank Capra man of the people hero. She doesn’t disappoint even when the film does. 

     This memoir of a British woman’s cathartic experiences during World War I, based on her actual remembrances published in 1933, grows on you.
   It begins on the cusp of the Great War with such a familiar collection of plot points that I was convinced I had seen a Masterpiece Theatre version of the story (there was a 1979 British TV version….)
      Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), a precocious daughter in a well-to-do family, wants nothing more than to attend Oxford University, something her father finds ridiculous. Eventually, he relents, but just as Vera gains admission she falls in love with her brother’s best friend.
      If this sounds too predictable, it is, yet how it plays out is anything but. Her attempts to find a place for both intellectual and romantic ambition become more complicated when WWI breaks out and her brother and her betrothed head off to France. Later, Vern also volunteers to help as a nurse’s assistant; through her we witness the horrors of this devastating war.
     While World War II has been among the most popular source for movies since Hitler’s forces marched on Poland, the earlier conflict remains underrepresented on film. While a handful of masterpieces have focused on WWI—“All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Big Parade,” “Grand Illusion” and “Paths of Glory”—it has never held audiences like the mid-century war.
     This film offers a fresh perspective to the horrors of warfare as this bookish young woman, already fighting for her share of the world, must rearrange her priorities and put her determination to work for the war effort.
     But Vera is also filled with self-doubt and questions about what to do with her life, all convoluted by the war. This moving coming of age story is beautiful realized by the Swedish actress Vikander. She’s clearly the breakout performer of 2015, with memorable turns as the thoughtful robot in “Ex Machina” (see below) and in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and the upcoming “The Danish Girl” with Eddie Redmayne.
     Also impressive in “Testament of Youth” are Kit Harington as her fiancé, whose war experiences leave him forever changed, and Miranda Richardson (a major film star in the 1990s who now mostly works in British TV) as the women’s dean at Oxford who becomes important in Vera’s life.
      Director James Kent and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi, working from Brittain’s book, capture both the particulars of a turbulent era and the timelessness of a young woman finding her way in a very confusing world.

    I could imagine a very compelling movie being made from the life of cult novelist David Foster Wallace, best known for his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” whose erratic behavior and addictions belied his acclaim as a brilliant writer. His whirlwind life ended at age 46, when he hanged himself at his home in Claremont, where he spent his final years as a creative writing professor at Pomona College.
    Instead, this film about Wallace telescopes his life into the days-long interview with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, who accompanies him on the final days of his promotional tour for “Jest,” spending virtually 24/7 with the writer but, at least as portrayed here, uncovering very little about this man/child. Wallace, portrayed by Jason Segel (from the TV show “How I Met Your Mother”) as a cool, but bipolar eccentric, is both repelled by and bonds with Lipsky (a jittery, irritating Jesse Eisenberg) as they drive through the Midwest.
    Director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies (working from Lipsky’s book) has turned both of these characters into unpleasant company, for each other and for the audience. I’m sure Wallace was a smart guy but little of that emerges in the film. I wanted to be awed by his brilliance, but instead I kept checking the time remaining.
     Lipsky, a fiction writer himself, is miscast (in real life) as an interviewer; a beginning journalist would do a better job of interviewing Wallace and, at least, act like a professional. Rolling Stone should be embarrassed that they are sending out unqualified writers to interview important people.
    I guess I was supposed to find them quirky and funny and insightful in a regular guy kind of way (which Wallace desperately wants to be), but they just made me sad that this is what passes for literary heroes in 2015.   

      There’s so much in this cautionary sci-fi movie that makes little or no sense that I stopped taking it seriously halfway through. Yet, like in “Testament of Love” (see above), Alicia Vikander creates a character that keeps pulling even the unwilling back into the film.
     She plays Ava, the creation of megalomaniacal scientist Nathan (an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac), as part of his experimentation into robotics with very advance artificial intelligence. The movie begins when Nathan summons one of his A.I. specialists from his company to his remove, high-tech Alaskan compound. (The kind of place usually reserved for movie bad guys with god complexes.)
      Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a fidgety, easily misled geek who Nathan wants to independently confirm the level of Ava’s brain. Predictably, Caleb, acting like a flummoxed school boy, falls instantly in love with Ava, who sports a human face on top of her slick robotic body.
    Of course, that’s what Nathan expected, but it’s never quite clear what his end game for this psychological stunt was—it goes astray before we learn that.
      The film could be read as a commentary on the treatment of women in the STEM world: As the two men argue over all those ones and zeroes, the A.I.s are seen as nothing but highly evolved sexual fantasies. But that’s probably giving writer-director Alex Garland, making his directorial debut, (he wrote “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later”) too much credit.
      While Isaac portrays a totally unlikeable, nonsensical character (are we to believe he created these advanced robots on his own?), Gleeson plays a complete fool. It seems to be his specialty; he played fumbling goofs in recent star turns in “About Time” and “Frank.” But he keeps showing up in top films; he has a role in “Brooklyn” and the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
      But Vikander saves the film, totally convincing as an evolving being who figures out how to use the attributes Nathan has imbued her with. Her Ava realizes that these humans are both easily manipulated and not to be trusted; a good lesson for anyone.

        While Hollywood made no secret about its role in the U.S. propaganda machine during World War II, helping prop up American institutions had always been an unspoken role of the major movie studios.
     One of the most blatant and well-made prop-art film is this William Wellman tale of Western pioneers, starring Richard Dix and Ann Harding.
    The stars, forgotten today but major players of the era, portray a young couple who head West to find a life during the recession of the 1870s. A similar formula forms the plot in 1931’s Oscar-winning best picture “Cimarron,” also starring Dix.
     In the Wellman film, Dix’s Roger Standish (a pioneer’s name if there ever was one) becomes a banker in an emerging town, putting the burg on the map after he “convinces” the railroad to make the town a stop on its new line.
     The film takes us through the life of Roger and Caroline (Harding), using them as symbols of the bumpy growth of the West, while also showing the ups and downs of the U.S. economy. At each point, the good heartedness and civic leadership of the banking community is emphasized.
    Needless to say, bankers ranked right below Herbert Hoover in the post-crash world of 1933. This film does its best to paint those demonized businessmen as victims doing their best to help the regular guy. Not surprisingly, it is not one of this great director’s best remembered films.
     But it has an epic feel (even at 88 minutes) as the history of the Standish family plays out through the stock market crash of 1929, with both actors aging considerable while also playing younger relatives (Dix plays Roger’s grandson while Harding portrays Caroline’s daughter). The seamless special effects, as the actors appear as both characters in the same scene, are impressive for an early sound film.
      Stealing every scene she’s in (as she did throughout her career) is Edna May Oliver as the couple’s spunky, frank housekeeper/nurse maid. Character actors such as Oliver are what made films of the 1930s and 40s, even second rate movies, so entertaining.
       On the other hand, Dix’s acting skills haven’t aged well. He can be stunningly bad; actually, he gives what may be his best performance (that I’ve seen) in “The Conquerors.” He always looked middle aged and had a deep voice, which carried him as an early sound era star.
     Harding was a superb actress who spent most of her career unfairly struck in B-movies. When she had the chance in top films, she could be memorable, as in “The Animal Kingdom” (1932), “When Ladies Meet” (1933), and “Peter Ibbetson” (1935) and later in “The Magnificent Yankee” (1951). She moved to the small screen in the early 1950s and worked steadily during that Golden Age of TV drama.
    Ironically, consider the pro-business tilt of this film, the next year, Wellman directed “Wild Boys of the Road,” a harsh look at juveniles from poor families trying to survive during the Great Depression.
     The director was one of the most consistent filmmakers of Hollywood’s studio era, starting with “Wings” (1927), the first best-picture winner, and “Public Enemy” (1931), a landmark gangster picture that make James Cagney a star.

      Other essential American movies directed by Wellman, whose career spanned from 1923—after serving as a flier in World War I—to 1958, include “A Star Is Born” (1937), a biting attack on Hollywood star-making machine; “Nothing Sacred” (1937), a screwball newspaper comedy; “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), taking Western justice to task; “ and two of the best World War II films, “Story of G.I. Joe” (1945) and “Battleground” (1949). 

Friday, November 6, 2015

September-October 2015


     If “Gravity” ventured into the unfathomable vastness of space and “Interstellar” explored the mind-boggling time-space continuum, “The Martian,” despite its title, remains relatively down to earth.
    In some ways, the Ridley Scott-directed film goes too far in breaking down the process of space travel, surviving on Mars, launching a rescue mission; the magic, the awe, gets lost in all the astonishingly inventive science.
      It begins when a Mars exploration team must quickly leave the planet to escape a powerful storm. In the chaos on the planet’s surface, astronaut Mark Watney (a perfectly cast Matt Damon) is left behind and presumed dead. But when the dust clears, Watney has survived, but with little hope for the long run.
     After dealing with a piece of satellite antenna that impaled him, he must face the limits of food rations that won’t last until a rescue mission can be launched. At the same time, back in Houston, NASA chief Teddy Sanders (a commanding Jeff Daniels) and Mars project manager Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor from “12 Years a Slave”) announced the death of Watney and deal with the political damage the loss will inflict on the program. Then, a few weeks later, a NASA tech notices some movement around the Mars station, indicating that Watney is still alive.
    The movie shuttles back and forth between botanist Watney (he seems a little too perfectly suited to be stranded on Mars) as he finds ways to survive and the world-class engineers at JPL, who are up to every impossible task NASA chiefs demand of them.
     In an era when the value of scientific expertise is constantly being undermined and devalued, it’s good to see a film that presents them as heroes.
    The third rail of the film involves the crew of the Hermes, en route back to Earth, who are left in the dark when all the excitement about Watney takes place. When they reenter the picture, mission leader Lewis (Jessica Chastian, of course) proves herself a worthy heir to the original female space hero Ripley, from Scott’s “Alien” (1979).
    By emphasizing the very diverse JPL and having China’s space program contribute to the rescue, the script, by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel, makes its underlining point that if we are to survive on our planet (with Mars and Damon as the symbolic stand-ins) all the world’s people will need to work together, each doing their part to rescue Earth.
     While “The Martian” never soars in the ways the space films from the last two years did, this well-oiled, immaculately produced picture—exactly what we have come to expect from Scott—is a crowd-pleasing piece of classic cinematic storytelling, showcasing the resilience, determination and know-how we like to think is distinctly American.

   If there is anything I’ve learned after nearly 40 years of steady movie-going, it’s that a fascinating storyline, a huge budget, a great director and a first-rate cast increases a film’s chance of being exceptional only slightly. That’s what makes the cinema so frustrating and, when it’s good, so rewarding.
    This Steven Spielberg picture, starring no less than Tom Hanks, about a little-known lawyer who brokers one of the key spy trades of the Cold War, seemed aligned for greatness.
   Alas, for reasons not easy to explain, the impressive production falls short, failing to capture the intensity of the times (late 50s, early 60s) or the historical significance of the events.
    Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance litigator recruited by the U.S. government to represent a suspected Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, portrayed by a film-stealing Mark Rylance, in what amounts to a show trail. Donovan quickly discovers that American justice loses its interest in fairness in the shadow of the “Soviet threat.” It is hard not to notice the story’s parallels to our current war on terrorism excuses for usurping the Constitution.
     The jailhouse meetings between Donovan and Abel are the best scenes of the film, as Rylance plays this taciturn prisoner as a measured, loyal, intelligent man who is willing to accept whatever punishment the U.S. chooses to enact. Ryance, one of the most esteemed actors of the British stage, is probably best known in this country for his role as Cromwell in the English TV import “Wolf Hall.” He also played the father in “The Other Boylan Girl” (like “Wolf Hall,” a Henry VIII story), and will star in Spielberg’s next film, “The BFG,” based on Roald Dahl’s children’s story.
        The meat of “Bridge of Spies” begins when the Soviets seek Abel’s return, possibly in exchange for Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. pilot shot down over Russia while on a spy mission. For those under 50, the Powers incident was one of the touchstone events of the Cold War, a high-profile story in large part because the Soviets used Powers as a propaganda tool. His very existence showed a rather naïve American public that all sides were actively spying on each other. (Little did we imagine the extremes of that spying—see “CitizenFour” below.)
    Because the spy swap needed to be done very unofficially, the CIA asked that Donovan go the East Berlin and make the arrangements. Turns out, the hand-over is more complicated that it sounded.
      Central to the film’s problems is that Spielberg seems uncertain as to what kind of movie he wants to make. In many scenes, especially once Donovan arrives in Germany, the dialogue and acting turns it into a Coen Brother satire (Ethan and Joel had a hand in the scripting) while at other times it strives, and mostly fails, as a serious commentary on the American view of justice and the cold realities of war.
   Too many scenes drag on for two or three minutes longer than necessary (seeming a minor complaint, but it turns what might have been a crisp 1:45 film into a laborious 2:25). Hanks, stretching himself a bit, ping-pongs between projecting Donovan as a hard-nosed negotiator and an “innocent abroad,” which doesn’t help the inconstant tone of the picture.
    I’m sure this will garner Spielberg his eighth Oscar nomination for directing and maybe score a best picture nod; it has the sheen of Oscar bail, not unlike last year’s equally by-the-numbers historical picture, “The Imitation Game.” But this is second-rate Spielberg—not a bad place to be—that offers crisp, straightforward storytelling but never captures that tick-tock pressure that defined the Cold War.

       For movie fans of a certain age, iconoclastic director John Huston will always be remembered for his early classics, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) and “The African Queen” (1951), along with his final three pictures, “Under the Volcano” (1984), “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) and “The Dead” (1987), all made after he turned 77.
     For 50 years, he was one of America’s best-known filmmakers, the son of and father to actors (and a superb actor himself), whose writing skills and ability to get the best out of his performers resulted in more than 20 exceptional motion pictures. 
     Beyond making memorably entertaining films, Huston, compared to his contemporaries, almost always made uncompromisingly adult movies, ones that presented characters and their life in the harsh light of reality. Because of that temperament, most of his films don’t require any special dispensation to enjoy today; the Hollywood dream machine or dated sentimentality rarely crept into a Huston picture.
     In other hands, “The Asphalt Jungle” would have been just a B-level crime film, a shadowy tale of corruption, petty criminals and desperate men so familiar in post-war film noir. Yet the hand of the master, along with an almost perfect cast and some of the best black-and-white cinematography ever achieved, transform the film into the ultimate heist film, the model of using the crime world as a study of men’s weaknesses 
     The film opens in the early morning as a police car cruises the empty streets of the city, then, getting a report of a robbery, pick up small-time thief Dix Handley (a brooding Sterling Hayden, at his best). But at the police lineup, his intense stare scares the witness, who realizes he “can’t” identify him.
     It’s Dix’s story we are drawn into, especially as he waxes nostalgic about his boyhood in Kentucky to Doll (Jean Hagen), a broken, sad women who attaches herself to Dix.
    At the same time, Doc (a steely Sam Jaffe), an ex-con with a heavy German accent, visits a well-connected local hood (crime film regular Marc Lawrence) to pitch his idea for a jewelry heist that could be worth a million dollars. They bring the idea to Emmerich, a “legitimate” businessman (Louis Calhern), who, unbeknownst to them, is both broke and trying to support his very young mistress (Marilyn Monroe in her first important role), which leads him to make plans to double-cross Doc and his team.
        Dix is brought into the plan as the muscle (they refer to him as a “hooligan”) and then, after the successful heist, accompanies Doc to Emmerich’s for the hand-off. There, a downward spiral begins for everyone.
      Having not seen the film in a few decades, I was most impressed with the quality of acting—probably better than any film noir of the era. Every performance is riveting, from the stars Hayden, Calhern, Hagen and Jaffe (who earned an Oscar nomination) to those with small supporting parts, including Brad Dexter, as a cool, intense associate of Emmerich; Monroe, authentically sexy before Hollywood turned her into a caricature; and James Whitmore, the loyal friend to Dix.
     Then there is the camera work of veteran cinematographer Harold Rosson, masterful in every scene, utilizing almost no nature light, often shooting in pitch black. Rosson shoots most of the scenes in close quarters—the walls and ceiling seems to be closing in on the actors—framing the actors in much tighter shots than a typical film of the time. Huston’s skill as a director of individual scenes has never been better displayed.
      Rosson, a filmmaking pioneer, began shooting films in 1915 and worked continually for the next 50 years, often working on a half-dozen films a year. His best known credits are “The Wizard of Oz” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
    The script, by Huston and Ben Maddow from W.R. Burnett’s novel, is filled with tough-guy jargon and sad ruminations on life. And it doesn’t let anyone off the hook; pointedly, the most dishonest characters in the film are businessman Emmerich and a police detective.
    Huston moved on from film noir after “The Asphalt Jungle,” which is our loss, as he clearly had special insight into these types of characters and this milieu.
     At one point, Dix reveals a spark of hope, telling Doll, “The way I figure, my luck just gotta turn.” But we know he never had any luck and never will. None of these characters do. Yet, the inevitability of their doom somehow makes them so much more interesting than the typical Hollywood character who somehow finds love, success, redemption at the end of the story. John Huston understood that, which makes his films worth returning to again and again.

     Like the original Macintosh computer—Steve Jobs’ entry into the cultural landscape—this movie about the arrogant, demanding and much admired entrepreneur doesn’t offer enough outlets to succeed with the public.
   Essentially, this is a one-man show, a play in three acts during which Michael Fassbender offers a tour-de-force performance of someone named Steve Jobs. Many have disputed how much of the portrayal is actually Jobs and how much is the invention of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “Moneyball”).
     As I’ve written before in this post, if you are seeking an accurate recounting of the details of a life don’t look toward the cinema. But for an understanding of the gist of a life, an over-dramatized telling that represents a piece of the truth, then you’ve arrived at the right medium.
     That said, I still don’t think much of the film named “Steve Jobs.” By setting each segment (1984/1988/1998) backstage minutes before the launch of a Jobs product, the film shows the character only at his most stressful, interacting with most of the same people. This narrow approach is counterproductive to shaping any type of profile.
    Like all Sorkin scripts (he also penned “Charlie Wilson’s War” and TV’s “The West Wing”), the dialogue is fast-paced, cutting, wickedly smart—no screenwriter has been better at presenting thoughtful professionals talking to one another since Paddy Chayefsky (“Network,” “The Hospital”). About 75 percent of the film is Jobs complaining and consulting with longtime assistant Joanna Hoffman, who, as played superbly by Kate Winslet, proves to be a strong foil for the often-childish Jobs. It’s one of this actress’ most impressive performances as she completely disappears into the role. Seriously: I did not recognize her until about two minutes into the film; I kept thinking, “Who is this actress?” 
         Director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”) does an excellent job of keeping the film energetic, despite the enclosed set (nearly as claustrophobic as “Birdman”) and rigid structure, which, I assume, was set by Sorkin’s script.
     Beyond the structure of the movie, I was put off by the excessive time and emotions devoted to Jobs unsettled relationship with his first daughter, whose paternity he denies at first, and her eccentric mother.  It’s meant to show his heartlessness and eventual softening—his evolving—but it felt forced, especially when his wife and other children are not only absent but never even mentioned.
       Since his coming out party in Quentin Tarantino’ s ”Inglourious Basterds” just six years ago, Fassbender has quickly risen on the list of in-demand actors. Along with offering complex, intense performances as a sex addict in “Shame,” a heartless slave owner in “12 Years a Slave” and a eccentric rock ‘n’ roll singer in “Frank,” he has joined “The X-Men” and will portray Shakespeare’s Scottish king later this year in “Macbeth.”
     But his searing performance as Jobs, whether he represents the real man or Sorkin’s imaginary version, almost made me like this disjointed, shrill picture.
      In addition, excellent work is turned in by Seth Rogen as Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, Michael Shuhlbarg as put-upon engineer Andy Hertzfeld and Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, the CEO of Apple who forces Jobs out when the highly touted Mac fails. 
     One of the producers, or maybe Boyle, after seeing the script, should have smiled at Sorkin and reminded him that they were making a movie not an off-Broadway play. And, by the way, can you throw the iPhone in there somewhere?

    If you already feel a bit paranoid about the sanctity of your privacy, do yourself a favor and avoid this documentary. Not to be dramatic, but if you believe privacy to be integral to freedom, then the “Land of the Free” has left the building.
     This is the rare documentary that doesn’t need to recreate events, use after-the-fact interviews or rely on archival footage. Director Laura Poitras was on the ground floor of one of the biggest stories of the past decade: Edward Snowden’s 2013 release of classified information gathered by the U.S. government through its worldwide wiretapping.
      Anonymously, the National Security Agency contractor, under the codename Citizen Four, contacted the filmmaker (she previous made documentaries on the war on terror and the Iraqi war) to help him publish the massive collection of private conversations he illegally downloaded from government computers. Not only did he want the world to know what the U.S. was up to, but he also hoped to embarrass the government into halting the spy programs.
     Along with British journalist Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian, she interviewed and filmed the mild-mannered, apprehensive Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room.
     Immediately, the revelations about the extent of phone tapping—virtually all phone calls made by U.S. citizens—become banner headlines around the world, leading to Congressional hearings and mea culpas from the White House.
     The other aspect of the story and documentary is the government’s attempt to arrest and prosecute Snowden for releasing classified documents.
     While Snowden initially seems ready to accept whatever punishment his actions brought—willingly sacrificing his freedom so that Americans could know the truth about their government—he soon changes his stand.
     When the Justice Department charged him with espionage (an over-reach by most accounts), he went into hiding, foolishly accepting the protection of Russia—not exactly stalwarts of freedom—where he remains.
     While Snowden deserves praise as a whistleblower on a practice that clearly violated the Constitution and, at least, needed to be fully debated by the country, he also should have been willing to face the consequences. Seeking asylum from Mr. Putin wasn’t the smartest political move Snowden could have made.    
      The Oscar-winning film becomes repetitive in stretches as we watch Snowden sit on a bed in the hotel room answering the journalist’s questions. The film can also be numbing in its reliance on computer/government jargon. Yet this chilling documentary’s first-hand, news-as-it-happens report chronicling a crucial issue of our time overcomes its artistic lackings.
    And the news is quite clear: Under the protection of fighting terrorism, governments will inevitably push, as technology grows in sophistication, the rights of the individual to its limits. It becomes a question of how much privacy Americans are willing to relinquish to the cause of national security.
      Despite some occasional outbursts of outrage, it seems to me that the ship has sailed (with the generous help of our phone/computer carriers). The once horrific idea of Big Brother is now greeted with a shrug.

     Even while suspecting that I’d already seen the best jokes after a half-dozen viewings of the trailer, I couldn’t resist this film. In fact, Robert De Niro, as Ben Whittaker, a 70-year-old intern who shows that old-school experience has a place at a young, hip internet startup, is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish even as the film becomes more and more tedious.
       Anne Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, a Type-A founder and CEO whose clothing mail order firm takes precedence over her husband and young daughter. (If you watch much Lifetime or Hallmark, you know the plotline). Though she initially has no time for her new “senior intern” (a program thought up by one of her managers), when Ben ends up taking over as her driver he quickly becomes essential to her life, making it his job to ease her stress.
    I stopped counting the cliches after the first 15 minutes and never had the slightest interest in Jules situation with her family or her search for an outsider to take over CEO duties (pushed by her investors). Unlike writer-director Nancy Meyers’ “It’s Complicated,“ where the older folks are front and center, here she only uses Senior De Niro as the wise counsel in Jules’ story.
    I would have much rather seen more of Ben’s courting of the company masseuse (Renee Russo), his hi-jinks with the younger staff members (a highlight is Ben and the boys breaking and entering a home—for a good cause) and how this experience and his relationship with Jules changes his life.    
    I could relate to Ben as he gains a bounce to his step after being surrounded by the energy of youth, finding emotional reward in lending a helping hand and offering a sympathetic ear. But “The Intern” has no interest in going down that less traveled plotline, preferring to play it safe with time-worn familiarity.

     While I don’t think the movie-going public was clamoring for a second version of the Whitey Burger story, this portrayal, sticking closer to the facts, makes for compelling cinema. I dare say, it’s nearly equal to Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar winning fictionalized look at the Boston mobster, “The Departed.”
      Johnny Depp, finally in a role worthy of his acting talents, plays James “Whitey” Bulger with a bit too much makeup (as if many filmgoers know what Bulger looks like) but the perfect combination of charming local legend, charismatic leader and psychotic killer. At the center of the film, like “The Departed,” is the dangerous game played by local FBI agent John Connelly, played here by Joel Edgerton (Matt Damon in Scorsese’s film), who thinks he can advance his legitimate career while helping Bulger take a stronger hold on Boston crime. 
        Edgerton, who was weirdly robotic as Tom in “The Great Gatsby,” nails the kind of brown-nosing sycophant who imagines himself everyone’s pal when in fact he’s barely tolerated. As he enriches himself by handing Whitey the city on a platter, he somehow manages to placate his suspicious FBI boss (Kevin Bacon) with the occasional inside information. It’s a classic tale, nearly Shakespearian, of a man who sells his soul so he can be “one of the guys,” part of something he’s admired since he was a boy.     
      Scott Cooper, whose previous films were “Crazy Heart,” which earned Jeff Bridges his Oscar, and the moody rustbelt drama, “Out of the Furnace,” isn’t much of a stylist, but does capture the inner-city rot of the 1970s and ‘80s and clearly knows how to get the most out his of actors.
         Also giving fine performances in the film are Benedict Cumberbatch (is he in everything?) as Whitey brother, amazingly, a Massachusetts’ state senator at the time; Julianne Nicholson as Connelly’s distressed wife; David Harbour as Connelly’s reluctant FBI partner; and Corey Stoll, who continues to give superb supporting performances (“Midnight in Paris,” Netflix’s “House of Cards”) as the DA who finally delivers Connelly’s comeuppance.
     There’s nothing in “Black Mass” fans of organized crime films haven’t seen before—ritual killings, entrapping traitors, enjoying the illicit riches—but the toxic mixture of the FBI double-agent and the unrelenting Bulger makes for an intensely entertaining picture,
    For those who don’t follow the news, Whitey slipped away before Boston authorities could grab him (if they were even trying) and wasn’t captured until years later, in 2011, in California. The 86-year-old will spend what’s left of his life in prison.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

August 2015

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
     For reasons that I’d be hard pressed to explain, at age eight, a television show took over my life. It was 1964 and the new show on NBC was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” I didn’t just become a fan of this slyly humorous Bond-film rip-off, I became obsessed. I watched each show not just to enjoy the cliché plots or the humorous repartee between Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, but to gain knowledge of this secret organization, absorb every nugget about the characters and their world. (I longed to visit the New York City tailor shop that was the front for headquarters, unaware that it was a set somewhere in Southern California.)
   Of course, I wasn’t alone. Suddenly, you could own a “Man from U.N.C.L.E” identification card, a replica of Napoleon’s gun (complete with silencer), and the yellow triangle badge that gained you entrance into U.N.C.L.E. headquarters (I think it all came as part of a package). I soon had established my U.N.C.L.E. outpost under the basement stairs, equipped with a world map marking the sites of known U.N.C.L.E. branches. Luckily, T.H.R.U.S.H. was nowhere to be found.     
      I’m not sure why it took 40 years to bring a version of the show to the big screen, but it definitely was not worth the wait. This high-octane, Guy Ritchie actioner, set in the early days of the Cold War, defiles the legendary series with a humorless, dull script, over-the-top chase scenes and even worse acting.
     Henry Cavill (the most recent “Superman”) plays Napoleon, the suave, low-key master spy who always has an eye out for the ladies, while Armie Hammer (“The Social Network,” “The Lone Ranger”) portrays Illya, a no-nonsense, somewhat humorless Soviet agent who is paired with Solo to fight international bad guys.
      Neither of these actors (or should I write “actors”) brings even a modicum of spark to their characters; they are good-looking mannequins who read the words on the page and little more. The only actor who leaves any impression is the super-model thin Elizabeth Debicki, who, at least, exudes the chic attitude of the 1960s.
    No one would ever claim greatness for the TV show’s scripts, but the film’s screenplay offers little of the original’s sarcastic humor, stylish wordplay and fiendish villains. At points in the film, I wasn’t even trying to follow the dialogue, it was so bland.
      On television, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum (still going strong on “NCSI”) played the pair as a comedy duo who just happened to have licenses to kill. Illya never stopped rolling his eyes at Solo’s double entendres while Napoleon kept pushing Illya toward any woman who showed interest. No reason not to find love while saving the world, right?
     Not only does this new movie ignore the spirit of the Sam Rolfe-created series, but it offers virtually no link to the original: where is the cool U.N.C.L.E logo, Jerry Goldsmith’s theme or the ballpoint pen communicators? I longed to hear Solo whisper into his pen, “Open channel D.” 

      Though it’s rarely mentioned with the other important 1970s films about the Vietnam experience—“Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now”—this philosophical action movie about a drug deal gone bad deserves recognition.
    Based on Robert Stone’s acclaimed novel “Dog Soldiers,” the movie opens in Vietnam, where freelance journalist John Converse (Michael Moriarty) is about to return to the states. Converse, lost in the meaningless chaos of this very particular war without a moral compass, scores a kilo of heroin, with plans to sell it once he’s back in California. Yet it’s clear from the start that he’s a rank amateur, clueless about the people he’s dealing with.
     He convinces his Marine buddy Ray Hicks (a superb Nick Nolte) to deliver the package to Converse’s wife Marge (Tuesday Weld) in Oakland, who is completely unprepared when a pair of corrupt cops (a strange duo of Ray Sharkey and Richard Masur) attempts a home invasion to intercept the drugs. This sends Ray and Marge on the run, with the bad cops (led by the great character actor Anthony Zerbe), who eventually take Converse prisoner, on their trail.
      What makes this film memorable is the love-hate relationship that builds between Marge and Ray; he’s tired of doing what he’s told and sees the chase as an existential journey that brings order to a senseless world, while she’s trying to find an anchor in her life to replace her drug addiction and uncertain marriage. It’s the story of America as the turbulent ‘60s concluded; a society unable to keep the drugs, guns and discontent, fostered by an unpopular war, from splitting the country.
     Like an ancestor of “No Country for Old Men,” this Karl Reisz-directed picture chronicles a world gone crazy, where violence has become a way of doing business. The film’s Merry Prankster-inspired finale feels like a heroin-induced reenactment of a shootout from an old Randolph Scott movie. 
     Except for Moriarty, who, in the midst of a run of good roles (“Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Report to the Commissioner” and, on TV, “The Glass Menagerie”) seems uncertain how to play this weak, hopeless character, the acting is exceptional.
     Nolte, at the time best known for his hunky role on the TV miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” gives one of the best performances of his career; he’s a tough, angry Marine willing to die for the “mission” at the same time that he recognizes the pointlessness of it all. A glance at Notle’s filmography shows how haphazardly he’s chosen roles over his 40-year career, especially in the past 15 years, yet he never fails to turn his characters into complex, interesting men.
      Weld, another underutilized performer, was always perfect (“Pretty Poison,” “Play It as It Lays,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) as a dazed woman, on the brink of a breakdown, who has been disappointed by life. Her Marge, an unwilling participate in this misguided adventure, is the real survivor among this group.   
       Director Reisz, who escaped the Nazis as a child, leaving behind parents who died in the Holocaust, became a leading light of the British New Wave movement in the 1950s. The Czech-born director’s 1960 debut was the classic rebellious youth film, “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” which made Albert Finney a star.
     Though Reisz directed just nine features, he knew how to get the most out of his actors, helming Vanessa Redgrave to two Oscar nominations (“Morgan” and “Isabella”) and then later guiding Meryl Streep (“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”) and Jessica Lange (“Sweet Dreams”) to nominations.
     If there is a philosophical companion piece to “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” it would be Reisz’s 1974 James Caan film “The Gambler.” In both films, a smart, discontent man finds salvation by heightening life’s risks.

    In recent years, no film genre has grown in numbers and acclaimed more than music-themed documentaries. Two of the past three documentary Oscar winners, “Searching for Sugar Man” and “20 Feet from Stardom” are music docs, while well-reviewed films, “Magic Bus” (about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters), “Kurt Cobain: Homage to Heck,” and “Muscle Shoals” (about another group of studio musicians), among many others, have received big-screen releases in the past five years. For television, Martin Scorsese contributed epic chronicles of Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
    As important as any of these, “The Wrecking Crew,” documents one of the biggest secrets in pop/rock history. Only those in the industry and true rock history devotees were aware that a group of Los Angeles studio musicians, loosely known as the Wrecking Crew, provided the sound to hundreds of hit records of 1960s. Providing the instrumentation for Beach Boys, Tijuana Brass, the 5th Dimension, Sonny and Cher, the Monkees and all those Phil Spector girl groups (to name just a few), these versatile musicians had as much to do with the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll on the pop charts as the singers who reaped all the credit.
    Working at various LA studios and for whichever producer called them, this collection of 20 some musicians allegedly earned its nickname by “wrecking” the business by playing rock ‘n’ roll, while their straighter colleagues were still stuck in 50s pop. It wasn’t long into the decade that this new style took over the airwaves and the musicians of the Wrecking Crew were the most sought after session players in the country.
    While rarely getting credit on records, they became the most respected players in the business, eventually used to completely replace the band members on records (like they did for the Beach Boys, the Monkeys, the Association, even The Byrds on their first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man”). They created, working with the producers, arrangements and solos that the “real” band members sometimes struggled to recreate live. 
       The documentary was pieced together (believe me, that’s the perfect description) by Denny Tedesco over the past 20 years. It was a labor of love, as his father, Tommy Tedesco, was among the key members of the Wrecking Crew and one of the most acclaimed guitarists of the era. The son has taken his contemporary interviews with the living members, photos and some film of actual studio sessions from the ‘60s, the songs, of course, along with home movies of his father (who died in 1997) to create a hodgepodge chronicle of the musicians.
    Repetitive, disorganized and lacking any sign of filmmaking acumen, the documentary can be infuriating in the way it starts to explain how something took place and then loses its focus and drifts off to something else. You get bits and pieces of people’s lives that are never put together in a coherent narrative. Yet, if you have any interest in music of the 1960s, this is a must see.
     The sessions produced by Brian Wilson, extensively interviewed in the film, for “Pet Sounds” and the single “Good Vibrations” (dramatized in the recent Wilson bio-pic, “Love and Mercy”) are among the documentary’s highlights. While Wilson talks about the importance of the Wrecking Crews in fulfilling his musical vision, the studio musicians still hold him in awe all these years later; their praise starts at “genius” and goes upward from there.
    In addition to Tedesco, the most prominent among the players were drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine (Charlie Watts once said that five of his favorite drummers turned out to all be Blaine); bassists Joe Osborn and Carol Kaye, the lone female of the gang; saxophonist Plas Johnson; and two who went on to solo fame, pianist Leon Russell (minus his long hair and beard) and guitar phenom Glen Campbell.
      The documentary doesn’t make enough of the end of this dominant era of studio musicians, after producers lost control of the process and artists started charting their own course, insisting that actual band members perform on the records. By the mid 1970s, the days of the perfectly crafted, inventive pop single had faded away and so had the Wrecking Crew.
     The extras on the DVD are somewhat repetitive, but there are some good stories on the recording process from Nancy Sinatra, Bill Medley, and Barry McGwire.
    The point of the documentary, of course, is to finally give recognition to these exceptional and influential musicians, among the best of their generation, and it succeeds in doing that. If only the film had been able to match their creativity with some of its own.

    It’s easy to assume, if you read this post regularly, that I have a deep-seated hatred for popular “popcorn” movies, looking down on any film that doesn’t have some higher purpose in mind. Nothing could be further from the truth; what I reject is Hollywood insistence that making popular entertainments means venturing into fantasy and sci-fi. We’ve tossed aside heroes for superheroes.
     That’s what I’ve enjoyed over almost 20 years of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise: while Ethan Hunt and his posse pull off some amazing (impossible?) schemes, they do it all without a single superpower. 
     The fifth entry in the series, “Rogue Nation,” is a crackling entertainment from start to finish, mixing thrills, danger, temporary confusion, and off-handed humor—the time-tested qualities of a good action picture.
     As seems to happen in every spy film, the bosses back in Washington have had enough of the over-reaching, off-the-book, unauthorized actions of the clandestine operation and shut it down. (Alec Baldwin is the obstinate CIA chief who is determined to retire Hunt.)
   This leaves our hero—despite his beyond the call of duty effort to secure a shipment of nuclear weapons, keeping it out of terrorists’ hands in the incredible opening sequence—on his own, so to speak, just as he’s close to discovering the man behind the long rumored terrorist cabal, the Syndicate. (They couldn’t come up with a better name?)
     Hunt, in some ways the grown up version of Napoleon Solo, finds a fellow spy with similar skill sets and a lone-wolf mentality in Ilsa Faust (striking Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson), who has some authority issues of her own.
      It’s not long before Hunt’s crew joins him, just in time for a hair-raising chase between cars and motorcycles down the narrow streets of Casablanca. (I enjoyed the inside references to the classic 1943 film: The heroine’s name in “Rogue Nation” is the same as the character played by Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.”)
       Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who joined the group in the last film, “Ghost Protocol” (2011), and now runs the M:I unit and Luther (Ving Rhames, a veteran of all five pictures), who always seems to be just waiting around for Ethan’s call, do what’s needed of them, but Benji (British comic Simon Pegg) finds himself center-stage in this film, dangerously on the front lines with Ethan.
     Cruise could play this role in his sleep—as he seemed to in the disappointing second film—but, especially in the last two, he appears to be fully committed to this nearly ageless, invaluable government agent. Gone are any concerns of the character’s personal life; it’s all about the mission and keeping the world safe from the evil doers, even when the guys in the suits don’t understand.
      Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who first made a splash 20 years ago with his sensational script for “The Usual Suspects,” has become one of Cruise’s go-to guys. He wrote the script for the World War II thriller “The Valkyrie” and the first-rate sci-fi film “Edge of Tomorrow,” along with directing and adapting “Jack Reacher.”
    As the writer-director on “Rogue Nation,” McQuarrie never lets us forget that these are just people doing their jobs, making human decisions and finding human solutions to escape jams. For me, that’s always going to be important.

    My wife DVRs two or three movies a day—blindly, based on the title and maybe the listed star actor. Most of them she erases after watching for about three minutes. On the other hand, I record movies that I’ve spotted while studying the online schedules of the half-dozen movie channels on our cable system, nothing the director, plot, stars, often looking it up in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide to determine if it’s worth my time. I think you can guess the result: minus the immediately deletions, she finds as many interesting movies as I do.
     An especially pleasing surprise was this English-language film from Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, best known for the art-house hit “Cinema Paradiso” (1988). “The Best Offer” has the same kind of fable-like story and startling images as his early success, this time in the guise of a romantic mystery. Geoffrey Rush plays Virgil Oldman, an arrogant, high-respected auctioneer and forgery expert.
    He uses his expertise and the respect he holds in the industry to purchase original paintings he covets at cheap prices by labeling them as forgeries, helped in this ruse by an eccentric friend (Donald Sutherland).
    His orderly life is upended when he’s summoned by a young woman to appraise and sell all the furniture and artwork that fills room after room of a mansion once occupied by her parents. Yet she refuses to see him in person, raising his curiosity about her. Soon he forms a strange bond with Claire (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), who locks herself in her room when others are in the house.
    Rush perfectly captures the complexity of this unsmiling, no-nonsense professional who, starting for companionship, becomes entranced by this seemingly needy woman.
     Like “Cinema Paradise,” the elaborate, over-stuffed sets and startling images are used by the director to elevate the story and emotions. By the end, the story seems totally implausible and clever to a fault, yet the path getting there is highly entertaining.

     As long as they keep making movies in Hollywood, you can count on at least one boxing picture a year. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say they’ve been using the same script for every one of them since the 1930s.
    “Southpaw,” though very watchable with an excellent cast, doesn’t tread far from the formula started in 1931 with “The Champ.” Maybe the only alteration to the usual plotline is that Billy Hope (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is already rich and famous; he’s the light heavyweight champion of the world, with a hot wife (Rachel McAdams), a cute daughter (Oona Laurence), a palatial gated estate and, most importantly, an untrustworthy manager (50 Cent, seriously).
    Even with the back story that Billy and his wife were both foster children, it’s hard to gather much sympathy considering his obscene wealth and trashy mentality. But, just in time, tragedy strikes and Billy loses nearly everything, forcing him to take stock of his life and start over. Couldn’t see that coming….
    That leads him to an inner city gym and its owner, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), an old-school boxing trainer (are there any other kind?) who acts and talks like he just walked off the set of “Million Dollar Baby.” Between working with troubled youths, Tick agrees to help Billy get back in boxing shape and reinvent his approach in the ring.
     It’s in the gym where director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) does his best work, finding the grit that is washed clean from the rest of the film. The boxing matches in the film are high-volume and intensely violence, but way too long. Unless you’re Martin Scorsese, please edit boxing matches as tightly as possible—five minutes of punching and bleeding feels like an eternity.
    Though much of his character is a collection of clichés, Whitaker finds a way to create a real person, elevating the film in the process. It’s one of this underrated actor’s best performances, ranking with his Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” and his portrayal of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in “Bird.” Even when his mumble is nearly incomprehensible, he offers Billy the tough-love (always present in boxing flicks) he needs and molds him into a person the audience wants to root for.
     The role doesn’t stretch Gyllenhaal’s acting skills much—certainly not compared to his superb work last year in “Nightcrawler”—but he’s convincingly uneducated, brutal and tender hearted; just what that 1931 script requires.
     And if “Southpaw” doesn’t offer up enough heartwarming boxing tropes to fulfill your needs, there is yet another chapter of the “Rocky” franchise, “Creed,” opening later this year with Sylvester Stallone as—surprise—the mumbling, old-school trainer offering tough love…..

    It’s hard not to enjoy this period piece set in 1930s Ireland as it chronicles a small slice of the century-long political and religious conflict that has marked life in this ancient country. The picture-perfect countryside, the cozy cottages, the joyful sing and dancing, all belie the stifling control the Catholic Church, with the government’s help, holds over the working class.
    The Jimmy of the title is James Gralton (Barry Ward), a charismatic rebel who was forced into exile 10 years earlier and, as the film opens, has just returned from New York City. He brings a bit of the 20th Century back with him (symbolized by his gramophone) to this Irish village, which doesn’t play well with the dogmatic parish priest (Jim Norton).
     Jimmy’s Hall is a community center of sorts, something he revives that brings old and young people together to read books (not sanctioned by the church!), learn to paint and hold dances featuring the devil’s music, jazz.  The hall also represents, to the church and landowners, a socialist movement that puts their authority in question. 
     As nostalgic as the setup is, the film becomes tedious when the expected hammer comes down on Jimmy. As much as I sympathized—it’s frustrating watching decent people allow themselves to be subjugated by the self-righteous hatred of the church—director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty (from Donal O’Kelly’s play) have stacked the deck too heavily for Jimmy so that the film has no gray. Too often, the dialogue sounds as if it is being said by a cause rather than a character.
     I have a high regard for Loach, one of England’s finest filmmakers, yet I prefer his kitchen-sink, contemporary dramas in which the dialogue (sometimes requiring subtitles) feel authentic and the emotional stakes are more personal rather than the didactic positioning of his period pieces (“Land and Freedom,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”)
    The best films of this 79-year-old iconoclast, essential to understanding post-Thatcher working class England, include “Raining Stones,” Ladybird Ladybird,” “My Name Is Joe” and “Sweet Sixteen.”

Saturday, August 1, 2015

July 2015

Generally speaking, the past 60 years of European cinema have been about exploring the moral conflicts of modern man. At the same time, American cinema has focused on how that same man, unaware of any moral conflict, does whatever is necessary to defeat a one-dimensional bad guy.

So when an American filmmaker tackles the philosophical aspects of life in more than a superficial manner—as the Coen brothers and Terrence Malick often do—the results are always interesting even if the instinct to entertain dilutes the message.

Woody Allen, whose sensibilities have always leaned more toward European cinema than American (especially Hollywood filmmaking), has been integrating morals and philosophy into his films since “Love and Death” (1975). Most prominently, he’s sent characters into existential dilemmas in “Interiors,” “Stardust Memories,” “Another Woman,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point.”

Now, in “Irrational Man,” the central character is a philosophy professor whose entire life is invested in exploring the meaning of life and his place in it. Abe Lucas (a properly distracted and disheveled Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at a small Eastern college with plenty of baggage. His reputation as a controversial author and thinker, along with being an alcoholic and ladies man precedes him, for better or worse.     

Two who are immediately drawn to this sullen, humorless, but very verbal professor are inquisitive student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone in her second Allen film) and Rita Richards (Parker Posey), another professor at Braylin, who desperately wants to change her life.

The film seems to chart a rather predictable course, with both women fixing their sites on the uninterested, near-suicidal Abe, until Jill and Abe overhear a woman discussing her child custody suit. The seemingly pointless event changes  Abe view of life overnight; he suddenly finds meaning in what had been a pointless, banal existence. 

For those who seek out Allen for comedy, they will find very little here. This is a serious exploration of the intellectual questions of what makes for a happy life and how other’s existence affects us. I can safely predict that this will be the only 2015 film in which characters will discuss Kierkegaard, Kant, Heidegger and Dostoyevsky.

What saves the film from suffocating pretention is the lived-in, thoughtful performances by the three principles. Actresses, whether it’s Allen’s writing or direction, have always come off better in his films, yet in “Irrational Man,” Phoenix is the real standout, giving a rich, believable performance as this unhappy intellectual. Both Posey and Stone are also quite good, creating women who are more than just conquests; each seek something different from Abe, ironically, the last person on Earth capable of helping them. 

As he approaches 80, later this year, Allen refuses to just sit back, dote on his children and accept lifetime achievement awards; he continues to seek answers to big questions, grasp at understanding what can’t be understood, re-examine theories about what it all means and offer some insight into how we live our irrational lives. 

At various times, I’ve labeled this film version of the landmark stage musical as plodding, painfully obvious and horribly acted. This best picture winner doesn’t even make my Top 10 for 1961.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t given it a fair shot, having seen only second-rate prints on old-style televisions. After watching a pristine print on my flat screen TV a few days ago, I need to revise my appraisal, slightly. It is a spectacular production with some of the most creative, superbly shot dance sequences in movie history.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, “West Side Story” borrows heavily from “Romeo and Juliet,” with the white gang (Jets) challenging the Puerto Rican gang (Sharks) to a rumble while a former Jet and the Shark leader’s sister have fallen in love. Between the singing and dancing, this clearly isn’t going to turn out well.

The direction of the dancers by choreographer and co-director Jerome Robbins, who conceived the idea for the socially conscience musical, remains breathtaking more than 40 years later, as cinematic as anything Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen or Gene Kelly created during the Golden Age of movie musical.  (Robert Wise directed the less-interesting dramatic scenes.)

Another aspect I underrated from previous viewings was the straight-ahead manner the story deals with racial issues. Well before Middle America was aware of, or had any sympathy for, civil rights movements, Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ play presents white gangs as the aggressors in the territorial turf fight with newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants. The idea that maybe it wasn’t the fault of the immigrants when a fight broke out was revolutionary in 1957, when the stage production debuted.

The film’s rich color (from cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp) and use of New York City streets as its backdrop make it worth watching even if you aren’t a fan of modern dance. I can only imagine the effect the look and energy of the film, especially in the first 30 minutes, had on audiences in 1961, not to mention Oscar voters.

The bad acting hasn’t improved; ironically the non-dancers are the worse. The only name in the cast, Natalie Wood, a Russian girl from San Francisco, tries her best to pass as Maria, the Puerto Rican Juliet, yet it’s hard to take her seriously, especially when her singing is dubbed (by Marni Nixon, who did the same for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”).

Even worse is Tony/Romeo, Richard Beymer, a wooden performer who never amounted to more than an OK TV actor. There is nothing about his character that makes you believe that the stunningly beautiful Maria would fall for him.

Supporting Oscars went to Rita Moreno, who gives the film’s only memorable performance as Maria’s best friend, and George Chakiris, more of a dancer than an actor playing the leader of the Sharks, who sports the worst makeup job you’ll ever see on an Oscar winner and his acting isn’t much better.

But if there’s a movie where poor acting is secondary to the overall production, it’s “West Side Story,” and I haven’t even mentioned the music. Considered by many as the greatest Broadway score, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the songs, including classics like “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria” and “Somewhere” (the most heartbreaking song about impossible love ever written), and the orchestration behind the dancing remain a living soundtrack to inner-city life of that era. And then there are the innovative opening and, etched as graffiti, closing credits by Saul Bass (“Vertigo,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Casino”).

Despite its many flaws, I found much more to appreciate about “West Side Story” during this viewing. Also, in the past 20 years, the film versions of many great Broadway shows (“Chicago,” “Dreamgirls,” “Rent,” “Jersey Boys”) have stumbled on their way to the big screen, making the accomplishment of “West Side Story” more impressive.  

I’m glad I waited to see this movie until all the hurly burly surrounding it cleared. After reading way too much about it (mostly negative) I was surprised to find a rather smart satire on TV journalism, American intelligent agencies and a certain evil dictator.

If you can get past the sophomoric sex jokes and embarrassing racist and homophobic asides, as one has come to expect from Seth Rogan-Evan Goldberg-James Franco cabal, this movie is more amusing and clever than most of the recent comedies aimed at the under-25 crowd. And you have to give these goofball filmmakers credit: They could have played it safe and made up some Third World country and a fictional cartoonish dictator, but they went for the kill (so to speak), featuring a character named Kim Jong-un and dealing with real North Korean issues. 

If you slept through 2014, the plot sends celebrity interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco nails the unctuous, talentless talking heads who dominate early evening television) to North Korean to interview the crazy Kim because the Exulted Leader is a big fan of Skylark. But as they nail down the arrangements, the FBI intervenes, enlisting Skylark and his trusted producer Aaron (Rogan) to assassinate Kim while they are there.

Randall Park (the father on TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”) is very funny as Kim, playing him a lonely little boy who just wants to have fun…and loves Katy Perry. Skylark, after hanging out with Kim for a few days, develops a man crush, making the assassination plan more difficult.

Popular comedies have always been a bit messy, stupid and crude; what’s changed is how far you have to go to raise eyebrows. “The Interview,” shamelessly, is all of the above yet it is smart enough to focus on the relationships (Skylark and Aaron, Aaron and a sexy Korean attaché, Skylark and Kim) to keep one foot (or maybe just a toe) planted in reality.

As the stars of the 1970s and ‘80s go gray, filmmakers are utilizing their name recognition in a growing roster of movies that do little else than make fun of aging.

Among the recent films that revive the clueless senior citizen characters that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau trademarked (“Grumpy Old Men”) include “The Bucket List,” with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman; “Second Hand Lions,” with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine; “An Unfinished Life,” with Freeman and Robert Redford; “Grudge Match,” with Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone; “Stand Up Guys,” with Al Pacino, Alan Arkin and Christopher Walken; and the upcoming remake of “Going in Style” with Arkin, Freeman and Caine.

“Last Vegas” doesn’t even try to be much of a movie, just offers up four first-rate actors, all with an Oscar on their shelves, who seem to be having fun hanging out with one another. Michael Douglas (69 at the time), Kevin Kline (66) De Niro (70) and Freeman (76) play childhood friends from the Brooklyn who have remained close through the years. Now Douglas’ Billy, a lifelong bachelor, has asked a woman half his age to become his wife and his three friends converge on Las Vegas to celebrate. It quickly becomes a quartet when they are entranced by a lounge singer (Mary Steenburgen, a youngster at 60) at Binion’s, the legendary downtown casino.

The group’s plans for a low-keyed, Fremont Street weekend are hijacked when Archie (Freeman) bets his retirement fund at the craps table…and wins big. Suddenly, they are upgraded to an Aria suite, party at a velvet rope nightclub and are surrounded by voluptuous young ladies. The film implies that if you are rich enough, Vegas hotels offer free pimping services—but, hey, it’s a comedy, right?

The Dan Fogelman script (see “Danny Collins” below for his other offense) offers a weak attempt at conflict with a lingering grudge held by De Niro against Douglas, but mostly the film paints a bleak view of retirement in which a wild weekend in Vegas is about all that stands between them and jumping off a bridge. But the worst of it comes when the film turns sentimental and everyone’s problems are solved.

Also bothersome was the fact that not a word (that I caught) was said about what these guys did for their entire lives; there was barley any mention of families and not a word on their professions. I guess that would have taken any from another “where are my reading glasses” moment. 

I would have much rather have seen these guys playing themselves or version of the real thing. Four old actors who can’t find worthwhile roles are reduced to playing pity-worthy retirees getting together in Vegas to lament the sad state of American movies.

What really scares me is that in a few years, will Clooney, Pitt, Penn and Denzel be in “Last Vegas 2”? I’m getting too old for this…

TED 2 (2015)
It’s easy to be offended by this goofball sequel but much harder not to laugh out loud, often. This film, much like the better-made original, holds nothing back as its racist, sexist, excessively profane, supremely stupid and usually high protagonists show that modern-day Neanderthals are alive and oblivious to 20 years of political correctness.

I’m not sure what makes the over-the-top dialogue less offensive than the typical Judd Apatow comedy, but it doesn’t hurt that most of the more shocking lines are uttered by a cute little teddy bear. Even Ted’s best bud John (Mark Wahlberg), an unthreatening, soft-spoken stoner, comes off as an innocent even as they break into a celebrity’s home to steal a semen sample. (Ted and his white-trash bride, fellow grocery store clerk Tami-Lynn, want to have a baby and the stuffed bear lacks the proper anatomy.) Somehow writer, director and vocal star of this franchise, Seth MacFarlane, has made the film so utterly ridiculous that he can pretty much get away with saying anything.

The plot, for what that’s worth, involves Ted trying to legally prove he’s a free human rather than a possession. But what it’s really about is smoking dope and talking about sex. When they first meet their lawyer (a very game Amanda Seyfried), she is smoking from a bong under her desk and later, when they come across a large field of marijuana plants, they act as if they’ve arrived at Shangri-La.

The antics of Ted and John are supplemented by a handful of very amusing bits by familiar faces, plus the return from the first film of cult actor Sam Jones, Patrick Warburton and Giovanni Ribisi as the psychotic Donny. MacFarland saves his best work for last, when he sets the wildly ridiculous climatic action sequence in the perfect world for this film—a Comic Con. He stuffs the screen with the crazies of those events while his laughably stupid plot plays out.

The “Ted” films are what Mel Brooks would be making if he was 50 years younger and collaborated with Cheech and Chong. No, they aren’t quite “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein”—subtlety, it seems, has been genetically removed from comedy—but the films go to uncomfortable lengths and dip incredibly low for what remains a precious commodity: a good laugh.  

This is one of the most surprising films I’ve ever seen: a seemingly typical 1950s scientist-encounters-aliens B-movie that suddenly turns into a story of worldwide spiritual awakening.

Usually, when an American film deals with religious devotion, it focuses on an individual who is helped through a crisis by a religious figure or their faith. Other than the Biblical epics of the 1950s and the occasional bio-pics of Jesus, big-picture spirituality is rarely dealt with on film, especially in a sci-fi flick.

That’s why I was taken aback when faith becomes so central to “Red Planet Mars.” Peter Graves (the future Mr. Phelps of “Mission: Impossible”) plays Chris Cronyn, who, with his wife, has found a way to communicate with someone (it’s never clear who) on Mars. I was never sure how they knew that they were reaching Mars (as opposed to the Moon or Venus or Newark), yet soon Mars starts messaging back, responding to questions about power sources (Really? That’s what we want to know?) Mars communicates that they no longer need coal and have moved past fossil fuel.

Interesting, I guess, but in the film, coal mines all over the world close down, as do steel mills and soon world-wide industry has collapsed and there are runs on the banks. It’s as if a voice from space tells us that Facebook is outdated and the next day Zuckerberg declares bankruptcy. 

The U.S. government becomes involved and is just about to shut down Cronyn’s lab (by the president, who sits in an office not worthy of a middle manager at an insurance agency) when they receive a Mars message urging earthlings to following the words of Jesus. Suddenly, because of this anonymous message, the entire world hits their knees; within days the Soviet Union collapses and the Russian Orthodox Church takes the reins of Russia. This seems to be the main point of the film: if we can just bring the people of the Soviet Union back to Jesus, the evil politburos of Communism will crumble. 

At one point, the film presents the possibility that the entire thing is a hoax (which would have made the film much more interesting) but the film leaves that angle in doubt.

Actually, more interesting than the film is its director, Harry Horner. As both an actor and a production assistant for the famed Max Reinhardt Theater Company in Germany, he traveled to America on its 1936 tour and started working on Broadway as a designer and actor. In Hollywood, he worked with the legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies.

Horner eventually scored an Academy Award for his design work on “The Heiress” (1949), leading to a chance to direct this film and the much better “Beware, My Lovely” (1952), with Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. He then spent the next 30 years as a well-respective designer, creating the look for such films as “Separate Tables,” “The Hustler” (his second Oscar), “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” and, in 1980, the remake of “The Jazz Singer.”

His better-known son, James Horner, won two Oscars for his work as a composer of the music for “Titanic” and was nominated another six times, died in a plane crash in June.

Like so many movies, this Al Pacino vehicle starts out with a kernel of good idea and an intriguing character. Then the film starts: Not only does writer-director Dan Fogelman (he wrote the aforementioned “Last Vegas”) rehash plot devices that have been clichés for half a century, but he doesn’t even attempt to do something creative with these shopworn devices.

Danny (Pacino, as a 70 year old trying to look 60) is a one-hit wonder pop star from the 1970s who is still touring the world, living high (in all ways) on his 40-year-old success. Then, at a birthday party, his longtime manager Frank (the ageless Christopher Plummer) presents him with a treasure from his past—a letter from John Lennon, which he never received, urging the young Danny Collins to ignore the trappings of fame and focus on songwriting.

Seeing this long-lost letter flips a switch in Danny and overnight he resolves to put aside his fame (cancelling his tour, leaving his young fiancé and gaudy Los Angeles mansion) to concentrate on his songwriting.

Typical of bad Hollywood movies, instead of focusing on Collins’ inner struggles as he puts aside his hedonistic life and tries to recapture the creativity of his youth, the script introduces another aspect of his bad behavior legacy. He has a son he’s never seen and decides to fix that too. Tom (Bobby Cannavale in a thankless role) is a working stiff with a wonderful wife (Jennifer Garner) and a young daughter with ADHD. Yes, granddad sweeps in—even though his son hates him—to make everything right.

Just as I was settling in for a film about a washed up singer attempting to re-channel his one-time talent (praised by the exulted Mr. Lennon), I discovered it’s actually a Lifetime movie with bad language.  

Just as ridiculous, Danny gets a room at a Holiday Inn near his son’s home (no mention is made as to how he located them) and has a grand piano moved into the standard-sized hotel room. This is a guy who throws money around like he’s never worked a day in his life yet he doesn’t rent a house or reserve a suite of rooms. (While he’s staying at the local hotel, he allows his ex-fiancé and her lover to stay in his LA house!).

The reason to put Danny in this small hotel, movie-plot wise, is so he can meet no-nonsense manager Mary (Annette Bening) and attempt to woo her with a running banter that never feels earned. The only trope Fogelman didn’t pull out of his hat was having her get all dolled up and have a dumbstruck Danny take her in his arms. (Seeing Bening in this role made me wonder if the film was written to lure Warren Beatty out of retirement—it would have suited him.)

Not to pile on, but for all the talk about Collins as this beloved singer, he sings—if one is willing to greatly expanding the definition of “singing”—a single song, the truly awful “Hey, Baby Doll,” when he’s shown in concert. While he spends hours at his piano “composing,” he manages to sing a single verse of the new song.

If you’re going to make a film about a pop star, at least find someone who can carry a tune or appears comfortable on stage. Pacino looks no more at home on stage as someone called out of the audience to sing at a company party, nothing like a veteran of four decades of performing would be. Yet the actor does seem to be enjoying himself in the role, and is effortlessly charming. That and the fine work by Plummer and Bening save the film from being a complete dud.

I still think the basic story has possibilities (it’s based on a real incident in which the ex-Beatle wrote to folk singer Steve Tilston, who never received it until decades later)—is it too soon for a remake?