The Birth of a Nation(10/7/2016)

It doesn’t happen too often but every once in a while there’s a situation where two movies that aren’t remakes of one another or anything will share a title for one reason or another.  For example, there are two movies called Twilight, not so much because one movie was leeching off another but more likely because Stephenie Meyer just hadn’t seen or heard of that 1998 Paul Newman/Gene Hackman thriller when she named her YA series.  Other times it’s less a matter of not knowing about a previous work so much as it’s a matter of not caring.  For instance, when Ridley Scott is making a mega-budgeted movie about Roman gladiators he’s probably not going to give up on his preferred title just because there was already a somewhat obscure boxing movie called Gladiator just eight years earlier.  Occasionally I’m sure this practice leads to some video store confusion (god help the people who got more than they bargained for when they tried to rent the Oscar winning race relations drama and went home with a David Cronenberg movie about car crash fetishists) but for the most part only the most anal of people tend to even notice this sort of thing.  Of course every once in a while the reuse of a title isn’t an accident and isn’t meant to be something people aren’t going to notice, sometimes it’s a deliberate comment on the previous work and that very much seems to be what’s going on with the new film The Birth of a Nation, which appears to be a rather intentional attempt to “take back” the title of D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist / highly innovative 1915 epic of the same name.

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is not a retelling of that now one hundred year old film and is actually set a good thirty years before the events of that film (which starts with the Civil War and goes through reconstruction).  Rather, this new The Birth of a Nation is set more or less from the beginning on the 19th century up through 1831 and focuses in on the life of the famous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker himself).  The film begins with a young Nat Turner learning how to read, despite his owner’s reservations, and having this buoyed on by his owner’s wife/future owner’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) who has Turner study the bible extensively.  Twenty years later an Adult Nat Turner now acts as a preacher for the slaves on the plantation while working on the cotton fields otherwise, and eventually his current owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) devises a scheme where he’d have Nat “tour” other plantations and preach subservience to the various slaves on each of them.  As he sees plantation after plantation and witnesses more and more suffering on his own plantation Turner becomes increasingly angry about the constant suffering that he’s surrounded by and begins to plan for a violent rebellion for freedom.

Making a movie about someone like Nat Turner certainly takes balls.  Turner was not a figure like Martin Luther King who managed to achieve great change through something as noble as passive resistance, but then again he was also completely cut off from all the “civilized” channels resistance.  He couldn’t pass around a petition, he couldn’t write a letter to his congressperson, he couldn’t boycott anything, and he couldn’t march on Washington.  Parker however seems less interested in wrestling with the gray areas of this situation than in viewing Turner’s rebellion into an act of heroic martyrdom.  In its structure and outlook the film has been compared to Braveheart but the closer analogue may actually be Kubrick’s Spartacus which actually was about a failed slave rebellion, albeit in a very different time and place.  Parker’s film lacks the epic scope and substantial production values of those two movies but it’s similar to both in the way it builds up its protagonist as this uniquely strong and noble figure whose very passion for freedom propels the people he leads into the fray of battle.

For all the film’s passion, I don’t know that it makes a particularly ironclad argument for Nat Turner’s heroism or for the importance on the rebellion he started.  It’s not that I have any qualms about the fact that this slave army killed white slave owners (fuck those people, they can burn in hell) or even that his rebellion killed women and children along the way (war is messy, what are you going to do), but I do think he bears some responsibility for the fact that his actions got a lot of innocent slaves and freemen killed both in the rebellion itself and by the white retaliations that occurred after the fact, all in service of a rebellion that failed within 48 hours and didn’t really accomplish much of anything directly other than an immediate sense of cathartic vengeance and maybe a little bit of “died with their boots on” bombast from the rebellion’s participants.  Perhaps that makes him the perfect hero for the Jill Stein/Bernie or Bust fringe of this political moment but is this really a victory in the grand scheme of things?  The ending of the movie would suggest that Turner’s ultimate victory was in his legacy, in the way he inspired future generations of black men to fight for their freedom, but that argument strikes me as a bit tenuous.  Parker would perhaps have been better served arguing that Turner was fighting less out of a belief that his rebellion would succeed and more out of a desire to strike fear in the hearts of slaveholders and show that there’s a price for holding people in bondage… but that combined with Turner’s religious fervor would arguably make him a terrorist, and that is a level of complication that the film probably isn’t too interested in exploring.

Of course when I watch the aforementioned Braveheart and Spartacus I certainly don’t spend this much time pondering whether or not the failed rebellions in either were “worth it,” why is that?  Well part of it may simply be that those rebellions lasted well over 48 hours and in the movies didn’t feel like such doomed enterprises from the beginning.  Also, those movies didn’t really claim to be smart social commentary so much as they were excuses to stage epic battle scenes.  On that point I’d also point out that both of those movies are well made enough to distract from such inconveniences and while The Birth of a Nation isn’t badly made per se it certainly isn’t the work of a master filmmaker.  Elliot Davis’ cinematography is functional, but looks a bit cheap and not overly confident, as if it doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be stylistic or natural and I really couldn’t stand the movie’s score by Henry Jackman, which overplays the movie’s uplift in all the most cliché ways possible. The performances are also all fine but unexceptional.  I feel like everyone in the cast is being asked to play a lot of their roles with rather broad strokes, none the least Parker himself who is never quite able to capture his character’s gradual transformation from “loyal servant” to violent rebel and seems generally unwilling to explore some of the less noble aspects of the character’s religious fervor.

Having finally seen the movie I kind of think the critics at Sundance maybe did the movie a bit of a disservice by hyping it up so much.  The movie is certainly a fairly noble effort but it’s hardly the first or the best movie about slavery and I don’t think it holds a candle to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.  That movie was the real deal and deserved every bit of the praise it got in 2013, I think it’s a lot more mature than this and also just generally a better made in every way.  Then again I can also see why this would have stood out amongst all the movies about mumbley Brooklynites that were likely circulating in Park City and it also stands out among the action movies and comedies that are getting wide releases more often than not.  It’s a movie that’s worth seeing both to be part of the conversation and to see a lot of the clear passion on the screen, but the Oscar buzz was premature.

*** out of Five

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice(3/26/2016)

I liked Man of Steel.  A lot.  To the point where it was in my top ten that year.  This was not a popular opinion.  I spent the better part of 2013 getting into fights with people who absolutely hated that movie and it was kind of draining to defend the movie as much as I did because I didn’t really have an intellectual silver bullet to prove the movie’s worth.  At the end of the day it was all a matter of taste, I thought it was a very well made superhero movie with a certain grandeur to it and I didn’t come into it demanding that it reflect whatever it was Superman was supposed to represent in the past.  Other people disagreed and were turned off both by the fact that it avoided the candy-colored lightness of the Marvel movies and also by the fact that Superman was depicted in a more human and fallible way and by the fact that it ended in a big destructive fight sequence that didn’t strike them as heroic.  I kept trying to explain that the collateral damage in the finale was mostly caused by the villains rather than the hero and that it wasn’t reasonable to expect Superman to stop and save random individuals on the street when there’s a bigger battle to be fought against a rampaging villain, but most people just don’t want to listen after they’ve found a high horse to get up on.  Anyway, given my appreciation for that movie you’d thing I’d be excited for director Zack Snyder’s follow-up, but that hasn’t really been the case, in part because it sounded like DC was cravenly trying to ripoff Marvel’s already tenuous “make superheroes team up” formula and was taking too many other dumb suggestions from the peanut gallery.  I’d like to say I was wrong to doubt Snyder and that I’d once again have a movie worth defending but alas, the critics are going to be right about this one.

The film picks up a little over a year after the events of Man of Steel and introduces audiences to our new Batman (Ben Affleck).  This batman has much the same origin story as the character we’re used to but has been engaging in his war on crime for quite a while by the time we enter into his story.  Bruce Wayne has been suspicious of Superman (Henry Cavil) since his introduction, in part because he lost friends during the disaster in Metropolis.  The public at large is also uneasy about this new entity in the world, especially after he’s blamed for a number of deaths in a rescue mission gone wrong in Africa.  There are congressional hearings into that incident and the high profile Metropolis billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) begins searching for a substance called Kryptonite that could be sold to the government in order to bring down this superhuman one and for all.  As tensions rise between all involved parties, it becomes clear that all these forces could come crashing into one another in an epic battle royale.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a whole lot of things it has to do: it needs to be a sequel to Man of Steel, it needs to introduce a new Batman, it needs to set up the formation of a Justice League down the line, and it needs to make good on its title and show Batman and Superman get into a great big fight.  Doing any one of those things would be a tall order and doing all four is s nigh impossible task and one also has to question if some of these things was a good idea to begin with.  The decision to create a DC Cinematic Universe where a bunch of separate heroes join up reeks of a company aping off of a competitor’s success and I don’t think that the Superman created in Man of Steel was ever meant to be part of a larger universe of superheroes, at least not this quickly.  Ultimately though I don’t think that part of the challenge is really the problem here, although it does lead to one embarrassingly clunky scene where three new heroes are introduced to audiences via CCTV footage.  Instead I think the biggest problem is the pressure of finding a good reason to actually have Batman and Superman fight.

The film’s opening scene depicts the finale of Man of Steel, but from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, who was apparently on the ground that day trying to reach his corporate headquarters.  It’s an interesting scene in that it shows Bruce Wayne doing exactly what everyone apparently thought Superman should have been doing in that scene: saving people.  He manages to help life debris off of one guy and manages to save one girl from a falling object all while doing fuck-all to actually stop General Zod or end the crisis at hand.  That’s the thing about the ending of that movie, people claim that Superman’s actions were needlessly destructive but he did kind of save the whole world in the process and I personally think he has nothing to apologize for.  But fine, whatever, assuming that his actions were indeed controversial with the public why don’t they just run with that?  Why is there also this incident in Africa in which Superman is blamed for the deaths of a bunch of people who were clearly shot rather that punched or vaporized by heat vision or any number of other telltale signs of Superman related slaughter?  That’s a waste and it’s frankly never exactly clear how the public at large feels about Superman, but it’s clear that Batman doesn’t like him at all.  You’d think that since Batman is himself a misunderstood vigilante (one who uses particularly questionable methods in this one) he wouldn’t be quick to judge Superman, but view him as a threat he does and the movie even goes so far as to stop everything and display an interesting looking but completely out of place dream sequence to underscore this.  It makes even less sense that Superman thinks ill of or particularly cares about Batman, but there is an underdeveloped sub-plot where Clark Kent wants to do a series of stories about Batman even though this shouldn’t really be news at this point in Batman’s career.

Ultimately the thing that brings these two to blows is an incredibly elaborate scheme by Lex Luthor and one that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as it plays out.  For starters, the direction they decided to go with Lex Luthor was completely wrong from the start.  The idea was to turn the character into a young Mark Zuckerberg style billionaire, but didn’t make him a self-made innovator so much as an heir, and then lazily cast the guy who straight-up played Zuckerberg in a different movie.  What’s more Luthor is depicted less as a ruthless, power-hungry, and brilliant criminal and more as a raving maniac who just wants to instigate mass destruction.  There is very little real motive for Luthor’s actions in the movie, Superman doesn’t seem to be on his case at all and as far as he knows neither is Batman so it’s quite unclear why the guy is so obsessed with killing either of them and especially not to the point where he’s going to go to such wildly extreme measures.  The whole movie would actually make a lot more sense if they’d just ditched Luthor and replaced him with The Joker, a character who would actually have a vendetta against superheroes and would have a lot less to lose by going to such extreme measures.

Zack Snyder is going to catch most of the blame for the movie even though his direction is almost certainly the best thing about it.  The film certainly looks good and there are some action scenes here that are really well done.  There’s a fight towards the end where Batman takes out a room of armed thugs which is basically the action scene we’ve long waited for from the character, the promised fight between the two characters isn’t bad once it gets started even if it ends in the stupidest way imaginable, and the chaotic final action scene is… well, it has problems but it certainly works better than it might in other hands.  In fact I think the most does sort of find its footing in its last half hour or so and becomes fairly effective as superhero action film but the damage is already done at that point.  I certainly don’t think that Snyder is blameless for this thing and there are some scenes like a poorly rendered car chase that he should have handled better, and people who were displeased by the collateral damage in Man of Steel will be just as mad at this movie.  In fact, I’m a lot less willing to forgive this one myself in that regard because Batman is a character that generally seem more rigid in that regard and some of the deaths here generally seemed more avoidable.

Really, the guy who needs to be fired for this thing is David S. Goyer… actually I’m not sure I want to pin this on him either because he was frankly given a rather thankless task.  The people truly responsible are the Warner Brothers marketing people who gave them an impossible number of things to do with one movie.  The decision to make this thing without first introducing Batman in a solo outing made sense given that no one really wanted a Batman reboot this early after the Nolan trilogy, but they probably should have just done that because trying to introduce a character in a massive crossover project like this proved to be too much.  What’s more, they should have never gotten it into their heads that this needed to literally be Batman versus Superman because the extent to which they had to contrive in order to bring these guys into opposition was a waste.  A simple team-up would have been sufficient.  Finally they shouldn’t have used this as an opportunity to cravenly introduce a larger universe of heroes because it really comes off desperate.  The Wonder Woman introduced here is decently rendered but the movie is too overstuffed as it is and the other cameos are just shameless. If they had discarded some of the excess baggage this thing might have had a chance but as it is the damn thing is an unsalvageable mess.  DC flew way too close to the sun with this one, they saw that Avengers money and decided to just dive in head first before they learned to swim.  It’s a shame because I do think that the grandiose and sincere style that Snyder was developing was sound and that they were right to try to do things differently from Marvel but they completely botched the execution along the way.

The Big Short(1/1/2016)

I’ve never really understood what would drive a filmmaker to want to pigeonhole themselves into a single genre, and honestly, I usually suspect they only do that when they don’t really have the talent to work outside their comfort zone.  This happens a lot in horror movies (where people like Wes Craven and George Romero make entire careers out of being proclaimed “masters of horror) and to a certain extent with action movies (at least when you’re talking about the Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich tier) but it also happens with comedies.  Every once in a while you’ll see a “comedy director” who brings a real vision to his craft like a Wes Anderson or a Woody Allen, but when you’re talking about the world of studio comedy it usually means you’re one of the handful of boring directors like Paul Feig, Todd Phillips, and Shawn Levy who point their cameras at funny people then collect a check.  The filmmaker who is probably most emblematic of that later trend is Adam McKay, a guy who has not only stuck to making vanilla plain comedies but who has up until now never made a single movie that wasn’t starring his longtime friend Will Ferrell.  Now, in fairness there probably is a little more to making movies like Anchorman than I realize and it is to McKay’s credit that his silly Will Ferrell movies are generally considered better than other people’s silly Will Ferrell movies, but still nothing about the guy makes me think he has much of a cinematic eye.  All that said, I’m willing to give him a shot as he branches out and that’s what he seems to have done with his latest film, an examination of the events leading up to the 2008 Wall Street crash based on a Michael Lewis book called The Big Short.

The film starts in 2005 when an eccentric hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who, in a moment of seemingly random insight, decided to take a closer look at the mortgage securities that were propping up the housing market and realized that the supposedly stable mortgages that were filling these securities were actually awful sub-prime mortgages that would almost certainly be foreclosed on.  Because these securities were almost certainly going to fail he decided to have banks sell him insurance contracts against these mortgages called credit default swaps.  He buys a ton of these and the banks are happy to sell them to him because they think the mortgage securities are stable and think he’s crazy for betting against him and so do almost everyone else who hear about it… except for a few other parties.  One guy who catches wind of this scheme and thinks there’s something to it is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and it also soon spreads to a trader named Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who has something of a love/hate relationship with the investment industry.  To decide whether or not this is for real he goes on something of an odyssey to examine just how messed up the mortgage industry really is.  Meanwhile, two young investors named Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) also hear about what’s going on and want in, so they enlist a retired trader they know named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get in on the whole catastrophe.

It’s not hard to see why Michael Lewis picked up on this handful of people as a perfect perspective to view the mortgage crash through.  For one thing they were on the ground as everything was happening and yet were also outsiders and critics and are thus pretty much the only semi-sympathetic people to come out of the whole debacle.  There was of course the pesky little complication that their first instinct upon discovering this oncoming disaster was to find a way to make a buck off of it, which is a moral gray area that the film seems oddly unconcerned with outside of a few small moments, but given that there doesn’t seem to have been much of anything else they could have done with the information (the media wasn’t listening to them) it’s kind of hard to really hold that against them.  I haven’t read the Lewis book and don’t really know the details of story as it pertains to these particular characters.  It is notable that aside from Michael Burry all of the principals involved have had their names changed in the movie, so I’m pretty sure that aspects have been heavily streamlined and anecdotes have been invented in order to illustrate points… hell at times the characters look at the screen and tell us as much.

That isn’t really a problem though because I don’t think that telling these characters’ stories is really the film’s main concerns instead this movie’s goal seems to be to explain the 2008 crash to people who were too ADD to watch the documentary Inside Job and who haven’t picked up the newspaper in the last seven years.  At times the movie is almost kind of insulting in the way it assumes its audience is made up of people who are beyond ignorant of basic financial concepts that should be pretty well known at this point.  I was particularly insulted by a series of cameos that the film indulges in where the voiceover straight up says something along the lines of “I know you’re probably falling asleep hearing all this money stuff, so let’s bring in a celebrity like Selena Gomez to explain this so you dumbasses will actually pay attention.”  Have we really digressed as a society so much that it’s just taken for a given that people need to be force fed this kind of information?  Even people who have already expressed an interest in the subject matter by buying a ticket to a movie called The Big Short?  Granted, people who haven’t heard this stuff already would probably get a pretty good primer from the film and that is kind of impressive, but there’s a certain smugness to the whole thing that I find a little irritating and I also feel like the whole thing is a bit late to the party in this whole thing.  Obama has mostly done his job and the economy has mostly recovered so most of us have moved on from the whole recession so the immediacy of this story is kind of gone but it’s also a bit early to really look back on this like a true period piece.

The bigger problem here may ultimately have less to do with the script (which, despite its annoying tendencies, is still pretty snappy and informative) than it does with the direction.  To put it simply, Adam McKay is in over his head.  This isn’t a simple straightforward narrative, it’s a cocky film that’s filled with narrative techniques like cutaway and characters breaking fourth wall to explain things to the audience.  We see this kind of thing we expect from directors like Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle and it’s the kind of skill that auteurs develop over the course of a number of films, it’s not something you can just do at will and while McKay’s handling of this style certainly has a base confidence, you can easily tell that he’s no master of his craft.  You can also tell that McKay’s work with Will Ferrell has not really made him accustomed to having to reign in actors every once in a while.  That’s a problem here because Christian Bale is way over the top here.  Bale takes his characters social awkwardness and really turns it up to the point where he can barely carry say a single sentence when talking with anyone.  Interviews with the real Michael Burry are readily available on Youtube, it’s not hard to see just how much Bale is exaggerating things, possibly out of a pathological need to come off like a dedicated character actor.  The rest of the actors here are better but there’s still a sense of caricature to all the actors across the board.

Now, I’ve talked a lot of smack about this movie and about halfway through it I was about ready to dismiss it as “The Wolf of Wall Street but for basic-ass people who need to have everything spelled out for them” but eventually the movie did start to win me over.  It’s not that the movie actively gets better in that second half, but I maybe started to accept it for what it is.  Its structure is unwieldly (the Brad Pitt section feels like it could be cut and no one would even notice) and its filmmaking is nothing special but it does have a certain rhythm to it and it certainly isn’t formulaic.  McKay’s comedy background does help him out here and the Steve Carrell story arc amounted to more than I was expecting it to.  The movie doesn’t hold a candle to The Wolf of Wall Street but if you look back at some of the movies that have addressed the 2008 crisis more directly like Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and this actually looks a lot better by comparison.  As for Adam McKay… maybe don’t quit your day job.

*** out of Four


It’s no secret that Hollywood loves adapting popular novels in order attract said novels’ readership, but not every book that gets adapted is necessarily going to be popular.  Often Hollywood catches on to the fact that certain authors’ work ends up being uniquely adaptable even if their work only achieves moderate popularity in its printed form.  Elmore Leonard is probably the author that had the longest run of sway within Hollywood but other authors like Dennis Lehane who have had similar runs of success even if their books alone didn’t make them household names.  In the early 2000s one of those authors appeared to be the English novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote relatable novels about people in their 30s and their various relationship problems.  Hollywood’s interest in this work resulted in the movies High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch.  And then they just kind of stopped being interested.  Maybe the underperformance of that American Fever Pitch adaptation put them off, maybe his later books just didn’t work as well for adaptation purposes, I don’t know.  But Hornby has had something of a second career as a screenwriter adapting other people’s books.  This started in 2009 when he adapted a memoir by Lynn Barber into An Education and last year he adapted another memoir into the film Wild.  Now he’s come back again, this time adapting a literary novel by an Irish author Colm Tóibín into the new film Brooklyn.

Set in 1952, Brooklyn tells the story of a young Irish woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) who lives in a small town and has few career prospects.  Fortunately for Eilis her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) knows a priest who’s been living in New York named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who agrees to sponsor her in immigrating to America, finder her a place in a boarding house, and getting her a job.  Eilis is nervous about this but makes the journey and after an initial bout of home sickness she begins to adjust to life in the film’s titular borough.  Soon she’s working at a department store and going to night school in order to brush up on bookkeeping and eventually she meets a young man of Italian decent named Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) and begins a relationship.  Suddenly though, circumstances force her to take a trip back to Ireland and she finds herself reconsidering her old life back there and compare it to her new life on the other side of the Atlantic.

Movies about European generally tend to focus on the 19th century but Brooklyn is set a lot later, which is a curious choice that makes the film a little different than what you’d expect.  For one thing, the struggles that Eilis is trying to escape in her home country are a lot less dramatic than what we usually see in these narratives.  There’s no famine or civil war going on that she’s trying to escape and her motivations generally seem a lot less desperate.  Mostly she just seems to want to leave the one horse town she lives in and rather than go to Dublin or London she finds herself going to New York.  Additionally, once she arrives in America they seem mostly prepared to receive her without too much controversy.  The “Irish need not apply” stuff is ancient history at this point and whatever tensions people might have had about Irish immigration at one point seem to have mostly evaporated by 1952.  In general the movie does a pretty admirable job of avoiding a lot of the usual clichés of immigrant narratives and manages to escape a lot of obvious pitfalls.  Just when you think she’s going to become the victim of a mean boss or a sexist professor or a pair of intolerant potential parents in law the movie pivots and goes down the mellower path where the world isn’t conspiring against her.

In fact the characters in this movie are so damn reasonable that it removes a lot of drama and conflict from the movie for a lot of its running time.  In fact it isn’t really until the last half hour or so that the film really sets up a complicated decision for its lead character which is a little weird because this structure almost makes the first three quarters of the movie feel like a very elaborate setup for the last quarter.  I also didn’t really like the way that the film finally resolved the dilemma she faces in that last quarter (which is a spoiler that I am very carefully dancing around in case you haven’t noticed).  She seems to makes a potentially life altering decision on a whim related to one side character and the choice she makes didn’t strike me as a particularly realistic one.  Fortunately that decision does lead to a very well executed coda which makes you give it a pass but I still think that there’s something of an off note to the film right where it mattered the most.  But perhaps worrying too much about that is to miss the point.  This isn’t really a plot-based movie, it’s a character study and the film does do a good job of drawing Eilis and her journey thanks in no small part to Saoirse Ronan, who seems to have finally really made the transition into adult roles after playing children and teenagers in films like Atonement, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Brooklyn is a strange beast because it is undoubtedly a good movie but also kind of underwhelming.  The movie has really good period sets, quality cinematography, a great cast, strong direction by John Crowley (who got his start in the theater but has also quietly made a handful of films), but to what end?  It’s hard to explain, the movie does so much right and aside from the aforementioned issues I have with the ending I have very few real complaints or things I wish they had changed, but I also feel like the movie we got is a little insubstantial.  At the end of the day the movie is a pretty safe piece of work that doesn’t really have much thematic resonance.  Actually it reminded me a lot of the Nick Hornby penned 2009 film An Education, which was another movie that I kind of liked and which a lot of other people (including the Academy) liked, but which left almost no impression on the film world and which almost everyone forgot ever existed after about six months.  So I’m left with a conundrum when trying to reach a verdict on this one.  It certainly deserves a positive review but I wouldn’t really be too inclined to urge anyone to rush out and see it under the assumption that it’s some awards-worthy triumph.

*** out of Four

Bridge of Spies(10/17/2015)

Given their lovable all-American personalities you’d think that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would have worked together more than they have.  They’re paths never actually crossed until 1998 when they made Saving Private Ryan, which is an acknowledged classic of sorts, but I don’t know that Hanks was instrumental to its success and outside of that movie the pairing has not always been golden.  That’s not to say that the two make bad movies when they get together, far from it, Catch Me if You Can is widely liked and The Terminal is a lot better than its reputation would have you think.  However, neither of those movies are what you’d call “classics.”  On the contrary, they’re the kind of movies you catch on HBO or something, think “wow, that was really good,” but then never think about again un-prompted.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but when Steven Spielberg makes a movie it’s supposed to be an event, he’s capable of such greatness that when he opts just to make a simple well-made drama it kind of feels like a waste of potential.   So what is it about the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg that has underwhelmed more than not?  I think it might be that the two are so simpatico in their old school populism that they don’t really challenge each other.  It’s been a decade since The Terminal and only now have they tried to have another go, this time in the form of a cold war era period piece called Bridge of Spies.

The film recounts an incident which was front page news in the 50s but which isn’t particularly well known today.  It begins in 1957 with the arrest of an aging man named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) in his Brooklyn apartment by the FBI for allegedly engaging in acts of espionage.  Abel is guilty of everything he’s been accused of, this is shown to the audience in no uncertain terms within the first five minutes of the film, but that’s perhaps beyond the point.  Quickly the film begins to focus on attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is tapped to represent Abel in court despite the fact that it would make him very unpopular with the public.  This is not predominantly a courtroom drama however and this section of the film focuses primarily on how much the deck is stacked against Abel and how much of a hated figure he was during the Red Scare.  As this is going on we get a parallel story about an air force pilot named Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) who is tasked with flying U2 reconnaissance missions over Russia until one day his plane is shot down and he parachutes into enemy territory and is captured soon thereafter.  It’s soon proposed that Abel and Powers could be swapped in a prisoner exchange but the U.S. government can’t really negotiate for it themselves and instead Donovan is sent to East Germany to negotiate on their behalf.

As I said earlier this isn’t really a courtroom drama and despite the title I wouldn’t really think of it as a spy movie either.  Espionage is certainly going on in the background but it’s espionage of a highly realistic nature and it isn’t the focus.  Instead this is should be viewed as a historical drama of the “fascinating untold true story” variety.  The story itself is certainly interesting but it doesn’t exactly seem like a story that was screaming to be filmed by the world’s most famous filmmaker, so what exactly attracted Spielberg to the project?  I think it’s because Spielberg sees certain parallels between the story and the world of today.  This is especially true of the first half of the film, where everyone seems to want to railroad Abel into the electric chair and don’t seem to think that the normal laws of American justice apply to him because “we’re at war.”  This is not dissimilar to what has been happening to Guantanamo detainees and the pressure that their attorneys face is not unlike some stories I’ve heard from people who are representing accused terrorists.  Additionally I think that Spielberg, the director of Munich, might have had Israel on his mind when he chose to make the film.  Prisoner exchanges with the Palestinians are a semi-regular occurrence in Israel and tensions around them run high.  Returned prisoners feel a great deal of guilt and face a certain level of prosecution and I suspect that the attorneys tasked with representing terrorists over there face all of the same challenges that Donovan did.

Bridge of Spies is not the kind of huge production that Steven Spielberg made his name one, rather it’s the kind of mid-budget drama that Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore, but Spielberg does add in a couple of touches that make the film stand out.  Much of the second half of the film is set in the hornet’s nest that was a divided Berlin and is actually set right as the Berlin Wall was being built.  I don’t know that I’ve seen another movie that focuses on this particular moment in history and brining a unique milieu to the screen helps a lot.  Spielberg also provides a couple of neat flourishes, in particular he seems to have developed an eye for these trick scene transitions.  For example there’s one moment where a judge walks into a courtroom and says “all rise,” at which point the movie cuts not to a courtroom standing up but to a classroom full of kids standing up to give the pledge of allegiance.  It’s also worth noting that this is the first Spielberg film in a very long time not to feature a score by John Williams, who was busy working on the music for the new Star Wars.  In Williams’ place is Thomas Newman, though this doesn’t make as much of a difference as you’d think.  Williams is best known for his rousing themes for epic action movies and while his scores for smaller Spielberg movies like Lincoln have been solid they don’t necessarily bring a whole lot to the table that other composers couldn’t.

Back during the 2012 Oscar race I heard some pretty valid arguments that if Spielberg’s credit had been put at the end of Argo instead of Lincoln it would have likely been seen as one of his lesser efforts and likely would have been held to a much higher standard and while it likely would have still been enjoyed by audiences but would have gotten a less rapturous reception.  Its been three years and now Spielberg has seemingly put that theory to the test by making a movie that is in fact roughly analogous to Argo and is indeed likely to have a much more muted response.  That response is partly because Argo is in fact a more energetic and audience pleasing film, but another big part of it is simply that artists place on themselves by setting high expectations.  I’m as susceptible to this as anyone, which is why I find it so hard to be wildly enthused by this movie even though I have very few actual complaints about it.  It’s a really well made drama with some interesting things to say and it tells its story very effectively.  I enjoyed my time with the movie but I don’t see it making a particularly long lasting impression.

***1/2 out of Four

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)(10/25/2014)

During the 2006 Oscar season there were two major storylines: the prospect of Martin Scorsese finally winning his Oscar and the emergence of “The Three Amigos.”  “The Three Amigos” referred to a trio of Mexican film directors who all had major awards contenders that year.  Genre maestro Guillermo del Toro had just released his most respected and accomplished film Pan’s Labyrinth, expert visual stylist Alfonso Cuarón had come out with the influential post-apocalyptic film Children of Men, and finally there was the realist auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu who had just made Babel, the third film of his trilogy of films penned by Guillermo Arriaga which were characterized by their bleak worldview and non-chronological structures.  In the time since then, Del Toro has managed to maintain his commercial niche and Cuarón eventually won an Oscar but Iñárritu has maintained something of a lower profile.  Of the three he’s probably had the most divisive filmography.  Many (including myself) found his films to be powerful and well realized, but others have dismissed them as superficially puffed up miserablism and there was something of a backlash against him around the time Babel came out.  In 2010 he made a Spanish film called Biutiful, which probably got more recognition for a central performance by Javier Bardem then it did for Iñárritu’s direction and otherwise there’s been radio silence on the Iñárritu front.  But now he’s made a new film called Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) which looks unlike anything he’s done before, and this could be exactly what he needs to get back into the forefront of film culture.

Birdman primarily concerns an aging actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who became famous in the early 90s in a series of big budget movies based on a comic book character called Birdman.  Now his superhero days are far behind him and he’s considered washed up and as the film opens up he’s planning to mount a comeback by writing, directing, and starring in a stage play called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story) which he’s planning to open on Broadway but his plans hit a snag when his co-star is injured by a falling stage light.  Desperate for a replacement, and under pressure from his producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to get a big name who will sell tickets, he casts an acclaimed but volatile Broadway star named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who immediately starts making diva-ish demands.  Truthfully though, Shiner is the least of his problems.  His bigger challenge is to come to terms with his poor relations with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his current lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), but most importantly his own ego and neurosis.

You wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from the trailers, but Birdman is actually based around a pretty interesting technical device.  Aside from a prolog and an epilog, the film has been made to look like it was done entirely in a single shot for most of its running time.  The obvious forbearer to this technique is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which also attempted to use invisible cuts to achieve a similar effect, but Birdman is different in that it does not play out in real time and instead transitions through time periodically and tells a story that takes place over the course of a few weeks.  This is the kind of technique that can easily be dismissed as directorial masturbation, but I think it serves a very legitimate stylistic purpose here because it lends the film a certain theatricality.  Like in a stage play the scenes play out in long takes with the actors forced to interact and deliver dialogue to each other in long stretches instead of having their performances get chopped to pieces in a series of over-the-shoulder shots.  This matches the film’s writing and acting which is also somewhat heightened and theatrical and it’s also written sort of like a stage play in the way characters occasionally monolog and reveal themselves through dialog over the course of the film.  That’s not to say that I think the film’s tracking shot style doesn’t have a few downsides.  It does more or less make it impossible to cut down and trim scenes and here and there I do think that hurt the film a little, but I still more or less think it was worth the tradeoff.

To say this is a bit of a reinvention for Iñárritu is probably an understatement.  This rather comedic and satirical screenplay is far removed from the dead serious social realism that the director previously specialized in and the visual pyrotechnics don’t have a whole lot in common with what we saw in his previous films, which were largely defined by their editing.  Birdman has a sly wit to it.  It’s not necessarily a movie that’s laugh out loud funny, but it has a sort of screwball pacing to it that really keeps your eyes glued to the screen and amuses you throughout.  The long take format also gives the film’s backstage intrigue a certain “30 Rock”-like walk-and-talk energy.  It’s also helped by some really energetic performances by people like Edward Norton who is wonderfully dickish as a volatile method actor and Zach Galifianakis who acts as a perfect foil for many of the film’s witty conversations.  Of course the central performance is that of Michael Keaton, who is sort of making a comment on his own career given that he is himself largely famous with the public for having played a superhero in the late-80s and early-90s and is now trying to re-establish his artistic bona fides after a long time adrift.  Keaton perfectly walks that line between the character’s comedic energy and his sometimes rather dark depression.

I’m generally not a fan of movies that satirize Hollywood because those movies generally tend to be kind of bitter and self-absorbed, but I think Birdman found a pretty interesting way to do it.  It’s a film that certainly makes a comment about Hollywood’s obsession with churning out silly action movies but is perhaps even more biting in its critique of the people who think their “above” simply entertaining people.  Many will view the film as an allegory for Michael Keaton’s attempt at a career comeback, or of Edward Norton’s reputation of taking over projects, but the parallel that is perhaps most Jermaine is the one with Iñárritu’s own career.  Unlike Riggan Thomson, who’s trying to become relevant by making something exceedingly serious and respectable, Iñárritu has brought himself back to prominence by lightening up a bit while still maintaining his artistic integrity.  I wouldn’t call Birdman a perfect film.  It plays a couple of false notes here and there and the gist of its ending is fairly predictable, but how can you not appreciate an audacious and creative gem like this?

**** out of Four