Saturday, May 27, 2017

Remembering Gregg Allman

I am saddened, although neither shocked nor stunned, by today’s death of Gregg Allman. In fact, I am somewhat surprised, with all his substance abuse and health problems, he lasted this long. I was moved much more by the death, 46 years ago now, of his brother Duane in a motorcycle accident.

I will admit to not succumbing to the musical expertise of the Allman Brothers until I stumbled upon their second album, Idlewild South, in 1970 and between then and Duane’s death in October, 1971, I tried to see their in-concert performances whenever I could.

I will also admit to liking bits and pieces of the Allmans’s catalog that followed, songs such as Blue Sky, Come and Go Blues, Jessica, Wasted Words (all from 1973), Seven Turns (1990), and especially No One to Run With and Soulshine (1994) as well as much of the 2003 album Hittin’ the Note. But there was nothing to equal that early 1970s output with Duane that included Dreams, Whipping Post, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Midnight Rider, Revival, Done Somebody Wrong, Hot ‘Lanta, Statesboro Blues, Stormy Monday, One Way Out and Trouble No More.

In fact what sticks in my memory the most about Gregg is the story about his causing a scene in a restaurant by fainting in a plate a spaghetti during a dinner with then-wife Cher.

But it seemed Gregg was always on a self-destructive path and, as I said earlier, I am mildly surprised he lived until the age of 69. My younger brother, born the year before Gregg and the person responsible for introducing me to the Allman Brothers Band, embarked on a similar life’s journey and died 30 years ago. Allman became addicted to heroin in the early 1970s and was arrested on drug charges in 1976. He avoided jail time by testifying against one of the band’s road managers, who was sentenced to 75 years in prison. That move alienated Gregg from the rest of the band. His alcohol abuse reached its peak in the 1980s, when, while living with friends in Sarasota, Fla., it was reported he was drinking at least a fifth of vodka a day. He was arrested during that time, charged with DUI and spent five days in jail. In the late 1980s he moved to Los Angeles, living at and overdosing at a place called the Riot House. The Allman Brothers Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, but Gregg was so inebriated he could not make it through his acceptance speech. He later wrote in his autobiography that he was so mortified when he saw that event on later television broadcast, that he hired two in-home nurses working round-the-clock shifts to help him get over his alcohol and drug addictions.

He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, which he blamed on a dirty tattoo needle. In 2008, doctors discovered three tumors in his liver and in 2010 he underwent a successful liver transplant. At the beginning of the following year, he released a decent solo album, Low Country Blues, but had to cancel a European promotional tour for the album because of upper respiratory problems. In 2012 he went into rehab because of addictions he developed following medical treatments.

The above video shows the Allman Brothers Band at their best, with Duane on lead guitar and Gregg on vocal and keyboards. I guess the word I will always associate with the Allman Brothers Band and Gregg Allman is "if."

Available for home viewing: "Office Christmas Party"

Let’s be generous to Office Christmas Party and note that its two directors (whose resume includes Blades of Glory and a short-lived sitcom based on the GEICO caveman ads) and six writers (among them, a Borat enabler and the two guys who created The Hangover) were onto something when they tapped into our nation’s growing pushback against political correctness. A workplace throwing an early-morning "non-denominational holiday mixer" with a one-drink maximum, as portrayed in the opening scene, is pretty much the on-the-job version of that overtly generic Starbucks yuletide coffee cup that was declared part of the supposed war on Christmas, is it not?

They also recognize that current-day corporate culture regularly rewards those in the upper echelons of power who save money by screwing over the staff with downsizing, lower pay, fewer benefits and greater demands. Who better to represent these modern-day Scrooges than Jennifer Aniston, a veteran of both Horrible Bosses films? I would rather see her in Cake 2: Another Slice than one more mediocre mainstream movie, but maybe that's just me.

But the former Friends star’s career choices aren’t the issue here. Comedy is. Something most of us are in desperate need of right now, given the current headlines and the usual spate of downer films that normally become available for home viewing around this time of year. Alas, Office Christmas Party serves as yet another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise (as evident with an unnecessary end-credits blooper reel) instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of logic often leads to a decline in sustained laughter. Imagine if the iconic toga party in Animal House was the entire movie. It might be a kick for a while. But it was so much better coming after the Deltas were about to reach rock bottom and needed to have their rebellious spirits revived with excessive drinking, wild cavorting and acoustic-guitar smashing.

Instead, this ragged R-rated wallow in bad behavior, some of which eventually results in exposing naked body parts of people who should definitely be wearing more clothes and not less, comes up with a rather ill-conceived concept to put the plot in motion. Basically, Aniston’s hard-of-nose and sleek-of-hair CEO Carol stomps into the Chicago branch of an internet company called Zenotek, starts tearing down the festive tinsel and threatens to close it because it isn’t contributing enough to the bottom line.

The twist is that the office full of insecure geeks is run by her irresponsible and carefree brother, Clay (T.J. Miller of TV’s Silicon Valley), who hatches a plan to woo a staid new client (Courtney B. Vance, much more amusing in his Emmy-winning role as Johnnie Cochran on The People v. O.J. Simpson) by impressing him with an out-of-control holiday orgy. Highlights include a living manger complete with a rented baby Jesus, an ice sculpture with a priapic spout that suggestively squirts eggnog (responsible for the scene that draws the biggest reaction), water coolers labeled "Tequila," "Vodka" and "Gin," and a snow-making machine that at one point accidentally blasts cocaine at the revelers.

Assisting in the debauched excess is a rather subdued Jason Bateman as Clay’s newly divorced right-hand man with an unrequited crush on Olivia Munn’s sexy brainiac, who is on the verge of a discovery that will forever change the internet. But first things first, as she and Bateman have to dress up in chubby snowmen costumes and bounce their bellies together on the dance floor.

It takes a certain kind of film to waste Saturday Night Live standout Kate McKinnon’s reliable talents but this would be the one, forcing her into the role of an uptight human-resource enforcer who threatens employees by sneering, "I know why you took a medical leave," and telling females who don low-cut blouses to put "Dancer and Prancer" back where they belong. She even is burdened with trying to sell the requisite running fart joke, one that actually involves cut cheese.

Thanks to a subplot launched after a leggy escort is hired to pose as a shy employee’s girlfriend, Bateman, McKinnon, Munn and Aniston end up attempting to rescue Miller from a den of gangsters, one of whom engages in the lost art of mumblypeg for some reason. That leads to a dangerous high speed chase that should have resulted in several arrests and even lawsuits — not to mention the gross amount of damage done to the high-rise that houses Zenotek. Instead, it all leads to an improbable happy ending.

There are two performers in smaller roles that deserve to be put on Santa’s nice list. First up is Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as an aggressive security guard who probably has the best chemistry banter-wise with Bateman. Warily eyeing the rowdy overflow of off-the-street party crashers filling the office building’s lobby, she alerts him before he goes off to save Miller, "The security guard was the first one to go in Die Hard."

Then there is the intriguingly named Fortune Feimster as a testy first-time Uber driver who takes Carol back to the office from the airport after a snowstorm grounds all flights. She launches into a spiel about how Carol is an old person’s name that contains a reference to the Pixar animated film Up, which provided me a rare chance to laugh without guilt.

Hey, if anything here makes you smile, go for it. It just didn’t do much for me. But I still can’t get over one cheesy move when Aniston starts waving around the book, The Girl on the Train, for no reason. It seems the same production companies that made this (DreamWorks SKG and Reliance Entertainment) also gave us that earlier hit based on the bestseller. Now that’s the spirit of the season.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Great Wall"

If this is the future for motion pictures, god help us all. A major collaboration between the Chinese film industry and Hollywood, The Great Wall features a primarily Asian cast with a few big-name American actors sprinkled in. The brainless story is the product of (primarily) U.S. authorship while the director is the internationally celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou. With the biggest budget in the history of Chinese motion pictures and special effects by ILM, The Great Wall can be considered a true multinational co-production. 12-year-old boys will love the result. That’s not a good sign for anyone who has passed beyond their teenage years.

It’s baffling that so much talent could produce something this lackluster. Then again, the involved parties knew from the start that the objective was to make a commercially viable worldwide product. To achieve that, a simple checklist was followed. Dialogue mostly in English but with few multisyllabic words — check. Big American star (Matt Damon) — check. Lots of CGI and explosions — check. A hot warrior woman who kicks butt every bit as effectively as the Big American Star — check. A story that exists simply to justify the special effects and action/battle sequences — check.

Nevertheless, with a director like Zhang Yimou and writers that include Tony Gilroy and Edward Zwick, viewers could be forgiven for expecting something a little more substantive. Zhang, after all, was behind the camera for such universally praised classics as Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and Shanghai Triad (although his recent work has been more checkered). Gilroy’s credits include the Bourne films and the recent Rogue One. And, although Zwick is better known as a director, he and partner Marshall Herskovitz have collaborated on the likes of The Last Samurai, Love & Other Drugs, and the long-running TV series thirtysomething. Yet for The Great Wall, this group has turned out something monumentally forgettable. (To be fair, Zhang provides a few accomplished tracking shots, including one with light streaming through a series of stained glass windows.)

The Great Wall takes place in a fantasy-influenced version of the 10th or 11th century. Two Europeans, William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), stumble on the title monument while seeking to trade for (or steal) the mysterious "black powder" that’s being whispered about in the West. Before coming upon the wall, they kill a lizard-like monster that looks like it escaped from a bad Alien spinoff. William takes its arm as a trophy and this earns him some respect after he and his smack-talking buddy are captured by the wall’s garrison. When the monsters attack en masse, William and Tovar are co-opted by Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) into helping with the defense. The rest of the movie is mostly a series of battles as waves of creatures attack. Subplots include an alliance of criminals between Tovar and another European, Ballard (Willem Dafoe); a low-key, quasi-romance between William and Lin Mae; and an investigation of what effects magnetism have on the monsters.

Damon does what’s necessary to earn his paycheck. He struggles more with his accent than with his dialogue, manages to look like a caveman under all the dirt and fake hair, and does some nifty party tricks with his bow and arrow. Jing Tian has sufficient presence and charm to make it obvious why her star is on a sharp ascending trajectory across the international film industry — she brings poise and physicality to her performance. Pascal provides a dose of comedy; a few of his deadpan lines are genuinely funny.

The real stars of the movie are supposed to be the special effects. 12-year-old boys love monster movies and there’s no shortage of ugly, nasty, hissing creatures in this one. Unfortunately, not a lot of imagination went into the development of their look. Derivative is the first word that comes to mind. Battles against their legions absorb about 2/3 of The Great Wall’s running time and the sameness of the combat becomes monotonous after a while — this isn’t Helm’s Deep where we were invested in the characters. These are a bunch of cardboard cut-out mannequins whose sole purpose is to play second fiddle to what the computer designers dreamed up.

So, although the boy in me appreciates on some level what the filmmakers have done with The Great Wall, the adult realizes there are a lot of better ways I could have spent the two hours I devoted to watching this.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Split"

Unimaginative horror movies are a dime a dozen, but overlong, boring, unimaginative horror movies? Those are rare. However, in Split, that’s what writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has provided the May 2017 home movie-viewing populace. Since his success with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s once-hot career has been on a downward trajectory and it’s unclear whether he’s hit bottom yet. Split is among his worst films. It’s also his longest and arguably his most disappointing. The narrative is choppy, the tension is less pervasive than it should be, and there’s no ending. Instead of telling a complete story, Split brings us to a stopping point where little has been resolved before dangling the possibility of a sequel (tying it into a larger "Shyamalan Universe"). It’s unsatisfying and feels like a cheat for anyone who paid a rental fee expecting to see a whole film rather than just Part One of a proposed series.

Split opens with the abduction of three teenagers following a birthday party. Two of them, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), are popular girls. The third, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), is an outsider. Their kidnapper is an odd and frightening man (James McAvoy) who, as we soon learn, suffers from a severe case of split personality disorder with 23 distinct personas emerging. During the course of the film, we meet a few of them, including the dominant Dennis, the feminine Patricia, and the childish Hedwig. They refer to the coming of "the Beast"; Dennis claims the three girls have been captured to "feed" him. Psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) surmises that "the Beast" is either a previously unrecognized personality or a fantasy.

A good portion of Split focuses on the girls’ inept escape attempts. They do all the things one would expect in a horror movie of this sort, including finding structural weaknesses they can exploit, using coat hangers to try to trip door locks, and trying to outsmart their deranged captor. To his credit, Shyamalan limits the gore and keeps the body count low. The PG-13 rating has something to do with this (it also explains why the girls only strip down to their underwear when it’s stated that Dennis likes to watch women dance naked) but Split is designed more as a psychological thriller than a slasher film. Unfortunately, there’s too little genuine tension for the movie to really work. One scene that attempts to use camerawork, music, and point-of-view to build suspense fails to do more than slightly elevate the pulse. Shyamalan should have studied John Carpenter’s Halloween for inspiration about how to accomplish this sort of thing.

Numerous scenes featuring "sessions" between Dr. Fletcher and Dennis (who is masquerading as Barry, a more "reasonable" personality) serve as exposition dumps. These sequences, although advancing the storyline by providing background, are momentum-killers. They take our attention away from the captives who are so thinly-drawn that two of the three resemble attractive cardboard cut-outs. The third, Casey, is given a semblance of multidimensionality via a series of flashbacks.

Split is riddled with horror movie clichés, the most obvious being that characters often react illogically because their idiocy is the only way the story can move forward. When it comes to atmosphere, Shyamalan stumbles. There are a lot of strange underground corridors but they are lit too brightly and, as a result, are more garish than spooky. The film as a whole is like that — the elements seem to be in place for a serviceable horror/thriller but the director constantly missteps.

When it comes to acting, McAvoy understandably takes center stage with his deliciously over-the-top representation of about a dozen personalities. McAvoy delights in chewing on the scenery; his performance is without any attempt at subtlety or realism. He goes all-out with a gusto that at times almost makes Split watchable. Unfortunately, he isn’t matched by any of his co-stars. Taylor-Joy gives a sullen, one-note portrayal. Buckley is a walking horror movie stereotype. And the two other women, Richardson and Sula, are forgettable.

Shyamalan has established his career on third-act surprises and many of his better movies have been characterized by these. It’s therefore a little disappointing that Split fails to offer even a modest twist that would take things in a fresh or interesting direction. The director provides an unexpected throw-away moment (featuring a cameo) in an epilogue but all this does is muddy the waters by setting up a sequel that would merge the milieu of Split with that of an earlier (and better) Shyamalan film. If that movie ever gets made, perhaps it will improve how audiences look at Split but, as a stand-alone, this is a sad, tired, and un-scary venture into tediousness.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Why Him?"

The title of the movie is Why Him?, your first indication that this raunchy R-rated comedy is far more interested in the men engaged in battle across generational, emotional and socioeconomic lines than it is about the woman at the center of the fight.

That woman, by the way, is a bright and bubbly Stanford University senior played by Zoey Deutch — a character of ambition and theoretical agency. But the likable actress (see: Everybody Wants Some!!) is relegated to functioning as more of an idea and a pawn than anything else. Why Him? spends more time and energy (SO much energy) on the age-old struggle between an overprotective father and the eager-to-please young man who hopes to become his son-in-law.

Bryan Cranston and James Franco are stuck in these one-note roles, respectively, in what is a one-joke movie. Director and co-writer John Hamburg, creator of the Fockers franchise, borrows liberally from himself here, making slight tweaks to the central dynamic of those films while upping the gross-out factor. Cranston is uptight and overprotective; Franco is unfiltered and overpowering. Why Him? hammers that central notion, hard, for nearly two hours.

But we’re supposed to find both of these characters adorable (or at least admirable) because of one line from Deutch’s character, Stephanie, which suggests perhaps they’re not as different as they seem because they’re both truly authentic, for better and for worse. They’re at least consistent, that’s for sure.

Cranston’s Ned Fleming is the longtime owner of a Michigan printing business, which has been suffering lately in this age of digital greetings. (Why Him? plays his Midwestern folksiness for easy, condescending laughs from the very start with a celebratory scene at Applebee’s.) But he agrees to travel to California for Christmas, along with his chipper wife, Barb (Megan Mullally), and their teenage son, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), to meet their daughter’s new boyfriend.

That would be Franco’s Laird Mayhew, who Stephanie’s parents don’t realize is a) 10 years older than she is, and b) a tech billionaire. Laird lives in a ridiculous, minimalist monstrosity high in the hills above Silicon Valley, where various employees, hangers-on, celebrity chefs and farm animals wander in and out during the day. Why Him? has nothing to say about the grotesquerie of such a nouveau riche display; these are just random ideas that flit by. Although Kaley Cuoco as the voice of Justine, Laird’s intrusive, in-house version of Siri, doesn’t seem like a possibility that’s too far away.

Keegan-Michael Key gets the film’s few laughs as Gustav, Laird’s right-hand man, concierge and personal trainer. A running bit in which Gustav attacks Laird out of nowhere to keep him sharp and hone his parkour skills might have been amusing if the script from Hamburg and Ian Helfer didn’t feel the need to spell out its similarity to the relationship between Inspector Clouseau and Cato. Jokes are just so much funnier when you explain them afterward, right?

But reining Laird in is impossible — he’s all impulse with his puppyish enthusiasm and profane chatter. He wants desperately to gain Ned’s approval (because Barb’s clearly doesn’t matter) but risks alienating him instead. Oddball characters are Franco’s bread and butter — he’s repeatedly shown he’s game for whatever weirdness is required of him — but he’s afforded no nuance here. He’s just extreme and exhausting. Cranston, meanwhile, is hemmed in on the opposite end of the spectrum. Ned is judgmental and inflexible, with repeated references to how much he and Barb love the band KISS serving as the only indication that he was ever any fun.

Anyway, after an increasing cavalcade of flatly crass visual gags featuring high-tech toilets, moose urine and poorly-timed sexual shenanigans, Why Him? collapses the way so many R-rated comedies do. It goes soft and nice and wants us to care about these characters who barely resemble human beings. After all, it all takes place around Christmas. But everyone involved here should have asked Santa for a stronger script.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Patriot's Day"

For the second time in less than six months, Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have collaborated to recreate a "based on a true story" event that, at one point in recent history, dominated the news cycle for days on end. Deepwater Horizon, which was released for home viewing on Jan. 10, told the story of the disaster that sank a Gulf of Mexico oil-drilling rig. In it, Wahlberg played real-life survivor Mike Williams. In Patriots Day, the actor is once again front-and-center except, in this case, he plays a "composite" character. That’s a nice way of saying that Tommy Saunders isn’t a real person but was invented so the filmmakers would have someone they could insert into all of the key sequences without being accused of distorting the historical record.

Berg’s chronicle of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt is a first rate docudrama. For those who followed the events as they unfolded, there won’t be anything new here. It’s simply a cinematic re-enactment of things that happened beginning on April 15 and continued for several days after. Told from the perspective of (fictional) Boston cop Saunders (Wahlberg), the movie hits all the milestones although it perhaps tries too hard to be uplifting and inspirational. It also overreaches, attempting with little success to shoehorn the stories of several victims and other tangentially involved individuals into the proceedings. The final product is apparently the fusion of two separate scripts and it shows. The ending is odd — after the feature film is done, Berg provides us with a seven-minute documentary in which he shows interview clips with many of the real people involved in the incidents.

As with all of Berg’s films, Patriots Day does an excellent job with sets and locales and is compulsively watchable. Two things limit its effectiveness. The first is that the story lacks a "freshness" factor. Even more so than Deepwater Horizon and Sully (two other recent, high-profile, "ripped from the headlines" movies), Patriots Day covers events that were exhaustively broadcast on TV as they were happening. There’s little more to learn about things than we already know and that gives a "been there, done that" quality to the proceedings. There’s never much tension because we know what’s going to happen next and how it’s all going to end.

Secondly, the structure is unwieldy. Perhaps aware that the entire running length shouldn’t be devoted to the acts and observations of a person who doesn’t exist, Berg includes the stories of several victims and real-life cops who were involved in the search-and-capture mission. Most of these are ineffective due to time constraints and come across as filler. Especially unnecessary is a narrative surrounding Saunders’ wife, Carol, who serves no purpose beyond giving actress Michelle Monaghan screen time. Actors John Goodman (as Police Commissioner Ed Davis), Kevin Bacon (as FBI agent Richard DesLauriers), and J.K. Simmons (as Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese) do good work in underwritten roles.

One area where the screenplay effectively captures a side-story is in its handling of the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze), along with Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist). Patriots Day provides the terrorists with motivations and shows how they followed the news coverage of their action before deciding on their next steps. This is arguably the most interesting element of Patriots Day because it’s one of the least-covered aspects of the story. We found out who the Tsarnaevs were during the manhunt but didn’t learn about their backgrounds until days (or weeks) later, when the story was no longer "hot" and therefore not worthy of front-page coverage.

Berg was essentially a "director-for-hire" brought in mid-way through pre-production on Deepwater Horizon, but Patriots Day was his project from the start. Nevertheless, his involvement from inception to completion hasn’t resulted in an appreciably better motion picture. Both films are effective at what they intend to do. Patriots Day wasn’t an Oscar contender nor does it offer much in the way of escapism but it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours — a far better prospect than what comes with most video time-wasters that are released around this time of the year.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Gold"

Gold is the latest in a subgenre of films that seems to think that the sight of men moving gigantic amounts of money around electronically — and sometimes just stealing it, or having it stolen from them — is innately fascinating. Matthew McConaughey stars as Kenny Wells, who is continuing in the family business carved out by his dad (Craig T. Nelson, glimpsed briefly in flashbacks). The movie repeatedly refers to their ilk as "miners," and they see themselves that way, with pride. But while this film by writer-director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana ) does show Kenny and various allies and rivals traveling to foreign countries and searching treacherous terrain for veins of metal, there's not much pick-axe swinging, bulldozing or blasting to be seen. These self-described miners are more likely to be seen yelling into phones about money, staring anxiously at TV reports about stock prices because they're worried about money, or flying to other states or countries to find out what happened to their money.

The tale is a true one, based on a magazine story, though of course many details have been changed or embellished. Kenny is presented as a down-on-his-luck hustler, practically begging for the money he needs to get back into the precious metals game. He's is the second modern gloss on a Willy Loman/Death of a Salesman type to appear in a major film to view at home within a month — the other is McDonald's mastermind Ray Kroc in The Founder, a less ambitious but altogether more satisfying drama. Like the McDonald's film, though, Gold often can't seem to make up its mind to be disgusted and embarrassed by its hero's naked greed and the seeming moral vacuum at his heart, or get swept up in his adrenaline rush as he scampers from state to state and to South America and back, looking for the big strike that'll make him a big shot.

Kenny goes to Borneo to find a legendary "river walker" — i.e., a hands-on geologist who actually finds the ore that guys like Kenny profit from. He's named Mike Acosta, and both the character and Edgar Ramirez's performance in the role are the best reasons to see this film. Gaghan has decided to focus mainly on Kenny and treat Mike as a bit of a question mark and source of anxiety for the hero. Is he really as great as a lot of people think? Does he truly have a sixth sense for precious metal? Or is he a doppelganger for Kenny, a man whose success is always fleeting because he has more of a talent for hustling money and trust than for doing the job he says he's mastered?

I have no idea if a movie about Mike would have been more fascinating than one focused on Kenny; it's possible that he's not deep enough to hold the center of a long, dense film like Gold. But I do know that Kenny just plain wore me out. McConaughey has played many men like this one: wild-eyed true believers with a gift of gab who talk with their hands as well as their mouths, and often seem as if they're preaching. He's great at it. This is his kind of role. In another era, you could've plugged Dennis Hopper into it. But the character is so one-note, always tying everything back to his need to redeem himself and his dad, and articulating so many of his concerns verbally rather than through his eyes or body, that after a while I wanted to put in earplugs and shut my eyes to get a break from him.

Much has been made of McConaughey's physical transformation here — he shaved his hairline to play a bald man and gained about 40 pounds — but I never felt that he quite figured out how to get inside Kenny's mind and heart and animate him as a fully convincing fictional character. Too often he comes across as an actor trying on a look and a voice, and no matter how often the movie shows Kenny getting soused or chain smoking or lounging in a plush hotel lobby chair marinating in his own body odor, the character always seems more like an obnoxious vibe than a person.

I'm not sure why a similarly greedy, insistent, often repugnant protagonist didn't completely turn me off in The Wolf of Wall Street — maybe Leonardo DiCaprio is a better match for his character than McConaughey, a Wolf bit player, is for Kenny, or maybe Scorsese is just a more imaginative and varied director than Gaghan. (The jungle sequences are appropriately lush and oppressive, and there are a few deft montages scored to rock and pop, but this film often plays like a Scorsese riff by a storyteller whose natural medium is words, not images.)

Whatever the explanation, Gold ultimately fails to answer the question, "Why this story, and why put this character at its center?" Like The Founder, though less excitingly, Gold bets heavily on the audience seeing Kenny's relationship with his supportive girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) as proof that he's a good guy at heart, or at least has some redemptive qualities. But Kenny never comes off as anything other than a small shark in an aquarium filled with much bigger sharks (including Corey Stoll as a New York investment banker and Bruce Greenwood as a vastly more powerful rival).

And the film's excitement over Kenny's reversals of fortune, including a climactic stretch where he tries to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, feels frustratingly at odds with Gaghan's more skeptical, at times satirical view of American capitalism and its intrusions into the economies and governments of other nations. The movie seems to want us to root for Kenny to make piles of money and humiliate his foes even as it shows him as the conscienceless emblem of an innately corrupt world.

These two storytelling impulses are very hard to reconcile (I have argued that even Scorsese wasn't able to do it in Wolf) and Gold never manages to do it. The movie is a critique of robber baron behavior that derives great excitement from the prospect of its sweaty, conniving hero climbing to the top of the heap and lording it over the folks who used to badmouth him. Granted, this seems to be a built-in risk of any kind of biographical film, or any film period; cinema's nature as a medium is to make everything seem exciting and glamorous, even when most of the people onscreen are scummy. But it still would've been nice if Gold had figured out how to counter that tendency, or at least given us more evidence that it knew whether it wanted to.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back"

Back in 2012 I penned these prophetic words: "I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on there being a Jack Reacher 2." Shows how much I know. Even though Tom Cruise’s tarnished star is burning up in the atmosphere and it would be an exaggeration to claim he can compel viewers to screen a film without Mission: Impossible in the title, the first Jack Reacher managed to scrape together enough foreign shekels to warrant a sequel. Considering that pretty much everyone viewing this movie will have forgotten everything about its predecessor (except that it starred Tom Cruise playing someone other than Ethan Hunt), the filmmakers have decided to "go in a different direction." Or, to put it another way: forget the first movie ever existed. So, while Jack Reacher was based on the ninth book in Lee Child’s long-running series, Never Go Back jumps ahead to book 18. That means new supporting characters and only a tenuous link to the 2012 installment.

I wish I could say the result was better. Unfortunately, as with too many films being made with the international market in mind, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a jumble of overhyped action scenes, trite dialogue, painfully bad "character development", and awful writing. Redeeming qualities are few and far between. The screenplay often requires such an extreme suspension of disbelief that even an Olympic high jumper would have trouble getting over the bar. Maybe that problem would be forgivable if the action sequences were exciting but they’re the same generic fights, chases, and shoot-outs we have seen in hundreds of other movies. This filler, unfortunately, is the point of the movie. The movie also looks cheap. Compare the Mardi Gras parade scenes in Never Go Back with the Day of the Dead carnival opening of Spectre for an example of the gulf that exists between a movie where money is spent on more than the lead actor’s salary and one where it isn’t.

The subtitle Never Go Back sounds like it belongs to a Steven Seagal movie and so does the script. The intelligence level is reminiscent of the worst of the Liam Neeson Takens. It’s a source of deep disappointment that director Edward Zwick has fallen this far. Throughout his career, it’s been possible to count on the reliable Zwick to produce good-to-great films. Never could I imagine that he would be at the helm for something responsible for the mass assassination of brain cells. I’ll admit that my stupefaction at watching Never Go Back is because I foolishly assumed that Zwick’s involvement would guarantee at least a minimum level of quality. Sadly, that’s not true.

As for Cruise … this is the Hollywood star at his worst. He’s playing to an international audience here, allowing ego and fading charisma to obfuscate his capabilities as a serious actor. As a Schwarzenegger wannabe, Cruise’s Jack Reacher is passable. When the role requires emotions, however, it becomes cringe-worthy. The key emotional component, a father/daughter attachment between Reacher and 15-year old Sam (Danika Yarosh), is undermined by the screenplay’s inability to properly motivate it. It isn’t helped, however, by Cruise’s inability to sell the relationship.

The story opens by introducing the interaction between Jack, an ex-Marine major, and his current "inside" military contact, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). After the two carry on a flirtatious friendship by phone for a while, Jack decides to pay her a visit — only to discover that she has been thrown in prison for espionage. When he asks a few too many questions, he finds himself in the same situation but breaking out (and bringing Susan with him) only makes things worse. Soon, he has been framed for murder, is being tracked by an unstoppable assassin (Patrick Heusinger), and is trying to cope with the possibility that he might have a 15-year old daughter.

One thing the two Jack Reacher films have in common is that both feature impressive (albeit one-dimensional) villains. In the 2012 movie, it was Werner Herzog. Here, it’s Heusinger. There’s nothing special about this character. He’s a standard-order supervillain type whose physical abilities match those of the hero and who sticks around until the end so he can have one final one-on-one with Reacher. But Heusinger is good at being bad so there’s at least a little energy when he’s on screen. It’s not enough to save Never Go Back. Not nearly enough. This should be viewed six months from now. Stuffed turkeys belong on Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Christine"

On July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a journalist and newscaster working at Sarasota's WXLT-TV, began her live broadcast with the words: "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts', and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide." She then pulled out a gun and shot herself in the head, live on-air. She died in the hospital later that day. The event sparked much controversy and conversation in the news world as well as in Chubbuck's smaller world of friends and associates. All of this was laid out in intricate detail in Sally Quinn's article about Chubbuck for the Washington Post in the immediate aftermath of Chubbuck's suicide.

Who knows what zeitgeist is at work that 2016 saw two films about Christine Chubbuck? Is it the same zeitgeist that brought us not one, but two, films about Florence Foster Jenkins in the same year? In terms of Chubbuck, first there was Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene's meta-documentary about an actress preparing to play Christine Chubbuck, and now Christine, a biopic directed by Antonio Campos.

Christine, centered on a riveting and at times unbearably emotional performance by Rebecca Hall, attempts to give a three-dimensional and respectful-yet-honest portrait of a complex woman. Sometimes the film is successful in this, sometimes it's not. There are questions of exploitation that nag throughout, as well as a queasy feeling that we the viewers are participating in exploiting this troubled woman all over again. Hall's performance, however, is one of the most insightful portraits in recent memory of how untreated depression can operate. Depression is not pleasant, and people who suffer from it are not always sympathetic. Chubbuck is a maddening person to those who love her. Even her supporters are eventually pushed away.

Chubbuck was (by all accounts) tormented by her lack of personal life, as well as her envy towards co-workers who got offers in larger national markets. She was a journalist disgusted by the increasing sensationalization of the news (she's a counterpart to her fictional contemporary, Howard Beale in Network, whose screams "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" become a rallying cry). So disgusted was Chubbuck that her on-air suicide is seen (by some) as a critique of said sensationalism.

Christine plunges us into the rhythms of Christine's world: her devotion to her job, battles with her boss (Tracy Letts) over what stories to cover, her hopeless crush on news anchor George (a superb Michael C. Hall), her arrested-development relationship with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron). She volunteers at a children's hospital, teaching lessons to the kids with puppet shows. She sings along to John Denver songs in the car. What Hall really nails is Christine's intensity, her awkwardness, her compulsive and off-putting self-deprecation, as well as the gathering storm of an obliterating depression. She cuts a striking figure, with her veil of hair, hunched slim shoulders, gangly body language. She comes off as a teenager, uncomfortable in her own body after a growth spurt. Her demeanor is humorless. When someone sincerely compliments her, she is suspicious. Hall plays these black-cloud thoughts, the explosive temper tantrums, so close to the bone that it's an extremely confrontational and uncomfortably accurate performance. Whether or not it is representative of the real Christine Chubbuck is another question.

The production team recreates the period — its music and clothes and decor — in a refreshingly un-condescending way. What is most palpable is the mood of the 1970s: the "Watergate" mood of exhaustion and cynicism; the tapped-out emotional reserves of a population following the burn-out of the 1960s. News anchor George brings Christine to a "transactional analysis" meeting, thinking it might help her work out her issues (it has the opposite effect). "Women's lib" is in the air, and Christine's boss lashes out during a tense meeting, "You know what your problem is? You're a feminist." (The script, by Craig Shilowich, leaves something to be desired in such moments.)

There will be those who do not like that so much of the film focuses on Christine's personal life (her virginity; her yearning for a boyfriend; even a date, for God's sake; the surgery she needs that will render her infertile, thus closing out the window of a future she had always hoped for). Is this "reducing" a woman to her reproductive functions? But these are serious issues in some women's lives, and pre-existing depression can turn them into Greek Tragedy-level confirmation of worthlessness. Overdramatic? Well, yes. Newsflash: Depression can do that. Hall understands the warped mirror of reality that depression can create, how minor disappointments register as titanic, and major disappointments are quite literally unbearable.

There is a political aspect to this, of course. Christine Chubbuck was a woman working in a male-dominated industry. She watched as ingratiatingly "cute" reporters were promoted over her because they were un-threatening. She has a reputation for being difficult. That's because she is difficult, and in some of her confrontations with her boss she steps way way over the line. These situations are political in nature, especially in the surrounding context of mid-1970s malaise, Watergate on TV, defensiveness about "women's lib" rampant, and New Age-y therapy practices — emptied of the political action that ignited the '60s — filling an enormous spiritual void. How would Christine have been perceived if she were a man?

Christine doesn't quite add up, though, and its commentary on the tabloid-ification of the news is not original or new. It ends on a tepid note. Since we know, going in, where the story is headed, there's a feeling of rubbernecking at a tragedy as the events mass up against her. What are we supposed to take from the film? What is it trying to say? If she hadn't committed suicide on live television, would anyone have cared? Are these even the right questions to ask? Hall's performance is so authoritative, however, that it justifies the film's existence. She's something to see.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Comedian"

Is it too much to want someone to bring the funny in a movie about a comic? The enervating, would-be laugh-in The Comedian is available for home viewing, presumably on the strength of its headliner, Robert De Niro. He’s ill-served by this movie, but he’s been worse elsewhere, which isn’t much of a comfort as this one drags into hour two. Like every exalted star, De Niro generates good will because of who he is and despite his ups and downs, the afterglow of his great performances enveloping him like a luminous cloud. So it takes a significantly bad movie to wipe the audience’s smile off this fast.

The setup sounds promising. De Niro plays Jackie Burke, a stand-up and ex-sitcom star on a downward slide. He’s not killing it the way he once did, and it takes only a few minutes onstage to see why: "Let’s talk about this abortion of a town you live in," he tells one crowd. That’s his way of warming up the room, but the chill remains palpable. Jackie is an insult comic, but his barbs have no edge, no zing, no wit. (It’s unclear if they ever did.) Early on he gets a break after he attacks a heckler and the assault becomes a YouTube sensation, notoriety that earns him brief jail time and new attention.

Jail turns out to be a blip on Jackie’s modest, wobbly career upswing, beginning at a cable station where he and his enduringly patient agent, Miller (Edie Falco), meet the enemy: the younger generation. It’s a nowhere scene, but worth mentioning because it introduces a generational divide and a patronizing attitude toward women that winds throughout. The cable executive turns out to be a tough chick, Carol (Beth Malone), a brittle smiler with short hair who puts her feet up on the table where her eager minions sit like schoolkids. The meeting is a wash (it plays like a metaphor for Hollywood), but is soon forgotten down at the soup kitchen, where Jackie is doing community service.

There’s a lot of story, but mostly the filmmakers rack up the miles and Jackie wears through shoe leather moving from here to there. At the soup kitchen, he finds a sympathetic (and hostage) audience in the homeless clientele and a counterweight to the cable executive in Harmony (Leslie Mann), who’s also doing community service. Mann giggles and laughs too much, which fits Harmony’s role as a prop. She exists to humanize Jackie, hoot at his groaners and, in one scene, gaze adoringly at him while at his feet. She beds him because she has daddy issues; their age difference suggests that the filmmakers share those issues. De Niro’s old pal, Harvey Keitel, plays papa.

The director, Taylor Hackford, never makes any of this pop, which isn’t a surprise given the material. He also doesn’t give you much to look at other than street scenery and De Niro’s mug, which the actor bunches up while cycling through soft, sour moods (aggravated, exasperated), occasionally dropping a smile that might as well be a frown. It took a near-village to write the script, which is credited to Art Linson, the stand-up Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman. (The stand-up Jessica Kirson, who appears in the movie, was a consultant.) Billy Crystal shows up for a heartbeat; Jimmy Walker, Charles Grodin, Richard Belzer and Cloris Leachman hang out a touch longer.

Every now and then, as when Jackie is onstage — isolated in the harsh lighting and facing down a show-me world that has become increasingly foreign to him — you can see the movie that The Comedian might have been. There’s a kernel of an idea here about an older performer struggling to be funny in a changed reality (its technology, its women), but to pull that off would require true, deeply felt hostility, something this movie doesn’t want or can’t risk. Jackie isn’t tough enough because the movie isn’t, so his comedic personality never gels. He’s meant to be an insult comic, but his discontent only rises to genuine anger with physical violence. His is the wrong kind of punch.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

Early trailers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promised a work in the vein of The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen — impossible mission movies that weren't afraid to kill off the vivid characters they created. This film about a band of misfits stealing the plans to the first Death Star is that kind of work. It culminates in a thunderous final act that weaves together the most impressive space battle in the series with a prolonged ground assault on an Imperial fortress in which casualties have both physical and emotional weight (which is something Star Wars was never big on). But it also bridges the fairy-tale despair of the prequels to the rah-rah idealism of the original trilogy, spackling decades-old logic holes as it goes along. (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's script even retro-engineers an answer to the question of why the Galactic Empire would build a super-weapon that could be vaporized with a single well-placed shot.) Rogue One is a letdown in other areas, and there are creative decisions so ill-conceived they take you out of the story. But somehow these aren't enough to sink the movie, which manages to succeed as both super-nerdy fan service and the first entry since the 1977 original that will satisfy people who have never seen a Star Wars film.

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, the lone child of Imperial scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) who invented the Death Star. She joins a band of misfits that includes a cold-blooded Rebel assassin named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); a blind but still lethal warrior-priest named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); Chirrut's stoic, cranky but loyal best friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a legendary marksman; former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who claims he defected to the Rebels after realizing the Death Star's power, and Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a revolutionary whose cyborg legs and assisted breathing make him a light-side-of-the-Force answer to baddies like Darth Vader and General Grievous. The movie's undisputed scene stealer, though, is K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid who can break Stormtroopers' necks with a flick of his fist but is as peevish and pouty as C-3PO and tends to blurt out the least reassuring thing at the worst possible moment. (When his human colleagues fret that they won't survive being ejected into space, he corrects them: "I will.")

Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards, whose 2014 Godzilla was one of the most daringly conceived blockbusters of recent years, so much so that some viewers found it frustrating and pretentious. This one is more conventional, from its clockwork storytelling to its relentless, brutal postscript (which I bet is where a lot of Disney's reshoot money went). But the film still has enough moments of beauty and terror to mark it as the work of an artist rather than a glorified craftsman. A Death Star "test" on a single city is more horrifying than any similar attack in the franchise because we see how the battle station's green rays tear up the land, creating tidal waves of earth that suggest a cross between an earthquake and a tsunami. The space battles make the odd physics of Star Wars seem as comprehensible as 18th century flotillas clashing in a bay near a port; there's even a combination tugboat-torpedo that can drill into the hulls of enemy starships and push them to one side. Smaller, more intimate action scenes have a tactile sensibility as well. Rain, fire and wind have a fullness and weight rarely seen in CGI-heavy fantasies. When characters scamper up ladders or navigate wet, crumbling cliffs, you flinch, because Edwards makes you fear minor cuts and bruises as keenly as maiming and incineration.

Darth Vader makes a couple of appearances — both chilling; and how grand it is to hear James Earl Jones' rumbling baritone once more — and there's a rubbery digital Grand Moff Tarkin puttering around the Death Star bridge as well (I don't know if I should say he's played by Peter Cushing; how to refer to a bunch of ones and zeroes badly imitating a dead man?). But the main heavy is a bureaucrat: Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military, which is a fancy way of saying "the guy who bosses around the scientists actually creating the Death Star." Krennic, played with a bitter, resentful edge by Mendelsohn, has a long-ago connection to Jyn that turns Rogue One into a slow-fuse revenge flick once all the details are laid out.

But most of the film is conceived as a galaxy-spanning chess match in which individuals, groups and whole fleets either move themselves or are moved against their will. In observing these movements, Rogue One conjures a spiritual vibe that makes its action sequences feel like more than a collection of spectacular moments. Star Wars always had a bit of this quality — it probably announced itself when Luke lowered the blast shield on his helmet in A New Hope, and reached its peak with Luke shaming his father in Return of the Jedi — but it has never been woven throughout any of the films as consistently as it is here. Characters are constantly being asked to take physical or figurative leaps of faith, whether they're jumping from one side of a metal abyss to another or deciding to believe a character that says he's on their side but might be a spy. Chirrut's Jedi incantations during moments of jeopardy ("I am with the Force, the Force is with me") define him as a holy man who keeps picking up and reassembling the shattered pieces of his faith no matter what. His pal Baze mocks him, but never too harshly, because he envies the blind monk's devotion to higher powers that he literally cannot see.

Some overly familiar character motifs get a workout as well, including the cynical antihero's secret desire to join a crusade and the wounded child's wish to redeem a corrupt or neglectful parent. The latter aren't foregrounded in a self-conscious way, as they were in Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, a movie that transferred its anxiety about rebooting a 38-year old franchise onto new characters who were all obsessed with outdoing the icons that preceded them or fixing their mistakes. The Rogue One characters' personal issues take a backseat to the mission, which happens at such a grim point in the galaxy's history that, to paraphrase Casablanca, the problems of any one being don't amount to a hill of beans.

That sounds like a wise strategy, and in some ways it is. But it also ensures that Rogue One fails to define its liveliest characters in ways that would make them pop. This is one area in which The Force Awakens is a better movie. Even when J.J. Abrams' plotting in The Force Awakens was haphazard, or too blatantly leaning on recycling or nostalgia, Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren were written and acted with such affection and wit that they seemed like worthy, or at least promising, additions to the series' overstuffed pantheon of characters. Rogue One is so devoted to its multilayered, fast-moving plot that it can't afford to give its characters the breathing space they need to come across as a great team, as opposed to a bunch of strangers who work pretty well together despite ungodly pressure.

And the two most important members of the group, Jyn and Cassian, are the least defined, which means that their emotional peaks near the end of the tale are merely affecting when they ought to be deeply moving. (This is a rare all-things-to-all-people blockbuster that might've benefited from being a few minutes longer, provided the time was spent fleshing out relationships.) Nevertheless, the sense of all these individuals struggling to assert their values in a cruel universe comes through loud and clear. That so many characters have been pushed to the margins of galactic life or banished themselves there after a soul-crushing disappointment gives their decisions a grave, poignant quality that's lacking in other Star Wars movies, even the good ones. "We've all done terrible things in the name of the rebellion," a character says.

The film adds much-needed shading to the the Rebel Alliance, which has both moderate and "militant" elements that don't trust each other and often work at cross-purposes. The military leadership argues about whether it's better to be aggressive or cautious; the Imperial generals and bureaucrats debate tactics as well, and the question of whether it's better to ask forgiveness or permission comes up more than once.

George Lucas and his collaborators were always aces at world building even when their storytelling failed, but this is the first entry in the saga that convinces us that its characters live in an actual civilization, with rules and traditions and a sense of history (and a religion) that they measure themselves against. ("The force moves darkly around a creature that's about to kill," one character informs another, anticipating a betrayal.) Rogue One also gets into the question of whether it's morally acceptable to surrender or simply give up when you're too tired or broken to fight. Its conclusions are more nuanced than you might expect. The Force may be with you always, but there are times when its weight feels like too much to carry.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Miss Sloane"

With a movie like this, it’s necessary (however difficult) to put politics aside. Despite what the blurbs say, Miss Sloane isn’t really about the Second Amendment. It isn’t about gun rights; it’s about how easy it is to peddle influence in Washington and how far lobbyists will go to advance an agenda. It’s about power and the abuse of power. Although it would be disingenuous to argue that the issue underlying the legislation in Miss Sloane is irrelevant (one suspects the movie never would have been funded had it been about, for example, campaign finance reform), it’s less important than one might suspect and not an impediment to becoming involved in the story.

Director John Madden probably wouldn’t mind Miss Sloane being compared to The Verdict or And Justice for All. However, where those films sought to elevate an often-despised vocation (the practice of the law), this one revels in the infested, infected trough that is Washington lobbying. Although the ending features a big speech and a satisfying turn-the-tables "courtroom" moment, the movie validates the public’s cynicism with how things really work in the Capitol City. It’s all about money and contacts. And the person willing to skate closest to the edge and slip through all the loopholes is the one who will fare the best.

The story follows the actions of aggressive, high priced lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), who has mastered all the methods of how to lose friends and alienate people. Nevertheless, she is singularly effective and when the NRA seeks to hire her to represent them, she shocks everyone by resigning her current position and going to work for a group working for a bill designed to close gun sales loopholes. She is recruited by millionaire philanthropist Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), who admires her results (although he soon learns to despise her tactics). She soon finds herself tangling with her former colleagues and is eventually placed in front of a congressional subcommittee looking into the activities she engages in.

Chastain’s powerhouse portrayal of a career-obsessed lobbyist who is smarter and slicker than all other contenders is the best thing about Miss Sloane. With a Swiss cheese conscience and an inhuman ability to discount collateral damage, Elizabeth is driven with Terminator-like precision. Moments of humanity are infrequent and, when they happen, we wonder whether they’re genuine or part of a long-term ploy.

The supporting cast reads like a "who’s who" of character actors. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (the star of 2013’s Belle) has a showy part as Esme Manucharian, the liberal (and some might argue naïve) assistant who becomes the face to the media of Elizabeth’s campaign. Allison Pill is her former right-hand woman who is now part of the team opposing her. That team is led by Michael Stuhlberg’s Pat Connors. Veteran actors Sam Waterston plays George Dupont, the head of the NRA’s lobbying firm, and John Lithgow is the congressman Dupont has in his pocket.

The plot, in addition to purportedly "outing" some of the tricks of the trade, follows along in the grand tradition of cinematic courtroom dramas.This is the kind of thing John Grisham might pen if he turned his eye toward D.C. politics. At first glance, Miss Sloane might appear to be anti-gun but it really isn’t. The film is clear-eyed in its representation of how gun control laws get defeated and there’s a scene that argues in favor of the concept of concealed carry permits. Miss Sloane is less about being pro- or anti-guns than it is about exploring the lobbying forces arrayed for and against the NRA. As a dramatic thriller, it does what it needs to do to keep the viewer involved and interested, even if some of its most theatrical tricks and twists are more the products of a writer’s invention than actual Washington D.C. activities.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Available for Home Viewing: "The Red Turtle"

French/Japanese fable The Red Turtle is one of those rare animated movies that transports you to a different setting without demanding that you focus on narrative or character development. Instead, viewers are encouraged to fall in love with an environment, specifically a small tropical island on which a nondescript, mute castaway inexplicably finds himself shipwrecked. This focus on setting over narrative is crucial since The Red Turtle follows the normalization of one man's romance with nature. Because this is a fable, the above-mentioned romance is quite literal: our nameless castaway falls in love with a shapeshifting turtle that transforms into a beautiful naked woman. He also inevitably stops trying to escape his surroundings, and starts to build a home on the island.

That may sound like a major spoiler, but The Red Turtle is a mood piece for children, so plot twists don't really matter. The film, which was produced by Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, has an intricately-articulated, and confidently-utilized hand-drawn style that lures you in, and makes you want to accept such a blunt, bleeding-heart metaphor for ecological awareness.

The Red Turtle begins as a Robinson Crusoe-style man vs. nature-style narrative, a mode that viewers should be comfortable and/or familiar with. You know this story: a man arrives on an island and must, through sheer force of conviction and ingenuity, rescue himself by creating shelter, foraging for food, and building a raft to escape. The main difference between this type of story and the one that The Red Turtle eventually becomes is that there's always something that's entreating or trying to catch the viewer's eye, whether it's blessedly un-anthropomorophosized crabs, or a forest of gently swaying bamboo shoots. There is subsequently a subtle tension at play at the beginning of the film: the island's personality asserts itself even as we are encouraged to get caught up in our hero's captivating routine of building a raft, trying (and repeatedly failing) to escape, daydreaming while gazing at the moon, and then inevitably repeating this makeshift procedure.

That tension comes to a head once the title character appears. She is, at first, an invisible, seemingly adversarial presence that stops the film's castaway protagonist from breaking away from his island prison. She destroys his raft, though at first it's hard to tell what's happening since she retreats from view every time he tries to catch a glimpse of her.

Still, he is as stubborn as she is, so the castaway tries to build another raft, over and over repeating his process. But eventually, he realizes that there's an observable presence that's out to get him. We join the castaway as he learns that A) he's being barred from leaving by a physical presence B) that presence is not out to get him and ultimately C) that presence is beautiful.

Getting from A to B is probably not nearly as difficult a leap in logic for viewers as getting from B to C. But co-writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit gets viewers to suspend their disbelief by consistently drawing our attention to his film's natural surroundings. This is an enchanted environment, though not in the way you might expect based on Disney cartoons like The Little Mermaid or Peter Pan. There are some cute animal inhabitants for us to relate to, like the above-mentioned crabs. But for the most part, we are asked to relate to the world through lush details. We experience the overwhelming force of a sudden rainstorm through sound design: rain water pelting bamboo shoots, wind tearing up leaves and tall grass, and normally still waters rippling uncontrollably. In this way, we adjust to the pace of island life by sharing in the castaway's thrilling process of discovery.

So when The Red Turtle eventually becomes a story about a man, a (magical reptile-)woman, and their life together, it doesn't feel strange. Dudok de Wit successfully teaches viewers to see his two main characters as extensions of the world they inhabit, leading us to see their evolving relationship as an extension of their deepening connection. Or, to put it another way: these two characters care about each other because they eventually realize that they not only aren't enemies, but are two people who happen to share the same world. There's something amazing about that kind of bond, something that I absolutely did not expect from a children's film: characters growing to like each other and solve problems together based on a mutual appreciation of their surroundings. The Red Turtle also draws viewers in by immersing us in a fully-realized microcosm. Dudok de Wit, co-writer Pascale Ferran, and an accomplished battalion of animators have created a thoroughly disarming fairy tale, one that initially appears familiar, but eventually reveals itself to be something new, and altogether unexpected.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Available for home viewing: "I Am Not Your Negro"

A few weeks ago, in reaction to something that appeared in the local paper about blackness and whiteness in recent movies, the paper printed a response in the letters to the editor section. "Since when is everything about race?" he wanted to know. Perhaps it was a rhetorical question.

A flippant — though by no means inaccurate — answer would have been 1619. But a more constructive response might have been to recommend Raoul Peck’s life-altering documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. Let me do so now, for that letter writer and for everybody else, too. Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called "race relations — white supremacy and the resistance to it, in plainer English — this movie will make you think again, and may even change your mind. Though its principal figure, the novelist, playwright and essayist James Baldwin, is a man who has been dead for nearly 30 years, you would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with greater clarity and force, insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history.

To call I Am Not Your Negro a movie about James Baldwin would be to understate Peck’s achievement. It’s more of a posthumous collaboration, an uncanny and thrilling communion between the filmmaker — whose previous work includes both a documentary and a narrative feature about the Congolese anti-colonialist leader Patrice Lumumba — and his subject. The voice-over narration (read by Samuel L. Jackson) is entirely drawn from Baldwin’s work. Much of it comes from notes and letters written in the mid-1970s, when Baldwin was somewhat reluctantly sketching out a book, never to be completed, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Reflections on those men (all of whom Baldwin knew well) and their legacies are interspersed with passages from other books and essays, notably The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin’s 1976 meditation on race, Hollywood and the mythology of white innocence. His published and unpublished words — some of the most powerful and penetrating ever assembled on the tortured subject of American identity — accompany images from old talk shows and news reports, from classic movies and from our own decidedly non-post-racial present.

Baldwin could not have known about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, about the presidency of Barack Obama and the recrudescence of white nationalism in its wake, but in a sense he explained it all in advance. He understood the deep, contradictory patterns of our history, and articulated, with a passion and clarity that few others have matched, the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: the suppression of black humanity under slavery and Jim Crow and the insistence on it in African-American politics and art; the dialectic of guilt and rage, forgiveness and denial that distorts relations between black and white citizens in the North as well as the South; the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression.

Baldwin is a double character in Peck’s film. The elegance and gravity of his formal prose, and the gravelly authority of Jackson’s voice, stand in contrast to his quicksilver on-camera presence as a lecturer and television guest. In his skinny tie and narrow suit, an omnipresent cigarette between his fingers, he imports a touch of midcentury intellectual cool into our overheated, anti-intellectual media moment.

A former child preacher, he remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow and the rhetorical flourish. At one point, on The Dick Cavett Show, Baldwin tangles with Paul Weiss, a Yale philosophy professor who scolds him for dwelling so much on racial issues. The initial spectacle of mediocrity condescending to genius is painful, but the subsequent triumph of self-taught brilliance over credentialed ignorance is thrilling to witness.

In that exchange, as in a speech for an audience of British university students, you are aware of Baldwin’s profound weariness. He must explain himself — and also his country — again and again, with what must have been sorely tested patience. When the students erupt in a standing ovation at the end of his remarks, Baldwin looks surprised, even flustered. You glimpse an aspect of his personality that was often evident in his writing: the vulnerable, bright, ambitious man thrust into a public role that was not always comfortable.

"I want to be an honest man and a good writer," he wrote early in his career, in the introductory note to his first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. The disarming, intimate candor of that statement characterized much of what would follow, as would a reckoning with the difficulties of living up to such apparently straightforward aspirations. Without sliding into confessional bathos, his voice was always personal and frank, creating in the reader a feeling of complicity, of shared knowledge and knowing humor.

I Am Not Your Negro reproduces and redoubles this effect. It doesn’t just make you aware of Baldwin, or hold him up as a figure to be admired from a distance. You feel entirely in his presence, hanging on his every word, following the implications of his ideas as they travel from his experience to yours. At the end of the movie, you are convinced that you know him. And, more important, that he knows you. To read Baldwin is to be read by him, to feel the glow of his affection, the sting of his scorn, the weight of his disappointment, the gift of his trust.

Recounting his visits to the South, where he reported on the civil rights movement and the murderous white response to it, Baldwin modestly described himself as a witness, a watchful presence on the sidelines of tragedy and heroism, an outsider by virtue of his Northern origins, his sexuality and his alienation from the Christianity of his childhood. But he was also a prophet, able to see the truths revealed by the contingent, complicated actions of ordinary people on both sides of the conflict. This is not to say that he transcended the struggle or detached himself from it. On the contrary, he demonstrated that writing well and thinking clearly are manifestations of commitment, and that irony, skepticism and a ruthless critical spirit are necessary tools for effective moral and political action.

I Am Not Your Negro is a thrilling introduction to his work, a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics — a concise, roughly 90-minute movie with the scope and impact of a 10-hour mini-series or a literary doorstop. It is not an easy or a consoling movie, but it is the opposite of bitter or despairing. "I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive," Baldwin said. "I’m forced to be an optimist."

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Silence"

Silence is a monumental work, and a punishing one. It puts you through hell with no promise of enlightenment, only a set of questions and propositions, sensations and experiences.

It is no surprise to learn that the film's director, Martin Scorsese, has been working on it for decades, since he first read the 1966 source novel by Shûsaku Endô about Jesuit priests suffering for their faith in 17th century Japan, where Christianity is outlawed. I can't think of another Scorsese film that's so intent on simply showing us things and letting us consider their meaning. There's a little bit of voiceover narration and a few shots that go inside characters' perceptions, but for the most part you're an observer, watching people from a purposeful distance. The film starts with a long moment of actual silence, and embraces silence throughout its running time, or something akin to silence. Wood burning, waves crashing, wind moving through grass: this is what you often hear in place of a musical score. When Silence is not quiet, you wish that it were, because the soundtrack is filled with moans of pain and screams of agony and the sounds of bones being broken and flame searing flesh. And, of course, during such moments you fear silence, too, because the grave is silent.

The story is simple: two priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) leave Portugal for Japan to find a third priest (Liam Neeson) who has gone missing while working as a missionary. The third priest is believed to have committed apostasy by stepping on an image of Jesus Christ after being tormented by the Japanese. Eventually, one of these wandering priests — Garfield's character, Father Sebastião Rodrigues — gets captured and goes through a similar experience, surviving torture and witnessing the torture of others while pondering unanswerable questions: How much suffering can a man take before breaking and renouncing that which is most important to him? If he does break, does it mean he has failed God? Does God want him to resist blasphemy no matter what the cost? Or does he want the priest to give up and renounce his faith, secure in the knowledge that God's love is great enough to forgive him for not being able to endure unendurable pain? Is God indifferent to the suffering? Does He even notice it?

The movie starts with the first priest, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Neeson), witnessing mass torture of Christians and being told that if he will only commit apostasy, the suffering will cease. The story then jumps forward many years to find Father Rodrigues and his partner, Father Francisco Garrpe (Driver), as they make their way to Japan by way of Macao (with help from a Japanese Christian whose own faith seems reawakened by serving as their guide). The first hour of the film is a somewhat picaresque narrative that slowly builds dread as the priests get closer to figuring out what happened their predecessor. The Japanese authorities don't take kindly to Europeans wandering around their island nation talking about the glories of Jesus. In fact, they see Christianity as a cancer to be cut from the body politic.

In the film's second half, Father Rodrigues finds himself locked in a wooden cage and forced to watch and hear the torture of Japanese Christians — some of whom followed and helped him. He is plagued by doubts, not just about the wisdom of coming to Japan or his capacity to survive this ordeal, but the wisdom of the missionary enterprise, which expects people to suffer and die on behalf of ideals. The priest even begins to wonder what God wants, what He's thinking, and whether He has a point-of-view on misery and pain.

What would Jesus do? A lot of people in Father Rodrigues' position would interpret that as a physical challenge: if Jesus withstood the agonies of the cross, I can get through this. But, according to Rodrigues’ faith, Jesus wasn't mortal, so it's an unfair test. But what if the unfairness of the test is the test? And what of the other prisoners in the facility with the priest? All it would take to end their suffering — or so the priest is told — is one footprint on the image of Jeus. Is it moral to allow others to suffer when their suffering can be ended with a single symbolic gesture? Would God want that? Maybe the priest is destined to realize that it’s all right to apostatize if it ends the pain of others.

Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Jay Cocks — the two did uncredited rewrites on The Last Temptation of Christ — have been accused by some of glorifying the European missionaries, or at least not examining them in a critical enough way. I didn’t get this out of Silence at all. In fact, one of the things that impressed me most about it was the care it devotes to understanding the position of the Japanese authorities. Without condoning their brutality, it lets a major character — Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata), one of the officials in charge of eradicating Christianity from Japan, and the supervisor of the hero’s suffering — explain the official point-of-view on Western religion. He doesn’t just consider it a corrupting influence on Japanese culture, he doubts that Christianity can truly take root in the "swamp" (his word) of his home country. There are echoes here of another recurring Scorsese fascination, the self-preservation instinct of the tribe. The tribe may tolerate rebellion, heresy or external threats up to a point, but after that they crack down mercilessly.

Scorsese's respectful distance makes the suffering more unbearable than it would be if he showed every atrocity in close-up. It's unsettling because it conflates the point-of-view of God and the point-of-view of the audience. You're paralyzed. You want to act, or you want the movie to act, to stop the suffering, but the suffering continues until finally it doesn't. We're watching men of God being tested. Try as they might, they cannot entirely wrap their minds around the purpose of the test, and when they do grapple with it, they worry that they've arrived at the wrong conclusion. They worry that they’ve missed the point; that they're not faithful enough or smart enough to understand why this horror exists, or must exist. I don’t know what to think of the ending of the film, which I won’t discuss here except to say that I’ve changed my mind about it many times, and that it seems to be constructed to encourage viewers to come at it again from new angles rather than settling on a single conclusion. This is not the sort of film you "like" or "don't like." It's a film that you experience and then live with.

Scorsese has been here before, in one sense or another — not just in straightforwardly theological dramas such as Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, but in his crime pictures and thrillers as well. The entire running time of Silence could be the self-flagellating fantasy of the young hoodlum hero of Scorsese's 1973 breakthrough Mean Streets as he holds his hand over a flame (the title character in Taxi Driver did the same thing), and the terrors visited upon the priests and their flock are sadistic enough to have come straight from the reptile brain of Max Cady in Cape Fear, a devil or demon figure who exists to punish people for the sins of weakness, hypocrisy and pride. But Silence foregrounds such things in the manner of a parable that is not intended to lead the listener to a single realization but to stimulate thought and emotion.

This, too, is characteristic of Scorsese, who studied to be a priest but became a monk for cinema, and who nonchalantly describes himself as a "lapsed Catholic" yet has been preoccupied with sin and salvation for nearly 50 years and weaves Christian themes, imagery and situations throughout his work. You even find them in what might otherwise be straightforward commercial genre projects — Cape Fear, The Departed and The Color of Money spring to mind — in which Scorsese seems to be using theology to frame his story and characters in ways that he understands, maybe as a way of personalizing a story that's not all that personal otherwise. For a lapsed Catholic he sure does see the entire world in terms of imponderables and spiritual tests. Maybe there’s an alternate reality in which Scorsese became a priest. I bet he was a good one.