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 na├»ve 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.