Rodricks’ “Roughly Speaking” on “Room,” “Our Brand Is Crisis,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and Sterling Hayden

Rodricks 10-30-15 Podcast Collage

Yesterday, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks, former host of Midday on WYPR, on his new Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed new films Room and Our Brand Is Crisis, as well as Rebel Without a Cause (which just celebrated the 60th anniversary of its release) and actor Sterling Hayden.

Here is the link.

Enjoy!

In Mixed “Our Brand Is Crisis,” a First-Rate Sandra Bullock Sells Second-Rate Truths

Our Brand Is Crisis

Our Brand Is Crisis (David Gordon Green, 2015)

Though politics is always crooked, there are some genuinely good things in Our Brand Is Crisis, the new film from David Gordon Green, a director who, with films as varied as Pineapple Express and Joe, has demonstrated a remarkable ability to shift between absurdist comedy and gritty drama with nary a beat missed. Here, working off a script by Peter Straughan (Frank) – adapted from the 2005 documentary of the same title, by Rachel Boynton – he tackles a little bit of both genres. This is sometimes successful, and sometimes not. Fortunately, he has cast his film well. Count Sandra Bullock (Gravity) and Joaquim de Almeida (The Gilded Cage), as political consultant and political client, as among the stuff that works. If the film is ultimately a mixed bad, it is no fault of their own.

Bullock plays Jane – that’s “Calamity Jane,” a moniker earned from her years doing dirty work on political campaigns. She’s a seasoned operative, who when the film begins has been 6 years out of the game, having eventually succumbed to depression, substance abuse and disaffection. Ensconced in a mountain cabin, surrounded by nature, she’s made a new life for herself, though one that is apparently not so blissful that she doesn’t respond to the pitch made by former colleague Nell (Ann Dowd, Compliance). Nell shows up one day with a new colleague of hers, Ben (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker), to invite Jane to Bolivia, where the presidential candidate they represent is trailing badly in the polls. Their guy is actually the former leader, whose rule was marked by bloody popular protests, and his chances seem slim. So why not bring in the seasoned pro with a reputation for rough play and the ability to get the job done?

So down they all go, where we meet other members of the team, including Buckley (Monsters), the very odd LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks), and the candidate, himself, Castillo (de Almeida). There’s also Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez), an idealistic young Bolivian who works for the campaign because his working-class father loved Castillo when he was president the first time. Finally, Jane’s longtime rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, “Fargo,” in full James Carville mode) shows up, and the cast is complete. Once Jane gets used to the lack of oxygen in La Paz (it’s the highest capital in the world), she girds herself for battle and kicks the campaign into high gear. It’s a whole new game.

Which is all for the good, and Bullock is a joy to watch, as are, occasionally, some of her supporting players, de Almeida, especially. Unfortunately, what doesn’t always work so well is the script. Filled with self-evident truths spoken, without irony, about the state of politics, the movie trumpets its revelations about campaigns as if it’s breaking new ground. But this is well-trod territory. In addition to this movie’s source material, we’ve heard and seen the same cynical facts in films from The Candidate to Wag the Dog (to name just two) and beyond. So, there’s nothing new here – other than geography, which adds variety, for sure – and the obviousness of the dialogue is not helped by the fact that it’s spoken out loud, rather than inferred. Sometimes, subtext is more powerful than text.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie, for me, is the fact that the producers agreed to flip the gender of the main character. In real life, it was James Carville who worked for the former dictator. Bullock, however, is a big enough star that she can make a request for a tailor-made role and have someone listen. And since she (along with de Almeida) is the best part of the film, then we should all be grateful that she commands that clout. As for the writer, I would recommend that he do one more pass on his screenplay, and then ask for reshoots.

Despite Some Unnecessary Hollywood Touches, “Labyrinth of Lies” Is Powerful Truth-Telling [+ a Minor Levinson, “Rock the Kasbah”]

I spent more time than expected typing up my interview with filmmaker Kat Candler about her terrific new short film, The Rusted, made for Canon’s “Project Imagination.” Once it posts to Hammer to Nail, I will add a link to it. As a result of that piece, today’s reviews are very short.

Labyrinth of Lies

Labyrinth of Lies (Giulio Ricciarelli, 2015)

• “The only response to Auschwitz is to do the right thing, yourself.” – Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling, Jonas Happich on “Homeland“), fictional protagonist of Labyrinth of Lies

By the late 1950s, in Germany, life appeared to have finally returned to normal for a country twice defeated in 20th-century global conflicts. The Nazis were vanquished, the Americans were still on site, and peace and prosperity ruled once again. Except it didn’t, not really, for a nation that refuses to fully expiate the sins of its past is doomed to repeat them (hence the recurring cycle of violence to which all of humanity succumbs). The Nazis hadn’t gone anywhere; they were merely hiding in plain site, in the guise of the ordinary citizens which they had always been. It took a new set of prosecutions, in Frankfurt, almost two decades after the end of World War II (the Nuremberg Trials had taken place in 1945 and 1946), to finally open the closet door on the skeletons of the Holocaust. Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s submission for this coming year’s foreign-language film Oscar, chronicles the difficult and sluggish process – led by real-life Frankfurt prosecutor Fritz Bauer – by which these court cases came to pass. It’s a strong – if imperfect – film, with fine performances, that would be better if it avoided some of the overtly manipulative techniques of the Hollywood docudrama: occasionally overwrought music, slow-motion dropping of objects, conflation of multiple historical figures into one fictional composite. Then again, this is the first feature from Giulio Ricciarelli, a German actor with a few short films to his directing credit before this, so we’ll allow for some overuse of shopworn clichés, and look forward to what he does next time.

Rock the Kasbah

Rock the Kasbah (Barry Levinson, 2015)

Let me start by saying that I love the work of the great Baltimore-born-and-raised Barry Levinson, from his first feature Diner, through Tin Men (my personal favorite), Good Morning, Vietnam, Oscar-winner Rain ManWag the Dog and beyond. He’s not only a superb director, but an active producer, as well, responsible for bringing the wonderful NBC 1990s drama “Homicide: Life on the Street” to our fair city. So I always look forward to seeing his films. Unfortunately, Rock the Kasbah, though well-intentioned and with a strong cast – Bill Murray (St. Vincent), Zooey Deschanel ((500) Days of Summer), Kate Hudson (Almost Famous) and Bruce Willis (Looper), among others – does not compare favorably to his earlier triumphs. It tells the inspirational (here, fictionalized) story of Setara Hussainzada, a young Afghan woman who risked her life to sing on her country’s nationally televised talent show. Given the power of that narrative, I would have preferred that Levinson lend his talents to a documentary about her, rather than to this. Sadly, the script, by Mitch Glazer (Passion Play), never quite rises above the tired tropes in which it traffics – women in burkas played for laughs (funny foreigners) and the “hooker with a heart of gold” being just two of them – and ultimately ends up as an occasionally mildly funny satire on mercenaries (military and otherwise) abroad. Still, though it lacks the sharp bite of Levinson’s best work, it is not a total loss, and has a few moments of genuine cinematic pleasure, courtesy of Murray. He’s definitely one major reason to see the film.

New “Baltimore Sun” Podcast with Dan Rodricks

Roughly Speaking Banner

Dan Rodricks, former host of Midday on WYPR, has a new audio venture at The Baltimore Sun, where he has been a columnist since 1979. It’s a podcast called “Roughly Speaking,” and with a few new episodes a week, it promises to be a vibrant mix of current news and commentary. I was fortunate enough to be invited to join Dan for his second podcast, to review 4 films that had come out the weekend before: Bridge of SpiesCrimson PeakFreehold and Steve Jobs.

Here is a link to the podcast (to which you can subscribe through iTunes). Enjoy, and stay tuned for more!

“Bridge of Spies” Is a Fine Historical Thriller That Meditates on American Values (i.e., It’s a Spielberg Film)

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

This movie had somehow slipped under my radar before its release. I didn’t even realize it was a new Steven Spielberg film. Perhaps its terribly generic poster pushed my thoughts towards dismissal. That would have been a shame, as Bridge of Spies, poster notwithstanding, is quite a fine espionage thriller. If it gets a bit unfocused in its final act, that doesn’t take away from the solid filmmaking of the first two thirds. What’s particularly refreshing about the way Spielberg and his screenwriters (two of whom are Ethan and Joel Coen!) present the material is that the government spies at work within the story are anything but Bondian. Instead, it’s an insurance lawyer who saves the day. The film is also a wonderful meditation on the meaning of ostensible American values: what good is liberty and justice if we ignore them when times get tough?

The film opens with a big unknown. A man looks in the mirror, painting his self-portrait. At first, even though a title card had just announced that this was a movie about the Cold War, I thought it might be Norman Rockwell, but when the phone rang and he ran out without a word, jumping into a New York subway car, I thought otherwise. This mystery man is played by Mark Rylance (Angels & Insects), and though he has done more British TV and stage work than Hollywood films, he is an extraordinary presence in front of the camera. Which is good, because it turns out that he is a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, and so needs all of the sympathy that a great actor can give him. In a bit that recalls the great 1953 communist-paranoia thriller Pickup on South Street, Abel is pursued by the FBI on that subway, and then home, where he has taken a secret bit of possibly classified information he surreptitiously picked up on his journey. The G-men bust in, grab him, and that’s the end of it.

Or not. We then meet James B. Donovan – played by Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) with his usual folksy charm – a star insurance lawyer whose firm has been asked by the U.S. government to defend Abel, to show the rest of the world that the Americans offer justice even to those who would destroy us. Donovan gets the short straw, and like a good boy scout is soon annoying those very forces that wanted him to put on a good show. To him, that means offering the best defense possible. To his superiors, that means doing the bare minimum. We sense a showdown.

Meanwhile, Spielberg starts cutting back and forth between scenes of Donovan and Abel and scenes of Francis Gary Powers – stoically played by Austin Stowell (Miles Teller’s drum rival in Whiplash) – as he is first selected, and then trained, to fly a high-altitude spy plane over the Soviet Union. As history tells us (kind of hard to ignore it), he is shot down on his first mission and taken captive, and soon we have parallel captured-spy scenarios. Before long, we find ourselves in East Berlin, where a new wall is going up, as Donovan – reviled at home for defending a “Russkie” but now freelancing for the CIA – tries to negotiate a prisoner exchange. As a cloak and dagger procedural, it’s fascinating stuff, until it all gets just a little too long.

No matter the length, though, this is good storytelling. The terrific actress Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) may be relegated to the role of “the wife” – shame, Hollywood, shame! – and there may be nary a face of color in sight – shame, Hollywood, shame! – but otherwise this is a very fine historical thriller that reminds us of our best moments as a country. A good lesson for the upcoming election year!

“Crimson Peak” Is a Beautiful Bloody Mess

Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)

Billed as a gothic romanceCrimson Peak spurts forth today, fresh from the pulsating blood vessels of director Guillermo del Toro’s fevered cerebral cortex. Is that gruesome enough an image for you? No, well then you will definitely want to watch this movie so you can see even bloodier images, beautifully rendered. Through previous films such as CronosThe Devil’s BackboneHellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has proven himself deft at combining pop sensibilities with meaningful storytelling, often creating vivid works of powerful entertainment that serve as parables of larger issues (such as the Spanish Civil War). You get your kicks and feel elevated by the story all at the same. True, he also made Pacific Rim – and that remains inexplicable to me – but nobody’s perfect.

Crimson Peak, however, is not at the level of del Toro’s best output. It’s exquisitely acted and solidly diverting, but ultimately not nearly as consequential as it seems to take itself, and pretty obviously derivative of previous work by other artists. In particular, del Toro and his co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins (Mimic) seem to have taken A.S. Byatt’s 1993 book Angels & Insects – or its 1995 cinematic adaptation – reversed the genders of the main characters, and added elements of the supernatural. And lots of blood. Other influences include The Shining and every Japanese horror film ever made, to name just . . . some.

Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) plays Edith Cushing, a young woman whose mother’s funeral – and later apparition as a ghost – opens the movie. As do her spoken lines, “Ghosts are real. This much I know.” She lives in turn-of-the-20th-century Buffalo, New York, where her father, Carter Cushing – played by the excellent Jim Beaver (Whitney Ellsworth in “Deadwood“) – is an extremely successful up-from-his-bootstraps tycoon. She’s an aspiring writer, dreaming of excitement, when one day a mysterious pair of English aristocrats – brother and sister – arrive. Though initially put off at the idea of unearned privilege, Edith is soon infatuated with Sir Thomas Sharpe – Tom Hiddleston (Thor: The Dark World), in full seduction mode – though little love is lost between her and his sister. Lady Sharpe is played by Jessica Chastain (The Martian) as a cross between Lady Macbeth and the witches who open that very same play, all bile and venom housed in an attractive exterior. Together, the three leads have a lot of fun jousting with themselves and the ridiculously over-the-top plot. You may have fun, too, unless you find the recycled ideas too much to take.

I far preferred the first half, where actions were shrouded in dim candlelight and half-revealed motivations. Once we travel to England, the machinations of brother and sister became a little too obvious – and I saw an ostensibly big reveal coming from far off – and the film begins to bore just as we settle in to watch the big set pieces. Why do the Sharpes need Edith? What is in the basement? Is that crimson clay beneath the ruined mansion really just red dirt? And what is it that goes bump in the night? Well, ghosts are real. This much we know. So who made the ghosts? These and more questions will be answered – perhaps by you prior to their on-screen explanation – by the end. I did enjoy one particularly inventive visual, however. Clearly something is rotten at the core of the Sharpes’ being, so when we arrive at their estate and there’s a big hole in the roof, though which moisture falls onto the decaying wooden interior, it’s a perfect metaphor for who they are. Then again, it’s hardly subtle. Nor is the film. But it is mostly enjoyable, if a bloody mess.

In “Steve Jobs,” Sorkin Offers Schema Without Reason

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015)

Aaron Sorkin has made a career writing clever scripts in which characters speak brilliantly conceived (if unrealistically articulate) lines of dialogue in well-structured dramas. Think A Few Good Men, The American President (which led directly to the 7-season television series The West Wing“) and The Social Network. That last one is a perfect model for Steve Jobs, since it concerns a man deemed both an irrefutable genius and problematic human being. Sorkin got the equation just right there, showing us the virtues and vices of Mark Zuckerberg in a world that, though clearly a dramatist’s construct, felt as if it got the essence of the story right … or at the very least made it interesting. Director David Fincher (Gone Girl) moved things along briskly, and a good time was had by all (well, maybe not by Zuckerberg). Unfortunately, in Sorkin’s new script about another flawed technology pioneer, the construct overshadows the story, and we are left wondering why, as represented by this movie, anyone would want to make a movie about Jobs.

Divided into three distinct acts, Steve Jobs is a triptych aiming for a Hieronymus Bosch take on morality that ends up, instead, as a Margaret Keane air-brushed “big eyes” portrait: poster art, in other words, instead of grand painting. There’s no shame in superficiality when that is your intention – some of my favorite movies are dumb pleasures – but when you aim high and fall short, the result is a mess. Or, in this case, a shame, since so many good artists give of their sweat and toil. First, we have Danny Boyle (28 Days Later), the director, usually so deft, who can do nothing with the story but light it dramatically and hope for the best; then, there’s Michael Fassbender (Frank), great as always, who quickly makes you forget that he looks and sounds nothing like Jobs; Kate Winslet (The Reader) plays Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ loyal assistant, the only person capable of standing up to the mercurial founder of Apple, and she is quite fine, too; Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom“) is here, as well, as John Sculley, the “man who fired Steve Jobs,” and holds his own. There’s talent to spare, but it doesn’t help the script feel any less schematic.

The three sections each focus on a different product launch, first in 1984, then 1988, and finally in 1998: the original Macintosh; Steve Jobs’ post-Apple venture, the NeXT cube; and his triumphant return with the blue and white iMac. If you know nothing about the man’s life and accomplishments (where have you been the last 40 years?), I recommend Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography, the likewise eponymous Steve Jobs, on which Boyle’s and Sorkin’s film is ostensibly based. The idea of comparing launches makes sense, initially, since Jobs was a master showman, known for putting together impressive introductions to new products. However, what sounds good as an idea doesn’t work in practice, since Sorkin populates each event with the exact same group of people revolving around Jobs, hoping to reveal truths through their changing interactions over time, straining credulity with clunky coincidence. Worse, he pares down Jobs’ personal life to a single relationship, that with his daughter, Lisa, whom he refused to acknowledge as his for many years. That story is worth telling, but it can hardly be the only point of entry into the man’s mind.

I think this may be the worst thing I have ever seen written by Sorkin. Forced, packed with artifice, with the engineering more visible than the design, the film is more PC than Mac. We feel like we’re being lectured to, rather than being shepherded towards something new and fresh. I didn’t like Alex Gibney’s documentary about Jobs, released earlier this year, but by comparison it looks like the far superior film.

“Freeheld” Needs Saving

Freeheld

Freeheld (Peter Sollett, 2015)

I have met Peter Sollett a few times, and had him Skype with my students once. He is a very nice man. I am a big fan of his Award-winning short film Five Feet High and Rising, from 2000, and his debut feature, Raising Victor Vargas, which he adapted from that source in 2002. He has not been the most prolific of directors, but his 2008 Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was enjoyable enough and showed a periodic flash of cinematic wit, holding out hope of potential treasures to come. Though Mr. Sollett has directed the occasional TV episode since then, Freeheld is his first feature in seven years. I wish I could announce that it had been worth the wait. Sadly, it contains little of the verve or grit of the director’s earlier work; instead, it is generic enough in tone that one can’t help wonder what happened. Who is responsible for this well-intentioned – but ultimately bland – exercise in middlebrow storytelling? With a script by Ron Nyswaner (Oscar-nominated for Philadelphia), it should be a lot better than it is. Instead, it’s a Lifetime movie with all of its hard edges scrubbed off.

Julianne Moore (Still Alice) plays Laurel Hester, a real-life New Jersey policewoman who, when diagnosed with cancer in 2005, tried to assign her county pension to her female domestic partner. Though New Jersey had just recently passed the Domestic Partnership Act, the Ocean County Freeholders (like a town council) denied Hester’s request, setting off a legal battle that presaged our current age – just 10 years later – of strife over gay marriage. Ellen Page (Inception) plays Stacie Andree, Hester’s girlfriend. Both women are fine, though better earlier in the film than later, when they are each required to emote on cue, tears streaming down their faces as we marvel over how a film about something so important can feel so denuded of real drama. Why is that? Because everyone else is so broadly caricatured. We know who will do what, and when, and there are no surprises.

The broadest caricature of all belongs to Steve Carell, a man who singlehandedly ruins this film as he did Foxcatcher (Oscar nomination notwithstanding). As Steven Goldstein, a self-proclaimed loud and proud gay activist, he is just that: loud. Barreling into a movie in which a woman is dying of cancer, Carrell does Michael Scott on steroids. I loved him in “The Office,” where his manic self-regard made sense, and I’m all for leavening tragedy with comedy – or comedy with tragedy (Charlie Chaplin‘s stock in trade) – but here, it just feels like Sollett lost control of his actor. It’s too bad, as the facts of the case deserve telling. Fortunately, there is a 2007 documentary, of the same title, that pays due homage to Hester, Andree and their supporters. Watch that one, sit this one out, and hope that Sollett one day regains his mojo.