Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animated picture is charming and inventive. Not as compelling or brisk as The Fantastic Mr. Fox (there are moments when the wizardry is doing too much of the heavy lifting), but still, very winning.
This is a competent, amusing, even mildly affecting film, but ultimately, it is no great shakes. It presents the story of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious no-talent who bankrolled, directed, wrote and starred in his own film, The Room, which was so terrible it became a cult classic. Wiseau is indeed awful in all respects, so there is a lot of cringe-worthy viewing. His idiosyncrasy and idiocy, however, travel only so far, and when there is nothing more to plumb from this weirdo wannabe, the mind wanders. There’s nothing to root for (Wiseau is a bit of a cretin to his cast, collaborators and friends) and the film doesn’t compensate with enough humor. So, it’s fine, but forgettable.
What good can be said of this 1987 blockbuster that, along with The Untouchables, catapulted Kevin Costner to stardom? Not a lot. The film does not age well at all. It is blocky, flat and some of the chase scenes are comically leaden. Costner running from computer room to computer room is Hardcastle and McCormick fare, and waiting for the printer you had in college to deliver the coup de grace is pretty damn funny. Director Roger Donaldson’s work (Cocktail, Thirteen Days, Dante’s Peak) is as pedestrian as it gets.
Then there is Will Patton.
As the bad guy, he is so over-the-top, it’s hard to stifle a laugh. His devotion to the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) is akin to that of a coked-up Moonie. He almost looks hypnotized. And is he trying to sneak in some homoerotic longing for Hackman? Bob Duvall, sure. But Hackman? It’s crazy.
That said, this dinosaur can make you nostalgic for the days of actual sex appeal in pictures. Costner and Sean Young didn’t have a story, but they sure had chemistry, and in the days before VCRs gave way to the internet, that kind of sizzle was both bankable, a treat and a minor staple. Think Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Debra Winger and Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward in Against All Odds (1984), Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Witness (1985), Ellen Barkin and Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy (1986), Mimi Rogers and Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer (and Kurt Russell) in Tequila Sunrise (1988), Pfeiffer and the Bridges brothers in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), even Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost (1990).
It didn’t always work (check out Al Pacino with Barkin in Sea of Love (1989), hoo boy, Barkin looks like she’s kissing a hobo), Still, these were romantic and racy mainstream films that presented non-comedic stories but relied on the strong and compelling mutual sexual attraction of their leads. We just grew out of these kinds of movies and “sexual chemistry” became quaint, jettisoned for talky, quippy, modern rom-com dreck. 1992’s overt Basic Instinct, where Sharon Stone had to give a glimpse of her hoo-ha (trademarked) to keep folks interested was the end, and now, we are in mannequins-in-bondage land (Fifty Shades of Dull).
Don’t believe me? Take in 20 minutes of Passengers, a recent sci-fi flick that accidentally becomes reliant on real desire between Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s ugly. These two couldn’t ignite enough heat to juice a GameBoy.
But I digress. No Way Out is awful, but also, a little sad.
I stumbled on this Saturday, and it took some time to figure out what I’d gotten myself into. Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is a relic from the civil rights era, still fighting the good legal fight with his more prestigious mentor in a musty LA office. While the mentor is the dazzle, Israel is the quirky brain. But soon, like Bumpy in American Gangster, the mentor dies, and Israel is set adrift. The firm is closed and now, Israel has to fend for himself, eventually taking a job with a criminal defense mill helmed by a slick former student of the mentor (Colin Farrell) whose firm has gone all corporate and Johnnie Cochran. Will Roman kowtow to “the man” and play the game or will his deep conviction to the plight of the downtrodden and forgotten snap him back from the pit of doom?
That’s essentially the story, and it is told in a clunky and plodding manner. Writer-director Dan Gilroy tries to give it some zest, but the only vigor comes from the fact that Israel is clearly on the spectrum (this must be a thing now; even Ben Affleck has donned the autism robes). This allows Washington to mug and riff, which he did well enough to earn a Best Actor nod, but his work is in the service of an at-best pedestrian and at-worst mind-numbingly boring tale. Gilroy’s last effort – Nightcrawler – was a sharp, edgy commentary on tabloid culture. It’s a shame he followed it up with this schmaltzy morality tale.
I first heard about Molly Bloom in an NPR interview when she was promoting her movie. Bloom was being questioned by an insipid interviewer who, naturally, tried to shoehorn her entire experience into the gender feminist blender. Bloom was politely having none of it:
MARTIN: But, you know, as Jessica Chastain plays you as like you have kind of ice water in your veins. And, you know, Aaron Sorkin has been criticized in the past for having female characters who weren’t fully fleshed out or for feeling as if – there are those who say, look, these are a man’s idea of what women are like, OK. And I wonder, did you feel as tough as Jessica Chastain makes you out to be?
BLOOM: You know, it’s interesting. I didn’t get the sense watching Jessica that she has ice water in her veins. I get the sense that she has a lot of humanity, that she cares deeply about doing the right thing and about protecting people. I really didn’t experience her as cold. I experienced her as ambitious. And I think that we get our lines crossed oftentimes when we see an ambitious woman and we just label them cold.
MARTIN: I’m interested in you actually because she’s made up. I’m interested in you. Do you see yourself as having, like, ice water in your veins or did you – how do you see yourself?
BLOOM: I’ve always been very ambitious and very determined and very compassionate at the same time.
MARTIN: There are a lot of these stories right now about power, masculinity and abuse. You wrote your book years ago. The movie was in production – has been in production long before these current stories came out. But I wonder, you find yourself worried for these women in a way – does that make sense? – in a way that you might not have a year ago before we knew what some of the other things that were going on. Does that make sense? Do you understand what I’m saying?
BLOOM: Oh, I think there’s a lot of that. I want to make a pretty clear distinction here because my experience was of a different sort. It was just being disenchanted and being very sick of oppressive men and having to play by their rules. You know, there wasn’t this abuse, you know, that we’re seeing, but there was just this unfair sort of unjust application of power that I just constantly felt like I was coming up against, from growing up with a hard-driving sort of type A father and coaches and bosses and then players and then government.
But I also never really saw myself as a victim there because, for me, it just felt, you know, like that was a powerless situation. I tried to circumvent it. I tried to find my way around it. But I think it’s a brave new world that we’re seeing, that we really can have a voice. And we don’t have to do this alone necessarily. There’s clear power and progress from coming together.
I was immediately a fan, and as played by Jessica Chastain in this Aaron Sorkin written and directed movie, Bloom’s measured strength is what stays with you. She is a driven would-be Olympian, guided and plagued by a driven and confrontationally intelligent father (Kevin Costner) and after a career-ending injury, she utilizes that strength not only to become a success in hosting high stakes poker games, but in eventually striking out on her own, escaping the reach of her early cruel and/or mercurial sponsors. When it all goes bad, and she is indicted primarily for her association rather than conspiracy with criminals, she maintains the confidences of her “clients” (powerful men who shared their personal foibles and sins with her as a confidante) even as her defense attorney (Idris Elba) implores her to make a deal that will exchange those confidences to keep her out of prison. Her resolve is both believable, impressive and rarely depicted in female characters in film. She is the quintessential feminist hero, both cognizant of the powers and pitfalls of her gender, but ultimately, a tough and independent player educated, literally, by the school of hard knocks. Her persona is neatly demonstrated in an exchange with Elba on the raising of his daughter, Stella:
Elba: Can I ask you a question? You think I’m too hard on her?
Bloom: I met a girl when I first moved to L.A. she was 22. Someone arranged through a third party to spend a weekend with her in London. You know what she got? For the weekend?
Elba: Five grand?
Bloom: A bag. A Chanel bag she wanted. Whatever you’re doing with Stella, double it.
A captivating, smart picture. A little overwritten (it is Sorkin, so there are going to be some speeches), but other than that, highly recommended.
Barry Levinson’s mostly steady hand and a mature, measured script for such a hot-button topic makes this HBO flick a little better than passable. Pacino is thankfully and appropriately subdued as the confused yet canny football coach who may or may not have been alerted to the molesting of young boys by his longtime former assistant, Gerry Sandusky. The best scenes are with Paterno and his wife and children as the enormity of the scandal dawns on them. As they try to wrap their heads around the situation, and the responses of their husband and father beget more questions, you can see the coach sink into himself. Is he wracked with guilt or is he struggling mightily to simply remember? Pacino does a great job of not letting on. At one point, as he reads the grand jury documentation, he asks, “What is sodomy?” and you’re embarrassed for him.
When we are not in the room with the family, we are peppered by the reflexive support of the campus kids and the media assault. Indeed, Levinson uses talk show speechifying as a second soundtrack. As the scandal intensifies, the commentators ratchet up the condemnation, until you sense Paterno pinned between the unthinking, unwavering acolytes of his football world and the collective, moralizing bloviation of the punditry.
The film has a few pretty big problems. The opening, a montage of the day Paterno sets the record for most college football wins, is overwrought and over-the-top in its expanse and heavy import. Another scene, where the weight of the scandal appears to break Paterno down, is downright ridiculous. Levinson has the old coach wander from room to room, a half confused victim of dementia, a half pained suffered of an Excedrin headache. It went on so long, me and my wife started guessing how many rooms existed in the seemingly modest Paterno house (he appeared to be in at least a dozen).
There’s also a cheap shot at the end, where the intrepid reporter gets a call from someone who says he complained about abuse at the hands of Sandusky directly to Paterno . . . in 1976. This was covered as some sort of bombshell, and while Paterno could certainly be legitimately held to account for his lackluster response to the allegations of abuse in 2001 (he reported the allegations to university officials and then apparently thought little more of the whole thing), an unverified 1976 allegation from an anonymous accuser seems a weak hook to hang your hat on. Very much off-kilter from the approach taken most of the film.
It took a while, but the bloom is now completely off the Kennedy rose. When I was watching the second season of The Netflix series The Crown, an episode was devoted to a visit from JFK and Jackie to a young queen Elizabeth. In it, the Kennedys were portrayed as backbiting amphetamine addicts. Quite a distance from Camelot and Copland and the rest.
With Chappaquiddick, we receive a sober and accurate docudrama that puts us in all the rooms as Teddy Kennedy attempts to extricate himself from scandal. It is 1969, the sting of Bobby’s assassination is still fresh, and Teddy has taken the weekend off to compete in the Edgartown regatta and party with a gaggle of RFK’s former staffers. After a fair amount of drinking, and perhaps sex (the film is agnostic on this point), Teddy drives a young staffer off of a bridge, resulting in her death. His first words to his friends/advisers are, “I am not going to be president.“ They are a fitting encapsulation of Ted Kennedy‘s curse. Throughout the film, he is shown as an uneasy and insecure carrier of the Kennedy torch, and as he wavers in leading the family, he hesitates in determining what kind of man he wants to be.
On the one hand, he strives to be a true profile in courage by heeding the advice of his close cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), who persistently urges Teddy to do the right thing. Despite Gargan’s advice, Kennedy allows himself to be guided by all of the other forces that control his life. He is surrounded by a plethora of advisors who effectuate all of the fixes on his behalf, including updating his drivers license and getting poor Mary Joe Kopecnhe’s body off the island (the latter a necessity because an autopsy might reveal she may have had sex or worse, may have suffocated to death rather than drowned, suggesting an even more horrific death and, given Kennedy’s delay in reporting the accident, an unnecessary one).
The lure of the expedient and self preserving is all the more powerful given the unwavering fealty many characters exhibit to the Kennedy clan. There is no shortage of acolytes. He is the next man up and thus, the chosen one, and they will do anything on his behalf.
Finally, there is Teddy’s father (Bruce Dern), crippled by a stroke, yet still capable of blurting or writing words most hurtful. His one word to Teddy the night of the accident, when his desperate son calls for advice and comfort, is a garbled “Alibi.”
Look, as is historically appropriate, despite his facilitators, Teddy is the villain in this piece. But as played by Jason Clarke, he is not a demon. Clarke is uncanny in his resemblance, but it is not an impression, and he exudes the charm, the cleverness, the soft self regard (at one point, Gargan rips the neck brace Teddy has chosen to wear for the Kopechne funeral, screaming “ you are not the victim!” and Teddy storms off to give his Daddy a look), and most acutely, the desire for a destiny wholly different than one he has been given. It is a delicate, nuanced performance.
The film also gives a long overdue rendition of Kopechne. The winner of perhaps the worst first line of any journalistic story goes to Charles Pierce of The Boston Globe. In 2004, in a sentence that managed to be sycophantic, cruel and ghoulish, he wrote, “If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.”
I didn’t make that up.
As played by Kate Mara, Kopechne is not a mere device. Her equivocation in joining Teddy’s staff is buttressed by a soon-to-be verified discomfort with his weakness.
This is a solid, gripping film. My only two nits are some discordant comic bits as Teddy’s brain trust advises him through the nightmare and the fact I saw it in the theater. There is no need to see it there. It is picturesque but the big screen is a luxury lessened by—
a) the exorbitant cost (3 tickets, M&Ms, Icee = $62)
b) the fuckhead kid who kept playing with his electric chair
c) the smelly dude to the right
d) the chatterboxes behind us