Thursday, October 29, 2015

Steve Jobs: Thinking Different, and Big, and Mean

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender, and Kate Winslet star in Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs"
Steve Jobs was undeniably a great man, but was he a good one? That question, along with many others—What is the true purpose of technological innovation? Why did the Macintosh look like it was grinning? Is that really Kate Winslet?—is tackled forcefully and adroitly in Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle's exhausting, exhilarating biopic of Apple Computer's founding father. A portrait of an artist as an obsessive young man, this manic, mostly marvelous movie wisely sidesteps the unconquerable challenge of condensing Jobs's entire adult life into a two-hour film. But while its scope is sensibly narrow, Steve Jobs nevertheless allows you to glimpse the magnitude of its subject's vision, and to feel the intensity of his longing. It is not another generic movie about a tortured genius; it is wholly its own movie about this tortured genius.

Speaking of troubled smart people, the screenplay for Steve Jobs is by Aaron Sorkin, which practically makes it a clandestine autobiography. (In fact, it is a loose adaptation of a book by Walter Isaacson.) Perhaps America's preeminent wordsmith, Sorkin is renowned for creating characters who are brilliant, driven, and insufferable—you know, kind of like Aaron Sorkin. It's small wonder he wanted to write about Steve Jobs, who is portrayed here, in a fantastic performance by Michael Fassbender, as equal parts visionary, egomaniac, genius, and jerk. The German-born Irish actor, who appears in every scene in the film, is blessed with a colossal screen presence (recall his magnificently loathsome turn in 12 Years a Slave), and he is effortlessly hypnotic in front of the camera. But there is more to Fassbender's performance than sheer charisma—every narrowing of his eyes, every curl of his mouth, conveys a precise combination of intelligence and condescension. The Jobs we meet here isn't just a man with a prophetic plan; he's a higher power who's so convinced of his superiority, he can't help but look down on humanity with despair and disgust.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Crimson Peak: A Haunted House, Bleeding and Beautiful

Mia Wasikowska enters a haunted house in Guillermo del Toro's "Crimson Peak"
Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is a frivolous, ravishing movie that invites a referendum on the very pleasures of moviegoing. This frustrating and satisfying film, which del Toro directed from a script he wrote with Matthew Robbins, is destined to divide audiences, not because it will elicit disputes over its quality, but because appreciation of it hinges entirely on the vagaries of subjective taste. Narrative purists who prioritize plotting and screenwriting above all else will doubtless be vexed by the clumsiness of its dialogue and the banality of its story. Formalists, however, will take rapture in its splendorous visuals and in the lush refinement of del Toro's craft. It is, in binary terms, either a terrible good movie or a magnificent bad movie.

Let's begin with the bad. From a storytelling standpoint, Crimson Peak is disappointingly rote, if not entirely dull. Set aside its fantastical prologue—in which a child is visited by the ghost of her newly dead mother, a black phantasm with spindly fingers who whispers gravely, "Beware of Crimson Peak"—and you might mistake it for a lavish period costume drama (if admittedly the first costume drama ever to take place in Buffalo). The year is 1891, and the object of attraction is the amusingly named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, persuasive as ever), the peculiar daughter of a pompous aristocrat, Carter (Deadwood's Jim Beaver). Edith is a bit like Cinderella without the wicked stepsiblings; she is mocked by the gentry for her oddness, even though she does draw the admiration of a handsome doctor (Charlie Hunnam, who headlined del Toro's Pacific Rim). A classic Jane Austen heroine, Edith is unlucky in love but spirited in life, and she brazenly channels her energy into the masculine pursuit of fiction writing.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bridge of Spies: In This Cold War, It's Chilliest Indoors

Tom Hanks stars as a lawyer over his head in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies"
The protagonist of Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg's sage, supremely enjoyable Cold War thriller, doesn't much look like a hero. With his graying hair and natty wardrobe, his appearance suggests a man more comfortable on the golf course than the battlefield. He doesn't act like a hero either, not in the strictest sense of action; he never picks up a gun, and he spends half the movie sniffling, complaining about his cold. "I just want to go home and go to bed," he says, more than once. These are not words you expect to hear from the hero of a spy flick. But even if James B. Donovan is not the square-jawed archetype who anchors most war pictures, he is a profoundly heroic character, effortlessly earning your admiration even as he's quietly lifting your spirits. And Bridge of Spies itself is a sly, delightful piece of Spielbergian misdirection. Through the careful application of his typical late-period formula—namely, the combination of superb technique and wistful patriotism—Spielberg makes you feel, watching this film, as though you're bearing witness to something grand. The trick is that you are, even if you're also just listening to people talk.

Talk was the name of the game in the Cold War, a decades-long battle of bluster and braggadocio. Bridge of Spies instantly plugs into that atmosphere of boiling tension—the sense of constant threat, followed by perpetual inaction—during its brilliant, wordless opening sequence. A Brooklyn man picks up a ringing phone, listens impassively, then heads to the subway. A pair of FBI agents (including The Wire's Domenick Lombardozzi) cautiously tail him, then lose him, and then, in their frantic search to relocate him, literally run smack into him on a staircase. That was close! But in addition to serving as a wry piece of anticlimax, this non-chase sets the stage for the mounting anxiousness and fakery to come.

Friday, October 16, 2015

99 Homes: Lost Your House? Just Buy Another One.

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon grapple with evictions in "99 Homes"
George Carlin once famously scoffed, "Your house is just a place for your stuff." But to writer-director Ramin Bahrani, a house is something far more than that. Bahrani, whose previous films include the very good Goodbye Solo (about a gregarious cab driver connecting with his sullen fare) and the very bad At Any Price (about a farmer struggling to keep pace with his competition), makes movies about the existential plight of the common American man. His heroes are hardy, blue-collar folks who nobly toil at their labor while evading the wrath of pitiless institutions, seeking to do little more than provide for their families. That is why, to Bahrani, a house—or, more accurately, a home—is not simply a receptacle. It is instead a birthright, an important symbol of the foundational American dream and a sacred place of familial tradition and honor.

Which makes Rick Carver, the licensed real estate broker at the center of Bahrani's 99 Homes, something of a bad guy. Actually, that's being kind. In the context of 99 Homes, Rick is an utter reprobate, the embodiment of corporate greed and inhuman selfishness. We first meet Rick, who is portrayed with snarling relish by the great character actor Michael Shannon, in the film's electric opening shot, which begins in a bathroom where an anonymous man has just committed suicide via pistol; the camera then glides to Rick and follows him as he strolls through the deceased's house, barks unsympathetic orders to the sheriff, and heads out into the bright Florida sun before sliding into his luxury sedan. The suicide, we quickly learn, occurred after Rick informed the nominal homeowner that his house now belonged to the bank. Tragic, right? It's just another day at the office for Rick, who makes his lavish living capably and remorselessly representing various banks, helping to evict residents who have failed to make their mortgage payments and whose homes have entered foreclosure. Though he operates in Florida, he is essentially an instrumentality of Wall Street, a man who executes the will of corrupt and unfeeling conglomerates. He may not be the devil, but he's basically the devil's agent.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Walk: Race to the Top, But Don't Look Down

Joseph Gordon-Levitt defies death as Philippe Petit in "The Walk"
Robert Zemeckis's The Walk tells the story of Philippe Petit, the French daredevil who one day in August 1974, to the surprise and delight of thousands of unsuspecting New Yorkers, tiptoed back and forth across a wire stretching between the roofs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Midway through the film, Philippe and two confederates slink into a Manhattan electronics store and ask to purchase an interphone. The proprietor, a sharp fellow named J.P., suggests they buy a walkie-talkie instead, but Philippe refuses, explaining to his comrade in rapid French that cops can listen in on walkie-talkies. This statement raises the eyebrows of J.P., who it turns out speaks French (his initials stand for Jean-Pierre, and he is played very well by the American actor James Badge Dale); he assumes that this motley crew is intent on robbing a bank, and that they're in dire need of some help.

Strictly speaking, J.P. is wrong—Philippe has no plans to steal anything, except perhaps a few moments of immortality. But in cinematic terms, J.P. is on the mark. The Walk, in its elemental form, is a crime caper. Its story, which it tells with considerable glee and marginal distinction, is that of a gang of lawbreakers who conspire to evade police detection and carry out a seemingly impossible objective. In this way, it is a successor to classic heist pictures like Rififi and Ocean's Eleven. What distinguishes this one is that, where most capers thrive on the planning of the crime rather than the actual execution, The Walk achieves its power in depicting Philippe's improbable, death-defying triumph. For the majority of its runtime, it's a fun, frothy film: nicely acted, convincingly staged, and thoroughly familiar. Then Philippe steps out on that wire, and this modest, unmemorable movie becomes unforgettable.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Sicario: A Land with No Laws, a War with No Heroes

Emily Blunt gets in way over her head in "Sicario"
For a film of such engulfing darkness, Sicario spends a surprising amount of time in broad daylight. In a different story, its frequent aerial shots of the Southwest's rolling hills and dusty deserts might feel enchanting rather than foreboding. Yet right from its electric opening sequence—a daytime FBI raid in suburban Phoenix on a cartel stash house, the kind where all the residents pack shotguns, and cadavers line the walls like asbestos—Sicario turns that pervasive sunlight into a mirage. A vicious, lacerating depiction of the Mexican-American drug trade, the movie slowly and systematically snuffs out the slightest flicker of hope. They say drug use is a victimless crime, but in this arid land, narcotics distribution is a literal cutthroat industry, a ceaseless cycle of violence, corruption, and death.

Sounds fun, right? You'd be surprised. Yes, as a political think piece, Sicario is powerful, persuasive, and even enraging. But what makes it a great movie—something more than just a forcefully conceived polemic—is that it is also crackerjack crime fiction. Directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Taylor Sheridan, Sicario is a pulse-pounding piece of prime-cut entertainment, one that thrills just as much as it chills. It is both literally and metaphorically explosive, and while its suffocating bleakness may get you down, its taut plotting and bracing technique will knock you out.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Martian: Lost in Space, But Not in Spirit

Matt Damon is alone on Mars in "The Martian"
The Martian is a movie about a man stranded on a deserted planet, first left for dead, then scrambling frantically to survive. You might think, from this brief and terrifying description, that it is a horror film, or at least a gritty survivalist fable—Cast Away in space, or Gravity on barren land. Yet the most surprising and satisfying thing about The Martian, which is based on a best-selling novel by Andy Weir and is directed with characteristic competence by Ridley Scott, is how much fun it is. Certainly, there are moments of dread, and the protagonist continually faces the prospect of imminent death. But for the most part, this film is warm, inviting, and even comforting. There may be gravity on Mars, but The Martian feels positively buoyant.

It doesn't start out that way. In a brisk and chaotic prologue set on the red planet, a group of astronauts led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) attempt to fight through a storm of swirling debris. During the squall, a piece of equipment breaks loose and slams directly into the chest of Mark Watney, catapulting him off into the desolate distance. After a desperate search, Lewis has no choice but to abandon hope, and she and her crew hightail it out of there before Mars can claim five additional victims.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice: For Queen, Rook, Self, and Country

Tobey Maguire stars as Bobby Fischer in "Pawn Sacrifice"
In 1972 in Iceland, Bobby Fischer attempted to become the first American-born man to win the World Chess Championship, seeking to wrest the crown from imposing Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky. Now, if you think that sounds challenging, try making a movie about it. Sure, sports films are only tangentially about the sports themselves, but they almost always revolve around some degree of dynamism or athleticism, some sort of physical heroism for the camera to capture. But Pawn Sacrifice, Edward Zwick's dramatization of Fischer's famous battle against Spassky and the Iron Curtain, is about chess, which is basically the least cinematic sport imaginable. Zwick's seemingly impossible task is to transform a thoroughly sedate affair—one in which two men stare at carefully sculpted figurines, furrow their brows, and think—into an actual thriller of tangible urgency and excitement. He mostly succeeds. Functional, beautifully acted, and curiously engrossing, Pawn Sacrifice resembles the best traditional sports movie Zwick possibly could have made on this subject. In other words, it isn't half-bad.

The film opens in medias res, after Fischer has forfeited the second game of the Championship (the rules provided for up to 24 total games) and has barricaded himself in his rented cottage, flinching at the slightest sound. It then flashes back to his childhood in New York, a predictable device that immediately illustrates both the benefits and the drawbacks of Zwick's orthodox approach. The flashback, which is mercifully brief, does its job: It bluntly illustrates that Fischer (played as a young boy by Aiden Lovekamp and then as a teen by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is both a genius and a prick. Expressing the former element proves problematic for Zwick; unable to telegraph Fischer's virtuosity visually, he settles for dialogue, with adults repeatedly gushing about the boy's brilliance, followed by a montage of handshakes soundtracked to laudatory notices from newscasters. (To be fair, Zwick initially toys with using graphics to convey Fischer mentally maneuvering pieces on the chessboard, but it's a gimmicky tactic that he wisely abandons.) But he efficiently articulates Fischer's petulance, as when the youth loudly berates his mother without a hint of remorse. This kid has no time for sensitivity—he has chess to play.