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Miss Sloane

December 9, 2016
Miss Sloane

Clearly intended to land in the wake of a Clinton victory, Miss Sloane presents a tough-as-nails Washington power-player who will stop at nothing to advance her policy agenda. But landing instead amid calls to “drain the swamp” — seemingly to install its deepest dregs in the highest positions possible — it manages to find even greater resonance as a reminder of just how the “swamp” really works.

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a D.C. lobbyist ready to work any angle. The sort who, in the name of protecting free markets, arranges five-star “fact-finding” trips for Senators and their families to induce them to give up higher tariffs on palm oil. And it comes as a surprise to her boss (Sam Waterston) when she refuses to help the gun lobby change its narrative with women. Even more surprising, she jumps ship to a “boutique” firm headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) who until now considered a noisy, valiant loss the best they could expect on issues like universal background checks.

But Miss Sloane plays to win, which is even more apparent when paired with her new, idealistic foil, Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She’s not above using every dirty trick in the book to achieve her goals. That, in her view, is why Schmidt and “[his] liberal friends” are so ineffective, with their idealistic insistence on playing fairly.

In the wake of the election, it’s hard to argue with that idea. Eight years of reaching across the table and seeking consensus has only managed to further retrench the opposition’s refusal to even operate the government when it doesn’t get its entire way. It ends with an electoral college win eked out over states whose Republican-dominated legislatures have gone out of their way to put their thumbs on the scales in any way possible. And the legacy is about to be wiped clean by a pack of kleptocrats who don’t even pretend to care about ethical norms, because those norms have no effective enforcement mechanisms.

First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s best idea is setting this up as a caper film, and not just because of my affection for that genre. The actual process of policymaking has become a sort of caper, marked less by open debate and more by plotting to see who can pull off which media coup and stab the other guy in the back first. And as this sort of thriller, Miss Sloane unwinds with clockwork precision. Director John Madden plays out tensions with the same elegance as Miss Sloane’s impeccably tailored suits.

This way of turning real-world policy into a game degrades the body politic. Perera reflects that in the degradation of Miss Sloane’s own body as she runs herself ragged. A lifetime of pushing herself to the edge — abusing stimulants to keep going and prescription bennies to sleep when she must, the closest thing to companionship is an escort (Jake Lacy) she doesn’t even like — can only lead to a crash. And she knows it just as well as we know that the current system in Washington is unsustainable.

Chastain provides the anchor this film needs, delivering her best performance since her annus mirabilis of 2011. Her mannerism is spot-on as a woman forced to harden herself to compete in this male-dominated world. In her blue-black manicured hands, Miss Sloane is every bit the mastermind as any Mamet con man.

As the year winds to a close, 2016 is shaping up as the year process was more obviously important than policy. All the ideals about right and wrong and what’s good for the country matter less than who makes the most effective use of the actual levers of power. Huff and puff until you’re blue in the face about “that’s unethical!” or “that’s unconstitutional!” and the new ruling class will just look back and ask what you think you’re going to do about it. The left tears itself apart over whether good ends justify shady means, and I have to admit it’s cathartic to watch someone test just how far the rules will bend in favor of a progressive cause for once.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Jackie

December 9, 2016
Jackie

“Don’t let it be forgot”, Alan Lerner’s lyrics tell us, “that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Theodore White’s interview with Jackie Kennedy, published in Life magazine, forever associated that line with the Kennedy years — the brief, shining moment before it all came to a crashing halt.

Pablo Larraín’s film, Jackie, positions itself as a story about the first lady, and provides an Oscar-chasing title role for Natalie Portman. But it’s less about Jackie, and more about the single most extensively rehashed trauma the Baby Boom generation can’t seem to leave alone, this time in a supercut of her perspective. Centered on the White interview in Hyannis Port — though Billy Crudup is credited only as “The Journalist” — Noah Oppenheim’s script flashes back over the tumultuous days between the assassination and Kennedy’s funeral in Arlington National Cemetery.

Larraín shows fastidious attention to detail, or at least the appearance of it. He and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine seem to display some technical chops in managing to shoot on grainy period stock and still manage to take their footage of D.C. back fifty years. The script is packed with details like the Spanish speech Jackie practiced on Air Force One before the fateful motorcade, and we return again and again to segments of a near-reenactment of her famous White House tour to CBS. Brush a few things under the rug — like the fact that White used a tape-recorder rather than a notepad — and every frame screams how careful and detailed this depiction is.

The performances generally follow suit: an exacting eye for appearances, but with some notable blind spots. The makeup transforming Peter Sarsgaard into Bobby Kennedy is superb, at least from the chin down. Minor figures like William Walton (Richard E. Grant) and Jack Valenti (Max Casella) are spot-on, but President and Mrs. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) bear little resemblance. And when it comes to Jackie and her confidante, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), the pair are impeccably costumed and wigged, but each actress is clearly recognizable. For Nancy, it’s as maybe, but Portman bears little resemblance to the first lady, and while she manages the finishing school, mid-Atlantic accent, her breathy delivery feels more closely inspired by Marilyn Monroe than Jackie Kennedy.

But can mere accuracy offer anything new to yet another account of one of the most fetishistically documented episodes in American history? Larraín seems to want it both ways. He puts in so much care and attention that the gaps are that much more obvious, and make it seem more like a modern cast play-acting at the last days of Camelot. The focus on details keeps the narrative from ever really taking off and capturing something like a Herzogian “ecstatic truth”.

Of course, there’s also an exception to the exception, and that’s in Fontaine’s camera. From the judicious hand-held work to the intrusive face-on close-ups to the slow glides across immaculate tableaux, the camera does almost all of the heavy lifting in generating emotional weight that isn’t simply left to nostalgia. Every scene that makes the film worthwhile comes from the framing more than anything else.

So what of the choice to focus on Jackie Kennedy? I’m actually not that sure it does. Much has been made of the way Jackie shows her as the only woman in rooms full of men, fighting to keep them from pushing her around. It certainly echoes her lines that the White House, for all the work she did in restoring it, was never really hers, nor is the Hyannis Port compound, nor anything else. And yet, what does the film itself do but define the woman at it’s center in terms of the worst days of her entire life, illuminated only by the afterimages of her charismatic husband?

Where is the story of young Jacqueline Bouvier growing up and meeting her future husband? In her mourning, she muses to Fr. Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she should have become a shop-girl and married an ordinary man; where is the young woman who had those choices? And what of the three decades of her life after the White House? Jackie herself gets lost in Jack, here as ever.

What we’re left with is the anguish and the canned theodicy that Jackie is nowhere near up to the task of answering. How can a script even begin to grapple with a woman questioning what she has done to deserve this tragedy, when it has no time for what she has done or who she is outside of this darkest moment? What we’re left with is a woman who has seen as her primary occupation the burnishing of her husband’s legacy given a week to cram in years of that work.

We see, in Jackie, the primary architect of Jack Kennedy’s myth. And, ironically enough, in Jackie we may see its destruction. As enthralling as the idea might be to a child’s imagination, there never was an Arthur outside of the Matter of Britain. And, after seeing some of the machinery that went into it, I regret to say there may not have actually been a Camelot. Whether or not Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy bore so much of the responsibility in fact, Oppenheim and Larraín put it into her hands, and in doing so, break it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Rules Don’t Apply

November 28, 2016
Rules Don't Apply

This certainly seems to be the year for movies about classic Hollywood. We started off just after the dump season with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and then there was Woody Allen’s Café Society over the summer, and we’re about to get Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, which has been getting plenty of buzz on the festival circuit. But right now we have Warren Beatty’s first time directing a feature in almost twenty years, Rules Don’t Apply, and it’s kind of a glorious mess. While nowhere near as tightly assembled as the Coens’ film, and not the joy to behold of Chazelle’s, it easily stands head and shoulders above Allen’s effort, distinguished mostly by the radical technique of having a point.

In essence, this is a romantic comedy between two young newcomers to late ’50s Hollywood. Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), the Apple Blossom Queen from Front Royal, Virginia, is the newest contract actress at RKO Pictures. Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is the driver who meets her and her mother (Annette Benning) at the airport, himself only in town two weeks. And both of them are under the employ of the reclusive and increasingly eccentric millionaire — I’m sorry, billionaire — Howard Hughes (Beatty).

This isn’t the dashing Leo DiCaprio from The Aviator, romancing Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale in turns, but keep that guy in mind. This is years down the line, when Hughes’ eccentricities — or is it dementia or insanity? — have come to dominate his life. Marla and Frank work in Hughes’ employ for weeks without seeing the man once. And when we do finally meet him, he’s a mass of awkward impulses, pulling in ten different directions at once, and off-putting in the extreme.

Critics have been complaining about the haphazard editing. It seems slapdash, or even amateurish, despite the talent Beatty deploys in the cutting room, including Leslie Jones and Billy Weber, each of whom has a list of solid credits as long as your arm. Far from an accident, this is a conscious choice that mirrors Hughes’ own mental state. Following the film as it caroms off one idea and into another is as frustrating as following Hughes himself.

So Marla attends classes preparing for a screen test that may never come, and Frank trades off driving duties with the older, more cynical Levar (Matthew Broderick) while studying economics, hoping to pitch Hughes on a housing development in Mulholland Canyon, and neither of them gets much closer to Hughes than his secretary, Nadine (Candace Bergen). And the two of them fall in love, even though they’re not supposed to.

But living in Hollywood and working for a man like Howard Hughes makes you think that anything is possible. You haven’t missed your chance to be a star on the silver screen, and you really can go from rags to riches in Los Angeles real estate. In short, the rules don’t apply to you. And that’s the delirious illusion that Howard Hughes creates: the dashing aviator, romancing movie stars, rich enough to move heaven and earth for his slightest whim. It’s easy to believe that this man is an exception to the rules that normally govern the lives of regular folks.

Which brings me to American exceptionalism, which is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but not always with a sense of what it really means. In common use, it sees America as a uniquely rich and powerful nation, full of glamour and movie stars and advanced technology; the last remaining superpower on the global stage. But in fact it refers to the idea that America is somehow “exceptional” — not bound by the same rules and forces of history that shape other nations. It’s an alluring idea, that by going along with this uniquely unconstrained power you too can get everything you want, regardless of the common wisdom.

But this attitude should be easily recognizable to anyone who’s observed a hyperactive teenager, enamored of his own sense of power and immortality, taking on one interest after another until none of them can get the attention they need. With every mounting distraction, this egoist grows more petty and insecure, obsessing over his public image, refusing to see anyone lest they see him in return. The only ones who get in are those whom he trusts not to recognize how truly frail he is, and how ultimately subject to the same rules as everyone else. Or, if they do recognize it, they’ll turn a blind eye because they think they too can profit by living inside his aura.

Rules Don’t Apply tells a story about the dizzying ride up, but also the lurching, stomach-churning descent when first one person, then another realizes that the rules actually do apply. You might become a movie star, but you probably won’t. You might strike it rich, but you probably won’t. And, as sweet as the siren song is, there’s a touch of faltering sadness behind it. If we’re honest, we knew it was an illusion all the time. It’s time for us to grow up.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Mifune: The Last Samurai

November 25, 2016
Mifune: The Last Samurai

Run down any list of classic Japanese films and you’ll find Rashōmon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo. Everyone remembers the influence Kurosawa Akira had on the Japanese film industry as it rose from the ashes of World War II, but none of his greatest works would have been possible without his star, Mifune Toshiro.

The new biographical documentary, Mifune: The Last Samurai, is spare and almost perfunctory in comparison to the grand and glorious madness that Mifune himself could bring to the screen. Where co-stars like Shimura Takashi brought gravitas, Mifune brought fire. He was the braying bandit Tajōmaru, the mercurial would-be samurai Kikuchiyo, the murderously striving Lord Washizu.

The film, narrated by Keanu Reeves, starts with two sections that set the stage for Mifune’s career. It reminds us of the long popularity in Japan of “chanbara” or sword-fighting movies, going well back into the silent era. But then the industry was nationalized to make war propaganda films. This is where Kurosawa got his start, and his regrets would inform much of his later filmmaking. As for Mifune, he was enlisted, like all able-bodied Japanese men, but his superiors found him cocky and arrogant, which comes as little surprise.

After the war, the remnants of the film industry were one of the few places people could still find work. Despite no great passion for it, Mifune fell into acting. Kurosawa recognized his natural talents, building roles around him, and allowing him far more leeway than he granted most of his cast and crew.

And the results were incredible. Seven Samurai spawned two American remakes, including this year’s The Magnificent Seven. Yojimbo was the direct inspiration for Sergio Leone’s iconic A Fistful of Dollars, which launched Clint Eastwood’s career, as well as Sergio Corbucci’s Django. And The Hidden Fortress was, along with classic Flash Gordon serials, George Lucas’ main reference in writing Star Wars. In fact, Mifune himself was offered the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Vader’s helmet and armor are designed after samurai gear.

It’s no coincidence that so much of Mifune’s influence on American and European film comes across in genre fare, and particularly in westerns. Despite arising in vastly different cultures, there are some deep resonances between the samurai and rōnin of jidaigeki period films and the cowboys and gunslingers of our mythologized Old West. Mifune and Kurosawa’s artistic credentials were surely instrumental in getting critics to take westerns seriously, as more than just money-making oaters. That gave up-and-comers like Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and their whole generation cover to indulge in genre movies. And without that, science fiction, fantasy, superhero, and any number of other sorts of movies would never have taken on the importance they have in our culture.

Further blending the realms of serious art and popular entertainment, Throne of Blood remains among the best film adaptations of Macbeth. And Hamlet found new life as a critique of postwar corruption in The Bad Sleep Well. These adaptations helped break ground to more radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s plays outside of their original periods and settings.

As a documentary, Mifune offers a pleasant enough recap of Mifune’s life, told mostly through talking-head interviews with many of his fellow actors and crew members. There aren’t any truly deep or radical insights into the man, but it provides a wonderful syllabus for anyone interested in learning more about classic Japanese cinema, as well as an reminder of the outsized influence this outsized actor had on the entire landscape of film around the world.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

Moana

November 23, 2016
Moana

It seems hard to believe that Disney released Zootopia earlier this year. It feels like ages have passed since their ambitious allegory for racial biases landed on what all too often seem like deaf ears. Moana may lack that high-concept ambition, but it more than makes up for it in the sheer quality of its execution.

This is a movie in the modern Disney Princess mold, even more so than Frozen was, this time drawing on the folklore of the South Pacific islands. The herione is Moana (Auliʻi Cravalho), a young woman yearning for self determination and hearing the call of the ocean for which she is named. Her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) insists that no one is to leave Motunui, or even to cross the reef, where the seas grow choppy and violent storms whip up.

But Moana’s grandmother (Rachel House) lets her in on a secret: their people were once voyagers, crossing the ocean on great outrigger canoes, some of which remain hidden on Motunui. They stopped and settled on the island a thousand years ago, when the world outside fell under a curse. The trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the gemstone heart of the goddess Te Fiti, but was stopped in his escape by the lava demon Te Ka, losing both the heart and the magic fishhook from which he draws his power.

As time passes and Moana grows up, the curse starts to affect even their paradise of Motunui. Seeing no other way to save her people, Moana decides to steal one of the canoes, and cross the reef. She must find Maui and make him return the heart of Te Fiti, not only lifting the curse from the island but allowing them to return to their voyaging and adventuring ways.

Moana is among the small handful of Disney Princesses of color, but the movie isn’t being pushed on that count as strenuously as The Frog Prince was. It’s just the natural choice for how to present this story. Another natural choice — though one that Hollywood seems to have flubbed every single time before now — is the almost entirely Polynesian voice cast. Cravalho is Hawaiʻian; Johnson half Samoan; even Jermaine Clement, voicing a giant crab monster they encounter along the way, is half Māori. And Moana herself looks like a young woman who can take the rigors of sailing, rather than the rail-thin sticks that Disney usually offers.

The music also follows suit. The songs fall into modern Disney’s Broadway-inspired pattern, but the bulk are composed by Tokelauan songwriter Opetaia Foaʻi, with some contemporary flavor added by Lin-Manuel Miranda. And I have to say they’re as catchy as most of the classics, without quite leaning over into “Let It Go” earworm status.

If there’s any complaint to be leveled at Moana, it’s that it’s too simple. The story, while a amusing jaunt, demands little of Moana beyond enough determination to stare down the likes of Maui. She has a crisis of confidence, but it’s over in a song. It’s a tale we’ve heard before, but it’s comforting in its familiarity. Besides, we’ve never heard it told in this accent, and there’s something valuable in that.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Allied

November 23, 2016
Allied

I understand, to a certain extent, the effort to compare Allied to Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Brad Pitt co-stars here with Marion Cotillard as rumors swirl about an affair between the two, just as they did in 2005 about an affair with his now-wife Angelina Jolie while he was then married to Jennifer Aniston. There’s also some superficial resemblance; both movies depict a married couple of spies who may be hiding secrets from each other, which has interesting resonances with the ideas of real-world infidelities behind the scenes of each one.

In part, this focus on scuttlebutt is a symptom of the decline of the internet-era film press from criticism back into the gossip-mongering likes of Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. But while I’d normally be just the curmudgeon to find fault with this trend, there’s another reason people are focusing on the gossip about Allied: there is nothing else interesting about this movie.

Pitt and Cotillard are Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan and French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, thrown together in North Africa to assassinate a dignitary from Nazi Germany. Not only does the plan go off without a hitch, but the two fall in love. Vatan gets her off the continent to join him in London, where they settle in to raise a family. But Max’s commanding officer (Jared Harris) pulls him in to break some tough news: Marianne might be a sleeper agent stealing secrets from him and passing them to Germany.

To work this out, they conduct a sting, with a warning that if Marianne is caught, Max will have to kill her himself to avoid his own charge of treason. Which seems bizarre and overly complicated, not to mention ineffectual, since a ruthless double agent, knowing his partner was certain to die anyway, would surely take the chance to “prove” his loyalty and insulate himself from further suspicion.

But maybe it’s not even the test we think it is! There are rumors about a big, secret operation that needs the highest possible security, and this is all just a way to test if Max would even investigate and turn on his own wife if ordered to do so. It would be an incredibly detailed expansion on the setup of a classic misogynist joke if it were true, but Max doesn’t know if he can take that chance. While following orders, he also embarks on his own parallel investigation of his wife, which itself backfires, and everyone slowly gets more and more angry at everyone else.

The plotting is kind of a mess, and it’s easy to get lost in why exactly Max is doing what he’s doing at any given point. It seems designed by screenwriter Steven Knight with an eye less towards narrative coherence and more towards providing one scene after another for Pitt and Cotillard to chew. This is a movie about people with Feelings, and feeling them very strongly and loudly indeed. But for a spy movie it’s curiously absent a sense of tension outside a handful of scenes.

Even if you fall back to the gossip, you’ll be disappointed. Pitt has nowhere near the fiery chemistry with Cotillard that he had with Jolie. Max and Marianne seem to get along pleasantly enough, but every time they head towards passion it seems forced. If they really were spies, no security officer would believe them.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Bad Santa 2

November 23, 2016
Bad Santa 2

Some people, when they are young and stupid, go through a phase where they love to eat the spiciest chile peppers they can find, mostly just to show they can endure it. There’s no thought given to the flavor profile, or how the pungency of the chiles might integrate into the dish as a whole. No, it’s a pure assault by an overwhelming flood of capsaicin, with no more useful purpose than bragging rights.

Bad Santa 2 is a similar sort of endurance test, but with profanity instead of piquancy. This is not a raunch comedy so much as a crushing, artless flood of offense, without even the forced, garish whimsy of an Adam Sandler movie. It’s not that foul language and humor are automatically objectionable, but here they come at a torrential rate that most children outgrow by the end of middle school, with no point besides seeing how much you in the audience can take.

With the exception of a handful of cast, the production has nothing to do with the original Bad Santa. Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) is back, more miserable than ever. The cloying moppet, Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), is still hanging around, but has not actually grown up in any sense but the physical. His eye-rolling naïveté, which was somewhat believable at eight, is still intact as he turns 21. But don’t worry; they make a wholly unconsidered autism joke to lampshade it.

Then Marcus (Tony Cox) shows up with a $2000 olive branch and an offer of a multi-million dollar heist in Chicago. It’s only after they arrive that Willie finds out the ringleader is his mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates), every bit the miserable misanthrope as Willie himself. They’re going to infiltrate a Salvation Army knockoff whose director (Ryan Hansen) embezzles most of the funds anyway and steal the cash from his safe during the Christmas concert.

Most of what passes for humor is just lazy stereotyping. Fat jokes, short jokes, racist jokes, sexist jokes, and probably more I’ve lost in the shuffle. Again, it’s not that any particular topic is forbidden, but the sheer boring clumsiness of the flood saps it of any entertainment value.

And of course, despite all his “I’m so terrible” moaning, the script reserves a place of honor for Willie’s spiteful, cynical self. He is the personification of the impulse to embrace and revel in labels like “deplorable”, and the movie rewards him for it. He complains at the outset about his lack of female attention, but with barely an effort on his part a security guard, a caterer, and the charity director’s wife, Diane (Christina Hendricks), throw themselves at him.

It’s Hendricks’ part that unwittingly gives provides the perfect microcosm for Bad Santa 2‘s failure. The first movie at least made an effort to set up Lauren Graham’s Sue as an actual character, and build her an admittedly dysfunctional relationship with Willie. It gave her a Santa Claus fetish, which was bizarre and absurd, but at least showed more effort than Diane’s simply rutting in an alley out of sheer self-hating perversion. And when Willie asks Diane to call him Santa, it’s a cheap, desperate attempt to call back to something that worked despite itself, and it goes over about as well as anything in this ill-conceived sequel.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.