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2014

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Moving, didactic and unsurprising.  The film suffers from what I call the Milk syndrome, a heartfelt fealty to its subject so strong it obliterates any sense of authenticity.  Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is etched in marble, and marble is both beautiful and boring.  While the film is occasionally poignant, we are left with its one-dimensional hero, colorless acolytes (Coretta Scott King and everyone who works with King) and cartoonish villains (Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ and Dylan Baker’s Herbert Hoover are particularly ridiculous).

The film’s best moments come when King is not ennobled, but crafty, as when he explains to two Selma locals why he needs to elicit violent repression from the authorities for publicity purposes; King as tactician is just more interesting than King as emblem.

The worst moments come in quiet discussions, where the activists trade speeches littered with biblical passages and maxims like “eyes on the prize.” There are too many long sermons provided to educate an audience director-writer Ana DuVernay doesn’t trust (a conversation between Coretta and her husband about his infidelities has a reserved dignity that is otherworldly).

In a film punctuated by Oyelowo’s expert recitations of King’s actual speeches, the effect is tiresome.  The characters are in the middle of a pressure-cooker maelstrom, uncertain as to which road to take, hemmed in by any number of political and social forces, and beset by violence at any turn.  Yet, they are reduced to the roles of resolute and/or suffering nobles.  When one black man wants to go get his gun after the marchers have been brutally bloodied, he is met with a sermon on the foolhardiness of his instincts and its effect on their historic struggle.  After an ass-beating, it’s a rare man who can summon a soliloquy.

The film is beautifully photographed. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who, in A Most Violent Year, captured early 80s NYC) employs a lyrical, classic style he describes as a “period, Kodachrome-esque look.”  The effect creates memorable moments, some stunning.

But pretty isn’t enough.

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This is a football movie made by people who, if they ever saw a football, would mistake it for hippo shit.  Kevin Costner is the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. His Dad just died. He’s in crisis. He’s a “go with your gut” kind of guy. He has the number 1 pick in the draft. He intends on getting a hot shot quarterback but becomes disenchanted when he learns that the quarterbacks’ teammates didn’t come to his 21st birthday party. Costner is then offered 2 NFL starters and 2 future number 1 draft picks for that number 1 pick. He declines the trade. Instead, he uses the number 1 draft pick to select a linebacker who we have been told “may” be selected 15th. For non-football fans, this is the equivalent of Bill Gates selling his Microsoft shares for a Shetland pony and a wheel of Gouda.  But Costner desires the linebacker because he saw the linebacker get kicked out of a game for giving his dying sister a football after he scored a touchdown.

Nothing I just wrote about the plot is made up.

Then, Costner wheels and deals with other NFL general managers to come out of the draft with 100 draft picks. One general manager is 11 years old. Another releases his bowels when Costner raises his voice during a conference call.  All the others are at risk of dying from swallowing their own tongues.

The movie is about men, and choices, and your instincts and tradition and commitment and respect.  The film also has a minor a romantic subplot between Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner so uncomfortable it has an almost molesty feel. Garner feels it. She damn near makes herself catatonic to get through this travesty. Costner merely looks embarrassed.

This is the anti-Moneyball. This is not merely one of the worst sports films ever made. It’s one of the worst films ever made.  It is so bad, you have to see it.  It’s mandatory.

And it was endorsed by the NFL. When current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walks out to open the draft, the audience erupts in applause.

Which is bullshit.

What stands out in Steve James’ engrossing documentary on Roger Ebert is not so much Ebert’s skill and status as a movie reviewer, but his absolute love of life.  It appears Ebert almost fell into his craft, found he had a knack for it (so much so he was awarded a Pulitzer), and thereafter, became a cultural icon, along with “frienemy” Gene Siskel, changing the way film criticism was perceived both by the public and Hollywood.  But when we are introduced to Ebert, he is in the midst of yet another of his trying medical travails near the end. Cancer has robbed him of his jaw (and, cruelly, his ability to speak), but he types ferociously and utilizes a voice-activated program to communicate.  And the prominent feature of his personality is not intellectual or esoteric; it is a lust for people and ideas.

We learn Ebert was a wunderkind college editor, then a hard-drinking Chicago newspaperman who swore off booze after one-too-many benders in his 30s, finding love in his 50s with a woman who already had children.  Ebert is also revealed as a know-it-all and, at times, petulant and self-important.  As James’s demonstrates, he was also a caring man, one whose passion was broad enough to encompass not only cinema but simple discussion and engagement.

Ebert has never been my favorite reviewer simply because I found him so mercurial, one moment intolerant of the offbeat, another celebrating it; I was looking for standards and signposts, and he wouldn’t oblige. But his best reviews were such a mix of accessible, earthy and honest, my expectations were unrealistic. Ebert could also smell a rat, and he had no problem going against the grain. Take, for example, his review of the highly touted anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds, a celebrated work that greatly influenced documentary filmmaking. Ebert grants the film its due, but his caution, in 1974, is prescient:

My problem in writing about “Hearts and Minds” is how to go about separating the film’s images — which are sometimes heartbreakingly tragic, sometimes cruelly revealing — from the craft of the film itself. Here is a documentary about Vietnam that doesn’t really level with us on a simple technical level. If we know something about how footage is obtained and how editing can make points, it sometimes looks like propaganda, using such standard tricks as the juxtaposition of carefully selected but unrelated material to create a desired effect. And yet, in scene after scene, the raw material itself is so devastating that it brushes the tricks aside. . . The problem is that the film is at such pains to make its points that it doesn’t trust us to find our own connections. We see a tearful graveside scene in North Vietnam, for example, with a widow trying to throw herself onto her husband’s coffin, and then we get Westmoreland soberly explaining that Orientals don’t place a high value on life. In this and his other comments about what he calls “the Oriental philosophy,” Westmoreland comes over as not only racist and stupid, but incredibly lacking in awareness of how his remarks will sound. This man ran a war for years in a country he didn’t begin to understand. And yet placing these two pieces of film together — and the editing in “Hearts and Minds” consistently makes similar matches — finally only undermines the film’s effectiveness. It’s too heavy-handed. We’re bludgeoned by the point of view, we don’t like the feeling of manipulation we get. Yet there are scenes here of incredible power, even for a nation which watched this war on television every evening.

James’ documentary also shows Ebert to be the kindest and most giving of mentors and friends, which reminds me of Will Leitch’s piece on Ebert upon his death.  Leitch had edited the same college newspaper as Ebert, and Ebert’s generosity to him was astounding:

Because I was 19, I took this as an invitation to keep bothering Ebert, and over the next two years, I emailed him regularly, with questions about my career, with movie reviews I’d written and hoped he would offer tips on, with requests for advice on writing, on life, on the tough job market that awaited me upon graduation. Ebert wrote back to every single one, with lengthy and heartfelt missives that were far more than a snot-nosed kid clearly getting off on Knowing Roger Ebert deserved. I have no idea why he did it. He told me “that this is important to you as it is, that’s a very large percentage of what you need, really.” He emphasized that such ephemera like “career” and “success” were mostly beside the point. “Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It’s the only thing you can control.”

Ebert even recommended me for a job stringing movie reviews for the suburban Daily Southtown newspaper. For the first one — the Robert Downey Jr. movie Restoration — I borrowed my friend Mike’s car and drove up to a Chicago screening room. I didn’t know Chicago well and of course got lost, just sneaking into the theater right as the lights were going down. After the movie, I walked out to the elevator, and standing there, was Ebert.

“Sir,” I said, talking very fast. “I’m Will Leitch, from the DI. I wanted to thank you and say what an honor it is to me. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done. I promise not to abuse it.”

Ebert was bigger then, and his hand was meaty and sweaty.

“Of course, Will, I’m happy to help you in any way. You have talent, and anyone from the DI is a friend of mine,” he said. “Actually, I’m going to be in Champaign in a few weeks for a screening at the New Art, and I’d love to meet with you and some of the staff beforehand. Is Papa Del’s still open?”

Two weeks later, Ebert was entertaining me, my friend Mike and a few select editors — the fight to be included at the dinner was fierce and still angers some today — at Papa Del’s. (We had four pizzas, and Ebert ate 1 1/2 of them.) He took our questions, we talked about journalism and movies (he and I had a fierce debate as to whether or not Harry Connick Jr. was in the Holly Hunter movie Copycat: I was right, though nobody had an iPhone to prove it at the time), and he told us stories about the old days without ever romanticizing his good old days at the expense of ours. He was not Roger Ebert, the guy on television. He was just the fun guy eating pizza, dishing about Gene Siskel — he absolutely could not understand how that man could care so much about the Chicago Bulls, a stupid sports team — and having a grand time. We sat there for three hours. None of us wanted to leave, including him.

At the end of the night, Ebert took me aside. “I understand it’s your birthday tomorrow, Will,” he said. (It was. I was turning 20.) “Well, I have a gift for you. It’s a scoop. You can run it in the paper tomorrow. I received a print of a movie that’s not out yet to show at the theater tomorrow. You can have the exclusive: It’s Mighty Aphrodite, the new Woody Allen film.”

Yet, as Leitch shamefully admits, with the web exploding, “we [were] young turks . . . ready to kill our idols . . . we all thought we were hot shit.” In that vein, Leitch later wrote a piece for the web magazine Ironminds entitled, “I Am Sick Of Roger Ebert’s Fat F—-ing Face”, the thesis of the piece being that Ebert’s TV work was hurting his writing (with a few fat jibes included).

Ebert’s response, and his later correspondence with Leitch, is an epitaph to which we all should aspire:

Will —

I have always tried to help you, and you know that. I am not sure what you were trying to do with your piece — if you object to me being on television, there is a dial to the right that will take care of that problem for you — what issues you might be dealing with, but I am certain you will grow to regret writing it someday. If you were trying to make a point, I fear you are not in control of your instrument. I wonder if you feel shitty this morning, now that that piece is out there. I know that I do.

RE

Leitch wrote him back, completely backing down, apologizing, but the damage obviously had been done. I did feel shitty, instantly, and have ever since. A year later, I was working for Brill’s Content’s All-Star Newspaper . . . where I ran an early incarnation of a blog, linking to the best newspaper writers in the country every morning. As the job required me to do with all the writers we selected, I sheepishly emailed Ebert to tell him he was on the roster. He wrote back:

Does this mean you’re no longer sick of my fat fucking face? 🙂

It’s an honor. I hope you’re well.

RE

(Available on Netflix streaming)

Nick Broomfield’s (Kurt and Courtney, Battle for Haditha) documentary for HBO is a must-see for several reasons. First and foremost, I had no idea we had a modern serial killer of historical proportions in South Central Los Angeles, a killer of dozens and possibly over a hundred women over a 20 year period beginning in the 1980s. That, of course, is a large point of the story. Broomfield does an effective job of demonstrating that the dispossession of the citizens in that part of LA, coupled with the carnage occurring with the rise of crack cocaine, rendered the murders and disappearances of “crack whores” a rather low priority. After all, a majority of the women killed by local stolen car fixer and semi-strong man Lonnie David Franklin were likely lured to their deaths by the offer of drugs-for-sex, most meeting their ignominious ends in a camper parked at the back of his house.  I couldn’t shake wondering as to the numbers Jack the Ripper could have amassed if he’d kept to his Spitalfields hunting grounds and refrained from corresponding with the police.

The documentary is less an indictment of the police and government officials, who, when in “no comment” mode, always seem guiltier, than a singularly brave exploration of the urban condition in a rotted corner of the city. Broomfield, a Brit, is one of at least two white men poking their cameras in an area where white men generally fear to tread, and his endeavor results in incredibly revelatory footage. Franklin’s pals at first proclaim his innocence (he was set up by the cops, they swear), but as Broomfield spends more time with them, two open up, explaining that Franklin was indeed a suspicious character and that they were even involved in his kinks, so much so that they traded pictures of the naked street girls they photographed, almost as if in a local snapshot club. They were happy to party with the man, even if he was a brutal beast who preyed upon the addictions of so many street walkers. In this, Broomfield reveals that the neighborhood itself could be as blasé’ about the women as the authorities.  But he also captures the pain and regret of one friend, for whom the “hey, I didn’t know he was killing them after I left” explanation no longer fully suffices.

Broomfield also hits documentarian gold when he hooks up with a former crack addict/prostitute – Pam – who shepherds him through the dangerous streets, always introducing the crew to the locals as her “friends from England.” Her efforts actually lead the crew to women deemed “missing” by the LAPD after Franklin’s arrest (Franklin’s penchant for photography resulted in a 200+ picture sheet):

Pam’s tour of the neighborhood shows the depths of its depravity at its worst, but she has survived, now clean and out of the game, and there is fundamental decency about her, though encased in the hardest of shells, that is riveting.

Franklin goes to trial this summer.  Definitely catch this before you start reading about the case.

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There is a certain kind of self satisfied dramedy that can only be written by a child of the affluent, over educated and beleaguered by the misery of his suburban upbringing, yet oh so smitten with its quirky coolness. Tragedy brings this writer into contact with his or her estranged family. Their hypersexualized mother (Jane Fonda) is overbearing and positively lords her “hip for her age” persona over them. One brother is the unreliable, manchild rebel (Adam Driver), one sister (Tina Fey) the angry perfectionist. Then there is the long suffering, stodgy older brother (Corey Stoll) and finally, there is the sarcastic, sad brother (Jason Bateman). What unites them is their fealty to stereotype and ostentatious progressivism, a condescension to every other non-familial character, 80s pop, odd folks from the old neighborhood, the fact that nothing that happens in the story would ever happen in real life, secrets revealed (“Mom’s a lesbian!”; “Dad was a bad businessman!”; “You slept with HIM?”), assigned stem winders, a scene where the sons smoke weed (found in Dad’s jacket!  Crazy!!!!) and heartfelt tributes immediately followed by crass one-liners.

And that is This Is Where I Leave You.

Truly terrible in every way.

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It can be clever, and the intersection of several fairy tales is occasionaly ingenious.  But there are no standout numbers (indeed, the movie appears to have cut the best song), and a musical rises or falls on its music.  The “Into the Woods” riff that snakes through the movie becomes tiresome, there are too few interesting exchanges between the characters, there is an entirely unnecessary and intrusive narration and the entire thing feels small.  It’s also not very funny, and from what I can see from the stage play, it’s supposed to be.

Though he’s been off his game of late, this project would have been better in the hands of Tim Burton.

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J.C. Shandor wrote and directed my favorite film of 2011, Margin Call, a verbose, intricate “what if?” financial thriller set before the crash of 2008. Last year, Shandor made the critically acclaimed All is Lost, a tale of survival on the sea starring Robert Redford and featuring a script of a mere 31 pages (it is now on Netflix streaming but I’ve neglected to see it). If there was any doubt, Shandor’s third film cements that he has no interest in doing the same thing again.  A Most Violent Year is the anti-crime picture, a meticulous thriller set in the suburbs of 1981 New York City revolving around the intricacies and corruption of . . . the home heating oil business. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are a married couple working to expand their reach in the business, in the face of union troubles, a prosecutor’s investigation, the hijacking of their trucks and the intimidation of their sales force. Isaac, an immigrant, is resolute in combating these obstacles in a legal and above-board manner. Chastain is the daughter of a mob boss, and her fealty to the straight-and-narrow is less stringent. As the screws turn, you think you can see where this is going.  You’re wrong.

Chandor’s medium cool meditation emphasizes Isaac’s passion, ethics, and larger vision and while the stakes are small in the scheme of things, to Isaac, they are everything, and Shandor effectively invests the audience in his struggle without infusing the narrative with the expected fleshy, pulpy, satisfying retributive violence. I’ll admit:  bloodletting is what I wanted and expected and as the tension mounted, Chandor’s resolution felt unsatisfying. In that way, Chandor transforms the genre.

This is an ingenious, unique movie.  Chandor’s feel for 80s New York is sharp, his pacing is tight and he never veers far from the heart of the picture, the unswerving devotion of Isaac and Chastain to their business and to each other. Their performances are riveting; they feel like a married couple who melded passionately but never addressed longstanding disputes in their view of the world.  Like a real married couple.

One of the best of the year.

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John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard was one of the best films of 2011, a sharp, wry, talky culture clash comedy that pitted straight laced federal agent Don Cheadle against the blustering, Irish provocateur Brendan Gleeson. In Calvary, Gleeson is again McDonagh’s center as a Catholic priest tending to an Irish seaside community. The film opens in the confessional, with a man telling Gleeson that in 7 days time, he will meet him on the beach and murder him. What follows is a depiction of Gleeson’s role in a town in transition culturally, economically and spiritually, where Gleeson’s faith is tested time and time again. McDonagh has crafted a compelling parable, deep with import.  It also stands as one of the few films that conveys the centrality of religion in a particular modern locale (The Apostle comes to mind but that was set in the American South, which is in many ways archaic)Yet, as much as the film is steeped in the story of the New Testament, it is thoroughly modern, as Gleeson is mocked, goaded and pitied by a flock that considers him a joke from days gone past yet are drawn to his authority and the promise of understanding and guidance.

This sounds very heavy and yet, McDonagh’s strength is his keen grasp of the unique Irish patter, with its unyielding thrust and parry.  The dialogue is razor sharp and bitingly funny, and when these characters get past the language that insulates them, an almost national dialogue, revelation of their pain is truly moving.  One of the best of the year, and while the crimes of the Academy are many, the omission of Gleeson and the screenplay for nominations is, keeping in a religious vein, an abomination.

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Downton Abbey is a hugely successful period British soap opera that is anachronistic, predictable and overwrought.  The Imitation Game is Downton Abbey for the movies.  Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the Sheldon Cooper of World War II; brilliant, odd, effeminate and humor impaired, and he is tasked with cracking the Nazi Enigma code.  He does so, with the help of Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode and an actor from Downton Abbey, all the while struggling with his sexuality, his anti-social personality and a race against the clock.

There is not much in the film that isn’t expected.  After alienating his colleagues, Turing wins them over.  After being quirky, we are charmed and in his corner.  After connecting with a teen friend in boarding school in flashback, the boy dies. After that boy tells Turing, “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” that line is delivered again and then again.  After the team cracks the code, they immediately pinpoint the location of every ship in the Atlantic and deduce that a passenger ship is in danger, but they can’t save it, because it would give their achievement away to the Nazis, and then, it turns out the brother of a team member is on the ship in danger, and he tells Turing he can’t be God.

Cumberbatch is good in parts, but it is a mannered, tic-laden performance, one that eschews every one of the relationships he is supposed to develop.  You don’t believe he has bonded with his co-workers and you sure don’t believe he and Knightley have established an intellectual kinship.  Curiously, Turing’s homosexuality is successfully used against him – when he discovers a Soviet spy in his midst, the spy threatens to reveal Turing’s sexual orientation and Turing clams up.  And how did the spy come to learn Turing was gay?  When Turing became engaged to Knightley to keep her on the team, after treating his sexuality as a state secret, he rather comfortably tells the spy his personal business.

Another problem is the insistence on establishing a suffering symbol for homosexuality, a dramatic decision that has plagued African American characters in historical films for eons.  The real Turing was pretty openly gay with his co-workers, even coming on to several male colleagues.  Now that is interesting.  But we need a noble victim here so, let’s just forget the stubborn and inconvenient facts.  It is one thing to amp up Turing’s role in creating the device that breaks the German code.  It’s another to change his very essence to deliver us our important lesson.

But its British, it’s topical, it has sweep and it is a tragedy anchored by Cumberbatch’s Oscar bait tears and quivers.  So, it is heralded.  But when it is not being ridiculous and ahistorical, it is pedestrian.

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American Sniper is a spellbinding war film. Clint Eastwood conveys the simplicity of patriotism, the horror of war and its psychological toll when it is concluded, and the ambiguity of heroism, all encapsulated in a riveting re-creation of combat during the second Iraq War.  Bradley Cooper is the perfect vessel for Eastwood’s tale. As sniper Chris Kyle, Cooper projects a forthright assuredness that, as he is tested, wears down, not in the expected emotional breakdown or the hackneyed apologia and rejection of values, but physically, in the narrowing of his eyes, the long stare, the suspicion with which he greets even the most unthreatening of domestic events. It’s a haunting, restrained performance, completely at odds with Cooper’s manic turns in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and beautifully in tune with Eastwood’s anti-war, yet very much a war movie (the combat sequences are expert; in particular, a closing battle that Eastwood makes cogent and gripping even though the combatants are enveloped in a sand storm).

The picture is one of the most successful of the year, predictably eliciting a tired cultural debate as to its politics and its accuracy. The film’s political offense can be found in its marrow. There is no defense of the Iraq War.  There is no suggestion that the endeavor was worthy or advisable and the events depicted suggest otherwise.  Kyle’s own brother, while shipping out, looks hollow, telling Kyle “fuck this place” and Kyle’s first kills are regrettably a child and his mother. Ty Burr’s conclusion that it is a “tragedy in which American certainty comes to grief against the rocks of the real world, and it views its central figure as a decent man doing indecent things for what he keeps telling himself is a greater good” is perfectly defensible.

But Kyle is a Texan from a churchgoing family. His father teaches him to hunt and to be violent in defense of those who are weaker. Kyle is called to duty by the terrorism of the 90s and beyond, and he builds the rapport of the soldier with his fellow Seals, with all the machismo, camaraderie and xenophobia that entails. He is a patriot, unyielding in his views toward his country and his fellow soldiers. And that is one noxious stew for certain quarters. Hence the sniggering of Seth Rogen, Michael Moore, and Bill Maher, comfortable in their condescension and elevated station. When Howard Dean (who did his Vietnam tour in the snows of Killington) attributed the film’s success to anger and the Tea Party, he conveyed two certainties: he had not seen the film but he had read and heard a lot about it from like minded folk.  When dolts aren’t taking potshots at the culture Eastwood presents, others decry its lack of context, nothing more than the idiocy directed at Zero Dark Thirty, which ostensibly failed because it omitted the Surgeon General’s warning, “Torture is bad and no valuable intel ever came from it.”

The other controversy has centered on the picture’s accuracy. In a year when Selma took flak for creation of an LBJ-Hoover conspiracy to get Martin Luther King, it’s fair to expose American Sniper to some rigor. But as Slate‘s Courtney Duckworth points out, while Kyle may have been a fabulist in other areas of his life (Kyle, who embraced celebrity, said he killed two carjackers in Texas, sniped looters during Hurricane Katrina, and punched Jesse Ventura in the face), “more than any other strategy, omission keeps the film true to life.” Generally, what Eastwood filmed was true to Kyle’s memoir, though that truth was often subject to standard massaging and embellishment (a cell phone call to his wife mid combat, creation of one bad guy and expanded dramatization of another).  The truth is incredible enough:  over 250 kills, and survival of four tours, three gunshot wounds, two helicopter crashes, six IED attacks and numerous surgeries.

Instead of training in on the accuracy of what Eastwood depicts, there seems to be an expectation that Kyle as blowhard should have been plumbed.  I’m not sure how that would have worked thematically, and it could really only be justified as a caution about the wartime events he wrote about.  I have not read anything that suggests Kyle’s telling of that part of his life is assailable, so it would be like injecting JFK’s serial adultery into a Cuban Missile Crisis flick – enjoyable for those prone to  dislike Kennedy but otherwise awkward and misplaced.