Not a lot of published activity for me this week, though many pieces are in the works. As an accompaniment to my recent review of the documentary Theo Who Lived, however, Hammer to Nail published my interview with the director of that film, David Schisgall. Here is the link. Enjoy!
Today, 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 on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed some of this fall season’s coming attractions, including, but not limited to: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Jackie, Moonlight and Tower. This portion of the show was recorded a few weeks ago, before I had seen The Accountant, which is why I mention the film as though I have not yet seen it. Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!
[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today at this link.]
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Edward Zwick, 2016)
I missed reading all of the opening credits on the new Jack Reacher film – sequel to the 2012 original and based on the 18th book in the long-running series from author Lee Child – so I didn’t notice the director’s name until the end. When I finally did, it gave me some pause. Edward Zwick? The man who once helmed Glory and Legends of the Fall – critical and box office hits, respectively – is now directing a sequel to a modest 4-year-old box-office hit? The mighty can, indeed, tumble. That said, this fact helps explain why the action sequences are so finely wrought and why the movie zips along briskly, almost making us forget the utter inanity of the script. The undeniable appeal of the two leads, Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) – his Scientology exploits notwithstanding – and Cobie Smulders (Unexpected), ably assisted by young Danika Yarosh (Heroes Reborn), is a major plus, as well, but it’s the mise-en-scène that makes the movie. Which allows Zwick to atone for his collaboration on a screenplay so rife with improbabilities and coincidences that it otherwise strains cinematic credulity as the plot details accumulate. It’s certainly a lot of fun (if also extremely violent), but that enjoyment is predicated on leaving one’s critical faculties at home.
I’ve never tackled any of Child’s books, so all I have to go on is the first film. In it, Cruise’s Reacher – a former army major – helped out an investigation that led, eventually, to the killing of some nefarious individuals (that’s all I can remember). He seemed to be good at everything, like a shorter, American James Bond, able to physically dominate opponents even when outnumbered. Now he’s back, re-introduced in an opening where we first see the groaning bodies of the men he has destroyed before finding him, alone, in a diner, calmly waiting for the next group of misguided bad guys to try their own hand at beating him. Not surprisingly, he wins that round, too, though by his wits, rather than fists. He then leaves for his next mission. In this second film, he appears to be a sort of unofficial army agent, dealing directly with the still-active Major Turner (Smulders), with whom he shares flirtatious phone banter while they jointly track down enemies of the state. Until, one day, Reacher shows up at army headquarters in Washington, DC, ready to ask Turner out to dinner, only to find out she’s in deep trouble. The plot then thickens, especially once Reacher picks up a young charge (Yarosh), as well, after which we take off on a journey of manic mayhem, staged with panache and not a small amount of wry humor. Pow, snap, crunch, chuckle.
Cruise sets himself up as a mighty superman, and at 54 years of age certainly still looks fit enough to sell himself as a fighter. The problem lies not with him, but with the film’s morbid fascination with the tearing and breaking of limbs, glorified as much as Cruise’s torso. Smulders, not to be outdone, gets in on the action, too, and then we have the both of them cracking skulls with equal glee. Anything he can do, she can do just as well (or almost, as he’s still the indisputable star), as their on-the-nose dialogue about male and female roles reminds us time and again. The villains in the film are not that interesting. so it’s all to the benefit of the story that Cruise and Smulders are as watchable as they are. It’s just too bad that in the midst of all the carnage, no one thought to write a better story. When, at the end, Reacher walks down a lonely road, an eternal drifter, it’s hard not to recall the ending of every episode of the great late-1970s TV show The Incredible Hulk, when Bill Bixby would wander away from that particular installment’s location, ever alone. Cruise seems even to have practiced Bixby’s grim scowl, knowing that bad things happen when he gets angry. Too bad the writers didn’t also crib the quality of that show’s teleplays, each one of which told a better-constructed tale than Jack Reacher: Never Go Back even attempts to. If you can forget the story, and focus on the action and the leads, however, you may still have a good time. Good luck!
American Pastoral (Ewan McGregor, 2016)
Actor Ewan McGregor (Miles Ahead) makes his directorial debut with American Pastoral, an extremely faithful, if also inert, adaptation of author Philip Roth’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Working off a script by John Roman (The Lincoln Lawyer), McGregor hits all the same beats as did Roth, yet ends up with a listless, dispiriting and distinctly uncinematic yarn. I was no great fan of the original work, despite its accolades (though I love other books by Roth), but it was a novel of great scope, in which Roth used the trials and tribulations of one American family to discuss the festering rot at the heart of the American Dream. I appreciated Roth’s ambition, if not his execution. Sadly, in McGregor’s version, that ambition has been reduced to a story of a small-town Job, shorn of much of its socio-political relevance. All the same plot details are there, but the emotional emphasis falls too squarely on the family drama, making this just an unpleasant tale of domestic dysfunction.
McGregor, himself, plays Seymour “Swede” Levov, scion of a successful glove manufacturer and a young man for whom life has always gone swimmingly, despite his status as a Jew in 1940s America (if you wonder how the Scottish McGregor fits in the role, the Swede is written as looking distinctly un-Jewish). A glorious high school athlete and easygoing man, the Swede seems bound for greatness, a destiny confirmed when he marries Dawn (Jennifer Connelly, Noah) a local shiksa beauty queen. Surely their children will be beautiful, and since the Swede is set to take over his father’s business, their financial future is secure, as well. Our take on the story is colored by narrator Nathan Zuckerman – Roth’s literary alias and a recurring character in his œuvre – whom we meet before ever laying eyes on the Swede. Played by David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck.), he wanders in to his 45th high-school reunion where he encounters his erstwhile best friend, the Swede’s younger brother, in town for that sibling’s funeral. For the early part of the film, before Zuckerman’s voice is abandoned until the end, we cut back and forth between the Swede and Zuckerman, the latter our guide through the former’s ups and downs.
For things do not go as planned for the Swede. He and Dawn have a lovely daughter, yes, but over time she grows into a troubled teen who comes of age as the tumult of the 1960s erupts into violence. Alienated and adrift, she flees the comforts of home and tears the heart out of her parents in the process. In both book and film, this daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning, The Benefactor) is more construct than real, a device through which Roth and McGregor attempt to explore the volatile forces that simmer just beneath the surface of polite society. Unfortunately, in the film, she remains a cipher, only now the script requires us to invest in the emotional fabric of her relationship with her father. She’s too one-dimensional for that to work, and so the film plays like a feeble melodrama. We know we should feel sad, but nothing resonates. This in spite of the fact that many bad things happen to good people.
It’s too bad, since McGregor, Connelly and Fanning are all compelling performers (Strathairn, as well, but he’s not given much to do here) and have some fine moments, together and separately. Peter Riegert (At Middleton), as the Swede’s father, is watchable, as always, and provides much-needed comic relief in this otherwise ceaselessly dreary affair. Certainly, individual scenes work well, and McGregor and cinematographer Martin Ruhe (Run All Night) succeed in evoking the bucolic beauty of the New Jersey countryside, from which springs Merry’s inchoate venom. But it all adds up to very little, other than a set of plodding nostalgic set pieces, slavishly recreated verbatim from the book, devoid of meaning beyond their own internal self-contained logic. I’m not sure that Roth’s book could have made a good movie even in more accomplished hands, but this particular adaptation highlights all of the original’s structural weaknesses and none of its strengths, failing to make a case for its own raison d’être. If wallowing in existential ennui, for the sake of it, is one’s thing, then the film might have some appeal. Otherwise, wait for McGregor’s sophomore effort, should he be afforded one.
I had two reviews published on Hammer to Nail this past week, for the aggressively (and intentionally) off-putting midnight movie The Greasy Strangler and the powerful documentary Theo Who Lived, which tells the story of journalist Peter Theo Padnos, who survived a two-year kidnapping by an affiliate of Al Qaeda. Here are the links to both pieces:
[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today at this link.]
The Accountant (Gavin O’Connor, 2016)
In The Accountant, the new action-thriller from director Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun) and screenwriter Bill Dubuque (The Judge), Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) plays Christian Wolff, a certified CPA by day who dons a cape and a mask to prowl the cities at … sorry, wrong movie, wrong character. No, Wolff wears no such obvious disguise, yet does lead a double life. As we quickly learn – within the first 10 minutes of the film, in fact – his mild façade hides a lucrative (and nefarious) career as an accountant to a global network of criminal operatives. When we first meet him, he’s living quietly in Illinois, under an alias (Wolff is not his real name, which we never learn), ready at a moment’s notice to disappear into his next persona. Somehow, on top of his brilliant work managing the books for gangsters and terrorists, he is also an expert in self-defense and a perfect shot. Imagine if James Bond worked the other side of the law, was a math genius, as well as autistic, and you’d have this movie: Casino Royale meets Casino meets Good Will Hunting (co-written by Affleck!) meets Rain Man. Presto, instant mish-mash.
The story doesn’t start with Affleck, however, but with a mysterious gangland killing that will only be explained later. We then flash back to 1989, where we find a family at a clinic in New Hampshire, struggling to deal with their older boy (of two) whose autistic behavior is more than they can handle. Husband and wife differ on how to deal with the child, a disagreement with profound later consequences. Jump ahead once more, to the present, and we’re in Washington, DC, where Department-of-Treasury supervisor Ray King (J.K. Simmons, Whiplash) assigns the task of discovering the identity of our mysterious accountant to new agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Amanda Waller on the CW’s Arrow). For much of the rest of the film, we cut between present-day Wolff, little-boy version of him (with brother and parents), and our friends at the Treasury, along with sundry other characters, incidental and otherwise. One such supporting player is Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect), a junior accountant at a legitimate company where Wolff takes a job as a break from his illegal affairs. Though at first she merely annoys Wolff, since his condition makes him wary around strangers, her bubbly quirkiness (Kendrick’s stock in trade) gradually thaws the ice around his heart.
Which brings us to the use of autism in the script. I confess to some confusion on the topic. On the one hand, it gives our protagonist something of an obstacle to overcome, since his initial manifestation of the condition is, as we witness it, debilitating. But as his evolution plays out over the course of the film, it becomes increasingly unclear what, if anything, our takeaway is supposed to be. Are all people with autism destined to live a dual existence, caught between good and evil? Is the only way forward through rigorous self-discipline, as taught to young “Christian” by his tough-love father? If looked at beyond the surface convenience of its dramatic purpose, autism is presented as both apple and serpent, imparting knowledge while tempting one down a path to sin.
That said, the film is actually a lot of fun, as thrillers go. Affleck is an appealing screen presence, as are Simmons, Addai-Robinson, Kendrick, and the rest of the cast, including Jon Bernthal (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) as a shadowy hitman who keeps getting in Affleck’s way. Beyond the potentially offensive portrayal of autism, the real problem with the movie is the overwhelming number of coincidences that drive the plot. Someone needs to tell O’Connor and Dubuque that when you build your story out of a web of serendipity, it cannot help but feel contrived and artificial. Given its slickly produced action sequences and gently funny rapport between Affleck and Kendrick, The Accountant is far more entertaining than it has any right to be, but it is also absolutely ridiculous, as well as almost unforgivably sentimental when we consider the criminal nature of the central enterprise. It has its pleasures, but they are guilty, indeed.
Today, 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 on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed both The Birth of a Nation and The Girl on the Train, both in wide release today. Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!
[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today at this link.]
The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, 2016)
To how many metaphorical uses can we put trains? Their gleaming hulls first arrived in the early 19th century, revolutionized mass transportation, and quickly became symbols of modernity and the human condition. Among other ideas, they represent, in art, the journey through life, filled with structured itineraries and random meetings. Think the daily commute in Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 debut novel Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock promptly turned into a deeply unsettling eponymous film about a chance railway encounter that quickly turns psychotic: you never know who you might meet on your daily commute! Or consider the train under which poor Anna Karenina throws herself in the novel that bears her name; Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov borrowed that scene for a terrifying moment in his 1957 WWII drama The Cranes Are Flying. There can even be a decidedly sexual innuendo to the manner in which trains forge ahead, plunging into tunnels as they go; Hitchcock, again, used just that image to end his 1959 espionage thriller North by Northwest. And on and on.
Now, not quite two years after its publication (about as fast a turnaround as Highsmith enjoyed), author Paula Hawkins’ bestselling, if convoluted, 2015 drama-thriller (let’s call it a “driller”) The Girl on the Train comes to the big screen, courtesy of Tate Taylor (The Help). Not to be confused with a fine French film, from 2009, of the same title (in English), it possesses the same weaknesses as its source, for better or for worse. I was certainly no great fan of Hawkins’ work, yet I tried to approach the movie with an open mind. After all, the central visual metaphor of an alienated person viewing snippets of others’ lives from the windows of a passing train is a perfect representation (minus, perhaps, the alienation) of the act of viewing films. Add a dash of unseemly voyeurism, and it’s Hitchcock all over again. Nothing wrong with that. And yet, it’s largely an overwrought mess, albeit one with a fine central performance from Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) as the titular “girl.”
Blunt plays Rachel, a thirtysomething woman who spends her days going back and forth to the big city from her suburban home, staring out the window at the houses that flash by, conjuring backstories for the people she sees on a recurring basis. The book is set in London and its environs; the movie transplants it to New York and the counties above (the story neither gains nor loses by this change). We quickly learn that Rachel is an alcoholic, though her cinematic version looks, in spite of Blunt’s minimal makeup (Hollywood’s variant of haggard), less dissipated than Hawkins’ description. Rachel also has an unhealthy obsession with her ex-husband Tom, his new wife, Anna, and their infant child, as well as with another couple, Megan and Scott, Tom and Anna’s neighbors, all of whom Rachel glimpses on her daily commute, and all of which we learn through Rachel’s voiceover narration. She is not to be our only guide, however, as one unreliable narrator is not enough here, and soon we enter into the points of view of both the aforementioned Anna and Megan, as well, shifting not just between perspectives, but also time, jumping from the present to the not-so-distant past, the latter slowly informing the events of the former. And then, one night, Megan goes missing, and what had been seemingly disparate threads of a frayed narrative come together – or try to – as Rachel, her own memory blacked out from booze, tries to piece together the fragments of the mystery.
It’s not without a certain maudlin appeal, and Blunt is very good as a lost woman desperate to reclaim her dignity of self, but the actual thriller elements work no better on screen than they did on the page. Characters, including a detective played by Allison Janney (The Way Way Back), behave in improbable ways, motivated more by narrative needs than actual human psychology. What could have been a truly interesting meditation on the ways that men manipulate women into self-loathing and self-destructive behavior is lost in the melodrama. Both Rebecca Ferguson (so good in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) and Haley Bennett (so good in The Magnificent Seven) are largely wasted as the two-dimensional Anna and Megan. Justin Theroux (The Leftovers) and Luke Evans (High-Rise) fare no better as Tom and Scott, nor, especially does Edgar Ramirez (Hands of Stone), as a sexy, if possibly ethically challenged, psychologist. In short, good actors are hampered by an impossible script, and the only one given enough material to rise above the torrid muddle is Blunt, herself. This being a “driller,” there is, of course, a twist at the end, and it is emblematic of this movie’s on-the-nose construction that said twist is delivered via an actual corkscrew (the train, ultimately, is a mere passenger in its own tale). If you like your stories obvious, where everything is spelled out for you, then The Girl on the Train just might work. If not … well, you have been warned.
The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker, 2016)
A fiery mix of Haile Gerima’s 1993 cinematic bloodbath Sankofa, which profiles a West Indian slave uprising, and Steve McQueen’s 2013 meditative 12 Years a Slave, which contemplates the toll wrought by slavery on all involved in its implementation, Nate Parker’s rousing The Birth of a Nation, a dramatized retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, has much to recommend it, in spite of its director’s well-publicized past allegation of rape. As a first feature from Parker, however, it suffers from not insignificant screenplay issues and a tendency on the novice helmer’s part to emphasize each dramatic beat with soaring chords from composer Henry Jackman’s often overly sentimental score. Still, despite these problems, The Birth of a Nation deserves to be seen for what it does right. McQueen’s own Oscar-winning film was a beautiful work of art that shed needed light on our nation’s disgraceful past; Parker’s film, though far less accomplished, grants its African-American characters agency in their own liberation, an important upgrade, no matter how clumsily handled. In addition, any film that reappropriates the title of D.W. Griffith’s virulently racist 1915 epic and gives it new meaning is OK in my book, whatever its weaknesses.
In a bit of historical irony, the film opens with a quote from slave owner Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” We then segue directly into a premonitory prologue where little-boy Nat Turner is declared a prophet by what looks to be an African-American shaman of some sort. Corny as this device may be, it has the effect of moving us away from an established authority – Jefferson – to the more militant point of view of those who will rise up. We then follow young Nat to his plantation, where he catches the eye of the mistress (a fine Penelope Ann Miller, Saving Lincoln), who teachers him to read, setting in motion his own future intellectual emancipation. Unfortunately, when the master dies, he wills that Nat be sent back into the fields. The transition from house to field slave is not easy for the boy, but it does allow for a quick montage of cotton picking that transforms the child into the adult actor who plays him: Parker (Beyond the Lights), himself. In the passage of time, Nat’s childhood playmate, Samuel, has now become lord of the manor, and the two have developed as easy a rapport as can be expected, given the disparity in their status. As played by Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), Samuel is spoiled and lazy, but not unkind, even sticking up for Nat when he is assaulted by another white man. That will all change, later in the film, once alcohol, boredom, and the institution of slavery work their ugly charm. No one can survive something as ugly as enforced bondage, not even those in charge.
As a character study in these early scenes, the film is at its strongest. Parker and Hammer work well together, and their false intimacy speaks volumes about the fraught relationship between master and slave on which much of our early history was built. There’s a strong cast of supporting players, including Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away with Murder), Roger Guenveur Smith (Dope), Gabrielle Union (Think Like a Man Too) and Chiké Okonkwo (Paradox), among others, as fellow slaves; Jackie Earle Haley (Preacher) as a wicked slave hunter; and Mark Boone Junior (Sons of Anarchy) as a white minister who views Nat as an especial existential threat. Little by little, the more we spend time with all involved, the clearer it becomes that no system built on cruelty and exploitation can or should last. Nat, now a preacher (thanks to Samuel’s mother’s early teachings), finds himself used to pacify other local slaves, earning money for Samuel in the process. Eventually, Nat loses faith, as the brutal treatment of his brothers and sisters (including, unfortunately, given Parker’s own personal history, a rape) prove too much to bear. Rebellion awaits.
When it comes, though, it’s disappointing. Having done a solid job of set-up, Parker can’t quite handle the payoff with the same level of craft. Instead, he dwells on images of extreme violence to the point of fetishizing them, and cannot resist the temptation to lean on the musical score as overwrought accompaniment. That said, he does pull off one tragically powerful sequence at the end, once the revolt is defeated, where we see hanging bodies of martyred slaves hanging from trees while Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” on the soundtrack. Is it the most original artistic choice? No. Does it work as effective document of the sins of our past? Yes. And so the movie goes, torn between Parker’s competing impulses towards sentiment and harsh realism, sometimes evocative, sometimes less so. Not a perfect movie, but as necessary, in its own way, as its artistically superior cousin of a few years ago. If Parker survives his newfound scrutiny, it will be interesting to see what he does next.
I had three new pieces published this week on two of the sites for which I write, Film Festival Today and Hammer to Nail. One was a profile of the grant opportunities available for indie and emerging filmmakers at the Tribeca Film Institute; another was an interview with filmmaker Bonni Cohen, co-director of the documentary Audrie & Daisy (just released on Netflix); the final was a review of Kirsten Johnson’s new documentary Cameraperson. Here are links to all three articles:
- Film Festival Today on the Tribeca Film Institute
- Hammer to Nail interview with Bonni Cohen, of Audrie & Daisy
- Hammer to Nail review of Cameraperson