Friday, November 27, 2015

New movie review: Trumbo

Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo in director Jay Roach's historical drama Trumbo.

The U.S. has suffered a few black eyes over the years, mostly its own doing and mostly revolving around unfounded persecution. Native populations, blacks, women, Japanese, a whole cross-section of Europeans, and practitioners of most major and minor non-Protestant Christian religions have all been on the receiving end of the distinctly American us-vs.-them treatment. In the harsh light of history, all of these cases have been rightly viewed as affronts to human dignity.

Among the more fascinating ages in this country’s short history is the mid-20th century, when we rabidly feared communist aggression and insidious socialist agendas. Not a decade removed from four terms of the most socialist president the U.S. is likely ever to have, congress swung the pendulum the other direction in a big way with the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s legislative witch hunts.

Hollywood has gone to this well a few times, most recently and most successfully with George Clooney’s stellar Goodnight and Good Luck, about newsman Edward R. Murrow’s fight against McCarthy. Now comes director Jay Roach’s Trumbo, which looks at the role Hollywood itself played in discriminating against ideas deemed dangerous or subversive. Trumbo plays like a lighter companion piece to the Clooney film, neither as hard hitting nor as tightly crafted but not without merit.

Cranston in Trumbo.
Bryan Cranston, in his first major post-Breaking Bad screen appearance, plays Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter and novelist at the top of the world. As the film begins, Trumbo’s books and movies are never more popular, he and his lovely family live on a massive estate, and he signs a deal to become the highest paid writer in Hollywood. Writer John McNamara, adapting the book Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Cook, spends the first half of his script stripping away everything Trumbo has spent his life building. The second half chronicles his fight against the system that tried to destroy him.

The plot kicks off with Congress becoming concerned with the messages being promoted by Hollywood films – an unsurprising and sadly still relevant turn of events. Showing a cowardice that had hurt it before and would hurt it again, the movie industry took steps to censor itself under the spurious logic that if anyone was going to harm the film business, it might as well be the studios themselves. In this way, the infamous blacklist was born.

The Hollywood Ten, which counted among its ranks Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr., chose not to answer HUAC’s questions and were cited for contempt of Congress. They took their battle to the Supreme Court, where they lost, and most of them ended up in prison, except for one who turned against the group and cooperated with the investigation. When Trumbo gets out of prison, he finds himself to be a pariah, unable to work or support his family.

He and a number of other members of the Hollywood Ten began taking writing jobs from schlock movie producer Frank King (John Goodman) and producing scripts under aliases. This specific topic was tackled in the tremendous and tremendously underrated 1976 comedy The Front, directed by Martin Ritt. Trumbo certainly has elements of that earlier film but fills in the history around the edges for audiences who are another four decades removed from the era.

Roach, known mostly for comedies such as Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers series, is a bit out of his element directing a historical drama. There is an undercurrent of black comedy running through the film, but it is tempered by the gravity of the events being depicted. Traditionally comic performers such as Louis CK and Alan Tudyk deliver solid, measured performances in supporting roles, and even the most overtly comic character, King, benefits from committed, carefully crafted work by Goodman. It should be noted Diane Lane and Helen Mirren also provide sharp supporting performances in less well defined roles as the wife (Lane as Cleo Trumbo) and antagonist (Mirren as Hedda Hopper).

Helen Mirren and Cranston in Trumbo.
Where Roach gets in trouble is in the details. Namely, there are too many. Running more than two hours, the movie feels at least an hour longer and could easily have been a half-hour shorter. Roach and McNamara get bogged down in their step-by-step recounting of the trials of the Hollywood Ten early on and the writing of the King scripts later. There is something to be said for historical context and a desire to get the details right, but good filmmakers know when to trust the audience, and Trumbo too often feels as though it is holding the audience’s hand.

It is a shame because if ever there were a story that could breeze by on the strength of its emotional resonance, it is this one. The communist witch hunts and Hollywood blacklist are such a clear systemic failure that audiences need just a basic understanding of the events to become invested in the struggle of those facing persecution. Had the filmmakers stripped away some of the minutiae, they could have given the story much more room to breathe and cleared the way for Cranston’s towering central performance.

As with his famous portrayal of television anti-hero Walter White, Cranston absolutely commands the screen as Trumbo. He imbues his Trumbo with a brash, swaggering confidence and a palpable sense of righteous indignation. He has the maniacal single-mindedness of someone who believes there is a right and wrong answer to every question and also believes he always has the right answer.

The world according to Trumbo: Early in the film, his daughter asks him if she is a communist since he is. He proposes a scenario in which she has a sandwich and another child at school does not. Would she share her sandwich or tell the other kid to get a job and buy his own sandwich? Share, she says. Then, she is as much a communist as he is. The script occasionally buys into this highly simplified worldview, but Cranston never does. At all times, he is selling the nuances of a broken system that Trumbo refuses to let break him.

Cranston does not play Trumbo as a hero so much as an indignant rabble rouser who happens to be on the side of good. It is because of people like Trumbo, Murrow, the Hollywood Ten, and others that we are able to look back critically on times when ignorance and injustice threatened to destroy us from within – if only we could look at ourselves with the same critical lens, learn from our mistakes, and not repeat them. That world might be an okay place to live.

See it? Yes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Spirit Awards: Where indie still means indie

What a difference a year makes. On Tuesday, Film Independent announced its nominees for the annual Independent Spirit Awards. Last year in this space, I wrote about the general trend of the Independent Spirits toward more Oscar-friendly films, but this year, the nominated films and performances are nothing if not fiercely independent. That is not to say there are no likely awards heavies in the lineup, but there is more than a fair share of movies that probably will not get anywhere near the Academy Awards.

The nominees for best feature are Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion Anomalisa, Cary Fukunaga’s African war story Beasts of No Nation, Todd Haynes’ beautiful tale of forbidden romance Carol, Tom McCarthy’s masterpiece Spotlight, and Sean Baker’s experimental Tangerine. All six of those directors also were cited in the best director category and are joined by David Roger Mitchell for the retro-horror It Follows.

Last year, four of the five best feature nominees ended up nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (Birdman; Boyhood; Selma; and Whiplash), a feat that is unlikely to be repeated this year. Of these, Spotlight is rightfully among the frontrunners for the Academy Awards, but only Carol among the others has a realistic shot at Oscar glory. Let’s take a look at each of these films and break down their merits and possible awards futures.

Anomalisa Kaufman, an Academy Award winner for co-writing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is the marquee name here for cinephiles, but Johnson has the animation chops likely to make this film memorable. For Community fans out there, Johnson directed the magnificent “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” episode.

This is the only film in the lineup I have yet to see – hopefully that will be rectified next week, though the film does not hit theaters until the end of December – but with these two attached, it is highly anticipated, which I wrote about here. As for the Academy, this might be a little too out there for any of the top categories, but a Best Animated Feature nomination is not out of the question.

Beasts of No Nation A harrowing tale of child soldiers in war-torn Africa, Fukunaga’s film might be most notable for its unusual release strategy. A Netflix Original film, Beasts of No Nation was released to theaters and on the movie streaming site on the same day, alienating a number of larger theater chains. As a result, the movie was locked out of theaters in most of the country, screening only in independent cinemas. The film, which likely works better on the big screen, deserved a better fate, but its quality will carry it through the awards season.

It is a fair question to ask whether filmmakers will embrace this new distribution model or reject it and hold it against the film. The Independent Spirit nominations, however, bode well for its chances, including in the technical categories, where it would not be out of place. Fukunaga also adapted the film from its source novel and served as the director of photography, and he would make for a handsome nominee in either category at the Oscars.

CarolI wrote at length about Haynes’ exquisite film here, and it is not surprising to see a film this well acted and this superbly crafted lead the nominations list with six, including notices for both its lead actresses, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. If the independent film community rallies around Carol, which it seems like it will, the film could be a threat in a number of top categories at the Oscars.

SpotlightAs I said in my review, McCarthy’s exploration of the investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal is hands down the best American film of the year (so far) and an undeniable masterpiece. Carol is definitely the flashier film, but Spotlight is an unimpeachable achievement in filmmaking. A number of pundits have it down as the Best Picture frontrunner, and it deserves to be. As for its independent bona fides, McCarthy is a hero of the independent film community after his fantastic The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win showed the best of what the community can accomplish.

TangerineEvery year, there is a film firmly in the awards discussion that just passes me by, and it seems Baker’s sordid story of transgender prostitutes in L.A. is the one this year. I do not see what others see in this highly regarded and critically acclaimed film. Tangerine is a testament to the democratization of filmmaking in its low-budget, low-fi origins, but I simply found nothing to like in its story or craft. It would be one of the biggest shocks of the year for me if it were read out in any category on Academy Awards nominations morning.

Jacob Tremblay and nominee Brie Larson in Room.
Regarding the rest of the Spirit Awards nominees, there are a number of pleasant surprises and less pleasant omissions. First, the gripes: The excellent 99 Homes, Room, Love and Mercy being left out of the best feature and best director categories is an unfortunate oversight, though each picked up a single acting nomination; about those single acting nominations, though, Jacob Tremblay belongs in the supporting actor category for his great work next to nominee Brie Larson in Room, and I would have liked to see Elizabeth Banks in supporting actress for Love and Mercy.

For the good, I was happy to see Michael Shannon recognized in supporting actor for 99 Homes, and the best international film list includes two of my favorite films this year, Mustang and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Spotlight deservedly will receive the Robert Altman Award, given to the best ensemble cast of the year, an inarguable distinction for a film built on the strengths of its remarkable actors.

Overall, it is an exciting and eclectic list that reflects the best intentions of the nominating organization. Per tradition, the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony will take place the night before the Oscars, Feb. 27, 2016. Check out the full list of nominees here.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Carol: The predicament of looking

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett star in director Todd Haynes' sublime new romance Carol.

You see someone across the room, and you instantly feel a connection. You do not have the words to express what you feel, but you know you are changed by this moment. Your image of this person is filtered through your past, your present, your vision of the future, your expectations of this person, and the other thousand things that can come between the two of you. You must fight through all these filters until you are face to face with this other person, and only then can you truly connect.

So goes the love story at the center of director Todd Haynes sumptuous new film Carol. The film stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, two women who fall in love but whose romance is complicated by the prevailing social norms of the early 1950s. Haynes was in attendance Wednesday night at the Lincoln Center in New York City for a screening of Carol and an extended conversation to kick off the Film Society’s retrospective “Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams.”

Dennis Lim and Haynes at the Lincoln Center.
The series, which runs through Nov. 29, will feature all of Hayne’s feature films, several of his shorts, and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Each screening will be paired with a film hand-picked by Haynes and cited as either a direct or indirect influence on the filmmaker’s work, and Haynes will be on hand to introduce and discuss several of the films.

With its post-World War II setting and gay love story, Carol is sure to remind viewers of Haynes’ earlier film Far from Heaven, but while the two share certain similarities, Carol is much grittier and more intensely focused. Rather than try to encompass the malaise of an entire generation as he did in that previous work, Haynes narrows his focus to the specific experiences of Carol and Therese. The script, written by Phyllis Nagy and based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, makes us a part of this world and shows us life from the perspective of two stoic but vulnerable women.

“For me, it was an opportunity to explore the love story in a way that I felt like I really hadn’t done in movies,” said Haynes. “On the one hand, it made me think of how I felt when I was in Therese’s shoes, as many of us have all been, falling in love, maybe when we’re much younger, maybe not, where you feel completely like you are inventing a language, like no one has ever experienced this before, like you’re completely at the mercy of the power of the person who you’re obsessed over and reading the signs and indicators of how they feel about you.

“But what’s interesting about this is it’s both universal, and it’s intensely historically specific because that’s really true about lesbian representation at this time, even more than gay male representation. So it has both very specific historical relevance and accuracy, but it also speaks to a feeling that we’ve all had when we don’t have that historical specificity to support it.”

Therese is a Manhattan shopgirl who first meets Carol when the older woman is picking out a doll to give to her young daughter for Christmas. Therese is instantly struck by this woman but has no frame of reference for her feelings. Haynes pointed out that in the novel, Therese says she would “call it love, except Carol is a woman.” It is this discrepancy between raw emotion and social convention that drives the narrative, and Haynes and his two lead actresses play off this cognitive dissonance wonderfully.

In a way, both women are forced to fight who they are. For her part, Therese barely understands this strange new experience of falling for a woman and tries to rationalize her actions to her friends and ersatz partner Richard. While Carol has carried on relationships with women before, she is in the midst of a messy divorce and still must learn to navigate the murky waters of female sexuality – let alone female homosexuality – at a time when women who stepped outside the norm were perceived as mentally unbalanced.

Blanchett and Mara are perfectly keyed in to this struggle, and though about half the movie depicts each character’s separate life, the central romance is so engrossing that everything else seems to fall away – as it would for two new lovers. Carol’s seduction of Therese is quick but not easy and takes place in a series of exchanges full of silence and anxiety, which Haynes took from the novel but did not find in the first draft of the script he read.

“I felt when I first read [Nagy’s] first draft that there was something – and she immediately agreed with me when I talked to her about it – that had been defanged in her treatment of the novel,” said Haynes. “The novel has such great disquiet and anxiety between the two women, and in the script, the first draft I read, there was a kind of congeniality between them right away. It felt like this has been adjusted for financiers. This had been eased along the long, arduous process of trying to get it made, and when I talked to Phyllis about that tension and that disquiet, she was like, ‘Yes! Great! Let’s get that back in the script.’”

Haynes’ instinct was correct, and the heavy silences, during which neither Therese nor Carol knows what to make of the other, are among the best moments in the film. In these seemingly blank spaces, Blanchett and Mara are tasked with conveying a range of complex emotions with a single glance or furrowed brow, and Haynes was quick to point out the actresses’ contribution to the success of the film.

Lim and Haynes speak after a screening of Carol.
“It is all in those silences and the lack of dialogue and the gestures,” said Haynes. “Some of those moments are very clearly marked and described in the script, but it’s also I think that really great performances like Rooney’s, which sort of conducts the way we look at both her face reading Carol and what she’s seeing in Carol, it’s so cognizant of the proportions of film as a medium and how much trust it gives to the viewer to invite interpretation and that if she did any more, it would be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ It’s indicating too much. It’s telling too much. If she did any less, it would feel maybe vacant or unengaging or uninteresting, and it’s just walking that really delicate line.”

The director had similar praise for Blanchett, particularly with regard to her awareness of the camera and its meaning. At different points through the film, Blanchett must keep track of where her character is both emotionally and in relation to how Therese feels about her. She must project her true self and the image of herself that Therese is seeing at various moments in the story. Blanchett, who was instrumental in getting the film made in the first place, has a facility for this kind of nuanced character acting that is simply stunning to watch.

“The amazing thing about this performance of Cate’s is that Cate is aware of her proximity to the viewer so acutely and basically has to depict the image of Carol through the eyes of Therese and then various shades of a closer proximity to the real, complicated, and often ambivalent woman behind that image,” said Haynes. “If she wasn’t aware of that and almost always aware of where the camera is and what it’s doing when it’s photographing her – whose point of view it’s assuming at different times in the movie – the language of the movie wouldn’t work.”

The language of the film is its imagery as we almost always view these characters through windows or mirrors or curtains or some combination of factors. The visual narrative then becomes the stripping away of these filters standing between Carol and Therese but also between the audience and the characters.

“The interest in filtering and creating barriers between us and the objects we’re looking at just reveals the predicament of looking and maybe at some level stokes desire because when there’s something in the way, you want to get around it, and you’re aware of the act that you are looking,” said Haynes. “When there’s nothing in the way, you don’t even have to think about looking as a predicament, but this continually puts something between us, so it is filtering. Cate and Rooney also participated in that visual language. Just as the way I was describing Cate’s sensitivity toward where the camera was and how she was being depicted through these filters, that visual language was a starting point for everybody involved.”

Haynes skillfully holds the viewer at a distance throughout the film, mirroring for us the experience Therese has with Carol, until finally there are no more barriers to overcome, no more filters to remove. It is at this moment for the characters and the audience that everything becomes clear, and once it is, we are truly able to connect.

Lovers and Lollipops

Haynes chose to pair Carol with Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s 1956 romantic comedy Lovers and Lollipops, which follows the story of a single mother introducing her 7-year-old daughter to her new boyfriend. The film is a funny, honest snapshot of its time and place and captures a version of New York City that heavily influenced Haynes’ portrayal of the city in Carol.

Lovers and Lollipops
Lovers and Lollipops was a discovery because I didn’t know about it, and I was really interested in evoking natural light and natural settings in New York City at this time, but I wasn’t finding great examples of that from Hollywood at the period,” said Haynes. “Well, Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel were partners, as I mentioned earlier, and they made these films together, and Lovers and Lollipops, unlike Little Fugitive, which is about a little boy who runs off to Coney Island for the day, this one really took place in a lot of the locations that are relevant to Carol, including a scene in Macy’s toy floor.

“Macy’s in Lovers and Lollipops is like a disaster area. There’s trash on the floor and kids rolling around and tired shopwomen and pegboard walls, and [production designer] Judy Becker and I were like, ‘Pegboard, yes! We’re going to put pegboard all over Carol.’ People are always saying, ‘Carol is such a stylish-looking film,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ It’s dingy and distressed, and I love that about it. I mean Carol is stylish, and the clothes are great looking because people dressed that way in the ’50s, but I love the distress of it.”

In addition to the photography, Lovers and Lollipops was a tremendous influence on the depiction of Carol and Therese as women of the period, and Haynes said Blanchett and Mara took great inspiration from Lori March’s central performance.

“The woman represents a kind of lost example of femininity that you don’t see in actresses from the period and we haven’t seen since – maybe you see glimmers of it in your grandmothers – and it’s a kind of poised, slightly mannered version of a woman that is just kind of a lost iconography,” said Haynes. “It was just so interesting to both Cate and Rooney in looking at how to build these characters, who are both very different kinds of women in Carol, but this central character in Lovers and Lollipops was instrumental in that development for both actresses.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Won’t back down: Reproduction and rebellion in Mustang

Left to right, Mustang director Deniz Gamze Erguven and stars Gunes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, and Elit Iscan speak at the Lincoln Center.

One of the things you learn early on when studying social sciences at the university level is not to view other cultures through your own lens. It is an important lesson because it is a natural response to see another culture and judge its virtue or villainy based on the practices we preach. Eating dog meat, for instance, may be repellent to many of us, but that is a lens issue. It is important to view actions through the lens of others, and the more lenses you are able to look through, the clearer the cultural tapestry of our world becomes.

That said, there are inherent wrongs in this world. You do not need to look too hard to find places where the mask of “culture” is used to justify murder, oppression, and injustice. No matter what lens you view these acts through, the image is one of tyranny and evil. Among the most common and least comprehensible forms of this is the subjugation of women. In nearly every part of the world, including the U.S., women face discrimination and repression for the simple fact of being women.

With the idea of bringing this injustice to the fore, first-time feature writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven delivers us Mustang, a genre-bending tale of female oppression in modern Turkey. It is a powerful story of how small transgressions against human rights lead to greater violations and how entire societies contribute to and reinforce the problem.

Doguslu, Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, and Ilayda Akdogan at the Lincoln Center.
On Monday, Ergüven and the film’s cast – Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, and Ilayda Akdogan – were in New York for a sneak preview of the film and post-screening discussion. Ergüven spoke at length about her filmmaking influences, putting together the fabulous ensemble, and the importance of speaking out against oppression.

“There was an urgent need and drive to tell what it is to be a woman, focusing on something even more specific – what it is to be a woman in Turkey,” said Ergüven. “One thing about living in a patriarchal society is it’s so part of the setting that most people will not even start questioning it, and they will reproduce it. Like the woman in the film, the grandmother, reproduces what social pressure tells her to reproduce. So even the starting point of saying, ‘Let’s discuss this,’ is already something to step forward.”

The film follows five sisters living with their grandmother and uncle in a small village in Turkey. After the girls create a scandal in the village – in an incident taken directly from Ergüven’s life – the uncle and grandmother begin the process of breaking these five girls – hence, the film’s title. It starts out small with lessons in cooking and sewing, turning the home into a “wife factory,” according to the youngest sister, Lale (Sensoy), who narrates. Soon, however, the factory becomes a prison as bars go up over the windows and the locks are changed on the doors.

Of course, the girls rebel, fighting back against their lessons and sneaking out at every opportunity. Their greatest infraction is to attend a soccer game, and the resulting punishment changes the course of all their lives. One by one, the girls are promised and married off, leading to a final showdown between the prisoners and their captors. The last 20 minutes of the film constitute a glorious payoff to everything that has come before, and though I will not reveal the story points here, I will say the direction, cinematography, editing, and acting in the sequence all come together to create one of the most stirring climaxes you will see this year.

The chemistry among the five actresses on screen and off is a sight to behold. Their bond seems so unbreakable that even as events conspire against them, we in the audience secretly believe there is nothing that will tear them apart. The film, co-written by French filmmaker Alice Winocour, has no such sentimentality, and there is a moment midway through when the girls huddle together and Lale tells us in voiceover this is the last time they will all be together. Such is the performance of the actors as a group that your heart breaks at this news. The effect works because of the great performances Ergüven gets out of these mostly first-time actors.

The sisters come together in Mustang.
“It was impossible to give any parts to anyone until we had the five,” said Ergüven. “It was always one body with five heads from the script on. Five girls who don’t have their parents, who find everything they need emotionally among each other. It was always thinking about the level of intimacy they have. … It had to be perfect. One day, we gathered these five, and it was a magic moment, actually. It clicked.”

If the story of a group of sisters fighting back against the roles society has predetermined for them reminds you perhaps of The Virgin Suicides, rest assured, Ergüven has been made aware of the similarities. In fact, she said she has been asked the question hundreds of times while doing press for Mustang, including by one audience member Monday night. While there are shades of writer-director Sofia Coppola’s 1999 drama, Ergüven’s influences are much more wide ranging and surprising than you might think.

“The closest script in terms of structure is Escape from Alcatraz, really … but of course, the context is completely different,” said Ergüven, who also drew from classic and modern westerns for the look and feel of the film, even cribbing a couple tracks from the original score of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Warren Ellis, who composed the music for that film with Nick Cave, also composed the haunting soundtrack for Mustang. The film also contains visual references to Ingmar Bergman, most notably Persona.

The script’s tone reflects these myriad genre influences and finds a sweet spot between black comedy and chamber drama. The sisters laugh and play and make the best they can of their situation, but the dire nature of their circumstances is never out of mind for long. Around every corner is another lock, another set of bars, and another reminder of their position in the household and the world.

“The place of women is very central in the debates on society and about this government [in Turkey], which is extremely conservative, which has an idea of what we should be living according to the place, a very specific place women should have, and they’re very vocal, so they speak everyday about what you should do or not,” said Ergüven. “Like, you should have three or four children. It was three. Now, it’s four. You should not laugh in public places. They micromanage every little thing. Like, they say girls and boys shouldn’t be roommates if they’re students. It’s like not only having a person who is holding your throat but who also is whispering something in your ear.”

It is this two-pronged attack that makes the reality of such oppression so insidious. In Mustang, the girls’ uncle holds them by the throat as their grandmother whispers platitudes about culture and respect. In the film’s most disturbing scene, one of the girls is set to be married off after being sexually assaulted, and the grandmother tells her it will be okay as her own wedding was one of “special circumstances” – special circumstances in this case meaning rape. As Ergüven said, she reproduces what social pressure tells her to reproduce, and here, she reproduces an affront to human decency.

Mustang is a powerful document of what happens when we allow cultural norms to dictate our actions without questioning the origins or motives of those norms. More than likely, these traditions are in place to keep powerful people in power and keep all others quiet. As such, Mustang is a defiant shout and a brash, bold takedown of a system that should require no lens to see its evil.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bum rush the show: Spike Lee finally gets his Oscar

Spike Lee accepts his Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

By my estimation, Spike Lee should have three Oscars, maybe four. In reality, he has been nominated only twice and won neither time. It is a game people who follow the Academy Awards play to determine filmmakers most overdue for recognition. Martin Scorsese was at the top of the list for a long time until he won Best Director in 2006 for The Departed. Now, you will hear names such as David Fincher, David O. Russell, and Christopher Nolan, but rarely will you hear Lee. Well, it may not be competitive, but Lee has got his Oscar, and at least from this writer’s perspective, it has been a long time coming.

On Saturday night, Lee, Gena Rowlands, and Debbie Reynolds were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the annual Governors Awards, the Academy’s lifetime achievement honors. Reynolds received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her tireless charity work throughout the years, while Rowlands and Lee each received an honorary Oscar statuette for their contributions to the medium.

Each is highly deserving of the honor, but I want to focus on Lee here. Rowlands and Reynolds are accomplished performers in their 80s. It seems about time for them to be snatching up career achievement awards. Lee is not yet 60. He is still churning out films – some great, some less so, but all bearing the mark of an auteur. So, it may seem curious to bestow a career honor on someone in the middle of his career.

In January, the 2014 Academy Awards nominations famously spawned the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag for the failure to nominate a single black performer, writer, or director and the general whiteness of the nominees on the whole. Since then, under the guidance of President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy has taken steps to address its own lack of diversity, as well as the lack of diversity in the industry overall. At Saturday’s ceremony, Isaacs introduced the A2020 program, aimed at improving diversity of race, gender, age, class, etc., in Hollywood.

Never one to mince words or miss an opportunity to stir the pot, Lee had some strong words for the Hollywood establishment to close his acceptance speech. While the majority of Lee’s lengthy 18-minute address told the story of his discovery of filmmaking, the final two minutes were directed pointedly at a room of mostly white, mostly wealthy Academy members and supporters. Lee did not pull his punches, and for those of us similarly concerned with issues of diversity and representation, he did not disappoint.

“I want to commend the president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, because she is trying to do something that needs to be done,” said Lee. “I don’t know if you noticed, but the United States Census Bureau says that by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be a minority in this country. And, for all the people out there who are in a position of hiring, you better get smart because your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.

“I’m going to get real here. Everybody in here probably voted for Obama, but when I go to offices, I don’t see no black folks. Instead, brother-man is a security guard who checks my name off the list as I go into the studio. So, we can talk – ‘Yabba, yabba, yabba’ – but we need to have some serious discussions about diversity and get some flavor up in this. This industry is so behind sports it’s ridiculous. It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of the studio … or head of a network.”

The message was strong, smart, and necessary for an industry that risks falling behind the rest of the world. The people we see on screen should reflect the people we see in our lives. Hollywood has an opportunity and an obligation to be inclusive, but if it shirks that responsibility, it will be Hollywood that ultimately is left out in the cold.

Watch Lee’s full acceptance speech below:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New movie review: Room

Brie Larson stars as Joy in director Lenny Abrahamson's daring, excellent Room.

It is hard for us to see as a victim sees. We have trouble putting ourselves in the mind of someone who has experienced great trauma, and it is as much a protective measure as it is a flaw in our ability to empathize. To understand pain is to feel it, and in a culture that spends a great deal of money, time, and effort looking for ways to numb itself, the last thing we are likely to seek out is pain.

Movies are especially bad at conveying meaningful suffering because cinema is a medium of action, and the word “victim” itself implies passivity. A victim is one to whom something happens, so films that otherwise would focus on victims instead search for other stories to tell. For instance, movies about kidnappings are almost always about the kidnapper, the cops, or the families and never about the experience of the one who has been kidnapped.

If Lenny Abrahamson’s stellar Room is any indication, Hollywood has been missing out. Emma Donoghue adapts her own novel to tell the harrowing story of a woman and her son held captive for seven years in a single room and the lengths to which she goes to protect him from the horror of their situation. The film is a penetrating investigation into despair, suffering, and ultimately hope.

Brie Larson is Joy, abducted at 17, and Jacob Tremblay is the 5-year-old Jack, who was born into this life. The first half of the film is essentially a two-hander between these two actors, and both deliver transcendent performances. Larson’s career to this point has been defined somewhat by small parts in good films and big parts and great performances in films of lesser quality. Here, she finally gets a showcase worthy of her talents, and she more than rises to the challenge.

Joy is a woman forced to grow up under the direst circumstances – imprisoned, subjected to repeated sexual assaults, and cut off entirely from the outside world. She is clearly strong, but something inside her has been broken by the experience. However, in her son and her desire to shield him from the realities of their life, she finds a reason to carry on. She creates a world inside the room for the two of them, and in this imaginary world, Jack finds stability, comfort, and something resembling happiness. These feelings, however, are as imaginary as the world Joy creates, and she knows it, so she resolves to break them out.

The film’s centerpiece is the escape sequence, and it is among the most thrilling and emotionally draining scenes you will see this year. It plays like a prison break, but the stakes are infinitely higher because we have grown to care so much about these characters through the first hour of the film. We desperately want them to succeed because the fundamental nature of their situation offends our sense of justice. They do not belong in this place. The room is an inherent wrong, and the world is a worse place for its existence.

Abrahamson, who directed last year’s excellent, though wildly different, Frank, expertly manipulates our sense of time throughout the escape. Though it may take up only five minutes or so in real time, the soundscape, camera angles, and editing extend the characters’ agony – and by extension, ours – into a white-knuckle experience that seems to last forever. Until the escape attempt, the audience has been stuck inside the room with Joy and Jack, so our first venture into the outside world is as disorienting as theirs.

Jacob Tremblay in Room.
Even inside the room, Abrahamson is able to find clever angles and camera moves that ensure the film is as visually interesting as it is emotionally hard-hitting. By choosing to shoot the majority of the action from Jack’s point of view, Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen offer the audience a perspective often imitated but rarely captured in cinema – the world through the eyes of a child.

Because Jack has been spared the worst of the emotional toll of the room, he is mostly free to view life as a wondrous range of new experiences, and Tremblay is startlingly good at conveying this. If Larson’s Joy represents the broken pieces of a shattered world, then Tremblay as Jack is what the world looks like when all the pieces come together again – the fun, the innocence, the fear, and the hope for a better future. He is all of this wrapped in one, and Tremblay communicates this at times with little more than a smile or a small gesture of openness. It is a glorious thing to watch.

From a storytelling standpoint, the filmmakers, in particular Abrahamson and Donoghue, make the right decision to approach the story from Jack’s point of view. A film told from Joy’s point of view would be almost too excruciating to watch. Room does not rub our noses in suffering or toss us headlong into a pit of despair, but it does not look away. Most of us will never know the traumas of Joy and Jack – though their story is quite real for untold millions the world over – but Room brings us painfully and terrifyingly close to the edge.

See it? Yes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New movie review: Spotlight

The team comes together in writer-director Tom McCarthy's masterful Spotlight.

Spotlight is an American masterpiece. As a journalist, the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team uncovering the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal fills me with pride. As a human, however, it fills me with shame and disgust. This is among the darkest chapters in our shared cultural history, and it is ongoing. Every day in every part of the world, new victims come forward, and we are confronted with the painful reality of a system and a society that has allowed this to continue.

The concerted effort to protect pedophile priests in the Catholic Church has been described as a conspiracy of silence, but few can agree on the members of the conspiracy. The church wants the public to believe this is the work of “a few bad apples,” a phrase repeated throughout the film. The evidence suggests the entire church is corrupt all the way to the top. Common sense, however, tells us systems take their power from people – in this case, the parishioners.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one,” says Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the lawyer for the victims. Like that, we are all implicated. Even the venerable Globe is not without blood on its hands as we learn the paper had the all the pieces needed to break the story years before the Spotlight team but refused to put them together. No one wants to acknowledge the abuse because to do so is to recognize a fundamental flaw in ourselves. Knowing everything, we still did nothing.

It is a common trick in movies like this to use one or two people to represent large numbers of victims – the old adage, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic,” comes to mind. Writer-director Tom McCarthy thankfully avoids this trap, and we watch the team interview survivor after survivor after survivor, establishing both the pattern and scope of the abuse. They are not just numbers. They are real people with families and friends and lives. They feel regret and shame and anger, and we in the audience feel anger for them as we come to know each and every one of them personally.

In an early sequence, expertly assembled by editor Tom McArdle, the film cuts back and forth between interviews with two victims. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) speaks with a middle-aged gay man about his abuse at the hands of a priest who earned his trust little by little before exploiting it. At the same time, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) hears the story of a younger, married working-class man and the priest who abused him in the wake of his father’s death.

These two men could not be more different, but their stories are distressingly similar, to the point where one wonders if a priest’s copy of the catechism comes with a handbook for abuse. We meet more survivors, whose experiences differ in the details but the cumulative effect of which leads us to only one conclusion. The church’s abuse robbed these people of their innocence, their trust, and their faith in god, and the hypocrisy at the center of it all is a legal and moral wrong that went willfully unchecked for too long.

If this all sounds like a tragically bleak tale, it is, but under the masterful direction of McCarthy, working from a script he co-wrote with Josh Singer, it never feels like a slog. Quite the contrary. Spotlight is a riveting legal thriller and excellent journalistic drama on par with the classic All the President’s Men. The film plays off the audience’s own sense of right and wrong, and though we know the abuse will be brought to light, we sit glued to our seats, breathlessly anticipating the moment when the Globe fires the first shot to bring down this system.

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight.
So few films understand the mechanics of journalism, and even fewer seem to try. Spotlight, for which McCarthy collaborated closely with the staff of the Globe, gets it. This film knows what it is like to pore over the stacks in search of one piece of information. This film knows what it is like to go door to door with a pad and pencil in your hands, seeking answers from people who do not want to talk to you. This film also knows an editor will get annoyed if you use “golf” as a verb. The Globe in this movie has the feel of a real newsroom, and it is refreshing to see that feeling accurately depicted on screen.

Moreover, the cast, which also worked closely with those being portrayed, feels like a news team. In these people, I recognize the personalities and professionals I have worked with throughout my career. Ruffalo nails the style of a hard-nosed reporter who puts the story above all else. Michael Keaton is perfect as Spotlight Editor Robby Robinson, who must at all times keep the bigger picture in focus. John Slattery is great as Globe Editor Ben Bradlee Jr., who knows how important it is to check every fact and cover every base. McAdams, Tucci, Liev Schrieber, and Brian D’Arcy James are all excellent, as well. This cast is perhaps the best evidence yet for the need of an ensemble award at the Oscars.

They are helped by a tremendous screenplay that seems to understand how each of these characters would speak. McCarthy and Singer shift seamlessly from the heightened, condescending manner of the clergy to the workingman vernacular of many of the victims, hitting every other level in between. Compare that to something like an Aaron Sorkin script, in which every character sounds as witty and didactic as Sorkin, and you understand how rare it is to see real people interact how they might in life.

The film’s facility with language and understanding of human connection should be no surprise, though, coming as it does from McCarthy, whose filmography is full of compassionate, lonely people trying to find their way in life. McCarthy is the same writer-director who brought us the excellent trio of independent films The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. Even his most recent effort, the critically derided The Cobbler, displays the same care for building character and motivation McCarthy has always shown.

McCarthy is perhaps best recognized as an actor in films such as Meet the Parents, Syriana, and Good Night and Good Luck or television shows such as The Wire and Boston Public. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing Pixar’s magnificent Up. His directorial efforts, however, have rarely garnered much attention, despite being generally well liked. Spotlight could change all that. McCarthy has deserved larger recognition for his work behind the camera for years, and this should be movie that brings it to him.

While Spotlight is a quintessentially American film, its story is global as we are reminded at the end by a series of title cards listing the cities all over the world in which major sex abuse scandals have been uncovered. One is too many. That the final list names too many cities to count is disgraceful. Against this international backdrop, the Globe’s victory in highlighting abuse in Boston parishes may seem small, but its larger triumph is to force us to see what we would rather not. Knowing what we know now, we can never look away again, and it is incumbent upon us to pick up a torch, shine a light, and guide the way to providence.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

New movie review: Bridge of Spies

Tom Hanks stars in Steven Spielberg's excellent Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies.

“We all want it to have that Barton Fink feeling, and I guess we all have that Barton Fink feeling, but since you’re Barton Fink, I’m assuming you have it in spades.”
– Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) in Barton Fink

No one can make a movie like Steven Spielberg. There is a whole generation of filmmakers inspired by Spielberg that is making movies now and trying to capture that particular brand of magic. JJ Abrams immediately springs to mind, but only Spielberg feels like Spielberg. It is that feeling you are watching something that exists outside of time, a classical work of art that could be appreciated as well now as 40 years ago or 40 years hence. When the lights go down and the first frames of the movie flash by, it is transformative. It is transporting. It is Spielberg.

Right away, Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies has that feeling, up to and including leading man Tom Hanks in his fourth appearance in front of the camera for Spielberg. I do not like to say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” because it is a cliché and it is rarely true, but it is has been a long time since we saw something this Capra-esque at the theater. The little guy earnestly fighting a corrupt system with the power of good and right just does not have much place at the movies anymore, except in a Spielberg movie.

Mark Rylance and Hanks in Bridge of Spies.
The director has rightly taken knocks throughout his career for a sentimental streak that sometimes borders on maudlin. There are elements of that tendency in the family sequences here, which are the weakest part of the film but take up such little screen time it hardly matters. The meat of the story involves a man who has dedicated his life to learning the letter of the law so he can inspire others by protecting the spirit of the law.

Hanks plays James Donovan, a Brooklyn attorney tasked by the government with providing the semblance of legal defense for a suspected Soviet spy. The trial is a sham, however, and Donovan’s client, Rudolf Abel, is railroaded through the system toward a quick guilty verdict despite shoddy police work and a failure to adhere to basic legal principles. This does not sit right with Donovan, who refuses to betray his ethics and instead vows to fight for the due process rights of the most hated man in America. This makes Donovan the second-most hated man in America.

The film makes clear in its first scene – an excellent film noir-style chase through the streets of New York City – Abel is guilty. There is no question of this, but it is the legal precedent that concerns Donovan. He takes the case to the highest court in the land and asks quite rightly how we can claim American exceptionalism while denying the very freedoms and rights on which that exceptionalism is founded. He loses anyway.

In one of the best edits you are likely to see this year, as Donovan is pleading his case in a lower court, Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn cut to Donovan’s children in class, holding their hands over their hearts and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It is a brilliant bit of symbolism as the children robotically spout learned, practiced words about “liberty and justice for all,” while Donovan puts his life and reputation on the line to defend the meaning behind those words.

In any other movie, this would be the bulk of the story, but in Bridge of Spies, this actually is only the first act. The screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, who gave us that Barton Fink quote above, and Matt Charman spends the last two-thirds of the movie on Donovan’s attempt to negotiate a prisoner exchange among the U.S., Soviet Union, and East Germany. If you know the history on which the movie is based, you know what happens to Donovan, Abel, and downed American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, developments I will not spoil here. The joy, as ever, is in watching Spielberg recreate history.

Spielberg is well known by now for his massive historical set pieces such as the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in Schindler’s List and the storming of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. There is nothing in Bridge of Spies that quite rivals those masterful sequences – really, there is little in cinema history to rival those two scenes – but Spielberg is allowed to indulge this aspect of his filmmaking in depicting the building of the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall goes up in Bridge of Spies.
The Wall is such an icon of modern global history that to watch it go up brick by brick is an unsettling experience. In the nearly 30 years since it came down, it has attained a certain mythical quality in its legacy of oppression, separatism, and turmoil, but in reality, it is a mostly stone wall constructed hastily out of fear and anger. It is another wonderful bit of symbolism, showing the divide between East and West is a simple construct that can be put up and torn down as easily as a wall if we choose to work at it as Donovan does.

On a technical level, all of the scenes set in Berlin are simply gorgeous. Production designer Adam Stockhausen perfectly evokes the feel of a post-war city that is still crumbling, while cinematographer and longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski captures the desolation and despair of the landscape. It is a fully lived-in world and one in which no right-thinking person would want to live.

If Spielberg is channeling Capra, then Hanks has conjured the spirit of Capra’s favorite everyman, Jimmy Stewart. Hanks portrays Donovan with an awe-shucks charm that belies a razor-sharp wit, brilliant legal mind, and cunning political savvy. He is like Andy Taylor, Atticus Finch, and Jefferson Smith all rolled into one. He is the man you do not see coming, which makes him dangerous. It is the kind of role Hanks was born to play, and he knocks it out of the park as you would expect.

More likely for American audiences, the revelation will be Mark Rylance as Abel. Rylance is a highly respected, award-winning stage actor who has appeared in a handful of feature films, but his wry line deliveries and world-weary presence absolutely steal the movie. Rylance acts the part of the perfect spy, who cannot be rattled by threats of torture imprisonment, or death. Every time Donovan asks him if he is scared or worried or nervous, Abel asks dryly, “Would it help?” This is a man who knows his lot in life, and Rylance captures that resignation beautifully.

Bridge of Spies may not knock your socks off right after you see it – it is not that kind of movie – but it will stick with you long after you leave the theater. It resonates because it is a simple story about mostly good people trying to do good deeds in a world in which the line between right and wrong has been blurred beyond recognition. It takes a lot of work to stay on the right side of the line, and if Bridge of Spies has a message, it is about the importance of that work.

See it? Yes.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Red light, (Project) Greenlight

Producer Effie Brown, writer-director Jason Mann, and actor Bruce Davison on the set of The Leisure Class.

We have seen it all now – or at least, everything they are going to show us. Season 4 of HBO’s Project Greenlight ended Sunday, and the film it produced, The Leisure Class, debuted last night. If you are unfamiliar with the Matt Damon- and Ben Affleck-produced documentary series, it follows the journey of an untested director as he, always a “he” so far, attempts to make a film. This year’s “lucky” winner was Jason Mann, and for eight episodes this season, we watch as he navigates the world of Hollywood moviemaking.

Both as a film fan and an aspiring filmmaker, I find this show fascinating. It is a treat to step behind the curtain and really see the process of creating a movie. I think most of us are long past the stage where we imagine films or any other creative endeavor springing forth fully formed from the minds of brilliant artists. Like all other things in life, it is hard work, and it is likely we would all benefit from learning the hard work behind most people’s jobs. Honestly, for the impact they have on my life, I know next to nothing about the day-to-day lives of my grocer or postman.

Mann directs The Leisure Class for Project Greenlight.
This is about movies, though, and this season of Project Greenlight was an illuminating look at the gritty details of what makes movie magic work – or not work. In addition to Mann, the series stars producers Effie Brown and Marc Joubert, as well as co-writer and season 1 winner Pete Jones. Affleck, Damon, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, and HBO President Len Amato show up from time to time, but it is really about those four people.

The show has been in the news a bit during its run, primarily early on for some comments Damon made to Brown about diversity. Now that the show has ended, Brown has been the participant whose profile has risen the most, as opposed to the ostensible star of the show and director of the movie Mann. That heightened profile is hard won as Brown tries like hell to keep the whole enterprise from flying off the rails. Hers is a valiant effort, thwarted at almost every turn by Mann.

There is much agreement that money has been damaging to the art world and the film business in particular. No one is here to argue that point. The last thing we need is another superhero movie or big-budget shoot-’em-up or lowest-common-denominator comedy. When a genuinely talented writer, director, or producer shepherds something truly visionary to the screen, it is to be applauded.

After watching him on eight episodes of television and a feature film, it is apparent Mann is not one of those people. Throughout the series, Mann steadfastly refuses to put himself in a position to make a good film, and The Leisure Class turns out to be a bad, bad movie. He and Brown butt heads constantly over budget, shooting, and story issues, and the interesting thing is Mann almost always wins these battles.

He wants to shoot on film instead of digital. Brown tells him it will be too expensive, so he goes over her head and gets his way. He refuses to choose a location that does not match what he has in his head. He finally settles for a house he was shown early on but chooses so close to shooting it creates further problems. He claims he cannot shoot the script he is given, so he convinces HBO to let him make his own script. Time after time after time, he gets his way, and ultimately, this is the best thing that could have happened.

If he had relented in any of his battles or agreed to compromise his vision in some way, he could have claimed the end result was not his fault. As it is, he got everything he wanted and made a terrible movie. There is no one to blame but Mann. Though some viewers will disagree with this assessment, Brown did all she could to help Mann and prevent him from hurting himself, but at the end of the day, he could not collaborate. He was determined to live or die on his own. Creatively and artistically, he dies.

Ed Weeks and Tom Bell star in The Leisure Class.
At 86 minutes, The Leisure Class is either way too long or way too short. Perhaps its distressing lack of character development could have been addressed by giving the scenes room to breathe or providing some semblance of backstory. However, since the plot is utter nonsense to begin with, this film, adapted from a short Mann worked on, probably should have stayed a short. A group of talented, game actors, including Tom Bell, Ed Weeks, Bruce Davison, and Bridget Regan, is stranded by an underdeveloped script and amateur direction.

Cinema fans like you and I, we want to root for art and artists. It is our natural inclination to cheer on Mann as he fights the good fight against corporate giants (HBO) and their moneymen (Brown and Joubert). It can be painful, then, to realize: Sometimes the giants and their moneymen are right. No one gets into the film business because they want to make bad movies, though Mann seems suspect of any non-artist. These are people with experience, talent, and knowledge, particularly Brown and Joubert, and Mann willfully ignores them to put out the worst possible product. It would be wrong to cheer on such hubris.

The final episode contains two quotes that sum up what went wrong with The Leisure Class. As Mann is being given final edit notes by Amato, he says in a talking-head interview: “I would love it if I could make movies in the future where I don’t have to debate the logic of my opinion on how something should be. Ultimately, it should be kind of a personal art form.” This is perfectly in keeping with the Mann we have seen through Project Greenlight.

Amato, without meaning to, provides the rejoinder to Mann’s sentiment, saying in his own interview: “Jason’s not as open as he should be to different input from different people. If you try to do everything yourself and you’re not getting the input of all the other artists and craftspeople around you, you’re not really making as good of a film as you can make. That’s the lesson he hasn’t been able to learn yet.”

Ours is a culture that lionizes lone wolves and mavericks. We abhor group think and committee decision-making. This is what makes someone like Steve Jobs so popular. In reality, the genius of individuals is at best a myth. In filmmaking, especially, collaboration is essential. Through the failure of The Leisure Class and the success of Project Greenlight, this lesson is spelled out, for Mann’s benefit, in both celluloid and digital.