Sunday, November 29, 2015

Steve Jobs

There's a significant amount of discussion given to the 'reality distortion field' in the latest exhuming of Steve Jobs.  The term points to the Apple magnate's reported skill in bending the boundaries of the real for those in his employ.  He was said to have had the charisma, the intellect, the presence to convince others - even while being a merciless asshole - that the impossible was within reach, that deadlines could be achieved, and sometimes, that he had a product worth selling even when it was more of an incomplete concept.  Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing) lends his brand of quick witted, layered banter to Jobs and those who suffered him.  Sorkin's dialogue makes sense here, but revels in its constructed nature.  From the mouth of Michael Fassbender's Steve Jobs, it plays like a believable fiction. Realism, maybe, but only because we want to believe in the rapid-fire acts of creation and destruction of a compelling figure like Jobs.  While at times performer and writer manage to harness the charisma required for us to believe in something like the reality distortion field, the film largely loses track of that, mostly revealing the legend for what he was: a hyper-focused, one-track minded, self-centered control freak in it for the long con.  

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is a film out of time.  It's the type of production that looks and feels like it was crafted long ago and only recently re-mastered to highlight its glossy production values.  While it’s not really an instant classic, it’s also hard to deny that it feels a bit like one because of these things.  It’s a beautifully shot, lovingly paced adult drama that’s somehow out of step with the current cinematic moment.  In a time when we’ve become a little too accustomed to our “serious” movies leaning heavily on social justice biopics and effects-laden war stories,  Bridge of Spies is a quiet affair that emphasizes conversation, ethical complications, and rounded, messy human beings who don’t simply stand in as symbols of larger systems.    This is strange, perhaps, because of course: that’s exactly what the characters in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War film kinda actually do at some basic level.   It’s not that Bridge isn’t that movie – it’s the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) the Soviet spy he’s assigned to give a fair trial to --  it’s just that Spielberg manages to complicate that narrative, split the film’s focus, and transport the viewer through a distinct sense of place and time.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro is a man who loves his horror films, but who has always seemed aware of their far-reaching roots. He understands something about the genre beyond the cinematic and into the literary.  He has looked to fairy tales and metaphor to tell stories of war and present us with vampires like we have never seen, and with Crimson Peak he seems to reach for a pure adaptation of the Gothic.  Not a Gothic romance,  not simply a Gothic haunting, but a vision of secrets, repression, active atmosphere and spaces that seem to breathe with the past histories of their masters.   It straddles the worlds of horror and period drama, but it understands that it is possible to do both without succumbing fully to either.  What does that mean? For English major purists, it’s a dreamy concoction.  For everyone else?  Well, you’re likely to find yourself as split as the film seems.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Sicario opens on a horror show.  We follow Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent leading a steadfast kidnap-response team into a suburban house.  Something is off, wrong, and it isn’t long before the team discovers dozens of upright corpses decomposing behind the drywall.  In every room, in every hallway they are unrecognizable, wrapped in plastic, the sight and stench forcing agents to vomit in the desert yard.  It’s a visceral moment, a sequence that sets the tone of director Denis Villeneuve’s (Prisoners, Incendies) latest feel-bad nightmare.  We have trespassed into uncomfortable terrain with Kate as our proxy, less protagonist than the film’s wary, conflicted moral center.

Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are soon drafted onto a special task force headed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a man who we understand as having real power:  he’s the sort who can wear flip-flops to meetings with high level government suits and have no one bat an eye.  His answers are no answers, and Kate is never quite sure what it is she’s signed on to do with this task force built, we’re told, to “stir the pot.” Alongside Matt, the force works with the even more mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a vigilante figure with unclear intentions. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Martian

Andy Weir's novel The Martian was one of those rare self-publishing success stories; a sudden, runaway success that seemed to captivate readers of all ages.  It was a process-oriented page turner, a thing that put the science back into a type of science fiction. I wanted to like the book, but really I just couldn't stand it. The first person narration didn't work for me. It rang false, empty, too steadfast and cheeky for the nuances of the situation.  Without a single soul to talk to, with nothing but time to plan, think, and exist, what does astronaut Mark Watney do in his down time?  He keeps a steadfast log that includes every shred of his process and not a damn thing about his person.  Sure. Right. You send a smart person into space and leave them alone for months and hundreds of pages later you still don't feel like you actually know the guy. You know his life on Mars, you know he's a flat, can-do dude, but that's about it.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

I’m a very jaded filmgoer, as things go.  I’ve seen a lot. I’m willing to accept a lot.  Morally ambiguous characters tend not to leave much of a mark on me, and the horrors of the world are the horrors of the world.  So, I was surprised when I was actually a little uncomfortable watching The Diary of a Teenage Girl.  The film is adapted from the alt comic “memoirs” of Phoebe Gloeckner by  writer/director Marielle Heller, and has received a tremendous amount of attention as a feminist film.  It is, certainly, in many respects.  The film prominently features distinct female voices and speaks to the strange individualized experiences of an awkward young woman who discovers – at a relatively tender age – just how much she loves sex.   Minnie (Bel Powley), our wide-eyed protagonist, is tenacious in her exploration and often very much in control of the ways she decides to use her body. Some of these uses feel self-exploitive, and as Minnie transgresses boundary after boundary – propositioning older men, pretending to be a prostitute with her best friend on a night out – I found myself wondering what the difference was between controlled exploration and self-destruction, and why a film with such a complicated, troubled relationship with the body of its protagonist has been held up as somehow innovative.
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