Friday, October 30, 2015

Twenty-Four-Hour Marathon of Horror

If you follow the site, you know the drill. As much time as I devote to the Academy Awards and the fall festivals and prestige dramas and all that, I am as fiercely devoted to horror. It is a much-maligned genre due to the sheer volume of content. It cannot all be great, but I will take the best horror over the best drama any day because more often than not, it is horror that will make you genuinely feel something. There is no stronger emotion than fear, and great horror delivers it in spades.

Last year, Last Cinema Standing brought you the 31 Days of Horror, a month-long celebration of the genre. The response was great, but this year, I decided on something a little less time-intensive for me and for you. This time, I thought I would focus all my attention on Halloween and deliver a concentrated dose of terror in one nifty package. So, Last Cinema Standing presents the Twenty-Four-Hour Marathon of Horror.

Here are the rules: 1) The first movie starts at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. 2) Five-minute breaks allowed after every movie for snacks, micro-naps, and to change the disc. 3) Three 25-minute meal breaks. 4) Have fun.

Okay, there is a slim likelihood anyone is actually going to attempt this. I know that. You know that. So, I have broken up the day into four sections. If you are looking for a quicker shot of horror, pick out a group and enjoy.

Home is where the horror is

Our homes are where we should feel safest, but in the middle of the night, when it is dark, there are few things scarier than the unknown horrors lurking in the shadows of your house. We kick off our marathon with a trio of tales about threats from within and without the home from ghosts, demons, and your average, everyday murderers.

Midnight: The Haunting (directed by Robert Wise; 112 minutes)

The Haunting
There is an argument to be made Wise is the greatest B-movie director of all time. On his resume already is probably the greatest science-fiction B movie of all time, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and with this, he made an indelible mark on the horror genre. With limited resources but unlimited ingenuity, Wise essentially set the template for the haunted-house genre, and all the way up through this year’s Crimson Peak, it has been emulated but never equaled.

1:57 a.m.: The Virgin Spring (directed by Ingmar Bergman; 89 minutes)

This has been remade a couple times as Last House on the Left, once very well by Wes Craven in 1972 and once not so well in 2009. When asked about remaking Bergman’s tragic tale of family loyalty and revenge, Craven correctly pointed out Bergman was adapting a centuries-old fable. Maybe so, but in his entire career, Bergman never made anything that did not feel completely his own. As much about faith and the morality of vengeance as it is mayhem and death, The Virgin Spring is the work of a great director trying his hand a new genre and almost incidentally making a masterpiece.

3:31 a.m.: Paranormal Activity (directed by Oren Peli; 86 minutes)

Found footage gets a bad rap. Critics see it as cheap and gimmicky, and some audiences find it literally stomach churning. Like anything else, there is the potential for trash, but at its best, found footage puts you right inside the horror and provides an experience little else can match. Last year, I used the Spanish film [Rec] as an example of great found footage. Paranormal Activity is equally strong. Even its many sequels maintain a high level of quality, which is rare for a horror series. This is the kind of movie after which you leave the lights on when you go to bed – if you can sleep at all.

5:02 a.m.: Breakfast

If I were cleverer, I might suggest something horror related for your meal, but honestly, if you are trying this marathon, maybe you would be best served by a pot of coffee. Although, some Count Chocula or Franken Berry cereal might give you the sugar rush you need to get through the next 19 hours.

Trilogy of terror

I talked about anthologies last year when writing about Mario Bava’s great old horror masterpiece Black Sabbath. In talking about that film, I mentioned how the subgenre was making a comeback. Collected here are three recent entries that stretch the format in different directions to arrive at the same conclusion – terror.

5:27 a.m.: V/H/S (various directors; 116 minutes)

If you follow independent cinema, you are probably familiar with a great little subgenre known as mumble-core, which admittedly is a bit of a pejorative moniker. Anyway, an offshoot of that is mumble-gore, in which most of the same directors indulge their blood-and-guts fantasies. The films are low key, low budget, and high value. Ti West and Adam Wingard are two stalwarts of mumble-gore, and they contribute two of the best sequences to V/H/S, a tremendous little found-footage anthology. The lo-fi conceit only adds to the unsettling mix of tension and gore.

7:28 a.m.: Three … Extremes (various directors; 118 minutes)

On the far other end of the spectrum from V/H/S is Three … Extremes, an austere trilogy of horror shorts from three Asian masters – Fruit Chan (China), Chan-wook Park (South Korea), and Takashi Miike (Japan). Where the tendency for most directors of horror is to go grimier and bloodier, these three shorts are highly stylized, brilliantly realized visions that shock primarily because the violence comes seemingly from out of nowhere. Though separated by geography, Three … Extremes is held together by the unnerving fact that nothing is sacred and no one is safe.

9:31 a.m.: The ABCs of Death (various directors; 129 minutes)

The idea is simple: 26 directors or teams of directors each take a letter of the alphabet and create a horror short based on it. Titles include “A is for Apocalypse,” “S is for Speed,” and “H is for Hyrdro-Electric Diffusion.” West and Wingard are back, as well as greats such as Xavier Gens and Srdjan Spasojevic. For featuring 26 unrelated shorts, the strike rate is remarkably high. Even the less successful stories are interesting, and if one does not do it for you, another is right around the corner. I would caution: On the whole, this is not for the faint of heart.

11:45 a.m.: Lunch
There are not a lot of horror options when it comes to lunch, are there? I suppose you could have another bowl of Count Chocula. If you are still with me at this point, probably just grab a sandwich and another pot of coffee.

Stranger danger

One of the first things we learn as children is not to talk to strangers. It is a good lesson. If you find yourself in a horror movie, it is a lesson that may save your life. Here is a group of movies about people who mostly did not learn their lesson. By coincidence, each of these three movies has been remade to wildly varying degrees of success. Invariably, however, these originals are superior.

12:10 p.m.: The Crazies (directed by George Romero; 103 minutes)

The Crazies
Romero is rightly known for his zombie films – the Dead series – but his work outside the zombie subgenre is just as valuable. The Crazies concerns a small town in Pennsylvania overrun by a virus created by the military. It causes insanity in the infected and turns neighbors into strangers. When the army comes to town, it becomes even harder to tell the allies from the enemies. The Crazies is a fantastic, paranoid thriller that proves Romero is a great director, no matter the genre.

1:43 p.m.: The Wicker Man (directed by Robin Hardy; 88 minutes)

You are no doubt familiar with the 2006 remake of this film, starring Nicolas Cage, which popular opinion would have you believe is one of the worst movies ever made. While being very bad, I promise you it does not reach those depths. It simply is a victim of being easy to ridicule when some of its more outlandish elements are taken out of context. That said – Hardy’s original is without compare. It is moody and creepy and perfectly captures the era in which it was made in its tale of a devout puritan confronted with carnality and carnage.

3:16 p.m.: Funny Games (directed by Michel Haneke; 108 minutes)

I briefly touched on Funny Games and its excellent shot-for-shot remake, also directed by Haneke, here. It deserves the extra mention. A wealthy couple and their young son drive up to their vacation home and are greeted by two well bred teenagers they do not know. Things go downhill from there as the family is terrorized for no other reason than because they are there. The horror comes from the callousness of the intruders and the relentlessness of their attack. This is bleak stuff.

Demon to lean on

This is my favorite section here. It features three of my all-time favorite horror movies and the one film I would say scared me the most when I was young. These are movies about demons, which are a perfect horror movie villain because they are implacable. They are beings of pure malevolence and lack either reason or sympathy.

5:09 p.m.: Child’s Play (directed by Tom Holland; 87 minutes)

Child's Play
Time for a little personal history here: From the time I was about 3 or 4 years old, when I first saw this movie, until about five or six years ago, I would have said this movie was the scariest movie I had ever seen. Two things happened then – first, I had seen many more movies; second, the sequels to Child’s Play grew ever-more comedic, which lessened the horror in my memory of the original.

However, I sat down on the eve of my 24th birthday with my best friend and Last Cinema Standing contributor Sean Patrick Leydon for a nostalgic viewing of the film that so terrified me when I was young. It is still terrifying.  Nothing has changed over the years in that image of a murderous doll with a knife. It is still a murderous doll with a knife, and it is just as horrific.

6:41 p.m.: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (directed by Wes Craven; 112 minutes)

Man, I miss Craven, who died just two months ago. I was struck by his death again when I was coming up with titles for this piece. No other modern director screams horror like Craven, so it would be a crime to leave him off the list. The only trouble is in choosing, and since he left so many great films to pick from, I chose the one with the most meaning for me personally, which you can read about here. What is great about New Nightmare is that it brings Freddy Krueger into the “real world” as a demon who takes the form of a horror movie monster. It restores to Freddy Krueger the terror he inspired in the original film and makes it more visceral and intense. I love this film.

8:38 p.m.: Dinner

I have been in New York too long. Tell me: Does Papa Murphy’s still do that promotion where you get a medium pepperoni pizza, and they put a little jack-o-lantern face on there in pepperoni? I love that. If you can, get that, and think of me. I will be having New York pizza, which is no one’s idea of a good time. I miss your crust, California.

9:03 p.m.: Drag Me to Hell (directed by Sam Raimi; 99 minutes)

Under normal circumstances, here is where I would insert an Evil Dead movie or two, but the only rule I set for myself in creating this list was to avoid using anything I used in the 31 Days of Horror, the object being to discuss as many different movies as possible. So, instead, we have Drag Me to Hell, Raimi’s triumphant return to the horror genre after nearly a decade away directing Spider-man movies. He did not lose a step. If anything, the tricks he learned on the big-budget superhero movies translated beautifully to the low-budget horror genre for a perfect hybrid of the two.

10:32 p.m.: My Name Is Bruce (directed by Bruce Campbell; 84 minutes)

Finally, the man Raimi launched to stardom, Campbell steps behind the camera for his second directorial feature, and it is an awesome mix of slapstick humor, cheesy Saturday morning serial, and B-movie horror. This is a horror movie that is mostly about what it is like to be a horror movie fan, and I cannot think of any better way to end a marathon like this.

END – 11:56 p.m.

Well, there are four minutes left in the day. Maybe pet your dog or have some candy or something. If you have made it to the end, you deserve something nice.

Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

New movie review: Crimson Peak

Mia Wasikowska stars in director Guillermo del Toro's excellent Gothic romance Crimson Peak.

Most great directors are students of film history, and their movies are littered with references to cinema of the past. Others take it a step further and create whole-film homages to a style or genre. These are the movies really made for cinephiles and obsessives, for people with a deep knowledge of film history and a passion for the medium. They are films such as Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, or Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.

These are all rich, textured works with a deep understanding and abiding love of their forebears, and viewers with that same understanding and love will get much more from these films than the average movie-goer. This is not to say you must be intimately familiar with the melodramas of Douglas Sirk to enjoy Far From Heaven or immersed in the cinematic language of 1940s film noir to get The Good German, but it helps.

I thought about this a lot while watching writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s lush, moody gothic romance Crimson Peak. Both in story and style, it is a film steeped in the past and reverential toward the foundation on which its creepy, haunted-house tale is figuratively built. The movie is riddled with nods to the work of Italian horror masters Mario Bava and Dario Argento, as well as to classic films such as The Haunting (1963) and The Innocents.

The horror genre is clearly a part of del Toro’s DNA, and Crimson Peak will appeal to similarly engaged terror aficionados. I wonder, however, how this faithful tribute to the high-style horror of the 1960s will play for the uninitiated. The numbers so far suggest it is not playing well. It will make back its money worldwide, but no one is going to be happy about $22 million domestic in nearly three weeks of release. If I were to guess, it is not succeeding because most people do not know what it is.

This is a film made for another time. It seems modern horror franchises – and they are all franchises now – are about scary dolls or scary kids or some combination of the two. Consider the Insidious movies, The Conjuring and its spinoff Annabelle, and the Paranormal Activity series. Much as these are enjoyable movies in their own right, they are also cheap, shock-fests. They are about the jump scares and the promise of mayhem.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with thrills-first moviemaking if the movies are good. This is simply the current state of horror. Audiences want the adrenaline rush of fear and the nausea of disgust, and why not? It can be a hell of a lot of fun, but it is not the environment into which a studio can launch a throwback like Crimson Peak.

I saw the movie on opening night in a three-quarters-full IMAX theater, and I can say firsthand the vast majority of the audience could make neither heads nor tales of the film. It is not a story issue but a tone issue. Modern viewers are primed for sarcasm and meta-humor and for the kind of movies that wink at the camera and say, “Hey, isn’t this silly but also a lot of fun?” There may not be a market for a somber, serious romance that prefers to make you shiver rather than shriek.

It is a shame, too, because Crimson Peak is a stunning film. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at, the acting is magnificent, and del Toro strikes a perfect balance between florid direction and straightforward writing. The premise concocted by del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins is simple and classical, which leaves plenty of room for del Toro to explore the world of the story.

Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak.
Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of a wealthy American businessman. Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) comes to the U.S. with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), in search of investors in his clay mining operation. Thomas woos Edith, and after her father dies under mysterious circumstances, she is whisked away to England to live with Thomas and Lucille in their family’s decrepit estate, nicknamed Crimson Peak for the red clay soil on which it sits. The mansion is haunted, and the siblings clearly have some nefarious plot they are playing out, so Edith must survive threats from both the living and the dead.

The film opens with Edith speaking in voiceover: “Ghosts are real. That much I know. I’ve seen them all my life.” The first scene is of a young Edith being visited by the spirit of her dead mother, who tells her, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” The effects work on the ghosts is gorgeous in as much as the ghosts are convincingly ghoulish and frightening, but this is just their appearance. Their function in the story is less clear-cut. They are tormented souls, no doubt, but they are not malevolent. Ultimately, they seem to want what Edith wants: release from the pain caused to them by Crimson Peak.

Wasikowska continues to show tremendous range as an actress, and as Edith, she projects the perfect mix of strength and naïveté. Throughout the film, Lucille speaks of Edith’s fragility and youth, which Wasikowska easily taps into, but what makes Edith a great heroine is that her tormentors underestimate the fierceness of her will. Wasikowska is expert at channeling this determination and showing us Edith’s fight, even when she is confined to bed by illness or hobbled by a broken leg.

Chastain and Hiddleston play off each other beautifully as two people at different points on the same path. They are scam artists, of a sort, but Lucille is older and more embittered, while Thomas is slightly younger and more open to other possibilities in life. This is what makes Edith so threatening to Lucille – her youth. Chastain sulks and glowers and spits and injects a degree of humanity into a villain role that would be over the top in less sure hands.

The same could be said for the film as a whole. In less sure hands than del Toro’s or those of his incredible cast, Crimson Peak could be a Grand Guignol exercise in extravagance and eccentricity. It is not because everyone plays it straight with love of the craft and devotion to del Toro’s vision. Most audiences will not share that vision, but for those of us who do, we can be thankful there is a director like del Toro to put it on screen.

See it? Yes.

Friday, October 23, 2015

New movie review: The Walk

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Philippe Petit in director Robert Zemeckis' fact-based visual extravaganza The Walk.

It would not be unreasonable to wonder why Robert Zemeckis felt the need to make The Walk. After all, the same story is told to great effect in the excellent, Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. However, one need only look at Zemeckis’ lengthy career and the kind of films he has always made to understand the draw of Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Consider this selection from Zemeckis’ directorial filmography: the Back to the Future trilogy; Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; The Polar Express; Death Becomes Her; Flight; and of course, Forrest Gump. Though wildly different in form and content, all of these films share Zemeckis’ gift for awe-inspiring imagery and boundary-pushing visual effects. Seen through that lens, the director would have been remiss to pass up the opportunity to recreate not only a death-defying stunt but the entirety of the World Trade Center.

Zemeckis and first-time feature writer Christopher Browne base their screenplay on Petit’s book about the “coup,” as Petit calls it, To Reach the Clouds. As a result, the film is infused with Petit’s roguish zeal and unique world view. To him, the stunt is not crazy. It is a stroke of brilliance destined to go down as one of the great artistic achievements of the century. If it does not quite reach those lofty heights, it is no less a remarkable feat of human ingenuity and audacity.

The great thing about Petit, here played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is that he never once doubts his cause or conviction. This is simply something he must do. In this way, it is easy to see how he attracts the co-conspirators in his coup. This charming, heavily accented Frenchman’s belief makes you want to believe in him. Had he been a religious zealot, Petit probably could have formed a cult. Instead, he chose to walk the wire and to convert people to the cause of his art.

Gordon-Levitt is an ideal Petit for Zemeckis and is himself possessed of the same charisma that attracted people to Petit. The movie is split into two unequal sections. The final 30 minutes are Zemeckis’ playground for showing the walk, but the first 90 minutes are all setup for the stunt. Gordon-Levitt is asked to carry this first section and does so with aplomb. He is fun, fearless, and light on his feat, guilelessly driving the narrative forward and engendering good will until Zemeckis can unleash his special-effects wizardry.

Charlotte Le Bon and Gordon-Levitt in The Walk.
The script is a witty breeze, and the supporting cast is a delight, in particular Ben Kingsley as brusque mentor Papa Rudy and Charlotte Le Bon as ever-supportive love interest Annie, but everything works in service of the film’s climax. Few people will leave the theater talking about how good of a juggler Petit is or how lovely his relationship is with fellow street artist Annie – both patently true observations but quite beside the point. The film lives or dies with the walk.

Well, the film more than lives. It soars. I had the good fortune of seeing The Walk in true IMAX 3D. If asked to guess, I would say it likely benefits from the larger format and added depth of field, but there is nothing about the filmmaking to suggest it would not hold up on a regular movie screen.  I would, however, urge you to see it on the biggest screen possible and certainly not to wait for home video, which simply could not replicate the experience.

For sheer visual panache and emotional acuity, there is little to rival the grandeur of the Twin Towers as seen in this film. The closest comparison might be James Cameron’s Titanic, featuring another towering human achievement lost to tragedy. The difference of course is that few people who saw Titanic were personally affected by the ship’s sinking, whereas even 14 years later, the wounds of the terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers are still fresh, particularly for New Yorkers.

There is resonance simply in seeing the buildings brought back to life. The skyline was less crowded then, and the Twin Towers are immediately iconic, though not universally loved at the time. In fact, some credit Petit’s stunt with turning public sentiment in favor of the buildings. It is easy to see how as Zemeckis shows us the World Trade Center through the eyes of someone who instantly recognizes its beauty and significance.

The camera swoops and swings and dips and dives around the buildings, and from the bottom up, we are confronted with their massive scale. When Petit stands on the edge of the roof, we stand there with him, and when he finally steps out onto the wire, we walk with him. This is the purest promise of cinema fulfilled, showing us something we have never seen and taking us places we could never go. For the final half-hour of The Walk, we are all part of the coup

The film ends with a consideration of the impermanence of monuments such as the Twin Towers, striking a melancholy tone that complements and lends gravity to the popcorn-movie fun that comes before. As much as we may want them to, the things we build are unlikely to last forever, but the things we achieve have the power to echo through eternity. This insight was Petit’s genius, and his gift to us was to share it the best way he knew how – by walking on his wire.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New movie review: 99 Homes

Andrew Garfield stars in writer-director Ramin Bahrani's masterpiece 99 Homes.

If the soul exists, it must have no price. If the soul exists, it must be an essential part of a person. If the soul exists, it must be the most valuable thing one can possess. That is – if the soul exists. The way we often speak of it, the soul is intangible, and being such, we do not have a lot of use for it in our daily lives. Our families cannot eat it, take shelter in it, or survive off it, so its value seems rather negligible against the raw realities of life.

Speaking in a strictly areligious sense, the devil knows this. Maybe the devil is your boss, asking you to sacrifice a part of yourself for the company. Maybe the devil is your spouse, asking you to sacrifice a part of yourself for your family. Maybe the devil is you, and you sacrifice a small part of yourself every time you go against your better judgment or your reason or your ethics. These small trades for money, love, or comfort cost us little on the surface, but if the soul exists and makes you who you are, then every piece you give up is another piece of yourself lost.

In the magnificent legal thriller 99 Homes, from writer-director Ramin Bahrani, Andrew Garfield plays a man who makes a Faustian bargain with the devil he knows, and we stare on breathlessly as he loses himself piece by piece. The suspense comes from watching and wondering how long this man will allow himself to fall apart before he realizes what he has done and tries to put everything back together. It is a shattering, heart-rending experience, and it is one of the best films of the year.

Garfield plays Dennis Nash, who struggles to provide for his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). When they can no longer afford to pay the mortgage, they are evicted from their longtime family home and forced to live in a hotel, where many other families have suffered the same fate. Real estate operator Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon, is in charge of the eviction. Carver makes his money evicting people from their homes and exploiting government and banking loopholes in the wake of the housing market crash.

Nash earns what little money he can working odds-and-ends construction jobs until Carver offers him a deal. Carver will buy the Nash family home if Nash agrees to work for him to pay off the debt. Nash signs off on the deal, and that is how easy it is to make a pact with the devil. For the rest of the film, Nash will descend further and further into the morass and compromise more and more of what he stands for with every transaction until he resembles Carver more than himself.

Michael Shannon in 99 Homes.
Garfield and Shannon are excellent as two men with competing loyalties whose interests are briefly aligned. Shannon turns in the kind of work befitting one of the best actors of his generation. He is menacing and pragmatic but just vulnerable enough to suggest how Nash could fall into Carver’s trap. He may be playing the devil, but Shannon’s performance shows us how even the devil cannot do his job without being stained by it.

The true revelation, however, is Garfield, who was so good in 2010’s The Social Network but has been lost down the rabbit hole of superhero movies for the last five years. In fact, 99 Homes is his first non-The Amazing Spider-man movie since The Social Network, and it is a great relief to see Garfield once again with a tremendous role to play. As Nash, he is resolute and determined but beaten down by a system that has no regard for him or his family. Garfield is just 32 years old, but he slides easily into the role of weary family man. His youth works for the film thematically as well and suggests problems of poverty and debt will affect generations to come.

Speaking of youth, there is the film’s co-writer and director. Bahrani is 40 years old and has made six feature films. In 2005, Man Push Cart launched him into the critical consciousness, and after his superb 2009 feature Goodbye Solo, no less than Roger Ebert called him unequivocally “the new great American director.” Bahrani even shows up in Steve James’ Ebert documentary Life Itself, and Ebert gifts him a puzzle once owned by Marilyn Monroe. Though Ebert long championed Bahrani’s work, the puzzle felt like a passing of the torch. Here, Bahrani returns the favor by dedicating his masterpiece to Ebert.

And a masterpiece, it is. The American-born son of Iranian immigrants, Bahrani has specialized in films about the struggle to achieve the American Dream. For the first time though, he turns his focus in 99 Homes to the difficulty in maintaining that dream. This is a film about mostly good people whose lives are destroyed by greed and corruption. Nash is but one of many people who got the home they always dreamed of but could not afford to keep it. The banks preyed on these people from the beginning, and what we are watching as Carver evicts them is the final kill.

Bahrani shows us row after row of homes in the Orlando, Fla., suburbs where the film takes place. Each house represents a family, and many are abandoned. They are not empty because of people like Carver. Carver is an opportunist, but he serves a higher master – the banks, those institutions we were told are too big to fail. Implicit in that oft-trotted-out maxim is the little-discussed fact that Nash and you and I are not too big to fail. In fact, we are too small to matter.

This is the kind of film that should make us angry about the world in which we live. Hopefully, none of us will endure the pain and heartbreak of losing our homes, but statistically, some of us will. Some of us have, and our options are few. Around the midpoint of the film, Carver tells Nash, “America was built by bailing out the winners.” Nash has seen losing and does not want to see it again. He takes Carver’s deal because it is the only one on the table. No other help is on its way. For his son, his mother, and his own dignity, he trades away a part of himself, but if the soul exists, what good to his family is a man without one?

See it? Yes.

Monday, October 19, 2015

New movie review: Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender stars as Steve Jobs in director Danny Boyle's new film Steve Jobs.

Apple founder Steve Jobs is a hard character to pin down. Some want to paint him as a god of the tech industry, a forward-thinking innovator, and a full-stop genius. Others think of him as closer to the devil, a temperamental tyrant, and a fraud who was not responsible for half the things for which he gets credit. As ever, the truth is likely somewhere between the two extremes, but death has a polarizing effect on the way we interpret the legacies of prominent figures. Look at Ronald Reagan.

Since his death from cancer in 2011, the company he founded has only grown in power, influence, and ubiquity, and there have been countless attempts to place Jobs’ contributions to the culture in a larger context. They feature titles such as Genius by Design and How Steve Jobs Changed the World. In many cases, though, they are just his name followed by a colon and some positive or negative descriptor, depending on the point the makers want to communicate.

For the new film from director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin, the filmmakers drop the descriptor. It is just Steve Jobs. It gives the impression this will be the definitive portrait of the man and his machines, but it is not that, nor does it try to be. Instead, Sorkin’s script is broken down into three snapshots of Jobs’ life – or rather, his career, following as it does three product launches that define the arc of his time with Apple.

Sorkin is an undeniably good writer, and he has given us a slew of great television shows (The West Wing; Sports Night; The Newsroom) and films (A Few Good Men; An American President; The Social Network). As ever, his dialogue crackles with the humor and intelligence for which he is known. The problem is that the snapshot structure does not work for telling this story. There is simultaneously too much condensed into these three moments and too much left out.

To the first point, by sticking rigidly to this structure, save for two brief flashback sequences, Sorkin must include everything he wants us to know about Jobs in dialogue set on just three days in his life. There are five or six main characters, and each one’s story has a beginning, middle, and end, but because we are seeing only three specific days, each character arc happens on the same contrived timeline.

Movies are contrivances, but this stretches credulity. By the time Jobs points out how every product launch, it seems like everyone goes to the same bar, gets drunk, and tells him what they really think, you just get angry at Sorkin for clearly being aware of this flaw but taking no steps to address it.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Fassbender, and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs.
Conversely, the movie is fairly empty when it comes to Jobs’ work. By choosing to show us only these product launches – the Macintosh, the NEXT, and the iMac, respectively – Sorkin fails to explore Jobs’ creative process. It is the ultimate tell-not-show movie as we hear in dialogue over and over how brilliant he is but never actually see that brilliance in action. Some of this falls on Boyle’s doorstep, but the density of Sorkin’s script leaves little room to play with form.

Boyle is an excellent director, but this is his most restrained and constricted film – an assessment that includes 127 Hours, about a man literally trapped in one spot for nearly the duration of the film. Gone for most of the runtime is Boyle’s usual flair for dramatic camera movement and clever, propulsive editing. It feels almost workmanlike, which is unfortunate because the best part of Boyle’s films has always been the directorial stamp he places on them.

However, where Sorkin’s work constrains the director to a degree, his words give all the performers the chance to soar, none more than Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Fassbender is a wonderful, chameleon-like actor who has shown his range in projects as diverse as 12 Years a Slave, Shame, the X-Men films, and Frank. As Jobs, he finds a new part to play – the petulant genius – and he is astounding. Though Fassbender little resembles Jobs nor really sounds like him, he discovers the character of Jobs. His performance is less an imitation of the man than an interpretation, and it works beautifully.

Fassbender, a longtime stage actor with a facility for language that helps tremendously with Sorkin’s dialogue, is by turns menacing and gentle. He thankfully avoids the pitfalls so many other actors fall into when portraying tech geniuses – often playing them as somewhere on the autism spectrum – and instead builds brick by brick the figure of a confident, volatile icon. Nothing in the film would work without the steady, grounded work of Fassbender. The film necessarily revolves around Jobs, like a hurricane, and Fassbender is the perfectly calm eye at the center of the storm.

Jeff Daniels in Steve Jobs.
The rest of the cast swirling around him is stellar as well, beginning with Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ head of marketing and closest confidant. Hoffman is the film’s moral center and the one person in Jobs’ life with the wherewithal to stand up to him as she stands by him. Winslet matches Fassbender beat for beat and is able to project strength even as she shows warmth.

As former Apple CEO John Sculley, Jeff Daniels is given a fairly obvious archetype to play in Jobs’ father figure, but Daniels finds nuance and shading in the two men’s relationship that is not strictly on the page. In the middle section, the film’s best sequence has Sculley asking Jobs why the world thinks he fired his protégé from Apple.

It is one of the only scenes where Boyle is able to liven up the proceedings with a series of rapid-fire edits between their present-day argument and Jobs’ removal from Apple, the film’s only extended flashback. The editing ramps up the tension, while Daniels and Fassbender bring energy and passion to the conversation. Sculley is the only person in the film Jobs consistently out-maneuvers, and Daniels finds in Sculley a beaten man who refuses to go down without a fight.

In the “character actors who deserve to work more” category, we have Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston in small but pivotal roles as Jobs’ employee and ex-girlfriend, respectively. Stuhlbarg, who was excellent in this year’s Pawn Sacrifice and will also appear in Trumbo, is one of my favorite actors and one of Hollywood’s best reactors. His changes in expression say a hundred things his words never could, and his character’s hurt silences are among the most affecting moments in the film.

Waterston, who was tremendous in last year’s Inherent Vice and the best thing about the Alex Ross Perry misfire Queen of Earth this year, stuns in a few brief scenes as the mother of Jobs’ daughter. As written, she is all fire and fury, but Waterston is able to create levels of sorrow and repressed rage that even Sorkin may have missed.

What we are left with is an often brilliant, sometimes frustrating film about an often brilliant, sometimes frustrating man. Boyle perhaps does not do enough as a director to rein in Sorkin’s more writerly tendencies, but the performances are so magical that it is impossible to look away. By refusing to take a clear stance on the man or his work, Steve Jobs functions more like a Rorschach test for viewers. You will see in Jobs what you want to see in him – saint or sinner, paragon or pretender – but the film’s real achievement is that no matter what you see, afterward, you are more likely to see a human.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

New movie review: The Martian

Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars in director Ridley Scott's The Martian.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a talented person work. It really does not matter the craft. Watching a skilled carpenter build a table can be as pleasing as watching a concert pianist perform or a top chef prepare a delicious meal. It should not be terribly revolutionary to suggest competence is appealing. It is one of the reasons the spy genre is so durable. Spies are ceaselessly competent. They accomplish with ease tasks that would confound us mere mortals, and that is why they are so damned fun to watch.

There are no spies in The Martian, but there is competence to spare, and as a result, the film is a joyous exercise in smart, big-budget moviemaking. From director Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is marooned on Mars after a storm forces a speedy evacuation by the crew of the Ares III mission. Thinking Watney has died in the storm, the rest of the crew takes off and heads back to Earth.

When their error is discovered by mission control, an all-out rescue effort begins, and the film cuts back and forth between the frantic attempts by NASA to reach the stranded astronaut and Watney’s pragmatic, life-extending measures. The film settles into a rhythm early. Problems arise, and intelligent people solve them. Another problem demands another solution, and so on until either Watney is saved or a problem comes up that cannot be solved.

Mercifully, there is no villain in the film – no aliens, no shadowy government agencies, no one working at cross-purposes to the characters. The enemies are time and space. Watney has limited resources and infinite space. He must survive on his own long enough to allow the rescue mission to reach him. A botanist, he devises a way to farm potatoes on the once-barren planet. This will buy him some time. It is up to mission control back home to solve the space problem, which is that they have a lot of space to cover to get to Watney.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Martian.
Populated by an appealingly eclectic and talented cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, and Kristen Wiig, the ground team at NASA gets to work. Under incredible pressure and with no margin for error, they propose to send an unmanned probe to Mars with supplies to keep Watney alive until the next planned manned mission arrives. When this fails, it falls to the crew of the Ares III, still on their way back to Earth, to decide if they will risk their lives to attempt a rescue of the man they left behind.

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who made his name writing intricate, puzzle-box-type stories such as Cabin in the Woods and the television show Lost, Goddard’s screenplay is straightforward and workmanlike. More Apollo 13 than 2001: A Space Odyssey, the script is less interested in the meaning of life than in the extension of it. For The Martian, the former approach works, and Goddard and Scott smartly give all the action set pieces and narrative developments room to breathe rather than overstuffing the spaces between with needless philosophizing.

Movies like this work best when allowed to bask in silence, and on Mars, silence is the one thing not in short supply. While the top-flight cast also includes Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, and Kate Mara, among others, the film lives and dies with the lonely, life-and-death struggle of Watney and with Damon’s portrayal of the stranded astronaut. Long stretches of the film are inhabited by just Watney and the video diary he keeps, partially for the record and partially for his sanity. In these moments of quiet solitude, the audience is allowed to feel his grief and isolation but also his hope.

Recent comments in the press aside, Damon has a charming, everyman-like quality about him that makes you want to root for him. The character is witty and affable – two traits Damon has excelled at displaying in nearly all his roles – but the dire nature of his situation is never once out of mind. Damon’s well calibrated performance is a perfect balance of light and dark, playful and practical, which is the same tightrope the film itself walks so well.

Scott has fallen out of critical favor as a director in recent years, releasing a string of indifferently received films (A Good Year; American Gangster; Body of Lies; Robin Hood) followed by three highly divisive ones (Prometheus; The Counselor; Exodus: Gods and Kings). There was nothing necessarily wrong with these works – I happen to love Prometheus – but something was missing from most of them. With The Martian, Scott proves he is the same talented director who long ago brought us Alien and Blade Runner, as well as the relatively more recent Gladiator.

Here, Scott provides the same sense of awe-inspiring wonder that has marked his best work, but it is buoyed by an inspiring story of genuine human accomplishment. The Martian vistas are the kind of breathtaking visual achievement Scott can conjure on a whim, and this movie is full of beautiful images, but its greatest success is its people.

Working from Goddard’s script and Weir’s story, Scott astonishes with more than just visuals. Think how rare that is to see a big, effects-driven movie, which this clearly is, and to be amazed by something more than how pretty everything is. In The Martian, we are amazed simply to watch smart people confront impossible odds with determination and hope.

See it? Yes.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Film festivals, Coen brothers, and Scorsese talks

The 15th anniversary screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the New York Film Festival (photo credit: Sean DiSerio).

With the end of the New York Film Festival today, fall festival season is mostly at a close. The big ones – Telluride, Toronto, Venice, New York – have had their say and launched a great majority of the films that will compete for the top Oscars come January and February. For the most part, the movies that were meant to play like gangbusters did, and a little below, we will take a look at some of the reactions as the first phase of the run-up to the Academy Awards wraps up.

I have lived in New York nearly two years now, but this was the first year I was able to attend any of the New York Film Festival. As you might imagine, it was quite the experience, one I hope to expand on in the coming years. No, I did not get to attend any of the big premieres or see any of the new films. I will catch up with those in theaters like most of you will. Instead, my 2015 New York Film Festival experience was focused on the past.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

On Sept. 29, I was invited to the 15th anniversary screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the brothers’ adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey transposed to Dust Bowl America. In attendance for the post-screening question-and-answer session, moderated by festival director Kent Jones, were the Coens, stars George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Tim Blake Nelson, Geroge Clooney, and John Turturro in O Brother.
The Coens are as rye as their films suggest, and at any mention of their genius – which came up a lot from the audience – they demurred. As far as they are concerned, they are just two humble guys who like to make movies. In their introduction, Joel Coen said they rarely re-watch their films, and the last time they had was at a similar event for their debut feature, Blood Simple. He joked they came away with 15 or 20 minutes of edits to make and added the next time we see O Brother not to be surprised if it is about 15 minutes shorter.

For the most part, they seemed reluctant to discuss any deeper meaning or intent behind their film – a trait that can be seen in almost all their interviews, as well – but that did not stop the rest of those assembled on stage from gushing about their work. Nelson in particular was complimentary and also offered that the Coens and this film essentially launched his career.

Deakins, who was Oscar-nominated for the film and has worked with the Coen brothers 12 times, spoke about the digital intermediate process used to capture the faded-postcard look of the film. The technique involves digitizing a film to alter the color and other characteristics of the image in post-production. It was the first time the process had been used in a major motion picture in the U.S., and its success is further proof of Deakins’ brilliance behind the camera.

Ethan Coen, Kent Jones, and Nelson at the afterparty.
Clooney, whose third collaboration with the Coens you may have seen a new trailer for this week, is every bit the star you imagine him to be, and his reputation as a charming, impish troublemaker seems well deserved if you believe Clooney himself. He told tales of playing the Coens off each other, trying to trip up the famously simpatico siblings, and just generally being a puckish presence on set. He was similarly puckish on stage, much to the audience’s delight.

The evening concluded with an afterparty at the Landmarc restaurant in Columbus Circle and drinks with the Coens, Deakins, Nelson, and a number of festival luminaries. Clooney did not attend the afterparty, which is probably for the best. Stars like that have a tendency to suck all the air out of a room just by showing up. As it was, it was a loose affair full of good conversation, tasty food, and free-flowing wine.

I told Deakins what he must already know – that he is a master of what he does and his work on this year’s Sicario is breathtaking. I listened to Nelson, Jones, and Ethan Coen chat it up on one side of the room as Joel Coen held court on the other. At the end of it all, I stood on the sidewalk and joked with Ethan Coen about the rain, which had started sometime during the party. He chuckled, but the joke was clearly on me as he made his way to the car he arrived in, while I, dressed for the occasion but not the weather, walked to my train.

Heaven Can Wait

If you are a film nerd – and if you are here, you are either a film nerd or related to me somehow – there is no more rewarding experience than listening to Martin Scorsese speak. Hearing Scorsese talk about film and film history is like hearing Hank Aaron talk about baseball or Ernest Hemingway about writing. There is nothing you can say that will add to the conversation, so just shut up, sit back, and listen.

Martin Scorsese talks to Jones (photo credit: David Godlis).
For about 25 minutes Oct. 1 at Alice Tully Hall, I had the chance to do just that. Scorsese was at the Lincoln Center for a screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic Heaven Can Wait (no relation to the 1978 Warren Beatty movie of the same name), but mostly, he was in town to talk about The Film Foundation and its ongoing mission to rescue and preserve classic films for future generations.

Heaven Can Wait is a beautiful showcase for the foundation’s work. For a movie from 1943, the print we saw looked absolutely gorgeous, featuring a depth of color and brilliance of sound we would be lucky to get for a new film, let alone one produced more than seven decades ago. The set design truly pops, and Gene Tierney is as luminous as you are ever likely to see her. If you have the opportunity to see a roadshow screening at a theater or museum of one of The Film Foundation’s restored prints, I urge you to go. Whether or not you have seen the films, these restored prints are like seeing them anew.

Jones was back, ostensibly to moderate the conversation, but in the end, he was just like the rest of us in the audience, an engaged student humbly taking in lessons from the master. Jones opened the talk by asking Scorsese to describe how he got involved in the preservation and restoration of old films, and that was it. Scorsese was off.

It would be an injustice to the experience to pull out of context a few choice quotes or funny anecdotes. It was not that kind of evening. When you listen to Scorsese lecture, it is about feeling the cumulative effect of one man’s life in film washing over you. If you are lucky, you will grasp just some of it. This man, a giant of the film industry, has dedicated most of the second half of his life so far to giving back to that industry. He is an inspiration, through and through, and just given the chance to sit in awe of him, well, yeah, heaven can wait.

Festival season

The fall festival season is an embarrassment of riches for film fans. It is the time when movies we have all been anticipating get their first public screenings, and when movies we have never even heard of prove worthy of anticipation. Moreover, the festival circuit is now the prime breeding ground for Best Picture contenders at the Oscars and, more often than not, Best Picture winners.

Going back to the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, each of the last eight Best Picture winners has debuted at a festival, and just to prove everything is connected in some way or another, the last film to win without a festival premiere was Scorsese’s The Departed in 2006. Unsurprisingly, that was also the last Best Picture winner that was a significantly commercial proposition from the get-go, although The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and Argo were all box-office hits.

However, over the last few years, an interesting shift has taken place with regard to the line between independent, festival hit and big-budget blockbuster – namely, it has disappeared. In fact, some of the best reviewed films of this festival season have been commercially minded movies from marquee directors such as Ridley Scott (The Martian), Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), Robert Zemeckis (The Walk), and Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs). There is no saying exactly whether these films will have the legs to make it to Oscar season, but with those names, those reviews, and likely big numbers at the box office, they have a good shot.

Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa is scheduled for a December release.
As far as the movies I was less familiar with coming into the fall, a few have certainly cropped up that I will be putting at the top of my personal must-see list. Foremost among them, writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated feature that won the special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival. I am a big fan of Kaufman’s writing (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and an even bigger fan of his lone feature directing credit, Synecdoche, N.Y., so consider me in the bag for his latest venture.

Another director I have always loved is Tom McCarthy, whose first three features are unimpeachable – The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. He took an odd turn off course with last year’s simultaneously dour and oddly whimsical The Cobbler, but he appears to be back in form with Spotlight, which has gotten some of the best notices of any film at any festival this year. The film tracks the true story of the Boston Globe’s attempts to break open the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. It sounds like topical, important work from one of our finest, most underappreciated directors, and I cannot wait.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The festival season is over, which means it is movie-going season for the rest of us. It is nearly impossible in any year to keep up with all the great films being released, and this year looks better than most, so as my idol used to say, I’ll see you at the movies.