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The Founder (2016)

thefounder_officialposterThe Founder aims to be The Social Network of hamburgers and milkshakes, a warts-and-all biopic of a huckster who glommed onto other’s success and transformed it into an empire, a pragmatically ruthless entrepreneur run rampant with ambition and leaving behind a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled little people. Michael Keaton, on a roll since Birdman, teams up with screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) to bring to life the story of the man behind the ubiquitous golden arches. The details are routinely fascinating and the movie presents a larger thesis on shifting and conflicting concepts of the American Dream and whether a ruthless yet victorious huckster is to be celebrated, pitied, scorned, or all of the above.

In the mid 1950s, Ray Kroc (Keaton) was a struggling milkshake mixer salesman striking out with just about every drive-in and dinner in the Midwest. His wife Ethel (Laura Dern) is exasperated by Kroc’s flights of fancy, shilling whatever new product might be his ticket to riches. His life changes thanks to one very efficient hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers, Mac (John Caroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), have ordered eight of Kroc’s milkshake mixers because they can barely keep up with demand. Kroc travels out West to see for himself and discovers a tasty and speedy hamburger assembly line that nobody else is doing. He pushes the McDonald brothers to franchise their model with him in the lead. They’re wary but agree with a strict contract that still gives full executive decision-making to the brothers. Kroc languishes at first but finds growing success, barely able to keep ahead with the mounting overhead costs. Kroc wants to keep going but the McDonald brothers are unyielding over their terms of business. Kroc schemes to push them out of their own business, establish himself as the founder, and take their very name for himself.

2od9lwjFirstly, the story of the formation of McDonald’s is probably far less known than the formation of Facebook, and this provides plenty of opportunities for illumination. It is an inherently interesting story. There’s the invention of the modern-day fast food assembly line and the difficulty in perfecting this process and getting customers acquainted with the new reality. Initially, after years of drive-in service, customers are befuddled that they have to physically walk up to a window and order and throw away their own trash. The early history, hiccups, and adjustments are interesting, but it all gets more engrossing once Kroc comes aboard. It’s here where the film becomes very business-like in its examination of Kroc’s ruthless business tactics that lead to his ascent. Without Kroc’s intervention, perhaps the world would never have known the name McDonalds. He’s not an instant success either. He’s already middle-aged when he comes across the McDonald brothers. He’s not a brilliant salesman by nature. He’s cunning and doggedly persistent, the key he tells us since the world is rife with talented, educated, and good people who go nowhere. Kroc is a constant motor that can never be satisfied. Ethel asks him if anything will ever be enough, and after a short pause he replies without pretense, “Probably not.” He cannot enjoy success because he always feels he should be entitled to more. It’s the kind of unmoored ambition that leads him to throw his litigious weight around, knowingly breaking legal contracts and handshake deals to get exactly what he wants. Kroc’s business triumphs will remind certain viewers of Donald Trump, a man who uses similar advantages of wealth to exploit others and force them into advantageous deals. Even when explicitly in the wrong he just rolls along undeterred.

It is Keaton’s (Spotlight) movie and he more than delivers under pressure. Keaton adopts a speaking affect that makes the character weirdly magnetic without being wholly charming, an interesting combination that reflects the conflicted nature of Kroc. He’s a fast-talking salesman who enjoys the sound of his own voice but he doesn’t fool himself. He’s a man who knows what he wants and it just happens to be everything. He knows his limitations but he strides forward. He is bursting at the seams to get out from under the thumb of the McDonald brothers, who he sees as limiting the growth of a company that is more his than theirs. Kroc delights in being treated to the upper echelons of power. He loves having people proverbially kiss his ring and lavish his greatness. It’s the story of a man who scraped by his entire life until stumbling upon someone else’s genius idea. Keaton plays the man with a wily canniness that is always entertaining, channeling the actor’s natural oddball energy and style into a Midwestern McBeth. He says if he saw his competitor drowning he’d “shove a hose down his throat.” He’s generally cold but Keaton and Siegel don’t present him with a standard redemption arc. He’s kind of a hapless jerk at the start and becomes a powerful, egotistical jerk by the end. Keaton’s layered performance gives the film a solid anchor to keep viewers invested in the film.

founder-the-fm002If only the other parts of The Founder had as much nuance and care as Keaton’s role. The supporting characters have flashes of interest but are too relegated to be much more than symbols or less developed foils to Kroc. The McDonald brothers have a poignant level of tenderness to them but they’re set up to be symbols of American values that will inevitably be trampled upon by Kroc’s corporatist version of the American Dream. Mac is the hopeful and trusting brother, Dick is the no-nonsense devote to quality and ethics, and together they could use additional ambiguity or depth. They’re meant to represent an older way of doing business, the familiar edict that hard work, dedication to customers, and quality will pay off. The brothers are successful and content at their level of success; they lack the naked ambition of Kroc and his disregard for the rules. They’re set up to be defeated and swindled and victims of Kroc’s tactics, which limits them as characters. There’s a sliver of detail with Dick’s concern for his brother’s diabetes threatening him, but the brothers are more martyrs than anything else. You anticipate their defeat with slight dread but more a sense of impending inevitability. Their good-natured values are no match for the winner-takes-all mentality of a man on a mendacious mission.

Similarly, Kroc’s wife is another figure set up from the start to be trampled upon. She’s supportive but not supportive enough Kroc feels. Like the McDonald brothers, she’s too content within her station and what she deems a good existence, a life of dinners at the club with a retinue of upper middle class friends. Ethel is a plain looking woman of simple pleasures. You already know that there’s a ticking clock before Kroc will trade up. With these expectations, more could have been done to establish her character. Too often Kroc’s selfish, indifferent, or casually hurtful broadsides are treated with silent suffering from Ethel. She’s set up as a walking pained reaction shot. It almost gets to comical levels as the pattern repeats itself and you anticipate a slightly elongated, wounded reaction shot. Kroc’s second wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), is a sweetly smiling prize but proves herself more than a pretty face. She shares Kroc’s ambitions and proposes swapping real milk for instant milk mix to save refrigeration costs. There’s obviously more to this woman, who we meet already married to a business associate of Kroc’s, but the movie keeps her as a mostly symbolic, almost Fitzgerald-esque trophy. The other side characters that come into Kroc’s orbit, B.J. Novak’s scheming real estate fixer, Kate Neeland’s esteemed secretary, Justin Randell Brooke’s loyal lieutenant, are clipped so that they only appear in the film when they offer some service or advice useful to Kroc. Perhaps there’s a meta level here exploring how Kroc views those seemingly closest to him in strict transactional terms, or perhaps I’m just reaching for more.

mv5bytu4ntk5mzktnjuyny00yjbjlwjlytctmdfmnzg1mtdimta0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzq4mte1mjc-_v1_The other liability from an otherwise still entertaining script is the director. Hancock is better known for softer, feel-good films about American values. The Founder is a story that subverts all of those notions and Hancock doesn’t seem to master the skills in order for the satirical and darker implications to land. The onscreen visuals seem to clash with the movie’s overall disquieting tone. The colors are bright and the musical score by Carter Burwell seems curiously jolly at points, confusing the tone of darker scenes. It just doesn’t feel like Hancock had a good feel for the material and how best to execute it. It feels like he’s missing the layers of potential with Siegel’s screenplay. I’ll readily credit Hancock for part of Keaton’s terrific performance but Hancock’s touches are best realized in the art direction details recreating a bygone era. I feel that somebody like a Steven Soderbergh would have tapped more into this story’s satirical potential.

The Founder is an entertaining biopic of a scoundrel who ran roughshod over others dreams and turned their success into his own. It’s anchored by a complex performance from Keaton. It’s a rags-to-riches story that doesn’t tell the audience how to think about its centerpiece character. He’s underhanded, sure, but he’s also got everything he wanted and his tactics proved successful. Is this an ends justify the means story to rationalize the power of avarice, or is this an exploration of the darker undercurrents of the passing American Dream usurping others’ dreams and accomplishments (closing text informs us that McDonald’s feeds one percent of the world’s population every day)? The movie doesn’t seem to take a stand, neither fully condemning nor excusing Kroc’s actions. The tale behind the worldwide fast food giant is full of supersized drama and interesting procedural details about the rise of the most recognizable name in burgers. It’s unfortunate then that the movie struggles to reach the same heights as Keaton. The supporting characters are tragically underdeveloped and kept as figures for comparison to chart Kroc’s ascendance. Director John Lee Hancock also feels like an poor fit for the material, his instincts seemingly at odds with the film’s tone and intentions. The Founder is an interesting movie with a strong central performance but it can’t help but feel like its destiny was far greater, that it’s not meeting the full potential of the material.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Jackie (2016)

jackie-poster-1Jackie (Natalie Portman) is still reeling from the loss of her husband, President Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). In the weeks that followed the assassination in 1963, her life was a whirlwind of change. She was leaving the White House while another administration took control of her husband’s office and agenda. She was leaving a life of glamour and privilege and it all came to a halt. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is worried about the Kennedy policies getting lost as well as his own potential presidential prospects. Lyndon Johnson (John Carrol Lynch) is worried about asserting his own control. While trying to work through her grief, Jackie must protect her husband’s legacy among all the well-wishers, political vultures, and craven opportunists.

We’re left with an immersive, impressionistic look at America’s most famous first lady since it’s hard to distinguish the layers of performance from the woman herself. She was used to adopting the façade of what the public expected of her, how her husband’s friends looks at her with desire and dismissiveness, and the differences between her private life and her public persona. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the interior space of a famous woman that so many people think they know well because of her glamour and television appearances, but do they really? Her identity is in free fall. She gave up everything for this man and now he is gone and her cherished position is gone. It’s said each first lady leaves her stamp on the office, and now Ladybird Johnson is already itching to undo that stamp, erasing Jackie’s presence and supplanting it. Will these last few days define her and will they define her husband? While dealing with raw grief, Jackie also takes the position of being the first to protect her husband’s legacy. While planning the particulars of the funeral march and exact burial site, she’s really framing his place in the greater annuls of history, tragically cut short and questionably memorable. His life has been taken from her and now the only thing she can do is protect his place in history. The funeral details and conflicts they consign the new Johnson administration to are interesting, as is Jackie’s simmering disdain for the Johnsons, but it’s more than just placation; Jackie has an underrated knack for theatrical optics. The country is in mourning, just like its (former) first lady, and she offers a spectacle as an outlet. Some term it vanity and even Jackie admits that many aspects were for her, for her grief, for her rage at the world and her doubters, for her wounded soul searching for meaning. She wanted the American public to see her in mourning but she wanted just as much to see them in mourning too.

jackie-natalie-portman-today-161006-tease-02_e549f017f2a99114fefe91579e669542-today-inline-largeEschewing the standard cradle-to-grave biopic, as well the noveau approach of using one clarifying moment to better examine and sum up the person (see: Selma, Steve Jobs), Noah Oppenheim’s script is a triptych, a hypnotic exploration that zips along non-linear but thematically-tethered memories. It’s a more interesting approach because we’re not locked into a linear progression of plot events, though the immediate aftermath and her interview with the Newsweek reporter (Billy Crudup) serve as the directional compass. It also provides a clever conceit for meta-textual levels. We have scenes that lay as direct conflict with the public Jackie and the private Jackie, and we have scenes that lay into the different levels of performance, from her show model tour of the White House furnishings and fixings to putting on the brave face to speak to her children. Director Pablo Larraine (No, Neruda) shoots the movie in a style reminiscent of its 1960s time period, with a film stock that blends the difference between documentary and recreation, further adding another stylistic level to the proceedings. The various threads of connectivity are so much more interesting to dissect with this storytelling approach and it makes the movie a much deeper and more contemplative experience to unpack.

There’s a scene in the middle of Jackie that stood out to me. During a night of drinking, Jackie puts on the record for the Broadway production of Camelot and wanders the large empty spaces of the people’s house. For my younger readers, the Kennedy administration was dubbed by many as “Camelot,” first coined by Jackie, out of a sense of its idealism, youth, and inspirational promise to change the world into a nobler place. It’s practically a mythical time and the real people get lost amidst the romantic spectacle. Nowadays, our presidents can often be the same mythical figures as the kings of old, figureheads whose humanity and details we iron out and soften as we eulogize and entomb them. The music echoes through the different chambers but there’s no one to hear it, no one to enjoy it, the vast emptiness communicating much of Jackie’s anguish. “There will be great presidents again but there will never be another Camelot,” she says. That moment is left as a passing memory, a picture of nostalgia that will only have its realism dampen in time as it becomes enshrined in American myth making. Amidst all her privilege and esteem, there is an existential sense of loss for Jackie and the nation as a whole into the turbulent 60s.

The other rich aspect is that we are watching a woman process her grief in real-time and it can often put a lump in your throat. I challenge anyone not to feel an outpouring of empathy when Jackie has to explain to her two very young children why daddy isn’t coming back from Dallas, having to explain something horrendous to those so innocent. In some scenes it feels like Jackie is numb to the world around her, focused on the little things as an escape from her horrible reality and its trauma. We do get a recreation of that fateful day in Dallas twice. The first is the immediate aftermath with Jackie bloodied and protected by the Secret Service, keeping her at a distance from us too in the audience. The next is a closer view inside the car as we’re with Jackie when the awful event happens, and the sudden shock of gore is still a disturbing gut-punch no matter how much you anticipate the moment. We watch her crazed instincts trying to collect the pieces of her beautiful and broken husband, stressing she was trying to keep everything together, figuratively and literally. The scene plays out longer and it serves as an emotional climax to the film, a frank reminder that for everything people believe they know about this woman, at heart, for all her riches and fame and privilege, she is simply a human being trying to make sense of death. It’s this final moment in the car that reminds us.

jackie-the-movie-natalie-portman-the-trailer-tom-lorenzo-site-8This is an acting showcase and Portman (Black Swan) excels, delivering the best female performance I’ve seen this year at the movies. It’s an Oscar bait dream role and she nails it. She goes beyond mere imitation though Portman does an excellent job of that. Thanks to critic/blogger Jeffrey Wells for this great quote about the imitable real-life Jackie from author Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff: “She had a certain Southern smile, which she had perhaps picked up at Foxcroft School, in Virginia, and her quiet voice, which came through her teeth, as revealed by the smile. She barely moved her lower jaw when she talked. The words seemed to slip between her teeth like exceedingly small slippery pearls.” Portman stunned me early with her exquisite recreation of Jackie and then she stunned me moments later with the depth of emotion she was able to convey in the scene where she stares into the Air Force One mirror, dabbing her husband’s blood from her face as her eyes are swollen with tears. Lorraine favors plenty of exacting close-ups to watch the array of emotions play across her face. She has moments of strength, moments of pettiness, moments of heart-tugging lows and weakness, and Portman is always fascinating, holding your attention rapt as you study her study. It’s a mesmerizing performance and one that deserves to earn Portman her second gold statue.

Jackie is a movie that has stayed with me for days after I’ve seen it. The exceptional and empathetic work by Portman is the first thing I recall, and then the thematic and symbolic relevance of the storylines as they fold on top of one another, providing a hypnotic and immersive portrait of a very famous woman who sought and spurned the spotlight. As far as I’m concerned this is the definitive film presentation of Jackie and Portman’s searing performance is the dazzling standard that won’t be beat. You walk away having additional appreciation for this woman but also further curiosity. The movie doesn’t expressly state who she is as a human being, providing a range of personas, some that conflict with one another, and allows you to put it all together for your interpretation. It’s a bold gambit and a fitting gesture for a woman defined by others’ perceptions.

Nate’s Grade: A-

 

Race (2016)

Race_2016_film_posterIn 1936, Jesse Owens (Stephen James) is an American track star that seems destined for magnificent glory. Under the guidance of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), from THE Ohio State University, Owens is smashing track and field records. The culmination of his athleticism occurs at the Berlin Olympics, where Owens earns multiple gold medals and shows Adolph Hitler just how masterful his master race is.

It’s difficult to declare Race a bad movie but it’s so formulaic and by-the-numbers that I walked away thinking that Jesse Owens deserved a much better movie. I kept waiting for the movie to properly communicate the totality of what Owens accomplished, let alone in a time period where the culture at home told him he was an inferior American citizen, and it just never coalesced into a stronger message. We’re talking about a man who bested the best of the world in front of Hitler. This is ready made for cinematic drama, and perhaps that’s the problem with the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) because it always seems to fall back on the lazy and expected choice. Part of this is the reality that Owens was just that good as a runner; we only see him lose once in the entire movie. This anticlimax makes it difficult to stir up plenty of suspense around the larger and larger stages for the sports triumphs. The knowledge of Owens’ wins may be commonplace but we should still feel the stirrings of good storytelling and payoffs to well-established work, and that’s just not there. I loved watching the deluge of unhappy Nazi reaction shots to Owens’ victories (never enough footage of unhappy Nazis) but that doesn’t count as a satisfying conclusion to Owens’ story.

race-movie-stephan-james-jesse-owensThe character of Owens is somewhat lost in Race. It’s reminiscent of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 where the character of Robinson was kind of, well, boring. He’s a character who endures the suffering and indignities of others and perseveres, and this is likely why both films turn their stories of African-American tales into buddy pictures with Strong and Supportive White Men. Much of Race is presented as a buddy picture with Owens and Snyder, and both actors have such an amiable chemistry that they sort of treat the entire movie like a laid back adventure. They’re easing on through a segregated America. Too much of the movie is Owens and Snyder just cracking wise and going from scene to scene. James left a stronger impression as John Lewis in last year’s Selma. He’s too often merely stoic without more to work with. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) is right in his comfort zone with his performance and doesn’t stray far from his range. I credit the film for not ignoring some of the messier parts of Owens’ story, namely his out-of-wedlock young daughter and him cheating on his hometown girl with a fame-seeking starlet. He’s allowed to be seen making mistakes, but the movie doesn’t allow him to live with them (note: not referring to his daughter as a “mistake”). Whenever Owens might be in a horrible predicament from his own internal decision-making, the movie almost callously breezes by without much contemplation. It’s as if every conflict is in service to the Main Conflict – sticking it to Hitler. The pressure to bow out of the Olympics to make a statement about the treatment of black people in America could have been a soul-bearing moment, but we just move along and barely feel the weight of the pressure. Yes, we know that Owens will travel abroad and win golden glory, but make the decision count.

Another aspect that dooms Race to its limited appeal is the mediocrity of its direction and, in particular, how shockingly terrible the movie is edited. Director Stephen Hopkins seems to have been in movie jail ever since 1998’s Lost in Space. He’s only shot one movie between that bomb and Race, which happened to be The Reaping, a 2007 movie I almost liked by its twist ending. He doesn’t exactly bring much to the material to elevate the races or seem that interested in taking advantageous of the suspense opportunities. There’s one great sequence where Owens first enters the Olympic stadium and the camera tracks his movements where you feel the awe. There aren’t enough moments like this that take full advantage of telling Owens’ story in a visual medium. The other technical misstep is that this is one of the worst edited movies I’ve ever watched in a theater. If you generally pay attention to the editing, it’s generally a bad sign since it’s a facet of filmmaking that is best made invisible. There is one sequence where Owens sits in Snyder’s office and the 180-degree rule is broken over ten times… in one scene! The editing will frequently flip is scene orientation, jumping back and around and creating subtle visual compositions that create incongruity in the brain. Part of this blame deserves to be laid with Hopkins, who chose to shoot his film at these uncooperative angles. It was something that bothered me throughout and would rip me out of the movie.

204026_033The most perplexing storyline in Race involves the very positive treatment reserved for a controversial filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), best known for her propaganda films declaring the power and righteousness of Hitler’s Third Reich. Huh, why does a movie celebrating American heroes spend do much time positively portraying a Nazi propagandist? She becomes a translator for Goebbels and the American Olympic committee, but she’s also determined to have her vision respected when it comes to her Olympic documentary that is being produced by the Nazis. She doesn’t seem to mind about Owens trouncing the Aryan myth of racial superiority because she just wants to make the best movie and Owens is her storyline. She is portrayed as a sympathetic go-between for the Americans, someone fighting within a corrupt system to maintain her dignity and ownership in an industry that is dominated by men (she’s criticized for wearing “masculine” clothing). I’ll admit a general ignorance to Riefenstahl’s life and career outside of her most famous documentaries, which I should continue to stress are Nazi propaganda films, but this woman was a member of the Nazi party and responsible for some of the most indelible and damaging imagery justifying Hitler’s genocide, and to prop her up as a character worth rooting for and a champion to Owens just felt wrong.

Has there ever been a more self-satisfied yet facile title than Race? The double meaning is a bit too obvious and yet simple enough to be annoying. In a way, the title encapsulates the movie as a whole. It’s well-meaning but far too by-the-numbers and satisfied that it’s doing Important Work honoring an American sports legend when it’s barely giving us much of a reason to care about him as a person and less reason to root for him other than added Nazi discomfort. Owens becomes a boring centerpiece in his own movie, and his relationship with Snyder feels too ill defined, repeatedly approaching buddy comedy. The historical asides are momentarily interesting but don’t add up to much. The movie has some strikingly awful editing and lackluster direction that hobbles the storytelling. It’s a movie that hits all the checklists for sports biopic but won’t veer too far from its predicated formula. There’s a short scene at the very end that hints at what kind of better movie Race might have been. After his worldwide validation at the Berlin Olympics, Owens comes home to America and is forced to use the service entrance for his own honorary dinner. This American hero has to shamefully take the back entrance to be celebrated. It’s a stark wake-up call just how far the country had to go as far as race relations. This national cognitive dissonance, celebration and segregation, would be ripe for a searing human drama with plenty of emotion. That would be a good movie. Race is only an okay movie, and given Owens’ place in history, that’s not good enough.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Steve Jobs (2015)

steve-jobsDizzying with its dialogue, Steve Jobs tells the story of its titular man through three Apple product launches, 1985’s Macintosh computer, 1988’s Apple rival and failure, Next, and 1998’s iMac, the beginning of the re-emergence of Apple into ubiquity. It’s really an Aaron Sorkin movie above all else, which means we get absurdly intelligent characters walking and talking at rapid-fire with brilliant one-liners and snappy dialogue that bristles with musicality to it, the kind that your ears perk up for. It’s a feast for the ears; however, Steve Jobs is really an emotionally cold stage play on film. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) is the director but the staginess of the conceit is too much for the visually nimble filmmaker to overcome. There are a few small visual flourishes as inserts but the star is Sorkin’s verbose screenplay. We get a glimpse into the prickly, egotistical, bullying, visionary, and curious man that was Steve Jobs. His continual denial of being the father to his daughter is a source of great contrarian insight. The structure of the script lends itself to repetition and artificiality. All these characters keep turning up and having these important conversations at these moments? After a while it feels like the characters are talking in circles and waiting for catharsis, and the concluding ten minutes is a detour into unearned sentiment. The movie and its major themes just do not come together with the clarity or force that the filmmakers believe. Michael Fassbender is superb as Jobs and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. It’s an engaging movie in the moment but I don’t feel like I know Jobs any better than before. In attempting to tell the life of one influential man, Sorkin has made the movie about himself, but The Social Network this is not.

Nate’s Grade: B

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterIn 1987 in Compton, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was selling drugs, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was spinning records in a club, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is writing lyrics in the back of a school bus (the movie significantly downplays DJ Yella and MC Ren). The guys have grown up in an environment of suspicions and harassment by the Los Angeles police. Their response was to compose angry and defiant songs illuminating their world. After a few early performances, the group is approached by record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to get them signed and touring. Their music and their perspective catches on and soon NWA is awash in big shows and groupies. Heller puts more of his efforts onto Eazy-E, and Dre and Cube feel marginalized and doubtful that Heller has their best interest at heart.

It’s hard to reconcile the brash and challenging men responsible for NWA and this sanitized and rather rote rags-to-riches biopic that asks curiously little of its subjects when it comes to depth or reflection. Not every biopic needs to be as faithful as the most excoriating documentary on its subject, but we have become accustomed over the last decade to the warts-and-all approach, where the central biographical figures are celebrated for their achievements but care is taken to tell their lives with measured accuracy, not to hide anything that challenges our concept of who these people were. Imagine if Walk the Line had sanitized its portrayal of Johnny Cash, or worse, devoted most of its running time to his stint as a revivalist Christian musician? What if Ray had eliminated his womanzing? What if The Aviator said that Howard Hughes was the model of human sanity? A biopic doesn’t need to tell us every facet of its subject’s life because that is an impossible demand that only the densest of books can truly achieve, however, a biopic must instill the spirit of its subject in an honest representation, because that’s at best what you’re going to get when you apply a human life to the realm of narrative. Straight Outta Compton comes across as far too gentle with its core subjects, portraying them as underdog anti-heroes who were pushed around by those trying to exploit them and their message. Of course this would be the approach when Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the widow of Eazy-E produce the film. At this point it’s about protecting the legacy, protecting the brand, and so the members of NWA become far less interesting.

Straight-Outta-ComptonNobody probably gets the biggest revision than Dr. Dre, especially his violent history with women. As depicted in the film, Dre is a talented and frustrated music producer who is trying to do his best to live up to his dreams but falling short and feeling the pressure of not being the support system for his brother, his girlfriend, his daughter. When the money starts rolling in, Dre embarks on a successful solo career and reconciles with Eazy-E. That’s about all there is to his character arc, a series of creative struggles and trusting the wrong people. There is one very brief moment that hints at Dre’s history with women, when his girlfriend expresses caution about getting too involved with Dre because she doesn’t want anything negative to happen to her young son. This woman doesn’t appear to be Michel’le Toussaint, a best-selling Ruthless Records artist who was with Dre for seven years and gave birth to their son in 1991. Toussaint has spoken about consistent physical abuse, including an incident where Dre shot at her through a bathroom door. Then there’s the glaring omission of Dee Barnes, a journalist who Dre brutally beat inside a nightclub in 1990 (Dre has finally come forward and apologized for this incident but only after the Apple overlords or Universal execs probably applied some pressure to make the bad PR from the press tamp down). Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Law Abiding Citizen) has gone on record saying they had to focus on the “story that was pertinent to our main characters.” About that…

Straight Outta Compton has a renewed relevancy due to the increased attention in the news concerning police brutality, profiling, and harassment. It was from this combination of oppression and negativity that NWA honed their provocative message. The lyrics of gangster rap reflected the reality of their living conditions, and so they were bleak, angry, violent, and they spurred a sense of relatability across the country from others. It was a reaction against a system that had cataloged them as suspects from birth. The story structure of Straight Outta Compton shows the birth of gangster rap through a select sample of personal experiences. From there we see the rise, the backlash, and I suppose a “we told you so” moment with the aggravation over the Rodney King case turning into the volcanic anger and destruction of the L.A. riots. The aside highlighting the L.A. riots only really serves to underline the idea that NWA’s message of the beaten-down growing increasingly weary of their denigrated treatment. After that, the greater message of what NWA meant to the world of music and culture is lost midst the squabbles of the former friends. This is a missed opportunity at creating a stronger message and adding needed complexity to the main characters. What if Straight Outta Compton had explored the violent life of its stars after they had achieved their dreams? It creates a more damning theme about the consequences of a life under oppression; Dre grew up being harassed and antagonized, which is reflected in their music, but even when they escape that environment the consequences can still follow and entrap them. As it plays, the guys strike it rich, get waylaid by outsiders, and eventually find their footing again. It’s a narrative structure that places all the problems as external threats, be it Heller or Knight or HIV itself, and strips the main characters of their own agency. The movie doesn’t let them account for their own action and finds excuses when able. An incident where they brandish high-powered guns to chase off an angry boyfriend is treated as an unearned and questionable moment of levity. Gray said they could only focus on the “pertinent” stories, but I don’t see anything more pertinent than exploring the psychological trauma of brutality and oppression and how, even as an adult with seemingly the world at your fingertips, it still manifests in your life and personal relationships.

As a standard rags-to-riches biopic, Straight Outta Compton is consistently entertaining and well acted, though it can’t help but feel like we’re rushing through the events. A significant disappointment is the underdeveloped nature of the friendship of Dre, Eazy-E and Cube. There’s an early scene where they’re teasing one another and working out the beginnings of “Boys in the Hood” and this is the lone moment where we feel the dynamic of the trio. The early glimpse at the creative process is a high-point. After that, sadly, the only examination the movie affords on the relationships of the three is the jealousies and divisions. Strangely, the most interesting character relationship is between Eazy-E and Heller, which despite the predictable dissolution is the most heartfelt relationship on screen. Think about that: the most involving relationship depicted in the movie is between a former drug dealer-turned-musician and a Jewish music producer. It’s their opposites-attract dynamic that helps to make them so much more intriguing to watch.

Straight Outta ComptonStraight Outta Compton treats Heller as a greedy predator who was cheating NWA out of their rightful earnings, though I’m still a bit skeptical as to these accusations. The movie even gives me a reason to support my skepticism. Once Cube goes solo, a record producer (Tate Ellington) promises to support him on his next record if the first is successful. Obviously Cube is a hit and he comes back to this producer, who explains that he can’t simply just write a check then and there and that it’s more complicated. Cube responds by trashing the guy’s office and the moment is treated as a strangely triumphant moment that the exec even awkwardly jokes about later when Cube returns. This moment made me think maybe, just maybe, the people in the industry weren’t explicitly cheating out NWA but the margins of the recording industry are a bit harder to explain.

While the characters themselves can be a tad boring, the actors do everything in their power to make them feel fully felt. The three lead actors impressed me. Mitchell especially wows in his greater emotional moments, like the discovery of being HIV-positive and only having a few reaming months to live. Jackson Jr. gives an eerily accurate portrayal of his father, and Hawkins (Non-Stop) hits his stride when Dre is most ambitious. The three of them have an easy-going camaraderie that adds to the authenticity. The actors are so good that the deficiencies in characterization are all the more frustrating. The talent was there but the characterization was not. I also want to single out R. Marcos Taylor for his strikingly imposing portrayal of Suge Knight. As soon as Taylor starts eating up more screen time, I couldn’t help but wish the movie’s focus jumped ship to the ruthless Death Row Records impresario.

Straight Outta Compton is already the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time, so surely the wider moviegoing public greeted its safe approach to its subjects with some level of approval. Enough time has passed to add a layer of nostalgia to the early days of gangster rap, as well as political relevancy with the increased media spotlight on overzealous police provocations and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. The time was ripe for this movie and it’s an undeniable hit. I was entertained throughout and found the performances to be involving, but I can’t shake off the feeling about what is being left out. It’s by no means a biopic’s requirement to include everything about its subject, but with the living members of NWA aboard and approving their movie versions, the sanitization of a complicated and contradictory reality is the best we’re going to get. The film doesn’t hold the band up for their behavior, whether it’s promiscuous sex that leads Eazy-E to getting infected (a plot point with no setup beyond some movie-friendly knowing coughs) or Dre’s violent history with women. The move doesn’t have to portray the members of NWA as villains but by treating them as misunderstood underdogs who were exploited by outside forces feels like a (forgive the term) cop-out. These guys didn’t ask to become spokemen for a generation of antagonized and discredited black men, but surely there’s something more interesting and deeper to explore than band in-fighting. Straight Outta Compton is a slick and entertaining film but ultimately just another product.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Selma (2014)/ Black or White (2014)

selma-movie-poster_1421369437_342x511There’s a reason that race is regarded as the “third rail” when it comes to American politics. A half-century after the marches and protests, chief among them the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., the world feels just as fractious as ever when it comes to race relations. The inauguration of America’s first black president was seen as a significant touchstone, but optimism has faded and recent headline-grabbing criminal cases, and the absence of indictments, have prompted thousands to voice their protest from assembly to street corner. Race relations are one of the thorniest issues today and will be for some time. Two recent films take two very different approaches to discussing race relations, and they’re clearly made for two very different audiences. Selma is an invigorating, moving, and exceptional film showcasing bravery and dignity. Where Selma is complex, Black or White is a simplified and misguided sitcom writ large.

In 1965, Alabama was the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) has his sights set on organizing a march from Selma to the sate capital in Montgomery. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), is worried about the safety of their children, as death threats are sadly common for MLK. He needs to turn the tide of public perception to light a fire under President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to get him to prioritize legislation that would protect every citizen’s right to vote.

Selma-1Without question, Selma is one of the finest films of 2014. It is powerful, resonant, nuanced, political, immediate, and generally excellent on all fronts. It’s a rarity in Hollywood, namely a movie about the Civil Rights movement without a prominent white savior. This is a film about the ordinary and famous black faces on the ground fighting in the trenches for their freedoms. There are compassionate white people who heed the call, don’t get me wrong, but this is a movie told from the black perspective. I suspect the portrayal of President Johnson had something to do with Selma’s poor showing with the Oscars, though I can’t fully comprehend why. Yes, Johnson is portrayed as a man who has to be won over, but he’s on MLK’s side from the beginning. He is not opposed to legislation to protect voting rights; he’s just hesitant about the timing. Johnson says, “You got one issue, I got 100,” and the pragmatic reality of pushing forward legislation through a divided Congress was real. Johnson was not opposed to MLK’s wishes; he just wanted him to wait until the political process would be easier. In fact, in my eyes, Johnson comes across as compassionate, politically savvy, and he clearly makes his stakes on which side of history he’s going to be associated when he has a sit-down with the obstinate Alabama governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth). Like the rest of the varied characters in Selma, it’s a nuanced portrayal of a man in the moment.

The march in Selma is a moment that seems like an afterthought in the narrative of the Civil Rights movement, dwarfed by the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. The movie does a great job of re-examining why this moment in history is as significant, an eye-opening moment for the nation to the brutal reality of oppression. The opposition is entrenched, thanks to a stagnant system that wants to hold onto its “way of life.” It just so happens that way of life meant very different things for black people. The movie is politically sharp, with dissenting perspectives arguing over the next course of action in Selma and the national stage. Selma is another in the current crop of biopics eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave approach to highlight a significant moment that highlights exactly who their central figure is (Lincoln, Invictus). With Selma, we get a battleground that allows us to explore in both micro and macro MLK, the man. The courage of ordinary citizens in the face of violent beatdowns and police bullying is effortlessly moving and often heartbreaking. There is a moment when an elderly man, reflecting upon a recent family tragedy, cannot find words to express his grief, and my heart just ached right then and there. I teared up at several points, I don’t mind saying.

Selma+Movie+(2)There isn’t a moment where I didn’t feel that director Anna DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) was taking the easy road or pulling her punches. The screenplay respects the intelligence of the audience to sift through the politics and the arguments, to recognize when MLK is igniting a spark, and just how complicated and fragile the Selma situation was back then. Here’s a movie ostensibly about MLK but spends much of its time on the lesser known individuals like James Bevel and Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside the man, taking time to flesh them out as people rather than plot points. MLK’s wife is also given an important part to play and she’s much more than just being the Wife of Great Man. DuVernay’s direction is impeccable; you feel like she has command over every frame. The sun-dappled cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) makes great use of shadows, often bathing its subjects in low-light settings. The score is rousing without being overpowering, just like every other technical aspect. This is a prime example of Hollywood filmmaking with vision and drive.

With respect to the Academy, it’s hard for me to imagine there being five better performances than the one Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) delivers as the indomitable Martin Luther King Jr. It is rare to see an actor inhabit his or her character so completely, and Oyelowo just sinks into the skin of this man. You never feel like you’re watching an actor but the living embodiment of history made flesh. This is a complex performance that shows refreshing degrees of humanity for a figure sanctified. He was a man first and foremost, and one prone to doubts and weaknesses as well. An excellent scene with top-notch tension and peak emotion involves MLK and Coretta listening to a supposed tape of Martin’s infidelity. In the ensuing tense conversation, both parties acknowledge the reality of his affairs. It’s a scene that’s underplayed, letting the audience know she knows, and he knows she knows, but not having to rely upon large histrionics and confrontations. It’s the behind-the-scenes moments with King that brought him to life for me, watching him coordinate and plan where to go with the movement. Oyelowo perfectly captures his fiery inspirational side, knocking out every single speech with ease. It’s a performance of great nuance and grace, where you see the fear in the man’s eyes as he steps forward, hoping he’s making the best decision possible for those in desperation.

There isn’t one bad performance in the entire film, and this is a deep supporting cast including Wendell Pierce (HBO’s The Wire), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Lorraine Toussaint (Netflix’s Orange is the New Black), Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jeremy Strong, and Oprah Winfrey.

It’s been weeks now since I watched Selma but there are still many moments that I can recall that still have a tremendous power on me even in mere recollection. The opening sequence of the Birmingham bombing, a moment of horror frozen in chaos and debris, is a gut punch of a way to begin a movie about human beings fighting for equality. The sheer brutality of the response from the Selma police force and associates is horrifying, and a true pivot point for the movement in the eyes of the public. More so than anything else, Selma brilliantly and beautifully recreates the suffocating reality of injustice that was so prevalent for many African-American citizens, especially in the South. This is an era where people are being lynched with impunity just for being “uppity.” There was a supreme danger in simply standing up for equal rights, and many suffered as a result. The movie recreates this mood, this permeating feeling of dread and outrage and sorrow, so expertly and so artfully. From an early scene with a middle-aged black woman jumping through hoop after arbitrary hoop just to register to vote, you quickly realize that this vehemently hostile environment was never going to settle things on their “own time,” as apologists are prone to citing in lieu of federal intervention. Selma makes it abundantly clear why MLK felt the movement just could not wait, as Johnson requested. People are senselessly dying and being beaten all for the right to fairly vote. You feel the same sense of urgency with every scene, whether it’s cold-blooded murder, noxious intimidation, or reciprocation that goes above and beyond any sense of responsibility, you understand exactly the terror it was to be black in the South during this time period.

selma-marchAnother potent point of acclaim for Selma is how relevant it is to our own world today. While 12 Years a Slave was an often stirring and very professionally made biopic that exposed the ugly reality of slavery, it was not a film that screamed “immediacy.” Slavery ended in this country over 150 years ago, and while we’re still dealing with the repercussions of treating other human beings as property, it’s an easy film to dismiss in a backhanded, “Well, that was so long ago, and we’ve come so far” manner. The actions of Selma and MLK are still being felt to this day. We live in a world where many feel the justice system has its own separate-but-equal division, and the recent controversial grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner cannot be ignored. The reality for many black men in this country is statistically far more dangerous than others, fueled by a culture of entrenched racial bias that assumes the worst at first. The transit officer who executed Oscar Grant (detailed in the harrowing 2013 film Fruitvale Station) served eleven months in prison for a crime that had scads of witnesses. Garner’s death is captured on video, and yet even the Staten Island coroner’s report of “homicide” wasn’t enough to convince a grand jury that there was sufficient cause to at least go to trial. It’s been noted that prosecutors could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 30,000 cases that were not prosecuted in this country, only 11 were because a grand jury did not return an indictment (.0004%). However, grand juries rarely indict when a police officer is accused (In Dallas between 2008 and 2012, there were 81 grand jury investigations of officer shootings and only one actual indictment). It’s hard not to feel like these things don’t add up.

Then there’s the all-important struggle of voting, central to Selma and the plight of African-Americans in the South. You would think with Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act that we wouldn’t be litigating the same issues of the past, but the Supreme Court determined that this country is far different then it was in the 1960s and there was no need for the Voting Rights Act today. Within hours of striking it down, scads of new legislation appeared in the (primarily Southern) states that had been limited beforehand because of their past history of discrimination. The right to vote is just as relevant as it was during MLK’s time and there are forces trying to stifle that right, to throw up new obstacles, new hoops, new challenges, all in the name of “polling security,” never mind that the cases of in-person voter fraud are so rare as to be one in every 15 million voters. It’s a solution without a cause, and it’s why many see it as a disingenuous political ploy. It’s the twentieth-century, and yet the struggle for equality frustratingly repeats too many of the same battles. It’s this historical and contemporary context that gives Selma its extra surge of relevancy, reminding how far we still have to go, reminding the world that MLK’s work is by no means complete and that it is up to the rest of the populace to fight for the kind of country that he spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

MV5BMTYyMzE2NTE5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI3ODI2MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_It is this complex, complicated, and dire reality that hobbles another movie that tackles modern-day race relations, Mike Binder’s imprudent Black or White. The plot of the film, inspired by a true story reportedly, centers on Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a rich lawyer who has custody over his biracial granddaughter Eloise (the angelically adorable Jillian Estell). Now that Elliot has lost his wife, Eloise’s other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), wants joint custody so Eloise can spend time around “her own people.” The two of them push and pull and lock horns over what’s best for their grandchild, which gets more complicated when her biological father (Andre Holland, who is actually in Selma as well) comes back into the picture.

Right away you can tell very early on that there will not be anything approaching subtlety in the world of Black or White, its own title serving as the first clue. The characters are sketched broad and the premise feels like a weird mishmash of Archie Bunker appearing in a court drama. It’s a preachy movie that doesn’t have a deft hand when it comes to crafting a message that rises above easy observations disguised as something deeper. Eloise’s father, Reggie, is so poorly underwritten that he feels like he stepped off the set of some after school special. He’s addicted to crack, a lifelong screw-up, and a general disappointment that has never been present for his daughter’s life. He even smokes crack out in the open on the front porch across the street from where his mother lives. At one point, Anthony Mackie’s character berates Reggie for being a walking stereotype. Just because Binder calls attention to it doesn’t excuse it. But he’s not alone, because Spencer’s sassy black matriarch character and Costner’s gruff and frequently soused character are right there with him. The frequent arguments feel like they should be punctuated by studio audience hoots and applause, that is, if you could hear them over Terrence Blanchard’s relentlessly overpowering musical score instructing the audience exactly how to feel with every clunky moment.

-1In a way, the overbearing musical score gets at the major problem of Black or White, which is that a complicated case is being told from the safest point of view. Elliot is more akin to Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino then, say, Archie Bunker. He’s irritable and prejudiced and old-fashioned and wary but balks if you call him a bigot. I mean he’s polite to his Hispanic housekeeper. The more you examine the character the more you realize this is a movie designed to coddle an older generation (my tiny theater was packed with patrons over 60). The movie doesn’t challenge anybody and actually rewards Costner’s character and his outdated viewpoints. The opening conflict over his refusal to share custody with Rowena makes no sense. She’s an excellent grandmother, caring, nurturing, a fine role model as well for her perseverance and starting several small businesses out of her home. Not only that but Rowena is surrounded by a large family of relatives that adore Eloise. It’s contrived that these two could not agree on shared custody when they both have much to offer the girl. The only way any of this works is if Reggie is somehow responsible for the death of Eloise’s mom. Perhaps he introduced her to crack and she overdosed. Unfortunately, it’s never explained in the slightest, and so Elliot’s hostility for the entire Jeffers clan seems petulant, especially with the happiness of his granddaughter in the balance. Without better context, his rampant anger seems to be guilt-by-association overkill. To his credit, Rowena has a major and annoying blind spot when it comes to Reggie’s stability as a parent. In fact he’s so obviously still on drugs that her ongoing refusal to accept reality harms her character irreparably.

-2In the end, Black or White isn’t so much a film that about race relations as it is about privilege. Costner’s would-be bigot doesn’t have a problem with black people, just as long as those black people abide by his rules of conduct and expectation. It’s the same kind of qualification he’s never had to consider for himself, and one the intended audience will likewise miss. He comes from a wealthy position and Rowena and her family are likely lower middle class at best. He has a world of class privilege at his disposal that the loving Jeffers family does not, and because of that he feels they are less suited to raising little Eloise. Perhaps he’s worried about Reggie re-entering her life, but what animates Elliot Anderson is spite. He’s consumed with the overriding assumption that he must be right in all things. While the film draws many heavy-handed parallels between Reggie’s drug abuse and Elliot’s alcoholism, it clearly presents the both of them on completely different planes of judgment. One of them is ultimately redeemable and the other less so. Elliot’s perspective is essentially he can provide more and therefore more has to be better, but his definition of more is a private school, a housekeeper, a tutor who is treated as a caricature of initiative. Rowena provides a large and loving support system, but apparently they are less valued in the eyes of Elliot. And if you needed any more of a clue that Elliot and his sense of privilege are the unbeknownst star of the movie, he gets to deliver the big speech at the end that Says Something Meaningful. It feels a bit odd that the one character that uses the N-word in the film (albeit there is context) is the one telling lower-class black families how to live.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger); I don’t think he purposely made a film to make older, primarily white Americans feel better about thinking what they do about these troublesome times. It’s not a nefarious movie but it is misguided and will provide cover for a certain selection of audience members who wonder why nobody is asking the old white guys their opinions on modern race relations. Even overlooking this charge, Black or White is just overblown melodrama that has to constantly explain everything to you at all times and guide you through every strained point. Selma and Black or White are both aiming at hearts and minds, looking to add to the conversation on contemporary race relations, but only one of them works as both an eye-opening message of empathy and as an exceptionally made film itself.

Nate’s Grades:

Selma: A

Black or White: C

Big Eyes (2014)

big_eyes.15ce0090408.originalLike most people, Tim Burton is a filmmaker who likes working with a select set of familiar faces. Since 2001, Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter has appeared in every one of his films. Johnny Depp has appeared in every Burton film since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, save for Planet of the Apes. It got to the point where you knew if Burton were attached as director, these two would be riding shotgun. No so fast, as Big Eyes is absent Depp, Carter, other longtime collaborators like editor Chris Lebenzon, and really any noticeable sign that Burton actually was the director. This bizarre biopic about a scandalous secret in the art world fails to justify more than a casual viewing.

In the 1960s, Margaret Keane’s (Amy Adams) portraits of waifish children with large, tragic eyes were the most popular art of the decade. They fascinated the public who couldn’t get enough, including clamoring for reprints so everyone could have their own Keane work of art. Except the world at large never knew that Margaret had painted them. Her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), was posing as the real creator. He appeared on television, ran with famous celebrities, and always looked for the next platform to elevate the Keane name, all while Margaret stayed home and painted. She agreed to go along with Walter’s version of events because the public was more accepting of a male painter, and Walter was such a natural salesman. The world could never know the truth.

Big-Eyes-1Being a true-life story, there are certain limitations inherent in sticking to the facts while still telling an engaging story, and Big Eyes suffers from this. There is an interesting story here, no doubt, and that is clear and on display when Margaret and Walter square off in court as a majority of the third act. Before then, the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) plays in a very linear fashion, telling the story very conventionally except for the annoying narration of a news reporter (Danny Huston). The reason this character is clumsily inserted into being our narrator is because the real main character, Margaret, spends two acts being so passive and often hidden before she gathers the courage to challenge her husband and expose him. Naturally, there’s got to be a realistic character arc where our heroine goes from naïve and inactive to stronger and active, but it takes most of the movie. In the meantime, she paints and paints and literally hides herself from the world. It feels like the movie forgets about her while Walter is gallivanting around on her fame. Ironically, the movie actually becomes a series of men attempting to tell Margaret’s story; the first is her husband but the other is the invented and unnecessary narrator.

To make up for the time the film seems to paint a more flattering than deserved picture of Walter. I think perhaps they want the audience to fall under his spell just like Margaret and then slowly come to the same dawning realization. His initial argument is that female artists are not taken as seriously in their era, and I’m sure there’s truth to this. It was generally harder for a woman to be seen as legitimate in just about any capacity other than homemaker in the 1960s. We spend a full two acts with him charming others and hoodwinking the art world. He’s portrayed as more of a used car salesman con man than what could be described as a dangerous egotistical drunk who exploits his wife. The movie gives him a few nasty moments but it seems to portray Walter with light judgment, even after he endangers Margaret and their daughter’s lives. With Margaret figuratively and literally a kept woman cooped up for so long, Walter’s antics start to come across as vamping, filling time until Margaret hits that point on her character arc to leave him. It becomes tiresome then to just watch Walter sputter and spin his way to greater fortune and fame, though he deserves credit for popularizing the printing of painting reproductions that sell for cheap. Walter Keane, footnote in the art world for commercializing it for the masses. Waltz (Django Unchained) is an effortlessly entertaining actor and charming cads with a thinly veiled air of menace are his specialty. It’s a waste of his talents because Walter is kept as an ongoing mystery rather than an opportunity to explore a complicated character’s psyche. We find one falsehood after another, but in the end, he’s still just a mystery left unsolved.

There is amusement to be had at points as to be expected when it comes to keeping up a con, almost getting caught, the scrambles to continue hiding the big lie. This fun is at the expense of Margaret, which the movie wants you to think about and not think about at various points. There are streaks of comedy but I’d hardly call Big Eyes a comedy (sorry Golden Globes categorization). Terrence Stamp is enjoyable as a disapproving art critic who cannot believe what Walter is doing or why he is popular. The final act is easily its most entertaining as Margaret finally gets to call out her scoundrel of a husband for his bad behavior. It takes several unexpected turns that seem too fanciful to be true, and yet they are. The courtroom setting feels right for this script, and if there were a rewrite, I would have used it as the primary setting. The story could be introduced through a series of flashbacks. At least that way we don’t have to wait for Margaret to be the strong heroine we need, and we don’t have to be constrained by the wait of linear storytelling. This approach would strip away some of the redundancies of the plot and at least allow Margaret an opportunity to be the one telling her story.

big_eyesAnother problem with Big Eyes is that at no point does it feel like a Tim Burton film. The man is better known for his dips into Gothic fantasy, but in 1994 he showed he could more than pull off a conventional film in Ed Wood. Just because the story doesn’t involve weird fantasy characters and violence doesn’t mean that Burton cannot still add value being the man to tell that tale. Unfortunately, there is no point while watching Big Eyes that feels like it was directed by Burton. The director could have been anybody. If you kept the identity of the director secret, I cannot imagine more than a slim number of participants accurately guessing who directed the picture. I wonder what attracted Burton to the script, which does have its share of true-life eccentrics and hucksterism, both appealing aspects for the man. It’s just lacking a sense of vision that Burton usually has in spades, even if that vision over three decades has become a tad commoditized. I won’t go as far to say the film is poorly directed because a majority of the problems remain with its script rather than the actors or shot selections. Still, Burton doesn’t bring much to elevate the material. Perhaps that’s a positive, he didn’t attempt to overpower the narrative with a superfluous detour in style, but then why hire Burton?

Adams (American Hustle) is a consistently good actress and she does her best with the part, but the limitations are even too much for her talents. By no means is she bad but she’s playing a passive character often given to worry. She’s stashed away for a majority of the movie. You feel like Adams is acting with one hand tied behind her back.

Big Eyes is a movie that intrigues you with its potential only to frustrate you with its eventual execution. The true story behind the film is juicy and outlandish, crying out for the venue of cinema. The struggle between husband and wife over the ownership of an empire is a conflict that hooks an audience. Thanks to a repetitive plot structure and character vamping, the film limits the heights it can achieve. Burton’s presence is not felt at all throughout the film. The comedy often sours when you realize the full context of what’s going on, a much more serious affair than the film often wants you to think about. The characters are kept at a distance and given arcs rather than deeper exploration. She will become active and find her voice, fighting for credit. He will be the con man who wants to keep everyone distracted, fueled by jealousy at his wife’s abilities. There’s more psychological complexity here, but Waltz and Adams are slotted in very narrow boxes. They have little to work with and their performances show it. Big Eyes isn’t a bad film but it’s one that deserved to be better in just about every regard. It’s a fleeting curiosity more than a fully developed film, and that’s a shame given the source material. Expect Burton to return back to the safe embrace of Johnny Depp’s arms at any moment.

Nate’s Grade: B-

American Sniper (2014)

American-Sniper-Poster1When killing is a man’s gift, what effect does that have on the man? American Sniper follows the real-life heroics of the most prolific sniper in United States history. With director Clint Eastwood attached and awards buzz building, you’d expect that the film would get at the heart of a complex man who placed himself back into danger by choice. For a biopic on Chris Kyle, the man seems to get lost in the fog of war (movies).

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlisted in the military right before 9/11 and served four tours of duty in Iraq. He served as cover for many missions, protecting thousands of soldiers. The troops just felt better knowing that Kyle had their back. Kyle got married and had several kids with his wife (Sienna Miller) but he kept leaping back into the fight, the place he felt he belonged.

american_sniper_stillFrom the opening sequence on, American Sniper is often a gripping suspense piece. The opening moral dilemma sucks you right in. Should Chris shoot the mother and child? Are they a threat or is there just a misunderstanding? Will they change their minds and turn away? Is there time to debate all this with advancing U.S. troops? Eastwood does a great job of drawing out the tension with shot selections and the precise editing. The bulk of the movie hews closer to a conventional action movie, with Chris and his team clearing out Iraqi insurgents. We get to know a bit about the mechanics of sniper warfare. But Kyle gets restless being the guardian angel of death for the ground troops, and he goes down to their level and clears neighborhoods. This causes some conflict with his superiors because Kyle is far more valuable as a sniper. His reputation for killing is also getting him notoriety with his enemies. There is a price on Kyle’s head and skilled snipers are seeking him out for the prize. This is a natural way to build suspense as Kyle keeps returning back into Iraq with multiple tours, every tour increasing his personal danger. It allows for real consequences for the increasing prowess of our super sniper. There’s a sense of collateral damage to every kill, as every dead body creates more enemies and those enemies grow more incensed to take him out. Even if you know how exactly Kyle met his untimely end, there’s still plenty of suspense and well-orchestrated action sequences to please casual fans of the genre and true-life military thrillers.

It does feel like the complex story of Kyle, as well as the Iraq War, are being simplified into action movie fodder. There’s a steady supply of interchangeable supporting players, soldiers and spotters and the like, all of them without much to distinguish them as characters. They’re here to be sacrificed, to watch the splatter of red, and to increase the sense of loss because we know that Chris Kyle will not be taken down so we need other expendables. As expected, Miller gets rather short shrift as Kyle’s wife who gets to alternate between worry and unease. The screenplay by Jason Hall sets up some excellently harrowing suspense sequences but seems better engineered like its establishing video game stages of combat than complex people. As a result, when we lose characters it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost people we care about. It doesn’t have an impact beyond sudden shock, and even that is tempered in time with the sniper angle. You start expecting characters to get popped in mid-sentence.

1412258342001-XXX-AMERICAN-SNIPER-MOV-jy-2898-Where the film leaves you lacking is at its center with the man who is supposed to be the focal point of American Sniper. At the start we’re told that Kyle is the deadliest sniper in U.S. history and by the end that’s about all we know about the guy. He’s an ace killer. The movie has some top-notch suspense sequences with Kyle killing people. The early scenes with Kyle’s family do the bare minimum to establish a sense of pride in not backing down from a fight. There’s a scene where his girlfriend explains to him and the audience exactly why he’s difficult. It’s pretty transparent exposition but it’s also the last bout of clear characterization you’ll get until the end. There’s a slight nod to the mounting PTSD that is transforming Kyle into a man who feels whole only on the battlefield, but these are notes of characterization that are only cursory. It’s only at the very end does the movie remember to flesh out Kyle as a person rather than as an action hero, and by then there’s only enough time to hint at elements we’ve seen explored better in other war movies, particularly The Hurt Locker. As an action film, the movie works and works quite ably, but as a biopic on Chris Kyle it forgets what makes him human, instead focusing on his superhuman killing ability.

Cooper (American Hustle) bulked up a considerable amount of muscle to portray Kyle. He fits the part well and has the acting ability to communicate the troubled psychology of a man making sense of his old world after the trauma of war. It’s then a shame that he’s not given more opportunities to use those acting muscles. There is one phone call where Cooper wordlessly finally breaks down, allowing all the scar tissue to finally be seen on his haunted character, but it’s a moment rather than a culmination.

If you go into American Sniper hoping for an elevated thriller with some well-wrought suspense, then you’ll mostly be pleased with the film as a slice of entertainment. As a war commentary or a psychological study of the horrors of war, it comes up lacking, falling back on the action tropes of its genre and neglecting to properly build around its characters. The action is often biting, and a late sequence involving an oncoming sandstorm is an intense climax. However, it’s also emblematic of the shortfalls of the film. While it’s a sequence of action entertainment, it also reduces war into a video game and reminds you that the characters onscreen are not so much portrayed as people but holders of weapons. Kyle was a complex man who was more than his uncanny ability to kill, but you won’t get more in American Sniper. The nature of his death demands a more insightful exploration of the lasting effects of PTSD and what kind of treatment, or failure of treatment, many servicemen receive once they come home.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Theory of Everything (2014)

TheTheoryOfEverythingPoster-01A biopic on the life of Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most brilliant men in the world, stricken with ALS and given only two years to live, should be resolutely fascinating and inspirational. And it is at points, but there’s still a gnawing dissatisfaction with The Theory of Everything, a sense that there isn’t more to it, that it lacks a center, that, primarily, it should be better. The film follows Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as a PhD student who immediately falls in love with Jane (Felicity Jones). Shortly after their courtship, he is diagnosed with ALS and rather than preparing for the end, he pushes forward to great intellectual discovery and achievement, though the hardships and care for his physical disability places tremendous strain on his marriage to Jane. The film does a nice job of examining how a relationship comes to an end and without having to cite one party or another as a villain. It’s so measured and understanding and empathetic, but it’s also somewhat docile and hesitant, keeping its distance when it could dive deeper into Hawking and his family. Theory is far too reliant upon the tropes of biopics, speeding through significant moments for Stephen and Jane with an almost comical degree (watch how quickly the kids multiply). The moments that stray from this formula are the ones that stick the most, like a shocking moment where Stephen exits his chair to pick up a fallen pencil, a striking and poignant moment so effectively communicating the desires of its character. The film needed more creative detours. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has a good command of his visuals but I was left wanting a more daring approach to a story of human endurance, like 2007’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The real reason to watch the film is the amazing performance by Redmayne (Les Miserables). The physical control he’s able to have over his body in the latter stages is astounding, but his performance is much more than just a collection of tics. There’s a moment late in the film where, even in his limited facial configuration, he breaks your heart with the richness of his acting. It’s such a great performance that you just wish the rest of The Theory of Everything could measure up.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Life Itself (2014)

life-itself-poster1I would not be a film critic or even as ardent a lover of movies if it weren’t for Roger Ebert and his towering influence on generations of curious cinephiles. Every film review is likely going to touch upon their own personal relationship with Siskel and Ebert and this one will be no different (full disclosure: I contributed online to make sure this documentary would reach completion. You can find my name last in the end credits “thanks” section. The perks of being a Z-kid). When I was young, I would sneak into my parents’ room and wake them up, eager to watch not cartoons but the latest episode of Siskel and Ebert’s take on new releases. For me, Roger and Gene opened an entire new world for me, and hearing their spirited discussions over the latest Hollywood blockbuster or indie experiment would stimulate my imagination. Therefore, Life Itself, a documentary chronicling the life and death of Roger, including those difficult final months of his fight against cancer, is a tremendously emotional and personal experience for me. Even now it’s hard for me to write this review as I have a wealth of feelings churning. It’s like watching one of your heroes ride off into the sunset; eternally grateful for those years they had on Earth to inspire. It’s fitting that Roger become a part of the movies himself with a documentary that’s one of the year’s best and most poignant films.

This was never meant to be a film about Roger’s death. It was intended to be an adaptation of his 2011 memoir, the titular Life Itself. Filmmaker Steve James, best known as the director of Hoop Dreams (Roger’s #1 film for 1994), tackles the essential biography bits we’d expect tracing the cradle-to-grave approach. What makes this film more interesting is that it too follows Ebert’s own perspective he utilized in his memoir. Rather than writing from the point of view of being in the moment, Ebert acknowledges his age and looks back on the past not as it’s happening but as an older man reflecting upon his life. The thoughts are not so linear, the consideration more meditative, thoughtful, and overall thankful. This is a man looking back and taking stock of his life, grateful for the people that have elevated his experiences. The framing device of the movie happens to be Roger’s last five months of life, going in and out of the hospital and adjusting to the ever-mounting hurdles of his deteriorating health. It can be downright shocking and horrifying to watch this Ebert, his jaw hanging loose like an ill-fitting Halloween mask. Never has the man looked more vulnerable and so mortal. It’s not how you wish to remember him, and Roger is without vanity as he wants the cameras to have access to his day-to-day reality no matter the hardships. As the months pass and Roger’s communication starts fading, everyone has to come to terms with the inevitable, and the viewer is right there too, bidding goodbye with Roger’s grieving family.

LifeItselfMM-544x320While tears will be shed, do not think of the movie as an elegiac tribute meant to fill your heart with dread for the demise of a great writer and a great man. As the title indicates, it’s a celebration of the man’s life, illuminating a figure that was much larger than his prolific publications (note: not a fat joke). Can you picture Ebert as a skirt-chasing Chicago Sun-Times reporter? How about as a guy who would get drunk and hang from the rafters, causing scenes? Many likely don’t know that Ebert has one screenwriting credit for Russ Meyer’s 1970 camp-tastic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a job Ebert likely took on so he could, in his words, “get laid.” There’s even a lengthy bit over their populist film critiques and whether the famous “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” model was helpful or harmful to film criticism. Life Itself does a fitting job tracing the roots of the man, with each chapter of his life given due development and consideration. I could have watched a four-hour documentary on the man’s life, but I’m not the general public.

The film is defined by two central relationships: Roger and Gene and Roger and his wife, Chaz. The first is the most famous. We track their initial growing pains taking the leap adapting their styles to the realm of TV. Gene was a natural, Roger less so, which only made Ebert more furious (photos of Gene “ladies man” Siskel gallivanting with Hugh Hefner are a hoot). The impact of their advocacy cannot be overstated. There are plenty of filmmakers that got their big break thanks to special consideration and publicity from these two. No matter the medium, these were the most famous critics of the twentieth century, opening up the world of movies to a new and hungry and appreciative audience. As enjoyable as it is to watch Siskel and Ebert in agreement, there was a special pleasure in watching them disagree because of the unleashed intensity. They really felt like they could convert the other person through sheer force of will. Their egos were both massive and Siskel knew exactly which buttons to push to set his cohort into aggravation. We see TV clips and unused rehearsal video and you feel like they might start a fistfight at any moment. And then that ire and ego forged into a deep admiration and love for one another, a love that Ebert reflects more tenderly of in the years since Siskel’s death in 1999. Gene didn’t want his loved ones to watch the clock, waiting for him to expire, and so he told nobody of his terminal brain tumor until the end. Roger was always wounded by this and vowed to be as open as possible if he suffered severe health setbacks.

The other relationship we get to witness come to a close right before our tear-stricken eyes. Roger met Chaz in AA, a fact she says she’s never publicly admitted before. He was over 50 when he married. He accepted her children as his own, whisking the family on faraway vacations and sharing his love of cinema with his stepchildren and grandchildren. Ebert credits Chaz with nothing less than saving his life, asserting he’d have drank himself to death without her. It’s a love story that forces us to watch the heartbreaking finale, namely Chaz coming to grips with the reality of losing her husband, of letting the love of her life go, something so profound. We’re right with her, wanting to fight on, try the next surgery, always hopeful, though in our circumstances we have the dread of foreknowledge. Then again perhaps Chaz and those close to the Eberts suspected as much as well, especially as his health faded so quickly in the spring of 2013. Just watching her talk about Roger in the past tense, you watch the ripples of pain reverberate through this woman. She’s the unexpected heart of the movie and one of many torchbearers when it comes to the legacy of Roger.

3031057-inline-i-1-the-trailer-for-roger-ebert-documentary-life-itself-is-funny-and-beautifulUltimately, Life Itself is a love story. It’s a love story about two men who go from rivals to close friends. It’s a love story between a man and a woman. It’s also the love story of a man with the movies, a love that he felt eager to share with millions of his readers and television viewers, because in the end (danger: sentimentality approaching) it’s our love and passion that will ultimately outlast us all, and the people we touch are the living embodiment of our legacies. And Roger’s passing has touched many. As fans, those who grew up with him, I think we all felt like he was partly ours. Life Itself is a touching, engrossing, invigorating, and fitting tribute to a man larger than the movies.

Nate’s Grade: A

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