Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

The Hateful Eight

January 9, 2016

The_Hateful_Eight

em>The Hateful Eight is billed as the “8th film by Quentin Tarantino”. This does nothing to reassure the uneasy feeling one gets that Tarantino thinks his films are more profound than they actually are.

While traveling to Red Rock, Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter, hitches a ride on a stage coach. On board are another bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), and his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a convicted murderer. The are soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Seeking shelter from a blizzard, they stop at a place called Millie’s Haberdashery. To Warren’s concern, the proprietors are not there. Instead, they are greeted by a mysterious stranger (Demi├ín Bichir). Also seeking shelter at this place are an Englishman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), and a former Confederate general (Bruce Dern). Ruth confides to Warren that he believes there may be a plot afoot to help Daisy escape.

The Hateful Eight really only deals with two topics: racism and revenge. This is not enough to justify a two hour and forty-seven minute. One of the things I liked about Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs was they way it would leave certain things to the imagination. Tarantino’s recent films leave nothing to the imagination. They tell us things we don’t really need to know, and they show us things we don’t really need to see.

This is not to say that The Hateful Eight is a bad film. Quite the contrary, I found most of it entertaining, though it became wearing towards the end. (And it has a score by Ennio Morricone!) For all his flaws, Tarantino is one of the most interesting directors working. I just wish he would get some sense of perspective.

Bolshoi Babylon

November 30, 2015

270527-bolshoi-babylon-0-500-0-750-crop

Bolshoi Babylon, a documentary by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, is about Russia’s famed ballet compay. In 2013, someone threw acid in the face of the company’s director, Sergei Filin. This left Filin blind in one eye. This incident rocked the Russian nation. The Bolshoi is regarded as a symbol of national pride and a cultural treasure. Eventually, one of the dancers is arrested and charged with the crime. At his trial, the dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, says he discussed with his neighbor the possibility of his beating up Filin, but he insists that he never told the man to throw acid in Filin’s face. At the trial, Pavel accuses Filin of favoritism and of corruption.

The documentary follows the events after Filin’s return to the company. At first, Filin is greeted warmly. But then we learn that the dancers have complaints about Filin. They don’t like his casting decisions, and they accuse him of corruption. (We’re never told what exactly this alleged corruption consists of.) Filin’s problems are deepened by the fact that company’s new manager, Vladimir Urin, has a personal grudge against Filin, dating from the time when they were both working for the Stanislavsky Theatre. Urin at first seems an incongruous character to be running a ballet company: he looks and sounds as though he should be running a lumber yard. Yet it becomes clear that he deeply cares about the company and about its dancers.

Despite its gimmicky title, Bolshoi Babylon is actually quite a good film. There are extensive interviews with the dancers. We learn about the stress and disappointments they undergo in this demanding, and highly competitive, art form. One dancer refers to her daily rehearsals as “torture”. One complains of not getting enough work, then later complains of having too much work and not being able to spend time with her son. We also get a sense of the feeling of accomplishment that these dancers also get. This film introduces us to people we feel better for knowing.

Sicario

November 17, 2015

Sicario_poster

Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, from a script by Taylor Sheridan, is a thriller set on the US-Mexican border.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent, who, along with her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), is recruited to a special operations force, led by a Department of Defense adviser, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and by the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). The ostensible purpose of the force is to combat a Mexican drug cartel that has been operating inside the US. However, Kate eventually discovers that the group has a more sinister aim.

Sicario is a powerful indictment of the futility and corruption of the “War on Drugs”. And I must say that after Zero Dark Thirty, it’s nice to see a film that shows the CIA in a bad light. My one quibble with this film is that the main character is too much of a Goodie Two Shoes. I find it hard to believe that an FBI agent would show as much outrage at what is going on as Kate does. After all, we’re talking about the people who gave us COINTELPRO, the Waco Massacre, the Leonard Peltier case, and Whitey Bulger. I guess the filmmakers felt they needed to give the film a moral center. Still, Sicario is a great film.

Truth

November 9, 2015

Truth_2015_poster

Truth, written and directed by James Vanderbilt, tells the story of the widely criticized CBS News report about Bush’s National Guard service. The controversy around the report resulted in several people losing their jobs, and it forced Dan Rather into early retirement.

Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is a producer for CBS News. She organizes an investigation into Bush’s National Guard service during the 1970’s, specifically as to whether he received preferential treatment and whether he went AWOL at one point. Mapes is contacted by a former National Guard officer, Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who gives her documents allegedly written by a now deceased National Guard officer, which are highly critical of Bush. The documents are used in a 60 Minutes report. Almost immediately, the Internet is flooded with accusations that the documents are forged.

I found Truth to be an intelligent and compelling drama, despite some hokey moments. The acting is quite good; Cate Blanchett is affecting as Mapes. However, there were some things about the film that bothered me. In particular, I was struck by the fact that Vanderbilt goes out of his way to depict Bill Burkett in a sympathetic light, despite the fact the he lied to Mapes about how he obtained the documents. This seems odd, especially since there is very good reason to believe that Burkett may have been the one who forged the documents. The paper trail ends with Burkett, and he possessed the necessary knowledge to write the documents. Also the film doesn’t mention that Burkett was an outspoken critic of Bush before he produced the documents, which was something that Mapes must have been aware of.

In one scene, a character makes a speech about corporate control of the news media. Although I think corporate control is a problem, I don’t think it has any bearing on this incident, and the film doesn’t make a convincing case that it does.

Truth does make a valid point that the pressure of deadlines can lead reporters to make unwise decisions. However, I think Mapes should have known better than to use the documents from Burkett in the report.

In my opinion, the The New York Times’s coverage of Iraq during the build-up to the Iraq war was far more egregious than what Mapes and CBS News did, since it created support for an illegal war. Yet only one person there, Judith Miller, lost her job because of it. I think this says something about the media’s priorities.

Bridge of Spies

November 3, 2015

Bridge_of_Spies_poster

Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that took place during the Cold War. In 1957, the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in the United States. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the lawyer who takes his case. While Abel’s case is wending its way through the courts, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union. The government asks Donovan to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

I found this film entertaining, even though there were some things in it that I found hard to believe. Spielberg shows his characteristic tendency towards hamminess. For example, when the FBI agents show up to arrest Abel, they arrive in several cars that all come to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. The agents then burst through Abel’s hotel room door. Does anyone really believe that this is how the FBI arrests a suspected spy? (According to Wikipedia, two FBI agents knocked on Abel’s door.) In another scene, someone fires gunshots through the window of Donovan’s house. This never happened. Is it really too much to ask that I be allowed to sit through a film without having my intelligence insulted? Spielberg seems to have no compunction about doing this, which is why I have never been one of his great admirers.

Crimson Peak

October 17, 2015

Crimson_Peak_theatrical_poster

Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo del Toro, based on a script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins is a haunted house movie set in Victorian times.

When Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is still a child, the ghost of her mother appears to her and warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak”. As an adult, she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his icy sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). She falls in love with Thomas, but her father (Jim Beaver) disapproves of him. When her father is mysteriously murdered, however, Edith is free to marry Thomas. They move to the manor house that Thomas’s family has lived in for hundreds of years. It is a dilapidated structure with holes in the ceiling, which sits on top of more red clay than you will find in the whole state of Connecticut. We’re told that the red clay stains snow red, and Edith eventually learns that because of this, people call the place “Crimson Peak”. (Which doesn’t really make sense, because the house is located on flat ground.) Right away, Edith starts seeing ghosts. Even worse, she begins to suspect that Thomas and Lucille are keeping secrets from her.

Crimson Peak is not a bad film. It kept me entertained for two hours. Yet it left me feeling somehow unsatisfied. In Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro took the traditional fairy tale and found a way to make it seem relevant to our times. In Crimson Peak, however, he seems satisfied to recycle familiar devices of Victorian melodrama. There is nothing in this film that seems really fresh or new.

Labyrinth of Lies

October 15, 2015

Labyrinth_of_Lies

Labyrinth of Lies, directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, from a script by Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel, is a fictionalized depiction of the events leading up to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65. The story begins in Germany in the late 1950’s. Johan Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is a young prosecutor who gets involved in the case of a school teacher who is accused of having been an SS officer at Auschwitz. The case leads Radmann to discover that other former Auschwitz officers and guards are living free. He persuades the Attorney General, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss) to let him begin bringing criminal cases against these people. Radmann encounters resistance, both from the government and from his fellow lawyers against the prosecutions.

The German title of this film, Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, literally translates as “In the Labyrinth of Silence”, which is a more accurate title. It becomes clear that the problem is not so much lies as the fact that people simply refused to discuss what had happened. The film is implicitly critical of the Adenauer government, with its “time to move on” philosophy. (At one point the film suggests that some members of the West German government helped Josef Mengele to avoid capture.) The result of this is virtually a form of historical amnesia. In one scene, someone asks some young Germans if they have ever heard of Auschwitz, and they answer no. During his first interview with an Auschwitz survivor, Radmann is astonished to learn that hundreds of thousands of people died there. “What did you think it was, a summer camp next to a lake?” a survivor sarcastically asks him.

The main problem with Labyrinth of Lies is its heavy reliance on standard storytelling techniques. For example, it follows the time-honored Hollywood tradition of including a romantic subplot: Radmann has an affair with a free-spirited girl, Marlene (Friederike Becht). These scenes are in and of themselves not objectionable, but they seem somehow inappropriate within the context of the film’s disturbing subject matter. There are also some dream scenes in which Radmann is shown following Mengele through the latter’s laboratory. These are clearly meant to be emotionally powerful, but they seem merely trite: we’ve seen these sorts of dream scenes too many times in other films. This raises the question of whether standard storytelling techniques are adequate for dealing with such an enormity as Auschwitz.

Despite its flaws, Labyrinth of Lies is a revealing portrait of post-World War II Germany.

99 Homes

October 12, 2015

99_Homes_Movie_Poster

I’m not proud of this, but I played a (small) role in the meltdown of the real estate market in 2008. I worked for a few months for the infamous Countrywide Home Loans. It was clerical work, but nonetheless I was a cog in the machine. I remember during one of the training sessions, one of the top executives of the company came to speak to the group of new hires I was in. She told us that the company’s income came entirely from late payment fees on mortgages. (I will never forget the expression of glee on this woman’s face as she told this to us.) Perhaps I was in a state of denial, but it wasn’t until after I left the company that I began to put two and two together. If all their income came from late payment fees, then they had to be luring people into getting mortgages they couldn’t really afford. Such a business model couldn’t be sustainable, and I suspect the top executives of the company knew this. However, when the collapse inevitably came, they all got golden parachutes, and everyone else got the shaft.

99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani, from a script by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, is set shortly after the collapse of the real estate market. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker whose house is foreclosed upon by real estate agent, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Nash is forced to move into a motel room along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his son (Noah Lomax). By chance, Nash, who is desperate for work, winds up doing a maintenance job for Carver. Carver takes a liking to him, and offers him a permanent job. Nash is hesitant at first, but the money that Carver offers him is irresistible. Carver soon has Nash carrying out evictions for him. When Nash’s family finds what he is doing, they become upset with him. Nash’s job also increasingly puts him in situations that are morally and legally tenuous.

99 Homes is a condemnation of the moral values of our society: its tendency to value money over people, its tendency to rationalize greed and parasitism. In the film’s most powerful scene, Carver justifies what he does to Nash. He tells Nash that after the collapse of the real estate market, he found that there was more money to be made doing evictions than in selling houses. Carver’s seemingly rational arguments expose the ruthless cynicism of our economic system, a cynicism that Carver has embraced in order to get ahead. In some ways, 99 Homes reminds one of last year’s Nightcrawler, but in a way 99 Homes is more subtly disturbing. Whereas the main character in Nightcrawler is depicted as a sociopath, one gets the feeling that Carver was at one time a decent person, but he has been corrupted by the system he works in.

This film benefits from strong performances. Michael Shannon is brilliant as Carver. 99 Homes is one of the best films of the year.

Black Mass

September 22, 2015

Black_Mass_(film)_poster

Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, based on a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth , is a somewhat fictionalized depiction of the criminal career of James “Whitey” Bulger,a gangster who controlled much of the crime in Boston during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Bulger (Johnny Depp) is approached by an FBI agent, John Connally (Joel Edgerton), who tries to get Bulger to become an informant. Bulger refuses at first, but Connally persuades Bulger that he should view this as an “alliance” to destroy a criminal mob that Bulger has been feuding with, and which the FBI wants to break up. Bulger gets his lieutenant, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) to reluctantly go along with this. As time goes by, Connally becomes increasingly involved with Bulger’s criminal activities.

This film benefits from strong performances, particularly from Depp and Edgerton. And it has a gritty feel that captures the flavor of Boston. However, it was a lot like other gangster films I have seen. There were moments in it that reminded me of Good Fellas. This may be due to a failure of imagination on the part of the film’s makers, or maybe there is really only so much that can be said about organized crime.

Black Mass also takes a many liberties with the facts. Flemmi, for example, is made out to be a nicer person than he was in real life. In the film, Flemmi is repulsed by the murder of his stepdaughter, but in real life he willingly took part in it. (It was also Flemmi who persuaded Bulger to become an informant, the opposite of what is depicted in the film.) I can only guess that the that film’s makers wanted to make Bulger the center of evil in the story. The truth is that he was surrounded by people who were as bad as he was.

The definitive film about Whitey Bulger remains to be made.

Best of Enemies

September 14, 2015

Best_of_Enemies_poster

Best of Enemies is a documentary about the series of “debates” that took place between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Written and directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. It’s an odd film, since it typifies the very phenomenon that it seeks to criticize. The film alleges that these debates were the beginning of the “talking heads” approach to news programming, and it alleges that political discourse is the poorer in this country because of this. Yet in its own narrow focus on the personalities of the two men, the film merely becomes an example of this same approach. There is little discussion of the issues that the two men debated – quite important issues the included the Vietnam War, poverty, and the right to protest.

This film is more-or-less even-handed in its depiction of the two men, with interviews with friends and admirers of both of them. It probably won’t change anyone’s opinion of either one of them. There are some amusing moments, but because of its shallowness, it never really rises above the level of fluff.