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Friday
Jan222016

Mojave (2015)

Scorched Dearth

In While We're Young, Ben Stiller's character spends a decade working on a documentary he never finishes. Mojave reminds me of that documentary. Writer/director William Monahan's tortured-artist drama is a patchwork of moods, themes, genres, and styles guaranteed to turn the mildly curious into saucer-eyed rubberneckers. Unlike most disappointing films that contain moments of greatness, I'm doubt any one of the film's threads could have been spun into something better. Perhaps Monahan did us a favor by confining his wild, half-baked concepts to a single movie.

Mojave is weird, but never boring. Monahan blends The End of the Tour with The Hitcher, pitting an actor who looks like Heath Ledger's ghost against an actor doing an integrity-infused impression of Adam Sandler's character from The Ridiculous Six. And I can't be sure, but I may have watched a corrupted version of the movie: Mark Wahlberg doesn't really appear as a coked-up movie producer, does he? That's not really Walton Goggins playing his beleaguered attorney, is it?

More on that later.

Garrett Hedlund stars as Thomas, a hot, young director who just can't handle the millions, the French mistress, and the artistic freedom. Indeed, he opens the film by asking, "When you get what you want, what do you want?" Thomas seeks answers in the Mojave Desert. After wrecking his producing partner's jeep, he wanders as far into nowhere as possible before encountering Jack (Oscar Isaac), an odd drifter who apparently never returned his 1920s hobo costume after Halloween. The guys suss each other out over a campfire, both very conscious of Jack's rifle and the seven X's carved into its stock.

Jack is crazy, of course. He mumbles about the government and the Devil, and punctuates nearly every sentence with "brother". A struggle ensues, Thomas escapes, and another event propels him back into his version of regular life. Unfortunately, Jack follows him out of the desert and begins making vague power-plays involving Thomas' mistress, Milly (Louise Bourgoin), and his business partner, Norman (Wahlberg).

Mojave works best when Hedlund and Isaac sit across from each other, spouting philosophy and creating truly bizarre characters. I often found it difficult to figure out who was supposed to be who's id: it seems obvious that Monahan wants us to see Jack as the personification of evil. He could also be God, slapping some sense into an extremely privileged, allegedly talented artist who can't be happy unless he's unhappy. On the other side of the table, Jack sees Thomas as everything he wants to be: recognized for his talent and intellect, and accepted by other people. I'm not sure if there's a movie (or even a really short play) in these terrifically acted scenes, but the material and the performances offer stability in the face of Mojave's shaky vision and shifting-plates narrative.

Why is Wahlberg in this movie? I don't recall him having a single scene with Hedlund (their characters interact exclusively over the phone). Norman's only function is to break up the stalker drama with "funny" interstitials where he yells at underlings and whines about Chinese food and blowjobs. His character (and Goggins', too) could have been replaced by some quick expositional dialogue during the film's climax.

Monahan wrote the 2014 remake of The Gambler, in which Wahlberg starred, so maybe that's the connection. Also of note is that Hedlund and Isaac appeared together briefly in Inside Llewyn Davis. I don't know what, if anything, these bits of trivia have to do with the actual making of Mojave, but the movie definitely has the feeling of favors being called in on camera, and then being spliced together into a psychological thriller. Or a dark Hollywood comedy. Or something.

Wednesday
Jan202016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Freedom of Information

Here's why I'm supposed to hate 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi:

1. Michael Bay directed it, and Michael Bay only makes crypto-racist, crypto-misogynist, jingoistic war porn for uncritical idiots.

2. You can tell by the release date (and the director) that 13 Hours is a poorly made quasi-political jab at a Presidential candidate whose involvement in the Battle of Benghazi has been thoroughly settled in the public consciousness. Bay and writer Chuck Hogan (working from Mitchell Zuckoff's book) are only interested in touting debunked conspiracy theories. Had this film any merit, like the beloved Zero Dark Thirty, we would have seen it during Nominations Season--not the January dumping ground.

3. Like last year's American Sniper, everyone in the U.S. military is portrayed as white, ultra-macho animals who ain't got time to bleed--while the "enemy" are generic in their cowardice, dark skin, and thirst for American blood. As the filmmakers bleach the complexities of war to create a simplistic video game inhabited by "good guys" and "bad guys", human beings become unrecognizable chunks of battle ground fodder.

These would be valid reasons to avoid 13 Hours, if any of them were true.

Michael Bay's filmography is littered with all the offenses listed above, from the Transformers movies to Pain & Gain and beyond, but it's unwise to assume he's incapable of growth. This is the most mature Bay film I've seen, technically, narratively, and dramatically. Sure, there are a handful of minor details that detract from its overall quality, but if you'd told me 13 Hours was directed by someone eager to superimpose Bay's aesthetics onto a legit war movie, I would've totally bought it.

John Krasinski stars as Jack Silva, an ex-Navy SEAL who takes a private security job in Benghazi, Libya. Actually, it's a pseudo-private job: he and five other specialists have been brought in to guard a secret CIA outpost charged with, among other things, monitoring weapons trafficking after the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The region has splintered into factions of armed rivals, shaky alliances, and a general distrust of outsiders. The CIA needs the expertise of GRS (Global Response Staff) to protect its personnel, and the outpost's director (David Costabile) gives clear instructions not to engage anyone beyond their assigned duties.

Up the road from the compound is a makeshift American embassy, which Ambassador Chris Stevens occupies for a couple of days with his conspicuously small security detail. When dozens of locals raid the compound, one of Stevens' men calls for help. Silva and the unit's leader, Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), prepare reinforcements, but they're never given permission to act. Turns out one of the problems with being a super-secret arm of a secretive branch of the government is that official authorizations are hard to come by--especially in emergency situations. Woods and Silva break ranks and lead their men into danger, with the aim of escorting Stevens and company to safety, without giving away the compound's location.

Of course, everything goes south. What follows is a thirteen-hour seige spanning two poorly fortified facilities. The attacks come in waves, and Bay's triumph is making the audience feel a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the fatigue the GRS must have experienced. The movie is two-and-a-half-hours long, and by the time Woods and Silva abandon the embassy there's still at least an hour-and-a-half left to go. 13 Hours is like the climax of Scarface played on a Groundhog Day loop (minus the gratuitous bloodshed), with the Americans falling further and further back while losing hope that anyone will come for them. The GRS began the film as tired but jovial jobbers counting the days until they could cash their checks and see their families; by the end, they're exhausted, twitchy, and mindful of the fact that they never should have been there--much like their employer.

You've seen versions of this story before: the invading hordes, the confined spaces, the macho military dudes protecting civilians. But 13 Hours isn't an Aliens rip-off, or a Resident Evil clone. The soldiers aren't just a bunch of Dead Meats whose purpose is to go out on a heroic, "Hey, cool!" note. There aren't any dumb, rah-rah assholes in the group. These men are trained to think first and blow people up if they have to, and it's heartbreaking to see the disparity between them as imperfect fathers and expert killers.

Much of this rests on the actors' shoulders. Hogan's dialogue reveals the biggest cracks in Bay's shiny, new facade: the film does a better job of adding depth to the enemy fighters than the characters' tiresome use of the phrase "bad guys". I buy the lack of conversational nuance, as pertains to the reality of the story, but hearing that Fox News dog-whistle so frequently was a bit much to take. I could have done without the jokes, as well. Perhaps Hogan felt obligated to give the cast (half of whom come from television comedy) a buoy in 13 Hours' roiling sea of dramatic misery, but none of them needed to be saved. You'd never mistake Jack Silva for Jim from The Office, just as no one got distracted when Chris Pratt popped up as a SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty while still playing a fool on Parks and Recreation.

On the topic of Bay-isms, let's declare a moratorium on CGI tracking shots of bombs zeroing in on their targets. And did every historical battle really feature a cook taking up arms against marauding hordes?* I also found a lot of sketchy geography in the film, particularly during the later nighttime scenes, where everyone's covered in beards, blood, and soot. During one five-minute stretch in the middle, I literally thought part of the film had gone missing, thanks to the confusing cuts between constantly moving groups.

Let's talk politics for a second. Yes, one can detect a strong ideological undercurrent in 13 Hours, but it's not so much anti-government as anti-bureaucracy. People might assume that Hillary Clinton is the film's phantom menace, considering the controversy surrounding her Secretary of State role at the time. Clinton is never mentioned by name, and there is no blame placed at anyone's feet, specifically, for the lack of reinforcements in Benghazi (aside from the massive amounts of red tape that, by necessity, surrounds covert CIA bases).

Bay and Hogan's position, if it can be understood by watching their film, is that it takes a special breed of person to voluntarily fight, serve, and protect government interests, especially in Earth's most volatile regions. More to the point, it is the government's responsibility to honor that dedication and sacrifice by not involving soldiers in worthless conflicts (or, at the very, very least, ensuring that they have every available resource with which to do their jobs). Michael Moore made this point in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Where to Invade Next. Want to talk about watchdogs and warriors stranded in unwinnable situations thanks to an absentee government? Have a look at The Big Short and Sicario, two films whose political bona fides I don't recall being called into question.

Some people criticize 13 Hours as propaganda designed to reinforce the stunted beliefs of an already biased audience. The attack is itself propagandist in nature, implicitly aimed at keeping Left-leaning individuals from making up their own minds about a controversial piece of art. "Don't waste your time on this wing-nut nonsense," they say. The CIA has even denounced the film. Hey, if the world's number one spy outfit says there's nothing to see here...

See the movie or don't. And, sure, bring your baggage into the theatre. Just don't unpack it during the show. 

*If so, let's get them off the kitchen line and onto the front lines. They're pretty amazing.

Wednesday
Dec302015

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)

Intro to Book-Learnin'

In 1962, film-critic and up-and-coming Important French Director François Truffaut wrote a series of fan letters to Alfred Hitchcock. Flattered, The Master of Suspense agreed to a week-long interview on the Universal lot, which Truffaut later transcribed into the seminal movie-junky text, Hitchcock/Truffaut. Decades later, film critic-turned-filmmaker Kent Jones completed the circle with a documentary (named after the book) that takes us into a sparse room occupied by two legends and a translator (Helen Scott). The auteurs' conversation dives deep into Hitchcock's filmography and bursts with passionate insight into both creators' beloved (and, at the time, nascent) medium. Jones' slim documentary, however, boils down to a well-intentioned tease, a barely-feature-length trailer for what some industrious professor might one day turn into a life-changing college course.

I began Hitchcock/Truffaut in a state of panic. Full disclosure: I've only seen three films by Hitchcock (Psycho, of course, Vertigo, and Rear Window), and one by Truffaut (The 400 Blows). Fortunately, the part of me that felt unqualified to even watch the documentary lost out to the part that was just eager to see a new movie. Jones presents clips from several films, archival footage of his respective subjects, and the requisite talking-head directors paying homage to their visionary heroes--all woven together by Bob Balaban's cozy narration, which, frankly, calmed my nerves.

As a newcomer to both filmmakers, I'm not sure much new information and analysis Jones presents, and how much of Hitchcock/Truffaut is a summation of material that a) devotees would have already uncovered by now or b) would have been tackled in the source material. We get an overview of Hitchcock's entire career, but the meat of the documentary centers on relatively lengthy dissections of Psycho and Vertigo--solid dissections, to be sure, but I recall having learned much of the tidbits twenty years ago in a Film Studies class.*

Indeed, the material would have been better served as a multi-part PBS documentary exploring each creators' methods and filmography, one that used the titular book as a springboard to construct the narrative of how these individuals came together, what they meant to each other creatively, and why their meeting was such a noteworthy event. As it stands, the significance of Hitchcock's interviewer having been Truffaut is given short shrift, creating a frustrating imbalance in the presentation.

I'm reminded of Jodorowsky's Dune, another documentary about a film book (in this instance, a near-mythical art object/production bible for a doomed movie). Because Alejandro Jodorowsky is a relatively obscure filmmaker, director Frank Pavich had to grab his audience and sustain their attention. He accomplished this by mixing visual splendor with a tragicomic journey that resonates not only with people familiar with his subject, but for those whose only entry point is the uniquely human trait of unquenchable obsession.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is gray and academic, by comparison. Jones has made an effective advertisement for a book of film-buff-catnip interviews. But to my mind, a movie about movie titans should, itself, be moving.

*This is not a knock on Kent Jones, his collaborators, or the ideas themselves. Rather, it is a testament to the rich education I received from one Richard C. Jones, former instructor at Naperville North High School.

Friday
Dec252015

Concussion (2015)

Murkyball

Concussion is a metaphor in search of a movie. Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh-based Nigerian immigrant and forensic pathologist who helped identify chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)--a form of brain damage not exclusive to pro footballers, but which has, in recent years, been attributed to erratic behavior, murder, and suicide among players. When Omalu co-authored a medical-journal study in 2005, the NFL pitted its considerable resources (including the news media and the federal government) against him and the team he worked with. By all rights, Concussion should be the pigskin version of Michael Mann's Big Tobacco drama, The Insider. Unfortunately, writer/director Peter Landesman's pinballing narrative is as hard to follow as a conversation with a late-stage CTE sufferer.

It's fitting that Concussion is based on a magazine article. The best exposés weave storylines into a thesis, reinforcing powerful data with equally powerful drama. Jeanne Marie Laskas' 2009 GQ piece, "Game Brain" (Concussion's source material), works largely because the author's short-burst-paragraph style gets readers in and out in twenty minutes, with a clear idea of the cast, cover-up, and consequences. Landesman's attempts to replicate this on film come off as unfocused rambling, especially for viewers* who A) don't know about football, B) don't care about football, or C) already assume that repeated blows to the head can only lead to bad things. The most entertaining part of Concussion isn't watching Smith do the single-tear stare-down with remorseless corporate goons; it's laughing incredulously at all the alleged medical professionals whose "Gee Whiz" reactions to football-related brain trauma made me wonder if those at the middle and highest levels of organized sports are really as dumb as the raving, shirtless-in-sub-zero-temps lunatics who buy their event tickets.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that all sports fans are dumb. I am saying that Concussion plays to the segment of sports fans who are. From the one-dimensional bean-counting bad guys to Will Smith's equally singular, aphorism-spouting wise African ("Need is not weak. Need is need."), Landesman turns a very real and very compelling news item into the kind of cookie-cutter awards-season drama that gives awards-season dramas a bad name. The "Well, duh" nature of the central conceit lends itself to a GQ piece. But stretched to two hours, with a hasty, time-jumping love story; at least four dead-end side-narratives; and an indecisive moral stance on football as a viable pasttime, Concussion is proof that not every story can be (or should be) adapted into a movie.

It's not all doom and gloom. David Morse gives a truly heartbreaking performance as former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, who died broke and crazy due to the effects of CTE. When Webster confronts his long-time friend/retired team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, wearing a Louisiana accent so subtle it's distracting), there's a locomotive quality to the pair's physicality that makes the entire scene feel dangerous--as if Landesman had captured a rehearsal take in which Morse went too far. It's a genuine moment in a movie packed with false ones, such as Omalu asking cadavers to help him discover what killed them, or his beleaguered but saintly wife's (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) miscarriage following cinema's greatest false-flag car chase. Smith and Mbatha-Raw play these thankless roles with utter sincerity, but so did Mark Wahlberg when he begged forgiveness from a house plant in The Happening.

In a year when Spotlight and The Big Short plunged audiences headlong into Catholic sex scandals and housing-market swindles, Concussion comes off as, at best, a CSI two-parter. Like Moneyball, another film whose premise is far more compelling than its endless stats-chats, Landesman and company fail to make a case for their material beyond the anecdotal. Yes, the science of CTE is interesting. Yes, the NFL cover-up is grotesque. No, these aren't necessarily grounds for a feature film. Undeterred, Concussion batters the audience from every superfluous dramatic angle imaginable, until we're left in a daze of vaguely urgent images, with no idea of what the goal was or if it was reached, and by whom.

*Such as your not-so-humble reviewer, full disclosure.

Wednesday
Dec162015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Hope, Restored

Time will tell if J.J. Abrams has made the best Star Wars movie, but it's fair to say he's made the best version of Star Wars. Specifically, Episode VII: The Force Awakens is built on an almost beat-for-beat blueprint of 1977's A New Hope. Those who've read my diatribes about new-millennium Hollywood's shameless nostalgia-bombing campaign can probably guess where this review is headed. Your guess is wrong. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have done what diehard fans never thought possible, re-igniting the heart-filled, hopeful galaxy of imagination that George Lucas created and subsequently butchered.

We're on the eve of a pop phenomenon the likes of which hasn't rocked the moviegoing world since 1999 (or, arguably, 2009), so I'll tread lightly here. No spoilers. We'll have that discussion another time, and with warnings visible from space. In fact, if you want to put yourself in the strongest possible position to see The Force Awakens, stop reading this review. Don't watch any more trailers, teasers, or Target commercials.* In fact, build a time machine and travel back to the precise moment Disney announced its acquisition of the Star Wars franchise. Then jump forward to whichever Episode VII screening you've bought tickets for (of course, you'll have to detour and clear up that detail, as well).

So, how do we talk about The Force Awakens without giving anything away? Let's approach this from the perspective that Abrams and company seem to have, which involves capturing the best of what's come before and adding some thematic tweaks to the equation. The familiar elements are all here: a power-hungry imperial force governed by a Dark Side acolyte, a desert-dwelling dreamer who's unwittingly drafted into the rebellion, and a sassy, charismatic pilot with an equally sassy sidekick (this film has two sets, in fact). There are droids and spaceports; betrayals and revelations; and a big, round weapon of mass destruction. Lineage plays a big role, too.

There are no political machinations to contend with this time around; no chemistry-free romances or poop jokes; and not a Gungan or midi-chlorian in sight. This is pure Star Wars, and it took a raised-on-Star Wars fan to drag the creatively ailing film franchise back into the light.

Set several decades after the fall of the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens parallels the grimy exasperation that opened the very first movie. Though Abrams had Disney money and cutting-edge digital technology at his disposal, his movie feels sufficiently rugged: well-crafted, but not glossy--certainly not rubbery and intangible like the misguided Prequel Trilogy. Just as the years 1999-2005 were a dark time for fans, The Force Awakens signals a dashing warm hug of a return to the space opera we all know and love.

Chock this up to a hearty balance practical and computer effects; terrific actors who navigate the not-leaden screenplay with just the right blend of sincerity and gusto; and filmmakers dead set on reclaiming the mantle of Star Wars for themselves and a for new generation. This film brims with iconic imagery, from the creatures and costume designs, to a whopper of an opening shot that at once acknowledges A New Hope and acts as a promise to fans that Abrams will eclipse the Prequels with honest-to-goodness magnificence

This is also the first time I can remember getting excited about new characters, and the people inhabiting them. One member of the returning cast is more vital than we've seen him in decades, and the new crew--lead by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac--form an instantly compelling bond that doesn't just copy the Luke, Leia, and Han dynamic. Oh, and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren captures the conflicted, powerful petulance of a burgeoning Dark Side Master better than that stalker-eyed-what's-his-face from Episodes I-III.

I envy the kids for whom The Force Awakens will be their gateway into this universe. The deep-cut references may fly way over their heads ("Who is this 'Luke Skywalker', and why is he so important?" "Why did all the grown men in the theatre cheer when that big dog-man showed up?"). But the film's narrative DNA will present them with a truly magical, transportive adventure that they'll likely cherish the same way their parents worship at the altar of the 70s and 80s films.

Ironically, that DNA is The Force Awakens' only shortcoming, as well as one of its greatest assets. If you've seen A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back more than once in the last three-plus decades, you'll handily match up story points and characters with the new film. Abrams, Arndt, and Kasdan (who co-wrote Empire and Jedi) scatter these elements throughout, while injecting a ton of juicy new mysteries and spins on the original series' ideas; The end result is a bumpy mental and emotional ride, marked by more-than-occasional sinking-heart feelings: I can count on both hands the number of times I'd wished I hadn't known exactly what was coming at key junctures.

Hopefully, you'll be able to fully give yourself over to Abrams' vision, and shut those nitpicky, adult thoughts out. I spent more time smiling and welling up during The Force Awakens than I did critiquing it. Abrams builds upon Lucas' template with a lavish blockbuster that isn't afraid to pause and appreciate the untold stories in its war-torn scenery, or have a laugh at the expense of some of the goofier elements of its outlandish history. 

Star Wars is part of my intellectual, artistic, and, to some extent, spiritual makeup. To paraphrase an old friend (who might have also been quoting a friend), I've never known a world that didn't have Darth Vader in it. The Force Awakens ensures that this playground of possibilities endures as a generations-spanning fable, and not just a brand. I'll never shake those early impressions of Star Destroyers and low-tech lightsaber battles. But, thanks to J.J. Abrams, a kindred Force geek, I have a new favorite Star Wars.

*The members of one alien gang look like armored, anthropomorphic versions of the retail giant's emblem.